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Dream Theater — Systematic Chaos
Artist:
Dream Theater
Album:
Systematic Chaos
Genre:
Progressive Metal
Rating:
3.5 Stars
Bottom
Line:
Some of the best and worst material of their career!

Let’s make one thing clear – we love Dream Theater for their progressive metal music. Clever, intricate songwriting. Incredible musicianship showcasing the finest technical playing of any rock musicians alive. Soaring vocals. Instrument tone and production as good as the music. On these fronts, Systematic Chaos doesn’t disappoint.

The bookends to the album, “In The Presence Of Enemies Part I” and “Part II” deliver twenty-five minutes of all that makes Dream Theater the rulers in the land of progdom, and in between, tracks like “Forsaken” and “The Ministry of Lost Souls” deliver more solid songwriting that shows both their loud and quiet sides.

While on one hand Systematic Chaos is certainly the heaviest Dream Theater album since Train of Thought, amidst John Petrucci’s mind-blowing guitar work (which seems to have actually gotten faster in some of his solos), Jordan Rudess really shines on this release. Fans of his solo work will instantly identify with his trademark fusion style and clever sounds that make themselves well noticed, and yet, the album rocks heavily to the extreme!

Our disappointment, as it is for other fans of the “proggier” side of the band, are tracks like “Constant Motion” and “The Dark Eternal Night” that are more death metal or thrash metal than the clever progressive music we prefer to hear from these guys. Angry German-sounding vocal chants and heavily distorted vocals just feel a bit out of place to us coming from this band, but on the flip side, we still have a hard time skipping those tracks on our CD player.

– SK
 
Blackfield — II
Artist:
Blackfield
Album:
II
Genre:
Progressive Rock
Rating:
4 Stars
Bottom
Line:
Steven Wilson’s pop side is still quite progressive.

Blackfield is not Porcupine Tree, but in a blind listening test, you’d hardly notice the difference. Fronted primarily by singer/guitarist Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree fame, in Blackfield he’s joined by singer/guitarist Aviv Geffin and a few other bandmates from Israel: Daniel Solomon on piano, Seffy Efrati on bass, and Tomer Z on drums.

Steven considers Blackfield his pop outlet, while in Porcupine Tree he focuses on more progressive music, but honestly, when you ask a progressive rock genius to write his (or her) idea of pop music, it still falls considerably outside of the pop music box… which is a good thing, as this makes for the best “pop” music we’ve heard in a while!

Sure, in a few spots we heard the influence of bands such as Coldplay (the opening track, “Once”) and David Bowie (the chorus to “Christenings” is pure Ziggy Stardust material), but mostly, the biggest influence on this band is Porcupine Tree. If you’re a fan of Porcupine Tree’s lighter melodic songs such as “Lazarus,” you’ll completely love Blackfield II. There’s also a big Pink Floyd influence evident throughout many of the songs, particularly in the acoustic guitar passages, and lyrically, II is less disturbing than Fear of a Blank Planet, though still similarly depressing (as on “Some Day”).

This group of Israeli musicians play in virtually the same style as the guys in Steven’s British lineup, but as the songs don’t get as heavy (and there aren’t many real solos to speak of), you won’t find Tomer throwing down any heavy double-kick patterns, and Wilson mostly stays away from high-gain distortion. The track “Christenings” features Wilson’s Tree-mates Gavin Harrison and Richard Barbiari, but you’d be hard-pressed to tell their contributions apart from the primary band on this record.

Overall, it’s great music – beautiful songs with outstanding musicianship and smart lyrics (roughly half written by Wilson and half by Geffin), and Wilson deftly demonstrates that he can sing vocal harmonies and melodies that are more commercially accessible than some of his more obscure Porcupine Tree material.

We would be just as happy to hear all of these songs coming from Porcupine Tree, but if Wilson can keep up his existence in these two bands, it simply means more great music for us to listen to.

– SK
 
Steve Smith and Vital Information — Vitalization
Artist:
Steve Smith and Vital Information
Album:
Vitalization
Genre:
Jazz/Fusion
Rating:
3.5 Stars
Bottom
Line:
A vital CD for your jazz collection.

This month ushers in the release of Steve Smith & Vital Information’s twelfth studio recording, Vitalization. As with previous VI albums, the listener is graced with exceptional playing from this world renowned jazz-fusion quartet, tremendous production, and a great balance of melodious songs mixed with proficient improvisation. 

Perhaps the most alluring feature of this new recording is the vast landscapes Vital Information paints throughout all the songs, touching on genres that range from up-tempo standard swing feels to funk grooves to odd-time, and Indian-influenced rhythms.  The big change on this record is the addition of Vinny Valentino on guitar (replacing long-time Vital Information alumni, Frank Gambale). Vinny’s presence lends the CD a slightly different musical angle that may, perhaps, be especially alluring to the more straight-ahead jazz enthusiast out there.

