Review: Rush, R40: The Completist/OCD Set

Review: Rush, R40: The Completist/OCD Set (Anthem, 2014).

Birzer Rating: 10/10

R40, Anthem Records, 2014.

R40, Anthem Records, 2014.

I had a very good and hearty chuckle when I saw that Bestbuy and the official Rush website offered not just R40— a 10-disc set of every Rush concert DVD released over the past decade+—but actually offered a “Completist” set. 

The Completist set provides not just the 10 discs, but an extra disc containing roughly another hour-plus of video.  The non-Completist version already includes over two hours of never-before-seen video.  But, what self-respecting Neil Peart fan or Rush fan would not be a Completist.  To be a Rush fan is to be a Completist!  Being OCD comes easily for us Rush fans.

So, of course, I gritted my teeth and started exploring my local Bestbuys.  20 years ago, I loved Bestbuy.  Now, I find it suffocating.  But, it was worth it.  The Bestbuy website claims that R40 Completist set can only be purchased in the stores, not through the website.  Exploring a bit further, I found that the Bestbuy website won’t indicate which stores actually have the Completist edition.  For more than a few moments, I’d assumed Bestbuy had already sold out of it.  And, perhaps playing up on this belief, a number of editions have appeared on Ebay (and other sites) asking for double and some even triple and quadruple what the Bestbuy price is.  Sheesh.  Uncool, folks.

Again, gritting my teeth, I started to explore the Bestbuys across the Colorado Front Range.  I came very close to giving up.  The young guys working at the various Colorado Bestbuys had no idea what I was asking for.  Rush?  Rush Limbaugh.  He has concerts?  Dear God, no!  Even when they looked it up on the website (I assume they’re privy to one the public isn’t), they couldn’t find it.  No, sorry, we don’t have that in our “media warehouse.”  Will you get it in?  I don’t think so. 

Sigh. 

How could I satisfy that perfectionist/OCD nature that has plagued me since 1967???  Heck, Rush is only seven years younger than I am!

Then, after debating whether or not to try one last Bestbuy, I decided to give it a go.  I was tired, disbelieving, and ready to get home.  But, there was the Bestbuy, off to my left.  I even had to swerve into the exit lane, as I couldn’t quite decide whether to try it or not. 

After entering the store, itself overlooking I25, I looked in the music section.  Nothing.  I looked in movies.  Nothing. 

Holiday crowds swirled around me, each with that hungry desperate Holiday look, and insanely bad music blared from the store speakers.  And, then, perhaps guided by a Clockwork Angel, I looked on the floor—a jumble of non-reshelved releases—ready to be stepped on. 

And, lo and behold, there it was.  Huge, gleaming, calling to me—the R40 completist set.  I scooped it up (there were actually two copies, but I decided not to be greedy), and saw that the price was even cheaper than what the official Bestbuy price was supposed to be.  I honestly don’t think these folks know what they have.  And, of course, I bought a copy.

And, now, what do I think?  Holy Moses.  This is great stuff.  Yes, of course, I already have most of what’s being offered.  But, that which I don’t (or didn’t) have— is simply stunning.  I’d expected DVD-size packaging.  No, how could I forget?  This is Rush.  They don’t do anything halfway.  The book is actually a full-size hardback book of the highest quality.  Printing, paper, everything—a gorgeously crafted piece of art.  It even smells good. 

After a nice introduction by one of Rush’s chosen and favorite writers, Martin Popoff, the book presents a series of full-page concert photos.  After two decades or more of just looking at CD and DVD booklets, the full-size photos just pop out of the book.  A flashback to days of immense vinyl collections.  I love the photos.  And, they really do justice to the the three members of Rush.  Geddy at Red Rocks, Alex in full working-man rock mode, and Neil as a G-Nome.  Most importantly, the Rush monkey from Time Machine makes an appearance.  Geddy-monkey never fails to get a laugh out of the whole Birzer family, especially Harry, age 9.  And, our chosen family anthem, appropriately enough, is “The Main Monkey Business.”

After roughly fifty pages of photos, the book presents all 10 main DVDs in very high-quality cardboard.  Indeed, the quality is so high, I have to be careful taking the DVDs out of their firm and tight sleeves.  Very good for the long run.  I was a little surprised that the bonus DVD—“Rush, R40 Completist”—had just been placed in a plain white envelope, stuck haphazardly in the book.  I’ll have to pay special attention to this one so as not to lose it.  Not very Rush-like, but still, overall, an excellent package and worth this one defect.

Rather than describe all of the content, I’ve scanned the content page—complete with the Completist add-ons.  See below. 

Is the set cheap?  No.  Is it of good quality?  Except for the Completist DVD in the white envelope, of the highest quality.  Am I sad to have paid so much for what I already (mostly) own?  Absolutely not.  Some of the best money I’ve ever spent.  I’ll have this set, a thing of beauty until I die.  Then, a little monkey Birzer will get it.

Completist Packaging/Content list, Bestbuy R40.

Completist Packaging/Content list, Bestbuy R40.

Vanden Plas — Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld (Best Prog Albums of 2014 — Part 5)

Continuing with my Top Ten Prog Albums of 2014: behold the new Vanden Plas. Allow me to add my track-by-track impressions.

