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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Estradasphere

Palace of Mirrors

Review by Gary Hill

I’ve read reviews of this CD that say that lineup changes have hit the band hard and as a result this is the weakest disc they’ve released. If that’s the case, these guys must be one of the best progressive rock bands ever. While this is not the best disc I’ve heard, if this is inferior to the rest of their catalog, then I can’t see anyone touching them. I’m amazed at the sheer mix of elements that make up this sound. These guys wander between classical music, big band, hard rock, soundtrack textures and even metal and other sounds. And they do it all with an instrumental mode that never gets old or tired because they keep changing it up. I can pretty well guarantee you’ve never heard anything quite like this (Birdsongs of the Mesozoic probably are about as close as you’ll get), but if you like adventurous progressive rock you cannot miss this one. It’s one of the “must have” discs of the year.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2006 Volume 5 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Title
Dissonant atmospheric space sounds lead off the CD. This is just an exceptionally brief introduction.
Palace of Mirrors
Piano and strings start this in a beautiful and very dramatic way. As the rest of the instrumentation enters this seems to combine movie soundtrack textures with classical music. It shifts a bit later towards both rock and jazz lines of sound. They move it through a number of changes, but never seem to lose sight of the charm or beauty of the piece. There are also a number of musical themes here that call to mind ethnic world music. This one is definitely a winner, but the disc is full of them.
A Corporate Merger
The intro on this one has more of an acoustic jazz approach, but there are also elements that call to mind world music. They move it through a number of dramatic changes and it gets a bit weird at times. This one really reminds me quite a bit of Birdsongs of the Mesozoic. There is some klesmer music in the midst of this arrangement, too. They also manage to work in a bit of psychedelia on this mixture. Not content to stay in one place for long they include a violin solo over the top of a funky backdrop for good measure. We even get some tasty lead guitar work on this one. It even turns just a little metallic towards the end with its frantic whirling dervish approach. Although everything on this disc is strong, this might be my favorite cut. At over eight minutes this is the longest cut on the CD.
Insubstantial Liberation
A four-part suite, this begins with neo-classical piano, then pretty atmospheric strains come over top. The song begins a very gradual building process from there, moving upward ever so slowly til a bit of a crescendo gives way to the second section. Pretty, intricate and fast piano serves as a backdrop for the vocals here and this feels a lot like Spock's Beard. They pump this up after a time by adding the rest of the band to the mix and pound it out til a new soaring mid era Genesis-like movement takes it. As the spoken vocals come over top, the Beard leanings return. They eventually drop it back to the piano that has been ever present then a Beard meets Starcastle section takes it before they launch into another new section - rather fusion-like. This doesn't last long, though, dropping to just keys, and as the vocals enter it feels a bit like Klaatu. This section grows and intensifies for a long time til a crunchy guitar takes over. They ramp up the speed here and launch into another frantic prog jam. Then neo-classical piano takes over. The band eventually moves this up into a new jam again, then rework it all into the next verse segment. They drop it down to just the rhythm section after a crescendo and the elements begin to come over top, at first seeming to struggle for control, then eventually jumping into a new crunchy and powerful jam that calls to mind a number of prog bands both old and new. This gets very powerful then moves to back to the verse segment. Piano takes it to end.
The Terrible Beautypower of Meow
A total contrast to the fury that ended the last cut, this comes in with sedate and quite classical elements. They move through this motif, intensifying the emotional impact and increasing the volume level while not altering the general approach. Eventually, though, they twist this out into a surf music meets cowboy sounds and movie soundtrack elements. While this thing is weird, it’s also quite cool. I wouldn’t consider it to be my favorite cut by a long shot, but it’s odd combination of sounds is quite effective and entertaining nonetheless.
Colossal Risk
This one begins in an exceedingly odd manner with voices and ambient sound effects forming the backdrop. Eventually world music themes with classic and soundtrack elements enter. Then it powers out into something that feels like it would have been at home as the soundtrack to one of the 1960’s James Bond movies. Surf music and Hammond B3 are married amongst this motif to create a definite retro sense. This song is one of the most dynamic on show here, though, moving through a wide range of odd textures and elements. It is another that calls to mind Birdsongs of the Mesozoic quite a bit.
