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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Eloy

Planets

Review by John Pierpoint

The early 1980s was a period when rock music seemed to slide into the doldrums, with pop fashion favouring low-brow, synthesizer-heavy, dance tunes. Rock bands were re-branding themselves, with poodle haircuts, spandex and air-punching replacing the now passé long greasy locks, denim and leather and head-banging. In the progressive rock camp, things were even worse: many of the classic bands were splitting, changing direction or just lying low. Paradoxically, those acts that once thrived on their use of cutting-edge technology now found themselves sounding old-hat compared to the new artists who were riding the wave of the new synthesizer technology, producing hit singles with all the skill that a sequencer and two fingers could muster. It wasn't all bad though: several new progressive bands were surfacing (such as Marillion, Pallas, IQ and - later - It Bites!), with sounds and agendas more compatible with modern instruments and production techniques. These heroes kept the flame burning through those long dark 80s nights.

German group Eloy weren't newcomers by then, but like The Enid, they certainly should be considered as keepers of the flame when the history of prog is written. By 1981, they had already been in existence for over a decade, passing through several changes in sound and personnel, but always producing high-quality music. However, that year's Planets and its thematic sequel Time to Turn saw them arguably at their peak, with a winning combination of superb musicianship, excellent songwriting, pin-sharp production and some very catchy tunes. Of particular relevance - given my introductory preamble - is their inspired and flawless use of the latest synthesizers, successfully avoiding the cold, unemotional cul-de-sacs of both artistic extremes: the established classically-trained pianists and the two-finger bodgers. In addition, they managed to finely balance their arrangements, so that their songs often had the intricate watch-like precision and grace of classics like Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of War of the Worlds.

Planets is a concept album, inasmuch as it has a narrative. It tells the story of a traveler from another world on a cosmic voyage. I can't be more specific than this, as although the sleeve notes go into the "prologue" of this story in quite some detail, the listener has only the lyrics, the cover art and musical clues to aid in understanding exactly what is happening for the duration of the music. To be fair, this doesn't really matter, as the music stands on its own without the need of the supporting back-story. Suffice it to say that the story's hero "Ion" voyages far and wide, facing dangers, meeting strange and beautiful life-forms, and receiving wisdom and guidance. The CD booklet includes copious notes (curiously, the band history section is in German, the rest is in English), plenty of photographs, and a miniature reproduction of the gorgeous alternative cover for the UK market by Rodney Matthews (which I freely admit is the reason why I bought my original picture-disc vinyl copy back in '81 - who says you can't judge a book by its cover?). With obvious Pink Floyd influence, but also echoes of Jean-Michel Jarre, Tangerine Dream, Jeff Wayne and Space (the French electronic outfit of the 70s, I mean), this record is immediately attention-grabbing and catchy, yet rewards repeated listening. It rocks too! Even after three decades, I still don't tire of hearing this wonderful record. Whereas many 1980s albums seem to have dated far more than their 70s predecessors (bass synths, anyone?), this one stands tall and proud. I thoroughly recommend this to anyone who likes classic progressive rock, electronic music, space-rock or metal.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2012  Volume 5 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Introduction
The album begins with some atmospheric multi-layered keyboards, beautifully crafted into a shifting sonic soundscape that caresses the ears. This is no lush snooze-fest though. The sounds are bright and intricate, enticing the listener into the album.
On the Verge of Darkening Lights
Then the real opener kicks in, led by a strong and gutsy bass riff, forward in the mix. I should say here that the bass work of Klaus-Peter Matziol is for me one of the highlights of Eloy's 80s albums: bold and poetic, restrained - not brash and overplayed - but impressively perfect, nonetheless, with an excellent pure tone. His bass lines are pure gold, and ought to be studied by any aspiring rock bassist. Frank Bornemann's guitar almost serves as rhythm to the bass "lead" on this track (and many of the others), but he packs so much into this role with delicate harmonics, damped chords and tasteful licks, that the listener isn't really aware that the guitar isn't taking the traditional lead role.
Point of No Return
The music blends into "Point of No Return" via a short synth prelude. A flanged chord sets the mood, before a Geezer Butler style bass riff starts up and urges the music onwards. Additional keyboards and sound effects cleverly pick out words and phrases in the lyrics (such as the stereo-bouncing pings that appear at "echoing sounds"). A Dark Side of the Moon heartbeat rises over the end, increasing in volume and reverberation before cutting into the next tune.
Mysterious Monolith
A harpsichord doubles with picked clean guitar on the initial tune, slow and pastoral - a change of pace. But this is no filler track; the gentle start is deceptive. A chorus leads to a beautiful synth melody, which then holds a note to introduce the meat of the song; another addictive Matziol bass line pedalling over chugging Hammond chords and guitar with sinuous pitch-bend synth wails. A middle-eight comes in to reprise the pastoral feeling briefly before that bass riff returns, accompanied by ethereal chords and dueling lead synth parts from Hannes Arkona and Hannes Folberth, picking up pace as it builds. The tune winds into a reverberated distance, before being subsumed by unsettling harbinger synth noises, echoing and reverberating in the bass register around the stereo image. On the original vinyl, this would be the end of side one.
Queen of the Night
Side two begins with a real change of pace, as this song features a string orchestra and Abba-like backing singers behind the main band. After a lively chorus, the tune enters an introspective Jarre-like instrumental section, which then picks up pace from the drums before returning to the main tune. The orchestral arrangement is really well done, carefully fitting into the band's soundscape. It certainly doesn't sound like the "spray-on strings" that many groups employ.
At the Gates of Dawn
This instrumental emerges slowly from the distance. It features a mellow picked guitar riff that wouldn't sound out of place on a Rush album, with soaring keyboard melody, gentle "Albatross"-like drums and tastefully flanged (possibly fretless?) bass.
Sphinx
This track has strident synth lead over a busy blend of picked guitar, electric harpsichord and swooping bass. Then Roger Waters-inspired tick-tock bass octaves and Theremin-like synths signal a key change to a new section. Bornemann's vocals (admittedly not Eloy's strongest asset, although I like the honest sound of his voice) work really well here: impassioned and pleading. A short echoed drum break interjects, and then there's a rare and very short guitar solo.
Carried by Cosmic Winds
The closer begins with (perhaps predictable) electronic wind effects - reminiscent of Floyd on the reprise of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" - before an urgent synth melody rises. We're still in Richard Wright territory here. Then Bornemann's voice comes in, accompanied by damped guitar riffing. When the chorus breaks, there's another transformation with delicious Hammond chords, vocoder and a bouncy bass line - all in compound time. The string section bubbles up to make a welcome return behind a middle-eight, which then leads to a yearning string melody, before bowing out to a repeated bright synth motif, like a Morse code signal fading into the depths of space. Thus the scene is set for Part II: Time to Turn.
Bonus track: On the Verge of Darkening Lights
This CD reissue has a bonus track: a live cut of "On The Verge Of Darkening Lights" from 1983. This is much faster than the studio version and has simpler keyboard parts; but amazingly even this somewhat muddy recording retains all the power of the original, adding a dash more excitement if anything. It’s proof that they can cut it live too! It's a bit disappointing when the track ends abruptly at what would have been the join to the next song, but well, it is a bonus after all!
 
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