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Pagan’s Mind — Heavenly Ecstasy
Pagan's Mind, Heavenly Ecstasy
Genre:
Melodic Metal, Prog Metal
Bottom
Line:

A perfect delivery of melodic metal like only the finest Scandinavian musicians can deliver.

Musicianship: 4.0
Songwriting: 4.0
Production & Engineering: 4.0
Vibe: 4.0
Overall Rating: 4 Stars4.0

The fifth album from Norway’s exceptional melodic metal band, Pagan’s Mind, finds the group hitting all the right notes on every possible level: strong songwriting that crosses a few genres to keep things interesting, amazing technical playing, great vocals and harmonies, killer guitar tones, layers of great keyboard orchestration, and more. Really, we have nothing to fault here. If you like modern metal with a touch of prog metal mojo, clever arrangements, and real singing (instead of that screaming crap), Heavenly Ecstasy lives up to its name.

To the uninitiated, think Queensryche meets early Dream Theater — but with a modern, heavy Euro-metal edge and big hooks. Produced by guitarist Jørn Viggo Lofstad (who has also played, ironically, in support of Jorn Lande in the band, Jorn), we have to commend him on both the exceptional guitar playing as well as the exceptional tone. Envious tone. Tone to covet. Lust worthy, even. He’s got killer heavy grooves, enough riffs to keep metal players busy woodshedding, outstanding two-handed tapping technique, and that classy Scandinavian finesse that many guitarists strive for but never quite achieve. His solos are melodic, beautiful, and often times shredworthy without boredom.

The rhythm section of bassist Steinar Krokmo and Stian Kristoffersen on drums are locked in like a well tuned machine, whether delivering precise double-kick metal grooves like in the first video-supported single, “Intermission,” or supporting a ballad with a gentle bluesy vibe. Keyboard player Ronny Tegner is an essential ingredient in the mix, whether laying down classical piano on ballads or majestic tracks like the opening “Eyes of Fire” (a classic Pagan’s Mind tune if you were searching for a good example of their sound). His orchestral playing throughout the record is perfect, lead sounds and synth tones have all the right modern vibe, and really, if you’re trying to find your place on keys in a metal band, consider Tegner a role model.

Last but certainly not least, we have to single out vocalist Nils K. Rue for being an exceptional singer in a metal world filled with truly unexceptional vocalists. His voice delivers a smooth blending of Queensryche’s Geoff Tate and Tony Harnell of TNT fame, and there are even a few cool harmonies on the album that reminded us of Saigon Kick.

We loved the dropped tune guitar groove in “Into the Aftermath,” while the immediately captivating “Walk Away In Silence” brought Operation: Mindcrime immediately to mind. It’s great listening to a metal band whose guitarist doesn’t bombard you with the same overly hyped and compressed, super-saturated high gain tone on every song.

You have to be a connoisseur of North American hard rock from the ‘80s to appreciate PM’s subtle tribute to the Alannah Myles hit song, “Black Velvet” on one of our other favorite tracks, “Live Your Life Like a Dream.” Not only does the bass line connect the songs, but vocalist Nils K. Rue pays direct lyrical tribute just before the bridge of the song. Yes, we notice details at every level, and this was awesome!

— SK
 
Jessica Rae — Jessica Rae
Jessica Rae
Genre:
Americana, Young Country, Pop
Bottom
Line:

Temptress who stands waaay apart in a very crowded market

Musicianship: 3.5
Songwriting: 3.5
Production & Engineering: 3.5
Vibe: 3.5
Overall Rating: 3.5 Stars 3.5

Singer/Songwriter. Just the mention of this genre is enough to make many of us on the MusicPlayers.com staff cringe. It’s an over-saturated market with thousands of artists playing piano or strumming an acoustic guitar and sounding just like each other. Nothing unique about the musicianship. Nothing extraordinary about the songs. These musicians sing well and play basic rhythms that we nailed back in high school before evolving to more technical levels of musicianship. They all think they’re special, and yet they all share one trait in common with each other — in a word, boring!

Sure, at a glance you might be quick to lump Jessica Rae into the “another hot chick with an acoustic guitar” category, but you’d be way out of touch with reality. She accomplished something we’ve rarely (if ever) experienced: it wasn’t until we had listened to the entire CD multiple times before we realized that there was virtually no other instrumentation besides vocals and guitar! Oh, the deception! How can we review a band that doesn’t exist? And worse, how can we admit that we actually liked this stuff?

