Category: Reviews


REVIEW: Queen – Queen & Queen II

Here’s something different. I thought I’d start doing some retrospective reviews and today I just happened to decide on putting these two records on my MP3 player while I walked Alex the Wonderdog.
The first rock band I ever got into was Queen. I think it might have had something to do with my raising in the 1970s and listening to Radio One over breakfast and hearing the hits of the band played with frightening regularity. Neither of these albums were my first proper Queen purchase – that honour goes to “Greatest Hits” and then “The Works”.
Queen – Queen

I listened to this album today and it was the first time I had given it a spin in a couple of years. I managed to bag a cheap version of “The Crown Jewels” boxset a few years back which contains a remastered version of this album. Instantly, the opening chords of “Keep Yourself Alive” took me back to being a withdrawn 13-year-old and the many times I had spun this album in my bedroom. In those days, I never bought LPs, preferring tapes. The reason for this was that our old house in Alber Road was so damp that in a matter of weeks, any LP was reduced to a crackly mess. So cassette tape was my weapon of choice and I can still remember buying Queen on cassette.
I was on a family holiday to Jersey in the Channel Islands with my grandparents. They always took me away during the majority of my teenage years and I purchased the cassette in Boots The Chemist in King Street for £3.05. This was at the beginning of a two-week holiday and I didn’t have a Walkman and the longing to hear the tape was burning a hole in my ears. My nan suggested that I should ask the Portuguese family who ran the hotel we were staying to play the tape over their PA system, so that I could listen to it. But I was too shy to ask and I waited until we got home.

Good job I did as the tape itself had been loomed into the casing the wrong way, meaning that on playback you heard the whole thing backwards. Subliminal messages ahoy! But this meant I had no album and there were no other large Boots The Chemists in the locality that sold music. So I had a further wait until we had a family day-out at Southend where my mum exchanged the tape for a fresh, working copy. Aahhhh, the good old days – I waited about five weeks to hear that album. Now we can download music at the click of a mouse – but you try and tell the younger generation and they won’t believe you!
So back to the review. The first Queen album is the sound of a young band trying to find themselves – it is incredibly rough in places, but I think that adds to the charm. Some of the ideas are just “out there” – “My Fairy King” for example, though I’ve always loved “Great King Rat” as it reminded me of my own errant father and shared the same birthday and sentiment. What always captured my imagination is the playout of the proto-demo version of “Seven Seas of Rhye”. I was already familiar with the proper version, but how amazing was this band that they put a preview of a future song at the end of an album. That was just brilliant in my book.
There’s a lot to like about “Queen” and what it lacks in production, it makes up for in charm and sheer energy. Some of the songs on this are better served on the “Live at the Beeb” album that was released in the early 1990s, but it is an important record, especially if you listen to it back to back with its successor.
Queen II

This is a completely different prospect. Here is a record by a band that now has confidence and a vision of what it wants to achieve in the studio. But is this a progressive rock record? I think it is because there is some kind of concept behind it, from the Black/White sides to the song cycle on the second side that starts with an “Ogre Battle” and ends with “Funny How Love Is”. I can’t get over just how good this record is. You can even hear the conception of the Queen sound shaping before your ears – with “The Fairy Fellers Master-Stroke” and “The March of the Black Queen” showing that the band were interested in creating walls of operatic sound and not afraid to screw about with the stereo field. Get your hands off than pan control, Deacon! And it finishes with a fully realised “Seven Seas of Rhye” – its almost as if the first album was a dry-run for this, the real deal.
What’s great when you listen to these two classic albums together is that you can actually hear the band growing and that’s quite unusual in rock. Usually bands break onto the scene fully fledged and its not until you listen to their fourth or fifth subsequently released platter than you detect any development. But with these two records its a steady progression which continues onto “Sheer Heart Attack” and culminates in their magnum opus “A Night at the Opera”. It’s really tough, but with the benefit of retrospect, I am beginning to think that Queen II might just be my favourite record of theirs purely because of the embyonic ideas within.
Again, there are bits of this album that are truly brilliant, like the opening instrumental “Procession” where Brian May manages to coax a tone from his guitar the likes of which have never been heard of before. It is earthy and kind of alien, but provides a suitable introduction to the crashing “Father to Son” – a song that always has an effect on me (or any song dealing with fathers and sons, for that matter). I like the way that the first side is more of a classic rock album before every wigs out with the backwards experimental nightmare that starts side two and “Ogre Battle”, a song that delights with every listen – can you hear the ogre ripping the man’s arms off. Great!
The final song cycle on the record is just inspired and the level of detail and the amount of ideas bouncing around truly are a portent of things to come. The next thing you know the record is over and you are wanting more. And then there’s the iconic cover from Mick Rock where Freddie and the band do a Dietrich. A bona fide classic.

