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Beggars Opera - 2007 - "Close to My Heart"

(63:49, СRicky Gardiner SongsТ)


******

TRACK LIST:
           
1.  Secret 5:20
2.  Passing Her 4:35
3.  Close to My Heart 5:24
4.  A-Ha 6:09
5.  Tight Blue Lips 4:53
6.  Warm Eyes 5:12
7.  Apparently Uncontrolled 5:10
8.  Senselessness 6:13
9.  You Stranger 5:16
10. Angelus Thread 4:44
11. Meet Me 6:03
12. Here Comes Everybody 4:50

LINEUP:

Ricky Gardiner Ц guitar, bass; vocals
Virginia Scott Ц piano, Mellotron
Tom Gardiner Ц drums 

Prolusion. The Scottish band BEGGARS OPERA is something of a living legend in the world of progressive rock, albeit slightly obscure as such. Formed in the late С60s, the band released three classic albums in the early С70s, but since then their efforts started being less jubilantly received and the number of new albums started getting fewer and further between as well. In the С90s founding member Ricky Gardiner started suffering from a chronic illness, which also kept the band out of the live circuit for good, in addition to making it more problematic to actually record music as such - which at least partially explains why the 2007 effort "Close to My Heart" was ten years in the making. Matters seem to have improved over the years though, as a new album followed just two years later in the shape of "Touching the Edge".

Analysis. "Close to My Heart" must be regarded as something of a comeback album for this Scottish band. The fact that it appears 11 years after their previous effort is one side of that story, but the band using the name Beggar's Opera at that time had few matters in common with the band Gardiner formed in the late С60s. In fact, this 2007 production is the first full length studio effort Gardiner has created using this band moniker since 1980, and when 27 years have gone by comeback should be a viable expression to describe this album, at least in that particular context. It is a good album as well - somewhat surprisingly, since most efforts by the band after 1975 appear to have been met with something of a polite lack of interest at best. But on this occasion, the muse seems to have been truly inspiring in the long creative process of creating this CD, which was ten years in the making according to the liner notes. Those with a preferred taste for boundary-breaking and intellectually challenging material might not find the offered material too sustaining though. Those intrigued by technically challenging instrumental performances and eccentric compositional structures will have to look elsewhere. But those with an affection for art rock of the subtle and sophisticated variety might just find this venture to be worthwhile investigating. The 12 numbers at hand are all relatively brief, at least in the context of being progressive rock compositions, with the lengthiest creations barely creeping across the six minute mark. And unlike many examples of the genre, the lead vocals are central in all but one track here, the exception being the energetic bagpipe and symphonic blend that makes up final track, Here Comes Everybody. The rest of this disc is filled with the voice of Virginia Scott, lazy, sensual and dreamlike in a jazz-tinged sort of way, energetic and almost shouting with more of a punk inspired attitude and, on the fourth track A-ha, laden with a raw sexuality that might light fires in men and inspire thoughts of jealousy in their wives and girlfriends. The lead vocals contrast with the instrumentation to a much greater degree than using it as a mere backdrop though, which in itself lends art rock credentials to this effort. The instrumental parts of this affair can roughly be divided into two sorts of tracks: either laidback and dampened creations or rougher pieces with more of an energetic drive to them. The former is made up by lighter guitar textures and atmospheric keyboards and Mellotron in a neat Pink Floyd-ian manner, symphonic, but also containing space-tinged textures. The latter are closer to С70s Hawkwind in style, with rough staccato guitar riffs with something of a punk-inspired edge to them, and with keyboards and Mellotron contributing in pretty much the same manner as previously described. Subtle dissonances from Gardiner's guitar are a feature in both styles, adding a light Robert Fripp-ian touch to the proceedings, while bass and drums serve up a steady rhythmic foundation throughout. Not to the point of ever reaching King Crimson-ic territories, but more like adding a subtle touch of finesse to the overall soundscape.

Conclusion. Those who generally enjoy female lead vocals and who find the description sophisticated art rock to be interesting should have a high probability of enjoying this comeback effort of Beggars Opera. Lightly spiced with symphonic textures with a slight space-oriented touch, fans of bands like Hawkwind and latter day Pink Floyd may be the ones who find this CD to be most intriguing, even if the space-tinged elements are mostly of the subtle and unobtrusive kind.



