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15 September, 2004

Review: Out There (sampler CD, 2004)

The October 2004 issue of Classic Rock magazine included a free CD, entitled 'Out There - the future of prog rock'.  Note that this was supplied with retail and subscriber copies in the UK, but only subscriber copies abroad.

I wasn't sure whether to buy it, as the magazine's portrayal of 'prog' seemed worryingly old-fashioned. The cover photo shows Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee of Rush in their Seventies heyday, both wielding dual-neck guitars. An odd way to portray modern prog, though I realise an image from the (ahem) 'classic' era will sell more magazines than one from the current, 30th anniversary tour.
Similarly, the photocollage illustrating the article on modern prog features Fish in c.1983 facepaint, Marillion logo and all, Peter Gabriel in 1978 face paint, and (argh!) a youthful Rick Wakeman. Hardly relevant to today - could that apply to the tracklist selected for the CD, too?
A quick glance through the magazine revealed reviews of (modern!) Marillion and Blackfield and a few other intriguing articles, so I gave it the benefit of doubt.

As I've said before, I usually like progressive music (music, of any genre, which innovates) and tend to dislike 'prog' (music which adheres to the specific, named genre), so I approached this sampler with some trepidation. Some tracks confirmed my prejudices (positive and negative), others were surprising.

Asia - 'What About Love'.
I initially considered this my least favourite track on the cover disc; I had virtually nothing favourable to say about it, but I suppose it's catchy, in a cheesy retro way, and at least it's not the execrable IQ track.
This could be a bad pastiche of Marillion circa 1981 - the point Marillion passed before committing anything to commercial recordings. If this is 'the future of prog rock', welcome to the Eighties. The write-up in Classic Rock admits the track is a return to the anthemic rock sound of the 'Alpha' and 'Asia' albums, released in 1989 and 1990 respectively. Perhaps other songs on 'Silent Nation' (2004) are more modern.

Spock's Beard - 'The Bottom Line'.
A little too much like post-Gabriel Genesis for my taste, as is the whole 'Feel Euphoria' album. The Genesis similarity extends to other aspects of Spock's Beard: after the release of a stunning concept album ('The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway' and 'Snow', respectively), both bands lost their charismatic front-men and continued in a less compelling style.
The brief comments in Classic Rock say that Spock's Beard have been following a particular path since their 1995 debut, 'The Light', and that this track is "a perfect example of the Spock's Beard sound." I'd tentatively agree that it's representative of the new album, but less typical of the earlier ones, which had something more of a hard edge and higher energy, and which I would recommend.

Cave In - 'Youth Overrided'.
A surprising inclusion on the sampler, as this sounds like a 'mainstream' rock song, without overt 'prog' features (that's an observation, not necessarily praise/criticism). I suppose the arrangement is a little more intricate than a typical charts song. Pretty good, but not something I'd buy.

Nektar - 'Always'.
Not bad, but I would have preferred this as instrumental, eliminating the uninspiring lyrics and lead voice, which simply isn't to my taste.

Threshold - 'Static'.
Very ordinary; could be any hard rock band trying to do 'prog'. Unlike Asia, IQ and Maestoso, this song isn't actively embarrassing, but it's not something I'd listen to for pleasure, or recommend to friends.

Porcupine Tree - 'Sever'.
My favourite band, so I won't try to offer an objective judgement! This seems a very odd choice of song. One of the things I particularly like about Porcupine Tree is that they are genuinely progressive, not part of the static 'prog' genre. Each successive album has been distinctly different to its predecessor. More than most, Porcupine Tree would need to be represented by a recent track in order to convey an impression of what the band are doing now. Yet of the fourteen tracks on the sampler, eight are from 2004, five are from 2003 and one is from 1997: this one. It does feature essential elements of the ongoing Porcupine Tree sound, including strong guitars and atmospheric keyboard textures, but more superficially it's rather different to 2001's slightly 'poppy' 'Lightbulb Sun' or 2002's near-metal 'In Absentia', and quite probably unlike the forthcoming, as yet untitled, album expected in Jan/Feb 2005.

