Four Corners exist at the mid-'60s 'mod party' end of the powerpop spectrum; their (debut?) album, 2001's Say You're a Scream was issued in the unusual format of (mono?) vinyl and mono and stereo versions on one CD, almost as retro as (and decades later than) the first Dr. Feelgood album, 1974's Down By the Jetty, issued only in mono. Switching between male and (rather weak) female leads, it's a slightly inconsistent record, highlights including opener Untitled Instrumental Theme #1 (you lazy buggers), Miss Moneypenny (you can see where this lot are coming from, can't you?) and The Pastel Queen: Compassionate Lotus Blossom Of Immense Destruction (!), although it all begins to pall towards the end, despite the (half) album's relatively short running time. Neil Cleary is credited with Mellotron, with flutes on Summer's Time and The Pastel Queen, although a combination of their exceedingly bogus sound and production from noted sample user Bill Doss (Olivia Tremor Control, Apples in Stereo, Sunshine Fix) makes this a sample 'dead cert', just for once. So; not a bad effort, but too much filler. Notably, the band hasn't recorded since, which is a shame, as I'm sure they'd have improved given time.
Long Roads is trad Irish quintet Four Men & a Dog's fourth album, a perfectly acceptable set of mostly original material in the expected style, occasional hints of bluegrass and other not-actually-Irish-folk influences creeping in here and there. One Richard Bell is credited with Mellotron on the punning Planet Ways. Why? Why is he credited? Given that two fiddle players are credited on the track, I can't imagine what this imaginary Mellotron might be playing. Decent enough album, but Mellotron fail.
Fourth World were a 'world fusion' outfit, I suppose, formed (in London, I believe) by legendary percussionist Airto Moreira and his equally legendary wife, Flora Purim. 1994's Fourth World, was, unsurprisingly, their debut album, being the expected jazz/world crossover, although Purim's contributions seem strangely limited. There are moments on here, not least the jammed-out part of the thirteen-minute Starfish, which almost cross over into prog territory, but only almost, the bulk of the album being typically happy-go-lucky Brazilian-type stuff, with a European edge in places. Gary Meek supposedly plays Mellotron, amongst other keys, but you'd be hard-pushed to say where. Is that a background flute chord on Povo Da Lira? Near-inaudible strings on Lua? Impossible to say, though I'm sure it's on there somewhere. So; decent enough world fusion, should you be into such a thing, but forget it for the Mellotron.
Kim Fowley, eh? Or 'the late Kim Fowley' (1939-2015), as we should probably now know him. Legendary scenemaker, mover'n'shaker, songwriter, producer, impressario... Also incurable self-publicist, bully and rapist. Take your pick. Or ask The Runaways' Jackie "Fox" Fuchs how she felt about emerging from unconsciousness to find Fowley penetrating her. 1995's Let the Madness in is something like Fowley's nineteenth solo album, an opportunist, techno-driven effort with few redeeming features, reworking its minimal material even as it progresses. This is seriously unnecessary. Sex On Television is particularly revolting; no-one needs to hear the ageing Fowley simluating the titular act, believe me. Martin Keeting gets a Mellotron credit, presumably for the rubbish string samples on Jungle City. For the self-proclaimed king of trash, this is suitably trashy and not in a good way. Move on, nothing to see...
In the six years between Kim Fox's first and second (and last) albums, it seems she shifted from 'quirky singer-songwriter' to 'mainstream ten-a-penny singer-songwriter', not a change for the better. Return to Planet Earth (does this explain the six-year gap?) is blandness personified, at its least dull on acoustic closer Tread This World So Lightly. What a comedown. Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. plays keys, but the background flutes on opener Ladybug, the more upfront ones on Baby, I Want You Back and I See Too Well and flutes and strings on Love X 10 lack that certain something, so I'm calling it for samples.
California's Foxygen are an indie outfit with a considerable psych influence, which, sadly, does little to improve their second album, 2013's We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic. Better tracks include Beatlesy opener In The Darkness, San Francisco and closer Oh No 2, but their combination of (faux-?) lysergic swirling and the standard indie lack of musical imagination quickly (and heavily) outstays its welcome. Someone adds clearly sampled Mellotron to several tracks, including a squawking string line in San Francisco, bland polyphonic flutes and a string line on Shuggie and strings on Oh Yeah, doing little to enhance the overall listening experience. I believe I've made a reviewing breakthrough with this record: if Pitchfork like it, I don't. There, that should save some time.
