With an artist name like Low Budget Orchestra and an album title of The Second Best you'd be forgiven for approaching this CD with some hesitation. Let me put your mind at rest: there's really no need to be scared, it's much better than the names might suggest. The CD art and packaging on the other hand are much more encouraging: the always-evocative space theme and a CD case that feels good to handle. Rock music always was so much more than just the music...
This music follows on from the cover art - yes, it is spacey with a large dose of overlayed keyboards and synthesizers but, unlike much ambient spacey music, The Second Best has huge dollops of pace and electric guitar, heavy at times. It all creates a pleasing heaviness in this soundscape canvas and overall may appeal to fans who enjoy heavy rock music as well as a dose of ambient from time to time. For instance, it is nearer to Porcupine Tree's Up the Downstair than to Hawkwind's many synthesizer-only incursions into space-themes. As such, it's not really "ambient music", or not what ambient music normally delivers. Another "sign-post" for you guys out there (jeez - just go check out the mp3s on the website, it's easier than trying to describe it!) is the UK band Transitional, whose album I reviewed here some weeks ago - but again The Second Best has more pace, so provides a different kind of ambience. Or is it "atmospheric" rock. Let's just call it instrumental progressive rock shall we? It's what the artist himself calls it.
It is instrumental but, cleverly, there are very short spoken linking sentences (all well less than a minute) between the tracks, on the broad subject of "Life, The Universe and Everything". they don't come across as pretentious, instead they help to provide flow and interest to the album, despite their simplicity - good ruse!
Vocals, of course, or incantations, would have added another, probably beneficial dimension to this music. Perhaps Mikko Muranen can't sing. Mikko is, you see, the one-man band that is Low Budget Orchestra. The Second Best is certainly one of the better one-man albums I've heard - and don't forget that Porcupine Tree started out as Steve Wilson on his own; in fact Up the Downstair was originally a one-man album. So there's inspiration for Mr. Muranen.
The album's eight pieces are designed to be sequenced as a flow: Muranen recommends that in order to get the most from the album the songs should be played in sequence. "The Emperor's New Clothes" and "Nothing Will Be The Same" are available as mp3s on the artist's website for those who want to sample. The latter is one of the most enjoyable tracks on the album and exemplifies brilliantly what The Second Best is about: you can hear how this musical soundscape is made up of layers of deep (mid-range frequency) synthesizer and keyboard sounds and how, over this backdrop, Muranen paints pacey guitar parts: chords, phrases, everything; a real rock sound. "Nothing Will Be The Same" stands out courtesy of Muranen starting out on acoustic guitar, this adds additional aural contrasts and interest to that of the other pieces.
"Rather Than Words" is a slower piece, allowing Muranen some lengthy and sustained soloing on the guitar but generally these compositions are of medium to high tempo. Music of this nature works best when there is an underlying mantric rhythm to hook the listener in and its omission is perhaps a weakness in The Second Best. The drums sound synthesised but are not irritating; rather it is the omission of the desired level of natural rhythm in the musical phrasing that is the weakness. Personal opinion of course, but there it is.
It's a good album that unfortunately I can't compare with his first, Extraordinary as I haven't heard it! However, there's sufficient enjoyment and sufficient promise in The Second Best to both listen to it again and to keep a watch on the artist's progress. It would not be a major surprise if he, or his band if he subsequently forms one, goes on to develop and gain some of the market of other artists who started out on their lonesome, such as Steve Wilson.
1) Take On The World (5:49)
2) Settle for the Second (3:52)
3) Emperor's New Clothes (4:36)
4) Nothing Will Be the Same (5:45)
5) Stalemate (4:50)
6) Rather Than Words (4:45)
7) Juliet's Waiting (5:03)
8) Dream Another (5:36)