Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Dream Theater...melodic and strong but with a flawed drum sound

This review focuses on the drum sound of the new Dream Theater album and compares the 5.1 audio mix with a previous DT 5.1 mix. I do like the album but as there are hundreds of reviews that cover in detail each of the songs and general impressions, I have not included that here.

I eagerly purchased the new Dream Theater deluxe version as once again they'd produced a 5.1 audio mix version. I still regularly listen to their "Systematic Chaos" 5.1 recording and marvel at the clarity and power. Paul Northfield had done a superb production job on capturing the brutal force of the rhythm section without losing the subtle nuances. So finally we had another to enjoy! My initial excitement melted quickly as I listened to "False awakening". I flicked through my Marantz amp settings to ensure I hadn't made an error. This is probably the worst drum sound I have heard on a DT album. I was so looking forward to hearing Mangini louder and crisper in the mix. Yet the sound of the drums are completely muffled. I certainly hear no hummingbird wings...

The more I listened, the more I noticed other things. No surprise but the definition to the bass was almost completely absent. Forget a 5.1 audio mix, I have CDs from the 90s that sound better.

Then the pain sunk in, the bitter disappointment. You see I really like this album and believe it could have been one of their top 3 albums...but the cardboard, drum machine sound of the wonderful drumming of Mangini is so very disappointing in the recording. Now I am unsure if this is because of the mixing, mastering or initial recording. Whatever the reason, it's unacceptable for a 5.1 mix.

When I listen to the album with my Grado headphones, the drum sound is perhaps acceptable. So are they mixing for the headphone generation? On my sound system ( Marantz player, Mission speakers and Velodyne sub) the power and definition of the recording is missing. If I compare "Systematic Chaos" 5.1 with this then you realise how different the recording of the drumming is. This is sterile and compressed. On "Systematic Chaos" 5.1 (which is my least fav DT album) the drumming physically knocks you with my Velodyne sub. The drum sound is varied, the snare and toms clearly distinguishable. On this new DT, I have to have the sound blaring on my headphones. And then they sound acceptable... I think Kevin Shirley got the warmest and punchiest drum sound on the LTE albums. (Listen to Simon Phillips' s drum recordings - these are nearly always impressive. Try Sherinian's "Oceana" opening track. That's a drum recording done right!)

Hey, have any of you listeners the album "Systematic Chaos" on 5.1? Do a simple comparison and you'll soon realise what a STUNNING recording it is. Listen to "In the Presence of Enemies" part 1. Go to about 4 .45 and listen to the build up of drumming. Listen to the attack of the snare, hear the tight kick drum and distinct different tom sounds. Even when the power wall of guitar comes in you can easily hear the snare and bass pedal. You can hear hi hat cymbals! Try "Repentance" and you hear every little drum nuance. Rim shots, ghosting, cymbal. This is what I anticipated for the new DT 5.1. I am now depressed. What a waste of opportunity! In comparison I now think the DT drum mix is poor. No offense, Mr Petrucci, you are one of rock's greats and your guitar sound on this IS wonderful, but I thought you wanted people to embrace Mike Mangini. How can we if we can't hear him properly! (Maybe someone stole his signature Pearl snare drum and replaced it with a cardboard replica?)

Finally, all the other elements are in place. I love the packaging, the art work and even the lyrics. All of the compositions have grown on me and Petrucci's guitaring is more melodic and soaring than I can remember in a decade. After all I have written, this is a strong album and I will live with the flawed drum sound.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Deep Purple rocks Auckland 2013

Rock legends Deep Purple were on fire last night in Auckland's Vector arena. This was an invigorated, imaginative show where Purple looked sharper than what they did ten years ago. These masters of rock get better each time I see them. This was the heaviest yet cleanest sound - well done to the sound desk crew - Paice's drum sound was crisp and thunderous with every tom audible and distinct, Airey's keyboard expansive and majestic, while Morse took his usual amazing playing to another level on his own instrumental composition, "Contact lost". There were many Morse highlights including his soaring and arpeggio shredding over some Blackmore classics including the evocative "Wasted sunsets" and "Maybe I'm a Leo". (Have a look at this great Youtube clip of Morse last year in Moscow playing the solo of "Wasted sunsets" - Gillan even wore the same t-shirt in Auckland.) The concert ramped up as DP added menace with "The Battle rages on". As Gillan said after the first few rockers, "That was the jazz bit of the set, Now it's time to rock 'n roll" .