And I thought that was bad? The following year's ...And Star Power loses the little that makes its predecessor even occasionally listenable, being a vastly overlong collection of pointless musical vignettes pretty much devoid of any obvious psychedelic influence. Which leaves us with...? Indie. Fucking indie. Best track? Er, not sure there is one, although Everyone Needs Love has a decent instrumental middle-section. Worst? It's a close call, but the vile one/two of the faux-faux-'60s Hot Summer and the 'experimental' (read: pointless, drug-fuelled electronica) of Cold Winter/Freedom might just take the proverbial putty medal. Believe me, this redefines 'awful'. Samplotron? Occasional strings, for what it's worth, which is very little.
Fractal Mirror consist of two out of three members of an Amsterdam-based, mid-'80s progressive outfit plus an American drummer, their sound, on 2013 debut Strange Attractors, sitting at an unusual point somewhere between prog, modern alt.rock and '80s 4AD artists. Reference points include Genesis (well, vaguely) and David Sylvian, although more recent influences (notable on the more upbeat material, such as opener What's Inside and the third part of A Life In Darkness, Raising The Stakes) evade me. At the prog(gier) end of the spectrum, second track in, The Fading Ghosts Of Yesterday, heads towards more familiar, slow-burn prog territory, other highlights including Brian's Song and most of the rest of A Life In Darkness, making for an eminently satisfying overall listen. Leo Koperdraat (hi, Leo) adds sampled Mellotron to almost every track, with strings and choirs all over What's Inside, flutes and strings on The Fading Ghosts Of Yesterday, cellos on Fade Away and combinations of these sounds (plus occasional brass?) on almost everything else.
Unfortunately, the following year's Garden of Ghosts fails to have the same impact as its predecessor, possible reasons including a lack of variety (most tracks progress at the same, funereal pace) and the sheer length of the album. Saying that, opener House Of Wishes works well, as do The Phoenix and The Garden (the album is named for a lyric); actually, most individual tracks are fine, but, sadly, their cumulative impact has the opposite effect to that intended.
Also, you need to watch your majors and minors on Lost In Clouds, chaps. Larry Fast guests, slapping Mellotron samples all over everything, but, as with much of the album's content, it gets to the point where you wish he'd use something else. As I've said elsewhere, most real Mellotron users realise that you can reach a point of Mellotron Fatigue, where it becomes a little overwhelming. The same applies here. Slow Burn 1 travels even further down the '4AD' path, to the point where eight-minute closer Universal comes across more as an extended pop song than as anything at all progressive, although I'm sure that's missing the point. Highlights include brief opener Prelude, Miracle and Fading, which starts off like a lost Roxy Music track, circa '73, although I'm less sure about the jaunty V838 and Mist. Plenty of samplotron, especially the flutes this time round, with particularly upfront strings on Enemies.
Les Fradkin has had a colourful career, beginning in the dying days of the '60s, working his way through a late-period version of The Godz (also working as Thornton, Fradkin & Unger & the Big Band), two hectic years as 'George Harrison' in the first Beatlemania stageshow and years of production and TV soundtrack work, finally working from home as a one-man band. 2003's Reality - The Rock Opera is the first fruit of his current labours, occupying the middle ground between an off-Broadway show, '80s pop and, maybe improbably, the more musical theatre-inclined strand of modern prog. Musically, an unsurprising '60s influence creeps in on several tracks, although the sampled drums give a pervasive (and slightly unwelcome) '80s feel to the proceedings. Fradkin writes with his wife, Loretta, so it's hard to say who's responsible for the lyrics, many of which are witty ruminations on modern life, better examples including You Can't Change Me and It's Plastic. Hugely ambitious, Reality overreaches itself in places, but is a welcome antidote to dumbed-down modern pop, which appears to have reached a new nadir lately. Fradkin uses the M-Tron plug-in, adding, variously, 'Mellotron' strings, flutes and/or choirs to every track here, admittedly not always that audibly, the most major example being on System Crash.
I haven't heard the next several Fradkin releases, but 2007's Guitar Revolution is an album of instrumental, guitar-led versions of songs by his first love, The Beatles, together and apart. While not exactly a resounding success, the album has its moments, notably McCartney's excellent Jet and Rockestra Theme, lowpoints being Lennon's maudlin and overplayed Imagine and a strangely gutless version of Live And Let Die. Fakeotron on several tracks, chiefly I Am The Walrus and an inventive rearrangement of Sgt Pepper's Within You Without You. Fradkin has released a good dozen more albums that fall into the samplotron category, although when I might get to hear them can only be a matter for conjecture. A gifted musician, I'm not sure he's best served by regurgitating Beatles material, but if he manages to make a living from it, I wish him the best of luck. One Link Between Them features heavy use of the Ztar MIDI guitar controller, apparently, not that you'd know by listening. It's a mix of covers (Steve Vai, The Ventures, The Tornados) and original material, while the remastered version adds a couple of classical remakes, including a magnificent take on Khachaturian's Sabre Dance, taken at suitably breakneck speed. Samplotron strings (and occasional flutes) on most tracks, but you'd never take it for the real thing.
