11 August 2010

CD REVIEW: Eloy - Visionary (2010, Laser's Edge Records)

A few months back I received a package in the mail.

Now, I know this is an incredible surprise to all of you. I also know that the previous sentence drips with facetiousness and sarcasm. But go with me on this one, OK? I’ll do my best to make it worth your while.

So I opened this package, and inside the bubble pack mailer was a copy of the newest album from German legends Eloy, titled Visionary. This was a cool little surprise, and I like surprises. I especially like surprises when it comes to reviewing things, because often those are the discs I end up really loving. This was doubly a surprise because this would be the first Eloy album I’d ever be hearing.

Yeah, I hear your gasps. Go on, you’re entitled.

But let’s face it, it’s not like I can possibly have listened to every band that’s ever played progressive music. I’d heard of Eloy, of course, but as for hearing them, well…I’m sorry, I just never got the chance. This is a boon and a bane. On one hand, I can listen to Visionary without being burdened by the past…I can listen to it for what it is, rather than what it’s possibly not. On the other hand, this lack of familiarity is a detriment, because I can’t make that comparison. This may be the best album the band has ever done, or it may be utter drek compared to their back catalogue, and I won’t be able to tell you that at all.

But enough of that for now…

Visionary is a mostly song-based affair…it is lyrics heavy, and songs aren’t overly extended; the longest piece on this album, ‘Mystery (The Secret Part II)’ is only 9 minutes long. In some ways, I could make sound comparisons to Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason…it’s a more riff based sound, rhythms are a bit more basic, with perhaps more keyboards than that release. Guest artists add female vocals to a few tracks, deepening the comparison to later day Pink Floyd, while the addition of flute on two tracks is a nice little surprise.

‘The Refuge’ opens things up in fairly heavy manner. While the actual opening for moments are filled with keyboard washes and some harmonics, when the song kicks in, there’s no mistaking this as a light affair. This is one of the quicker pieces on the album, with some of the aforementioned flute work a lilting extra voice. Klaus-Peter Matziol’s bass playing is enjoyable, and had it been mixed just a bit higher might have been one of the highlights; as it is it’s just this side of being a lead instrument. Frank Bornemann’s vocals will take some getting used to, I think…his voice is distinctly German, and even though he is singing in English, his voice is noticeably accented. It is less this accenting that distracts, and more the actual tone of his voice. It lacks a certain strength that I think would allow for a more forceful delivery of the band’s lyrics. I have no complaints about his guitar playing, however; his lead work is very good, and he has a great rhythm tone as well.

‘The Secret’ is a slower composition, nearly 8 minutes in length, opening with a very mellow bass and rum pattern. Some very nice, spacy synth and keyboard work rests overtop this bed, while Bornemann’s vocals are heavily processed, a vocorder effect completing the scene musically for this much more space rock oriented composition. Some of the keyboard voice choices seem a little off; while there are some great, bubbly synth patches selected, occasionally a bright, almost carnival-esque tone is heard, and it pulls me out of the song. The slower space elements are great, but the choruses just don’t fit in as well, with a more strident, military beat and the preponderance of mis-matched patches.

Strident beats work much better on ‘Age of Insanity,’ a melodic mid-tempo rocker with hooks big enough to be seen from space, and choruses that could easily be sung along to in concert. Vocals are nicely double tracked and layered, and Bornemann’s guitar solo at 3:30 is very enjoyable, if not completely incendiary. I will admit that some of the bridge/chorus sections feel a bit pasted on or perhaps unnecessarily added on to pad out length, but in the end I can’t quibble too much, as this is probably my favourite piece on the album.

‘Summernight Symphony’ would be my other highlight. Almost a 1980’s power ballad, it’s filled with glistening, chorused guitars, female backing vocals, and some reasonably lush orchestrations. Honestly, the title reminds me of Abba (well, to be honest, it reminds me of Therion, who covered Abba’s ‘Summernight City,’ and whose version was the first I’d ever heard), and while I certainly didn’t expect the song to remind of them (or of Therion), I also didn’t expect the degree of arrangement that I heard here. It may not be a typical Eloy song (I don’t know), or at the very least typical of this album, but it’s a good one, and a song I return to a bit when listening to this album.

The ‘epic’ on Visionary is ‘Mystery (The Secret Part II).’ Klaus-Peter Matziol’s bass work is again a highlight, nice and present in the mix and our first melodic instrument. A fairly simple drum pattern gives him plenty of room to work, and laid back keys allow even more room. The song is lyrically dense; so much so that in the booklet that accompanies this release, they take up nearly a full page justified both left and right. It’s a slow builder of a piece that adds additional layers of voice, or guitar at gradual intervals, almost organically. I wish this song had the some kind of melodic hooks that ‘Age of Insanity’ or ‘Summernight Symphony’ had; it’d have been so much stronger for me if it had.

‘Thoughts,’ the album closer, is a bit of an anomaly. While it’s every bit as dense lyrically as the rest of the album, it’s more an acoustic piece in a similar vein as Pink Floyd’s ‘Pigs on the Wing.’ It might have made a nice respite in the middle of the album; tacked on the end it feels a little slight and more easily overlooked.

Visionary is a tough album for me to review, and it’s not for the reasons I outlined above. It’s always easy to review something that you really, really like; conversely, it’s just as easy (and I hate to admit it, but sometimes almost more fun) to review something that you don’t like. It gets frustrating when you are trying to write about something that you genuinely feel pretty neutral towards. I’ve taken a good bit of time to listen to the album, to absorb it, and in the end, I come back to the same conclusion. It’s not bad, nor is it stellar. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s motivated me to check out their older releases either, which is what I had hoped.

Track Listing:
The Refuge 4:54
The Secret 7:44
Age of Insanity 7:55
The Challenge (Time to Turn Part II) 6:43
Summernight Symphony 4:27
Mystery (The Secret Part II) 9:01
Thoughts 1:24

Band Members:
Frank Bornemann (lead vocals, guitar)
Michael Gerlach (keyboards)
Hannes Folberth (keyboards)
Klaus-Peter Matziol (bass)
Bodo Schopf (drums, percussion)

Anke Renner (vocals)
Tina Lux (vocals)
Volker Kuinke (flute)
Christof Littmann (keyboards and orchestrations)
Stephan Emig (percussion)

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