Track one (3:52) starts off with a spoken-word introduction that together with the background music and a bit of singing builds a sense of anticipation. Then track two “The Black Knight” (8:29) lets us know we are unquestionably in excellently epic prog-metal territory. By the time track three “Godmaker” (5:24) kicks in, any doubts about whether or not the listener is in the presence of something extraordinary will have been removed. Clearly, this is an organically coherent compositional tour-de-force.

Track four (1:39) is a bit of a prelude that lets us catch our breath. But then track five “A Ghost’s Requiem” (3:56) is a completely surprising and unexpected transmogrification of sacred music tropes. This brilliant track cements the disc’s five-star status and forms a musical launch pad for the mind-blowing tracks that follow. Track six “New Vampyre” (6:16) and track seven “The King and the Children of Lost World” (7:52) continue to elevate the disc to new heights, which is quite astonishing, because standard practice is to lead an album with your finest material but here we have an unfolding organic whole and its accelerating excellence becomes more and more manifest.

Track eight “Misery Affection” (5:08) mellows out a bit and displays another side of the band’s remarkable skills. But just when we have been soothed by the stunning beauty of that brief pause in the intense metallic action, we are overwhelmed by track nine “Soul Alliance” (6:39), which together with its successor, track ten “Inside” (6:42), are my favorite parts the album, because their instrumentation and composition is sheer perfection. Together they tie together the entire album and bring things to conclusion in a brilliant way.

The final track, in fact, is absolutely the most satisfying conclusion to an epic concept album whole that I have heard in a long time. Really, I can’t recall feeling such excitement, other than with the similar way it feels to listen to the end of “2112” by Rush. The last two minutes of Chronicles Of The Immortals are pure dopamine-infused prog bliss. As those gigantic concluding waves of chords wash over us in the last two minutes, I am even reminded of some Rush tropes from the first half of the eighties.

Thanks, Vanden Plas. You have given us one of the greatest, most essential prog albums I have ever heard. What an amazing gift you have shared with us.

Hit By a White Car: The Best 8 ALBUMS of 2014

And, my final “best of” post for 2014.  Let’s hope that you’re not getting too tired of these!

I’ve saved the albums that hit me the hardest—at level of mind and soul—for the last.  I guess it’s somewhat goofy to have a “top eight,” but these are my top eight.  These are the albums that did everything right, the ones that pulled it all together, offering real glimpses of the turning spheres.  The first seven are in no particular order.  I like them equally, and I think they’ve each attained the highest an album can reach but in quite different ways.

Poland's best.

Poland’s best.

What can one say about Poland’s greatest, Newspaperflyhunting?  Craig Breaden has already explained—in perfect detail—why this is a perfect album.  From atmospherics to piercingly intelligent lyrics to mood swinging melodies, these Eastern Europeans have created what is certainly one of the most innovating and interesting albums of the last few decades.  The album, ICEBERG SOUL, has much in common with early 1990’s American psychedelic revival, and there’s a real Mazzy Star and Opal feel to much of the music.  But, whereas Mazzy Star was really good, Newspaperflyhunting is simply excellent.  Droning, walls of sound, haunting guitar lines—this album has it all.

Two guys named Dave.

Two guys named Dave.

Salander, a new band from England, has blown me away as much as Newspaperflyhunting, and the two bands have much in common.  Slander is only two guys, each named Dave, but you’d never know it listening to the music.  Much as Cailyn plays every single thing on her album, the two Daves do the same.  Their two albums this year, CRASH COURSE FOR DESSERT and STENDEC, are really one album, a journey through the wonders and terrors of the world, seen and unseen.  The two Daves move effortlessly from one style of music to another, but they always hold it all together with what can only be described as a Salander sound.  These two albums provide a journey that you hope never ends.

The end result of Americans, Brits, and Dutch working together: pure goodness.

The end result of Americans, Brits, and Dutch working together: pure goodness.

Armed with some new producers and engineers and a barrel full of confidence, the Anglo-Dutch-American band, Fractal Mirror, has proven the worth of community and friendship a million times over with GARDEN OF GHOSTS, a landmark album.  As mentioned previously, there’s a lot of Bauhaus and Love and Rockets in this album.  But, whereas those 1980’s bands felt as though they had one cool trick, Fractal Mirror is the real deal.  GARDEN OF GHOSTS is mind-bogglingly good—stunning in every way—and we are so blessed to be catching them at the beginning of their journey.  Certainly, it’s Gothic in tone, but it’s always soaring and light and dark and maddening and enlightening and loving. . . .  It’s also quite defiant, and, at times, the lyrics make Neil Peart look like a softy.

Sowing some seeds of love.

Sowing some seeds of love.

I think the first album by the Tin Spirits one of my all-time favorite albums.  It would certainly be in my top ten all-time albums.  In particular, the song “Broken” is a masterpiece, a progged-out Allman Brothers kind of song.  I eagerly awaited SCORCH, and I’ve not been disappointed.  This is guitar prog, pop prog, rock prog—however one might label it, it’s just amazingly good.  The four guys in the band obviously really like one another, and their friendship comes out in a myriad of ways in the music.  The best song on Scorch, “Summer Now,” might very well be the best song of the year.  As with Flying Colors, the Tin Spirits should be playing on every single album-rock radio across North America.  The contrast between the two bands?  Where Flying Colors might cross the line and go “over the top,” the Tin Spirits go for taste, class, and a dignified restraint.

