ProgressoR / Uzbekistan Progressive Rock Pages


Versus X - 2008 - "Primordial Ocean"

(73:05, Musea Records)


Prolusion. VERSUS X has been my favorite modern German prog rock act since 2000 when I got their first three outings, “Versus X”, “Disturbance” and “The Turbulent Zone”. A successor to their fourth release, “Live at The Spirit” from 2002, “Primordial Ocean” is their first studio recording in eight years, issued a few months ago. Just as they have been from the outset of the quartet’s activity, all the vocals here are handled by guitarist Arne Schafer, who also penned all the lyrics and co-wrote the music with keyboardist Ekkehard Nahm. The man behind the drum kit, Uwe Vollmar, has been commanding the band’s battery since 1999, while bassist Thomas Keller is a relative newcomer. Arne also works with Apogee, which is his solo project, though, additionally having two albums released under his own name. I may be not too original in this writing, because at least at the moment I’m more inclined to argue in favor of Versus X’s originality of work (which I already did before: when examining one of the group’s earlier releases) than to do, well, what I usually do.

1.  The Pulse of Earth 15:45
2.  From a Distance 1:50 
3.  Essentially Human 16:16 
4.  Fingerprints 15:22 
5.  Into the Vast Unknown  23:41 


Arne Schafer – all vocals; el. & ac. guitars
Ekkehard Nahm – keyboards; bass pedals
Uwe V?llmar – drums, percussion
Thomas Keller – bass  

Analysis. As you can see above, four of the five tracks on “Primordial Ocean” would certainly have been regarded as sidelong epics if the CD had been issued as a double LP and, surprisingly, only their antipode-in-length, From a Distance, needs a separate description-definition. Here it is: Despite its brevity, this is a full-fledged composition and is a classically-inspired piece for piano (which personally I would have located right in the core of the disc – as a break between the longer ones so as to balance those or at least for the sake of symmetry). Otherwise the band brings us riffs after riffs of marvelous, classic Symphonic Progressive, a dish of a pronouncedly vintage taste. The epic tracks, The Pulse of Earth, Essentially Human, Fingerprints and Into the Vast Unknown, while being suites of multiple sections, all together create a stylistically monolithic palette with such a warm and, what’s most significant, inspired and honest sound that seems as if they could only have been produced in the first half of the ‘70s. The music is highly original indeed, still bearing no other influences but those that are, properly, components of the genre itself. Versus X follows the canons of the art-rock brand of bands like Genesis, Yes, Camel, Van Der Graaf Generator, King Crimson and Gentle Giant, retaining its own identity just like any of its conjectural prototypes does. To continue the thought laid out in the previous sentence, I’d note that if I compare, say, “Foxtrot” to “Close to the Edge” by Genesis and Yes, respectively, I will surely find that, while having quite a good deal in common between them, each of the albums is a unique creation. The guitar parts on “Primordial Ocean” are just one-of-the-kind, regardless of whether Arne plays riffs or weaves solo patterns (which he does much more frequently and which are as intricate as Steve Howe’s, for instance, but don’t arouse associations with anyone else’s) or switches over to his acoustic axe :-). That being said, Ekkehard Nahm’s innovative approach is detectable with the naked ear also. Managing an array of keyboards, namely organ, pianos, Mellotron, Moog and other analog synthesizers, he has more than enough means at hand to saturate the music with vintage colors as well as add complexity to it. The drummer and the bassist are both remarkable players too, more often soloing than providing the so-called bottom end for the leaders’ parts. Unlike most of other contemporary prog rock outfits, Versus X creates music that comes across as a sheaf of different leads, as they spin their web of intricate patterns by using fan-shaped soloing. What make this band somewhat atypical compared to its English brothers in style are the vocals. Arne’s singing gives his German origin away in places, and then it reminds me a bit of Frank Bornemann’s of Eloy. Anyhow, in terms of delivery / style his vocals are very original also, perfectly suiting the music, though only one of the songs is, say, merely largely instrumental. Comprehend?

Conclusion. I hope I’ve made it clear already that “Primordial Ocean” is the quartet’s best effort to date and is an absolute masterpiece. I think it’s in many ways the same for Versus X as “Tales from Topographic Oceans” (Yes’s deepest creation IMHO) is for its makers, the titles and four long tracks being similarities worth pointing out also. Hey, fans of vintage symphonic Art-Rock! One of the style’s very best incarnations is knocking at your door – let it in and enjoy.

VM: October 2, 2008

Versus x - 2008 - "Primordial Ocean"


Analysis. Major influences for Versus X are named as Genesis, Yes and Gentle Giant: two bands excelling at epic symphonic rock and one band more known for intricate vocal harmonies and highly complex compositions with leanings towards jazz, folk and neoclassical music. Following these somewhat different influences is a daunting task, at least if you want it to sound good as well as non-derivative. And it's nice to see that the band pulls this off. Apart from a nice little mood piece, From a Distance, which clocks in at just under 2 minutes, this release is all about epic compositions, most of them in the 15 minute plus variety. And there's not much separating these four tracks in style and manner; the basic construction of the compositions and the musical elements used are all pretty similar and slightly quirky, intricate symphonic rock is a fitting description for all of them. The influences from Genesis are best heard in the pure symphonic nature of most segments in these tracks: the sweeping passages where lush layers of keyboards intermix and harmonize with atmospheric guitar soloing, the slightly harder rocking workouts where guitar chords or melodic guitar riffs are supported by a groovy organ – or vice versa, the mellow passages with just piano and vocals in a highly melodic setting. It's a matter of style – not sound – so anyone who'd like to sample a band playing tunes Genesis could have played will be disappointed. The style is similar, the sound not much so. This is partially due to the compositional details as well. And in this department the Gentle Giant influences are noticeable, with instances of quirky and intricate melody lines as well as offbeat breaks and some leanings towards jazz when it comes to the evolution of a composition; breaks are used, but quite a few times the various segments of the tunes flow into each other rather than initiating a change with a break in the musical flow. The influences from Yes are pretty much a mix of the two above. Yes had its fair share of symphonic elements as well as breaks and songs moving from one passage to another in their heyday, but done in a slightly different manner. Without being able to pinpoint this exactly, I do find myself noticing parts where I find myself thinking that this is done in a more Yes-like manner. And the big thing about this release is that the derivative factors are hard to find. When listening for them you'll be able to find some, but if just concentrating on the music as such you won't find yourself thinking that you're listening to music influenced by this and that band all the time. Versus X sounds most like Versus X, which in my book is a truly good thing. There are a couple of minor negative points to this release, though: not many, and nowhere near major issues. First and foremost for me are the vocals. I'm picky about vocals, so this may not be a point noticed by many, but still. I got the impression that the vocalist struggled a bit in some of the more demanding passages in the compositions here. The voice kept its strength, but the quirkiest melody lines seemed to be a tad too demanding to follow at times. The second minor point goes for the compositions as a whole, as the long epics at times may appear to lack some cohesion. The elements and passages making up the compositions are all high class, but there are a few moments where I lose my bearings in the tunes, so to speak. Both these are minor issues though, and I'd guess that most people checking out this one won't even notice these details.

Conclusion. Fans of 70's symphonic rock ensembles like Yes and Genesis should place this one pretty high up on their list of releases to check out, in particular if they like their music a tad more intricate and complex than that of the heroes of yesteryear.

OMB: October 1, 2008

Related Links:

Musea Records
Versus X


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