Image © GFT-Cyclops 2002
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progressive rock with soaring female vocals
album review and interview
Every once in a while one discovers a group with a sound that hits that everso sweet spot. Such is the case with the French progressive band Mysterkah whose keyboard- and guitar-laden symphonic sounds are perfectly joined to the stunning vocals of lead singer Yleah White. While their sound has been compared to several other progressive bands in other reviews, our readers will find similarities to the various work of Tracy Hitchings (feature) and Trancendence (feature) featuring lead vocalist Isabelle Plante to be the most fitting.
Mysterkah is fronted by Yleah White who also contributes all of the keyboard work and a great whistle part. The band is also comprised of co-writer Alec Hudson (guitars, bass, backing vocals) and Xavier Richard (drums and percussion). We caught up with Yleah for an indepth interview, the first available on the web, between December 2002 and January 2003. Learn all about the singer and the band within it. We are working with Yleah and the band to obtain photographs to include in an update to this article later on. We also review the band's almost 70-minute 9-track debut album Fresq. You can find our interview and review as album ordering information below.
Musical Discoveries: Please tell us a bit about your background prior to joining Mysterkah.
Ylea: I was born in Bergen in Norway, many years ago! And I've been told that I started singing from the day I started talking. Good memories come back to me where I see myself sitting singing beside my father who played the piano and the guitar. Later on I started to play the clarinet in the local orchestra and did so for nearly ten years. I took piano lessons for three years--from eleven to fourteen with a wonderful teacher, on the contrary to the one I had about five years later during my studies to become a music teacher. She killed my motivation to learn how to play the piano.
I gave clarinet lessons to youngsters, and conducted the orchestra for young musicians, who would play one year in this ensemble before joining the main orchestra. It was a great experience which probably made me decide to become a music teacher. This changed a bit after having worked in an institution for mentally retarded children and my aim became to study music therapy. Life wanted it differently! I ended up settling down in Chamonix, with my husband and today we have four children.
So how did you get involved with Mysterkah?
After some few years in a musical desert, I one day found an advert in a local newspaper, where a prog rock group was looking for a singer. Shy as I was, I had been one of these in-the-shower-singers for years, and had no other experience.
The meeting with Alec Hudson, the guitarist and the leader of the group, was a great moment and has completely changed my life since then. I didn't really know what prog rock was, but happened to find out that I had already listened a lot to that kind of music. I was an absolute fan of bands like Kansas and Saga--and still am!
Alec on his side had been playing in various bands before, but since that day when we met in January 1995, Mysterkah was born. Joining the group, I started playing the keyboard, which was a whole new experience to me, a new world filled with wonderful sounds.
Never before had I played something else than the piano and I've thought to myself many times since, that if the last piano teacher I had would have seen how I suddenly passed hours and hours doing scales and different exercices, she probably wouldn't have believed her own eyes.
The original group broke up after five years and we've been through various lineups since then, but Alec and I have always kept together and our friendship has become very strong over the years. We are different in many ways, but compliment one another in various situations, and there is a real compatibility in our musical style.
Who are some of your favourite artists, I mean, who do you find yourself listening to all the time?
My favorite artist is Fish. He has got a very special voice, expressing such an incredible variety of emotions. Others include Kansas, Saga, Dreamtheater, Shadow Gallery, Marillion, Ayeron, Flowerkings, Transatlantic and others. I listen to all of these groups quite regularly actually, but for the last two months I've been waking up every morning with Kansas' Two for the show. I guess this is what's called "nostalgia".
And how did you develop your vocal style?
As I've said above, I have always been singing, but on my own and I would only try to copy other singers. Therefore after having joined Mysterkah, I suddenly started listening to my own voice, and was horrified by what I heard. I had an idea in my head of what I wanted it to sound like, but I was far away from the result!
It probably took me three to four years before I managed to develop a vocal style. Today I've found my style, but I'm still not satisfied when I listen to the timbre of it, so I'll continue to try to develop my voice until the day that I'll be happy about it. And maybe that won't ever happen!
Did you have any formal voice training?
I had, while doing my music teachers' studies, half an hour of vocal training every second week and I don't think that that helped me a lot. However, I got hold of a videotape with a vocal training method some years ago, which has been quite useful. And from there on I've tried to develop some techniques that concerns my style a bit more. One thing I like about progressive rock is when the musicians try to push the limit. This is something I try modestly to do voicewise. I like to try to vary and to stretch my voice as far as I can and this means vocal training almost every day. It can be everything from fifteen minutes to three-four hours.