FILM REVIEW: Superman Returns


For my peers, the defining movie of their childhood is probably “Star Wars”. For me, it was the original “Superman – The Movie”. Being taken to see the movie at the ABC fleapit cinema near Baker’s Arms in Leyton (which was subsequently closed in the eighties and turned from B&Q DIY store to a Kwik Save supermarket) was one of the few promises my father managed to keep. He had promised to take me to see the aforementioned “Star Wars” and I was very excited. He worked at British Caledonian as an air steward and so he wasn’t always around – sometimes there were weeks between him flying off around the world and coming home again. That particular summer he made his promise and I had told my schoolfriends, but when we made it to the cinema in Walthamstow, the queue was deemed to long and the wait too much for him and so we turned away, a trip to the local toy shop was to be my treat instead. My heart was broken and I subsequently tried my best to lie about seeing the film and cribbed the plot from the “Star Wars Weekly” comic that was published at the same time. The only problem with that was the comic was based on the first draft of the “Star Wars” shooting script and there were several scenes in the publication that weren’t in the film. I soon learnt never to lie.
But for me, “Superman – The Movie” was special. We missed the first 15 minutes because of lateness, but once my father was asleep, I didn’t rouse him at the end of the movie and so I got to see the whole film again in its entirety. In those days, you could sit in a movie theatre and watch films over and over again without being moved on. The only downside was that it was the seventies and you had to suffer the fug of cigarette smoke that hung over the screen like a blue mist. The good old days, eh? I don’t think so. But seeing the film was a good memory and even though dear old Dad did a runner a couple of years later and there were many other disappointments along the way, seeing that movie together (even though he slept through most of it) is a memory I treasure. It is a “me and my dad” memory. A rose-tinted attempt at portraying him in a good light.
But, as usual, I am detracting from the main thrust of this piece. When “Superman Returns” was announced, I was a little worried that it would be a bit of a muck up. The film had taken over a decade to get to the screen and likes of Nicholas Cage and Jude Law (among others) had been touted for the lead role. Luckily, Bryan Singer got hold of the project and cast an unknown. Brandon Routh is simply superb as the Man of Steel and those who complain that he looks too young are missing the point completely. He manages to retain the same fresh-faced innocence that the late, great Christopher Reeve brought to the role. Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane also surprised me, as I had been prepared for a disappointment, but her chemistry with Routh overcomes the fact that she doesn’t really nail the hard-bitten hack routine so expertly played by her predecessor Margot Kidder.
The plot is simple: Superman returns after being missing for five years after zipping off to explore the ruins of his homeworld, Krypton, in a desperate attempt to find any survivors. In the time, the world has moved on. Lois Lane, the woman he loves, has moved on, had a child and a fiancé and is nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her piece entitled: Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman. Au contraire, Ms Lane. The whole film is about why the world needs heroes – not just human heroes who pull off amazing feats of courage or determination or blind faith, but those symbols of good to which we can all relate and aspire. The great thing about Superman is that he isn’t human: he lacks the vanity, the greed, the ego, which makes us such poor imperfect specimens – and all that makes his nemesis Lex Luthor so potent. And Kevin Spacey pulls out a majestic performance as the villain and is genuinely frightening in some of the darker scenes.
A lot of people have complained that there isn’t a plot or it is a bit slow, but that’s what I like about this film. It portrays Superman as a real character and there’s bag of character development and despite its 2 ½ hour length, I loved every minute of it. The set action pieces are just breath taking and when Superman takes a Kryptonite-induced kicking, you’ll be grimacing at his pain through clenched teeth. The special effects are just out of this world and the CG stuff is invisible. I just can’t get over how good it all looked on the screen. Of course, it is a quantum leap away from the original movies, but there’s so many ways this film could have gone completely wrong, but Bryan Singer has done a sterling job. I thought that this was a truly brilliant rendering of the character and a magnificent restart to the series.
The final scenes, which I won’t reveal because it will give away the plot, had me choked up. I realise that the Superman movies is essentially a father-and-son piece with Kal-El trying to find his way in a universe without his father and just doing the best he can. This sentiment was echoed in that final scene and was very emotive for me. When the movie was over and the Missus asked me what I thought, I genuinely couldn’t reply as I was literally choked with emotion. It took me a good ten minutes to get over the experience and I know this is sad because it is just a superhero story, but it pulled those emotional strings that run invisibly through us and returned me to that seven-year-old walking out the ABC in Leyton with his father. And sons, even Superman, need their fathers.

