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Astrakhan – Astrakhan’s Superstar Experience

Astrakhan
Astrakhan’s Superstar Experience
by Ian Yeara at 24 November 2020, 10:51 PM

So, I want to be up front with this, I am not super familiar with the Jesus Christ Superstar play. Of course I’ve heard the music, I mean who isn’t at least peripherally aware of one of the most popular and probably important plays of the 20th century. The telling of Jesus Christ’s story and of Judas’ betrayal taken in a modern context and made more relatable for the average person whether Christian or not is fundamentally important and was a huge musical accomplishment. My point being that any band who wants to take their own interpretation of such a seminal work deserves some props, if just for sheer audacity.

What I know a great deal more about is the actual history surrounding the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus and there is a lot of disinformation in the traditional telling of the story. Just as an example; Pontius Pilate is portrayed by most Christians as a sympathetic person who didn’t want to crucify Jesus, but was pressured into it by the jewish leadership of the time. This is a fabrication, by all accounts Pontius Pilate was a cruel and vicious man, like all Roman governors of the era and the reason the jewish leadership turned Jesus over to Pilate was because Pilate was threatening to send the roman legions into Judea if they couldn’t control the “christian rebels”.

History is filled with complexities and nuances that are very difficult to really talk about, but one thing that’s very important to discuss is that despite whatever persecution Jesus and the early Christians endured, the Jewish people had just gained some amount of independence in rulership of the region in about 6 or 7 CE, so barely 20 years later Jesus and his apostles are questioning the leadership of the jewish leadership and the vicious dictatorship of the Romans; all perfectly reasonable stances to take. After all, the Roman empire was a true dictatorship at this point and had lost any moral high ground it ever might have held. You can see how many people saw the Jewish leadership as appeasing the Roman leadership and ignoring the oppression of their own people.

The story of Pontius Pilate being a sympathetic and ultimately good person, forced to do a terrible thing was invented so that Christians could portray the Jewish people’s as the real villains in this story, even inventing the story of Jesus’s fixed trial the night before being turned over to Pilate (there is no historical evidence that such a trial took place how and when the gospels says it did).

Sorry for going off on this, but this sort of historical fiction plays into a lot of the anti-semetic feelings of white Christians, which largely stems from the idea that the jewish people are somehow equally if not more responsible for the death of Jesus than the Romans, so let me be clear: the Roman empire was a bloodthirsty, oppressive dictatorship (especially during this time period) that would probably have executed Jesus one way or the other because he was seen as a revolutionary and disturber of the peace. In fact it is likely that Jesus never had a trial at all.

You want to know the honest truth? I went off on a historical tangent because I genuinely have more to say about the history behind the fiction than I do about the music here. I really appreciate the application of keyboards on this and the focus on Prog Rock and the orchestrations certainly give the whole thing a very full sound. It’s rather strange reviewing a live cover album you know? I’m used to critiquing a band’s original compositions and while the band seems to have added a lot of their own influences to the musical recipe, I just don’t really know how to judge it, especially as someone not overly familiar with the play.

I’m going to do my best, but it would be really interesting to hear what a real fan of "Jesus Christ Superstar" thinks about this interpretation.I think the band did a good job picking and choosing the selections from the play they wanted to use, from a cursory exploration of the original play this seems like a perfectly compressed version of the story and honestly I’d probably rather listen to this version, just for the time saved and because this is a lot proggier than the original.

There is one big difference that stands out to me immediately, the soul and energy emanating from the original tracks is really impressive and it’s not really this band’s fault, but it’s pretty hard to replicate that energy. It’s all in the vocals, you just can’t beat those original voice actors, there’s a reason the JCS soundtrack is one of the best selling musical soundtracks of all time (#10 to be specific). However, I really am splitting hairs here, these guys do as good a job as can be expected. Alexander Lyche and Mats Levin do a good job as Jesus and Judas, but you want to know who steals the show for me? Okay so actually I don’t have anything telling me which one is which, but the two female vocalists (both playing Maria) are incredible. Karolina Karner and Teresa Perrelli both do an excellent job, especially on tracks like "I Don’t Know How To Love Him" they really bring that spirit and energy I talked about before.

You know considering the caliber of performers playing on this recording it’s rather surprising I haven’t heard more about this and that I can’t find more detailed information for the purpose of this review. I’m just going to keep talking about stylistic changes that I’ve noticed. I think "Damned For All Time/Blood Money" is a good song to break down and compare, but before I start that let’s talk about 70s Prog Rock/Classic Rock vs 90s Prog Rock. If you listen to the new version and original version of "Damned For All Time" it kind of perfectly illustrates these differences.

70s Rock in general focuses more on groove and soul, and I do mean the genre of Soul music. More modern Prog music has some groove to it, but in the wake of bands like SPOCK’S BEARD, ROYAL HUNT, SHADOW GALLERY and even DREAM THEATER there’s more of a focus on instrumental proficiency and heavily structured syncopation. 70s Rock, and Prog especially is far more influenced by Jazz Fusion and that’s ultimately what sets these apart. ASTRAKHAN’s performance of JCS is admirable for sure, but it’s very difficult to reproduce that specific early 70s style. Also, the fact that ASTRAKHAN didn’t get a saxophone player for this is crime.

It really comes down to the inherent differences between 60s/70s music and 80s/90s music that influence the Modern Rock music we have. Just so it’s clear I absolutely love ROYAL HUNT and SHADOW GALLERY which are both very 80s influenced rock bands, but it’s a different thing and it doesn’t take a particularly discerning ear to sus that out.

Just like everything in life there are pros and cons, in this case the pros being that this is a faithful and well executed interpretation of "Jesus Christ Superstar" and if you like me aren’t especially familiar with the play this is a good way to check it out. If you are a huge fan of JCS I would suggest you check this out just to enjoy a new take on something you’ve probably listened to thousands of times. The cons though are that if you are looking for the soul and funk of the original soundtrack you might walk away a little disappointed. On the surface you might compare elements of this to 70s Prog, but as someone who spends too much time listening to 70s Prog, this is firmly entrenched in 90s Prog.

All in all, it depends on your preference, this is an incredibly well executed performance of Jesus Christ Superstar and if that alone is enough to entice you then you should definitely check it out, just know that the overall feel and groove is not quite faithful to the original.

Songwriting: 8
Musicianship: 9
Memorability: 9
Production: 7

4 Star Rating

Tracklist:
1. Heaven On Their Minds
2. What’s The Buzz/Strange Thing, Mystifying
3. Everything’s Alright
4. Simon Zealotes
5. Poor Jerusalem
6. Pilates Dream
7. The Temple
8. I Don’t Know How To Love Him
9. Damned For All Time/Blood Money
10. The Last Supper
11. Gethsemane (I Only Want To Say)
12. Judas’ Death
13. Trial Before Pilates
14. Superstar
Lineup:
Alex Lycke – Vocals
Per Schelander – Bass
Jörgen Schelander – Keyboards
Martin Larsson – Drums
Record Label: Black Lodge Records
     


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