Alien Dream - 'Samsara' CD Review

I'm fairly familiar with Alien Dream's output, having obtained the first two albums and one of the
Hawkfest 2003 samplers - though I don't know "Eleven Realms of Night", the third album, at all.  As
usual, this is an album of instrumental psychedelic space rock, possibly influenced by Hawkwind, Gong,
Hillage, Ozrics, and Here & Now (and probably in that order, too).  
Alien Dream hail from Southern
Australia, being the brainchild of Michael Blackman.  His highest-profile gig has to have been the Hawkfest
2003, for which Alien Dream co-opted Lost Druid Tom Byrne; and Michael is also a recording member of
Space Mirrors and features extensively on their recently-released CD "The Darker Side Of Art".
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In The Beginning features an atmospheric opening of wittering, droning synths over medium-paced
drum programming and wah'd lead guitar.  There's a nice firm bass sound, too, but the drums are rather
artificial-sounding (they could do with some digital reverb), especially the crash cymbal.  The synths
hint at Hawkwind, where the guitar is more Gong-like, if not quite glissando.  The first impression is
that this is similar to Michael's earlier work: a workout based around a single chord, although the final
minute of this number is comprised of a two-chord movement.

Magick In Maya is slower-paced and revolves around mellow keyboards with celestial sounding loops
and some occasionally Eastern-scale lead guitar.  Three minutes in, a descending chord sequence works
as the backdrop to some lovely lead guitar which is much more organic sounding than MB's usual tone.  
This track also boasts some great delay / panning effects and phased keyboards.

Alien Dreamscape (a familiar sounding title - it was on the Hawkfest EP, I see!) is a more upbeat
number, though still mid-paced, with the piano-like quality of the bass really creating a spacious
atmosphere in the first minute or so.  Then there is a transition into the chorus riff which is quite
reminiscent of Electric Tepee, and particularly the song 'Secret Agent'.  When the main riff returns, it
emphasizes to what extent Alien Dream's music is dependent on Michael's simple, melodic leadlines for
interest; though the synth playing is possibly better, the guitar is almost always the lead instrument.

The Gathering sets a darker mood with a plangent lead melody played on keyboards and a muted,
distorted strum on the guitar complementing the minor chord progression.  This yields to some spacey,
echoed synth parts and a looping lead guitar, still in a minor key.  There is some welcome variation in
the percussion at 3:49, with the addition of a tom-tom voice, but the passage doesn't progress further,
inculcating the feeling that the song goes on for too long.

Dark Lord's Whisper sounds as though it may have been inspired by some of Alan Davey's songwriting.
It features a tense descending riff played in unison by bass and keyboards, and then by bass and guitar.  
It takes until 2:30 for the lead guitar to surface, and it meanders along for a minute or so before the
track takes a more pastoral turn with arpeggiated guitar chords in the middle of the mix, below the
burbling synths.  This stuff has the same problem as a lot of other wholly instrumental music - it's hard
to differentiate the songs.  What you get as a result is mood music.

Samsara, the title track, harks back strongly to the material on Dogon Dance (the 2nd Alien Dream CD)
with a slow, spacious chord progression overlaid with dual lead guitar and synths - though the minor
chords here induce a melancholic air.  As with a number of other tracks, there is a songlike structure at
play, with a readily identifiable middle eight.  These just happen to be songs without vocals.

In The Void introduces an interesting riff, but an all-too-familiar rhythmic backing.  Just as I was
thinking about stifling a yawn, the drum parts go into double time to make this the paciest number on
the CD so far.  Again, there are some great-sounding keyboards and synths here, a very "drum
machine" sound and heavily compressed lead guitars.  How blessed is the saxophone that breezes in at 4:
30 to introduce some variety into this template - which I accept is very successful in smaller doses, but
without vocals isn't differentiated enough to support the length of the compositions.

More minor keys in
Journey Through Time and some pleasantly squelchy wah guitar chords initially
promise a departure, but here's another track that looks like it's going to mark out new territory and then
just kind of stays where it is.  However, to focus on a positive aspect, this exploration of minor chord
progressions is I think a new development and a move forward from Alien Dream's earlier material.

Light Speed Damage kicks off with the freshest piece of music yet: a rotary-speaker effected synth,
plunging bassline and percussive guitar chords move beyond the Alien Dream envelope.  This is also one
of the stronger pieces structurally.  It's admittedly not King Crimson-like in terms of complexity, but has
tightly defined intro, verse, chorus and middle eight sections.

As if enthused by the last song,
Demons Or Angels maintains the faster pace with some very Brock-
inspired veils of guitar noise and a succeeding riff that's pure Hawkwind.  There are even some
Daveyesque bass runs to accompany the utterly Hawkwind synth parts and voices.  This is in some
ways not dissimilar from the preceding material, but I think works better because the familiarity of these
elements allows the listener to focus in on, and get into the groove.  But it's also a busier arrangement
than most here, and all the better for it.

When Gods Dream is quite a contrast, reverting to the snail's pace and wide open soundscape that
characterizes much of this music.  There is almost a sensation that the song is dragging, because not
enough is happening between the bass drum beats.  However, I see that I was being set up for that, as
the pace suddenly doubles at the 2-minute mark and MB throws down quite a decent rhythmic hard
rock workout, adorned with his normal peals of melodic lead guitar.  Now this has been done perfectly;
he fades the song out at around 4 minutes, not overstaying his welcome for a second.

The Gathering (a slight return) brings us back to the palm-muted overdriven strumming while synths
coil and spiral overhead.  It's a good intro which then moves into what might be exactly the same as the
earlier rendition of this number, although a drawn-out guitar solo does more than just stitch pleasant
melodies onto the fabric of the song.

The last track is
Tribal Astral Realms, and I think a smidgeon of kon-tiki tom-tom is what makes this
tribal.  It's a more distant, ambient number with reverbed keyboard and guitar parts putting this out into
territory not previously explored by Alien Dream - perhaps reminiscent of newer space rock synth
explorers.  A darker and more vibrant section opens up after 5 minutes, harnessing the tribal beat and
hitching it to slabs of distorted rhythm guitar and vintage synth effects.

So this is a highly accomplished CD which does not quite hit the spot on account of the ideas in it being
drawn out to excessive lengths.  The sound of this CD is incredibly lush and very well produced (if
somewhat over-compressed for my taste).  Michael Blackman is at least as good a producer / engineer
as he is a musician, and he is a pretty hot musician...¦but...¦the songs are not complex affairs, and given
this fact, they tend to go on too long.  Each individual passage once established doesn't then go
anywhere, and Michael has generally made these passages too lengthy, resulting in them sometimes
outstaying their welcome.

But in sitting down to review this, I was listening *to* and concentrating *on* the album, and I donâ
€™t think that's the right way to approach it.  This would be great music to have on the car stereo
when driving, or playing (not too quietly!) in the background when doing something else.  In that way
the overextension of themes would not be the drawback that I've made it out to be.  I said earlier that
this was mood music, and if taken on that basis, it's highly successful.  What I'd really like to hear is the
next Alien Dream album being made with a band or at least one other writer, and preferably with vocals
to really develop the songs.

For more information, and to order this CD, check out the
Alien Dream website.