Nashville-based Rae is not just a pretty face like so many of those other, ahem, singer/songwriters. She plays guitar, writes lyrics and melodies, and of course sings. Hailing from a music town notorious for A-list songwriters hand-delivering custom written drivel to pretty singers with a modicum of talent and a lot of good looks, it’s refreshing to experience the real deal again after being so disillusioned by others in the genre.

Rae’s voice is sultry and sumptuous, with just enough of a Midwest accent to place her in the country genre (stick a Chicago girl in Music City and you’ll get this vocal cocktail after a while), but her slightly more rock attitude in the guitar strumming gives her instant crossover appeal.

The playing on Rae’s debut CD is impressive acoustic work, impeccably recorded. But it’s nothing compared to her near flawless vocal delivery. She nails pitch, harmony, vibrato, and emotion, and gets high marks from all of us who sat up and paid attention. This is not the sound of an emerging artist, but really the sound of an accomplished artist from whom other singer/songwriters should pay serious attention to.

Favorite tracks for this rock musician included: “Between Sundays” with its awesome vocal hook in the chorus (not to mention the short-but-sweet acoustic guitar solo), the Bon Jovi vibe in “24 Hour Church (in Memphis),” the subtle violin flourish and clever vocal styling on the emotional and moving ballad, “Down,” the clean fingerpicking in “In the Morning,” and the one rhythm section backed powerhouse, “I Could Get Used to This” which should have been the album closer. But then she hit us with another cool track, “Make You Miss Me,” that brought the sound back around to remind us all that she’s a real country star.

This debut CD shows the genre done right, and I pray that other singer/songwriters give her a listen first before asking us to consider a formal CD review. Expect this star to shine brightly.

— SK
 
 
 
Neal Morse — Testimony 2
Neal Morse, Testimony 2
Genre:
Progressive Rock, Christian Rock
Bottom
Line:

Another amazing display of songwriting and musicianship but still with a very exclusive subject matter.

Musicianship: 4.0
Songwriting: 3.5
Production & Engineering: 4.0
Vibe: 3.0
Overall Rating: 3.5 Stars3.63

In 2002, Neal Morse left Spock’s Beard to follow his faith and his journey began as a born-again Christian. So, did he continue on with his other successful side project, Transatlantic? Well, no, not quite. He also left Transatlantic to follow the same path. OK, well, then he has remained a solo artist since that time. Well, not exactly. He released a new CD with Transatlantic in 2009 and a world-wide tour followed into 2010.  So, his time with Spock’s Beard is completely terminated? Well, there is a brief return (vocally) of all original members on his new CD, but no full-scale reunion just yet. Hmmmmphhh.

Tracing the career of singer/songwriter Neal Morse can often read like a road map and may be ultimately bewildering for music lovers who have not closely followed his quest. However, one thing that is for certain is how skilled of a songwriter he is no matter what he releases. Ranking in the stratosphere of composers such as Frank Zappa or the irreplaceable team of Lennon & McCartney, Morse displays an unbelievable amount of consistency from one release to another, never running out of ideas to grab the listener’s ear. His newest solo CD, Testimony 2, clearly continues the trend of his successful path of beautiful melodies, relentless musicianship and unmatched songwriting skills.

While Morse performs the majority of the instrumentation throughout the recording — at an extremely high level of proficiency, joining him are his customary musical cohorts, Mike Portnoy (drums) and Randy George (bass). This may be, perhaps, the best performance yet for his recurrent rhythm section as they seem to display a greater level of sensitivity and suitable musicality within each song (compared to some previous releases).  

From the onset of the CD, “Mercy Street” sets the bar high with its thematic introduction and engaging chorus, displaying various musical motifs that appear throughout the CD (a similar musical approach appears in the following tune, “Overture No.4”). For vintage Neal Morse fans, perhaps the highlight of the CD will be heard in the track “Time Changer,” as all original Spock’s Beard members return for an all-out vocal reunion. Chock-full of perfectly constructed harmony breaks, gorgeous individual vocal lines from Morse himself and a typical, impressive vocal fugue rounding out the final portion of the song, this could easily be considered a fan-favorite throughout all of the Spock’s Beard catalog!  

Other musical highlights are the beautiful, heartfelt ballad “Jayda” (the story of a hole found in his daughter’s heart and the unexplained, miraculous healing), the later-period Kansas-inspired track, “The Truth Will Set You Free,” “Chance of A Lifetime” (which could easily have been left off of the final Neal Morse-era Spock’s Beard CD, Snow) and the poignant “Crossing Over/Mercy Street Revisited,” which displays some of Morse’s most beautiful instrumental melodies to date.     

