Ashtray Navigations, active since 1994, began as Phil Todd's solo project, before morphing into a band. In common with many similar 'cottage industry' projects, the band have notched up a vast back catalogue, Discogs listing over one hundred releases in a near-twenty-year period, including albums, cassettes, collaborations, singles... I have absolutely no idea whether or not 2009's 7" EP The "O" Mouth Direct Input Raygun is in any way typical, all four tracks consisting of distant psychedelic warblings over a bed of harsh, digital noise. Admittedly different noise on each track. Different psychedelic warblings, too. Can I relate to this? Nope. Todd is credited with Mellotron, but not only is what's being used clearly not real, but is barely audible anyway, a faint string part on Tomb Is Over The Arcane Mower being the totality of its use. Just because I have no idea where this lot are coming from doesn't make it 'bad', however, merely incomprehensible to this listener, but I can't imagine I'll be playing it again any time soon.
Asia Featuring John Payne? What had become the regular Asia lineup sundered in 2006, when Geoff Downes joined an original lineup reformation, stranding John Payne, frontman since 1991, in musical no-man's land. After some legal manoeuvring, Payne won the right to tour and record under the amended name, for which we should probably ensure that someone dies, preferably horribly. As you may well know, I thought the original band were fairly shite, but this lot's first studio outing, 2014's Recollections: A Tribute to British Prog, is pure pain. 'British prog'? I couldn't even place three of its ten tracks, partly due to my lack of deep knowledge of the Camel and Moody Blues catalogues. However, I'm quite happy not to know that opener Sirius is by The Alan Parsons Project (as is the better-known second track), a band comparable to Asia in their ability to be labelled 'prog' while actually being nothing of the sort.
So, is anything here even listenable? This version of Asia seem to be at their best when tackling the more accessible end of the genre (big surprise), so Yes' 90125 highlight It Can Happen works well enough, ditto UK's Nothing To Lose, but the rest of the album runs the gamut from bad to awful. Alan Parsons? Difficult to do much with that stuff, as it effectively defines UK AOR. Lesser-known Camel and Moodies tracks? Faceless interpretations. BJH, Tull and ELP? Tiresome, particularly the sequencer-driven Locomotive Breath, leaving 'utter dog' position to a truly execrable version of (The) Court Of The Crimson King, complete with wildly inappropriately pounding drums, shitty synth sounds and screechy lead guitar. Vile. Were Saint Fripp an ex-member of the human species, he'd be turning in his grave. Since he (thankfully) isn't, we can only hope he hasn't heard this abomination, as it could easily hasten his demise.
Mellotron? Our old friend Erik Norlander (a member of the band at the time) supposedly plays one on Court Of The Crimson King, presumably working on the basis that playing the song without one simply doesn't work, but the evenly-attacked string chords and overall smoothness makes me feel that we're really not hearing a genuine machine here, despite Norlander's past use. Anyway, this is absolute tosh, despite grovellingly hyper-positive reviews from online journalists who really should know better. Avoid.
Tadj Mahall Gates was French proggers Aside Beside's sole album, it appears and rather fine it is too. Sounding distinctly French, despite the English lyrics, it has some of the jazziness of an earlier generation of French bands such as Atoll or Shylock, mixed with a pan-European symphonic feel. There's practically no neo-ness to their sound and a welcome propensity for experimentation, such as Romaric Hubert's operatic vocal in the brief Tu Qui Omnia Scis, lacking in so many of their contemporaries.
The instrumentation on the album is largely 'retro' (real or otherwise), although I can hear the occasional modern synth patch, mainly brass and strings. The Hammond, however, is real and beautifully recorded. The whole feel of the album harks back to the '70s in many ways, actually, so while the band could be chided for refusing to take modern influences on board, they certainly won't be by me. More of this, I say! 'Retro' be damned - one Aside Beside are worth fifty dodgy fifth-rate neo- outfits, peddling their sub-Marillion drivel... Er, sorry, got slightly carried away there. The 'Mellotron' is played by both keyboard players, Frédéric Woff and Vincent Chevallier, with some tracks, notably Nightmare and Ghost Of Love being smothered in the thing (mainly strings and choir, with a smattering of flutes), although a re-listen tells me it's sampled, which is hardly surprising.