The Unfolding Pause on the Threshold
Weird spacey ambience begins this one. A pounding enters and builds. Then a percussive mode with odd electronic sound effects takes over. This one is a pounding, stomping piece of weirdness that is oddly infectious. I can’t tell you why, but I like this odd cut a lot. This turns into a more King Crimson-like jam later, but is still extremely persistent in its attraction. Eventually it moves back out to the space sounds and then a more sedate and melodic movement takes over to eventually end the piece. It leaves the listener thinking, “I don’t know what just happened, but I like it.”
Smuggled Mutation
This starts with very definite world textures on classical strings. Eventually it becomes frantic with what feels like a Three Stooges take on a hoedown. They weave all sorts of other elements into this strangely twisted arrangement. This one is a bit too weird for me, but I have to acknowledge that it can be fun at points. It gets quite metallic in certain segments of the track.
Six Hands
A playful world music texture begins this. It feels like something from an old musical. Keyboard elements make up the sonic emphasis of this frolicking little piece. They drop it back to a slowed down version for a couple measures to end.
The Debutante
This comes in feeling like lounge lizard music and horns enter to carry it upward from there. This becomes one of the most typical jazz arrangements on the disc.
Flower Garden of an Evil Man
Sound effects and odd textures start this in an ambient manner. As it begins to grow it is still in a very measured and leisurely approach with sound effects continuing to play a role. After about a minute and a half, though, this twists around into one of the most captivating segments of the whole disc with a killer prog rock jam that calls to mind Djam Karet, BLUE, King Crimson and a lot more. This is another of my favorites on the disc.
Those Who Know...
This starts with a very Asian texture and builds on these elements. The thing is, while they keep the texture essentially unchanged in some ways they manage to weave all kinds of other elements into the mix. This is a very enjoyable piece of music that rather defies explanation. They twist it later into a klesmer like jam and then from there into something much more rock music oriented. What an odd and powerful jam this is. If you listen carefully you’ll even catch some blue grass and jam band sounds on this one. Later one it moves out into a killer jazz movement. This is one of the more dynamic pieces on the disc moving through a number of intriguing changes before eventually winding up right where it started all over again. This time around, though, as it comes back up from there they move it into something that at first feels a bit like a more symphonic take on Yes-like textures, but then shifts out into more pure classical music. From there they launch into an epic cowboy movie soundtrack.
Palace of Mirrors Reprise
This cut that carries on the sounds of the title track has a definite European texture. The thing that is rather annoying about it is the cheesy lounge lizard electronic percussion section. The retro keyboard sound fares much better, though. This one is cool, but definitely not one of the standouts. Still the creepy gothic horror film soundtrack type sound that this moves out into later is simply incredible. It wanders into space to end.
The Return
As good as the rest of the disc is, they definitely saved the best for last. This comes in feeling like what might have happened if the early incarnations of King Crimson had tried to do heavy metal. At about forty seconds or so a full on metal crunch enters, feeling a bit like early Rush. The thing is, an ethnic music sound along the lines of klesmer starts wandering over the top of this. Then the shift it around into a full Black Sabbath-like arrangement, but still those ethnic textures journey along the top. This moves through a number of changes after that, eventually shifting towards a full classical treatment. Then a mode that feels a lot like Yngwie Malmsteen takes the track on its next trek. After a time polka music comes over the top of this thrashing powerhouse metal arrangement. Black Sabbath eventually returns to provide the backdrop for this frantic ethnic jam. They move through a decidedly furious incarnation of the basic themes of this odd musical extravaganza. Then a more plodding metal jam takes over at around the four to four and a half minute mark. From this point forward the song just basically returns to some of its assorted themes. They rework and reinvent the lines and textures to create a new bent on it. It ends in the frantic modes. And you are left thinking, “wow!” 
 
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