Anathema - 'Closer'.
I liked this almost immediately, and the positive impression increased on repeated playing. I couldn't specify why, but I think there's a slight similarity to Porcupine Tree. Perhaps it's the electronically-filtered voice (not that P-Tree use that heavily) and 'heavy' guitar sound combined with keyboard textures. Whatever; though I'd already heard favourable comments about Anathema, this track was the final trigger which inspired me to risk £12 on buying the album. In that sense, one might say the cover disc succeeded in it's purpose!
I'll review that album, 'A Natural Disaster', separately, but I might as well say immediately that 'Closer' isn't obviously typical of its content.

IQ - 'You Never Will'.
... bother to listen to a single note more of this awful pick'n'mix 'prog-by-numbers'. The chorus begins "I keep on hoping you'll do something real" - precisely my thought, but it's all been done before, too often, and, well, better. I've just played the song for the third and emphatically last time, seeking some (any) redeeming feature, and failing.
Almost always, I can respect a piece of music irrespective of whether it's to my personal taste. Not this time. This song actively annoys me; if I had paid money for it, I would have felt cheated. Classic Rock lavishes extraordinary praise on the new album, 'Dark Matter', but I couldn't disagree more. Utter rubbish.

Amplifier - 'One Great Summer'.
I liked this song, a rock anthem with a brain, and will try to find online samples of others when I have an opportunity, but this track alone didn't inspire a purchase. The vocalist's voice was particularly compelling, for some reason; perhaps it's the novelty of an English regional accent I rarely encounter.

Blackfield - 'Open Mind'.
Already have, already like (a lot). This is one of the heavier tracks on the band's debut, eponymous album (see review). Those tempted by this song might like to bear in mind that about 70% of 'Blackfield' resembles the quieter first verse rather than the rockier middle sections.

Opeth - 'Hope Leaves'.
Another I like and already have, so I won't comment further, beyond questioning whether it's a fair representation of the band's usual output. It's important to mention that Classic Rock make the common error of saying that Opeth, under the (often overstated) influence of Steven Wilson (producer of the last three Opeth albums) have evolved from being a leading death metal band to become an 'ambitious progressive rock band', implying that 'Damnation' (2003) represents a permanent realignment of their career. That's incorrect. Opeth are still a 'progressive death metal' band, 'cookie monster' vocals and all, who have released one non-metal album, 'Damnation' as a one-off experiment. Its partner release, 'Deliverance' is solely metal, whilst their foregoing albums are metal with gentler interludes. Offering a non-metal song on the sampler could be considered a bit misleading. It also makes me wonder whether the other tracks on the cover disc are truly typical of the bands.

Caravan - 'Revenge'.
Frankly, this was far better than I'd expected from a Seventies prog band, and the high standard of musicianship is undeniable; full marks for technique. Rather lower marks for artistic elements, though. Excellent playing - and it is - doesn't mask uninspiring material. The vocal melody and lyrics were particularly clichéd, and the piece lasted a minute longer than I was able to sustain any interest.

The Flower Kings - 'Starlight Man'.
I used to like TFK, but this sort of kitsch is one reason my interest lapsed! No, Roine, you can't be my 'guardian angel and starlight man'. Maybe that lyric would have been less laughable thirty years ago....
Considering their usual rambling pieces (my main criticism of 2002's 'Unfold The Future'), it's surprising that this is the shortest track on the cover disc.
So, I won't recommend this track from the new album 'Adam & Eve', (which I haven't heard, though the song seems representative of the direction they were heading in 2002). However, any of their earlier albums up to and including 'The Rainmaker' (2001) are worth trying.

Woolly Wolstenholme's Maestoso - 'Blood And Bones'.
Fifteen seconds in, I was cringing at the cheesy lyrics, and it didn't improve in the following five minutes. Just say no. Deny this stuff a market, and it might go away, no longer tarnishing (by association) the reputations of contemporary artists. That would give prog rock a future, whereas more of this dross could kill it.

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