Joy Askew, with a long and varied career behind her, moved to the States in the early '80s. After singing backing for Peter Gabriel on his Us tour, she ended up getting him and several of his band to play on her fourth album proper, Tender City. Although Askew's own voice sounds nothing like her, the backing vocals are very reminiscent of Kate Bush circa The Hounds of Love or The Sensual World; sadly, the music is far less inventive, being largely laid-back, slightly new-age/'world'-influenced stuff, which is OK for two or three songs, but begins to grate after a while, at least for this listener. 'Mellotron' on one track only, with strings from Gabriel collaborator and onetime Mellotron owner Larry Fast (a.k.a. Synergy) on the title track, strangely alongside real ones. However, given that Fast has most likely not used a real machine since the late '70s, it's sampled.
Ai Aso (or is it Aso Ai?) is a Japanese psych artist, who has produced several albums and EPs over the last few years, including at least one collaboration. 2004's Lavender Edition is a quietly beautiful album, almost completely devoid of percussive interruption, consisting largely of Aso's vocals and clean electric guitar lines, other obvious instrumentation including bass (Most Children Do), ticking clock (I.S.W.Y. (Lavender Edition)) and an unearthly Mellotron string line on ...Wer Bit Du Denn?, played by You Ishihara. Yes, it enhances the track, yes, it's a pity it wasn't used slightly more and yes, it's sampled. Aso and Wata came together in 2007 to record a split 7", oddly titled She's So Heavy, while having nothing to do with the Beatles song. Aso's contribution is her version of King Crimson's Islands, getting to the core of the piece, while Wata (or Wata (Boris), going by the sleeve) covers Masashi Kitamura's Angel, presumably in her own style. Aso plays samplotron strings on her track, opting to write her own part, rather than copying the original exactly, although Souichiro Nakamura's string part on the flip is barely discernable.
Astra first came to the world's attention a couple of years ago (or at least those of us who care), when they posted some demos on their MySpace page. Forming from the remnants of Silver Sunshine, their Mellotron-heavy psych/prog/hard rock is an absolute delight in this age of ever-more-tightly defined sub-sub-sub-genres, although the kind of purists who have to label everything will probably call them 'prog/doom' or somesuch nonsense. Obvious pointers are Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep and Crimson, although a general early-'70s vibe pervades their work like the stink of old joss sticks and patchouli.
A kind man going by the name 'Gandalf' sent me a CD-R of those first few tracks MySpace tracks; what we're looking at here are six lengthy, prog/psych tracks, loaded with 'Mellotron', sounding like a vague cross between Crimson and Floyd's kid brother let loose in a studio. With a Mellotron, or at least, samples. That's the ten-minute Silent Sleep, anyway. The Rising Of The Black Sun is a lot darker, segueing into The Weirding..., a far heavier, jamming proposition, like Black Sabbath on (even more) drugs, or Crimso's Cirkus' bastard son. Since Gandalf sent me the CD, the band have added three tracks to their page, with the Mellotron-free Cosmic Wind, the acoustic Winter Witch and another mighty prog piece, The Dawning Of Ophiuchus. 'Mellotron' all round from Conor Riley, with flutes and strings on Silent Sleep, The Weirding... The Dawning of Ophiuchus, with just strings on The Rising of the Black Sun and standalone flutes on Winter Witch. Listen, these tracks are MAGNIFICENT; mad, epic progressive hard rock that could actually do something for the band, if they can hitch a ride with Black Mountain's audience, say.
2009 brings their debut album, The Weirding and guess what? It's every bit as good as you'd expect. Several tracks are reiterated from their demos, with a couple lost and a couple gained, pretty much as you'd expect. The title track still sounds like Crimso's Cirkus and there are a few other fairly obvious reference points, too, but overall, it's a killer. It is overlong, as I complain so often regarding 'full-length' CDs, but this isn't an album to which you'll necessarily listen too closely; it's more about the mood it creates and as such, nearly eighty minutes isn't that excessive. 'How do they get such a long album out of eight tracks?', I hear you cry. Two over fifteen minutes, that's how, most of the rest being in the 'long rather than short' category. Some definitely are better than others, the title track probably taking 'best track' prize, but there's nothing here, despite the free-form sections, that had me reaching for the 'next' button.
