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(69.32, ‘Sylvan’ & Red Farm Records)
TRACK LIST: 1. Force of Gravity 5:12 2. Follow Me 4:39 3. Isle in Me 6:00 4. Embedded 3:30 5. Turn of the Tide 6:53 6. From the Silence 5:43 7. Midnight Sun 5:12 8. King Porn 7:31 9. Episode 609 6:00 10. God of Rubbish 4:01 11. Vapour Trail 14:30 LINEUP: Volker Soehl – keyboards Matthias Harder – drums Jan Petersen – guitars Sebastian Harnack – bass Marco Gluehmann – vocals With: Miriam Schell – vocals (7)
Prolusion. “Force of Gravity” is the seventh studio album released by veteran German Neo-Prog band SYLVAN. The band (named after the Roman god of forests and woods, Sylvanus) has been around since 1991, when drummer Matthias Harder and keyboardist Volker Soehl were still at school. In 2008 Sylvan released a live CD, “Leaving Backstage”, and a live DVD, “Posthumous Silence – The Show”, based on their 2006 album of the same name.
Analysis. First of all, I have to admit that this album was my first encounter with Sylvan, even though I knew them by name and reputation. Since Neo-Prog is generally not my cup of tea, I had never had the opportunity or the inclination to get hold of some of their material. I nevertheless approached “Force of Gravity” with the same unbiased attitude I adopt for each and every one of the albums I review. What I found was a well-crafted, mature offering by a seasoned band, an album that will certainly delight many listeners, but which left me with rather mixed feelings. Almost 70 minutes long, as nowadays seems to be the rule rather than the exception, “Force of Gravity” is made up of ten songs of average length, plus the obligatory epic (14-minute Vapour Trail) strategically placed at the close of the disc. From a musical point of view, it gives an impression of solidity and professionalism – the members of the band are experienced musicians with a strong ear for melody and compositional balance, and the songs have an easy, natural flow – but also of playing it somewhat safe, in spite of paying homage to some contemporary trends. There are no instrumental tracks on the album, which, in my view, would have added some interest, as well as provided some respite from the not exactly stellar vocals of Marco Gluehmann. Indeed, music such as the one displayed on “Force of Gravity” would be in serious need of a singer with a strong, clear, melodic voice (Riverside’s Mariusz Duda comes to mind), while instead Gluehmann sounds all too often strained, and occasionally almost painful to hear. Though I am aware he is generally reputed a more than adequate singer, I feel that his performance is the weakest link on the album. Surprisingly (or perhaps not too much so), “Force of Gravity” is very clearly influenced by Pink Floyd and (even more strongly) Porcupine Tree. While the former influence is not unexpected in the genre (Pink Floyd mastered the art of melody to perfection, all the while steering clear of saccharine sweetness), the latter may not be readily associated with Neo-Prog, in spite of the increasingly frequent cross-pollination of the genre with some of the harder-edged fringes of the progressive world. However, there is even more in store to surprise (or perhaps shock) the band’s loyal fans. Follow Me, the second song on the album, hot on the heels of a keyboard-laden, standard Symphonic/Neo-Prog number like the title-track, sounds like something straight out of Dream Theater’s early years, complete with a not very successful attempt at a LaBrie impersonation from Gluehmann, and plenty of heavy riffage. Indeed, the whole album, much in the same way as recent Porcupine Tree offerings, comes across as strongly riff-based – alternating slower, more atmospheric sections with high-energy passages. In particular, the influence of Steven Wilson’s band shows most clearly in the trio of songs located in the middle of the album. From the Silence opens with trippy electronic sounds, then develops into a vocal-driven mid-tempo peppered with occasional riffing, ending with a rather interesting instrumental coda of majestic keyboard washes and unusually asymmetrical drumming. Midnight Sun (inspired by “The Sea of Ice”, a painting by celebrated Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich) plays the atmospheric card, featuring the gentle vocals of guest singer Miriam Schell (partner of Matthias Herder in side project Rain for a Day) in a duet with Gluehmann (who at times sounds rather like Bono of U2) and keyboard effects mimicking a string section. On the other hand, the slow, somewhat plodding King Porn (the second longest track on the album), in spite of some excellent, clean-sounding guitar work, would have been much more effective if interpreted by a warm, well-rounded voice like Mariusz Duda’s or Steven Wilson’s. After the token ballad Episode 609, a bit in the vein of Porcupine Tree’s Lazarus, God of Rubbish will probably surprise fans of the band, and not necessarily in a positive way, since it is a rather straightforward rock song with a grungy, even punky feel and uncharacteristically aggressive vocals. It introduces the album’s epic, Vapour Trail, a varied effort with a middle section of appealing sparseness and some jazzy touches in the piano work, otherwise very reminiscent of both Porcupine Tree and Pink Floyd (especially the Gilmour-tinged guitar soloing). Gluehmann occasionally adopts a lower register in his singing, though towards the end he reverts to his usual, idiosyncratic style. The instrumental parts are, however, quite fine, and showcase the individual skills of the band’s members. As a whole, “Force of Gravity” is a solid album, though not really enhanced by the vocals, as well as somewhat derivative. Sylvan once again prove that they belong to the upper echelons of Neo-Prog, and their loyal followers will definitely not be disappointed by their latest offering.
Conclusion. “Force of Gravity” is a well-crafted album that is sure to appeal to fans of the more melodic, song-oriented strains of progressive rock - even though the harder-edged leanings of a good part of the tracks might put off some listeners. Though certainly not innovative (nor pretending to be in any way), it is a more than pleasant listen, and the instrumental parts are often quite worthy of attention. On the other hand, I cannot help but feel that the album would have been vastly improved by a different vocalist.
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