Deep Purple looked fit and lean, full of smiles and good time eagerness. Like the experienced professionals they are, they tackled songs from the 70's with spectacular lighting, the best that I have experienced at a Purple concert. (This includes watching two previous live concerts - 1995 and 2004  plus various DVD concerts through the 2000's). I loved the way they musically built up well known tracks and added dramatic interludes like short pulverizing drum solos or keyboard breaks to keep the creativity and interest, yet keeping the structure and not tampering with their classic repertoire or sound.

There was a palpable excitement from the group that was reflected in the crowd who were certainly more vocal and engaged than when Journey were on stage before hand. Airey played an extended and powerful keyboard showcase that included a beautiful rendition of the traditional New Zealand "Pokarekare Ana" and then came the distinctive opening chords of "Perfect Strangers" which ripped through the arena.  This was another highlight of the show with everyone on top form for "Perfect Strangers" and the strobe lighting at the end of this was mesmerizing. On the "Live at Montreux 2006" I thought Gillan was at times singing flat and was apprehensive to hear him. Clearly he has managed his voice carefully in the intervening years and was strong and exerted his power cleverly. I thought he was amazing. They are all amazing. 

The encore was an extended triumph with "Smoke on the water" easily the heaviest version I have heard as Morse chugged his opening barrage with metal menace. If they have played this only 30 times a year that would still be over a thousand performances of it but it sounded as fresh as ever.  Finally the crowd participation singing in a call and response to answer Morse's guitar on "Blacknight" lifted the evening to a fitting crescendo. Take a bow, Deep Purple, that was some show!

Go and see them, Australia - they are the fire of the classic rock generation playing with the fervor, the improvisation and spark that is missing in today's rock. I saw something special last night. Legends indeed.

 For great photos and review - see 13th floor site

P.S. After that performance, I am even more intrigued to hear their new album when it is released in April.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The greatest Dream Theater concert on Blu-ray

Dream Theater 'Live at Budokan' is one of a handful of concert DVDs that continues to wow me completely. On 5 October, 2004 at the peak of their abilities, Dream Theater played at the Budokan, Japan. Although eight years ago and since then they have had other concert DVDs like the majestic 'Score', this is their landmark concert High Definition DVD. Now that it is available with improved sound and visuals on Blu-ray, I thought it high time to give coverage to these giants of progressive rock metal.

I love watching live music and have been fortunate enough to see Dream Theater play in Brisbane, Australia and Auckland, New Zealand. This Blu-ray is possibly as good as it gets other than being at their concerts. Indeed some may say it's better. At least in the comfort of your home you can manage the volume to what suits you plus have close-up views that only binoculars could achieve. (I make this comment as the Auckland concert was excessively loud and at times there was possible distortion.)

Back to this Blu-ray which is most beautifully crafted and meets all my requirements for a perfect concert. i.e. great sound, crystal clear visuals, a massive selection from their discography plus additional long instrumental breaks with the camera following the person playing the solo. (It always frustrates me when the drummer plays a brilliant fill and the camera man zooms on the vocalist who is not even singing. This fortunately doesn't happen on this recording because Mike Portnoy, the drummer, and John Petrucci, the guitarist produce it.) Clearly Dream Theater have projected their creative and hard-working ethic to the production values of this Blu-ray. This recording has been carefully thought through, even to the placing of the cameras for excellent closeups for each member. The Blu-ray is full of positive surprises and features; the range of song material to the ability to show the lyrics on screen.

The DVD was previously unsurpassed in sound and video quality. The Blu-ray version is crisper - yes, the colors far more vivid and richer and what I particularly noticed was the shine and sparkle on items like the Sabian cymbals. You notice small details like the glint on wedding rings, the reflection off Petrucci's guitar. It's these details that take an already brilliant high definition DVD and makes the viewing experience even more impact full. I was taken aback as to how beautiful the primary color lighting looks on Blu-ray. This is an amazing quality recording. 