Conor Riley and Richard Vaughn both play 'Mellotron', although I have it on good authority that they used the Memotron-in-a-fake-Mellotron-case you can see on their site. There's quite unfeasibly large slabs of it chucked all over everything, though, notably, never gratuitously. Good trick if you can do it... Strings and choirs all over the place, as you'd expect, with heavy brass and flute parts on the title track, exacerbating the Cirkus comparison, while the strings in The River Under are heavily redolent of Genesis. OK, so originality probably isn't the band's strongest suit, but with this much fakeotron, who's complaining? Just go out and buy this album, or failing that, stay in and buy it. Astra deserve to be huge, but won't be, because in the unlikely event of the fashionistas ever hearing them, they'd be hounded out of town for terminal uncoolness. Except that, of course, they're probably the coolest new band around for those in the know.
Asturias (named for a region in the far north of Spain) are effectively Yoh Ohyama's solo project, recording three albums from the late '80s to the early '90s before picking up again in 2003. 2008's In Search of the Soul Trees is his third album since 'reforming', a far more symphonic prog proposition than his original rather neo-works, moving through several different feels across its length, as you'd expect. Picking out individual highlights is difficult, as the album really should be listened to as a whole, but busy opener Spirits, the violin-led Woods and the reflective Paradise are possibly the tracks where his approach works best. Akira Hanamoto supposedly plays Mellotron, with strings on Spirits and Reincarnation, although it's most likely sampled. Overall, a decent and surprisingly non-synthetic modern Japanese progressive release, in a vaguely Mike Oldfield-ish direction.
The title of the Ataris' fourth album, So Long, Astoria, resonates fairly well with me at the moment, as the Powers That Be move in to demolish the grand old Astoria Theatre on London's Charing Cross Road, the city's last good-sized central venue. The band seem to play a rather derivative kind of pop/punk, although the album has the odd interesting moment, chiefly the rare ones where they use non-standard chords. The record seems to go on forever, although it's actually under an hour; when will bands learn that if you play a high-octane style, making long albums just doesn't work? If you edited out its best bits (do I mean the worst bits?), its star rating would probably rise a little, but the sheer drudgery of trawling through such a long album grinds the listener down eventually, at least if they're me. Next to no credited Mellotron from Kris Roe, with the occasional 'Strawberry Fields'-style flute part, most likely sampled, in The Hero Dies In This One, one of those songs with the slightly more interesting chords. Incidentally, their follow-up, 2007's Welcome the Night, is supposed to have some Mellotronic input from Bob Hoag. Guess what: it hasn't.
Can Atilla's unique on this site: he's the only Turkish musician featured, probably because it seems pretty unlikely that any Mellotrons made it to Turkey, although several got to Greece and at least one to Bulgaria. According to his website, 1999's Ave is his eleventh album, released to celebrate Tangerine Dream's thirtieth anniversary, which it does by slavishly copying their mid-'70s to early-'80s styles across seven tracks, including a so-called 'bonus' one, although I heavily doubt whether there's a version of the album available without it. This really is a Tangs-alike album: twenty-six-minute opener Time Border Passengers even sounds like it should be on Phaedra or Stratosfear, doesn't it? And that's before you've even heard it... When you do, it sounds like it should be even more, with classic 'Berlin School' sequencers, electronic percussion, the full works. The next three tracks are similar, if (slightly) shorter, while Bach's Air is exactly what it sounds like and the 'bonus' track, the interestingly-spelled Abarcus, is a full-on sequencer piece.
Plenty of presumably sampled Mellotron, as the album was recorded at Atilla's own studio, with choirs and flutes all over Time Border Passengers and strings on Breathing Under Pressure, although the flutes on Japetus Dreams sound synthesized. Surprisingly, although that's about half the album's length, that's it on the fakeotron front, the other tracks relying on pseudo- (or real?) analogue synths. Overall, a good fake Tangs album, for those who just can't get enough of the style. There are several other acts sticking to that '70s Berlin template, but Ave does it as well as the best of them.
