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Thread: FEATURED ALBUM: Aleph - Surface Tension

  1. #1
    Moderator Poisoned Youth's Avatar
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    FEATURED ALBUM: Aleph - Surface Tension

    Today's feature is a lesser-known album from Australia that is a nice slice of prog rock that feels like it could fit well into the 70s "Ameriprog" category (or in full Kansas mode on "Mountaineer", or with British crossover groups like Supertramp. For a long time this was not on CD, but apparently did have a reissue of M2U. Maybe someone can speak to the legitimacy and quality of that issue.




    Review from ProgArchives:
    Aleph's music is an attractive blend of obvious symphonic-prog influences and ambitions with an always-accessible pop-rock edge. You won't hear a lot of unusual time signatures or virtuosic showing off; and only once on this album will you hear an extended composition attempting (fairly successfully) a more symphonic structure ("Mountaineer"). What you will hear is a band with great senses of melody, arrangement, songcraft.

    They're most of the time somewhere between Yes/Genesis and Supertramp. I think the Yes influences, where audible, are more overt - Joe Walmsley is clearly trying very hard to channel Jon Anderson (but badly - it's not a very attractive voice), there is a section in "Mountaineer" that very clearly sounds like the latter stages of "Siberian Khatru", and plenty of grand mellotron-laden choruses that take their cue from "Awaken" or "And You And I"; but the more I listened, the more I heard Genesis parallels - a very keyboard-driven approach (the piano particularly being the basis of most compositions), the guitar often taking a less prominent place in the mix (but occasionally stepping up for solos which more than a couple of times reminded me of Hackett), and much more of an emphasis on arrangement/orchestration that virtuosity for it's own sake.

    "Mountaineer" is the most overtly proggy song. "Man Who Fell" (about Bowie) and "(You Never Were A) Dreamer" are the poppiest. "Morning" and 'Banshee" take a heavier approach within a standard song structure. "Heaven's Achaepelago", the closer, is an epic ballad, piano & mellotron-driven (did anyone else notice that the opening chords are the same as Traffic's "No Time To Live"?)

    Not a lost masterpiece, but a very worthwhile album that any fan of 70s symphonic or crossover prog should enjoy. It's unfortunate that they didn't have the success they deserved.- sl75



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  2. #2
    Member moecurlythanu's Avatar
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    An OK album, but far from essential. As for M2U, I can't comment on legitimacy or source material (Discogs hints that they fail on both counts,) but the disc I have sounds alright, iirc. Haven't played it in ages.
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  3. #3
    Member Koreabruce's Avatar
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    I could never get past the vocals. Maybe it's time to give it another try?

  4. #4
    Yup, Cozyman - THIS is gonna be biggie!

    I quite like it, and I cherish the idea of not one but two pianists - female ones and on oppsite sides of the stage!

    "Man Who Fell" is the best tune on the album, though; it's got something existentially affirming about it - joyous and dramatic at once. I think perhaps that 14-minute thing goes on a bit too long, and as Moe pointed out it's hardly an "essential" record. But then again those are rare and far between.
    "Improvisation is not an excuse for musical laziness" - Fred Frith
    "[...] things that we never dreamed of doing in Crimson or in any band that I've been in," - Tony Levin speaking of SGM

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    Member ashratom's Avatar
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    My own notes corroborate the opening review and comments:

    "Though from Australia, Aleph in reality sound more like a band from Ohio, and would have been a perfect fit for my USA Midwest / Ontario Progressive Rock (1970's/early 80s) list. Commercial FM radio meets progressive rock, with long tracks, mellotron, extended ideas, etc... Comparisons to Sebastian Hardie are compulsory, but not really accurate. Whereas that fine band were more attuned to a certain European sophistication, Aleph are a brash unit, very much like an American group would be. Despite featuring two females (on keyboards primarily), and the vocals are in a decidedly higher range, the lead singer is definitely male - yet another Midwest-American-covering-Yes trait. I love music like this, but certainly understand that it will fall into the... "garbage can" for less tolerant progressive fans focused solely on atonal soloing over non stop rhythm changes*. While we appreciate the latter as well, a little melody never hurt anyone around here. Fine album for those who like that uniquely late 70's American prog sound."

    *This was a none-too-subtle shot at a known shit-stirrer on RYM.