DVD REVIEW: Pink Floyd – P.U.L.S.E.


I remember when the revitalised Pink Floyd was originally touring to support “A Momentary Lapse of Reason” and I didn’t have enough cash to buy tickets. Several years later nothing had changed and I still couldn’t afford to see them at Earls Court as part of “The Division Bell” tour. Part of me isn’t that bothered because when you see a modern Pink Floyd gig, you know what you are going to get. Strong visuals, music that’s almost identical to the record and a very corporate live experience. You are worshipping at the shrine of Pink Floyd Ltd – now buy a T-shirt, if you know what I mean. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (afterall U2 have refined the experience to an art form now) but it’s not for me.
When the original P.U.L.S.E. album and VHS came out, I skipped it. I’d already got the “Delicate Sound of Thunder” album and didn’t need yet another turgid live Floyd experience. I know this sounds harse, but while I love PF on record, their later live performances always leave me a little cold compared to their hey-day in the 1970s – even “The Wall” can grate after a while. So when the P.U.L.S.E. DVD was announced I was a little non-plussed and not exactly clamouring for a copy. I wasn’t even planning on buying it, but it came my way via a treat from the Missus – unbeknownst to her, she got it for me the same day it was announced founder member Syd Barrett had died, so there was a little uneasy synchronicity going on.
The performance is spread over two discs and I must admit, I did enjoy the proceedings. It brought back memories of the PF Venice concert I’ve got on tape, but this time around the band were more relaxed and there seemed to be a little more charisma coming across, which is difficult because David Gilmour doesn’t always come across as a great frontman. Consummate guitarist – yes, front man – no.
The first disc opens with “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”, which made for tough viewing after hearing of Syd’s demise – before it was a raise-your-glass-in-fond-memory kind of song, but now it had turned into an elegy. The rest of the disc plods along with a lot of post-Waters material, which is OK – but I only have time for “Learning to Fly” and “Take It Back” – the rest just washes over me in a laser light enhanced fug. It’s only when you get to the second disc when I began to enjoy the performance as the band plays the entire “Dark Side of the Moon” album and it works surprisingly well, despite the lack of Roger Waters. The visuals and stage effects enhance the music and I really began to get into it – even though it still is a rather plodding affair. Even “The Great Gig in the Sky” was a much better executed affair compared to that Venice gig I caught on TV. The last three songs on disc two are “Wish You Were Here” – again turned into a elegy now after the sad news about Syd – “Comfortably Numb” which features some great stage craft towards the end which really caught my attention and “Run Like Hell” which is the standard closer during the Gilmour-era.
OK – so I wasn’t totally impressed by the twelve-year-old concert – it’s a little bit anonymous, a little lacking in spontaneity and just a little bit “so what?” in my books, but where P.U.L.S.E. comes into its own is the quality and quantity of material included in the set. Not only has the picture been enhanced so it looks as if the gig was shot yesterday, but the sound is crystal clear – there’s not much in the way of 5.1 Surround Sound juiciness but you do get a lot of the sound effects panned to the rear speakers. All the extra material is split over the two discs, so each one needs to be explored fully. You get all the mini-films that are projected on the screen on the main stage for your perusal (including live sound track), tour material including maps and itinerary, music videos for “Learning to Fly” and “Take It Back” (but not one for High Hopes, funnily enough), album cover art, a performance of “Wish You Were Here” with Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins and a little tour film made by one of the road crew. In all, for your money, you get four hours of material in the package. For the fan it is a treasure trove to explore, even if like me you don’t like the main feature a great deal. However, I must admit I was a little underwhelmed by the packaging as it is just a standard digipak – I was expecting some kind of pulsing light or laser show as I opened the box to retreive the DVDs!
It’s a no-brainer if you are a Pink Floyd fan – buy this set because it represents great value and is a last chance to see this era of the band in action and maybe float away in a nostalgic haze. I’m just a little bit weary of this type of performance, preferring Gilmour’s recent stripped down, acoustic solo outings and compared to last year’s fifteen minute Pink Floyd performance at Live8, you’ll realise why this DVD isn’t really Pink Floyd at all, but a surrogate band.

