Projection – Realitivity (2015)

Projection_Realitivity4.5 out of 5 Stars!

When investigating a new album for potential review, I ask myself a variety of questions (yes, believe it or not, I have an actual “check list” of items I use to create my overall rating). Among these items is whether there is anything remotely “unique” (in my eyes…or ears) about a release regarding songs, musicianship, or general instrumentation, something to actually “spark” me to write a review? Then comes the other vital items: does every member of a band seemingly perform to his or her full capacity? Are the songs generally consistent, or in other words, do they sound as if they belong together within the same collection of tracks? Do I want to hear the album again? And of perhaps the greatest importance to me, does the band have at least a “je nais se quoi“—a “capturing a distinctive yet indescribable lightning in a bottle” moment—where everything seems to gel so damned ultra-perfectly and makes it apparently clear that the band, in its current state of “musician make-up,” has actual chemistry as a team of artists?

These items, as always, went through my mind when listening to this new album by Projection, a band labeled as “Progressive Rock” on most music-related websites. In truth, however, I quickly discovered that the band is actually so much more, ruefully mislabeled. Sure, there is Progressive Rock on display here, but also Progressive Metal influences in spades (and diamonds, and hearts, and clubs), as well as a touch of AOR and Hard Rock and…well…here comes that “je nais se quoi” aspect to the fore once again.

A darned good sign for this album is that, the moment it finished, I started it again. Indeed, I was so intrigued by what I had heard, that I didn’t hesitate to replay the album in its entirety once more (and, truth be told, I was itching to play several tracks the moment they concluded, but I forced myself to wait until the end of the “full experience,” not wanting to judge the album piecemeal). And I’m glad I did so, because some of the material at the beginning of the album altered my feelings toward the album’s latter half, and vice-versa. To make a point, this is an album that is probably better heard as a whole instead of in parts, a more joyful experience in its unity, in order to fully appreciate the scope of music on offer.

Now, I won’t specifically go track by track in my evaluation, but to give you an idea of what the album includes, I’ll list some of the highlights I experienced…

“Running Through Time” is a driving number with a catchy chorus (hell, I actually found myself singing along with the band by the second chorus). This track immediately leads into “The Expectation Cell,” which has an engaging opening section, lush with sound effects and an eerie atmosphere, before the initial (almost metal) verse kicks in. Here is a fine example of why I enjoyed this album—Projection offers unexpected twists, some surprises throughout the album, that happily grabbed my attention. I couldn’t get too complacent before something shocked and dragged me into “another world,” into another “soundscape,” of the band’s making.

Consequently, “Hypocrite” is another fine track that had this ability, complex in its arrangement, compelling in its overall delivery with the pounding rhythms and diverse instrumentation (and, again, additional sound effects and background voice-overs). Yes, “Damn you, hypocrites,” the singer declares with absolute conviction, and I loved it! This is a fine track, one I repeated several times after the album concluded to investigate further, to absorb the experience again and again. Riveting!

Now, when it comes to instrumentation, I also loved the changing guitar tones—as well as the keyboard solo and hammering “metal” rhythm section—on “Overload,” and the “I need to get out” line that perfectly ushered me into “Escape,” a track that somehow brought to mind bands such as a “more progressive” Deep Purple (probably due to the organ in the background), which showed me that Projection has a talent for joining together two completely different-sounding tracks, yet making them appear as if they seamlessly belong together as one single “experience.” As I said earlier in the review, this is an album that should be savored in its entirety, since the tracks run so perfectly together.

“Delirious” is another track I absolutely adored, with the general orchestration (especially the tones of the guitar and keyboards, not to mention the vocal melodies) being delightfully moody. Here, the band pieces together the song’s various sections into a compelling marriage of Prog-Rock and Prog-Metal. Don’t expect minutes upon minutes of self-indulgent solos ala Dream Theater, but rather, a shorter (under six minutes) and highly structured merging of genres.