    Onto the M2U debate. Continuing on with my notes:

    "It's debatable if this album has been reissued properly. My copy (that I purchased way back in 1996) is on Poor House, and it was their very first release - so it was a fully pressed CD, not a CD-R as they later succumbed too. All the same, it's clearly a bootleg and taken from vinyl. The M2U release claims a license, so we'll trust it's legit, but questions have arisen to the contrary. One wishes Aztec had covered this in their prime to remove all doubt. And I would gladly have purchased that reissue. I probably should look into obtaining an original LP, though it's hardly cheap."

    I do have it on good authority that M2U, when they first started, did legally obtain licenses from Musea and BTF. But I think they succumbed to that shady "send an e-mail - no response - release it anyway - pay royalties if called on the carpet about it" routine. Sigh.

  6. #6
    The CD sounds OK. Don't know if it's legal though.

    I like the album enough to consider it a firm keeper.
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  7. #7
    I could have sworn Aztec covered this. I guess it was the M2U release I was thinking of, and since the legitimacy of that is even in question... I suppose we should count ourselves lucky that it’s available at all (my Poor House copy has the Atlantic label design on the face of the disc! ), since it’s one of the rarest Australian progressives, probably second only to that Ritz album (which hasn’t ever been pirated).

    I am one of the few who really loves this album. The vocals tend towards the strident at times, but they fit the mood of the music. And the keyboard playing is just exquisite. I’m a real sucker for prog with lots of piano runs inspired by classical music, and this record is just stuffed to the gills with that kind of thing! I think this album might have been made with me in mind!

    Unusually, all the songs were composed by the drummer (Ron Carpenter) fact fans. I believe he was married to one of the keyboardists, and I think it’s his wife Mary Jane who’s responsible for all (or at least most of) that sumptuous piano playing on this disc.
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  8. #8
    It's news to me that any M2U releases are less than legit.

    This one was licensed from Mushroom. If one was going to illegally release something, I suspect using the name of a company that size would be well off the map of ideas.

    I doubt Aztec would ever beat M2U for sound (not that M2U are all that predictable). Problem with Aztec for me was their mastering. I had some correspondence with their owner (name escapes me) and mailed him some stuff for comparison as regards the first two Buffalo albums, but came away feeling like we probably weren't on the same page. Anyway ... them letting Gil Mathews hit everything with his compression stun gun killed the catalog for me. And a great catalog it was. I think Mathews as a mastering engineer is a good drummer.

  9. #9
    Member moecurlythanu's Avatar
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    7 replies in a Featured Album thread. Is that a record?

  10. #10
    Give the new idea ("Album") some time.

  11. #11
    Revisiting Surface Tension this morning, my original ruby/amethyst rankings of the tracks holds firm. Sound-wise, Aleph's most frontal traits are the crisp bass work and piano runs, in addition to the Colin Carter-esque vocals. However, a closer listen to the lengthy "Mountaineer" reveals sensitive appropriations of all instruments involved — measured drum fills; oozing synths and Mellotron backdrops during the pastoral mid-section; alternately lyrical/filigree-laden guitar lines throughout. The highlights of the album are the intensified third section of the aforementioned epic (8:40-mark onward) as well as the opening "Banshee" and the taut, angular "Morning."

    Comparisons to fellow Oceanic symphonic bands (Sebastian Hardie, Chetarca, early Dragon, et al.) are irrelevant, though I do hear a melodic overlap between a lyrical refrain in "Banshee" and Sherbet's concurrent "Still In Love With You," which could only be a coincidence.

    Of the purples, "Man Who Fell" ropes in a straighter hard rock influence, with blocky Hammond chords that recall the earlier '70s. I can see why this would be the standout to some listeners. I remain rather unmoved by "Heaven's Archaepelago," which works pastoral territory without much thematic development — one of those tracks that lingers in intro-land for the bulk of its length.

    Due to the closing track's intriguing title, I tried to pay closer attention to the lyrics on that number, but couldn't decipher much; perhaps the primary consequence of the emotive yet high-pitched vocals — an admittedly acquired taste for some listeners.

