Prog God 2015: Tony Banks

A well-deserved honor (or honour, depending on which side of the pond you’re on).


As “My Wayward Son” approaches 40, it carries on its commercial ways

Kansas’ “Carry On My Wayward Son”, from the 1976 album Leftoverture, was the band’s breakthrough hit, reaching #11 on Billboard and ushering in the Golden Age of Classic Kansas (c. 1976-1980). As Kerry Livgren noted in the excellent documentary “Miracles Out of Nowhere” (see my Progarchy review), the song came to him rather suddenly and it is loaded with hooks, bursting forth like ears of corn in a Kansas cornfield (as, yes, that’s a rather corny but apt metaphor). If, by chance, you’ve never heard the song (yeah, right), here it is performed live circa 1976:

(Is Steve Walsh a madman, or what!?) The original 7″ single of the song was an edited 3:26 version; the entire song is two minutes longer. Thus, the single has more of a classic/hard rock feel, while the album version–especially in the context of the entire, brilliant Leftoverture–is much more proggy. Regardless, what is surprising, nearly four decades later, is how this hard rock/prog song continues to make appearances in somewhat unexpected places. Such as beer commercials (full disclosure: I drink only micro brews):

Apparently the song has been played several times in the drama “Supernatural” (which I’ve never watched), including in some rather striking forms:

Not surprisingly, the song has been covered a number of times. But the Wikipedia (boo! hiss) entry on such covers missed one of the more interesting renditions, performed by the all female Christian rock band Rachel Rachel back in 1991, on the debut album “Way To My Heart”. In the video for the song, Kerry Livgren joins the band to play guitar; however, much of the guitar on the studio album was actually played by producer/guitarist/vocalist Dan Huff–who fronted the group Giant (“Last of the Runaways” is a scorching album), has played guitar on Madonna albums, and produced Megadeth, Keith Urban, Faith Hill, and a bazillion other artists:

Finally, what is perhaps most refreshing about the success of “Carry On…” (as well as “Dust in the Wind”) is the lyrical content. The song isn’t about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, but peace, searching, and ultimate rest: “Nothing equals the splendor/Now your life’s no longer empty/Surely heaven waits for you.”

Pre-order Marillion’s 18th Studio Album

The band that brought us crowdfunding has partnered with PledgeMusic to launch the pre-order campaign for their upcoming album, to be released in early 2016.  The campaign began today (September 1st) and fans can pre-order everything from an mp3 download to the “ultimate signed edition” (I managed to restrain myself and ordered something in the middle).  Fans who order before December 1st can have their names printed in the album credits.

Benji Rodgers, Pledgemusic’s President and Founder, cited Marillion as an influence in the formation of PledgeMusic in 2009:

“Partnering with Marillion in 2015 is an incredible honour for me personally and for the team at PledgeMusic. Their pioneering approach to direct-to-fan was both and inspiration and a guiding light for PledgeMusic from business plan to launch and beyond and we could not be more excited to have them as part of our story.”

Unfortunately, we don’t get any previews of new music quite yet, but fans who pre-order get an all-access pass to any teasers or videos the band posts as the album comes together.  Following the album’s release, Marillion plans to tour North and South America in 2016.

You can pre-order here at PledgeMusic and watch the band’s recent interview on their decision to return to the crowdfunding model.


Metal Mondays: Ronnie James Dio — “Mask of the Great Deceiver”

Here’s the one and only Dio, guest singing on perhaps my favorite track from Kerry Livgren’s solo album, Seeds of Change.

(Waitaminnit, lemme change that fave pick to “Ground Zero” … because of the Kansas guest stars on that beautifully orchestrated closing track!)

OK, so this “Mask of the Great Deceiver” track isn’t pure metal … but Dio sure is!

The World Didn’t End on December 31, 1989: The Best Music of 1990

A few days ago, I felt absolutely snarky and thought, “why not write down exactly what I think of music from the 1980s.”  In some ways, I feel I have the right to do this in a manner I could never do for any other decade.