“Stranded” must also be mentioned, since it includes only acoustic guitar backing a “lighter” moment of passionate vocals, and sparsely orchestrated by keyboard “strings,” thus adding a different “dimension” to the band’s overall sound. And speaking of “other dimensions,” the track “Off: A New Beginning,” is yet another side of the band. On most of the songs, darker “minor keys” dominate the atmosphere, whereas on this track, major keys prevail, showing that Projection has successfully added lighter and (dare I say) poppier material to its repertoire.

Several other tracks are included on this album, but by this time, you’ve hopefully caught a glimpse of the overall picture I’ve attempted to convey…to me, this album is special! To summarize, the talented members of this quartet have excelled in their individual and collective efforts to produce some engaging music, and for only a debut release, the band proves itself quite impressive. Now I can only pray Projection will enjoy at least a modicum of success with this album and eventually elect to continue creating more music, locating more of that special “je nais se quoi” I mentioned earlier, and eventually deliver additional material in the very near future.

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Dante – When We Were Beautiful (2016)

Dante_Beautiful4.5 out of 5 Stars!

To my tastes, this German act is probably one of the better Progressive Metal bands to have emerged in the past decade. Indeed, the band burst out of the gate with The Inner Circle, a debut album that made me immediately sit up and take notice. For a debut release, the sound was quite impressive and sometimes jaw-dropping, with the band displaying a high level of sophistication with its classy, diverse, and grand orchestrations and melodies, not to mention the outstanding musicianship. And with each subsequent release, Dante proved that its debut album was no fluke, and the band was no flash in the pan.

And now along comes the band’s fourth release, When We Were Beautiful. And beautiful it is, indeed! Thankfully, Dante has lost none of its metal-tinged elegance, none of its solid backbone, none of its brilliance for delivering engaging melodies within the often-complex framework of its songs. And one thing’s for certain—like the previous three releases, the band’s music is never boring. Not in the least. Indeed, throughout the seven tracks on offer here, it’s soon clear that Dante possesses a talent for keeping the listener on the edge of their seat.

The nearly eleven-minute opening track, “Rearrangement of the Gods,” blasts from the speakers with everything a fan of Prog-Metal in the vein of Threshold, Adagio, and Empty Tremor can fully and joyously embrace…some thunderous and often-complicated rhythms, some beefy and crunchy guitar riffs, some orchestrated and luscious keyboards, and a melody line delivered by a powerful singer, who (to me) sounds similar in tone and style to Zach Stevens (Savatage/Circle II Circle/etc.).

“Ambitious” comes next, offering up another killer and dense guitar riff, and some grand keyboard washes and licks, somehow bringing to mind another German band, Poverty’s No Crime. The verses, somewhat sparsely orchestrated, allow the vocals to really punch forward with some eerie keyboard sound effects in the background. For me, the high point of the song, however, comes after the second chorus, where a truly bizarre guitar riff bursts forth, backed by an odd and melodic counterpoint bass riff, then the keyboards pop in to add additional stabs of counterpoint rhythms, offering up an image of what might have happened had Gentle Giant gone heavy metal during its glory days. For the next few minutes, more intriguing instrumental fun ensues, including wicked guitar riffage, some galloping rhythms, some strange atmospheric keyboard sound effects, and even a jazzy piano solo. Terrific stuff overall, which shows the band’s creativity and musicianship has risen to the level of groups such as Dream Theater and Vanden Plas at their peak. As the song title indicates, the orchestration of this track is quite “Ambitious” indeed. Bravo to Dante for this track alone! Impressive.

The title of the following track, “Beautiful Again,” is misleading, as the orchestration is rather dark in tone, especially with the slamming guitars and punchy metal rhythms. The bands Circus Maximus and Spheric Universe Experience spring to mind here, and perhaps the band Redemption as well, when it comes to the overall sound of the track, the various complex arrangements, the tone of the instruments, and the vocal melodies. The powerful, frenetic pace is given a rather surprising break only when a “beautiful” grand piano comes in, left to its own melodic devices for only a brief period, before the rest of the instruments return full force, bringing the track to a monster close.