Finale contains The Left Banke/Stories' Michael Brown's last recordings before his untimely death in 2015, writing and recording alongside Les Fradkin (above). To my surprise, all four tracks are strongly reminiscent of a particular strand of mid-'70s American pop/prog, not entirely unlike Stories' last album, possibly at their best on opener As Eagles Fly In The Night. Fradkin plays MTron Pro samplotron strings across the board to decent effect, almost fooling the ear in places.
Peruvian progsters Frágil's third album, 1992's Cuento Real, is a rather unappealing stew of South American-flavoured neo-prog, with few acceptable moments for the discerning listener. A 'Mellotron' credit turns out to be a chimera (now there's a surprise), but, two tracks from the original '92 issue have been replaced on the 2006 reissue. The missing tracks are the two containing Mellotron from their 1981 debut, unless they're re-recordings. Why they'd put the original recordings on an album from a decade later is unknown, but don't expect to hear anything Mellotron on this album's most easily-available version.
Robert Francis is one of those 'heartfelt' singer-songwriters (er, aren't they all?) whose debut album, 2007's One By One, is a rather wet, yet relatively harmless record, made for use on crummy US TV shows. Saying that, I've heard a lot worse in the general area, though I wouldn't take that as a recommendation. Martin Pradler plays samplotron, with upfront flutes, strings and cellos on closer All Of My Trains. Francis followed up with 2009's Before Nightfall, an album that sounds fine for a couple of tracks, before you realise it's irritated the hell out of you and you're not sure why. It doesn't help that it rather lacks on the originality front; until the vocals kick in, I Like The Air sounds exactly like The Blue Öyster Cult's Subhuman, although I'm quite certain that's accidental, while Francis' falsetto on closer Do What I Can is a dead ringer for Jeff Buckley, without the good bits. Francis plays the samplotron himself, with choirs and cellos on opener Darkness, strings (and cellos?) on Mescaline and strings on One By One and Hallways.
Brooke Fraser's debut, What to Do With Daylight, was hugely successful in her native country, which tells me that kiwis are clearly impressed by insipid, introspective singer-songwriters. Although the bulk of the album is quite awful, for some reason, Indelible stands out as the one composition here with some substance. However, Marcus Vanilau's 'Mellotron' flutes on Scarlet really, really aren't.
Free System Projekt (Sweden) see:
(Roberto) Frejat's Sobre Nós 2 e o Resto do Mundo (a.k.a. Sobre Nós Dois e o Resto do Mundo) is a perfectly acceptable, inoffensive, Portuguese-language pop/rock album, probably at its best on the rocky Eu Preciso Te Tirar Do Sério and Túnel Do Tempo. Maurício Barros is credited with Mellotron, with background string swells on the opening title track and O Que Mais Me Encanta, string and flute lines on 50 Receitas and chordal flutes on 3 Minutos, but none of it rings entirely true, not helped by the unlikelihood of there being a real M400 in the studio.
Tim "not that one" Rose apparently took five years to make Fresh Mowed Lawn's eponymous debut, an album on the cusp of indie and powerpop, stronger tracks including Wish It All Away and The Rest Of Your Life. Alleged Mellotron from Rose and Martin Woess, with flutes all over opener Watching The World Turn Slowly/From This Day Forward's intro and Come Alive, plus low strings on Fresh Mowed Lawn itself, all most likely bogus.
New Yorker Tom Freund's first release was a 1992 collaboration with Ben Harper, Pleasure & Pain, although it took several subsequent years as bassist with The Silos before he recorded his first genuinely solo record, 1998's North American Long Weekend. The following year's Sympatico (having mutual understanding) is a pretty decent Americana album, Freund's voice a dead-ringer for Tom Petty in places, highlights including Bombshell, the mandolin-driven Francie and Amiable. Freund plays samplotron flutes on Francie, although I doubt whether the muted vibes on Know What You're Thinking are 'Mellotronic'. Fast-forward fifteen years and five albums to 2014's Two Moons. Broadly in the same area as its distant predecessor, better tracks include the rockier Lemme Be Who I Wanna Be and Grooves Out Of My Heart and the country of Some Old Shit Different Day, the overall vibe being a kind of dusty country rock circa '75. Freund plays sampled Chamberlin, with strings on Next Time Around and flutes on Grooves Out Of My Heart, although those are real strings on Happy Days Lunch Box.
