VANGELIS – Oceanic (1996)

Review by: Nina A
Album assigned by: Alex Alex

Apart from tacky cover art, the 90s were also the decade of new age music made by weird Euro guys. But I like the smiling mermen and women on the cover here, they look far too happy and wholesome and really not sinister at all, and due to this I think they wouldn’t fit in well enough in some Sinbad or Odysseus tale, which is where you would expect your merfolk to show up.

Likewise, the oceanic journey in Oceanic is not very sinister at all – it’s a smooth sail from the triumphant send off of opening track “Bon Voyage” to closing track “Songs of the Seas”, which, if I have to be honest, sounds like the outro to a group meditation session in yoga class; prevented from reaching gorgeousness status only because electronica (especially in the 90s) tends to be so flat in sound. To Vangelis’s credit, however, every track on Oceanic is arranged well enough to not sound needlessly heavy, in fact to be even curiously comforting. Even the sweet little mermaids (or sirens as they are billed here) show up as soon as track two to murmur sweetly, and seemingly not with the intent to put you to sleep and bite off your head, but rather to rock your little ship on gently and lovingly on the pillow of their voices.

And here I want to apologise to Alex for putting off reviewing this masterful record for so long. I aspired to attempt to be as funny as he usually is in his reviews, but I realised a lot of water has to flow through (Bulgarian expression) and I have to have eaten a lot of bread (another Bulgarian expression), before I can even hope to bow at the feet of the master. Still, during that time I played Oceanic a lot, and I grew fond of every track on this musical oceanic sightseeing journey (for yoga class ®).
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ECHO AND THE BUNNYMEN – Ocean Rain (1984)

Review by: Alexander Shatkevich
Edited by: Dina Levina
Album assigned by: Jonathan Moss

I think it’s symbolic that my first review will be about an album that was released in the year of my birth, 1984. The first thing that came to mind at the first listen – the album didn’t get old in any way. It’s like all those synthetic apples from supermarkets that always are red and fresh. But in a difference from apples, Ocean Rain is nowhere near to the famous synthetic and drum-machine sound of the 80’s that I hate so much.

Ocean Rain is still very fresh, and from the very first sounds it hooks you by the arse and holds you up until the very end. The mood and the atmosphere create a whole new world that you explore with Echo and the Bunnymen. On the cover of the album, the band members are knowingly pictured in a boat making their way through an underground cave. When I listen to Ocean Rain, I can’t get away from imagining them sailing in that boat and singing all the songs, though I wonder where the 35-piece orchestra is hiding. But all the musicians are there, believe me, and their sound is reflecting from the cave walls and fulfills the album with lush and charm.  

Actually, in spite of all of these cave allusions, it’s only the background on the cover – the main thing is the boat. Ocean Rain is a journey album, full of ordeals, gloomy experiences and courage. From the very beginning you’re sailing away with the band and not on a boat but on a large ancient ship. Uncertainty and storms are waiting for you, but maybe in the end you will find your Shangri-La nevertheless.

The album opens with bombastic violins and cellos, followed by the whole 35-piece orchestra and the band. The name of the opening song is Silver, just like the name of the famous pirate from The Treasure Island. Silver is filled with the mood reminiscent of great discoveries and something unexpected. The ship swings on waves, the captain gives the last orders on the bridge, ladies on the pier look at the rising sails with admiration. What’s waiting for us ahead? Silver is the kind of a song you always want to return to from time to time; and when you do, you can’t keep yourself from listening to the next one and then the whole album. It’s like with a good film, when you know the ending, but want to live thru the whole story with these characters once again. An excellent beginning, it gives a tone to the whole album.

Nocturnal Me begins where Silver ends. The orchestra is there, and it’s way more heroic and decisive. The ship had sailed away and it’s now ready to face the uncertainty. It’s a beautiful and atmospheric composition, full of concerns and fatalism. “Do or die. What’s done is done. True beauty lies on the blue horizon”. Powerful drums beat out the march and lead the song. After a while, the affected bravado set by Silver fades away, the pier and the admiring ladies are long gone, and you’re digging into fears and doubts. As the song continues, the fears are growing bigger and bigger. “Take me internally forever yours nocturnal me”. Now, you almost don’t hear the march, but only the gloomy orchestra and the melancholic voice of Ian McCulloch. It’s like the sound of doom that the sailors of Captain Magellan felt when they were leaving Portugal. Will they find the way to India or the end of the world? Generally, they had more chances to face the end of the world and terrible death than reach other lands. How can you reach India sailing away from it? Round the Earth? Ah, bullshit!