Another lengthy track, “Until the Last Light Breaks In,” contains an engaging and mellow opening, with vocals accompanied by only an electric piano. All too soon, however, a driving riff pounds forth, with guitars and keyboards both given a chance to shine through shifts and twists in timing and melodies. Intricately orchestrated verses follow, including opposing vocal lines, all of it bringing to mind Shadow Gallery at its Prog-Metal finest. Then, more outrageously terrific instrumental passages eventually bring the song to a reprise of the mellow opening, closing the track with an elegant grace.

Although several other tracks of a Prog-Metal nature are also included, I feel I must mention one specific track since it falls into a different spectrum. “Sad Today” is where comparisons to Savatage are (in my eyes) inevitable. With its lovely melody, the comparatively short (under four minutes), straight-forward, and gentle tune contains vocals with only a grand piano accompaniment and some added “atmosphere,” and could have easily appeared on an album such as Edge Of Thorns or Dead Winter Dead. Here, also, is where Dante’s singer once again does his best “Zach Stevens impersonation,” whether intentional or not. Regardless, the track is quite splendid and stands out due to its sparse instrumentation and its dissimilarity to the rest of the material on offer here.

So, for fans of highly creative and diverse Prog-Metal acts such as Threshold and Circus Maximus, Subsignal and Vanden Plas, Adagio and Dream Theater, Dante is perhaps another band you’ll happily embrace. Sadly, on this album, the band probably did not surpass the material it delivered on its previous three releases. But then again, Dante had set the bar extraordinarily high for itself. Therefore, the joyous news is that none of the new material on When We Were Beautiful is in any way below par, but of equally high quality, and nothing less than I have come to expect from such a talented group of individuals. The band shows no signs of letting up, or of selling out its “progressive soul” to a more commercial audience. So I strongly suggest that Prog-Metal fans seeking a wild ride should grab a copy of this album (and Dante’s previous albums) and revel in the majesty of it all.

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Santana – IV (2016)

Santana_44 out of 5 Stars!

Finally, the day has arrived. For more than forty years—yes, that’s correct—forty long years, I’ve been yearning for the sound of the original Santana band, almost to no avail. I say “almost” only since the group Abraxas Pool (made up of members from the original/semi-original Santana group, without Carlos himself) appeared out of the blue back in 1997 to deliver an eponymous album, which (to me) was basically the “Santana album that never was.” On that release, Abraxas Pool offered up a collection of eleven tracks that happily whisked me back to the early 1970s, a time before Santana (the man, not the original band) found spiritual enlightenment and decided to steer the group’s sound into a jazzier, sometimes ethereal direction. Now, don’t get me wrong…I enjoyed much of Santana’s releases after most of the original/semi-original band members had vamoosed, but it just wasn’t quite the same after the Caravanserai album. Indeed, none of those subsequent releases from 1973’s Welcome through 2014’s Corazón had quite the same “magic” as the band’s first four albums possessed. Therefore, I yearned for that older sound, that missing magic.

But now in 2016, Santana (the original/semi-original band itself) has regrouped to release the album IV. Yes, that means Gregg Rolie is back on keyboards and vocals, Michael Shrieve is back on drums, Neal Schon is back on guitar, etc. etc. etc. And does the album live up to my expectations? For the most part, yes. The old “Santana sound” for which I yearned (last heard from the short-lived Abraxas Pool) has indeed returned, and fans of the “old Santana days” will likely enjoy this release as much as I do.

So what do we have here? The album contains sixteen tracks in total—some mellow, some rousing, some atmospheric, some rocking, with several instrumentals among them. Nevertheless, sixteen is a hefty number overall. And if truth be told, perhaps a few of these tracks are unnecessary, meaning the album might have been better served had some judicious “track cutting” been instituted. But I would always rather have a few extra songs than too few, so I can live with the handful of potential “fillers.”