Anni-Frid "Frida" Lyngstad (now, surrealy, Anni-Frid, Princess Reuss, Countess of Plauen) should need no introduction; the contralto brunette in Abba, she (along with Agnetha Fältskog) is one of the most recognisable female faces (and voices) of the pop era. 1996's Swedish-language Djupa Andetag is her fifth and last solo album; she has stated that she has no interest in making music again. Unsurprisingly, it's a pretty mainstream '90s pop/rock effort, with the occasional Scandinavian touch, notably the accordion in Hon Fick Som Hon Ville, while Ögonen and seven-minute closer Kvinnor Som Springer, with its vague hip-hop/nu-metal influences stand out from the pack stylistically. Anders Glenmark supposedly plays Mellotron on Hon Fick Som Hon Ville; are they referring to the squashy stabbed string chords in the intro? Not a Mellotron, chaps...
Virgin Prunes mainman Fionán "Gavin Friday" Hanvey is a U2 associate, their influence shining brightly on his torchy fifth solo album, 2011's Catholic. Another obvious comparison is Marc Almond; it turns out that Friday sang on an album by Soft Cell's Dave Ball, strengthening the connection. Think: a camp, tenor Scott Walker filtered through late '80s U2 and you might be getting close. No, I don't like it very much, since you asked. Herbie Macken allegedly plays Mellotron on two tracks, with faint flutes on Blame and nothing obvious (choirs?) on The Sun & The Moon & The Stars, but I'll be stunned should I discover that it's real. Anyway, good at what it does, assuming what it does is something you like. He said, grudgingly.
The Friends of Dean Martinez have been going since the mid-'90s, initially on Nirvana's original label, SubPop; I suppose they loosely fit into the much-maligned 'post rock' category, although they claim to mix equal parts of lounge music and desert country, or somesuch. Wichita Lineman actually sounds not a million miles away from Unwound, with a laid-back, resigned sort of air about it, occasionally summoning up the energy to 'rock out' slightly, as on Overload, though more often they drift where the music takes them, however long that may take. Both the track titles and much of the music itself also have a 'soundtracky' feel to them, giving the impression of one of those 'soundtracks to an imaginary film' that crop up every now and again, exacerbated by the sound of a projector at the end of the last track. On the samplotron front, Bill Elm adds chordal strings to Main Theme, In The Wire and the instrumental version of the classic title track.
2003's Under the Waves isn't dissimilar, albeit with less of a 'soundtrack' feel about it. Dave Lachance adds a sampled Chamberlin string line to And Love To Be The Master Of Hate, then Mike Semple plays a chordal part on Indian Summer and a drifting (that word again) single-note string line on Cahuenga. These reviews replace my original one of 2003's double-disc On the Shore, a bizarre release, consisting of several tracks from Wichita Lineman, three live tracks and all of Under the Waves. Why? A 'sampler' (aargh! Don't mention samples! I did once, but I think I got away with it) for overseas markets? No idea, but you're better off with the separate releases, to be honest.
I've seen Philadelphia's Frog Holler described as 'Americana', but I think 'country' might be a better description, albeit in a trad kind of way, as they're a million miles from Nashville orthodoxy. Maybe they are Americana after all. 2003's Railings is their fourth album, covering a variety of country-related styles, so your potential enjoyment of it is directly related to your tolerance for vocals with a distinctly Southern twang and the occasional banjo solo. They seem to do it well enough, although it doesn't grab me in the same way as some of their contemporaries, for no obvious reason. Maybe they're just that bit too trad? Someone plays a Mellotron-like flute melody in Suit & Tie, although it's almost certainly samples, with high notes that don't ring true at all and some background strings that are far too murky for their own good.
