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Touchstone: Mad Hatters, Discordant Dreams, Wintercoast (reissues)

Touchstone is probably one of the hottest names in modern progressive rock and, with their style that blends the artistic sensibility of lush progressive rock with the edge and power of metal music, they received praise upon praise from both reviewers and fans alike for last year's The City Sleeps. This year sees the reissue their back catalogue in enhanced formats, and thus the EP Mad Hatters (2006) and the two full lengths Discordant Dreams (2007) and Wintercoast (2009) are once again available to the prog loving public.

While quality characterizes the music on all three reissued releases, it is nonetheless interesting to note the musical development of the band from Mad Hatters over Discordant Dreams to Wintercoast. While the talent, the skills and the ideas are there on Mad Hatters, it strikes me as somewhat of a shaky start perhaps because of the slightly thin production and the melodic and pleasant, but quite constrained lead vocals. Compared to Mad Hatters, Discordant Dreams is a vast improvement. Or, well, perhaps "vast improvement" is an unfair description, and it is perhaps better to say that all the talent that was already present on Mad Hatters is really given free reign on this album, resulting in some very strong and dynamic tracks with a tighter production, a tighter performance and a much more pronounced lushness. Tracks like 'Discordant Dreams', 'See the Light', and 'Shadow' are outstanding tracks that perfectly balance the melody of modern rock, the sophistication of prog rock and the edge of metal. While Discordant Dreams is good, Wintercoast is brilliant and nothing less than a modern progressive rock/metal masterpiece, in my opinion. Looking at the musical progression throughout the three releases, one could even say that, Wintercoast is the inevitable masterpiece that Touchstone had been working their way towards. Tracks like the massively epic Wintercoast', the uplifting hard rocker 'Strange Days' (my favorite Touchstone song of all time), the lush-but-heavy 'Joker in the Park', the slightly retrospective prog rocker 'Voices', the oddly funky 'Zinomorph' and the beautiful 'Solace' document a band who have gone from being skilled musicians to being geniuses. Really, all the songs in this album are spectacular, and Wintercoast rivals several of the classic progressive rock albums. One of the main advantages this album has over the two other releases is that Kim Seviour is given the role as the primary vocalist. On Mad Hatters, she provides mainly background vocals, while she and Rob Cottingham split the vocals between them more or less equally. Her voice is clear, clean, very expressive and definitely one of the defining features of touchstone's original sound.

Each of the reissued releases also feature a number of live tracks documenting the band's live performances. The live tracks are very well performed, showcasing Touchstone's tightness as a live band. I do not know if this is enough bonus material for somebody who already owns these releases to go out and buy the reissues (unless one is a completionist collector, of course), but, in any case, the reissues are still warmly welcomed as Mad Hatters and Discordant Dreams were quite difficult to find in some parts of the world. If you're not familiar with the music of Touchstone, I would recommend that you start with Wintercoast before exploring Mad Hatters and Discordant Dreams.
Track listing:

Mad Hatters:
1. One Shot
2. Hear Me
3. The Mad Hatter's Song
4. Original Sin (Live)
5. Dignity (Live)

Discordant Dreams:
1. Intro
2. Discordant Dreams
3. Curious Angel
4. See The Light
5. Being Hannah
6. Shadow
7. Winter Coast
8. Ocean Down
9. Blacktide
10. Dignity
11. The Beggar's Song
12. Wintercoast (Live)
13. Strange Days (Live)

1. Prelude
2. Wintercoast
3. Strange Days
4. Voices
5. Joker In The Pack
6. Original Sin
7. Solace
8. Zinomorph
9. Line In The Sand
10. The Witness Part One
11. The Witness Part Two
12. Zinomorph (Radio mix)
13. Shadow (Live)
14. Joker In The Pack (Live)

Added: June 4th 2012
Reviewer: Kim Jensen
Related Link: Touchstone official website
Hits: 3082
Language: english