From the onset of the opening track “Interwoven Rhythms – Synchronous” (and its second part later in the CD entitled, “Interwoven Rhythms – Dialogue”), the listener is presented with an interesting vocalized characteristic that was initially introduced in the previous Vital Information release, “Come on In.”  Konnakol, a South Indian percussive vocal technique, is utilized tastefully (performed by Steve Smith, along with world percussionist and special guest, Pete Lockett) over a well-driven, perhaps, Jaco Pastorious-inspired, bass line performed by veteran bassist Barron Browne.  In fact, the first three tracks of the CD seem to really bring back the strong influence of classic funk feels and structures from years past. 

Other stand-out tracks include an additionally Indian-influenced “Seven and a Half” (a song counted in 15/8, yet referred to as “seven and a half” in South Indian music), the up-tempo swinger “The Closer,” and perhaps the most melodious track entitled “J Ben Jazz” (featuring an outstanding 6/4, 7/4 drum solo from Smith toward the end). 

Virtually every tune contains memorable solos from each member of the band and allows alternate guest artists Bill Evans, Pete Lockett, Gilad, and Juan Carlos Melián special moments to make their presence known.  Most notably, keyboardist Tom Coster really steps his role up a notch throughout Vitalization, and once again presents a significant voice within the band.

– JG

 
Framing Hanley — The Moment
Artist:
Framing Hanley
Album:
The Moment
Genre:
Alternative Rock/Emo
Rating:
2.5 Stars
Bottom
Line:
Oh, is this a new band?

Every now and then, a new band comes along that is so similar sounding to everyone else that you have to stop and consider whether or not you’ve actually heard them before.

In the case of Framing Hanley, you haven’t heard them before, but they sound just like every other mainstream pop-punk, Emo band with occasional screaming chorus vocals. The songs are easily listenable, with solid production from Brett Hestla, but the band brings us music we’ve heard for the past five years with no new twist on the theme (“All In Your Hands” is a great example of the repetition).

Brandon, Chris, Luke, Nixon, and Tim are talented players, but on this release, they’re purely emulative of… everyone else! If they hope to make a mark and be remembered, it’s time to leave the boring mold behind and branch out to create something new.

– SK

 
Dean McGinnes — The Journey of Life
Artist:
Dean McGinnes
Album:
The Journey of Life
Genre:
Instrumental Guitar Rock
Rating:
2 Stars
Bottom
Line:
Aspiring guitarist shows promise for the future.

Dean’s CD marks the first reader submission that we’ve put to the critical review process. On occasion, we receive demos and indie releases from our readers, and though we can’t make it a practice to review all of them, this title warranted some feedback.

The eleven track CD, “Journey of Life,” was written, produced, and recorded by guitarist Dean McGinnes (with the exception of one co-written selection), and it provides an excellent demonstration of some early guitar work performed by a beginning guitarist and composer. Though presented as a commercial product, from a musical perspective it’s really just a well-packaged demo, and a decent demo to be sure.

Starting to learn guitar at the age of seventeen and producing his first CD only three years later, Dean McGinnes has obviously put some woodshed time into building his proficiency in various guitar styles and techniques, as well as the developing composition skills relating to harmony. He also launched a full website for marketing and promotion of his release at deanmcginnes.com.

We weren’t wowed by the level of composition or guitar work on the CD, but it was encouraging to see the progress of younger, non-tenure musicians dedicating their life and soul to their instrument and, most of all, being creative. Dean McGinnes demonstrates an intermediate level of skill in his writing/playing ability and would receive higher marks on this performance if it were at a recital for learning musicians, but to compare this CD to the commercial releases of other instrumental artists, there is a bit of work to be done.

McGinnes displays some excellent use of guitar tone, and in some of his selections one can easily identify influences such as Eddie Van Halen, Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson. Though important to have great sound quality and tone, it is equally important to develop your own style and tonal characteristics that may be identified by the listening public – McGinnes hasn’t found his own voice yet.

Another noticeable concern is the consistent lack of solid timekeeping. Throughout the CD, there is a constant push and pull of the tempo, and not all tracks are in the pocket. He needs to spend more time rehearsing this material with a live band, and finding a solid bass player would be a great step up – his own bass parts throughout the CD are undeveloped and are hardly more than root note support for the compositions. Dean performs some great licks, arpeggios, and harmonies, but from a compositional standpoint, some of the selections seemed too repetitive and lacked meaning in their structure.

All in all, we enjoy having the opportunity to listen to and review new talent; especially those that are at the beginning stages of their career. Dean McGinnes displays some very strong ingredients for becoming a great guitarist, composer and musician. Further development and refinement of his skills will take him to the next level and beyond. His self-professed absence of lessons after three years should be reconsidered. Even the most talented rock and jazz musicians continue to take lessons throughout their lifetime. We look forward to hearing more of Dean’s work in the future. Keep on rockin’, Dean!

– DD

 
   
             
             
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