Frogg Café apparently started life as Zappa tribute act Lumpy Gravy, releasing their first album of original material, Frogg Café, in 2001. I haven't heard that, but Creatures is, despite some of its European influences, a very 'American' progressive album, with lengthy vocal sections, reminding me of various current US outfits. Aside from Zappa, I can hear bits of Gentle Giant, quite a bit of jazz (much marimba work) and, maybe surprisingly, a hint of psychedelia in places. Actually, The Celestial Metal Can (In Memory Of Charles Ives) is full-on weirdness, as you might expect, given its title, but the rest of the album is pretty musically cohesive. Nick Lieto sticks supposed Mellotron all over the place, with strings and/or choirs on four out of five tracks, although he rarely overuses it. There's a heavy string presence on All This Time, but even the twenty-minute-plus Waterfall Carnival doesn't overdo it, with choir parts drifting pleasantly in and out of the piece. However, listening to this again, it's quite clearly sampled, so into quarantine it goes.
Safe Ride Home is total '90s indie-by-numbers, about as unimaginative as it gets, not helped by Heidi Phillips' awful, out-if-tune singing. Why didn't the producer tackle this issue? Was it the desired outcome? Said producer, Doug McBride, plays obviously sampled 'Mellotron' strings on Sleep. Safe Ride Home? Safe as houses.
I can tell you effectively nothing about Annika Frölander, other than that she released an album of jazzy, Swedish-language pop in 1995 called Hur Ska det Gå för Caroline (How's it going for Caroline?) and she had some connection with The Flower Kings, as three of them play on it. It's all perfectly pleasant, if slightly undemanding, but there are an awful lot worse things to be, frankly. Tomas Bodin plays samplotron cellos, flutes and strings on the album's single, Stackars Caroline, flutes on Allt Förlåtet and strings and flutes on closer Vals För Caroline.
Manchester's Liam "Frost" Pickering is, essentially, a singer-songwriter, although the contents of his second album, 2009's We Ain't Got No Money, Honey, But We Got Rain (a Bukowski quote) are as much generic indie as sensitive soul-barer. Most of it's pretty bland fare, to be honest, the one-two of Shipwrecks and Skylark Avenue being the album's highpoints, the bulk of the remainder trying too hard to be commercial to have any real effect. Matt Watson plays samplotron flutes on Sparks, although the cellos on a couple of tracks are real.
Lily Frost is a Canadian singer-songwriter whose third solo album proper (ignoring a debut as The Colorifics), 2004's Situation, highlights her intimate, jazzy style on material such as twee opener Les Vaisseaux Nocturnes, Where Is Love? and the jazzy Camden Town, the most listenable thing here being the raw blues of the untitled 'hidden track' that closes the record. It seems that many of her fans first heard her music used on TV shows such as Grey's Anatomy, which says more than I ever could. Steven Drake is credited with Mellotron, but the solo flute on Silver Sun (possibly heard elsewhere, too) is so generic that it barely even sounds like a Mellotron sample, making this a bit of a non-starter on several fronts.
Fruitcake were that most unusual of things, an acceptable modern neo-prog band. Fellow Norwegians A.C.T. are another; perhaps it was something in the water. Anyway, A Battle a Day... (subtitled Keeps the Doctor Away), was their sixth album (of seven), mostly released on the UK's main neo-prog outlet, Cyclops. They remind me strongly of a Scandinavian Camel, clearly a major influence, several tracks featuring an irritating combination of rather wet verses followed by dark instrumental sections underpinned by thunderous Moog Taurus, possibly at their best on Reaching Out. To my surprise, the band used Mellotron samples on a few tracks, for the only time, with background choirs and not-very-Mellotronic flutes on Reaching Out, choirs on Stories One Hears, upfront strings on Water Colours and The Old Man and flutes and strings on closer Thundercloud. Good try, but no.
2005's acoustic Curtains is the last of a series of six John Frusciante solo albums released within the space of a year. Like so many acoustic records, it probably takes more time to appreciate than I can realistically give it, although it's by no means a bad album, just one that doesn't grab this listener on early impressions. Frusciante plays samplotron flutes on Lever Pulled and strings and flutes on Ascension, although the sustained notes on closer Leap Your Bar could be 'Mellotron' or guitar.
I'm having trouble locating English-language information concerning Malaga's Frutería Toñi, although that should be less of a problem that it once was, in these days of Google translate. Their debut, 2014's Mellotron en Almíbar (Mellotron in Syrup, amusingly), is, in its mix'n'match approach to the genre, a typical modern progressive release, shifting between 'standard' symphonic, folk and jazz influences, amongst other things. Opener Toñi: Éxtasis Frutal comes across as a Spanish Zappa, Somno Se Dare as a reggae-tinged Mediterranean jazz/folk excursion, El Timo (No Sin Mijas-Costa) is almost a tribute to Spain's late '70s progressive scene, while Milwokee is nearer to progressive folk/blues, never mind the rest of this clever, highly varied album. Salva Marina is credited with Mellotron, but the overly-smooth strings on most tracks (complete with some overly-abrupt cutoffs) sound more like one of the current crop of hardware sample players to my ears, while the choirs on closer Zuprimo Zurmano Zucompare Zucolega confirm it. If you like your prog safely pseudo-symphonic, you're probably not going to go for Frutería Toñi, but if a challenging, borderline-innovative record sounds like your cup of tea, feel free to investigate.