Nicole Atkins' Neptune City is one of those faux-'60s records that sound impressive, although upon further investigation are found to contain very little real content. Bold and brassy, the album grabs your attention immediately, but, despite high points like the string melody in Together We're Both Alone (surely the album's best track?), it ultimately disappoints, trying to be something it just isn't. Swamped in strings, vibes and other easy listening instrumental staples, Atkins' strident contralto lays waste to the whole album, although, of course, if that's what you actually want... Two Mellotron players are credited, Martin Gjerstad and Daniel "Shaolun" Chen, exclusively, it seems on Mellotron vibes, with parts on several tracks, some more obviously Mellotronic (notably Cool Enough) than others, most likely sampled.
Aargh! German pop/punk! OK, Die Toten Hosen (the Dead Trousers, as it happens) have been around forever, but does the world really need a slightly accented version of Green Day? Then again, local scenes are notorious for throwing up their own versions of popular bands, even in this age of universal communication and, when push comes to shove, why shouldn't a bunch of young German guys play the kind of stuff they like? They are a bit of a clone, though... 2005's Wonderland Boulevard sounds an awful lot like Green Day's American Idiot, released the previous year, in its mix of the aforementioned pop/punk and slightly more thoughtful material. I rest my case, m'lud. Track three, The Shelter, is even an uncharacteristic string-laden ballad, not a million miles away from Boulevard Of Broken Dreams... I think you get the idea. Someone plays some nicely upfront Mellotron flute samples on Sweetest Symphony, although all other orchestral instrumental parts sound real. This is probably good enough for a provincial market (sorry, Germany), but not enough to cut it in the world's premier 'markets' (he said, slipping into music-biz speech for a second). Thoroughly average, with a pathetically sexist sleeve design to boot.
There seems to be some confusion over The Atomic Bitchwax's fourth album, known variously as T4B, TAB4 or The Atomic Bitchwax 4, possibly with two different running orders. It's actually a pretty decent hard rock album from the old school; y'know, proper riffs'n'shit, of the kind that seem to have gone entirely out of fashion, replaced by, er... What do modern metal bands use instead of the classic 'riff' structure? I don't like it, but I can't even work out what it is. Anyway, the terribly-named The Atomic Bitchwax don't do it, which is a blessing and not even in disguise. Bassist Chris Kosnik doubles on credited Mellotron, with strings all over opener Revival and closer Wreck You, most likely sampled.
Attack Wave Pestrepeller (seemingly named in honour of a brand of ultrasonic pest-control device) were linked with Sundial, releasing their second album on Gary Ramon's label. Sitting firmly in the avant-garde realms, its two side-long tracks consist chiefly of drones and industrial effects, while David James' Mellotron (Ramon's?) is entirely inaudible.
Going by this EP, Kevin Atwood is a major Mike Oldfield fan, its six shortish tracks all fitting into that 'slightly cheesy, lightweight instrumental prog' bracket, with plenty of soaring guitar leads and samplotron strings and flutes on most tracks.
I've seen Nova Scotian Rich Aucoin described as 'indie rock', a catch-all phrase if I ever heard one. While he seems to be a decent chap (much fund-raising for cancer charities and the like), it's my sad duty to report that his second album, 2014's Ephemeral, is one of the biggest crocks of shit it's been my misfortune to play for some time. It seems to've been mixed to give the impression you're listening to a stadium gig, all clattering drum samples (Want To Believe) and needless abrasiveness (Yelling In Sleep), while I Am Sorry's infuriating cutup vocal samples are, well, enraging, actually. Mellotron? Aucoin's credited, but the vague string patches used here and there are deeply un-Mellotronic. Is it simply that I have absolutely no idea where Aucoin's coming from? No doubt, but I found this album so teeth-grittingly awful that I'm left with no choice other than to give it a shockingly low rating. Astoundingly bad.
Audrey Horne (named for a Twin Peaks character) have links with black metal cult Enslaved, but, going by their second album, 2007's Le Fol, they seem to have more in common with Seattle's '90s grunge explosion and the poppier end of the current metal scene. While by no means a bad album, it's too generic, at least to these ears, to stand out particularly; at least we're spared more ridiculous grunting and blastbeats, I suppose. Herbrand Larsen (Gravdal) guests on keys, including alleged Mellotron, with strings all over opener Last Chance For A Serenade, flutes and strings on Monster, flutes on Afterglow and choir on In The End, although I'm fairly sure it's all sampled.