Now, with that being said, the highlights are many…

“Shake It,” the album’s second track, is where the “old Santana days” truly come blasting out of the speakers in full force. Along with the band’s signature percussion and screaming guitars, Gregg Rolie’s Hammond organ and lead vocals hit you square in the face, delivering a song that could have easily appeared on either the album’s Abraxas or III. And the next song, the catchy and rhythmic “Anywhere You Want To Go,” could have also been a track easily inserted into one of those classic albums. Yes, during these two tracks, it’s like taking a journey back in time to the early 1970s, and fans of the old band are sure to fall in love.

Although two tracks early on (“Love Makes The World Go Round” and “Freedom In Your Mind”) feature more of the same instrumental sound and upbeat drive as the aforementioned songs, I also couldn’t help feeling disappointment that Gregg Rolie didn’t get a chance to sing lead on them. Instead, “guest singer” Ronald Isley (of The Isley Brothers) provides the vocals. Although he has a wonderful voice and does a commendable job overall, his appearance here takes away from the sound of the “old Santana days.” I mean, come on, guys, it’s been more than forty years for diehard fans to hear what they’ve been longing to experience again, so why deprive them of hearing Gregg Rolie’s voice atop the Hammond-rich, percussion-drenched instrumentation? I understand Isley is working with Carlos Santana on a side “jazz-fusion project,” but couldn’t Carlos stop himself from adding Isley to this “return to the old band” album? A slight quibble, but it did annoy me enough that I needed to mention it. Anyway, despite my gripe, both songs are decent enough and do indeed feature that old Santana sound, at least instrumentally.

The vocal track “Choo Choo” leads into “All Aboard,” which has to be one of the best instrumental tracks the band has ever released, with blazing guitar solos soaring over a galloping rhythm. The percussionists are extraordinary, showing Santana at its most powerful. Too bad the track is so darned short; it could have easily been double in length and have not lost any of its enjoyability.

“Suenos” is a delightfully mellow instrumental with a absorbing melody that in many ways reminds me of the song “Europa,” one of later-era Santana’s finest tracks. And on the other side of the spectrum, the instrumental “Echizo” is a rollicking number showcasing the Santana/Rolie guitar duo at its finest. The track is nearly as kick-ass as the instrumentals “Jungle Strut” and “Toussaint L’overture” from the magnificent III album.

“Caminando” is (to me) one of the most riveting and “different” tracks. Heavy with percussion and enhanced with a “phase-shifted” brass section providing some none-too-subtle stabs of power in the background, the song is given an almost eerie Latin atmosphere and features not only a rather odd vocal performance by Gregg Rolie, but also includes some wah-wah guitar solos that shred up a proverbial storm and make the song just too much fun for words. Yes, a definite highlight for me.

“Blues Magic” is definitely worth a mention, only since it’s a lighter and “bluesy” track (no shock there, especially given the title) with Gregg Rolie’s voice pushed up in the mix and his Hammond swirling majestically beneath him, and with some exceptional guitar fills inserted perfectly throughout.

“Leave Me Alone” is a vocal track that could probably be released as a single, especially with its hummable chorus and bouncy beat ala the classic tunes “No One To Depend On” or “Evil Ways.” And one of the final vocal tracks, “Come As You Are,” has another repeatable ultra-catchy chorus (sung in English, unlike the verses, which are in Spanish) that kept running around in my head long after the album ended. Yes—”Oh la, oh la la la la la, oh la, just come as you are”—over and over and over in my head. As I said, ultra-catchy…as hell!

So was it worth the forty-plus years’ wait? Yes, I think so. Although this isn’t a five-star masterpiece, not a “must have on a deserted island” record I couldn’t live without, it is indeed a commendable release and one I’m sure I’ll savor countless times in the future. There is plenty of variety here, with both moody or lighter tracks mixed with solid or frisky Latin-rockers, even some semi-jazzy and semi-progressive touches tossed in for good measure, and (thankfully) plenty of the original Santana sound with the outstanding percussion and instrumentation. Therefore, fans of the original Santana band rejoice…the band is seemingly back, and let us all hope they stick around for many albums to come.

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