But after a dark night there’s always dawn. The sun is rising and rays of light are playing on the waves, and it seems there is still hope. It’s Crystal Days. For me this song is a little bit weaker in comparison with the first two. Maybe because of its light and optimistic atmosphere. But actually this lightweight feeling and hope are illusive. In the visible simplicity of Crystal Days hides the same dense sound and dim feeling of anxiety. I am not a fan of this song but it’s in its place here, and it gives a small emotional break before the new tests befall our sailors.

These tests are already there. On The Yo Yo Man we hear another dense and gloomy march. The sound of drums is so great on this album! Pete de Freitas is doing a fantastic job here and it’s a real joy to listen to him. The Yo Yo Man is wonderful and it’s one of those déjà vu feelings, when you listen to the song and you think “wait a minute, I think I’ve been knowing it for a very long time”. It’s like when you’re meeting with someone and after an hour of talking you feel like you’ve known each other for ages. Beautiful arrangement, hooks and twists are all there. It is a great song!

And after The Yo Yo Man there goes Thorn Of Crowns. It begins with eastern motives and is then followed by drum beat even more powerful than before. The drums here are not eastern, but very solid and distressing, bringing the feeling of anxiety. Drums set the mainline of the song and submit everything else around them to themselves. Thorn Of Crowns has really weird lyrics, and that’s the case when I don’t like it a lot. Stuttering McCulloch singing about cucumber, cabbage and cauliflower, what the fuck does he mean? Nah, I don’t wanna know. But on the sound scale it’s a great song. It sounds almost like The Doors. McCulloch shouts out the words just like Morrison and I always imagine him dancing one of those shamanistic Jim dances. The first side of the album ends on a mystic note and leaves us in confusion. What’s going to happen next? What will be the end of this journey?

The second side begins with a huge hit – The Killing Moon. It continues the basic theme of the album – fate, choice, predeterminancy. It’s a beautiful, melancholic song, and here the orchestra is shining once again. Grim violins and cellos bring a very dramatic and heroic sound to it. So even if the hero cannot fight fate, it sounds like he can. That’s the ideal way to continue our journey if you ask me.

The next song, Seven Seas, brings a little optimistic break to the record, as Crystal Days did on the first side. It is the poppiest song on the album, too simple for me and for this album. It’s no surprise that it was chosen as a single after all. I didn’t find any hooks or interesting bits going on here, Seven Seas is a rather plain and forgettable tune, especially after such great song as The Killing Moon. The only plus of Seven Seas is less orchestra so you can hear more guitars than strings. But as they’re not very interesting, there’s no real benefit from that, too. 

So let’s move forward to the next song immediately ‘cos it’s much better. My Kingdom has not much orchestra as well, but there are some great guitar work by Will Sergeant and light heroic vocals by Ian. The drums are powerful as usual. And as opposed to Thorn Of Crowds, here the stutter is okay. All those B-b-b-burn the skin and k-k-k-k-k-kingdom are very energetic and bring the drive to the not so very fast album. I like this song and I like the lyrics, too: “I’ve lost and I’ve gained and while I was thinking You cut off my hands when I wanted to twist”. And, thank you very much, now I know what the hell Boney Moroney is, the campaign against illiteracy is in action.

After the dynamic My Kingdom here comes Ocean Rain, the final song that gives its name to the album. It’s the end of our journey, peaceful and melancholic. When you listen to it you churn to the beginning. The blame is on the violins and cellos which are back, and they step forward once again. But if on Silver and Nocturnal Me they were powerful and broke out of the speakers, now they’re floating quietly like a river. And if in the beginning the strings were the sign of future ordeals, now they’re rays of hope that spills on the melancholic atmosphere of the song. Listening to Ocean Rain you may think that our bad feelings about the journey came true and we didn’t succeed, but the strings give hope that there’ll be another day and we’ll find our Shangri-La. I think it’s a really optimistic ending and I like this song very much.    

Ocean Rain is a beautiful album. Great arrangements, atmosphere, vocals, lyrics (exc. cucumber and cabbage, yuk). It’s very equable, which is both its strength and its weakness. Dialectic as would say Moss… or Hegel. The songs are so equable by their atmosphere, sound and rhythm, that I would say I’d like to hear some more variety. But on the other hand it has some light numbers such as Seven Seas or Crystal Days. The problem is, I don’t like them that much. My Kingdom is good, but the best songs here are melancholy and gloomy. Maybe I need the light numbers to be on the same level as Nocturnal Me, I don’t know. Even the light numbers have the same atmosphere and the viscous sound. In any case, it’s not a big problem at all. I like the concept of the album and I like that all songs are submitted to it. Anyway, almost every album has its ups and downs. And the downs of Ocean Rain are not very deep at all. Honestly, I can say that it has no weak song at all.