American demi-god Zee behind the wheel.

American demi-god Zee behind the wheel.

Not to be too jingoistic, but one of the best aspects of 2014 has been the emergence of a number of North American prog bands.  I’ve already mentioned several over the last few posts.  The very best of the American prog bands, though, is Fire Garden.  Holy Schnikees these guys are good.  Scratch that.  These guys are amazing!  They clearly love Dream Theater, but they’re also 20x better than Dream Theater.  Just as the Tin Spirits goes for dignified restraint, so does Fire Garden.  Rather than play 30 notes in a millisecond, master musician and lyricist Zee Baig goes for just the necessary ones, the ones most needed for creativity and beauty.  Again, that dignified restraint, when employed properly, can be such a beautiful thing.  As I noted with Threshold and Haken, I don’t generally gravitate toward the heavier stuff.  With Fire Garden, I happily embrace it.  Of course, their heaviness is more Rush than Metallica.   But, again, everything is perfect.  I’ve focused on the band’s ubercoolleader, Zee, but everyone is in top form here.  Zee pulls it all together.

So much greater than a muppet.

So much greater than a muppet.

I’m almost afraid to mention John Bassett.  I’ve praised the that English stocking cap-wearing bard so many times, folks might start to wonder if I have some bizarre motive or some mancrush.  Trust me, I’m married and have six kids.  Yet, I do really love Bassett—just not in THAT way.  Bassett’s music, through Kingbathmat, appeared in my life just a few years ago, but I can’t imagine my love of prog or music without him now, even as I look back to four decades of music obsession.  Bassett’s first solo album, Uneßarth, is a psychedelic folk album, the kind of album that Storm Corrosion should have been.  Somehow, Bassett’s actual voice (vocals) have a guitar-like quality.  It’s bizarre.  Beautifully and wondrously bizarre.  And, despite his own self-deprecating remarks about merely being a “muppet”, Bassett is one of our best cultural critics.  Of course, I love Animal, and there is a slight resemblance.  Equally interesting, Bassett went the Matt Stevens/Fierce and the Dead route with his second album of 2014, a vocal-less progressive metal affair called Arcade Messiah.  Each reveals a fascinating side to this very fascinating artist.  What would I love to see—Bassett to bring these two styles together in Kingbathmat, writing a full-blown prog epic, unapologetic and unrelentingly so.

Taste defined.

Taste defined.

Once again, here comes the bro-mance.  Sorry, Sally!  I love your man, too.  Just in very different ways than do you.  I’m not sure Andy Tillison is capable of a misstep.  Not only has he been one of the two or three most important musicians of what he’s insightfully called “Third Wave Prog,” he’s now becoming one of the two or three most important musicians in what I’ve attempted—admittedly, not very successfully—“Fourth Wave Prog.”  His only release this year (what a funny thing to type) is under the name, cleverly, The Andy Tillison Multiplex.  The album: ELECTRONIC SINFONIA 2.  Just as Cailyn has brought classical music back into the world of prog, Andy is bringing jazz and jazz fusion back into prog.  This album is beyond stunning.  It is the very essence of taste itself.  Every note, every line, every segue is just astounding.  Tillison is a perfectionist, and it shows on and in all that he does.  Thank you, Mr. Diskdrive.  Rage on.

The best album of 2014 and a masterpiece for decades to come.

The best album of 2014 and a masterpiece for decades to come.

And, so I come to my favorite album of 2014.  It took a while for me to get here, and if you fine progarchist reader are still with me, bless you.  God has granted you immense patience.  Though, as I’ve noted, this has been one of the best years ever in prog—and I’ve loved everything I’ve mentioned in the previous posts—I’ve loved this the most: Cosmograf’s CAPACITOR.  Made by master of chronometry, Robin Armstrong, CAPACITOR is the perfect album.  To those of you who write and produce instrumental music, thank you.  And, please accept my apologies.  I love what you do, but, not being trained in music, I don’t always get what you’re doing, even if I love it.  For me, prog has been centrally about the lyrics and the story telling, with the music augmenting the two.  I love the Word and the words.  And, that brings me to CAPACITOR, a story that has everything.  It’s a mix of science fiction and the occult, a play on religious revivals and scientific fetishes of a century ago.  It’s not steam punk, it’s seance punk!  And, what a story.  Simply put, it’s the best sci-fi story of 2014.  Part Arthur Conan Doyle, part Ray Bradbury, it’s purely Robin Armstrong.  And, as we all know, Robin is not only a perfectionist, he’s an aural genius.  He knows exactly how to mix word and note.  This album is so good, it, almost by itself, redefines the entire genre.  This is an album to match CLOSE TO THE EDGE, SPIRIT OF EDEN, and, much more recently, ENGLISH ELECTRIC and LE SACRE DU TRAVAIL.

N.B.  Please forgive any typos.  I have a three-year old princess acting rather grumpy as she deals with the flu.  Lots of distractions in the Birzer household.