Where do draw inspiration for Mysterkah's music?
Alec and I listen to a lot of different groups, but eventhough this sometimes gives us inspiration to write texts or music, we don't feel we are a copy of the groups we listen to. We really have our own style. The same thing happens soundwise. Alec, who's the sound specialist, is not trying to figure out how the others have done to get the sound that they have. He is trying to come as close up to the idea of the sound that he's got in his head. It might sound pretentious, but it's not ment that way.
It's simply that we put our heart and our soal into the music we play, so even if we would have liked to have another style than what we have today, I sincerely don't think we could. The music reflects the way we are, and even appreciating listening to certain groups, we wouldn't like to play that kind of music. So what corresponds to us are sounds like: strings, bells, harpish chords and some real airy sounds, taking you far, far away, what concerns the keyboards, and some heavy saturated sounds, as well as some clear sounds on the guitar. We tend to choose the same categories of sounds while we compose, with some nuances of course. So no trumpets or horns for me!
What is the writing process like?
Well, talking about the different stages while writing is a little bit hard. Alec and I have always had a lot of ideas, but unfortunately we've never found a rhythm section serious enough, willing to work hard. At one stage this became really frustrating, so we almost stopped composing, as we knew it would "never be played anyway." So for instanse Fresq was a concept that was written about fifteen years ago in French, later translated into English. And the concept we are now working on, was actually written--texts and melodies--four years ago.
We started about two weeks ago to work on this one, and are trying little by little to find the structures, fill-ins, transitions etc. For now everything is open and we'll try out some things, record them, let them sink in, listen to them again and change if needed or leave them like that if we like it. Hopefully one day we'll get to the point where we write and compose a little bit closer in time, so that we don't loose the intentional feeling we had, when writing it. It's so much more stimulating when the song you've been writing--and that is turning around in your head--is actually being played while you still remember it, than when you have to take out your notes and try to figure out what you meant when you wrote this and that particular part.
And what about the recording?
We have our own studio and have no one else around when recording. This is great, because we have no time pressure, we can allow ourselves to rerecord things whenever we want. I need a lot of time when recording, and while recording the Fresq album, we could spend evenings on only one phrase or even one word, to get it out right.
What led you to release the album on Cyclops?
We sent our four-track demo to several specialized prog record companies in the world including GFT Cyclops and got a few responses. The proposal we got from Cyclops was the one that suited us the best.
Do you have careers outside of music or do you do this full time?
Unfortunately we can't live out of our music, so yes, Alec has got a job outside music. He's a postman, which leaves him some free time to rehearse. I'm taking care of my children, which keeps me busy but I feel very privileged to do so. And it does leave me some time at nights to write or rehearse, and do other music things.
What else are you two involved with?
Alec is very gifted with his hands. He has built his own house, made the studio on the top floor and has made instruments like guitars, basses and even an electric violin.
I'm more into sports, so when I can I go walking in the mountains in the summertime and skiing in the wintertime. I'm writing quite a lot and have some projects in mind if only I could find the time. But for both of us, music is definitely, and by far, the most important thing we are doing.
Can you tell us about your live performances?
Live performances are great--we love them! Since we started we've done quite some in the district during the first five years. We would accept any concert in the beginning, and found ourselves playing in between two Reggea bands or in a Heavy Metal Festival, where we were presented as a band playing some soft, soft, soft music. Well, eventhough some of the concerts were not really for us, we were very happy to get out a little bit of the house and get some feedback on our music. We are not a band jumping all over stage while playing. Our music is more to be listened to, than to dance after.
Eventhough we were sometimes not in the right place, our music puzzled the people listening. They would come afterwards to ask what style this was since prog isn't a very well known style in France! After some concerts were we started to get tired of moving all the equipment around for free, to end up being in "the wrong place." We decided to try to organise our own concerts. Here people came to listen to us, and that was a great feeling!
To be standing in front of an audience who was there to listen to your music and to be able to share these moments was really touching. Unfortunately, as we split up with the original group, and as the recordings of the Fresq album took quite a while, we haven't been able to do any concerts lately. However we hope to be ready to do some in not too long.
