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MARK KNOPFLER -
The Ragpicker’s Dream
Mercury 2002
Third album into solo career, Knopfler drinks a cup of nostalgia and drowses off to the misty hills.

“The Ragpicker’s Dream” sees former DIRE STRAITS leader meeting his ghosts. On the first glance, it’s the same murky thinker peeking out of the “Devil Baby” shuffle, yet a genuine, Transatlantic folk feel pervades this mostly acoustic record. “Fare Thee Well Northumberland” takes off in an a cappella manner to let in bluesy harmonica and the old bandmate Guy Fletcher’s boogie piano, and there’s no better example of where the country music comes from than the opener “Why Aye Man,” the “Auf Wiedersehen, Pet” theme, where Mark’s guitar sneaks and jives not unlike Rory Gallagher’s. To gain another quality at this stage of the artist’s creative journey takes emotional guts and, though not overtly exposed, emotions are aplenty in the “Quality Shoe” warm vaudeville or “You Don’t Know You’re Born” widescreen groove. Ragpicking can mean looking for a song everywhere but finding it is a dream come true.

****3/4
 

LONGSHOT – Asylum
Wake The Dead! 2002
French proggers dive deeper into the space opera domain.

Back in 1997, LONGSHOT had their first shot at fame with “The Cosmic Bacteria’s Experiences,” the opening part of a space opera trilogy. It took five years for them to produce a sequel, and impressive it is, even visually, with a stylish booklet illustrated by the story’s author, Thierry Guilleminot. They follow closely in the wake of the ’70s giants, creating their own unique blend of the obvious influences, the only problematic point being the vocals: an accomplished keyboard player, Michael Reese’s voice reminds Peter Gabriel’s – in “Armageddon” quite uncannily – yet vocal melodies are inferior to instrumental parts. Fortunately, the latter make a good portion of the album, both as solos and chapters of epic compositions. Traditionally complex structures feel elegant in pieces such as “In A Total Confusion” or “The Shining”, thanks to Reese’s synth layers and Phil Wake’s guitars, and sometimes sharp, U.K.-way, like in “Miracle Man”. Thrown into Alpha Centauri all this may be, yet there’s a folk thread hidden in “The Rosewell Report” which keeps the music down-to-earth and by a long shot tastier than many a neoprog ensemble.

***4/5
 

VARIOUS ARTISTS -
From Clarksdale To Heaven:
Remembering
John Lee Hooker
Blue Storm 2002
British boogie chillen pay tribute to the father figure – with his own ghost guesting.

It makes a little sense talking of the legend: old bluesman’s legacy is immense, and the best way to remember him is playing his music – that’s what this album is about. With an excepton of John Lee’s daughter, Zakiya, elegantly spanking through “I Want To Hug You”, and GREGGS EGGS presenting “The Business” – funnily done Bo Diddley-way! – which death got in the way of recording by Hooker, the bulk of “From Clarksdale To Heaven” comes from the best players of the British scene, all lined up to pay their dues to one of those who gave the sense to their own life.

The names alone may send shivers down the spine. When Jack Bruce and Gary Moore join forces one more time in power trio with Gary Husband on drums, the chill of getting to the very bone is guaranteed, in “I’m In The Mood” Jack’s voice deepening to go along his saucy bass lines and Gary’s eerie licks, for the guitarist to take the lead on sparse “Serve Me Right To Suffer” and shape it clear Chicago-style, like his hero Peter Green would do. Yet Greeny and his SPLINTER GROUP are here as well, slithering in the “Crawlin’ King Snake” skin with a harp in his hoarse mouth and that same masterstroke he rules his den with. This minimalistic approach, very suitable for Hooker’s pieces, is upgraded to jazzy jive Jeff Beck confesses nowadays, and if “Hobo Blues” only gets funked up, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” emerges exuberant with the Kingdom Choir adding a gospel swing to a tune so eloquent. The bluesmen circling around in different combination, this is not a time for the circuit to fade away.