Previous posts in my “Best of 2014″ series:

Part I: http://progarchy.com/2014/12/17/my-best-of-2014-part-i-by-the-way-which-one-is-pink/

Part II: http://progarchy.com/2014/12/18/my-best-of-2014-part-ii-but-im-not-dead-yet/

Part III: http://progarchy.com/2014/12/19/best-of-2014-part-iv-welcome-to-the-mask-machine/

Best of 2014, Part III: Welcome to the Mask Machine

Second Nature

Best album cover of the year.

In a world of true justice, Flying Colors would be blaring from every car stereo tuned to album rock radio across North America.  Not only does SECOND NATURE have the single best album cover of the year, but the album is absolutely riveting.  It’s not quite prog, though, as with the best of AOR, it contains great prog elements.  Everything fits perfectly here.  The lyrics are solid, the vocals are superior.  The final two songs—Peaceful Harbor and Cosmic Symphony (sort of a gospel prog)—alone are worth the entire album.  But, the entire album is, thankfully, worth the entire album.  For me, every time I listen to this album, I’m transported back to 1985.  This would have sounded great next to Power Windows.  And, unquestionably, Peaceful Harbor would easily outdo almost any contemporary worship song should churches look for some good new music.

A dark Narnia.

A dark Narnia.

Largely unsung in the press, Mike Kershaw offers a rare noir beauty, a kind of moody deepness rare in almost all popular art, on 2014’s major release, ICE AGE.  Kershaw’s music reminds me quite a bit of another profound prog act, Fractal Mirror.  Each looks to the Bauhaus of the early 80s, progging it up, making it relevant in the modern age.  Kershaw offers us a rather dark Narnia.

Cailyn is pure class.

Cailyn is pure class.

One of America’s greatest gems is Cailyn Lloyd, though too few Americans know of her.  In every way, Cailyn is a wonder.  She arranges and writes her own music, plays all of her own instruments, and records and engineers her albums.  Her specialty—bringing classical music and blues (think Stevie Ray Vaughn)—to the rock world.  Reading this, you might first think of ELP.  And, there’s a connection.  But, whereas ELP was always “over the top,” Cailyn is as tasteful as tasteful can be.  Her latest release, VOYAGER, is a must own for any lover of music, whatever the genre.

Motherland.  Nothing to do with Natalie Merchant, however.

Motherland. Nothing to do with Natalie Merchant, however.

America’s newest and coolest immigrant, Simon Godfrey, has taken up residence in the City of Brotherly Love.  For whatever reason, though, Philadelphia seems to have made him even more English, especially in his unrelenting wit.  Godfrey’s latest, MOTHERLAND, is more in the “singer-songwriter” camp than prog, but it matters not.  His voice drips with conviction, and this very warm album will enliven the soul of any listener.  The best song of a great album is “The Inaccurate Man.”

city of the sun

Renaissance inspired?

America is doing quite well in 2014.  Everyone’s favorite Kerry Kompost (FB name) is back with Heliopolis and the new album, CITY OF THE SUN, a stunning work of art that has taken several years to make.  And, the time was well worth it.  Of all prog releases this year, this is one of the two or three most unapologetically prog in the traditional sense.  Quite heavy and eccentric, it builds and builds throughout the album, taking the listener on a psychedelic ride.  Mix Black Sabbath, The Doors, and King Crimson, and you start to get a sense of what Heliopolis is.  Whether Heliopolis takes its name—band and/or album title—from the famous Renaissance poem of the same name or not, I’m not sure.  But, I do know that these guys have delivered something well worth adoring.

Matt

No, it’s not a Smith’s album.

Nothing Matt Stevens does is unimportant in our world.  His vocal-less music carries more voice  and speaks more humanely than almost anything else in the music world.  The man loves his guitar, and he love beauty, and he loves harmony.  LUCID takes Matt’s voice a step further.  He’s also had a King Crimson/Leo Kottke strain to him, but this album is even more Matt than Matt.  It’s so incredible that no words I could employ right now could do justice to it.  And, speaking of justice, Matt has received some huge accolades.  But, he deserves so many more.

Haken-Restoration

A masterful EP.

Who would have thought an EP would make it into a best of list?  Well, Galahad already has.  Now, it’s Haken’s turn.  Unlike Galahad, though, Haken gives us three brand new songs with RESTORATION.  I have to thank my great Facebook friend, Richard Thresh, for first introducing me to Haken.  Chris Morrissey has already reviewed the EP here at progarchy, and I agree with every word.  So, no need for me to blather more.

The sequel to MARCH OF PROGRESS.

The sequel to MARCH OF PROGRESS.

Finally, for part III of my best of, the band that Richard and I were discussing when he brought up Haken: Threshold.  I really, really like these guys, though I’m generally not quite as metal as all of what’s to be found on their latest album, FOR THE JOURNEY.  It’s as dark in its metal as MARCH OF PROGRESS was driving.  There’s a lot in common between the two albums, especially thematically.  Each deals with the fragility of life and social stability.  The two albums seem to me to be two sides of the same thing, much in the way that it’s rather natural to listen to HEMISPHERES after listening to FAREWELL TO KINGS.  If you like prog metal, it doesn’t get better than Threshold or Haken.

