Salem Hill - 2003 Be

ARTIST: Salem Hill
LABEL: Quixote Records
YEAR: 2003

LINEUP: Michael Dearing - guitar, vocals * Carl Groves - keyboards, guitar, vocals * Patrick Henry - bass * Kevin Thomas - drums, vocals

TRACK LISTING: Reflect * 02 Symposium * 03 Nowhere Is Home * 04 The Great Stereopticon * 05 Children Of The Dust * 06 So Human * 07 Underneath * 08 Apollyon * 09 Love Won't Save The World * 10 Seattle (In Memory Of) * 11 The Red Pool * 12 A Perfect Light * 13 I Didn't Come For You * 14 Beings * 15 Regard Me


The mind and its inner workings, Puerto Rican spray paint kid who gets kidnapped by other-worldly beings and then castrated, Amnesiac girl wandering on a bridge. Okay, think about what those things have in common. Got it?

That's right folks, it's concept album time again. Well, at least maybe it is. For their third release, 'Be' - there's a title which means everything and nothing - Salem Hill claim the songs on this album have a theme, but as to a definite overall concept, they're not letting on, preferring instead to let us come to our own conclusions.

The Songs

The sound of the sea greets the listener at first - pretty standard stuff, after all, atmosphere and concept albums seem to go together like apple crumble and custard (reviewer in 'prog rock and dessert comparison' shocker). As the vocals arrive, complimented by acoustic guitar, I'm instantly reminded of Spock's Beard. Somewhat predictably, this is the calm before the storm.

'Symposium' opens with a huge fuzzy sounding bass riff and treated vocals. As the guitars come in, it's not as heavy as I thought it would be, but it's still quite riffy. The riffs themselves present nothing new in this genre, but the use of a xylophone a little later, instead of a more standard guitar/keyboard solo - seems a little unsettling. I'm suspecting someone in Salem Hill's ranks is a Zappa fan.

The aforementioned guitar and keyboard solos appear later, and I have to say, the keyboards have a very old sound. It's definitely more in keeping with 70's pomp (the first couple of Magnum LPs, in particular) than other prog revivalists.

'Nowhere Is Home' is much softer, thanks to less guitars and (lots) more vocals, reminiscent of classic Pink Floyd in places. There are things here I like, but the band could've done with a bigger hook. 'The Great Stereopticon' is very strong, particularly in the vocal department. For me, it is streets ahead of the previous tracks. The lead vocals hold their own, but it's the use of the harmonies which are the real key to the song. It's definitely more accessible than some of the other parts of this album.

'Children Of The Dust' brings to mind a holocaust and as you might expect, it's suitably heavy. The band trade in their earlier 70's inspirations for a more in-your-face modern sound. As far as prog metal moments go, this is pretty good, although you should be warned it's far closer to Tool than Dream Theater in its execution. Overall, its not as pleasing as 'Stereopticon', as to my ears, a couple of the guitar parts sound a little jarring, but on the positive side, I really like the upfront drum sound during parts of it (and those of you who enjoy Tool, I wonder how many Tool fans visit this site?, will understand exactly what I mean).

The track then segues into 'So Human', a quirky Gentle Giant meets Echolyn inspired piece. This might prove entertaining for a couple of listens, but becomes annoying extremely quickly and is best skipped from then on. Thankfully, after a few bars of 'The Red Pool', the nasty 'So Human' becomes a memory.

'The Red Pool' is one of the best songs on offer here in my opinion. Gone are all previous prog-isms, in their place, a decent slab of late 70's melodic hard rock. The best comparison I can think of, would be early Head East, but without the high vocals.

I'm left wishing Salem Hill had plumped for more of this kind of material, especially after 'Underneath' puts in an appearance like an unwelcome party guest. Its main riff, again in the prog metal vein is okay, but is let down by other elements, which include harpsichord sections with really horrible high pitched vocals. I thought the idea of novelty songs to break up the more serious pieces was an idea abandoned in the 70's, at least Genesis were funny, 'Harold The Barrel', anyone?.

'Love Won't Save The World', despite some lyrics which had me a little bemused, (I'll wager you won't find Doris Day mentioned in the same breath as chocolate cake anywhere else, ever) is, alongside 'The Red Pool', my favourite track on 'Be'.

Strung together by some beautiful and haunting piano work and utilising similar vocal arrangements to 'The Great Stereopticon', I'm reminded of one of my favourite bands, Big Big Train. If only Salem Hill had concentrated more on this aspect of their sound, you wouldn't be able to stop me raving about them.

'In Memory Of Seattle' offers up some more piano based atmospherics. A paean to one of my favourite American cities (must be the very English weather patterns), the lyrics conjure up images of nothingness, 'Who'll watch the needle glow? No Starbucks, No Ann and Nancy' Let's face it, any song which name-checks the wonderful Wilson sisters can't be all bad. Add some great fretless basswork and it's a real winner, such a pity it's so short.

More in keeping with the classic rock elements of the Salem Hill sound, the first part of 'I Didn't Come For You' sounds a little laboured. A chorus of any sort would have helped considerably. The second part has a (fleetingly) more interesting time signature and solos, but clocking in at over 7 minutes, it just seems to appear, amble and then leave again without making any great impression.

Aside from some slow brooding guitar solos, the closing couplet of 'Beings' and 'Regard Me' don't really live up to the promise of a few of the earlier tracks, but they certainly aren't upsetting by any stretch of the imagination.

In Summary

'Be', as an album, offers very patient listeners some good music, but at over 71 minutes playing time, I sense some unnecessary filler material. When it's good, it is good, but the presence of a couple of really terrible songs helps make the album seem patchy.

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