Ocean Rain is a great album from any side. When it was released it was marketed as “the greatest album ever made”. Of course it was not, but I think Echo and the Bunnymen had all the rights to say the opposite. It’s a truly great album and it doesn’t disappoint rock lovers even after thirty years had passed. It’s not the greatest album of all times, but it certainly deserves your attention. You don’t believe in advertising after all, huh? I don’t advise you to believe me, so if you’ve never listened to it, grab your legs and go find yourself a copy. Have a good listening!

ROBERT WYATT – Rock Bottom (1974)

Review by: Dinar Khayrutdinov
Album assigned by: Joseph Middleton-Welling

I have to start this review with a confession. I tried to crack this album for years and was never really able to get into it. I forever memorized Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom as an absolutely murky, depressing, tuneless and joyless experience, made even worse by some really pretentious atonal experimental instrumentation and very weird singing. God knows I had tried my best to appreciate this music – for instance, I read up on it, learned the background. You probably all know that story: former Soft Machine drummer Robert Wyatt fell from a third-floor window and was rendered paraplegic by the incident. When he almost gave up on life while staying in hospital, he decided to write and record this album. And I thought the album felt… exactly like something recorded by a man who just gave up on life. It felt hopeless to me. It literally was rock bottom. I could find no pleasure or aesthetic satisfaction found from listening to it. That was what I felt about this record some time ago.
 
But then I was assigned it in the reviewing game. That meant I had to listen to it again (oh God! no! fuck! not again! please!), but it also meant I could try and look at it from a different angle. Which I did. And maybe I could also try to re-evaluate this album and finally find good things in it. Which, can you believe it, I also did.
 
Rock Bottom is indeed a difficult listening experience but everything kind of comes together when you understand that murky, depressing and uneasy is exactly what this album is supposed to sound like. The title and the water-themed album sleeve are not coincidental either – the record does feel like drowning under water with next to no hope of coming to the surface. This IS an album about pain and suffering – and very genuine pain and suffering at that. But I also discovered one more thing when revisiting Rock Bottom: there IS hope amidst all this depressing stuff. And when you finally notice these glimpses (or even flashes) of hope, you also start noticing that this album does have place for some love poetry (some of the songs are dedicated to Wyatt’s wife), some cool jazzy sax solos, some legitimately great musicianship and even some humourous and silly moments (I have learnt to especially enjoy Ivor Cutler’s nonsensical poem recital with a funny exaggerated accent in Little Red Robin Hood Hit the Road)! At some point I simply understood that, even if still I don’t really enjoy this record that much, at least it’s nothing like anything else I have ever heard. It’s absolutely unique, and that probably is where its brilliance lies. As for the musical enjoyment part, well… I guess it is a matter of taste.
 
It is also highly possible that all music is purely a matter of taste and our appreciation of it depends on our background, current mood and other insubstantial factors. So try and listen to Rock Bottom. Maybe you’ll love it at once and it’ll become one of your favourite albums. Or maybe you’ll hate it at once, turn it off and forget about it forever. Or maybe you’ll just feel indifferent. But I still urge you to give this record a chance. It might take a lot of patience, but with some effort you can learn to at least respect this music, like I did.

STEVEN WILSON – Grace for Drowning (2011)

Review by: Ali Ghoneim
Album assigned by: Roland Bruynesteyn 

Steven Wilson has been behind many of the recent reissues of classic prog rock albums, and after listening to one his own albums, it’s easy to see why. This is a guy who is thoroughly familiar with the prog sound. Unfortunately, while that makes him suited to helming reissuing projects, it doesn’t help make albums like Grace for Drowning terribly exciting. The album faithfully reproduces elements of ITCOTCK-era King Crimson — the apocalyptic choirs, soothing mellotron, hysterical sax, etc. – and mixes them in with drum machines and some metal guitar heroics. The end product bears much of the form of a prog rock album, but in my opinion little of its spirit. I can’t put my finger on it, but the album comes off like the pet project of someone who is more of a producer than a songwriter, making all of the songs seem a bit perfunctory. Instead of being an independently vital and distinct work, Grace for Drowning ends up sounding like a generic calling card for Wilson’s skills as an excellent producer.  
To be fair, I should probably give his other albums a shot before I write him off like this.

