If Passion does one thing right, it proves that Pendragon is still an innovative force to be reckoned with in 2011. Even 33 years after their formation in Stroud, England, the band still hasn't succumbed to treading on previously broken ground. Passion shows the famed neo-prog quartet with their heaviest, darkest, and possibly most unique album to date - whether or not that's a good thing ultimately depends on the listener. I happen to miss the light-hearted and symphonic atmosphere of masterpieces like The Masquerade Overture, but any band that would sacrifice innovation for album-repeats won't last long in this industry. As much as I appreciate Pendragon's heavier new direction on this album (I'm a die-hard death metal fan, after all!), I feel that it lacks part of what made them so enjoyable in the first place. Hopefully in future efforts they can find a way to merge the heaviness of this album with the memorability of their earlier efforts - that would make for one great album, to be sure!
Don't be mistaken by me calling this album "heavy" - it's nowhere near the likes of the modern progressive metal leaders. But in comparison to the light-hearted, feel-good symphonic prog of their albums from the early 90's, this may feel like a radical departure for some. Heavy guitar riffs and a sleek modern production are the name of the game here, and Clive Nolan's once-dominate keyboard arrangements take a bit of a backseat on Passion. There are plenty of distinctly neo-progressive sections here, but I am more often reminded of Porcupine Tree and Riverside than I am of early-Marillion and IQ. This album takes the modern-edged Pure and strips away that last bit of "eighties vibe" from the overall sound. For those hesitant to neo prog, this is by all means a good thing. I actually have a great appreciation for this newfound direction on Passion, but I feel the songwriting pales in comparison to the band's earlier masterworks. "This Green And Pleasant Land" is by far the best track here - this is truly an excellent modern prog epic that will undoubtedly be remembered among the best of 2011.
Of course, as we're used to from Pendragon, the musicianship is outstanding across the board. Although I'm a bit disappointed by Clive Nolan's general lack of presence on this album, it just gives Nick Barrett's fantastic guitar work more room to shine. He's truly among the best in progressive rock - a perfect mix of Steve Rothery and David Gilmour, sure to satisfy prog rock enthusiasts. Peter Gee's bass playing provides a perfect foundation for the band and Scott Higham is also a mightily impressive drummer. These guys are simply a joy to listen to. The production is equally excellent - the sleek, modern sound suits the music perfectly.
When all is said and done, Passion isn't an album that's completely won me over. But that's what often happens when experienced bands experiment into new territory - they've released an impressive effort, no doubt, but it falls short of living up to their earlier masterpieces. This isn't the best starting point for Pendragon newbies, but it should satisfy fans of sleek, modern prog rock. It'll be interesting to hear where Pendragon heads next; this heavy, modern sound is one that Pendragon should undoubtedly master in the coming years. Passion is a good, but not outstanding, effort worthy of 3.5 stars. Although I'm a bit disappointed by this album, I don't deny quality - which is exactly what we have here.
1. Passion (5:27)
2. Empathy (11:20)
3. Feeding Frenzy (5:47)
4. This Green And Pleasant Land (13:13)
5. It's Just A Matter Of Not Getting Caught (4:41)
6. Skara Brae (7:31)
7. Your Black Heart (6:46)
Added: May 31st 2011
Reviewer: Jeff B
Related Link: Pendragon Website
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Posted by Mark Johnson, SoT Staff Writer on 2011-05-31 17:41:54
Pendragon is one of the bands that are credited, along with Marillion, IQ, Twelfth Night, Arena, Jadis and others as revitalizing prog in the UK with their own Neo Prog transformation. Nick Barrett, lead vocalist, composer and lead guitarist heads the band and originates most of its lyrics and song riffs. Clive Nolan is the keyboard and synth wizard. Peter Gee supports well with spiritual inspiration and bass. Scott Higham brings the welcomed youth and drums to the band.
The band was formed in 1978 in Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK. Pendragon has nine studio albums to their credit and numerous DVDs and live releases. They have toured most of Europe and have played festivals here in the USA.'Passion', like all new albums, was a chance for Pendragon to redefine itself. With an album name like 'Passion' a lot is expected, and the artist has creative license to really make something out of this world. Instead of setting a new direction, this album sounds like what might have been the early beginnings of a Nick Barrett solo album. The first person lyrics and focus on Pro Tools/software effects and guitar seems to be a statement that Nick feels he can take the band into the future with little help. Scott plays an important role and is featured well in the accompanying DVD, but Peter Gee and Clive Nolan have very small parts in both the production and overall sound of the music. The DVD is very self-indulgent and requires only one viewing, though it seems to run on forever. A better choice for Barrett, in my opinion, would have been to work on and release that long awaited solo album. But signing a new agreement with a new record label may have driven the Pendragon project forward.
While many of the leading bands in prog are collaborating and bringing more acoustic and live instruments and sounds into the recording process, Barrett seems to be moving in the opposite direction relying on Pro Tools and software to create the atmospheres. He draws on the sounds of many of his peers, as witnessed by the many references in other's reviews, but distills those new sounds through software and his own expertise.
The last couple of years have been very busy for the band, with all of the touring and release of 'Pure', and maybe that left less time for the fermentation necessary to create something really spectacular. In my opinion, it is time to regroup and re-think where you want to take the band. Take some time off and complete that solo album. Then come back to Pendragon. They've been around for over 30 years. The fan base is there. They'll wait. But more of this will only alienate even more fans.
