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Posts Tagged ‘Gregg Johns’

TRACKLISTING:

1. Geistly Suite (7:51)
2. Importance (7:34)
3. Fallen Tiger (6:53)
4. Things Unsaid (5:14)
5. Odessa (5:44)
6. Angelus Novusaum (7:26)
7. When the Fog Clears (6:01)
8. Midnight (6:43)

LINEUP:
Gregg Johns – guitar, bass, keyboards, vocals
Ceci Whitehurst – lead vocals
Clay Pell – bass
Todd Sears – drums, percussion, keyboards, vocals

With:
Jeff Hamel – guitar, keyboards (1)
Bones Theriot – guitar (4)
Michael Fortenberry – trumpet (6)
Bridget Shield – lead vocals (8)

Two years ago I received Slychosis’ second album, Slychedelia, to review, and was immediately impressed by the CD’s striking artwork. Visuals have always been essential in progressive rock, and the Mississippi-based outfit had pulled out all the stops by enlisting the services of Surrealist Ukrainian artist Vladimir Moldavsky. Such a strong visual appeal boded well for the album – which, while not as downright quirky as Moldavsky’s imagery, nonetheless presented an intriguing blend of skilfully used electronics and more traditional instrumentation firmly rooted in a prog framework, with a nice balance between vocal and instrumental parts. My main criticism towards Slychedelia was that it was basically a solo album by mainman Gregg Johns with some guest musicians rather than a band effort, and in some of the tracks the presence of programmed drums (that reliable staple of many a ‘solo-pilot’ project) was often hard to ignore.

For Slychosis’ third album, Gregg Johns seemingly followed my advice by putting together a real band, with vocalist Ceci Whitehurst and drummer/vocalist Todd Sears (both of whom had appeared on Slychedelia), and brand-new bassist Clay Pell. While on Slychedelia a number of tracks had been recorded by Johns without any outside help, Mental Hygiene (a title that hints at Johns’ day job as a psychologist), is very much a group effort, and can also count on the contribution of some guest musicians. With a remarkably restrained running time of under 54 minutes (almost 10 minutes shorter than the previous effort), and tracks averaging 6 minutes, the album sounds like a definite step forward for Slychosis – in the same way as putting together a steady line-up was a step forward for Majestic, the band led by Jeff Hamel, Johns’ collaborator in the Proximal Distance project (guesting here on one track).

However, while I am sure that Slychosis’ evolution will be appreciated by a lot of listeners, my view is (perhaps perversely so) somewhat different. Though the album was obviously put together with a lot of care and dedication, I cannot help seeing it as a step backward if compared with Slychedelia, an album I had found genuinely enjoyable in spite of its flaws. My first listen of Mental Hygiene, on the other hand, left me somewhat puzzled, and – while subsequent listens helped me warm to the album somehow – I still do not find it as convincing as I was expecting it to be. Though there are undoubtedly a number of good ideas there, they are not fully brought to fruition. It feels almost as if the album had two souls – a progressive one, with frequent excursions into prog-metal territory, and a more listener-friendly one, expressed by catchy choruses and engaging melodies. This is the kind of formula perfected by Porcupine Tree (a clear influence on this album) in their more recent releases, and nowadays employed by quite a few outfits – with varying degrees of success

Mental Hygiene makes use of both a female and a male vocalist, one of the hottest trends on the current prog scene Now, though Ceci Whitehurst’s low-pitched, well-modulated voice is undoubtedly pleasing, it does not seem completely suited to the material on offer here. The Slychedelia song on which she guested, the wry “Cosmic Irony”, made good use of her somewhat androgynous tone. Here, instead, she is occasionally swamped by the heavy riffing, and I often found myself wishing for a higher-pitched voice– such as Majestic’s Jessica Rasche, who also contributed her impressive pipes to Proximal Distance’s debut. Moreover, when Todd Sears steps behind the microphone, he sounds oddly similar to Whitehurst – while the definite metallic bent of some of the compositions would call for more assertive voices.