ANIMAL COLLECTIVE – Prospect Hummer (2005)

Reviewed by: Alex Alex
Album assigned by: Schuyler L. 

Hilariously Google Play gives you “I Remember Learning How to Drive” instead of “I Remember Learning How to Dive”!

Thus already robots can work as art counselors!

When I was learning how to drive it was BOOM! BOOM! FUCK! FUCK WHERE!!!??? FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOU STOP FUCKING STOP!!!

It was interesting, challenging and very personal unlike the diving routine. What’s to learn about diving: you stand HIGH you touch WATER with your FINGERS. They also brought harp. At this point artistic robots must interfere AND THEY DID!

GLORIOUSLY COMPUTERS HAVE CONQUERED THE WORLD!

One can learn how to dive still, surely. Yet, with the above correction diving and driving is the same thing, only happening in parallel on different driving lanes. Or maybe you see water there. The operations are losing their names, a ticket to your concert is your driving license and this is not a typing mistake but the vision of the universal passage to Hell.

MUMIY TROLL – Morskaya (1997)

Review by: Irfan Hidayatullah
Album Assigned by: Dina Levina 

This is a weird, weird album (or at least kinda weird-sounding–for a pop album, that is). I have never subjected myself to more than one listen, but here goes my thoughts anyway.

The band did certainly make their way to make this album sound interesting, different, or whatever it is–there’s an unconventional chord changes here and there, there’s a crazy sounding keyboard/synthesizers, and the singer guy sings in a rather unconventional way, adopting a slightly vaudevillian (?) attitude. The band also insert a hook for every now and then–they certainly know how to draw the listener’s attention. There’s an attempt to diversify their songs too–unfortunately, in the end the album still does nothing for me. For the starter, the album feels deadly long–even though it clocks at 48 minutes in 14 songs, it feels like it should have been shorter. Maybe that’s because the lack of fresh musical ideas. (At sixth songs or so, I feel enough already, even though I’m getting used to their sound). The lack of musical ideas also means that in the end you’ll have a hard time distinguishing the songs, although the first six songs are quite, uh, tolerable.

Of course, the impression might be improved on subsequent listens.

MARILLION – This Strange Engine (1997)

Review by: Dina Levina
Album assigned by: Charly Saenz

The man who gave birth to this album declared himself a Man of a Thousand Faces in the opening song, and I expected an adventure, varicolored and bizarre. However, the faces he presents here are all samely and somewhat Bon Jovi-ish. Pleasant but a tad pretentious lyrics-wise, the first song is more or less okay.

Then comes One Fine Day, a retro little thing about rain and hope, and I’m hoping for something to happen. Still, all I get is some preachy obscure message and melancholy music I try hard to enjoy, up until the second when the nice dramatic effect given by piano and strings is violently murdered by the olden guitar, and all hope goes to hell.
I’m waiting for something strange and fascinating, but as the lyrics say, “beginning to wonder if we’ll wait in vain”.

After One Fine Day, we have 80 Days, all of them equally fine. ‘Tis an uplifting song in which the singer is gently trying to get sexual consent from someone while riding in a car. There is certain harmony in it, since this song is perfect for car rides, plain and optimistic. In the middle, someone from the horn section gets loose for a few seconds, but an invisible hand silences them quickly.

After the car ride we spend almost eight minutes in a meditative state in Estonia, being cosmic and monotonous. The xylophone is giving it a mysterious touch, the lyrics carry the same obscure wisdom the author is so desperate to preach. “I wonder if my rope’s still hanging from the tree”, he wonders, and I feel eternal gloom grabbing me by the throat, attempting to drown me in string-ridden despair.

The jolly Bon Jovi vibes are back in An Accidental Man, the rope around my neck loosens, but my will to live and listen further is shaken. “It’s not that I’m complaining, It’s all the same to me”, sings the man, and I nod mournfully. It feels like being in a particularly claustrophobic Stephen King story – we’re still riding in that car, but the scenery doesn’t seem to change.

Preachy again, the song suddenly breaks out into something African in the line of The Lion King, which is nice and refreshing. Also, nice flute. The author declares repeatedly that he’s carrying a message of hope, and I still want to believe him – we have the last, thirty-minute long song ahead of us.

I regret to say that it fails me.

P.S: Phrases like “the womb of time” in poetry and lyrics must be punishable by death.