Photos of my TV screen showing the Blu-ray. This gives some indication of the clarity and colour in spite of the obvious loss of photographing a TV screen.

Yet I did not repurchase this for a visual improvement as I had thought my existing DVD copy was great. I bought this for the DTS HD Master Audio and the sound improvement is significant. Referring to 'As I am' the opening track of the concert you immediately notice a  significant improvement in the bass levels. The opening bass note of the first bar is strong and resounds with a power not experienced on the 5.1 sound. 

Overall there is a greater richness on the Blu-ray as you hear the growl and warmth of Myung's bass  together with warmth of Portnoy's toms. There seems far greater dynamic range with the bottom end of both the bass guitar and the bass pedal far more forceful. My sub-woofer gets a real workout yet the high range notes of the keyboard still ring out. There is greater separation with no difficulty to hear all four instruments and vocals. The many rapid unison guitar and piano lines over Myung's bass is wondrous. In Petrucci's solos you can hear the subtleties of tapping plus string wrenches. If anything the sound detail also shows their flaws so LaBrie sometimes doesn't quite hit the note, but after a marathon two hour fourty-five minute concert, I am not surprised.

For those who have woken up a decade after he was already one of the world's greatest prog-rock drummers, this concert is a Mike Portnoy showcase. (Mike Portnoy is sadly no longer with DT but that is an article in itself.)  Disc two has all the extras including the Portnoy solo and the Instrumedley - which allows you to focus just on Mike for a monstrous drumming display. That doesn't mean there is no solo drumming in the concert. Far from it! You're in for a surprise as the keyboard drum battle during 'Beyond this life' is like an added drum solo. I found this the highlight of the opening barrage of 3 songs - Rudess and Portnoy seem to have such fun and Portnoy gets to inventively show off what every little cowbell, percussion and timbale sounds like on his enormous double set of drums. He really shows how musical he is as he copies Rudess's keyboard lines on the kit.(Of course a few blizzards of bass drum bliss are effortlessly displayed throughout!)

A warning to classic rock readers. If you are averse to metal, this concert may be an acquired taste. The first twenty minutes of this concert are some of the heaviest moments of synchronised Dream Theater mayhem; the end of 'This Dying Soul' shows the most frighteningly fast unison lines of Petrucci and Rudess. Mesmerising! Portnoy is so solid as he segues from one time signature into the pounding grundge time midway through 'This Dying Soul' - makes you want to bounce with LaBrie as well. As LaBrie states 'We have one hell of a show coming at you, this evening'. At this stage of the concert you're only two songs in and sixteen still to come. As on any DT creation you'll see why Petrucci is arguably the most technically gifted rock guitarist in the world today. Combined with Myung, Rudess and their powerful vocalist, LaBrie, this is the benchmark of prog metal virtuosity. If you like intense, inventive heavy rock music that requires repeated listening, this is a wonderful value Blu-ray - brilliant!

Friday, June 29, 2012

Flying Colors - vibrant, melodic rock with a progressive twist

That familiar Amazon parcel has arrived! What will "Flying colors" sound like...will it be worth it? Many love it, some are sceptical, some slate it. Will there be sufficient guitaring from Steve Morse and will Mike just be a wallflower?

I hurridly rip open the packaging, grap the CD from the digipak, place into the player and sit back. Seventy minutes later my initial surprising journey is over and I am smiling. This is good. Really good. Wonderful vibrant, melodic rock with a progressive twist from my favourite musicians - Mike Portnoy, master drummer, music organiser with his long-time keyboardist buddy, Neal Morse, composer extraordinaire, singer and instrumentalist who are joined by the legendary Steve Morse, guitarist from Deep Purple with his long-time bassist buddy, Dave LaRue. And then top notch vocalist, Casey McPherson with his contemporary nuances and appealing falsetto leads the way on this vocal album.