After all, I was in seventh grade when a very disturbed fanboy tried to kill the fortieth president, and I was a first-semester senior in college when the Berlin Wall came down.

Yes, I’m very much a man of the 1980s.  Reagan, Rush, Blade Runner. . . how I remember the 1980s.  I came of age in that rather incredible decade.

Life continued after 1989, however, though I wasn’t so sure at the time that it would.

1990 proved to be one of the most interesting years in my personal life when it came to career choices as well as to music.

The chances are quite good that you’re not reading this post because you want to know my career choices or why I made them.  So, I’ll confine myself to the music that I loved that year.

I owe almost all of my good fortune to three very great guys, Ron Strayer (now, a high up with Microsoft), Kevin McCormick (now, justly, a progarchy editor), and Craig Breaden (now, happily, one of progarchy’s editors).  Ron introduced me to what would very soon be called “alternative” but was then being called “college rock” or “modern rock.”  Kevin sent me recommendations, including the rather insistent demand to purchase cds by World Party and The Sundays.  And, finally, Craig introduced me not only to neo-psychedelia but also to psychedelia from its original age.  It was Craig who introduced me to Van Morrison, Spooky Tooth, Procol Harum, and Traffic.

I’d loved prog and New Wave all of my 22 years at that point, but my vision was pretty limited to only these genres by the end of 1989.  Well, this isn’t quite accurate.  I also knew classical and jazz fairly well.

With the help of three friends, 1990 opened up huge musical vistas for me in the non-jazz, non-classic genres.

FFKT, 1990.

FFKT, 1990.

Richard Thompson, as a part of French Frith Kaiser Thompson, wrote two of the best songs I’ve ever: “Peppermint Rock” and “The Killing Jar.”  Folk acid psychedelia by guys who had been there before there was a need for a revival.

Her third album.  Folk-pop perfection.

Her third album. Folk-pop perfection.

Suzanne Vega’s third album, DAYS OF OPEN HAND, came out that year, and it’s still one of my favorite albums.  Vega has always produced gorgeous pop and folk in the vein of XTC and others.  If this is pop, it’s very high pop.  Importantly, she never became political like so many of her counterparts.  Rather, she gracefully let the music and lyrics remain art.  Her breathy vocals–weird and yet captivating–only add to her appeal.

Yes, Ian is AWOL, but that doesn't mean this isn't a wonderful album.

Yes, Ian is AWOL, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a wonderful album.

Echo and the Bunnymen’s almost totally forgotten and (when remembered) maligned album, REVERBERATION, is a slice of pop-rock perfection.  Yes, it’s missing Ian McCulloch, but this only lets Will Sergeant soar.  Frankly, their sound hit its height with OCEAN RAIN and fell flat on the follow-up album.  This one, REVERBERATION, reveals an effective rebirth of the band.  The new vocalist, while not possessing the cancerous gravel of McCulloch’s voice, captures the spirit of the lyrics perfectly.  Word play and cliché become clever and, indeed, addictive.  There’s not a dud song on the album, but the employment of psychedelic Indian musicians really works rather perfectly on “Enlighten Me” and on the Doorish “Flaming Red.”  The former  is one of the finest songs the band ever wrote.

California psychedelic shoegaze.

California psychedelic shoegaze.

Mazzy Star.  Hardly anyone remembers this California psychedelic folk and navel-gazing band that emerged from the underground band, Opal.  Too bad–as 1990’s SHE HANGS BRIGHTLY is a thing of disturbing beauty.  Walls of sound, clever lyrics, and earnest production make this album a masterpiece of the neo-psych revival.

Not a single misstep on this basement-made masterpiece.

Not a single misstep on this basement-made masterpiece.