CONCERT REVIEW: The Roches – Bloomsbury Theatre, 26/03/06


Setlist
I don’t have you
We
Factory Girl
Who Cares
One Season
Anyway
Quittin’ Time
Another World
Mr Sellack
Train
Hallelujah Chorus
The Sound of a Tree Falling
Clothes Line Saga
The long lonely road to nowhere
My Sick Mind
Hammond Song
On the road to Fairfax County (with Paul!)
A prayer
Jesus Shaves
Yakkety Yak

Like a lot of my musical development, my first exposure to the sound of The Roches came via Robert Fripp’s “Exposure” album, but this was largely overshadowed by the band’s guest appearance on the cartoon show “Tiny Toon Adventures” circa 1989 when they appeared as “The Roaches”. Clever, eh? It had been a long time since the Roches had played together, let alone playing in England, so I wasn’t going to miss this concert.
As it was a Sunday and there was no Congestion Charge or parking restrictions, we decided to drive to the venue and I was mightily pleased with myself when I managed to navigate us to the road adjoining Gordon Street where the theatre is located and we were just a hop and a skip away.
We took our seats and the three ladies came on stage promptly and started with “I Don’t Have You”, a song I wasn’t familiar with as it came from Maggie & Suzzy’s new album “Why the Long Face”. After this came the almost obligatory “We” as this song serves as the band’s introduction to the audience. It was funny because all the references to how long the band had been together and performing were changed to “forever” and faces were pulled to illustrate the passage of time.
Material was played throughout the career span of the band, though there was a lot of emphasis placed on the newest album at the “Zero Church” project, which featured people’s prayers set to music. A good healthy selection of songs were performed from their debut album and these were greeted with healthy applause and recognition. I was happy because they played two of my absolute favourites “Quitting Time” and “The Hammond Song”. OK – on the latter we didn’t have Fripp’s heart-melting solo, but it was still powerful anyway and my old eyes became moist.
What I really like about this concert was the atmosphere of good humour and support from the audience. I had never experience such a feeling during my concert-going history. It was a really pleasant feeling and you felt that the audience was 100% behind the audience – though I expect this might be due to the fact that the band hadn’t played in the UK for over 15 years.
After “The Hammond Song”, some wag shouted out for “The Road to Fairfax County” and said that he’d die a happy man if he heard it. The ladies offered him up on stage to help with the lyrics has they weren’t quite prepared for this act of spontaneity. After much cajoling and insistence from the audience, Paul (the guy who asked for the song) sheepishly took to the stage and they played his song with him helping out with the words. Mind you, he needn’t have worried as the audience were doing a great job of singing along. It was a nice human touch to the evening.
They ended with the old song “Yakkity Yak” which was performed as an audience participation moment, but I felt I was the only one shouting out “Don’t come back!”. It was a really great concert and one I’ll remember for a long time and we even got to see Terre Roche’s daughter perform. She came on after the interval to perform a song she had written and it was the first time she had performed publicly. Again, despite a false start, there was much support from the evening.
My only criticism is that some of the latter material, their more “poppy” songs, were forgotten and it would have been nice to hear some of those. But if you like the Roches, you must catch them. They are playing a couple more dates in April, I believe. If you don’t like them, but like a good tune, great voices and good humour – go along anyway. It was a worthwhile 2 hours to spend in London.