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Touchstone: Mad Hatters, Discordant Dreams, Wintercoast (reissues)
Posted by Steven Reid, SoT Staff Writer on 2012-06-04 13:04:14
My Score:

I have to admit that I have been a latecomer to the Touchstone party, with the band's latest, fantastic melodic-prog offering The City Sleeps being my first proper encounter with them. While obviously I am disappointed to have not been around to enjoy this UK act's journey from promising hopefuls to skilled masters, sometimes it is an advantage to come in at the "right time". With many new Touchstone fans having been reeled in during recent years, this is as good a time as any to reappraise the band's first three releases in the shape of debut EP Mad Hatters, debut album proper Discordant Dreams and follow up Wintercoast - something I'm more than happy to do.

Having the benefit of knowing how impressive Touchstone have turned out to be makes this journey into the past all the more intriguing, although it does have to be said that taking the journey from most recent to oldest will actually make for a more rewarding experience. Wintercoast, which was released in 2007 is an album which it really is quite difficult to pick fault with. By this stage the Touchstone blueprint had been firmly established, with a mixture of melodic rock sensibility rubbing shoulders with a strong storytelling nature and progressive metal leanings to make a concept album that captivates and excites in equal measure. While it may not quite come up to the amazing standard of The City Sleeps, rock solid foundations had certainly been put in place by an album that completely convinces from start to finish. Opening with respected actor Jeremy Irons narrating an introduction, Wintercoast is absolutely dripping with atmosphere, although it is the voices of co-lead singers Kim "Elkie" Seviour and Rob Cottingham which really grab the limelight. Bristling riffs, grand keyboard structures and inventive drum and bass work make for an ever varying story of progressive, yet accessible themes, with the really clever aspect of Touchstone being that they can borrow influences from a huge variety of sources without sounding particularly like any other band. Songs like "Wintercoast", the two part "The Witness" and "Joker In The Pack" really are pretty special blends of style and substance. (4.5/5)

Two years previously Discordant Dreams had been released and the step between this album and what was to follow is marked. Yes, the same theory of blending glistening hints of AOR and melodic rock with far, far weightier musical and lyrical themes is still in evidence, however the execution is nothing like a slick, nor as memorable. That's not to say that there aren't impressive moments, with the gently atmospheric "Shadow" or the more experimental and muscular "Discordant Dreams" being standout's. The influences shine through a bit more blatantly on this album, with hints of Marillion and even aspects of New Romantic slipping into the mix to surprisingly good effect. If I'd heard this album - which again highlights the superb singing of Seviour and Cottingham - back when it was released in 2007, it would be fair to suggest I'd have been mightily impressed, although not quite blown away. (4/5)

Move back once again, this time to 2006 and the four track EP Mad Hatters and the jump between Discordant Dreams and Wintercoast is even more striking. There may be only twelve months or so between Discordant and Hatters, but the progress made between the two is vast. While Discordant Dreams is the sound of a band finding their true path and settling in to their own style, Mad Hatters finds Touchstone setting out quite unsurely. With the benefit of hindsight, it makes for a very interesting window to past endeavours, which stands up well, but pales in comparison with what was to come. Cottingham, who also contributes keyboards to the band is this time joined by Liz Clayden on vocals and while she is a talented singer, their voices don't feel as intrinsically linked. It maybe wouldn't have been quite so obvious at the time, but on "Misguided Fool", or "Hear Me" it feels more like two people singing at each other and not with. That said, taken in context Mad Hatters is well worth a few visits and while not as essential as what was to follow, still makes for worthy listening. (3/5)

Touchstone have grown into one of the most interesting and effective melodic, progressive acts around and while the standard set across their first three releases isn't always as stunning as The City Sleeps, Wintercoast is essential stuff and Discordant Dreams will satisfy anyone who likes both those albums. All three releases come with bonus live tracks, which while excellent, don't really add all that much to the individual albums. That said, there's enough great music across these three releases to make investing in them a no brainer.

2004 Sea Of Tranquility
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