                                        Flying Colors site  
             The amazing iGuitar Magazine contains a great Morse video interview

It's five days later and all I have listened to is "Flying Colors". This album is catchy with very strong melodic hooks on every song. The emphasis is on tight song structure and strong vocals with harmonising in every chorus - but hey I hear you asking what happened to the virtuoso musicians? No worries - they're all playing, contributing and adding their craft with many structured instrumental interludes in which to shine. 

What is encouraging is how carefully crafted this album is - this is not some supergroup sitting down and playing a few covers and jamming their way through. Everything from the graphics to the impeccable production by Peter Collins (Rush, Alice Cooper,Bon Jovi) , thoughtful song order and actual compositions show that this is no fly-by-night project. I know from their site that this took an initial 9 days, some work while they went their separate ways and then another 4 days together. Quite amazing that all up in less than a month together as musicians this album was produced. 

The sounds and textures are colourful and varied in the genre of slow and medium rock, with two hard rock tracks bordering on metal that allow Mike to double pedal a tornado.The album ends with a mighty 11 minute progressive rock epic, "Infinite Fire". This ending showcases the depth of experience and musicality this group has and includes greater use of Neal's wonderful keyboard organ sounds in unison with some of Steve's most blistering guitar work. The use of odd-time signatures, slower emotional sections building to the strongest vocal chorus on the album finally breaks into the multi-layered vocals of "Seasons and times". This gives me goosebumps each time I listen.  

For Steve Morse and Dave LaRue fans take note - there is more Steve soloing on this album than what he played on two Kansas albums or on the last Deep Purple album, 'Rapture of the deep'. Every song has a beautifully crafted Morse solo that to my ears had more variety and thoughtfulness than what I have heard from Steve in decades. I have never heard Morse sound so like Brian May as what he does on "Love is what I'm waiting for". Of course Dave and Steve know each other's playing like musical twins so their harmonic convergence and dissonance and timing is impeccable. Great examples where Dave struts his funky bass is on "Forever in a daze" and the thunderous riff on "All falls down". 

"Everything changes" is an excellent example of the group joining and melting styles. The song starts like a track off Steve Morse's "High tension wires", the vocals section are all McPherson's influence and then the bridge where Neal Morse sings is clearly his compositional style and Mike brings some monster drum fills and it ends with more of Steve's influence again. The way I have described this may sound like a patch work which is then a reflection of my ordinary writing skills as this is beautiful track. I write that this is beautiful yet this is one of the lesser tracks on the album. The opening "Blue Ocean" and "Kayla" are standouts plus the aggressive "Shoulda coulda woulda" with its concluding drum fest and "Infinite fire" best encapsulate this group.

I am encouraged to hear that "Flying colors" are touring Europe in September. Could a DVD release be possible that would include more material and a cover or two? The prospect is exciting.

I am confused when I read some Amazon reviews. Perhaps because this is not cutting-edge rock or outright progressive rock, many seem very critical. Did some expect a new Dream Theater or a more contemporay style like Coldplay? I am unsure and when reading their criticism begin to doubt my enthusiasm for this. But then I listen again and get caught up in the melody, drift into another place and that's what music is about. 

So lovers of vintage, well crafted melodic rock - including Queen, Beatles and Yes fans, fans of Steve Morse, Mike Portnoy's "Yellow Matter custard" , Transatlantic, Kansas, Styx, Kerry Livgren, Neal Morse's solo work, fans of Casey McPherson, give this a try - you may really be pleasantly surprised!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Rabin's 'Jacaranda' - a beautiful soundscape

Jacaranda is an instrumental album that rides the journey from acoustic gentleness to flat out rock and all that is in between. Trevor Rabin as artist, composer, guitarist, pianist, musician, producer-engineer, South African son and father plus dog owner all weave into this amazing work. 

This has been a delight to listen to... a kaleidoscope of soundscapes, beautiful audio stories, a revelation of Rabin's musical artistry and creativity. It is a true mash up of styles that made me think of everything Rabin has done. Stylistically I thought of Steve Morse and the Dixie Dregs to Phil Keaggy, Michael Hedges and even some of Al Di Meola's world music. There are strong glimpses of 'Yes' and progressive sections like 'Sludge' from Rabin's Can't Look Away. 