And, soon to come. . . Part IV.

My favourites albums 2014 …..

Not sure I’ve put a post on here for ages,  so apologies for that but I’ve been busy running up and down hills through the mud, puddles, cow dung and sheep poo of the fantastic Pennines in the UK, with all this wonderful music going around in my head …

Anyway, as is customary for me, a quick scattergun snapshot of my favourite albums of 2104, with three very noticeable exceptions that were actually released in 2013.

My most played album of the year is :

Vanden Plas – Chronicles of the Immortal

Dramatic, operatic, emotional, heavy and stunning.  Never has an hour passed as quickly or enjoyably as this sublime album. Wonderfully structured with barely a note wasted, this is a true classic with a flow that simply cannot be bettered. Crunchy, clean production, massive riffs, melody to die for. Can’t wait for the next chapter in 2015 ….

And this lot aren’t so bad either ….

Seven Impale – City of the Sun

A fantastic smorgasbord of jazzy heavy brilliance that twists and turns through a myriad of styles to delight with every listen. Absolutely barkingly brilliant …

Gazpacho – Demon

Evocative, moving, emotional and deeply rewarding. True to their style, Gazpacho deliver a wonderfully elegant, understated and involving piece of work. Essential

Pineapple Thief – Magnolia

Bruce Soord comes up trumps again with a collection of intense snippets of emotion. No solos, no wasted space – just fantastic compact songs that delight every time.  My favourite live band and Magnolia brought to live brilliantly in Manchester recently. Wonderful.

Tin Spirits – Scorch

Brings back memories of running high up in the Lakes on a hot day. Gorgeous, light and textured. Dave Gregory’s guitar work is sublime – a summer album for sure. Uplifting and memorable.

IQ – Road of Bones

An absolute blast from start to finish. Solid prog rock of the highest order and a regullar visitor to CD player in my car. Cracking stuff.

Now for the fellas that were released in 2013 but which I’ve become acquainted with this year and, I think, two have been re-released in 2014 so I guess they might count, particularly if, like me, you are never sure what year you actually in …

Leprous – Coal

Saw these guys live with Haken and for me,  they were the highlight by far. Physcotically syncronated head-banging perfection. Engaging, powerful, emotional and with slight nods to 90’s electronic amidst the metal mayhem. Brilliant.

Obsidian Kingdom – Mantiis

Stunning modern prog metal madness with jazz, death and brass thrown in to provide a Pans Labyrinth’an atmosphere of brooding intensity.  Wonderful production as well … just listen to this track

Navigator – Ghostworld

Superbly engaging, soaring melodies with hooks that just won’t let go.  Check them out – you won’t regret it.  This is my most played album of December by far ….

My biggest disappointment of the year was ‘Distant Satellites’ by Anethema.  What a mess of an album after the brilliance of the previous two albums. I know it was many people’s favourite but for me it had memories of the frankly awful Blackfield IV which will forever stay in my mind as one of the worst albums of all time …..

Anyway, onwards and upwards.

My running plans for 2015 are as expansive and ambitious as some of the music that has been released this year and I expect the same high levels for the coming year.

Thanks

JD

My best of 2014, Part II.  But I’m Not Dead Yet.

I, for one, completely disbelieve that “rock is dead” or almost dead.  Many folks I could care less about believe this, and many folks I think the world of believe it as well.  I just can’t accept it.

If rock—or what passes as rock—has been so commercialized and corporatized to die because the huge companies don’t know how to sell, promote, and market a band or singer any more, too bad and tough luck.  My guess is that that band or singer lost its or her or his soul long, long ago.  Too bad by far.  If rock is corporatized, it’s really not rock.

And, frankly, I hope Rolling Stone and NME each die a quick death.  They were never more than glossy catalogues anyway.  They wanted conformity, not excellence.  In their pretense to fight the Establishment, they were the Establishment.  I could start citing Marshall McLuhan and Noam Chomsky here—two thinkers I admire immensely—but it’s not the intent of this post.  Despite my nasty introduction, this is meant to be a post of celebration.

***

The Incredible and the Magnificent of 2014.  Where to even start?  So much amazing music came out this year.  So very, very far from dead.  Not even close.

In no particular order (except for what I consider the absolute best-est of the year).

third day NAONorth Atlantic Oscillation, THE THIRD DAY.  I don’t think it would be possible for these guys to disappoint.  It’s obvious they put everything they have into the very structure and fabric of their music.  While I probably still prefer the more Mark Hollis-esque FOG ATLANTIC, The Third Day really offers some electronic beauty.

a1557280289_10The Black Vines, RETURN OF THE SPLENDID BASTARDS.  Doubting my claim that rock is very much alive?  Pop this baby into the CD player, and I give you Exhibit A of how great and alive rock is.  Schnikees, this baby rocks.  This rocks like rock should.  Clever, intense, and driving.

