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Cold Fairyland - Overall Review

Prolusion. China is not a country one might normally think of when talking about progressive rock. Whether this is due to artists exploring this musical style being few and far between there or if this is due to these artists not getting much of a chance to market themselves outside of China is unknown, at least for me. COLD FAIRYLAND is the first progressive rock band I've heard of from this country. They started out in 2001 and prior to these albums, "2005 Live" and "Seeds on the Ground", had released two studio recordings.


Cold Fairyland - 2006 - "Live at The Ark"

(60:38, Cold Fairyland)

******
TRACK LIST:

1.  Mirror Theater 6:32
2.  The Dead Children in the Newspapers 5:19
3.  Mula-Shabel War 5:33
4.  Puzzle 4:16
5.  Dance of Seduction 3:38
6.  The Flood 4:51
7.  Assassination 4:27
8.  The Cat from Paris 4:49
9.  The Glass Cutter 4:32
10. Seeds on the Ground 4:23
11. Holding the Flower of Despair 4:37
12. Waiting for the Farewell 7:41

LINEUP: 

Lin Di  lead vocals; keyboards; pipa, ruan
Zhou Shengan  cello; backing vocals
Su Yomg  bass; backing vocals
Li Jia  drums; backing vocals
Song Jian Feng  guitars 
Analysis. Issued in 2006, "2005 Live" was the third CD by this band and the first one easily available internationally. Live albums are always a bit taxing to go through for a reviewer, in particular if you don't know too much about the band, their history and their studio recordings. From what I have know about this band, this is a CD that partially is a summary of their past two releases, and partially is an indicator of future exploits - at least two of the compositions here had never been issued on a studio album previously. Unlike many bands I'm familiar with from Europe and the USA, there's a great variety in styles on this live album. It's obvious that there are many influences on the musical output of this band, and these influences come from a wide range of different musical styles. There's one set of tunes that will have its main audience among people into what is called neo progressive rock: songs blending melodic and mellow passages with AOR and hard rock aesthetics, with symphonic tinged synths as a central element in the compositions. The synthesizers are a dominating feature on these tunes, often providing a majestic and at times epic sounding atmosphere to them, while the guitar partially provides melodic licks and partially drawn out distorted chords, as well as a few instances of riff patterns. The bass guitar will either add a basic melodic motif or flesh out the rhythms, especially in those songs provided with a big sound by the drums. In most tunes the cello will add vibrant textures to the pattern, and in some cases the pipa and the ruan - unless I'm much mistaken - will add distinct Chinese sounding folk influences to the songs. Another set of tunes, and in particular the two compositions from their so far unreleased studio album "Seeds on the Ground", explores a more distinct folk-influenced territory. The cello, pipa and ruan have more major roles on these songs; the guitar work is more subdued and mostly acoustic, while the bass guitar is more focused on melody and less on rhythm. These compositions also come across as somewhat more complex in structure, with less of the melodramatic scope of the more purebred rock tunes and more subtle details and nuances, with layers of harmonizing instruments as well as slight tendencies to venture towards dissonances and disharmonies as a tool to provide more textured musical explorations. Add in some jazz and funk influences to the performances too, and the result is a live album that will appeal to listeners with an eclectic taste in music, or a release that will be partially interesting to two quite different classes of music fans. All the compositions come across very well in a live setting - the songs are quality constructions, with well thought-out patterns, themes and motifs; and will by followers of the styles explored in most cases be regarded as interesting, I think. The quality of this live recording isn't the best though - most times the instruments come across well, but there are parts in the soundscape that are muddy, and some instruments seem to dominate more than I think they did at the concert itself; in particular the bass and drums dominate, while the guitar has a tendency to get buried slightly in the mix. This live album presents many facets of a band exploring quite different musical landscapes. People enjoying symphonic rock as well as folk-inspired progressive will probably constitute the main audience, especially those enjoying oriental-tinged compositions. The slightly rough quality of the live recording isn't as polished as we're used to these days, though, so this live album does not sound like a studio release with audience noises added.