Freddie Fry's Dream Tree EP starts and finishes well, highlights including opener 23 Oceans and closer This Time I've Spent With You, although it manages a mid-disc lull, knocking half a star from its rating. Although Fry used a real Mellotron on 2004's Resonator (as far as I can tell), the strings on 23 Oceans are sampled and not even particularly well.
While still in his teens, Mark Fry (his family tree includes notable artists and other luminaries) recorded Dreaming With Alice while studying art in Italy (as you do), now a major acid folk collectable. After its belated CD issue in 2007, Fry (his story, by now, beginning to resemble that of Vashti Bunyan, right down to famous family connections) released a new album, 2008's Shooting the Moon, relatively swiftly followed by a collaboration with Michael Tanner and Nicholas Palmer, a.k.a. The A. Lords. 2011's I Lived in Trees is a truly beautiful, almost entirely acoustic album, the basic trio expanded into a small ensemble for the recording, adding flute, strings and harp, the latter being the first sound we hear on the opening title track. Other highlights include Chalky Down (lovely recorder ensemble intro), the lengthy All Day Long and Even The Sky, but, truth be told, there's not a single duffer here. Tanner is credited with Mellotron, but I'm not convinced by the flutes and strings on Ruins Of Stone.
Toronto's Fucked Up are generally described as 'hardcore punk', although, going by their fourth album, 2014's Glass Boys, both their musicianship and songwriting skills transcend that narrow, hidebound genre. At least for this listener, the most abrasive thing about the album is Damian Abraham's voice, his style possibly best described as roaring; how he does it for any length of time without tearing his throat apart can only be a matter for conjecture. Better tracks include Sun Glass, with its acoustic intro, The Art Of Patrons and the surprisingly melodic, six-minute closing title track, but Abraham's vocals make sustained listening difficult without surrendering to the racket he makes. Josh Zucker is credited with Mellotron on Touch Stone and Mike Haliechuk on DET, with distorted, sampled strings on the former and nothing obviously audible on the latter.
The stupendously-named Fucking Am are the last of four combinations of The Fucking Champs and Trans Am, the other being, of course TransChamps. 2004's Gold is their only album (at least to date), a mixture of the two bands' styles, funnily enough, highlights including the massive Thin Lizzy vibe on Doing Research For An Autobiography and the drone-rock of Elastico Gomez, although you don't get the feeling that anything here could have been left off. Tim Green is credited with Mellotron, but the string line under a guitar one on Powerpoint sounds seriously inauthentic to my ears, frankly. Given that most of the two bands' combinations' 'Mellotron' use is at least a little suspect, that shouldn't really come as much of a surprise. Anyway, a good psychedelic hard rock album, but forget it for its supposed tape-replay.
Around 1997, The Champs became C4AM95 (work it out), before changing again, to The Fucking Champs, allegedly as a response to their fans' nickname for them, which has apparently now become 'The Fuckin' Fucking Champs', proving that you really can't win. Their schtick is frequently drumless, mostly instrumental progressive metal that sounds nothing like any other progressive metal band (thankfully). Given their 'song' titles, are they just one big joke? If so, it's a long-running and successful one; maybe they're poking fun yet simultaneously serious? It's not unheard of; look at Kiss. Er...
A first hearing of IV is a quite startling experience; at times I'm reminded of long-lost keyboardless Brit-proggers AFT (a.k.a. Automatic Fine Tuning), with their twin-guitar approach, although I'm sure that's just coincidental. Their actual influences are more likely to be '80s and '90s metal bands; NWOBHM-2 sounds less like the actual NWOBHM than Queensrÿche gone instrumental, while the fantastically-named Thor Is Like Immortal is Queen on mogadons. The band's massed guitar harmonies are very Brian May-ish, actually. Yeah, Brian May plays Queensrÿche. Tim Soete plays pseudotron on one track; Lamplighter is a 'Mellotron' flute and acoustic guitar duet, the quietest piece on the album along with Lost, which precedes the only vocal track, Extra Man. Why sing, chaps? It only serves to spoil the mood.