  12. #12
    Quote Originally Posted by moecurlythanu View Post
    7 replies in a Featured Album thread. Is that a record?
    I'm terribly shocked that Woofis hasn't chimbed in, 'cause he's very clear about who's "best in all of prog" and such stuff (in which he luckily always agrees with majorities to whom he consequently safely adheres as formidably representative average person), implying that he most definitely would have intimate knowledge on this Surface Tension thang.
    "Improvisation is not an excuse for musical laziness" - Fred Frith
    "[...] things that we never dreamed of doing in Crimson or in any band that I've been in," - Tony Levin speaking of SGM

  13. #13
    I'm having an Oceanic prog-binge this evening and just played this again for the first time since this thread. I still quite like it; not as shamelessly unimaginative in its adherence to obvious ideals (Yes, Supertramp, ELO, Kansas etc.) as some others. They share that trait with their national compatriots Marshall Brothers Band, I guess.

    What a peculiar place it was for progressive rock. Oceania, I mean. All of the known socio-cultural faccets aside (such as the particular precondition of Autralia's concert scene in the tavern/drinking-venue demographic), I'm surprised the concept of anything as outrageous as "art rock" would find a home here at all. But there were masterworks made; Tamam Shud's Goolutionites is a treasure of strange and original ideas, Masters Apprentices' Panama Red remains one of the freakiest and dustiest rock records I ever heard, Blackfeather's Mountains of Madness would have made the most bizarrely refined Grand Funk Railroad effort and both of those Rainbow Theatre albums feature among the plain oddest examples of "symphonic" rock that I know.

    We recently had the Madden & Harris up for 'Featured Album', right? On hearing it now I find it quite astounding. Chetarca's sole release from 1977 is -almost- a gem; recognizable in form yet also corny for all of its unpredictable turns. Mike Rudd's stuff (Spectrum and the first Ariel) was melodically and lyrically highly rewarding; somewhere in the unexplored interim of late/post-psych and vintage progressive, those tunes and words of his were truly different from what you'd usually hear at the time. Even some of the complete obscurities - Bakery (Momento), Piranha (second album), Chris Neal, Tully (Sea of Joy) and so on - this is all absolutely worth a spin for not only the sake of curiosity.

    I'm gonna do NZ afterwards; Dragon, Ticket, both Ragnaroks, first two Split Enz and maybe that Airlord.

    Yeah, and maybe Sebastian Hardie's second one as well. And perhaps Llobby. But not that Paul Gaffey thing.
    "Improvisation is not an excuse for musical laziness" - Fred Frith
    "[...] things that we never dreamed of doing in Crimson or in any band that I've been in," - Tony Levin speaking of SGM

  14. #14
    Member moecurlythanu's Avatar
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    ^ They're Folk Rock, but if you get a chance, listen to the albums by Tamburlaine. Just gorgeous stuff.

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    As to Alephs "Surface Tension", I liked the longer cut "Mountaineer" a lot as the instrumental portions were given a chance to breathe and the vocals weren't as up front and prevalent. Pretty good and intense stuff. Also liked the finishing song, "Heavens Archaepelago". The first 4 songs were too middle of the road rock and the vocals didn't help the cause there.

    Airlords "Clockwork Revenge" is something else again and I could never decide whether I liked it a lot, or not. Craziness in the sound and album cover and I have thought about replacing my previously sold vinyl to revisit this strange release. I might have a different view now, as I haven't heard it since the 80's.

    Sebastian Hardees "Windchase" is okay, mainly due to the title cut. The other shorter songs don't go anywhere in my view.

    The Windchase album "Symphinity" is one of my Top 50 albums of all time.

  16. #16
    Quote Originally Posted by moecurlythanu View Post
    ^ They're Folk Rock, but if you get a chance, listen to the albums by Tamburlaine. Just gorgeous stuff.
    I'll check it out, Moe.
    "Improvisation is not an excuse for musical laziness" - Fred Frith
    "[...] things that we never dreamed of doing in Crimson or in any band that I've been in," - Tony Levin speaking of SGM

  17. #17
    Jeez, I've never heard these guys. I've heard their name mentioned, but never sampled them (probably because the CD is so hard to get). Gotta say, I quite like it! It does have an AmeriProg/Kansas vibe to it. I like the vocals, and I love the tight, punchy rhythm section. Cool stuff, right up my alley... actual Prog Rock! Would love a reissue of this, but I'm not holding my breath.