REVIEW: Imation 4Gb Micro Hard Drive

The digital domain impinges on our life from every angle; from digital photography to downloadable music, the need for data storage on the move is something that even the average technophobe appreciates. The new 4Gb Micro Hard Drive is one such solution and is a USB 2.0 device aimed purely for storage. It’s backwardly compatible with USB 1.1 so there shouldn’t be any problems connecting this to PCs and Macs, though if you are using a operating system that’s older than Windows XP, you will need to install some drivers (included or downloadable from the Imation website).
The unit itself is very solid and takes the shape of a padlock, the plastic loop unhooks and doubles as the USB connector. THe body of the drive is made of brush aluminium and there’s something quite satisfying just fiddling with this in your hand. When connected to a PC, it appears as a detachable hard drive and you can just drag and drop your files straight to it. If you are transporting sensitive data, free encryption software is available from the Imation site to protect your files.
Using it is is a synch, but I was alarmed to notice that after a few minutes of use, the outer casing became quite warm to the touch. This is the only technical fly in the ointment as the hard drive does exactly what it aims to do with aplomb. My reservations about it stems from the fact that you can buy solid state memory cards of a similar capacity more cheaply and they don’t have any moveable parts that might fail. It also takes up more space than your average memory card and could be considered as bulky. I can’t see this being a popular product, but instead being adopted by geeks and aesthetes who wants something mysterious to clip onto their bags as a talking point. I think in terms of portability and reliability, you’d be better off spending your money on solid state memory instead.

The Imation 4Gb Hard Drive has been designed to resemble a padlock

The rubberised loop unfurls to reveal a USB connector

This is the tiny hard drive that lurks beneath the brushed aluminium casing

Here’s an alternative view of that tiny drive
For more information, visit: http://www.imation.com/products/micro_hard_drive/index.html


