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Like many artists Ben Craven’s formative years were spent in and out of mainstream rock bands before he decided to harness his love of progressive rock in 2005 with the release of his debut album Two False Idolsunder the name Tunisia. Unlike many artists however on this latest album Great & Terrible Potions Craven plays all the instruments himself as well as handling vocals, production and engineering. The results are a superior alternative to the home made products that typically flood the internet with Craven’s lush arrangements, solid musicianship and strong vocals endorsed by artwork from legendary artist Roger Dean.
Dean’s artwork may bear more than a passing resemblance to his cover for Yes’ Union but Craven’s retro sound draws its inspiration from sources elsewhere including film music, Pink Floyd, Marillion, Steve Hackett, a touch of Porcupine Tree, even fellow countrymen Unitopia.
The instrumental Diabolique is a textbook overture with a rippling, syncopated piano motif joined by a symphonic keys loop which gives way to a heavyweight bass and organ attack in the mould of Neal Morse.Nobody Dies Forever Part 1 transports the listener into the suspenseful world of John Barry and James Bond (both lyrically and musically) driven by a big fat guitar sound. In contrast Aquamarine is a haunting and atmospheric instrumental with ethereal choral effects underpinning a moody fuzzed guitar break. One of the album’s most effective pieces.
To the casual observer Ready To Lose is a straight forward mid-tempo rocker but the guitar histrionics are offset a warm acoustic driven intro and a triumphant synth and break that harks back to Marillion’s Incommunicado. It also benefits from a strong vocal performance. Another change of mood for The Conjurer with classical flavoured piano complemented by mellow David Gilmour style pedal steel guitar (ala Dark Side Of The Moon). On this occasion the retro twangy guitar conjures up Ennio Morricone in romantic mode.
No Specific Harm is perhaps the album’s main claim to epic fame and it certainly contains its fair share of melodramatic grandeur. With a thick wall of guitars, Craven creates an imposing Middle Eastern ambiance that Steve Hackett I’m sure would be proud to put his name to. Edgy and sinister, it rolls along with rhythmic intensity with the phased voice adding a distinct Stephen Wilson touch and the powerful Floydian guitar recalling Another Brick In The Wall.
The calm follows the storm with Solace, a beautiful acoustic guitar piece with a touch of piano and keys strings. One of the album’s most endearing tracks it builds into a searing Steve Rothery flavoured guitar solo. Nobody Dies Forever Part 2 is a reprise of track two sounding every bit like a Bond theme complete with tinkling percussion and twangy guitar.
The title track Great & Terrible Potions is another mini epic which from the start put me in mind of Unitopia (particularly the sensitive vocal). Sandwiched between the song parts is a dramatic instrumental section with orchestral keys and the occasional sound effect to enforce the albums cinematic claims. A compelling slide guitar coda brings the great Chris Fry (of Magenta fame) to mind.
On first sight the final three tracks could easily be dismissed as album fillers being single versions of Ready To Lose, Nobody Dies Forever and No Specific Harm. Craven has however put more thought than most into the editing process with the result that all three tracks work well in their own right providing an entertaining summary of what’s gone before. If anything the Gilmour/Floyd influences are even more apparent particularly in the case of the concluding No Specific Harm.
There is no doubt that Ben Craven has produced an excellent piece of work of which he can be justly proud. The fact that he has done it single handily is even more of a feat. I can only sympathise with his family and friends, if he doesn’t shut himself away in his Brisbane studio for months on end when he’s in the creative process I would be most surprised. Unreservedly recommended.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10