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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Taylor's Universe

Soundwall

Review by Julie Knispel

Robin Taylor is making a career out of surprising his listeners and keeping them on their toes. The past few years have seen albums of music drawing influence from the German electronic music/Krautrock school, manipulated and processed live improvisational releases, and albums of more composed material with his core band, Taylor’s Universe. Soundwall, Robin Taylor’s newest release with Taylor’s Universe, fits that last category while adding a new element in the person of Michael Denner, erstwhile guitarist with Mercyful Fate, King Diamond, and others.

Denner’s work on this album does not mean that Taylor has moved toward more metal-based areas. While I will say that Soundwall features some of the heaviest material I have heard in his extensive catalogue of releases, some things remain constant. The music remains fusion-based, Taylor’s processed guitar, loops and tapes are omnipresent, and Karsten Vogel’s tasteful and fluid sax work is present on every track. This is heavy jazz rock...not the “fusion” of Liquid Tension Experiment or Planet X, but actual fusion melding the power and majesty of progressive rock with the improvisational, shifting nature of jazz.

I never know from album to album what I’ll be getting when I listen to a new Robin Taylor release. I have to say I was surprised with Soundwall...it’s not at all what I might have expected had I gone into my first listen with expectations. I’m glad a few years of experience listening to his releases has opened me to a first listen without being in the cage of expectation. In the final reckoning, Soundwall is, I think, perhaps the best album one could play for a listener unfamiliar with the expansive Robin Taylor catalogue. Melodic without losing focus on the complexity that makes his work so unpredictable, it’s one of the most solid albums I have seen from this prolific musician.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2008  Volume 6 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Tag Attack
Taylor’s Universe is on fire right out of the gate with “Tag Attack,” an impressive album opener if ever I have heard one. Synth and keyboard layers create a brief ambient soundscape before eerie guitar arpeggios unsettle things. A pregnant pause allows one to grab a last breath before a heavy groove explodes, punchy bass and drums creating a bed first for Vogel’s tenor sax, then a bubbling organ line which changes quickly to stabs of notes and chords. Thrashy guitar chords evolve out of this, ragged and fuzzed (based on the album notes, I’d gather this would be Taylor). I hear bits of what sound similar to guitar synth patches that Robert Fripp might have used in 1981 or 1982...it’s a cool sound that adds to the piece. Michael Denner solos, I believe, around the 3-minute mark, and he’s in fine form as well. The composition does not remain static; there’s changes a plenty, including a quieter coda with vocals and piano that fit the piece nicely, even if they are so wildly different from what came before.
Step Aside
This is followed by “Step Aside,” which sees the band in more blues-based areas. I love the opening on this song, wailing guitars and organ mixing in wonderful ways. Mellotron chords suspend behind the guitar while a relatively simple drum pattern drives the track. This blues mood changes somewhat in the next section, which sees the song become more stripped back, more angular, perhaps more King Crimson like in many ways. Vogel’s sax playing is appropriately sleazy, if I may use that word here...if it helps to visualize the music, his playing reminds me of a dark, smoke-filled jazz club, with subdued blue or red lighting, a lone spotlight shining on Vogel as he unleashes melodic lines and sheets of sound while the band plays behind him. This piece features a similar mood shift to the album opener, with a sudden change away from the dominant theme/style to a feel more reminiscent of symphonic prog. There’s no fade-out here...the song ends in an almost jarring, unsettling fashion.

Out of Season
“Out of Season” is a graceful and laid back composition, almost soundscape-like in many ways, with layers of saxes winding through the arrangement. A simple bass line, treated guitars, and loads of synth and keyboard textures (including, I believe, some moments of mellotron here and there) add up to a restrained track that is incredibly easy on the ears and a very relaxing listening experience.

Totally Greek
“Totally Greek” continues in a similar vein as it opens with a gentle piano melody, tapes and loops of bird sounds in the background. The melody is doubled with what I think is the toy keyboard referenced below, and Louise Nipper’s vocalese only adds to the pastoral, wistful nature of this piece. Processed (or fully electronic) rhythm parts contribute a dreaminess to the composition...at times, especially with the multi-tracked vocals, it almost feels like “Totally Greek” might be veering toward Enya-like territory, yet the song is far from a new age piece.
Sandwich
This, on the other hand, moves away from more organic areas, opening with a heavily processed and manipulated set of sonics, gradually building and growing. One of the loops in the background has an almost processed vocal quality to it, which adds a bit of unease to the mix. Karsten Vogal’s sax lines are as always concise and just right, while the guitar tracks swirl and mix in the background. The bass line sounds a bit too processed to my ears, but I’m not quite sure a more natural sound would have worked on this track. “Sandwich” sounds fairly complex from an arrangement/layering standpoint, with a touch of musique concrete-ness to it.

Aspx
“Aspx” closes out this album with a small child’s voice, natural at first, then looped and processed in disturbing and unsettling ways. An infectious bass/drum groove arises from the soundfield, thrumming bass lines, heavy organ and rock solid drumming from ling time collaborator Rasmus Grosell locked in step and driving along. It feels odd to say that this is a tune to bop your head to, but it’s just that...I can’t help but bop along in time to the piece. It’s addictive, it’s heavy (not in a metal way, mind), and above all, it just sounds...fun. The harmony guitars certainly don’t hurt either. A rock solid album closer, this.
 
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