How has the internet influenced your musical career?
To have a website on internet seemed to be one of these essential things to us. Of course it's very hard to verify if the cd sells better thanks to this, or not. However the fact that people can listen to some extracts from the album is a plus and I think that it gives a potential to sell more than what we would have done if we wouldn't have had such support.
We have also been getting e-mails from people from literally all over the world: Indonesia, Poland, Chile, Mexico, India, Japan, England, Holland, Germany, Norway and Italy to mention some. It's evident that these are fans we wouldn't have had without the internet.
We have been working so long and so hard, and have been through so many ups and downs to get this first album together, it's unbelievable. I think that some people would have given up long ago. For us it's therefore such a personal satisfaction to have fullfilled/finished this project. Now, to have people contacting us like you, Russ, and other professionals, doing reviews or interviews, listening with a professional ear" to our music and to have fans writing us from the other side of the planet to say that they love our music, is one of the greatest gifts we could ever have got.
We would like to thank you so much, Russ for the interest you show us and for all that you are doing for us. Thank you very much!
The debut album from Mysterkah is entitled Fresq (GFT-Cyclops (UK) CYCL-121, 2002). With a running time of almost 70 minutes, each of the ten tracks is actually of epic length. It is lyrically a concept album dealing with the story of an alien that comes to Earth and love that develops. Initially, despite all his efforts to join the society, the alian is rejected by mankind. With his immense knowledge, he finds immortality.
Yet he becomes tired of life on Earth, not able to find a place among the people there, so he decides to create an artificial death for himself through cryogenics. Frozen asleep in an ice cave while mankind self destructs on the surface, thousands of years pass by and life on earth begins again. A female survivor finds the alien and awakens him. He now finds a reason to live and decides to help mankind to rebuild a new and better world. The hand illustrated artwork in the CD booklet does a good job telling the story.
Musically the album is pure progressive rock with sweeping keyboard washes, vast guitar excursions and crisp percussion. Yleah's vocals soar above the instrumentals in both solo and multi-tracked arrangements. Variations in mood and tempo perfectly accompany the lyrical expression and permit each of the artists to demonstrate their virtuousity throughout the recording. We found Yleah's keyboard solos, especially in "Misanthrope" and Wakemanesque arpeggio in "Cryosis," "Millennium" and "New Day" as well as her simply stunning whistle part in "Finale" to be among the best instrumental sections of the album.
Yleah's vocals are powerful and wide-ranging. For example in the opening two tracks one is clearly reminded of Isabelle Plante (Trancendence) and Tracy Hitchings (Landmarq). However, in the track "The Immortal" and "Cryosis" her soaring soprano is more reminiscent of Joanne Hogg (Iona). Vocal processing gives depth but does not distort the crystalline clarity of her natural voice. Yleah's extensive vocal training is clear in both the power and range captured on the recording. She is tremendously talented both vocally and instrumentally as well. Soaring vocalise passages serve as additional instrumentation.
But Mysterkah is not only keyboards and vocals. The guitar parts are dramatic and powerful and while heavy at times, especially with powerful percussion behind them, don't cross the line into heavy metal. A rapidfire guitar solo in "Broken World" is exemplary of Alec Hudson's playing. That tender vocal parts seem to intercept the heaviest passages is obviously not an accident. It is clearly an element that makes Mysterkah's material progressive. Memorable melodies do occur in spots, for example in "Cryosis," a more accessible tune with lovely backing harmonies in the chorus.
Orchestral styled keyboards also serve to provide a foundation for developing melodies. In "The Survivor" both soaring and whispy vocal layers compliment these undertones as well as the lovely keyboard solo and dramatic guitar solos within the instrumental bridge. "New Day" is one of the album standouts--Yleah's opening keyboard solo and crystalline vocal layers soar above the balance of the arrangement evocatively. Wide tempo and mood swings and incredible revolving solos by each of the artists make for stunning progressive stylings which continue into the album's closing track "Finale."
Mysterkah's first album was years in the making and the band have just begun to prepare their follow-up; hopefully we won't have to wait as long for this one to emerge. The band do not give many live performances, but their material seems perfectly suited to the concert environment. Read further reviews, listen to soundbites and order the album both from the band's website and from amazon.com here. Clearly the band should be explored further. This album is worth a trans-Atlantic journey and is a must listen!
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