Their eponymous third release is noticeably better than its predecessor, largely due to its extra reliance on old-school riffing, as against the modern hard rock disease of bashing out a few generic chords and pretending it's a riff (see: the likes of Velvet Revolver and Audioslave, not to mention recent Rush albums, ignominiously). That isn't to say this is a classic, but the fact that you can actually hear identifiable, (vaguely) unique chord sequences has to be a bonus. Best tracks? Charon, Sail Away and Firehose, probably; anything with a decent riff, basically. The solo 'Mellotron' flute part on These Vultures that opens the album is the sample giveaway, with a low note that holds for at least twice as long as is actually possible, as does the extraordinarily lengthy string chord on closer Godspeed. More flutes on Down Like Suicide, with strings on a few other tracks, though some of them could be generic samples rather than Mellotron ones.
Audrye Sessions are an Oakland-based indieslop crew, who apparently fondly imagine that their eponymous debut sounds like a cross between The Beatles and Muse. Well, possibly the worst excesses of the latter, but The Beatles? Are you 'avin a larf? Audrye Sessions actually sounds more like Coldplay duking it out with Travis, in exactly the way that you might imagine those two bands would fight: wetly, with tears before bedtime. Frankly, this is completely horrible; I blame U2. The band's awfulness may possibly be encapsulated by their re-recording of opener Turn Me Off in Simlish, an artificial language used in the Sims range of computer games, thus making a triviality even more trivial. Great. Amazingly, there is actually a 'best track', Nothing Pure Can Stay, which, after two minutes of the usual drivel, suddenly kicks into a genuinely good riff. Sadly, it's over all too soon. Andrew Scheps is credited with Mellotron, but the only even possible use is the strings on closer Dust And Bones (the album's second least-offensive track), although they sound more like real ones to my ears. Listen, this is a terrible, terrible album. Please don't buy it.
Jon Auer is one of the chief architects of The Posies, so it's no great surprise that his first solo album, Songs From the Year of Our Demise, tends towards the powerpop end of things. Unfortunately, for some strange reason, the album's sequencing puts several weaker songs near the beginning of the album, although it starts to improve around the fifth or sixth track. Best track? Maybe My Sweet Unknown, although most of its mid-album neighbours are reasonably good. David Einmo is credited with Mellotron, sounding quite startlingly like samples to my ears, with strings and cellos (under some cheesy organ) on The Likes Of You, very squeaky (i.e. above top-note) strings on Angelita, with what sounds like flutes and real strings on You Used To Drive Me Around and a brief string part at the end of Song Noir.
Dan Auerbach is the non-drumming half of The Black Keys, so it's no surprise that some of 2009's Keep it Hid sounds a lot like the parent outfit's r'n'b/soul/garage rock mash-up, raucous yet tuneful, although the acoustic tracks are less expected, not least opener Trouble Weighs A Ton and closer Goin' Home. Best tracks? Possibly Whispered Words (Pretty Lies), with an excellent speed-up to the end and Street
Walkin', although nothing here really disappoints. Auerbach plays pretty much everything on the album, including the keyboard string part (Chamby samples?) on When The Night Comes.
Bassist Melissa Auf der Maur is best known for her years in Courtney Love's Hole (so to speak), although she's also worked with The Smashing Pumpkins and Rufus Wainwright, amongst others. She kicked off her solo career with 2004's Auf der Maur, slotting fairly and squarely into the 'alternative metal' bracket, taking influences from the modern metal, punk and indie genres, not least her various ex-bands. The end result is an album that's likely to appeal to fans of The Pumpkins et al. and less likely to grab those for whom rock peaked in the '70s, although it features occasional nods towards the 'classic' era. Melissa plays Chamberlin solo female voice on the powerpop of Would If I Could (think: that bizarre solo male voice, but, er, higher), most likely sampled.
Montreal duo Aun describe themselves as 'cosmic industrial'; I haven't heard their earlier work, but it seems that 2015's Fiat Lux (something like their eleventh full album in eight years) marks a retreat from a doomier, metal-influenced sound into more ambient territory. Which sounds like...? Industrial sounds (not Nine Inch Nails 'industrial', more actually sounding like machines) over pulsing rhythms, snatches of wordless voices, drifting synth textures... I think you get the idea. Frédéric D. Oberland is credited with 'bass Mellotron' on Crystal Towers, whatever that may mean. The groaning, vaguely cello-esque sound underpinning the track? Anyway, an absolute dead cert that we're not hearing a real Mellotron here; I'm not even sure it counts as 'samples'.
