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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Uli Jon Roth

Under A Dark Sky

Review by Gary Hill

I have always preferred the Uli Jon Roth period of Scorpions music to the stuff they put out afterwards. For those who don’t remember, Roth supplied the guitar (and a lot of the songwriting) to the early period of that band. So, with my taste for his musical stylings I had always wanted to like his solo music. Previous to this release I heard one other album of his. I think it was a double disc set – and I really didn’t like it at all. I found it to be boring and I could never get through it. So, it was with mixed feelings that I approached this release.

Have no fear, it is definitely not time to fall asleep. Nor is this even a disc that will have you hitting “skip.” You’ll notice I’ve put this disc in the progressive rock section. It is so classically oriented and so creative that I believe it fits there. This is a masterpiece and one of the best CD’s I’ve heard all year. I can pretty well guarantee you’ll find nothing else like this in this year’s crop of discs. There isn’t a track here I don’t like, although some stand taller than others. This is definitely a rocking vindication for the faith I’ve put into Mr. Uli Jon Roth. Thank you, Mr. Roth – it’s appreciated! I’m sorry I doubted you.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2008  Volume 5 at lulu.com/strangesound.
Track by Track Review
S. O. S.
This rises up gradually until air raid sirens come in and then a noisy Morse code “S. O. S.” merges with these and other sounds. This all fades away and nearly symphonic sounding music enters in textural ways. As sound bites come across the track becomes very classical in nature. The sounds that follow – classical music with a screaming guitar and choral vocals, reminds me a lot of Queen. It works through like this for a time and then drops back to classical strains to carry forward. From there it shifts to dramatic and nearly spooky sounds. An operatic male voice enters to sing atop more classical strings. This eventually works through and gives way to a direct tie in with the next track.