Beggars Opera - 2009 - "Touching the Edge"

(63:07)


*****+

TRACK LIST:
           
1.  Dancer in the Wind 5:19
2.  Million Miles 4:31 
3.  Attraction gaze 5:07
4.  Escalator of Tall Stories 4:37
5.  Frozen on an Eye 5:22
6.  Dreamtime 5:25
7.  I Lie There 5:54
8.  I Wanted to Tell You 5:06
9.  River Over Me 5:12
10. Auschwitz 16:34

LINEUP: 

Ricky Gardiner Ц guitar, bass
Virginia Scott Ц vocals; keyboards
Tom Gardiner Ц drums 
Ajijo Ц saxophone 

Analysis. This second chapter from the second coming of the Scottish outfit Beggars Opera is an experience that makes me think of reading a really good book. The initial part is intriguing and supplies clues to what's ahead. Characters are presented, situations outlined, plots started. And in the next part the personalities of the central cast are fleshed out, the storyline evolves and the plot thickens. In other words, a good opening is followed by an even better continuation. This is very much the case here, as "Touching the Edge" is a marked improvement over previous effort "Close to My Heart" in all aspects of the creation. The songs are generally better and more sophisticated, the mix, production and overall sound given an extra notch on the quality scale, and the album offers a greater variety as well. The only arguably negative dimension to this venture is that it may appeal to a somewhat more limited audience, as most songs offered demand a bit more from the listener. Then again, in progressive rock circles that will most often be regarded as a positive trait as well. The lightly symphonic textures of the previous effort take somewhat more of a back seat this time around, and while we're still dealing with art rock, it is of a variety with more of an emphasis on subtle but challenging features on this occasion. The opening numbers appear to be direct continuations of their 2007 production though, with careful symphonic textures and subtle quirky guitars underscoring the soaring lead vocals of Virginia Scott. But as the album moves forward, the compositions start to change as well. A greater variety in sound and intensity unfolds, carefully dissonant wandering piano themes and haunting saxophone soloing start becoming something of red threads, and the compositions begin becoming more unpredictable to boot: Not so much in structure as in arrangements I think, although the manner, in which the songs are constructed makes it somewhat taxing, truth to tell, for sure, at least without exploring this disc much more thoroughly than what most reviewers usually do. Generally speaking the contrast between Scott's rather dominating voice and the instrumental parts of the compositions are given less of an emphasis on this venture, where especially the guitar of Ricky Gardiner more often takes on a supporting role rather than a strictly contrasting one. Staccato energetic riff textures and heavy drawn-out riffs are very much a part of this album as well, but less upfront in the mix and more dampened in expression. In addition, acoustic and clean guitars are more frequently a part of the proceedings, while the aforementioned sax and piano parts are to a greater deal used to create more refined contrasts and a subtly different kind of tension throughout, and especially in the second half of this CD. The final track Auschwitz is a completely different kind of creation though, a stark contrast to everything else released in the second lease of life by this band. Clocking in at just over 16 minutes, this creation consists of a slow moving, fluctuating symphonic backdrop with an improvised sounding atmospheric guitar solo on top. The song ebbs and flows in richness, sound and intensity, broken up by a brief vocal passage at the midway point, which is repeated at the very end. Dreamlike in quality throughout, but as the title implies also filled with its fair share of dark moods and atmospheres. An elongated, beautiful tragedy in musical shape if you like, and one of the few numbers that are actually easy to describe on this album, where a handful of tracks have been noted down by me as not really describable. That is, unless I should take on the task of chronicling the songs in minute detail from start to finish.

Conclusion. Much the same can be said about this disc as the previous effort from Beggars Opera. Add in a greater deal of sophistication and somewhat of a larger emphasis on challenging and refined features in mix, production and arrangements, subtract most of the subtle space-tinged and symphonic qualities of the predecessor and you'll get a good idea of what's in store on "Touching the Edge". Sophisticated art rock featuring dominating female lead vocals and subtle challenging arrangements is probably as good a description as any, and the album should be investigated by those who are intrigued by that notion.

OMB=Olav M Bjornsen: July 22, 2010
The Rating Room


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