Autumus is Ivan Udintsev's solo project, 2008's highly limited-edition CD-R Uncertain Words seemingly being his debut release. Aside from Jane Harrington's vocals on two tracks, it's entirely instrumental (OK, therefore it's not entirely instrumental, pedant), written and recorded on a variety of (presumably real) analogue machines, namely a MiniMoog, a Moog modular, an ARP 2600 with sequencer, a Yamaha CS-80, a Roland SH-101, a Roland CR-78 drum machine and a relative rarity, a Polivoks. The material shifts between more and less dancey electronica, better tracks including the gentle Total Peace, the lush Love On Earth and the robotic Times. Udintsev adds supposed Mellotron strings to three tracks, with block chords on Love On Earth and basic lines on World Trade Center and Open Your Mind, most likely sampled.
Melbournites The Avalanches have possibly broken records (pun intended) by taking sixteen years between albums, despite being extant for the entire interim. 2016's Wildflower is something rarely encountered since the '90s, a full-blown plunderphonics record, compiled from hundreds, if not thousands of samples, some of them no more than minuscule snippets of sound. Sample clearance? Obviously a nightmare, handled for them by a professional. Very wise. The end result is exceptionally clever, although I won't pretend to understand where the band (a six-piece on their debut, a duo now) are coming from. Think: kind-of hip-hop over samples from psychedelic, easy listening and mainstream pop records from the last several decades, occasionally infuriating, sometimes borderline intriguing. Mellotron is credited to the band, but if the strings on Stepkids are supposed to be it, let alone the vaguely Mellotronic flutes on a couple of tracks, then I rather suspect not.
North Carolina's Avett Brothers are generally regarded as being folk rock, although their ninth album, True Sadness, includes elements of Americana and indie, the latter almost losing them half a star. Although it was recorded at Chamberlin-owning studio Fidelitorium, Dana Nielsen's Mellotron is not only inaudible, but, most likely, sampled anyway.
Mexico's Avila brothers, Armando, Emilio and Enrique, worked together as Los Avila Boys for a while; their second album, 1998's Cuatro, presumably being typical of their output. I believe their style is known as 'grupero pop'; a form of contemporary Latin pop, with little content outside the realms of light entertainment, the only obvious exception here being the brief jazzy interlude in Y Por Siempre. All well and good, if that's what you want, but this is unlikely to appeal to anyone outside their home market. Like they care. Armando (Cristian Castro, RBD) supposedly plays Mellotron, but as with his other credits, it seems to be near enough inaudible, with only what sounds like a vaguely Mellotronic string line on La Grandeza Que Te Di to show for it, so into samples it goes. Does this guy actually own a Mellotron, despite his various Mexican-artist credits? I'm beginning to seriously doubt it.
Nothing to do with the 'seminal' (i.e. forgotten) Aussie '80s AORsters of the same name, America's Avion are (or, more likely, were) at the rockier end of the indie spectrum crossed with powerpop, at least going by 2004's Avion. This is a record I really want to like, featuring pop/rock semi-gems such as the rocking Bulletproof Glow, Trinidad And A DC-10 and closer Le Pont Neuf, but material like Seven Days Without You and Beautiful consistently defeat me by their cheesy upbeatness. Stuart Brawley is credited with Mellotron, but the flutes on Love Is Here Again are somewhat unconvincing, with even more bogus strings later in the track, so non. I don't know if you can listen to this online anywhere (largely because I haven't been arsed to check), but powerpop fans will almost certainly, rather like the legendary curate's egg, decide that 'parts of it are excellent'.
Awkward Stage's debut, Heaven is for Easy Girls, demonstrates everything that's bad about the millennial indie scene: twee composition and delivery, rhythmically weak, just... fucking irritating. No, there are no best tracks. Shane Nelken's credited with Mellotron on closer West Van Girl, but there's nothing that even sounds like one. Their follow-up, 2008's Slimming Mirrors, Flattering Lights, is a considerable improvement, several tracks, not least the slightly Big Countryish Anime Eyes, the rocking Hey Modern Schoolgirl and acoustic ballad Dandelion escaping such indie pigeonholing, while the sleeve-image-describing waltz-time Miniskirt Of Christmas Lights is just odd. Nelken and Tygh Runyan play samplotron, with flutes on Skeletal Blonde and True Love On Three With Feeling; did I hear those flutes in the background elsewhere? Probably not.