As a critic I am impressed with Jacaranda's depth and the maturity Rabin displays as composer, musician and producer. It's stunning to say the least - no hesitation of 5 stars for Rabin fans. I think many Phil Keaggy fans and guitarists would also rate this highly. The difficulty is that this is not a rock, fusion or jazz album. The average listener may only think this a three star album as it has too much guitar, whereas a rock guitarist would say there is not enough. It is an eclectic modern instrumental work where Rabin's experience as a film composer shines through and classical and jazz influences are as strong as any rock thematics. 

My ears pricked up with the intensity and strong melody of 'Market road', easily my favorite track with Vinnie Colaiuta supporting on drums. Again on 'Through the tunnel' we have Vinnie with Rabin at their aggressive best. The thunderous bass on this track sounds like Chris Squire sat in on the session but this is Rabin showing his musical prowess. Yet Rabin's is not out to prove himself or win fans. Rather it's an album of beauty and reflection. As I said it appears as a soundscape to Rabin's life story as borne out with the fascinating liner notes. Six of the tracks are directly linked to stories of his early life in South Africa although strangely there is no overt musical link as what was heard on 'Sorrow' on his previous solo album. The link to Rabin's current world of filmscore is the moving 'Rescue' with Liz Constantine's vocal which as Rabin describes in the liner notes is "pretty special".

'Me and my boy' with Ryan Rabin on drums is a stirring rocker with a mesmerizing start but alas is much too short. This is my only criticism of this album. I think two longer tracks in the vein of 'Through the tunnel' would have perhaps made it cohesively a rock fusion album plus I'd have loved a more conventional rock ballad instrumental to have been included as there is certainly space for this on the rather short 43 minute album. 

The production and recording is exemplary. You would expect no less. This is easily Rabin's best recording from a sound perspective. (Admittedly technology has moved on since 1995 and the stunningly well-recorded Talk). Listen to 'Zoo lake' for the richest of recordings with the Bugbass upright providing the bottom end with a glorious lazy sunday afternoon melody and the most traditional melodic electric solo on the album. Then continue to the final track 'Gazania' that embraces everything from various electrics, gut string, banjo and acoustic piano with moods shifting and slipping bringing different instruments and delicious guitar tones into focus. Amazing. And then it's over. I sincerely hope it is not another decade before the next one. 

Treat yourself, the journey listening to this is richly rewarding.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Trevor Rabin - looking back to 1977

Most people who have watched films in the last two decades will have heard the music of Trevor Rabin. Older South African's may remember him as the frontman of a 70s pop-rock band, Rabbitt,  while those into electric guitar would know him for his successful ten years with the progressive rock group, Yes. Rabin is currently Holywood's prolific film composer for blockbusters like Armageddon, Flyboys, National Treasure, The Guardian, Gridiron Gang, Remember the Titans and the Sorcerer's apprentice.

Rock music as a genre in South Africa has never had a large following, yet Trevor Rabin has emerged as South Africa's most successful international guitarist and composer through the years. Although residing in the US since the 80s, his strong links with his birth country make him a son of South Africa. 

Rabin's new solo instrumental album (the first in twenty three years), is being released next week includes a number of titles that emphasise his African roots, including the title of the album 'Jacaranda' and the track 'Zoo lake'. (For a great review of the album have a look at Arlene Weiss's write up in Guitar International)

In anticipation of this release, I cast my mind back to my first album purchase back in 1977 when as a teenager I picked up Rabbitt's 'Croak and a grunt in the night' from a small Central News Agency in Pinelands, Cape Town. Rabbitt, among my peers, was seen as a teenybopper band - while my close friends' music diet was more likely to be Bad Company and Pink Floyd, so I remember hiding my purchase initially. I had only heard Rabbitt's radio tracks like 'Hold on to love' and 'Charlie' so was astounded when hearing their whole album with their rockier and more progressive elements. 