The spirits are high for TEN YEARS AFTER’s Leo Lyons and Ric Lee, with Vince Converse taking predaciously to “Bad Like Jessie James” and “Ground Hog Blues” delivered by – who else? – Tony McPhee. The man who adopted the song’s title for the band of his returns the favor here splicing his bareback acoustic strum to Dick Heckstall-Smith‘s saxes to introduce their buddy Clem Clempson into “I’m Leaving” hard-bopping stride. All of them quite usual suspects, as well as Mick Taylor and Max Middleton hitting the boogie nerve with “This Is Hip”, less expected contributor is Gary Brooker, rarely a blues adept back in HARUM days, and his entourage of Andy Fairweather-Low and Henry Spinetti gloriously switching the rhythm from the “Baby Lee” organ-oiled shuffle to its piano driven companion, “Little Wheel”. A real celebration – and a fitting tribute.

And if it’s not enough, there’s a previously unreleased recording of John Lee leading Booker T. and Randy California through the Hendrix’s “Red House” that easily makes it altogether the Blues Album of the Year.

*****
 

RICHARD ASHCROFT -
Human Conditions
Virgin 2002
A sophisticated fellow telling his impressions with a verve.

That’s daring, to start off the album with an eight-minute epic but “Check The Meaning” is wonderful in its quiet desperation and languid yearning, and expands universally on a dreamily orchestral surge. An explanation comes with vibrant “Man On A Mission,” a sort of statement which opens up the singer’s mindset. In “Bright Lights” the philosophic angle is shifted to pitch musically somewhere on the Gange’s muddy banks with sharp guitars cutting through Talvin Singh’s tablas and Chuck Leavell’s meandering piano – and that’s as much rock ‘n’ roll as Ashcroft’s willing to serve now, when he sets alight while pondering melancholically over “God In The Numbers” or getting high with uplifting “Science Of Silence.” But his knack of a good tune is still on the rise, though already ripe, and Brian Wilson guesting on “Nature Is The Law” feels like giving a blessing to this English kid. And his condition’s much better now, by the way.

****4/5
 

THE LAWTON-DUNNING PROJECT -
One More Night
Classic Rock Productions 2002
Acoustic transparency or a see-through dressing of a delicious dish, the house is brought down anyway.

Getting to break the then-forthcoming "Steppin It Up" album to the public, John Lawton and Steve Dunning bravely took the risk of translating its emotional clarity on-stage. Though there hardly was a need to re-shuffle the songs for a set to parallel that of the record’s, most of the time the bravado works well, “Still Payin’ My Dues,” where John proves himself a blues harmonica expert, and title cut swelling with enviable panache. Still, studio arrangements don’t always feel as good in live environment: while uptempo “I’ve Been Hurt” and “Feelings” fare fairly, ballads like “Wise Man” or “Firefly / Come Back To Me” just float away off Dunning’s acoustic lace with only Rob Mack’s sax plucking the heartstrings. Now this is a full-band effort, and Erol Sora’s electric guitar makes Latino-tinged “I’m Alive” hotter than ever, yet it’s Lawton’s easygoing swagger that keeps it all reeling and bubbling with life, especially when it comes to directing “Don’t Kill The Fire.” Maybe a little more of a fuel supply would take it higher, but that’s just one more night…

****
 

VANDERHOOF -
A Blur In Time
SPV 2002
METAL CHURCH guitar preacher invites his parish for the second bout of classic rock.

What Kurdt Vanderhoof is sorely missing in the band he’s a guitarist with is traditional hard rock values. Hence, Brian Cokeley’s organ to beef up the brazen-breezy sound, the opener “30 Thousand Ft” strung on rock ‘n’ roll frame, and synthesizer to deliver a cosmic new age instrumental “Surface Of Another Planet”. It’s not stylization, streamline groove “Nowhere Train” showing a genuine love to the ’70s masters’ heritage, Drew Hart’s voice as strong in moody “3AM”, yet QUEEN-like prancing in “If There’s A Song…” looks too camp. Theirs is American thing, natural: witness the folk build-up to “High St.” with its accordion and flute making room in the middle for HEEP-esque electric-cross-acoustic jive hooked on Chris Jacobsen’s punctuated bass and Kirk Arrington’s drums (another CHURCH member). Indisputably catchy, a sonic blur in time it isn’t, rather a masterstroke.