The originally-titled V is not quite a carbon copy of its predecessor, but certainly follows the same path, although a musically-correct guitar version of Bach's Air On A G-String is hilariously accurate, both genius and stupidity in one fell swoop. Spinal Tap, anyone? Is the joke on us? Probably. The only thing stopping the album (best track: apart from the Bach, probably either Never Enough Neck Part 2 or another nutzoid harmony piece, Chorale Motherfucker) from getting the same rating as its predecessor is that it just seems to repeat its trick, doubtless quite deliberately. One pseudotron track, again: Part Three features the flutes quite heavily.
Five years and one personnel change later, VI finally saw the light of day in 2007. And... it's more of the same. It's a good trick, but it seems to be the only one they've got. Opener The Loge is great, A Forgotten Chapter In The History Of Ideas sounds like an instrumental Maiden/Sabbath cross, but the repeating intro riff to Earthen Sculptor has to be the album's finest moment, while Abide With Me is exactly what you think: budget Brian May. A quick thought: why do May's massed harmonies sound so much better than anyone else's? His undeniable knowledge of, er, harmony? Or because he probably put down thirty parts to everyone else's five? Or was it sixty? Anyway, on the pseudotron front, there's a minor flute part on That Crystal Behind You? (Are You Channeling), with a more major one, plus strings, on Dolores Park and strings on closer Column Of Heads.
The Fucking Champs are slightly predictable, but, er, fucking cool all the same. How can it have taken me so long to discover them? And if it hadn't been for the 'Mellotron' connection... All three albums here are worth hearing, although IV probably has the edge on the others, or is it simply that I heard it first? Incidentally, the Champs have also collaborated with Trans Am, twice, once as TransChamps and once, beautifully, as The Fucking Am (above).
Chicagoans Fulflej had Smashing Pumpkins connections; nothing to boast about, you might say. Well, I do, anyway. 1996's Wack-Ass Tuba Riff (no, we don't get one) was their only 'proper' album, for which we should probably be thankful, its irritating shoegaze/grunge crossover having dated pretty badly. Worst track? Probably Microwave, vocalist/mainman MC "real name unknown" No Joke G's deliberately stupid vocal merely making matters worse. G (well, what else should we call him?), on top of his cruddy vocals, allegedly plays Mellotron, to which I have to say: I don't think so. Sample sets had become available not so long before and I get the feeling that some artists were (re)discovering the sounds, but, unable to track down a real, working machine, were perfectly happy to use eMu's awful samples; the background strings on Senselessness and flutes on Worms To Dogs sound little like a real Mellotron, anyway. No, I do not recommend that you track down a copy of this relative rarity.
New Jersey's Fun Machine are an offbeat progressive outfit, clearly influenced by all the usual suspects: Zappa, Henry Cow, Cardiacs even. In fact, the last-named seem to be a major touchstone for the band, accentuated by Fun Machine's heavy use of a Farfisa, proving that Cardiacs have American fans, too. 2008's Sonnenhuhn (Sun Chicken, in case you needed to know) is an angular, almost avant- record, the kind that should carry on revealing hidden depths for many listens to come; if it has a failing, its wackiness quotient is possibly a shade too high, although the band largely avoid Gong-style silly voices, thankfully. Best tracks? Possibly the fifteen-minute Family Vapor, if only because it encapsulates all the band's disparate influences into one piece, although I'm not sure what's with the (deliberately?) out of tune guitar solo. Keys man John Piatkowski sticks sampled Mellotron all over the album, strings and choir everywhere you look, to the point where I'm tempted to say they might have overused it slightly. Would you use a real Mellotron that much? Possibly, actually. Why have I not given this a higher rating? Relative immaturity (theirs, not mine. Maybe mine); I know the band will improve with future releases, so I don't want to laud them too highly quite yet. So; well worth hearing, loads of samplotron.
The Future Kings of England are a nominally progressive trio (as in, 'get reviewed on progressive sites'), but are actually more like a metal version of post-rock (!); think: Godspeed on overdrive. The (genuinely) wittily-titled 10:66 is a highlight, while I was amused by opener At Long Last..., which sounds like a recording of King Edward VIII's abdication speech, but most of the rest of the album does that usual 'crescendo rock' thing, only louder. Steven Mann plays sampled Mellotron choir and string parts on the post-rockish Humble Doucy Lane, flutes on Silent And Invisible Converts and strings and/or choir on several other tracks, although you'd never mistake them for the real thing. Don't get me wrong, this album definitely has its moments, but nearly an hour of loud, instrumental crescendo stuff can become wearing well before it's over.
