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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Al Stewart

24 Carrots: 40th Anniversary Edition

Review by Gary Hill

This latest reissue of Al Stewart music is really so classy. You get three CDs here. The first is that actual album, with two bonus tracks (two single versions of songs on the album proper). It's been re-mastered and sounds great. The second disc consists of demos. Now, I know when you hear the word "demo" you probably think of unfinished recordings with questionable sound quality. That's not the case here at all. Any of the demos would fit on a "real album" with no problem. There are a few songs that were not included on the album, but the others are more alternate mixes and less demo as far as I can tell. The final disc is a live album capturing songs from various points in Stewart's career. It sounds great, too.

A couple points I should make. Technically the title is a bit different than the way I've presented it. It should actually have a struck out letter before the "C," but I can't really capture that right either in the book form or the online edition, so I've just opted to leave it out. Secondly, you'll note that I've included it under progressive rock. While Stewarts music has never been of the more serious prog variety of acts like Yes, King Crimson and ELP, I (and others) have generally considered prog. Stewart himself disagrees with the categorization, but honestly, it's very much a folk prog kind of approach most of the time. There are even moments where it leans toward fusion. However you label his music, though, Stewart should have had a higher level of success than he did. Don't get me wrong, he had some big hits, and has done alright for himself, but his music is so well done, and his voice is so smooth and satisfying that he should have been huge.

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Track by Track Review
CD One
24 Carrots
The Original Album Re-mastered
Running Man

Rising up a bit atmospheric, this gets into some cool jazzy, proggy territory. It settles into a piano melody as it continues. Then it shifts to something that's quite fusion-like. As it drops for the vocals, this tune turns from great to sublime. It's such a classy and energetic opener with some interesting shifts and changes. I love the cool jazzy guitar solo later in the song.

Midnight Rocks
This starts with acoustic guitar and works out to more of a soft rock vibe from there. The cut has a classy pop rock approach, but has hints of folk prog in some ways. When the cut explodes out into a powered up instrumental section further down the road that brings both jazz and prog elements to bear.
More of an up-tempo and meaty rocker as it starts, the cut drops back toward a somewhat mellower approach for the entrance of the vocals. Of course, the track is still more rocking than the last one. The electric guitar sound brings a nice edge. This has plenty of prog tendencies built into it. The fast section with layers of non-lyrical vocals over a driving guitar line is one of the most blatant progressive rock things in the song.
Merlin's Time
Intricate acoustic guitar work is paired with keyboards on the extended introduction here. The vocals eventually join along with other instruments. This cut is more of a balladic piece. There is, as you might guess, a bit of an olde-world musical texture to this. That said, it's just a flavoring, and not the core of the piece. It drops back to just that guitar later along the road to take it out. This is really effective.
Mondo Sinistro
An up-tempo high energy rocker, this feels even harder rocking because of the contrast to the previous number. This is rather playful. While it's not the most proggy thing here, there are elements that bring that edge to it.
Murmansk Run / Ellis Island
Now, this song clearly lands under prog. Sure, it's on the more mainstream pop end of that spectrum, but the bombast and cool changes definitely fit under the progressive rock heading. There is some guitar work that reminds me of Dire Straits a little on the tune. The piece is effective and intriguing.
Rocks In the Ocean
A folk music concept is at the heart of this number as it starts. Classical instrumentation creates some drama over the top in a playful, chamber music way. The first part of the song really is more or less modern chamber music in a pop sort of way. The cut gets more electrified and proggy further down the road, though. Whatever you label this, it's another strong tune on a disc full of strong material. It's also a different face of the Al Stewart sound.
Paint By Numbers
This song almost sounds a little like Kansas to me as it comes into being. I can also make out some hints of "All Along the Watchtower." It's a more high energy songs with some great energy and melodies. I love the cutting edge of the electric guitar on this. It gets into some great prog zones.
Optical Illusion
This is a mellower and slower cut, but it's not really a ballad. It has a lot of great intricacies. It's a pretty piece of music. This is very much a progressive rock oriented song.
Bonus Tracks
Running Man (Single Version)

Here we get a single version of the opening track of the disc. It's about a minute-and-a-half shorter than the album version. Some of the comes from the shortened introduction. It's equally effective in this format, I think.

Paint By Numbers (Single Version)
This single version is a little over a minute shorter than the album version. Again, it works well in this slightly truncated form.
CD Two
24 Carrots
The Demo Sessions
Previously unreleased
Midnight Rocks

While this is a demo, it's hard to hear it as such. I suppose the arrangement is a bit less filled out than the final version, but really this is album quality stuff. It stands just as tall as the final version of the song that made the disc.

Murmansk Run / Ellis Island (Demo Version)
Perhaps this comes across as a bit more rock and roll based, perhaps more like Dire Straits. Beyond that, though, this is still a very complete and polished recording. It is also effective.
Running Man
This demo still sounds very non-demo-like. It's an instrumental, though, and a very jazzy cut. It's another classy piece.
Paint By Numbers
I can hear this as being just a little less produced than the final version, but honestly, it still works so well in this recording and mix. It's perhaps a bit more direct here. The section with the organ solo actually makes me think of The Doors.
This song didn't actually make the album. It's definitely of a high enough quality to fit, though. I mean, when you have only so much space and so much great material, what do you do? The flute dancing over the top of this is great. The whole tune is a dreamy kind of folk prog song.
The World Goes to Riyadh
Here's another that didn't make the final cut. This song is strong, but I'd have to say that it might not be as strong as the other material that did land on the album. This has a more straight-ahead folk rock approach, but the piano and dreamy keyboards bring some prog at points. In fact, there are times when they call to mind Rick Wakeman just a little.
Merlin's Time
This is just a short instrumental work-up of the song that made the final disc.
The Ringing of Bells
I love the playful, tasteful, jazzy sounds on this number. This one, while it didn't make the actual album, is just as strong as anything on the final release.
CD Three
Live at Hammersmith Odeon
Previously unreleased
Running Man

I really love this live version of the opening tune from the album. It loses a bit of the fusion edge, but works well in the more mainstream rock music style. The closing jam gets a killer performance here.

Time Passages
This is arguably one of Stewart's best known songs. This live version has a great sound. I love the guitar and saxophone solos. The whole tune really does have a jazzy kind of vibe here. The tune has some cool changes along the road and really works well here.
Broadway Hotel
Another song that isn't on the album proper, this is a fun tune. It has some definite world music in the mix. It's probably more pure folk rock than it is proggy. I really love the flute work on the song.
Mondo Sinistro
Now we're into fast-paced hard rocking zones. I'd say that this even edgier and harder rocking than the version of the album proper.
Roads to Moscow
I love the proggy world music opening to this piece. The cut works out to more of a pure folk music vibe from there for the entrance of the vocals. The lyrics on this are so powerful. The whole cut gets more intense and proggy as other elements augment it as it marches onward. Yet the world music concepts return at various places throughout the piece.
On the Border
This starts with an acoustic guitar solo that is dramatic. The cut grows outward from there, with piano joining before the other instruments do. The tune is a potent one with plenty of folk in the mix. I love the rather Spanish-leaning acoustic guitar solo lines.
Year of the Cat
There is a piano showcase that leads us into Stewart's biggest hit. This works so well here. It's safe to say that if you've heard just one song from him, this is it. While this is a bit more mainstream tune that some of his others, it still has some proggy tendencies built into the arrangement. The tune was obviously the closing
If It Doesn't Come Naturally, Leave It
More of a mainstream rock tune, there is a jazzy edge to the encore number. I dig the saxophone on the tune. The guitar solo is on fire, too
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