***4/5
 

30 SECONDS TO MARS – thirtysecondstomars
Virgin 2002
One good actor-cum-rocker and one great producer don’t usually make it worthwhile.

If a fanbase of “Panic Room” star Jared Leto isn’t where you dwell, the credentials may come from Bob Ezrin sharing a producer’s chair with Brian Virtue. That didn’t work simply because “thirtysecondstomars” isn’t “The Wall” but a rather regular smattering of modern metal with only toes dipped into the space which brought forth Ziggy Stardust. A gravitation of the single “Capricorn” (there’s also a video on the CD) and “End Of The Beginning” can’t be denied though, as well as sonic preciseness, yet lack of a capturing tune on display keeps the band close to the nu-metal stable, all the clever programming notwithstanding. Close, yes – but Leto-led bunch are much livelier than the rest and even dared to tour prior to the album release. And judging by the “Welcome To The Universe” progressive buzz, there really may be a life on Mars.

***
 

RENAISSANCE -
In The Land Of The Rising Sun
Giant Electric Pea 2002

Read the interview

As if there weren’t all those intervening years, the symphonic rock finest make a brief comeback.

With some concert documents issued during the long hiatus, this double album could have been the second, after 1976′s “Live At Carnegie Hall”, outing with RENAISSANCE in existence. It could have been – but, unfortunately, it isn’t. Right before its European release the news broke that the ensemble ceased to be. Which may lead to a conclusion that reunion brought some bitter feelings along with one more studio record. Yet, if there were any, the performance taped in Tokyo on March 16, 2001, shows no sad note, and each moment of it comes filled with grandeur as way back in the ’70s, the band’s finest hour. The line-up here is different though, and original core of vocalist Annie Haslam, guitarist Michael Dunford and drummer Terence Sullivan is joined by David Keyes on bass and the singer’s long-time associates Rave Tesar and Mickey Simmonds on keyboards, the latter’s a part of 2000′s Reviews17#”>.

Two-keyboards format makes the band’s sometimes intimate sound bigger reaching an orchestral space, so illustrious in “Opening Out” and traditional epic finale “Ashes Are Burning” which highlights the musician’s improvisional abilities. Still, spare for the “Midas Man” back-up singing, the arrangements are not drastically different from those of 25 years ago. But with all the respect for the past, new material has a fair representation among the classic tracks, “Dear Landseer” sparkling in its burlesque angularity and “Lady From Tuscany” dissolving any doubt that Annie has lost some of her vocal power. Even more so, the singer introduces three solo cuts into the set of which “Precious One” is written by herself and Dunford anyway, and Michael Oldfield-penned “Moonlight Shadow” as perennial a favourite as RENAISSANCE’s own “Northern Light” that, in their lightness create a wonderful contrast to such a dramatic masterpieces as “Mother Russia” and “Trip To The Fair.”

Now, it all seems to be over. Like that song goes, “even the roundabout stopped going ’round,” while one can’t say, “voices of yesterday make not a sound”. This record is to be echoing for long – there’s a rich feeling of life in it.

*****
 

LIFEHOUSE -
Stanley Climbfall
SKG Music 2002
Don’t ask who this Stanley is, for the second album’s title stands for “Stand, climb fall.”

Following the chart success of their debut album, “No Name Face”, Jason Wade leads his trio back in action with “Spin”, a convincing roundabout of his guitar lines and Sergio Andrade’s bass rumble and soft spot in the song’s very center that makes the music transcends the mundane greyness. This melodicism brings the band outside the boring post-everything rock – even in post-September 11th melancholia of “Sky Is Falling” – and slings them back into late ’60s quest for the answer, like wonderful acoustic-wrapped “Just Another Name” and “Am I Ever Gonna Find Out” suggest. But with all the soul flowing through “My Precious”, some rays of sunshine would work out fine to light up the LIFEHOUSE’s sky.