Chicago's Future Monarchs' Weird Weather mini-album, seemingly their lone release, sits at the more harmless end of indie, which isn't really a recommendation. Any better tracks? My Old Ways, maybe, but it's all rather uninspiring. Although Wilco member Pat Sansone produces and plays keys, this wasn't recorded at their studio, so I rather suspect that the not very authentic 'Mellotron' strings on opener Evil Art and Cigarette Smoke (and murky woodwinds on a couple of other tracks?) are precisely that: not very authentic.
The Future Sound of London (or FSoL) have dipped into most 'dance' styles over the course of their career, not least techno, drum'n'bass and ambient, leaving those of us on the outside slightly bewildered. Where does one genre begin and another end? Which is which? Does anyone actually care anyway? 2001's Papua New Guinea Translations seems to be where the duo (Garry Cobain and Brian Dougans) officially over-reached themselves, giving us no fewer than eight remixes of Papua New Guinea, supposedly their 'classic'. Admittedly, it's interesting to see how many ways talented studio types (which they undoubtedly are) can treat a piece of music, although over an hour of this stuff is pretty mind-numbing for the unconverted. But then, it wasn't made for us; it was made for their fans and if they like it, who are the rest of us to complain?
Psych influences are definitely creeping in here; Translation 8: The Big Blue features some very Floydian organ, while Translation 6: Requiem features harmonica and plucked banjo over 'Mellotron' string and choir parts from Mike Rowe, although I so strongly suspect they're samples that the album's gone straight to this section; the choirs sound OK, but the strings are far too smooth for their own good. Cobain and Dougans subsequently split their psych alter-egos off as Amorphous Androgynous, presumably keeping their FSoL moniker for their more dance-orientated projects.
Boston's Fuzzy play a kind of girly pop/punk that might be powerpop if they cleaned up the vocals and guitars a little, not, I'd imagine, that they'd be interested in doing such a thing. Their third album, 1999's Hurray for Everything, is good at what it does without being particularly outstanding, highlights including Are You Living, the more laid-back Summer Is Gone and Neil Young's Closing End that, suitably, closes the album. And is it just me, or can we hear really prominent kick pedal squeak all the way through? Most offputting. Brian Dunton plays background samplotron strings on Are You Living, only particularly evident at the end of the track, due to their lowness in the mix.
Danny Chang discovered progressive rock in his teens in the early '70s, eventually writing a set of material that was never recorded. Twenty-something years on, although only able to recall 'a couple of chord sequences', Chang put a band together in a similar vein, as prog became more acceptable again, including Cyan's Rob Reed on keys. The Fyreworks is actually rather better than I'd expected, partly due to reasonable songwriting, partly various guest musicians' contributions on flute and stringed instruments, although Andy Edwards' vocalising is pure neo-prog. Compositionally speaking, opener Master Humphries' Clock has an occasional air of England about it, mostly in the bass work, while The War Years heavily recalls Genesis' Entangled, although parts of Stowaway sail (sorry) too close to solo Rick Wakeman for comfort and did they really think no-one would notice the Yes cop on the lengthy Broken Skies?
Unsurprisingly, given Reed's involvement, the Mellotrons here are sampled (most keyboard parts are pseudo-analogue), with strings on Master Humphries' Clock, Stowaway and Broken Skies, plus flutes on the last-named. This album's a bit of a curate's egg, to be honest; plenty of good bits sitting amongst not so good bits. Although I wouldn't call the album overlong, maybe ten of the not-so-good minutes could've been trimmed to make a really good effort. It seems this was a one-off, Chang having moved into production, while Reed and drummer Tim Robinson subsequently formed the tedious Magenta, but I've heard an awful lot worse from mostly neo-prog musicians than this. Now long out of print, this is worth hearing as a kind of second-rung '70s impersonation.
Aqi (or AQi) Fzono is a Japanese synthesist, whose 2003 release, Chronicle, contains one seventy-five-minute piece (wait for it), Synthesizer Symphony No. 5 With Orchestra And Choir For The History Of Our World From The Creation To The Present Time. Maybe something got lost in translation, Or maybe not. Anyway, it's a preposterously overblown work, all synthesized choirs and orchestras, not exactly background listening. Rumoured Mellotron (he's supposed to've used one on 1990's Echoes), but we're clearly hearing nothing of the sort.