Opener “Geistly Suite” is a prime example of  some of the album’s shortcomings. In less than 8 minutes, three or four main sections can be identified, each of them somewhat at odds with the other. While the first part veers towards prog-metal, with hints of Queensryche’s more symphonic-oriented pieces, the second part features some funky electric piano and synth work, and is then followed by a sedate, vocal-led section vaguely reminiscent of Genesis. While all the instrumental performances are quite worthy of note, the composition as a whole sounds a bit patchy. The same problem surfaces in closing track “Midnight” (featuring guest singer Bridget Shield’s soulful vocals), where a catchy chorus, heavy riffing and distorted guitar coexist without really harmonizing.

Most of the tracks are in a similar mould, with really good bits let down by some less successful ones. The lone instrumental “Odessa”, probably the album’s highlight, provides a showcase for Johns’ considerable skill as a guitarist, ranging from a beautiful, melodic solo with echoes of David Gilmour to wild, unleashed wailing. On the other hand, the melodic ballad “Fallen Tiger” borders dangerously on cheesiness, and might have been omitted without any detriment to the album.  The Celtic-tinged “Things Unsaid” (whose melody reminds me in some odd way of Mike Oldfield’s “Moonlight Shadow”) features an aggressive guitar solo by Bones Theriot of Louisiana-based band Abigail’s Ghost; while the short trumpet solo in the slow, almost plodding “Angelus Novusaum” seems somewhat misplaced in the fabric of the song.

Though this review may come across as a tad harsh, Mental Hygiene – while not as intriguing as Slychosis’ previous release – is nevertheless a perfectly competent album, and points to a band that is gradually coming of age, so to speak. It is to be hoped, however, that their next effort will see them concentrate more on the compositional aspect, as well as not leaning too heavily on the Porcupine Tree/symphonic prog metal influences. The members of Slychosis are obviously talented musicians with a lot to offer, but – in my opinion – they need to find a more distinctive voice of their own, or they will risk going unnoticed on the oversaturated progressive rock scene.

Links:
http://www.slychosis.com

http://www.vladimir-moldavsky.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Disarray (3:02)
2. Faceless (7:57)
3. Wither (9:23)
4. Star Bound (4:43)
5. Numb (4:05)
6. Astral Dream (7:03)
7. Delusion (4:06)
8. Dance of the Elders  (8:18)
9. Takes My Breath Away (2010)  (14:14)
10. Altered State (9:43)
11. Reflections (5:14)

LINEUP:
Jeff Hamel – guitars, keyboards, bass, vocals
Jessica Rasche – vocals
Chris Nathe – drums

With:
Jerry Swan – bass (5)
John Wooten – drums (6, 8)
Gregg Johns – guitars, talkbox (10)
Jeremy Hamel – guitars (11)

When I reviewed Majestic’s album Descension in the summer of 2009, my words reflected my lack of enthusiasm for what I saw as yet another ‘solo pilot’ project by a very skilled multi-istrumentalist (Jeff Hamel, formerly of prog-metal band Osmium), ambitious yet lacking in direction. Things took a definite turn for the better with their following album Arrival – the first recorded with the participation of vocalist Jessica Rasche – though I still expressed some reservations about the compositional aspect. Rasche’s arrival (pardon the pun), however, brought some welcome depth and intensity to Hamel’s lengthy, sometimes rambling compositions, and the added bonus of one of the best female voices heard on CD in the past few years.