0002788885_10The Ben Cameron Project, TIPPING POINT.  Only two tracks long, TIPPING POINT is one of the most interesting and traditionally proggish of all prog this year.  An album is integrity and beauty.  You have to immerse yourself in this one.  You’ll be well rewarded for doing so.

rubensteinJason Rubenstein, NEW METAL FROM OLD BOXES.  Talk about putting the “progressive” in progressive rock.  No, not the Woodrow Wilson kind of progressive.  The real kind—the kind that does actually advance something.  Rubenstein is a genius, and his music shows just how much creativity and glory one person can offer in this rather tragic world.  This is the soundtrack to every Dirty Harry movie that mattered, but presented with 2014 technology and sensibilities.

galahad11Galahad, 3 EPS.  Who wouldn’t love Stu Nicholson?  God made the man for us all to love and admire.  Here, he takes prog toward House music.  This is highly danceable prog, and yet it maintains that high intelligence that Galahad has always brought to music.  There’s nothing really new, just new ways of looking at old things.  A great success.

glass hammer ode to echoGlass Hammer, ODE TO ECHO.  Again, who wouldn’t love Steve Babb?  The guy radiates charisma.  This outing sees Glass Hammer turn toward the mythic and the pagan.  While generally open about faith, GH follows the path of C.S. Lewis, noting that the Christian is also the pagan, at least in his or her imagination.  The bass thumps, the drums rock (phew!), the vocals soar, as do the keyboards and the guitars.

And, the adventure continues in Part III. . . .

My Top Three Albums of 2014

As many on this site have already covered, or are in the process of covering, their favorite albums of 2014, I will keep my post (very) brief.  2014 was, as many have observed, an excellent year for progressive rock music.  Here, in no particular order, are my top three albums of the year:

Second Nature-Flying Colors: These five virtuosos did not disappoint in their sophomore effort, a complex yet accessible symphonic prog album.Second Nature

The Endless River-Pink Floyd: A beautiful and touching tribute to deceased keyboardist Richard Wright, David Gilmour and Nick Mason proved to the world that they are still top-notch musicians. PINK-FLOYD-THE-ENDLESS-RIVER-album-artwork-low-res-600x350

lullaby… and the Ceaseless Roar-Robert Plant: the ex-Led Zeppelin frontman does not rock out like he used to, but his new album, a blend of folk and Americana, is nevertheless a delight to the ears. (You can read my full review of the album here).Robert-Plant-lullaby-and-The-Ceaseless-Roar_638

I look forward to another great year of music in 2015. A Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to my fellow Progarchists and to all of our readers!

Haken — Restoration (Best Prog Albums of 2014 — Part 4): ★★★★★

Haken — Restoration ★★★★★

Time Lord rating: 10/10 ♫♫♫♫♫

This album is designated as an “EP,” but its three tracks in fact amount to a decent-sized length (34 minutes) for a traditional LP. Therefore, I consider it a full-blown album.

Long story short, it is pretty much the prog metal album of the year. Son of Aurelius’ Under a Western Sun was my other prog metal playlist favorite, and the closest contender. In any event, I certainly must include Haken’s Restoration among my Top Ten Prog Albums of 2014.

“Darkest Night” (6:44) is riff-tastic and lyrically profound all at the same time. It’s a perfect mix of everything excellent about prog metal. These guys sure can rock! Here’s the indisputable proof.

“Earthlings” (7:52) expands upon the excellence by developing a spooky mood that is downright creepy and terrifying, as it sings about genocide and watching your friends bleed. Think of how Kate Bush ended “Breathing,” with an incomparable building of a musical mood. Well, here we actually have something comparable. It’s hair-raising and spine-tingling and absolutely astonishing in the way the musical drama is woven here with such stunning effectiveness.

“Crystallized” (19:22) is the impressive epic that seals the deal on this album as one for the record books. It naturally breaks down into four quarters, which I give titles in my own mind (since iTunes, where I bought my copy, provided no lyric booklet or further breakdown): [1] “Echoes” (which begins with various orchestral accents that set up and foreshadow the epic finale); [2] “Passages of Time” (where Haken shows off their total musical mastery of all things, including dazzling vocal harmonies); [3] “Crystallizing” (which gets full-on crazy with its wild prog virtuosity that veers into all sorts of insanely quirky and heavy rocking);  and [4] “Escaping the Past” (which provides an emotional catharsis as the epic orchestration returns and then a musical breakthrough suddenly occurs).

The glorious musical conclusion that is reached at the end of the epic “Crystallized” track is so amazing that I never fail to be astonished and moved by it each time I listen to it. The way that the lead guitar plays a line that is then echoed by the orchestra, the way that the brass then shines out heroically, the way that the luminous guitar scrambles up skyward with those flashy runs — it is beyond words, and simply breathtaking.

This is why we listen to music: to experience such magical musical experiences. And with this release, Haken has, incredibly, surpassed even what they did last year. EP? I think not! This is arguably the LP of the year, and not just the Prog Metal Album of the Year, but arguably the Album of the Year. It has everything, and it is crafted to sonic perfection.

Yet, there were so many good albums this year, it is so hard to pick just one to tag with the top designation. So, I won’t. I am content simply to compile a couple of Top Ten lists. Tomorrow, we continue with the upper-echelon prog magic of my Top Ten Prog Albums of 2014.