I love Henry Frayne. There, I said it. I know it can sometimes be difficult for men to express their emotions, but Mr Frayne (and to some extent Leo Abrahams) occupies a place in my heart labelled “Underrated Guitarists that I empathise with”. I first encountered Frayne and his band Lanterna, which is really just him and a drummer friend, while perusing the eMusic website about five years ago. The first album I heard “Elm Street” instantly captivated me and I realised I had found something special and ever since that time I have followed the Lanterna sound.
This new album isn’t scheduled for release until March but I ordered mine direct from Badman Recordings and got it early. What annoys me abotu Frayne is how can this guy continue to produce consisitently good albums in such a short period of time. It’s bugging me! But seriously, prolific must be Frayne’s middle name. This new album serves up more of the same, and that’s not a bad thing, if like me you enjoy epic, cinematic, instrumental guitar music.
Lanterna’s sound is that of a the simple soul. Optimistic, panoramic, sunny, the road leading to the horizon: that’s the best way to express what I hear and feel when I listen to a Lanterna album. Of course, this music isn’t for everyone because some would consider it “fey” or too simplistic to rate him as a guitarist because he doesn’t play a million notes a minute. What he does play is considered and from the heart. There’s driving delayed rhythm guitars that don’t sound a million miles away from U2, gentle acoustics thrumming with Frayne humming, one track almost sounds like the extended solo Brian May from Queen used to play during “Brighton Rock”, steady drumming from long-time collaborator Eric Gebow and 10 tracks that will transport you off to the heartlands of America. The album is expansive, panoramic and begging to be used in a movie soundtrack.
If you want a record to banish the winter blues, then look no further as I guarantee this will remind of the summer sun and blue skies that await us. And if you aren’t familiar with the music of Lanterna, this ten track album represents probably the best introduction. Buy it now (and don’t forget to buy a copy of Leo Abrahams’ “Honeytrap” album too). Alternatively, get a free trial on eMusic and download some of their albums from there.
Or you can download two sample tracks direct from the Badman Recordings website by click the links below:
“B Minor” from the album Elm Street
“Brightness” from the album Highways

When it comes to making music, I’m always on the lookout for new gear that will make my life easier. When I saw the Alesis MultiMix16 I thought I’d found something special. It’s a 16 input mixer, with an inbuilt FX processor and the ability to connect to your PC via Firewire and act as a 16-input audio card. Looking at the spec, I thought I would be able to replace four pieces of equipment (my current mixer/external effects/compressor/sound interface) with one.

However, my experience of the Alesis equipment left a lot to be desired. Opening the box, I was very impressed with the general construction of the mixer. It has a metal chassis and good solid knobs, though the channel sliders were a bit plasticky. Operation seemed simple, install the drivers, connect the mixer and then connect your music equipment to the mixer. Unfortunately, my PC didn’t want to recognise the equipment on the first pass. So I visited the Alesis website and downloaded/installed the latest drivers, as you do.

On the second attempt, with the new drivers, my PC recognised the mixer and I thought I was in business. Unforunately, I had major issues when getting it to work with recording software SONAR with a number of the inputs failing to be recognised in the standard ASIO mode. Switching to WDM mode rendered the interface useless with it juddering and stuttering and crapping out at every opportunity.

But this time I was getting a little frustrated and this frustration was compounded by the fact that the signal output from the PC was significantly louder than the input from my equipment. Even though I tried to get a clean, loud signal, my eardrums were nearly burst by the output from the PC. No matter what I did, I could not get a decent balance between the input and output signals.

I tried using the mixer with the supplied Cubase software, but I am not a big fan of that application for audio recording. Anyway, the mixer worked better with Cubase and to me it seemed as if the mixer had been designed with this audio software in mind and that there was no way I was going to get any satisifaction with SONAR, my software of choice.

This was not good. It suddenly got a lot worse when I selected a stereo pan delay on my FX processor. This makes the guitar signal bounce from ear to ear, but in this case I noticed that the signal seemed really flat. At first I thought that my ears were blocked and then it dawned on me that the output from the headphone socket was coming back in mono, yet it was a stereo signal when played back a recording from the PC. What this means is that you could play a lovely stereo piano sample and live it would sound mono, yet when you played back the recording it would be stereo as intended. It was at that moment that I realised I needed to get a refund immediately.

I double-checked with The Missus that my ears weren’t on the blink and she agreed that there was something fundamentally flawed with this mixer. We immediately packaged the item up and got it ready for return. On paper, this seems like an ideal solution for anyone with a small studio in need of major space saving, but it has to be the singularly worst piece of audio equipment I’ve ever used and it’s a crying shame because if the MultiMix16 had worked as intended it would be a first-class piece of kit. My recommendation to anyone thinking of buying this item is not to until Alesis fix all the problems.

RRP: £385
Website: www.alesis.com

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