A retropective review of the 1977 album 'a Croak and a Grunt in the Night'
If you are interested in the music of Trevor Rabin, South African rock or are partial to 70's glam rock with Beatlesque influences then this album is certainly worth a listen. Rabin fans like myself, see this album as a great milestone in his development as musician, composer and producer. Some thirty five years after its release, I again listen to 'A Croak and a Grunt'.  Back in '77 it was a huge musical happening for South African's of European descent. In cloistered, apartheid South Africa, this was the country's closest experience of rock mania, with sold out concerts, teen girl hysteria and the fastest selling album in the history of South African rock music. On many a girl's school bag or book the statement "Rabbitt rules okay" was adorned. It seems strange now to think that Rabbitt dominated the pop charts, the awards and entertainment news for that strange, tumultuous South African period of 1976 to '79.

The title 'TC Rabin in D minor', the opening Brian May-like instrumental track, conveys the supreme confidence of Trevor and this band - and when you hear Rabin's powerful multi-layered guitar you realise this is indeed special as it segues into the ballad with strings and the plaintiff singing of "I sleep alone". Then the drums kick in and the title track punches in. You are aware of slick 70's production and expressive guitar which ends with an extensive wah-wah inflected solo over Rabin's characteristic use of a full studio of strings.
 'Everybody's cheating' an emotional ballad begins, with big vocal harmonies, piano and catchy tune - the influence at best is Beatles but I do think of the Carpenters as well. The listener is then catapulted into a Neil Cloud drum extravaganza couched in another Rabin glam rock track. It must be remembered that this is Rabin in his early 20's playing in a heart-throb pretty-boy band and so tracks like 'Searching' do sound like typical glam rock ballads with all the syrupy strings and gushing vocals. Yet in spite of this, there is strong melody, world class guitaring plus subtle twists and rich harmonies that are up there by 1977 standards internationally let alone in the politically and culturally secluded South Africa of that time. 

The heaviest track "Working for the people", the only all band composition, pounds away with bass, menacing strings, reverb extreme, multi-layered guitar interludes plus an oblique reference to what was happening with riot torn SA of 1976. If it was a statement, it was a subtle pushing the boundaries that had more in keeping with rebel boy rock and the risqué cover of Rabin naked behind a guitar than a political statement. 

Although the CD does not refer to sides I refer to the original vinyl as this explains why we have the beautiful 'Schumann' multi-layered guitar instrumental introduction at the 'start of side 2'. (Listen to both the opening track and 'Schumann' as these are played in their entirety in the Amazon sampler.) "Hold on to love" is emotion drenched track that clearly Rabin thought stood the test of time as he included a different version on his solo album 'Can't look away'. This is then followed by the "Dingley's bookshop" that forever enshrines the name 'Pietmaritzburg' in a pop song. What is of interest is that this was written as a jingle for an SATV sitcom which does put the lyrics in context and the Beatles like ending. 

For that time period, what was significant was having Margaret Singana forcefully singing 'Tribal fence' that pointed to a new South Africa in the distant future. By choosing her as the only guest artist on their long awaited album, Rabbitt were aligning themselves with more progressive elements in South Africa. Listen to the tone of Rabin's guitar in the short solo for a glimpse of what was still to come on Yes's 90125 with their number one hit, 'Owner of a lonely heart'. 

Fusion rock and instrumental prowess is on display in "Never Gonna Ruin my Life" and "Take it easy". This was certainly bold for South African pop in the 70's and I remember thinking back then that Rabbitt could break into the international rock market. As we know this never happened but instead Rabin went on to join and influence the mighty progressive rock group, Yes; Neil Cloud toured with Peter Frampton and Duncan Faure joined the Bay City Rollers - all international recognition and huge achievement for four friends from Joburg. 

Happily listening to this old album again for the umpteenth time, I still enjoy and listen to all the tracks. I eagerly look forward to Rabin's new release - unfortunately it won't have any of those rich vocal harmonies, but it sure will have that emotional pull of strong melodicism, beauty and striking musicianship.

Wanting to listen to other examples of Rabin at his best? Highly recommended are Rabin's solo album 'Can't look away' and the Yes albums '90125' and the brilliant 'Talk'. 

(Review based on the 2006 Fresh music release. Produced by Patric van Blerk and Trevor Rabin. Arranged Trevor Rabin.)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Tribal Tech 'X' marks the sweet fusion spot!