Fractal Mirror – Garden of Ghosts

Fractal Mirror

‘They call it a community, I like to think of it as home’

To quote a Pet Shop Boys lyric is an odd place to start an album review, but bear with me as I think this pretty much sums up mine (and many others) feelings about the Prog world that we are all a part of, and which we are proud to belong to, finding new bands, meeting new friends and making new spiritual and musical connections along the way.

Fractal Mirror is the ultimate reflection of this, a band, a connection of collaborators all brought together by the love of Prog music through the Big Big Train Facebook group of all things. This creative connection showcases all that is good about the power of social networks, and for every negative media comment about how it’s bad for us, and how it is just a minefield of bullying, there’s not enough positivity about the real friendships and bonds that are created online, and here, in my hands and in my CD player is the proof of the power of social media.

If there was no Facebook this group wouldn’t exist in this format, and that would be a damn shame.

Following up last years highly acclaimed debut album Strange Attractors, Garden of Ghosts is a wonderful album with stunning lyrics, amazing musical moments and is the complete package, with an amazing sleeve, an immersive example of the album as art.

The collaborators that are Fractal Mirror, Leo Koperdraat (keys, guitars, vocals) Ed van Haagen (bass, keys, sound enhancements) and Frank Urbaniak (drums, percussion) are all fantastic musicians, and here working together they all combine to create a mighty musical sound. Of course Fractal Mirror is a collective and the other members are the highly original and talented artist Brian Watson (whose the real go-to guy for album art, having worked on albums by Manning, The Tangent and Mike Kershaw) and whose artwork beautifully illustrates each song in the book, whilst the final member of this immensely talented quintet is Andre de Boer responsible for moving images and triangle.

As an aside talking of this community of folk I first had the pleasure of meeting Leo Koperdraat and Brian Watson (amongst others) at this years Eppyfest where they made me feel most welcome, again prog connects so many people.

From the album notes Fractal Mirror say this album is loosely connected around the themes of connections and relationships in the 21st century, all pervasive technology and how memory and perspective changes.

Three wholly relevant and widely debated topics that ask all sorts of questions, which would take someone far smarter than me to answer.

These 11 tracks on this superbly produced album (by Brett Kull from Echolyn who adds vocals and guitars to some tracks) are a wonderful variety of styles and moods, and like all the best albums should be listened to in one sitting.

This isn’t a dip in dip out kind of record, and it rewards the listener who takes the time to focus and appreciate the subtle nuances throughout.

There are plenty of musical guests joining the Fractal Mirror family on this record like Larry Fast on keyboards and mellotron, Don Fast lending his sitar to Orbital View, Charlotte Koperdraat on vocals and Jacques Varsalona on vocals.

These talented musicians add to an already impressive musical sound and all bring something to the party that enhances the texture throughout this album.

This album flows wonderfully from the opening House of Wishes, with some great vocals from Leo, and the Fractal Mirror sound exploding out from here.

The Phoenix, with its lyrics from Graham Smith, and additional vocals from Brett is a

The centrepiece of the album is the Powerless Suite, made of the four tracks Lost in Clouds, Solar Flare, The Hive and Solar Flare Reprise, a wonderfully written and performed quartet of tracks about the impact of technology on our lives, as well as our over reliance on technology and I am sure we have all felt lost in the cloud at some point, and in the ultimate of ironies my wi-fi dropped whilst I was trying to upload this review!

Lost in Clouds has some great harmony vocals and has some great musical parts, with some wonderful guitar solos and keyboard parts reminiscent of the Canterbury sound.

Solar Flare with some sublimely dramatic guitar and keyboard interaction, as well as some intense old school prog keyboard sounds is a warning to us all as to what could happen when the solar flares cut off all our power.

Whilst the Hives lyrics focus on the darker side of social media and the way that computers and technology are tracking our every move and our every like and dislike.

Words of warning wrapped up in a lighter, rockier tune, with some more of those wonderful vocal harmonies.

Whilst the instrumental Solar Flare reprise is an intense and amazing interlude, with the music as deep and absorbing and powerful as anything Floyd used on Dark Side or Wish You Were Here, the keyboards particularly invoking the spirit of Shine on You Crazy Diamond (pts VI to IX)

The Garden again changes pace, with its intimate vocal delivery and haunting keyboard sounds is almost the title track, and is as emotive a song in a similar vein to Old and Wise by the Alan Parsons Project, and is beautifully emotive.

Orbital View, with lyrics by Brian Watson, is an amazing track, the musical performances are amazing, with some truly wonderful musical interludes and harmony vocals to die for. However the true star in this track are the lyrics, Brian speaks here so eloquently and beautifully, that it’s hard not to agree with everything he’s saying and the point they are making musically is wonderful.

Event Horizon is a slower paced, melancholically reflective piece, with some fantastic guitar interplay from Leo, Brett and Don and Leo’s vocals bringing John Lennon to mind, whilst the beautifully haunting fade out is reminiscent of classical guitarist like John Williams or John Renbourn.

Legacy with it’s honest lyrics, and fantastic keyboard work, is underpinned by amazing drum and bass work from Ed and Frank, whilst Leo continues to weave his vocal magic, his versatile vocals a delight throughout the album. This, like many songs on the album mixes a prog sensibility with a more traditional rock approach, and the catchiness of the work is in part due to how Fractal Mirror make complex music sound so fresh and accessible.