With Ataraxia (a philosophical concept meaning ‘freedom from worry’ in Greek) it would not be overstating the case to speak about a quantum leap for the Minneapolis-based outfit – now become a real band, with Rasche’s husband Chris Nathe on drums. With the collaboration of a few guests (including Gregg Johns, Hamel’s partner in Proximal Distance, and leader of Mississippi-based project Slychosis), though resting mainly on Hamel’s talents as a multi-instrumentalist, Majestic have produced an album that is unabashedly ambitious – almost 80 minutes long, offering a wide range of sounds and styles that had already been foreshadowed in the band’s previous efforts, though not as coherently developed. The evident progressive metal bent of Arrival is here kept to a minimum, while the symphonic component emerges with far more authority. Indeed, Majestic seem to have grown out of that fascination with prog-metal that, in my view, caused Arrival to be not as impressive as it might have been.

This time, Majestic decidedly head for more traditional prog territories, with most of the compositions bridging the gap between Pink Floyd-style spacey moods and symphonic textures, solemn and pastoral in turn. The longer, weightier compositions (between 7 and 12 minutes) are interspersed by shorter, more accessible numbers that prevent the album from turning into too onerous a listen on account of its length. Most important, though, the music on Ataraxia keeps melody at the forefront, all the while avoiding any descents into cheesiness. As a matter of fact, the danger of sounding too close to those terminally cheesy, female-fronted symphonic metal bands (whose progressive quotient is often rather flimsy) is thankfully kept at bay by Jessica Rasche’s stunning performance. Her clear yet assertive voice steers clear of the operatic excesses of so many female singers, relying on a near-perfect balance between sweetness and power.

All but two of the tracks on Ataraxia feature vocals – mostly Jessica’s, though Jeff Hamel makes a brief appearance on the last two tracks. Touches of Genesis circa Wind and Wuthering surface in the cascading finale of the wistful, melodious opener “Disarray”; while following number “Faceless” begins very much in the prog-metal vein displayed on Majestic’s previous recording effort, then subsiding in favour of a fuller, more symphonic mood with plenty of tempo changes to add interest. The longest track on the album, the 14-minute “Take My Breath Away”, takes instead a more stately direction, with solemn, march-like passages and a lovely, nostalgic mood, enhanced by Jessica’s pure, heartfelt tones and Hamel’s clear, Gilmourian guitar. Another highlight, “Wither displays all of Jessica’s vocal versatility, with a darker mood and a sense of tension that contrast with the almost pastoral quality of “Faceless“, and more of  Hamel’s excellent guitar work.

As wonderful as Rasche’s vocals are, the two instrumentals can easily be numbered among the album’s highlights. The hard-edged riffing and overall ‘metallic’ touches in “Astral Dream” are never overdone, and do not overwhelm the spacey atmosphere created by the synths and the clear, piercing tone of the guitar; while the aptly-titled “Dance of the Elders” reveals a folksy inspiration in its lilting pace and a classical feel in the guitar parts, as well as reminiscences of the likes of Vangelis or Tangerine Dream in the haunting keyboard passages. As to the shorter tracks, the piano-led, funky workout of “Star Bound” allows Jessica to pay homage to her idol Ann Wilson of Heart, and the equally dynamic “Delusion” reveals a distinct influence of Pink Floyd circa Dark Side of the Moon, with a final section where Jessica’s vocalizing made me think of Clare Torry in the immortal “The Great Gig in the Sky”; while “Numb” and “Reflections” are both subdued, romantic ballads which, in my opinion, do not add a lot to the album – the latter providing a rather anticlimactic, though soothing, conclusion.

While Majestic do not pretend to be reinventing the wheel, Ataraxia is a classy offering, showcasing the work of a band brimming with an enthusiasm and love of their craft that have become increasingly rare in the music world, and whose compositional skills are growing by leaps and bounds. Though, as my faithful readers know, I tend to be rather critical of albums that exceed one hour in length, and believe that Ataraxia would have benefited from a bit of trimming, its refreshing lack of pomposity and ‘cheese factor’ balance its undeniable ambitiousness. Moreover, Jessica Rasche’s delightful vocals alone are worth the price of admission – she is a real find, and living proof of how a female singer does not need to indulge in operatic or cloyingly sweet excesses to offer a credible performance in a prog context.

Links:
http://www.majesticsongs.com

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