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(46.55, Musea Records)
TRACK LIST: 1. Seventh Hell 11:39 2. La Venus Endormie 5:43 3. Cazadora de Astros 8:04 4. Voice of Wind 4:16 5. Salvador Syndrome 17:11 LINEUP: Keiko Kumagai – keyboards; lead vocals Satoshi Handa – guitars; backing vocals Hazime – drums; synth programming Shinko Shibata – bass With: Kira – guitar, bass; piano; programming (1, 2, 5) Zoltan Fabian – guitars; programming (1, 2) Mika – lead & backing vocals (2, 5) Robby Valentine – vocals (5) Daniela Lojarro – vocals (5) Ueno – backing vocals (5)
Prolusion. One of the leading Japanese progressive rock bands in recent years, ARS NOVA have been around since the mid-Eighties, though with frequent line-up changes. Keyboard virtuoso Keiko Kumagai joined the band in 1990, and remains the only original member left of the line-up that released their debut album, “Fear and Anxiety”, in 1992. The original all-female trio has since become a quartet with a male drummer and guitarist. “Seventh Hell”, as the title implies, is Ars Nova’s seventh studio album.
Analysis. Even a quick listen to any of their compositions will make it clear that Ars Nova are definitely not for the faint-hearted, or those who look for muted ambiances in music. Their unleashed, keyboard-heavy firepower can make ELP sound positively restrained, which is no mean feat. Though fronted by two dainty-looking ladies, there is nothing dainty about their music – ballsy, in your face, often quite over-the-top, Ars Nova deal in bombastic prog at its best (or worst, according to your tastes). Like most of the band’s previous albums, “Seventh Hell” is a concept of sorts – five mostly instrumental tracks linked by a common theme, though without a single, unifying story line. In this case, each of the compositions is dedicated to a Surrealist painting or artist – starting with a forerunner of the movement, iconic 15th-century painter Hieronymus Bosch and ending with a homage to one of its flag-bearers, Salvador Dali. Bookended by its two longest tracks, the album keeps to a very reasonable running time of just under 47 minutes, and therefore avoids pummelling the listen with an endless barrage of occasionally relentless music. The main problem with this album, as with most of Ars Nova’s output, lies with the lack of compositional discipline, so that the tracks can be seen more as a backdrop for Kumagai’s fiery displays of keyboard prowess than as clearly structured items. Though this is very much the same criticism often levelled at ELP, I believe any such comparison to be grossly unfair to the seminal British outfit. As technically proficient as the individual members of Ars Nova are, it is not easy to shake off the impression that their music, rather than concentrating on the production of an organic whole, acts mainly a showcase for their considerable skills. Nowhere are these limitations more evident than in the epic that closes the album, Salvador Syndrome. In a way, it reflects Dali’s art to a T – gaudy and hard to ignore, but ultimately coming across as little more than a hodge-podge of wildly contrasting images and styles. This, however, may not be a negative thing for those listeners who prize unbridled eclecticism over compositional tightness. The 17-minute number adopts a ‘kitchen-sink’ approach that throws in Queen-like vocal harmonies, operatic singing (courtesy of soprano Daniela Lojarro), driving rhythms and guitar riffs bordering on heavy metal, uber-bombastic keyboard passages, and even some flamenco-style acoustic guitar – all wrapped up by a powerful, choral ending. Definitely an acquired taste, and not one for people who prize nuances and the careful building of moods and atmospheres. The 11-minute title-track, strategically placed at the opening of the album, comes across as marginally more cohesive, being characterized by a largely Gothic, ominous atmosphere, compounded by noises and voices. Keiko’s keyboards dominate the composition in true steamroller fashion, aided and abetted by energetic drumming and no-holds-barred guitar licks. It should be said that, as in the case of Salvador Syndrome, the music conveys the title and subject matter of the track (the nightmarish depiction of Hell in Bosch’s triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights”) quite perfectly. The remaining three tracks are relatively more restrained, though they manage to pack quite a lot in their limited running time. La Venus Endormie features the high-pitched yet melodic vocals of former band member Mika, and blends the band’s trademark grandiose, orchestral feel with some folksy overtones, as well as harsher guitar-driven passages; while Cazadora de Astros stays true to its Spanish title with a strong Latin vibe (intensified by the use of castanets) and an unusually catchy tune in the midst of the keyboard-led madness. Voice of Wind, the shortest track on the album (written by drummer Hazime), comes across as vaguely spooky with its blend of spacey, Pink Floyd-ian mannerisms and heavy riffing straight out of the prog-metal handbook. Besides her obvious talent as a keyboardist, Kumagai (much more so than somewhat unassuming bassist Panky) remains the ‘face’ of the band – and not just the face, seen the reliance Ars Nova have always had on suggestive, or even downright risqu? covers. “Seventh Hell” is no exception, though the artwork is somewhat more tame than on previous productions. In any case, though the album’s over-the-top, occasionally kitschy nature may put off more sophisticated listeners, it can also be fun to hear – at least in small doses.
Conclusion. If you are looking for subtlety or nuanced moods, you had better look elsewhere, because “Seventh Hell” delivers none of these things. Loud, brash and bombastic, it will be welcomed as a veritable feast by lovers of symphonic progressive rock with sharp metal edges, while it will very probably elicit negative reactions from those who prize minimalism and restraint – as well as compositional cohesion.
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