****
 

SHOOM – Shoom
Shoom 2001
If “ethnocore” means getting to the folk melody nucleus, the Jerusalem quartet does that gracefully.

Playing ethnic music became a kind of a nowaday’s fad, and not reeking of superficiality and artificiality is a challenge. Not for SHOOM, it seems, whose take on Turkish and Armenian dances appears very natural in its heady mix of instruments both electric and authentic such as duduk and saz played by Ilia Mazia. That’s spicy – “shoom” stands for “garlic” in Hebrew – the woodwind sound and synthetic textures making “Kochane Tsagardzore” and “Taran Taran” elegiac drift lethargically groovy, and “395″ with its time signatures of 3/4, 9/8 and 5/8 highly progressive. Greek tune grown into “Stierlitz” and old Italian pavane into percussive heart of “Karshilama”, melodic target shifts as well, reaching trance-like depth in “Shoom”, the only original on offer. Moody, piquant – the devil kept outside.

*****
 

T. REX – Boogie On
N-M-C Music 2002
“Top it, Dylan!” challenges 20th century boy on the bonus interview disc. And indeed, there and then he was unrivalled.

No, Marc showed a great respect towards Bob, but there was no lack of self-confidence when he rated his own band as high, along other hot acts Bolan raves here about: FAIRPORTS and TOMORROW. Maybe, his tastes explain this collection that sees the elfish one both in his cleanest at 1972′s radio sessions and dirtiest as recorded in Rotherdam in 1971, yet it also clearly shows how short was the distance between Bolan’s incarnations as pixie baladeer and boogie chile. Calling unplugged “Spaceball Ricochet” “a sort of an autobiographical song” the artist links it directly to, say, “The Wizard,” while bearing more of a sense of humour which prompts him sing, “you’re my main man, Elton John,” in “Main Man” stripped of all the glam, just like “Jeepster” rendered hypnotic. Still, a frenetic acoustic ring of an almost 8-minute long “Cosmic Dancer” makes Bolan’s on-stage antics in “Hot Love” or “Cadillac” look bleak. And then, poignancy when Marc says, “I don’t feel I have a stamina to continue for the next forty years the way many people have,” and confesses, “I dance myself into my tomb.”

***3/4
 

PETER GABRIEL – UP
Virgin 2002
Shocking the monkeys or teaching the apes operate computer, the carper crawler comes all grown up.

“I’m afraid I can be devil man and I’m scared to be divine,” shrieks “Darkness” from its angular heart, and it’s like back to where Peter started his solo journey 25 years ago. Fragile piano drips through elephant roar of David Rhodes’ guitar that so even Fripp wouldn’t make the music more idiosyncratic. Sampled beats, cosmic sonics, Tony Levin’s bass – “Growing Up” maps out the pain of living: “My ghost likes to travel so far into unknown”, and deceiving serenity of magnificient “Sky Blue” looks spectral with Peter Green and Daniel Lanois feeding their weary licks to David Sancious’ elusive Hammond while Gabriel takes on his Otis Redding mask against THE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA shadowy presence.

Claustrophobia builds up into “I Grieve” and “No Way Out” where Danny Thompson plucks double-bass. That’s death ruling the game and sprawls onto reality, or reality TV, with trumpet-squeeze of “The Barry Williams Show”, a life turned so absurd one just craves to get in to get out, as Peter sang way back in “The Carpet Crawlers”. And here’s an echo in metallic ring of “My Head Sounds Like This” which contemplates “who’s left out and who’s left in.” There’s surely something lurking in outside gloom of “More Than This”, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s etherial voice in “Signal To Noise” leads to exploration of those empty spaces. “Receive and transmit,” pleads Gabriel against the orchestral backdrop. “The Drop” which could be Grand Finale is a gentle observation from a person who lives UP and leaves us below completely changed – and with a hope.

(And well, there’s no need to go to www.petergabriel.com for the lyrics – just throw the CD into the PC, like apes would do.)

*****
 

FOZZY -
Happenstance
SPV 2002
The heavy metal inventors wave their battle colors that are bleaker than their fantasy.

