26 August 2010

CD REVIEW: From.UZ - Seventh Story (2010, 10T Records)

Three years ago I was sent a copy of Audio Diplomacy, the debut album from Uzbekistani fusion band Fromuz (quite the appropriate name, no?). At the time…and I have to do this from memory, because I can’t find the old review in my archives anywhere (and the site it was written for is no longer active in the same way it was)…I was not only engaged by the music, but by the ballsy choice to pack the album with a DVD of the band playing the music (along with, if memory serves, an extra track or two) live in concert. It did a lot to endear the band to me, and it really increased my enjoyment of the music as a whole.

Somehow along the line I missed their sophomore release, 2008’s Overlook (a situation I hope to remedy soon). I picked back up with the band this year, now with a bunch of new members and a slightly modified name (From.UZ), via the release of their third album, Seventh Story. I told the extended bit at the beginning about Audio Diplomacy and its accompanying DVD because the band has done something similar for Seventh Story, albeit in two separate releases…the studio album and a live DVD entitled Inside Seventh Story.

This article will be focusing on the studio album, with a review of the live DVD to follow in the near future.

The first thing I should mention about Seventh Story is that it’s long. Well over 78 minutes, actually. If you have been reading my blog for a while (and if you haven’t, welcome!), you know by now that I rail against long albums. I find them, generally speaking, to be overly padded, stuffed with filler, and weaker than a more judiciously cropped release might be. I’d sooner listen to a 40-minute album that leaves me wanting more than an 80-minute album that I am yawning half way through. And having said all that, I’ll say this…I’m not sure what I’d edit or leave out on Seventh Story. I’m not saying this because I think the album is perfect. I am saying it because I think the individual compositions are well written, and while 4 of the seven pieces are long (the shortest epic is 11:50, the longest just over 20 minutes), they never lag or feel flabby.

I am familiar with the bad as they once were, so hearing vocals on ‘Perfect Place’ was a complete and total shock. Was this in fact the same band I once listened to years ago? Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very pretty acoustic ballad, with nice vocals from Vitaly Popeloff, but this is nothing at all like the band I knew. 4 minutes later, any fears that a new line-up had irrevocably changed this band are wiped away. Comfortably the longest composition on Seventh Story at 20:01, ‘Parallels’ has little in common with the Yes song of the same name and a hell of a lot more to do with ‘YYZ’ by Rush. An unfair comparison? Perhaps. But the riff, the rhythm, it all brings to mind that instrumental, yet it is so much less a copy and more an unintentional homage, I think. It grooves. It grooves hard. Ali Izmailov burns on his drum kit, Popeloff rips on guitar, and Sur'at Kasimov’s bass playing is like a flurry of punches, always spot on time, locked in, powerful and pulsing.

‘Desert Circle’ follows, with a neat bit of staged dialogue between a mother and daughter (with the daughter’s ‘poem’ repeating lines from ‘Parallels.’ She’s got a cute voice, and her ‘So…how do you like it?’ never fails to get a smile from me) over synth soundscapes leading into some emotive, blues based soloing from Popellof. This isn’t to say it’s all bent notes, though there’s plenty of them. Long sustained lines lead into flurries of hammer ons and pull offs, and when the rest of the band kicks in with a pumping four to the floor beat, the mix is complete. This is totally a showcase of Popeloff’s guitar skills, and he steps up and takes the spotlight with ease. I should also point out the little keyboard bits here and there, which for some reason remind me of the menu music from Final Fantasy VI (III here in the States). This isn’t a criticism, just an odd thing I can’t get rid of no matter how often I listen.

‘Bell of the Earth’ is, at 3:16, easily the shortest piece on the album. It’s also an instrumental, featuring Ali Izmailov on tubular bells. The first time I listened to Seventh Story this was the first track that jumped out at me (even more so than the opening vocal track), and it’s still one I really enjoy. It’s peaceful, airy, almost sacred sounding at times. I love tubular bells, so that helps. The piano playing from Igor Elizov certainly doesn’t hurt, nor do the synth contributions from Albert Khalmurzaev. It’s really a gorgeous little tune, ‘Bell of the Earth,’ showing the band can craft a tasty little compact instrumental just as easily as their lengthier, more sprawling epics.

‘Taken’ opens with more staged dialogue over a quaint Elizov piano line. When the band picks things up the song shifts gears in a major way, with processed vocals that sound like they were recorded across a staticy CB radio and a driving beat that is perfect for cruising down the highway. The synth solos around 7:00 are a particularly nice bit, and while I am not sure if it’s Izmailov or Khalmurzaev playing them, I love them. They’re stately, grand, and almost pompous in the best possible way. Great selection of synth patch, great playing, perfectly matched to the song.

One last lengthy bit to go on Seventh Story, and one might be willing to accept of the band was flagging a bit. After all, at this point we’re over an hour into the release. Thankfully, From.UZ has a bit left in the tank, and 'Influence of Time' seems to offer up one last burst of energy before vapour locking up. This song reminds me the most of the group’s first recordings (as Fromuz), while still being strongly of this iteration’s sound and style. There’s loads of changes, from full on electric fusion to lighter sections with plenty of acoustic guitar and buzzing synth. Izmailov needs to get singled out here for his ability to shift moods and styles in his drumming so quickly and easily. This isn’t exactly an easy song to come to grips with due to all the rapid changes, yet he seems to handle it like it’s natural.

Seventh Story closes out with ‘Perfect Love,’ another vocal track revisiting the musical themes and lyrics of ‘Perfect Place.’ It’s a great way to conclude the release, bookending it perfectly. Some edited bits from throughout the rest of the album lead into Popeloff’s vocals, backed this time by quiet electric piano, then strummed acoustic guitar. I think I prefer ‘Perfect Place’ as a song, but there’s no better way to wrap things up than this.

From.UZ has changed a lot in the past 3 or 4 years, yet the changes have been a natural evolution in what the band does. Seventh Story is a bit of a revelation to me, presenting a familiar band offering up something much less familiar. If you dug Audio Diplomacy or Overlook (or better still, both), you owe it to yourself to pick up Seventh Story. If you’re not familiar with the band at all, there’s no better way to discover their blend of energetic rock/jazz/fusion than this.

1. Perfect Place 4:04
2. Parallels 20:01
3. Desert Circle 16:13
4. Bell Of The Earth 3:16
5. Taken 18:09
6. Influence Of Time 11:50
7. Perfect Love 4:40

Ali Izmailov: drums and percussion, marimba, tubular bells
Igor Elizov: keyboards, synths, MIDI, grand piano, vocals
Vitaly Popeloff: electric, acoustic, synth and fretless guitars, vocals
Sur'at Kasimov: bass guitar, double bass
Albert Khalmurzaev: keyboards, synths, MIDI, programming, sound design, 12-string guitar, vibraphone, vocals


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