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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Pendragon

Believe

Review by Josh Turner

This was way more than I had anticipated. I had my hands full with this listening experience. Nick Barrett said that this would be more guitar-driven and I can certainly vouch for that. Believe is incredibly more accessible than past efforts. On the other hand, it has not lost its progressive edge either. This is obviously the next stage in their evolution as a band. No longer do they sound strange or quirky. Like Porcupine Tree, they found a way to appeal the masses without losing their air of originality. I liked this album when I first heard it, because it was intriguing to see them try out so much new. They also slipped in many themes we already knew. I find it is one of those rare albums that gets better on every spin.

Another interesting note to point out is that every sound, voice, or instrumentation is provided one way or the other by Nick Barrett (guitars, voice), Peter Gee (bass), Clive Nolan (keyboards), or Fudge Smith (drums). There are no additional guests on the album, though it may appear this way at times. Many of their samples, which include Nomads, Serbian chants, and Celtic voices, come from a disc called Vocal Planet that features ethnic accents from around the globe. With a Mellotron, they authentically fabricate the sounds of a flute as well. You'll imagine others in the mix, but it's just these four merry men.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2005 Year Book Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Believe
This is one of their shortest pieces ever. It is a mix of Pink Floyd, IQ, and latter day Arena. While short in stature, it is quite commanding. In its trifling length, it manages to cross many borders. The first voice to enter onto the landscape is that of an angel. This is one of the first recordings to be taken off Vocal Planet. Next comes Nick. You'll be hard-pressed to differentiate between the real and sampled voices as they are integrated all so well into the mix.
No Place For the Innocent
They waste no time trying out new and innovative material. This one incorporates U2, Midnight Oil, Cranberries, Genesis old and new, The Hooters, as well as passages that are more in tune with Simon & Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills, & Nash, and The Carpenters. This song begs to be played on the radio as it could easily be a crossover cut for many mainstream fans. The bridge could have clearly come from Mike and The Mechanics' "All I Need is a Miracle" while the neo-progressive elements will appeal to fans of Marillion. You'll also hear the stocky guitar riffs from Dire Strait's "Money for Nothing". Better yet, these notorious notes repeated over and over again sound like the ones that played between every commercial on MTV, you know, the ones when the astronaut sticks the flag with the MTV logo into the moon. I do miss Pendragon's peculiar style, but it is a pleasure to see them explore this new and uncharted territory. In addition, the lyrics are quite insightful. Tack this one onto their growing list of greatest hits.
The Wisdom of Solomon
Before the herd gets going, this steer stays clear and chews on its cud for quite sometime. This is closest to the material one would find on Not of this World, an album I believe to be their best. The opening is similar to "Man of Nomadic Traits", but what follows is more acoustic in nature. It would be the kind of thing one could expect from a mysterious Mariachi man. It changes again to something more along the lines of Yes' Magnification and even has aspects of one of their most beloved songs, "Paintbox", off Masquerade Overture. It borrows from many of their timeless classics and does so in an effective manner. This is one of their strongest compositions as it grazes with all the best cattle. This song showcases many elements I'd expect to hear from them while intermingling with ones I would have never guessed they'd use. This song is smooth and creamy like slow-churned butter. The three wise monkeys see no evil deeds done to this track.
The Wishing Well
for your journey
It starts with a riff similar to Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax Don't Do It." Then a poetic narration is shared with its listeners over the lushest symphonic layers. This is actually a slight distraction from the music, but if you take heed in these wise words, it will embed itself into the soft skin that pads your ears. Fortunate for impetuously impatient fans, the humming of a vocal Mellotron is not too far behind.
so by sowest
This is classic Pendragon and it's another one of my favorites. The acoustic guitars with the flutes or synthetic flutes for that matter (see above) combine to make a supremely delicious duet. This is some of Nick's best singing and guitar-playing. This would be ripe for a live performance whether it be plugged or acoustically unchallenged. The sweeping melody is incredibly inspiring. There is a weird transition to something that probably should have been a separate track, finding itself suddenly somewhere in The South. This particular section is one part bluegrass, the other part Spock's Beard. One could say it's a little like "Stranger in a Strange Land" off of Spock Beard's Snow. If this haphazard change of events isn't enough to cause a migraine headache, it makes another unexpected move into foreign lands. The singing in this final portion falls somewhere in the Far East between India and the Orient.
we talked
This piece has the force and raw aggression of a battering ram. It tears the hinges off the door as it pours quickly into the castle. Pete Gee's bass is like the marching of a powerful army. There is no stopping their progress as they overrun the enemy. The fortress is now theirs for the taking. They overwhelm and overpower the opposition as they seize this priceless property. There is a tinge of ZZ Top's Greatest Hits along with Iced Earth's "Glorious Burden" rushing in at their sides. We also get an Indian prayer sung to the rhythm of Gun's N' Roses "Welcome to the Jungle." While strange, this cornucopia of effects is utterly gripping. This has so much energy; you'll have a hard time staying in your seat. You'll want to run for miles and miles after hearing these uplifting melodies. It's like a workout montage from Rocky, Million Dollar Baby, or Cinderella Man. At the end, it collapses in exhaustion and all you can hear is the faint breathing that comes from the keyboards.
two roads
This is more folk than rock. The acoustic guitar has all the room it needs as it covers an assortment of chords, notes, and sliding scales. As the others songs have demonstrated, it changes tempo numerous times. It gets a little angrier then goes on to express more apologetic moods.
Learning Curve
Nick massages the guitar like a harp over a song that sounds like Peter Gabriel's "SledgeHammer"or "Steam." This definitely has Genesis' early frontman burned into its flesh as the markings are all too indicative of this elite artist's influence. The melody rolls like thunder in the bay. The chorus, on the other hand, is pleasant and engaging. There is an aspect of Frogg Café and Little Atlas in this piece. There are also Latin vibes, hard rock, and even rap. It's quite clever how they work in these diverse melodies one after the other. All the while, Nick's guitar is blaring and blissful, sometimes both at the same time. Likewise, Fudge's drums are passively aggressive, subtly tense, and shrewdly busy. It's about life, love, death, all you can feel. This is about as progressive as rock can get.
The Edge of the World
Nothing is rushed in this piece. Again, we get another narration, but rather than going on for the lump sum of the song, there is singing between each one of the speaker's statement. This works better than the long commentary in "for your journey" and the vocal phrasings this time are more magical than ever. With the aid of his acoustic, Nick plays the harmonics to several classical tunes. He then romances the listener with a wildly winding solo on his electric. Eventually, this piece picks up and Fudge provides a flood of elegant percussions. Yet again, you'll feel that Latin texture flowing through it. The wind-down is emotional, leaving us spellbound by a little Pink Floyd enchantment. In the closing stages, we get a couple more singing samples and one last narration. It leaves you hanging high up in the clouds. You can feel their pain, lust, happiness, and all-around angst. You don't know where we've gone or what it means, but you will find some solace in their counsel. When it ends, you feel as if they've brought you home and then gone away. Nick promises to be back someday. With material this good, I hope this is true. With tracks like these, Pendragon won't need much faith to succeed with their fans. Believe it or not, this is really an outstanding album, dare I say unbelievable. While it would be difficult to beat their last (Not of this World), this one should be shelved along with all their other greats, but just make sure it's not too far out of reach.
 
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