Legend claims FOZZY got fucked up by greedy Japanese showbiz tycoon, and whilst they fared poorly over there their music got ripped off by Dee Snider and other bastards. So if you’re not sobbing to the promo film, you’re a hard-headed freak and laugh your head off to all that spoof which involves WWF Chris Jericho dressed up as singer called Moongoose McQueen and his team of players turned someone else as well. Then, naturally, you wait for the music to be as entertaining, and here is where the ground becomes less special the second album into their career. Solid but spiceless, “To Kill A Stranger” owing more to nu-metal than classic clangor that breaks out of PRIEST’s catchy “Freewheel Burning”, so other covers – eight out of eleven – like “Mob Rules” and “Balls To The Wall” add little fuel to the fire burning low. A happenstance seems to be not happening, that is.

**1/2
 

Matthew D. GUARNERE – MDG
What’s Real Unlimited 2002
With a last name like this, music can’t be bad, could it?

To find where Matthew Guarnere’s heart lies, draw a line between “A Little Chemistry” and “You Never Have To Grow Old, My Dear”, the first carved on Steve Hackett template and the second dedicated to Freddie Mercury. The denominator? A progressive harmony in vocal and gutar department, although MDG prefers to leave solos to his friends and layer the voice bricks. Sometimes it looks quite rustic and heavy, as in “White Trash Wonder”, yet always gripplng for the said QUEEN approximation to be as convincing with pure emotion and no direct stylization in tow – and no trickery too. No harmonizers, just overdubs, wrapped in acoustic lace of “Where’s Everybody Gone?” vocals come crystal clear. Y’know, like a violin the other Guarnere produced.

****4/5
 

BECK – Sea Change
Geffen 2002
A time to turn the tide: illusions are gone for the simple pleasures to come in.

Before, Beck’s soul shone through the freak-out surface. Now, it makes the icing of the cake, or rather daily bread. That’s how opener “The Golden Age” drifts by, dreamily and world-weary, on the wave of acoustic and slide guitars. The “All Things Must Pass” scenario works well, and philosophy comes easy to relate to with “Fix yourself while you still can” urgency in the string-attached bass-driven psychedelia of “Paper Tiger” calling for the life-goal reassesment. From here springs the “Guess I’m Doing Fine” doubt and “Lost Cause” quiet desperation, all light and sad at the same time. Maybe “Round The Bend” is a touch too gloomy yet its twilight feeling sets the time and space alfoat – listen to “Sunday Sun” ticking on. “Someplace I’d like to go to let all I’ve learned tell me what I know about the kind of life I never though I’d live,” the blues leads Beck Hansen to the beginning of the album and out on the new route.

****1/3
 

ASIA – Quadra
Zoom Club 2002
Classic ASIA having a hit of the moment, fascinatingly ragged in places but invariably magical.

Not everybody in ASIA camp is happy with drummer Carl Palmer opening up his personal archives for these bootlegs to become available to fans eager to hear what the awesome foursome were like in their prime. “Quadra” comprises three shows spread over four CDs, and if there’s a couple live albums from 1990, when the founder members Palmer, John Wetton and Geoff Downes made a return with Pat Thrall on guitar, the concerts recorded in 1982 and 1983 are a coveted prize. No other axeman appeared able to reproduce Steve Howe magic, and the proof is the audience going wild during his acoustic numbers – “Beginnings”, “Valley Of Rocks” and especially YES’ “Clap” and “Ancient”. So maybe it’s significant that the 1982′s tape, the worst soundwise, kicks off in the midst of “Without You”.

That was ASIA’s first year, and the success of “Heat Of The Moment” single brought immense pressure to tour with not enough material, even though Steve, Carl and Geoff managed to pull on lengthy solos – Downes started weaving “Video Killed The Radio Star” into his keyboard festoons only in 1990 to compete with Wetton singing his pre-ASIA hits like UK’s “Rendezvous 6.02″, here on CD4, with no KING CRIMSON songs this time. Then, some revelations, not in the band going orchestral with “The Man With The Golden Arm” theme or Wetton unleashing his bass as in CRIMSO days, or Palmer’s interview in the booklet but with “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes”, John’s voice sounding gentle against simple piano lines, and “Midnight Sun” being played year before its release on record. 1983 saw ensemble much more self-confident, as documented on two discs: tight vocal harmonies and elaborate arrangments – Palmer’s staccatos and Downes’ organ frantics in “The Heat Goes On” and “Eye To Eye” bass-piano interplay – not overshadowing, though, the melodies’ pop appeal.