Do you like your electric guitaring challenging, out there and ripping with whammy wrenches? Like a funky, pumping bass over rich, intelligent keyboards and muscular in-your-face drumming? Then this is for you, but there is so much more. This is heavy jazz fusion with a bluesy progressive twist. Their style is unique but almost instantly recognisable when you hear their unison keyboard, guitar and bass lines - like an intense guitar-driven Weather Report. This description does no justice to these master jazz musicians who together melt and smoulder compositionally, who interact with an intuition of decades of playing together and vast experience with other bands. This is Tribal Tech and their new album 'X'. (Their last album was released in 2000!)   

Scott Henderson* is a guitar chameleon - changing colours and shades with each new track yet always his inimitable sound always comes through. That sweet distorted legato scream that funnels into the dirtiest of tones that shift with each bebop line - his playing is endlessly fascinating. Without a doubt Henderson is one of the most amazing guitarists on the planet. In the opening track, 'Mech X' a menacing Hendrix-like crescendo of sound develops which intrigued me and had me concerned that perhaps a new more chaotic TT style was emerging. I am pleased to say that an avalanche of thundering carefully crafted typical TT unison lines power through - this is a powerful statement at the beginning of the album.

'Got Faith 'N Phat' is a classic grooving TT track with Scott Kinsey's keys sounding so much like a Tower of Power horn section that I looked at the liner notes to see who was playing. Gary Willis's bass is stunning - pulsing delicately in places and then pumping. Each new track he seems more impressive. His choice of notes and articulation is superb. And when you think you've heard everything along comes his beautiful fretless playing on 'Anthem'. He is a monster and deserves wider recognition. (The fusion muso world certainly know who Willis is and he's played on Holdsworth's 'Metal Fatigue' and 'None to soon' and Dennis Chamber's 'Outlook' with Michael Brecker.)

Kirk Covington certainly gets round the kit - what I noted though is his choice of drum sound for each track and amazing cymbal work and sounds. I sensed that his typical muscular role although still evident throughout the album seemed to focus on supporting the compositions and interplay rather than making drum statements. I am not suggesting he is not supportive on other albums, but rather, in my opinion, that this is one of his maturest performances playing in the pocket with TT.

I loved the slow 'Palm Moon Plaza', a tour-de-force of Henderson guitaring sounding much like Jeff Beck, that builds with intensity until the repeated single guitar note over some rich beds of keyboard sound and then the delicate Kinsey piano culmination.

'Gravity' sounds like it could have been off 'Nomad', 'Illicit' or 'Face First' A tight ripper of a track that is less organic than some of the other tracks. That's not a criticism but rather an observation as I was thinking prior to hearing 'X' that this album may have been complete improvisation. I am glad it's not. It's a great album and up there with their best albums - although I don't think this surpasses what they have already achieved.

These are funny guys - you open the liner notes - and... I'll not spoil the fun. Needless to say all through this album and culminating in the announcement of 'Corn butter' the final track, you know they're laughing in a Zappa-esque kind of way.

I am happy - another Tribal Tech album to savour, to be enthralled, amused and entertained for a long time to come.

P.S. Please, please - we need a live DVD of Tribal Tech for the fan base outside the USA.

'Face first' (See -a great youtube taster of the group).

*Scott Henderson has played in bands with some of the greatest musicians including Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, Victor Wooten, Jeff Berlin and Steve Smith. He teaches at the Guitar institute, won a number of Guitar Player awards including the best blues album with 'Dog Party' - which is pretty impressive for a jazz guitarist. His style is an amazing blend of Hendrix and Holdsworth with a wicked dreadlock twist.

Monday, March 26, 2012

G3 live in Auckland, New Zealand (25 March 2012)

Finally after twenty-five years I got to see two of my guitar heroes live in Auckland. Yes, the G3 rock extravaganza played here last night and I wasn't disappointed. Each of the three headline guitarists played all their hits and then as with all G3 occasions got together for a fiercesome jam. What was particularly exciting was Steve Lukather (Toto, Los Lobotomys) another of my favourite musicians was the invited guitarist with Satriani and Vai. And then as a bonus I saw that Mike Keanally was back on keyboards and guitar playing for Steve Vai for the first time in 13 years. Joining him was the mighty Phillip Bynoe on an aggressive, funky bass.