Despite being, in many ways, a typical modern American singer-songwriter (you know, he's had tracks used on various mainstream TV shows), Ian Axel's debut, 2011's This is the New Year, is far less offensive than I'd expected. Saying that, it's also far less interesting than it could've been, but material like jaunty, Ben Folds-esque opener Leave Me Alone and the nutty Waltz lift this at least slightly above the average, although only time will tell whether or not Axel sinks further into commercial depravity. Dan Romer (Lelia Broussard, April Smith) plays credited Mellotron and Chamberlin, with (Mellotron?) flutes all over Leave Me Alone and Girl I Got A Thing, (Chamberlin?) strings and flutes on Afterglow and strings on Hangman, with real strings on several other tracks. Samples throughout, sadly.
Ex-Bodine/Vengeance guitarist Arjen Anthony Lucassen left the latter outfit in the early '90s to concentrate on what has turned out to be his remarkably successful solo career, largely in the form of Ayreon. The band appears to be one huge, overblown concept, taking in war, environmentalism, technology and a dozen other subjects, spread across a seemingly unending supply of very long albums, all in a rather cheesy symphonic metal rock opera style that you'll either like or... you won't.
The band's career kicked off with 1995's The Final Experiment, originally released under Lucassen's own name as Ayreon: The Final Experiment, a science fiction/time travel concept effort involving many different vocalists (including Golden Earring's Barry Hay) and a good few instrumentalists, not least ex-Finch keys man Cleem Determeijer. The music is every bit as pompous as you'd expect, with little real invention, sounding like exactly what it is: progressive rock written by a mainstream rock guitarist. Saying that, it largely lacks any ELP-esque show-offiness, thankfully and can easily be ignored, unless some drivel I could mention. 'Mostly harmless', as the much-missed Douglas Adams once said. Now; Lucassen's brother wrote to me some years ago, alleging Mellotron use on all the Ayreon albums, but, upon interrogation, admitting they were sampled. Determeijer plays them here, with little obvious use (the choirs, flutes and most of the strings sound generic to me), with definite sampled strings on the last part of Act III, Magic Ride and the album's final track, Ayreon's Fate.
The following year's Actual Fantasy (huh?) is essentially more of the same, only the surprise of the new has worn off already, leaving a rather empty shell of bombast and thoroughly ordinary chord sequences. What was that business about empty vessels making the most noise? I'm sure if you're into Mr. Lucassen's thang you'll love this to pieces, but it bored me rigid. Oh, and Pink Floyd should sue over the bassline and 'guitar through Leslie' effect on Computer Eyes. More Mellotron samples this time round, with watery strings on Abbey Of Synn, with more of the same plus choirs spread across the album, though nothing that stands out in any way. 1998's Into the Electric Castle is Lucassen's most overblown effort yet, a two-disc concept effort concentrating (I think) on the nature of aggression, amongst many other topics, featuring the usual cast of thousands, including Fish, Arena's Clive Nolan, Kayak's Ton Scherpenzeel and none other than Focus' Thijs Van Leer, who provides the Tullalike flute on a few tracks. This really is profoundly silly; science fiction for the kind of 'fan' who thinks it began with Star Trek and ended with Battlestar Galactica, full of the most useless SF/fantasy clichés imaginable, all set to highly unchallenging progressive metal crossed with an off-Broadway show. Just say no. Not all that much samplotron, from Lucassen and Dutch rock dude Robby Valentine, with the usual suspects in the usual places.