The atmosphere of all the three shows feels fantastic, tears must have been cried to “The Last To Know” and laughter meeting Wetton’s joke about “a thing on the album about eyes” prefacing “Open Your Eyes”. Beyond all the enjoyment of wonderful music, “Quadra” definitely is an eye-opener, in the ASIA jubilee year giving a long glance back to the glorious days of wildest dreams.

****4/5
 

RIOT -
Through The Storm
Metal Blade 2002
Forgotten rebels are far from dead and hold some surprises for the faithful.

Back in the ’80s, RIOT walked the thin line between real metal and glam and are back now when the genres become fashionable again. Whatever the reason, emotions are aplenty to fill Mike DiMeo’s matured voice to the rims and pour brilliant Irish santiment into instrumental “Isle Of Shadows”. The title track grips to the heart even more, Mark Reale and Mike Flyntz’s harmony guitar solo casting shadow of sadness for the days gone by, but opening “Turn The Table” sounds fresh and easy on the roll (hey, that’s Bobby Rondinelli drumming!), just like instrumental finale – exquisite, three acoustic guitars, take on “Here Comes The Sun”. Sandwiched between them are solid cuts with edgy riffs and big choruses, “Chains” feeling destined to be a stage favourite and swings no less than U.F.O.’s “Only You Can Rock Me”, a blueprint for crowd rocker reproduced here without major revamping yet the message is shared completely. Not the rebels anymore, RIOT ride the storm proudly.

****
 

DAVID CROSS -
Exiles
Cleopatra 1997
Former CRIMSON violinist restores old glories with old friends in tow.

David Cross is a great master of rock violin, otherwise he couldn’t fit the most adventurous KING CRIMSON line-up of 1972-1974 alongside Robert Fripp and John Wetton, both featured on this magnificient solo album. Yet with Wetton singing the title cut as superbly serene as he did on “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic”, it’s different now, Paul Clark and Peter Claridge’s heavy guitars offset by the liquid violin, electric not acoustic this time. And then there’s “Tonk”, an angular embodiment of idiosyncrasy dispatched with help from two grim rippers, Fripp riffing and Peter Hammill tearing the throat, and equally nervous Latin-shaped “Troppo”. Eloquently-titled “Fast” and Chinese-tinctured “Slippy Slide” are as intense and offer a time-lift to the mid-’70s concert improvisations, groovy and vertiginous, while “Duo” sees a bow lazily and vibrantly crossing the strings over pacific synth foundation to set a scene for strangled-voiced Wetton’s philosophical musings in “This Is Your Life”, with coda reintroduced in closing “Here” – that’s where “Exiles” full circle end. Ruptorial and rapturous artefact.

****4/5
 

GEOFF TATE -
Geoff Tate
Sanctuary 2002
QUEENSRYCHE warbler bravely going solo into never never land.

The band he’s a singer with treading the path between prog rock and metal, Tate had a hard choice to make but on his debut treads some strange territory. The brilliant jungle groove and gentle piano of opening “Flood” take the singer into Peter Gabriel’s domain and “Forever” is a heady mix of electronica and soul, yet in “Helpless” this balance between computer-based textures and natural acoustic leanings becomes a tad awkward – amazing flamenco solo over dance beat! From then on the drift tends to be keeping to the moody balladeering, not very touchy in “This Moment” though quite dramatic in “In Other Words”, heart worn on the sleeve for a few to pay attention. Despite occasional riffs, rather sharp in “Off The TV”, and heaviness gained towards the album’s end, it’s definitely not for the ‘RYCHE fans.

***1/4
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