    Bill

  18. #18
    Quote Originally Posted by Sputnik View Post
    Would love a reissue of this, but I'm not holding my breath.
    And two grand pianos, Bill - played by two separate gals! You really shouldn't hold that breath, though. Disappointment will probably soon abound in that case.

    Discogs tells about some bootleg from a few years back, but the M2U (from Korea) in 2001 was apparently itself illegit despite great sound and packaging. Which all of their releases had, along with cover-stickers containing some preposterous textual attempts at describing the music and artist featured. They also did fabulous reissues of the second Petrus Castrus (my fave from Portugal), Saga's Homo Sapiens (also from Portugal) and Asgard's Tradition & Renouveau and not least the Escénes by Gotic, but then ceased operations at least some 15 years back.

    Quite expensive 2nd-hand market CDs nowadays, AFAIK.
    "Improvisation is not an excuse for musical laziness" - Fred Frith
    "[...] things that we never dreamed of doing in Crimson or in any band that I've been in," - Tony Levin speaking of SGM

  19. #19
    Quote Originally Posted by Scrotum Scissor View Post
    And two grand pianos, Bill - played by two separate gals! You really shouldn't hold that breath, though. Disappointment will probably soon abound in that case.

    Discogs tells about some bootleg from a few years back, but the M2U (from Korea) in 2001 was apparently itself illegit despite great sound and packaging. Which all of their releases had, along with cover-stickers containing some preposterous textual attempts at describing the music and artist featured. They also did fabulous reissues of the second Petrus Castrus (my fave from Portugal), Saga's Homo Sapiens (also from Portugal) and Asgard's Tradition & Renouveau and not least the Escénes by Gotic, but then ceased operations at least some 15 years back.

    Quite expensive 2nd-hand market CDs nowadays, AFAIK.
    Yeah, I looked and I saw them for ~$75. Not worth it. Too bad.

    Two grand pianos is kind of a gimmick, there was a band with two guys who played piano... can't recall their name, but I had the album for a while. It was empty bombast and far too poppy for me. In the case of Aleph, I like what I heard from the sample above, so I'm far more interested.

    Bill

  20. #20
    Quote Originally Posted by Sputnik View Post
    there was a band with two guys who played piano... can't recall their name, but I had the album for a while. It was empty bombast and far too poppy for me.
    Carnegie? I believe they were even two twin brothers playing those grands. Pretty awful release, AFAIC.
    "Improvisation is not an excuse for musical laziness" - Fred Frith
    "[...] things that we never dreamed of doing in Crimson or in any band that I've been in," - Tony Levin speaking of SGM

  21. #21
    Member moecurlythanu's Avatar
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    Didn't German band Ocean have two pianos as well?

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    I purchased my Aleph CD years ago from Syn-Phonic. Looking at the inner sleeve insert the description of the music alluded to in the above post is in Korean! Just from my perspective I wouldn't pay a large sum for this album like I might for other releases.

    Speaking of Oceanic delicacies, one of my favorites is the first release by Pacific Eardrum. Outstanding, breezy island type sound mixed with solid guitar/keyboard playing and good female vocals. Almost impossible to get on CD.

  23. #23
    ^I believe so, yes. And, of course, Eela Craig had three or four multi-keyboardists at one point.

    Listening again to Piranha's II now and thinking that it might be the finest Latino-rock record I heard by a none-Latino band. Obviously not as fantastic as Chango or Mandrill or anything, but excellent all the same. They really knew the vibe and groove, these young dudes! Of course, "latino" was a thing already in OZ with guys like Billy T.
    "Improvisation is not an excuse for musical laziness" - Fred Frith
    "[...] things that we never dreamed of doing in Crimson or in any band that I've been in," - Tony Levin speaking of SGM

  24. #24
    Quote Originally Posted by Scrotum Scissor View Post
    Carnegie? I believe they were even two twin brothers playing those grands. Pretty awful release, AFAIC.
    Yes! Carnegie! And yes, pretty awful!

    Bill

  25. #25
    Quote Originally Posted by Scrotum Scissor View Post
    Carnegie? I believe they were even two twin brothers playing those grands. Pretty awful release, AFAIC.
    Quote Originally Posted by Sputnik View Post
    Yes! Carnegie! And yes, pretty awful!

    Bill
    Oh wow... Wasn't that reissued within the past 10 years or so? I thought about picking that one up, but now I'm glad I never did.

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