'Passion' opens with some of those Pro Tools - like software affects that you will hear throughout the album. This opening sound reminds me of that General Cinema Corporation Bumper sound you used to hear in the cinemas during the 70s. Then some more cool key and guitar effects as Nick opens up with the song's punch line, delivered with no holds barred. The guitar, bass, and drum extravaganza begins in earnest shortly thereafter. "Passion? Give me some empathy". Yeah, this album asks allot. The guitar work and keys buzz and fill the air with plenty of venom to match the lyrics being delivered from the vox. "No not here, not now. I said, who do you think you are?" Then some more software effects as we move from vocals to what will be a common trait for this album, the instrumental fill. Bells, key effects, and all sorts of noises and sounds are added to create atmosphere. The lyrics arch longer and are further stretched to fill any open spaces. But wait…there's more.Heavy drums and an even heavier guitar riff rips opens 'Empathy', as the keys follow neatly in pursuit of a dark melody. For me, this was the better opener, but they decided they needed passion before empathy. The atmospherics are wonderful throughout this album and they do a wonderful job creating feelings on this track. In fact there are more software effects than anyone has a right to know. They rerun the vocal track with "passion, give me some empathy", until you think the listener can stand it no more.
Suddenly, it stops, and Barrett is back with the kind of songwriting you remember from the past. Beautiful guitar and keys, mixed well with solid drums and bass, but he's got his fingers on the button of that software tool, and he's gonna use it. Then another transition into one of the best parts of the album so far. Finally the trademark launching Barrett guitar solos everyone has been waiting for. Then Barrett' s foray into the present and recent past with a poetic rap session. The rap actually works well to add variety, but then he adds the Fish tag line "for you", just in case, as he says, you think he, "might have gone too far". The piano and key section that follows is Clive Nolan's best section of the album. I wish there was more of his playing on the album. Took me right back to one of my favorites, the sounds I remember from the 'The Masquerade Overture'.
'Feeding Frenzy' opens with an apology from Barrett, with females and others crying in the background. "This is your revenge to the power of four". Clicking sounds, like something readying to be unleashed. You can hear what's coming next. A powerful blast of ripping guitar, drums, and bass mixed with some keys as an avalanche of emotion is unleashed. "The blood in the water turns you on", "I want to see that ego taken down", "Sometimes it's not always about you". They fill the soundscape with more software effects along with some cool keys. Loads of those guru vocal effects I remember from 'Believe' and 'Pure'. May be the best rocker on the album.
'This Green and Pleasant Land' is everyone's favorite, from all the reviews I have been reading so far. It is a nice drift back to the past after all the 'new' sounds we have been hearing so far. Wonderful keys, new guitar riffs, bass and yes, more software effects with some backing vocals adding to the overall soundscape. They may have been trying to build something as majestic as 'Jerusalem', but this is all Barrett, with a Pendragon twist. He describes the sacrifices his family has made over the generations and riles at our softer times and the limited pain being felt today, in comparison to what has been sacrificed in the past. Then Barrett breaks into a guitar solo, like a long cry for the change that has occurred in the UK. The theme, "Take only what you need". The vast discrepancies between the wealth of classes. So let's dig in and discuss it, eh? But instead the message drifts all over the place, with some guitar riffs and the reoccurring theme "Take only what you need" thrown in repetitively. More software effects in the background, then another instrumental fill. Some of the effects even sound like they're borrowed from 'Pure'.
Then the other effect everyone's talking about in reviews, the yodeling. The sound effect in the background, behind the yodeling is wonderful, but you can't enjoy it with the yodeling up front. Not sure why Barrett decided he needed yodeling, maybe he wanted to be the first to include it on a prog album? Free creative license, hey go for it, but on the one big epic of the album? You can't please everyone, but self-sabotage?
'It's Just a Matter of Not Getting Caught' opens with more spacey software effects before that wonderful harp sound that has been used on the last couple of albums. This track has probably the best start, but just wait it's gonna get rough. The eerie piano is just the first sign things will change. The lyrics are very brittle as all of the vitriol is unleashed on politicians and anyone else that might have disappointed Barrett in the past. "All the clichés of the world and dumbing down", but be careful you don't add to the pile. More software background sounds serve as a nice diversion for the missing stories and similar sounds. There is a cool effect which takes us out and on to what may be the album's best song…
'Skara Brae' has a jarring, 'Eraserhead/Freak Show' opening before plunging deep into the synthetic. "Die to be reborn. I must turn this thing around". Yep, bring everyone's memories back with some guitar from Pendragon albums of the past. But it may be too late for some. They diligently try to leave their past behind in pursuit of the next generation, after all, "I crave the youth!"
But just as the past seems to be falling away, Barrett tries to save the day starting with some awesome acoustic guitar followed closely by Nolan's keys. Ah, like it used to be. Then a wonderful story about a historic and mystical place. This is what the fans want and need. The stories he and the band used to tell. The stories the youth they're trying to reach need to hear. "Between two headland points, lies the bay of Skaill". Here Barrett had an excellent opportunity to tell some tales and relate some stories. He was once a great storyteller. But instead of using this wonderful perspective to add some powerful lyrics and history to the piece, it's time for another instrumental fill with all sorts of software add ins, some great soaring guitar, echoing the past, with drums, bass, and keys. "Where the wind whips up the waves, white horses see the brave" is all we get.
How you end an album is almost more important than how you begin it. 'Your Black Heart' is the closer and a chance to bring all the ideas from the songs on the album together into one final closure, while at the same time propel the momentum forward towards the next album. However, in the case of Barrett, it is a chance to relive the experience of 'Not of this World'. Yes, this sounds like somewhere we've already been before. The music and the 'melancholy' regret from the past rears its ugly head again, possibly in an effort to placate the old fans who wish for a return to their favorite album. After pointing at what we might believe is the 'new direction', Barrett returns to the past. "This memory will always be a part of me". The best of 'Pure' matched with some of the best effects and sounds of 'NoTW'. A match made in heaven for the OCD, but a departure into no man's land for the audience anticipating something new.
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