Tempus Fugit
Coming from the sounds that made up the end section of the previous track, this one seems to flow straight out from that one, carrying on its themes. It gets very dramatic, although it still feels quite classical – perhaps like something from an epic film or opera. As it shifts out into the next section – one that is still quite classical but more percussively driven – that opera comparison is more definite. This is cool music, but really not “rock” music at all. It crescendos around the two minute mark and then effects and other strings carry it from there in a more sedate way.
Land Of Dawn: Techno Man / Land Of Dawn / Lion Wings
This epic length (over eleven minutes in length) is the first rock composition of the disc. It rises up gradually and becomes a smoking hot jam that’s part metal, part prog and part classical. As this continues on it has a definite dramatic, theatrical progressive rock feeling to it. In fact, it reminds me of something that might have appeared on Jeff Wayne’s take on “The War of the Worlds.” It shifts out to an almost funky sound for the next segment. Eventually we are taken back to the fast paced territory until it resolves to a slower, dramatic movement. We drop down even further to something that feels rather like dramatic Celtic music and the cut is worked further by the addition of other vocals and strings. It becomes quite an evocative and powerful balladic structure for this section. Then Roth shifts things out again into fast paced music that is very definitely metallic prog. This segment doesn’t stay around long, though. Instead it serves as a short segue before they bring in the more theatrical sounds for the next movement. It threatens to explode out into frantic rock after a time, but instead they revitalize this theatrical motif, giving it a bit more teeth. This takes us into a melody driven instrumental segment that is certainly progressive rock in nature. They work this through a number of variations and alterations, building it with more classical elements seemingly with each repetition. It is taken into a faster section where classical elements dance around Roth’s soloing guitar and this is sheer brilliance! A new segment takes it from there, feeling a bit like something from Mike Oldfield. It shifts down after that to dramatic classically tinged ballad stylings for the final vocal segment. Effects segue into the next cut.
The Magic Word
With old world textures, this rises up from the last piece with a dramatic Arabic sound. It shifts towards more metallic sounds after a verse, but the central musical themes remain unchanged. The distorted wahing guitar is met with vocals and other elements to create a powerhouse. This is metallic, but I wouldn’t call it “metal” at all. It’s a killer track and one of my favorites on the CD. When we get into the “Stop killing” chorus it feels about equal parts anthemic metal and Jeff Wayne styled musical theater. A more scorching, metallic journey takes it later and we move through a number of new changes and alterations. This eventually takes the track out.
Inquisition
With neo-classical elements merging with a shredding guitar solo this feels like it could have come from an epic metal CD. This is a short instrumental interlude.
Letter of the Law
Coming straight from the previous track, classical operatic elements merge with hard rock in a motif that is creative and powerful. This is moved through a number of changes and alterations and although much of the instrumentation is rock in nature it stays classical in construction for quite some time. Then they shift it out into something that is decidedly progressive rock in nature. This then moves us into a reprise of the more operatic sounds.
Stay in the Light
A dramatic introduction gives way to a theatric ballad that has a lot of emotion. After the first verse Roth solos in a very melodic way. When they power this out into the chorus there is a moment or two where I’m actually reminded of Spock’s Beard. Still, this is hard edged and quite tasty. It gives way to a reprise of the more balladic elements to carry forward. Some more world oriented sounds are incorporated as they continue forward. This is anthemic and powerful. The “turn back home,” chorus section is especially infectious. The guitar solo that follows it is very tasty, too. It gives birth to an extended guitar solo section that is again quite tasteful and yet meaty. It eventually drops way down to end.
Benediction
This has a classic sound and is guitar oriented, but nowhere near metal. It becomes more classical as it carries on, but never shifts away from the central theme. It never breaks from being an instrumental either. They move it back out to a more powered up version of the introduction as they carry forward. It eventually turns up the classical sound to segue into the next track.
Light & Shadows
Rising up from the previous one, Roth’s guitar solos in wonderfully tasty patterns of sound. Vocals rise up gradually and they take this out into a moving melodious piece of music. It’s tied to the sounds of bands like Rainbow but also calls to mind prog rock a bit. As this becomes gradually more intense and powerful it again reminds me at times of Jeff Wayne’s work. This is a killer piece of music and one of the highlights of extremely strong CD. After a cool instrumental section serves as the climax it’s dropped back towards the balladic to good effect.
Tanz In Die Dämmerung: Destination Twilight / Morgenrot / Searchlights From Hell / Seelenschmerz / Inside The Titanic / Fama Errat / Requiem For The Nations / Morituri / Rex Tremendae / Star Peace / Tanz In Die Dämmerung / Silence
Roth’s final track is a nearly nineteen minute multi-part epic. The sounds of a storm lead us to the acoustic guitar solo section that at times reminds me of something from David Gilmour yet at other times calls to mind Steve Howe. Don’t get me wrong, this is decidedly Uli Jon Roth, but I hear echoes of these other guys at points. This skirts around flamenco music at times. The storm carries on as Roth solos and the music seems about to shift all the way into flamenco and then it drops way back down and dramatic musical elements begin to rise. An operatic vocal joins and we are back into classical territory. This works through in an organic, but dramatic way. Then at around the two minute and forty five second mark the song shifts out into some crunchy territory, the first rock we’ve heard on this piece so far. This has definite flamenco and classical stylings in its midst. The guitar solos in a killer jam. Then the band join and we’re out into a smoking world music journey. From there we are taken into some hard edged rock for the first rock vocals of the track. This is a powerful jam that works between the world music sounds and the hard rocking music in fine fashion. Once again I can hear some of the more creative of Rainbow’s music here. We are taken along on several variations and alterations, but it never feels strained or contrived. At around the seven minute mark we are taken out into a new instrumental segment. This combines neo-classical metallic elements with more pure classical sounds in an arrangement that’s creative and powerful. It drops way down and we seem to be ready to get treated to more flamenco like guitar before it fades away. Then it rises back up and takes us out into another musical journey. This gets dramatic and powerful at times. It moves between more classical and more rock oriented sounds. At around the ten minute mark a short fully classical segment takes it to a false ending. Then vocals that call to mind something from the soundtrack of “The Omen” are brought in. As this builds up it is very classical in nature. It gives way to an instrumental section that is “symphonic rock” by definition. A short reprise of those theatrical vocals give way to a return to more pure rock for some of that type singing. They seem to fight for control, but in the end the rockers win. We’re off into another dramatic hard rock section. After holding court in this manner for a time, Eastern tones and more classical elements are merged with these rocking sounds. This is a dramatic powerhouse on an epic scale not only in terms of length of the track but also scope. It works through a number of alterations and manifestations, each moving the themes forward a bit more. Eventually it drops down to nearly atmospheric elements and a melancholy melody ensues to take us in a new direction. More Eastern elements take us in a new harder rocking vein. This gets more and more frantic and more and more powerful and then just ends. That’s not to say that there is a crescendo or it fades out. It just stops – in the middle. I’m not implying that this is a bad way to end it. I’m just trying to explain how the song is finished out. It really catches you by surprise. It definitely leaves you wanting to hit “play” and start all over again.

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