Lyrically, the autobiographical CD traces his chronicled path from an ambitious musician striving for a “moment in the sun” to his eventual conversion & lifelong dedication to his faith, beginning with the birth of Spock’s Beard and ending with his conversion to being born-again Christian. Though previous releases (such as Lifeline) were perhaps a bit more religiously ambiguous, Testimony 2 is more direct in nature as it outlines Morse’s path toward his full-fledged conversion. As such, the lyrical content could conceivably turn away listeners who may not associate with the same beliefs as Morse. Just as well, many devoted Spock’s Beard fans may feel disappointed when Morse repeatedly refers to his time with the band as his “suffering” period (pertaining to his battle to either follow his dream or his faith).

Regardless, the CD is beautifully produced, orchestrated and layered with carefully constructed instrumentation and vocal textures throughout. In addition, the CD contains a host of guest musicians including various string & horn players as well as a handful of named vocalists in the Christian/Gospel genre. Finally, a 2nd CD is included with three unrelated songs including the lengthy, epic “Seeds of Gold” (featuring the legendary Steve Morse on guitar). Thematically and musically, there is much to digest here in this new Neal Morse saga, so sit, relax and give it a spin… or four!

Read a fantastic interview with Neal Morse right here...

— JG
 
Yes — Fly From Here
Yes, Fly From Here
Genre:
Progressive Rock
Bottom
Line:

We are universally stunned by how good this new CD is!

Musicianship: 3.5
Songwriting: 3.5
Production & Engineering: 3.5
Vibe: 4.0
Overall Rating: 3.5 Stars3.63

Shocking. That’s the best word to describe Fly From Here, the new studio release from classic progressive rock heroes, Yes. Coming a full ten years since its last studio output, the band has changed once again and has morphed into something almost resembling the Drama-era lineup.

Out for only the second time in the band’s forty-year history is vocalist Jon Anderson, replaced a few years ago by Benoît David, who was discovered in a Canadian Yes tribute band. Oliver Wakeman, son of former keyboard player Rick Wakeman, left during the writing of the new CD, replaced by legendary keyboardist Geoff Downes (of Asia/Buggles and Yes fame). On bass is the only man to have played on every Yes recording in the band’s history, Chris Squire. Steve Howe delivers his finest guitar playing in years, and Alan White does an admirable job behind the drums. To top off this magical lineup, the CD was produced by Trevor Horn, the legendary producer (Yes and Rush, among others) who was also the vocalist for Yes on the classic release, Drama.

I gave up on the band years ago with some really mediocre output in the ‘90s, and after hearing Steve Howe’s horrible live sound through an old Line 6 modeling amp (solid state) on tour with Asia a few years ago, I really thought he needed to hang it up and retire rather than embarrass himself with such mediocre output.

Consider him redeemed in my book with this release! He’s got some great playing throughout the recording with some vintage, familiar Howe tones on both the clean and distorted melody lines, sometimes even venturing a little bit heavier than he’s gone historically on some of the rhythm stuff. And of course his acoustic guitar playing, always a classic highlight, shines throughout the recording.

Most of the CD was penned by Horn and Downes, and the six-part opus, “Fly From Here,” has a story of evolution behind it. The song was first penned during the Drama-era, but wasn’t committed to a commercial release until a 2005 release of a classic concert from 1980. The song was worked on some more, almost making it onto a Buggles album in 1981, but that version, too, never came to light. Finally, thirty years later, the song took final form, was recorded by this present-day Yes lineup, and it’s one of the most musical and approachable Yes epics ever produced. Fans, this one took even longer than Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy to finally materialize, and unlike that mediocre release, this body of work matured with age and sounds fantastic.

The other half of the CD includes a few songs penned by Howe, including a beautiful acoustic solo tune, “Solitaire” (go figure). Oliver Wakeman managed to survive with one partial contribution to the CD, “Into the Storm,” an uplifting pop tune with some cool Cars-inspired synth melodies.

New vocalist David is a great fit with the band. Though he sometimes sings with the basic styling of Anderson, his voice is his own, and has a little bit more of a rock presence than the former Yes vocalist. Once the harmonies kick in with Howe and Squier, the sound of Yes becomes unmistakable, but with the music sounding remarkably fresh. The vibe is a touch mellow overall, with nothing approaching the heavier sounds of the Rabin-era years or some of the band’s early ‘90s output, but it’s not so light or sleepy as to make you think about an overdue retirement party. Welcome back, guys!

— SK
 
   
             
             
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