Cold Fairyland - 2007 - "Seeds on the Ground"

(48:22, Cold Fairyland)

*****+
TRACK LIST:
               
1.  Seeds on the Ground 4:16
2.  Shadow Play 3:33
3.  Five Travellers 4:29
4.  Puzzle 4:10
5.  Solemnly Silent Circle 3:28
6.  The Moon at the Fortified Pass 4:00
7.  Reawakening 4:15
8.  Riding on a Cloud 5:16
9.  Forest Dance 4:47
10. Icy Castle 3:58
11. Ghost Town Nightmare 6:20

LINEUP: same
Analysis. "Seeds on the Ground" is Cold Fairylands fourth album, released in 2007. When listening to it, I almost immediately started thinking about another release by a completely different group of artists, namely Green Carnation, and their release "The Acoustic Verses" from 2006. Although quite different recordings in many aspects, the mostly acoustic instrumentation and the mellow, melancholy moods explored are similar - to the extent that a person enjoying one of these probably will find the other one highly interesting too. The main similarity between these releases is the guitar work - mellow, atmospheric and highly melodic themes are explored in both cases. A somewhat sad, haunting and melancholy atmosphere is explored in both instances, and both groups have rock music as the foundation for the guitar work and themes explored. But Cold Fairyland uses means other than layered guitars and vocals to enhance this type of music, so the similarity pretty much ends with this. The drums, when used, are just as often performed in a flowing, folk inspired manner as they are used to convey rhythm in a more conventional manner. Often the drums are absent in this case, though, and when present never dominate the compositions. Drums never drive a composition forward and although skillfully played, this instruments role is a subdued one on this release. The bass guitar isn't used as much as usual to convey rhythms either. Its role in most tunes here is to take care of the least detailed melody line; often repeating a simple motif that partially harmonizes with other instruments, partially contrasts with those and also sees to it that the songs don't grind to a halt in breaks or segments where the rest of the instrumentation pauses. The guitar adds a slightly more complex motif to the song, partially harmonizing and partially contrasting with the bass guitar, and also connects with the ruan - a Chinese plucking style instrument with similarities to a banjo or lute. The ruan and guitar often create nuanced minor disharmonies, adding tension to the songs as well as providing a foundation for the main instruments. The pipa, another Chinese plucking instrument, shares the dominating slot in these compositions with the cello. The pipa, with its flowing, fast patterns, creates a distinct folk-influenced oriental sound - of the kind that will make most people from the western part of the world associate it with China. The cello contrasts this sound with its flowing and somewhat vibrant sound. These two instruments share solo duties throughout - sometimes harmonizing each other, sometimes contrasting, and they are also given individual spots to explore a certain atmosphere briefly before joined by the other instrument. Mixed with bass, guitar and ruan, they also explore slightly conflicting melody lines, giving the songs touches of disharmony and dissonance in places - never to the point of being unpleasant, though. These at times complex segments provide drive and tension to the tunes, at least for the concentrated listener, due to the sudden impact of details in the soundscape these sections provide. The last feature on this album are the vocals. No more than three songs have singing, and in all cases these provide an additional layer of melody for added harmonizing as well as contrasting explorations. Lin Di has a very pleasant voice and utilizes its qualities to good effect on these occasions, without, however, trying to dominate. The end result are mellow, atmospheric compositions blending features from rock and folk music, with the pipa in particular adding a strong oriental-sounding tinge to these tunes. It's well done, and albeit I think quite a few of the songs are somewhat similar in scope, this is without doubt a high quality release in all aspects, and an album with a good commercial appeal too if presented to the right crowd.

Conclusion. If you like mellow, atmospheric music mixing elements from rock and folk in a setting strongly tinged with oriental influences, this will be an album to get. Fans of Green Carnations "The Acoustic Verses" and similar albums will also most probably be intrigued by "Seeds on the Ground. The same goes for followers of folk music in general and progressive folk rock in particular.

OMB: September 24 & 25, 2008


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