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HARDROCK HAVEN (USA), February 2010

Hardrock Haven, Justin Gaines, 5,5/10

Challenges is the third album from Dutch progressive rockers Chinawhite, and their first release in nearly a decade. The band cites Rush, Saga, Deep Purple, Kansas and Uriah Heep as their primary influences, and that quickly becomes apparent on Challenges.

Challenges is a tough album to get into. On paper it works. The band has been around for more than two decades, they play a melodic brand of progressive rock, and with their extensive use of the Hammond organ have a decidedly old school sound. Unfortunately the album never seems to come alive. Maybe it’s the production job that’s making the melodic guitar work, heavy Hammond action and the vocals all sound like they’re isolated and/or working against each other. Maybe the band’s intellectual approach and technical proficiency – and make no mistake, the musicianship is high-caliber – is emphasized at the expense of actual songwriting. Some of the guitar work in particular is absolutely dazzling (see the solo on “Inside” for example), but you’re reacting to the guitar playing, not the song itself.

Whatever the reason, aside from a few songs Challenges just fails to resonate. The harder rocking songs like “Stranger” and “Better Than You” are the album’s most effective tracks, reminiscent of Uriah Heep, Chariot and Nightingale. It’s probably no coincidence that those are the songs where Don Feltges’s vocals are most emphasized and where the “atmospheric” and needlessly technical elements are kept to a minimum.

You can’t help but root for a band that’s been around since 1987 and has remained true to their progressive rock influences, but that doesn’t change the fact that Challenges just isn’t up to par. Nearly every neo-progressive album released on the InsideOut label is going to sound more professional and have better songwriting and more importantly better production.

Perhaps you’ll get more out of Challenges if you’re a die-hard neo-progressive rock fan and adore everything about the genre. Chinawhite certainly has a lot to offer, but for casual fans or newcomers, Challenges is probably going to seem a little too boring and “not ready for prime time.”

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