2000 brought a double concept piece, The Universal Migrator, released as two separate discs, for once. Yup, it's another sprawling, not-that-coherent SF concept, complete with spoken-word interludes and all the usual suspects on the influence front. Oh joy. Part One: The Dream Sequencer is exactly what you'd expect by now, the bog-standard prog-metal slightly relieved by early(-ish) Floyd touches on closer The Dream Sequencer Reprise, but, by and large, this is unlikely to convert anyone not already a devotee to Lucassen's cause. Plenty of samplotron, with particularly obvious string samples on Temple Of The Cat (one of the album's better efforts), although the choirs and flutes are less so. Part Two: Flight of the Migrator features several (semi-)famous guests, as Lucassen's star rose, including Nolan again, Erik Norlander (Rocket Scientists), Lana Lane, Bruce Dickinson and, er, Symphony X's Michael Romeo. Citing 'better tracks' is probably a mistake, as the listener is no doubt meant to consume the concept in one sitting, but The Taurus Pulsar, the first part of To The Quasar, isn't too bad, although it's a bit of a blip on an otherwise dull album. More samplotron on Part One then Part Two, but it isn't a major component of either.
2000's Ayreonauts Only lives up to its name, being a 'fans only' disc of alternate versions and the like. Its version of Through The Wormhole is one of its less pointless tracks, but this really is only for the faithful. It took Lucassen four years to follow the Universal Migrator pairing with The Human Equation, which seems to be the third part of the concept, as far as I can work out. Once again, good moments (Day Eighteen: Realization and Day Twenty: Confrontation, the James Bond theme over a wash of string synth on Day Three: Pain) are spoilt by the overall 'cod-rock opera' feel of the album and the largely clichéd prog-metal moves displayed throughout. Low levels of samplotron on both of these, assuming you're actually that bothered. Now, 2008's 01011001 (another double) actually starts really well, much of ten-minute opener Age Of Shadows being dynamic, reasonably interesting and almost original in places, particularly its industrial noise opening. Several other tracks feature interesting bits (many of them folky), too, although Web Of Lies' tale of Internet dating is an excruciating attempt to be 'contemporary', not least due to being about a decade out of date (it was bad enough when Rush tackled the subject in 1996). To be honest, the only thing stopping this getting three stars is its obscene length and its guff-to-listenable-stuff ratio, making it (sort of) one of the best Ayreon releases yet. Once again, reasonable, yet not excessive levels of samplotron, but you'd never mistake it for the real thing, frankly.
After a five-year hiatus, during which Lucassen involved himself in other projects, 2013's two-disc The Theory of Everything is, indeed, almost certainly everything for which his legions of fans have been waiting. The rest of us might not be quite so keen, but then, we don't have to buy it, do we? It's another multi-vocalled rock opera, this time concerning an 'idiot' chid who turns out to be a savant, the plot throwing a mish-mash of current theories in physics into the mix. Lyrically, elements of this look like a vague attempt to rewrite Tommy, although the two storylines are far from analogous, while musically, it's the same old same old, basically operatic prog metal with occasional and largely inappropriate Celtic overtones. Not that much samplotron compared to previous releases, with sparingly-used strings on Love And Envy, The Gift, Potential, Side Effects, Quid Pro Quo and Fortune? and choirs on The Theory Of Everything Part 2 and Frequency Modulation. Is this ridiculous? Overblown? Severely lacking in taste? Of course it is, but Ayreon fans will love it.
Azure Ray are/were the duo of Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor, who have a strong Bright Eyes connection, members of both bands playing on each others' records. There are both similarities and differences between the two bands; Azure Ray actually manage to be more melancholy than Bright Eyes, which is a feat in itself, although you wouldn't mistake their music for Conor Oberst's crew. Hold on Love is their third (and last?) album, the duo splitting up a year after its release, although a recent reformation may not be a one-off. Its chief fault is that its relentlessly downbeat approach starts to drag after a while, although several individual tracks sound great in isolation. Now, regular readers will be thinking at this point, "Er, doesn't he LIKE downbeat stuff?" Well, yes and no: miserabilists can be fine, but you can have too much of a good thing and, as in so many other areas, it's not just what is done but how. That's probably a bit unfair; this isn't a bad album, just a slightly one-dimensional one; please don't bother telling me a one-dimensional object is impossible. I know. It's a figure of speech. Someone allegedly plays Mellotron here, quite possibly Bright Eyes' Andy LeMaster, but given the quantity of real strings on offer here (small ensemble, by the sound of it), it's pretty hard to tell precisely where. The strings on We Are Mice seem to be the strongest contender, but if so, they're sampled.