Promptly at 7:30 Luke and friends kicked off with 'Hero' from his Candyman album. Immediately one noticed the muscular drumming of Eric Valentine and the thunderous bass.(If anything the sound was too lound and the bass too much for the Logan Cambell venue. But that's what audio ear plugs are for.) It was special to see Luke again as I have had the privilege of seeing him play with Toto in Cape Town, Auckland and Melbourne. I love his solo Candyman album so was smiling from ear to ear as his band broke into 'Party in Simon's pants' even if this was a shortened version. With his infectious humour, Luke engaged the crowd and told us an amusing story that he'd been recognised on the plane on his flight from Wellington. He'd been enthusiastically greeted by a woman who thought he was Billy Joel! Lukather then went on to play a Herbie Hancock composition followed by a song dedicated to Jeff Porcaro. This was Lukather's highlight of the evening. Hearing the searing emotion drenched guitar on "Song for Jeff" live was incredible. No other word for it. Moving, brilliant playing as the notes were caressed and bent. 

Then Vai hit the stage with all the panache and experience of years as a top rock guitarist. Brilliant - and without a doubt the strongest set when comparing Vai, Satriani and Lukather. That's saying something as Luke is easily my favourite of the three. Vai started the concert exactly as he does for the G3 Live in Tokyo DVD with his guitar speaking to audience from the side of the stage and then thundering into the funkiest rocking 'The audience is listening'. What an adrenalin rush.

Steve Vai's trendy short hair cut matched his maturer persona and looking back at the DVD 'Live at the Astoria London' the flowing locks look very dated even though less than ten years ago. Steve's playing was impeccable and sound wise came across cleaner. Interestingly early in their set Steve turned to Phillip Bynoe and indicated to adjust his bass amp which was dropped a notch.

'Whispering a prayer' and the amazing jazzy 'Tender surrender' had Steve cajoling the whole gamut of Vai tones accompanied with all the intense facial expressions that he brings. Of course I was waiting for the 'The Attitude song' and the bursting excitement hearing this played live for the first time with an extended solo section in the middle with Mike Keanally and Dave Weiner exchanging leads with Steve. Then ending on the anthemic 'For the love of God'. Phew! What can you say but wait for Joe Satriani to come onto the stage and rip into 'Ice 9' with Jeff Campitelli playing the kit as if this was his first gig with Satch.

I was pleasantly surprised that Joe played at least three songs from 'Surfing with Aliens' including Satch Boogie. Mike Keanally remained on keys to support Satriani and it was Mike on the shaker that told you that the beautiful 'Always with me, always with you' was about to start.

The stage changes were very quick and before you knew it Joe was inviting Steve and Steve to join for the finale. What would be played? And then how cool, as 'Your guitar wants to kill your mama' began sung by both Vai and Keanally. Then came the best of the jam tracks with Luke leading 'Little wing'. Check out this pretty amazing  youtube video of their performance - video and audio quality impressive. (Thanks Hamdanz1 for uploading - I'll treasure this memory!) The final song of the night was 'Rockin' in a free world' where Joe lead the singing and then it was all over and 11pm had come. I sure am grateful that Joe came up with the wonderful concept of G3 all those years ago. Long may it prosper.

If you haven't got your tickets Australia - don't hesitate!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Create a 'wordle' t-shirt!

Here's something different. I was playing around with a simple but powerful little app called 'Wordle' and it allows you to create a collage of words and apply different layouts and colours. It also allows you to add a link of a blog to create a cloud of words used. So I tried this blog's URL and this is what 'Wordle' created automatically. I thought this was pretty cool.

I then thought I could create an image that I could have printed on a black t-shirt. My own rock-fusion concert t-shirt. For the example below I typed all the artists that I listen to or who have influenced my music taste. I am making a jpeg of this and will then print on the back of a black t-shirt. 

Click on the images for a more detailed view.

Clearly the above examples are rather on the crowded side - here's another more simple example below. 

The final example below is the same as above but I chose a white background with a different font. Takes a second to alter. Have a go at trying it out. It's great fun!
Link to site