There is real emotional and musical depth throughout this album, and a brutal honesty throughout the lyrics delivered in Leo’s honeyed vocals, reminiscent of the Beautiful South or Richard Thompson at their finest where the rawest truth is delivered in the sweetest musical package.

Closing finale Stars, with it’s ethereal choir, it’s orchestral sweep and it’s epic musical scope is a paean to loved ones who have been lost, and with lyrical vignettes like,

‘You taught us to realize

There were holes in the rain

And through them the stars prevail

Their light would remain’

Is as beautifully moving as any poetry by Simon Armitage, and with it’s big string driven sound is as emotive and emotionally charged as any of Jeff Lynne’s ELO big ballads, and is a superb way to close a triumphant second album. The Stephanus choir, with their vocals add so much emotional weight to this song, it is the point where rock and classical music crossover and create something beautiful.

There is always the sophomore curse, where some bands second albums are nowhere near as good as their first, due to, as the popular rumour goes, the band using all their ideas on the first record.

This isn’t the case with Fractal Mirror; they join a list of bands like The Beatles, led Zeppelin, ELO, where their second album is streets ahead of an amazingly strong debut.

There is nothing about this album I don’t like, I can put it on in my car, at home, on my iPod and it takes me somewhere else musically and spiritually.

In other words I cannot recommend this album enough and am really looking forward to hearing what visions we see through the Fractal Mirror on album number three.

My Best of 2014, Part I: By the Way. Which one is Pink?

PINK-FLOYD-THE-ENDLESS-RIVER-album-artwork-low-res-600x350In a previous post or two, I’ve tried to explain what I mean by 2014 being a significant year in the history of progressive rock.  Something(s)—though I still can’t quite get my fingers exactly on it—is quite different.  That is, 2014 is not 2013, in the way that 2013 resembled but improved upon 2012, 2011, and 2010.

And, just to be clear, I’m not one of those proggers who actually thinks all new music must progress in the sense of offering some new technique the world has never heard before.  Sure, I love innovation.  But, never for innovation’s sake.  Innovation, by its very nature, is always momentary.  I want permanence.  And, permanence comes only with the discovery and uncovering of beauty.  If the new technique or innovation leads to a better understanding of beauty, so be it.  But, I would, I hope, always choose the timeless and true and beautiful over the clever and ephemeral.

So, what’s different about 2014 and what I believe to be a new wave of progressive rock?  Three things spring to mind.  First, the best of 2014—and there’s an immense amount of good—is beautiful.  Second, it’s eclectic.  Third, it’s atmospheric.

A few years ago, several progarchists were happily complaining that so much prog is being released into the world that it’s impossible to catch up with it or, once caught up, stay up with it.  True, I think.  And, all to the good.  Competition is rarely a bad thing, and competition for market and attention has forced proggers to think in very creative and entrepreneurial ways.  This is as true in selling music as it is in making music.

Take one very specific example.  Andy Tillison has always been one of the two or three demigods of Third Wave prog.  Take a listen, however, to his 2014 release, Electronic Sinfonia No. 2.  It is a thing of intense beauty, eclectic, and atmospheric.  It is the perfect fourth-wave prog release, in many, many ways.

Because we’ve been so overwhelmed with so much goodness over the last two decades, and, especially, the last few years, Anathema’s Distant Satellite is a severe disappointment.  Had it been released five years ago, it would have been pretty great.  Now, though, in this context, it’s simply a parody of Anathema and Radiohead.

Well, enough ranting.  I’d like to start describing my favorites of this year.  In no particular order, I offer my first glimpse into my loves of 2014.  Pink Floyd’s THE ENDLESS RIVER.  I’ve been shocked at how many folks on the internet have decried it, as a betrayal to Roger Waters and to traditional Pink Floyd.  Since when has PF ever been traditional?  The Endless River is something PF has never been before.  It has echoes of Echoes, but it also had a lot of Tangerine Dream in it.  It’s interesting, it’s soaring, it’s daring, it’s full of whale song.  Just listen to Skins and Unsung.  There’s no ego.  Just flight.

And, what an incredible honor to the brilliance of Rick Wright.

I’e always liked Mike Portnoy.  In fact, I’ve been quite taken with him, and I’ve been more than willing to put up with his own eccentricities and strong opinions.  But, when he lamented a new PF album this past summer, something in me gave.  My respect for the former DT drummer has declined dramatically.

Around the time that the Division Bell was released, Wright admitted that he feared that PF had lost some of its creativity, and he cited Mark Hollis as an inspiration.  Talk Talk, he argued, got away with much, mostly because Hollis had the integrity to dream and dare.  He wanted Floyd to have the same spirit.

Well, here it is.  THE ENDLESS RIVER.

What do David Gilmour and Nick Mason have to prove?  Nothing, really.  And, they prove nothing except the ability to offer a memorial to Rick.  Amen.  If every person in the world offered such a tribute to a lost friend, this would be a much better world.

Gilmour and Mason, I salute you for doing the right thing, the good thing, the true thing.

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