“Is it too late, baby?”  World Party.  What to say about this about that hasn’t been said by a million others?  While Karl Wallinger continues to make interesting music (despite severe health problems), he really threw every thing his soul possessed into GOODBYE JUMBO.  From the crazy Beatle-sque cover to the basement production, this is a gem.  All of the songs work very well, though they rarely reach beyond simple Beatle’s pop.  Taken as a whole, however, this is a prog-pop album.  Not that the individual songs are prog.  They’re not even close.  But, imagine a really, really, really clever Paul McCartney reworking side 2 of Abbey Road.  Then, you’d have GOODBYE JUMBO.  Thank you, world, indeed.

Mischievous and flirtatious pop.

Mischievous and flirtatious pop.

The Sundays.  Ok, so the lead singer is one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen.  This doesn’t hurt my opinion of the band.  But, really, it’s her voice.  That voice.  How to describe it?  There are no words, really, that could capture it.  She’s playful.  She’s earnest.  She’s flirtatious.  She’s so utterly sincere.  Oh, Harriet.  At one time, you were my Beatrice.  Her husband, David Gavurin, knows exactly how to write music to match his wife’s voice.  What a team.  And, they did the album merely for the fun of it, which makes it even more enjoyable.  If you don’t own this or if you’ve never heard of The Sundays, treat yourself.  You’ll never regret this purchase.  Promise.

It's the drums, the drums, the drums!

It’s the drums, the drums, the drums!

Charlatans UK.  SOME FRIENDLY.  I know next to nothing about this band, but I absolutely dug their sound when Ron introduced them to me.  I’d never quite heard drumming like this (though, The Cure would use the exact same style on their 1991 album, WISH).  The drums, the keyboards, and the bass make this one of the most interesting albums I’ve ever heard it.  While I wouldn’t place it up there with the previous albums I’ve mentioned in terms of outright excellence and staying power, it’s still really good.

house of love

Album title? Not a clue.

House of Love.  Album title?  I’m not sure, as there’s none listed.  Just the band’s name with a butterfly.  Some of the album fails, but when it works, it works in a stellar fashion.  The album is worth owning for the first two tracks alone—”Hannah” and “Shine On”—which really blend into one continuous 10-minute track.  Great build up and perfect execution on these two songs.  From what little I know of the band, they were a bunch of really raucous and idiotic druggies.  Still, some amazing talent there.

heaven or las vegas

The best for last? Yes.

Cocteau Twins,  HEAVEN OR LAS VEGAS.  The best for last?  I’m not sure, but, sheesh, do I love this album.  Aside from LOVELESS by My Bloody Valentine, no album reaches as close to shoe-gaze perfection as does HEAVEN OR LAS VEGAS.  This album simply never ages.  It’s so weird and yet so continuously captivating.  I assume the artsts behind Cocteau Twins wield some special instrument to speed up or delay time, but I can’t verify this.  Listening to this album is NEVER a casual experience.  It demands full immersion, but you re-emerge not as one drowned but as one baptized.

Care-Package from InsideOut

So, this just arrived at progarchy hq.  Thank you, Jeff Wagner!



Pre-order Available: NEIL PEART: (RE)PERCUSSIONS

I’m really happy to announce that my biography of Neil Peart, NEIL PEART: CULTURAL (RE)PERCUSSIONS, is now available for pre-order.

Released silmultaneously as a paperback (WordFire Press, $14.99) and an ebook (WordFire/Baen, $5.99) on September 15, the biography considers Peart primarily as an extraordinary writer and author–of lyrics, fiction, and travelogues.

The link to pre-order the ebook is here:

If you like what we’ve accomplished with progarchy, I think you’ll like the bio of Peart.  For what it’s worth, I bring fifteen years of writing professional biographies, a decade of reviewing rock and prog rock, and thirty-four years of intense admiration for Neil Peart to the book.

Out September 15, 2015.

Out September 15, 2015.

Kerry Livgren on the Current State of Music

Kerry Livgren.

Kerry Livgren.

A fascinating section from Kerry Livgren’s autobiography, now posted at his website.

I am often asked to comment or voice my opinion about contemporary music, both secular and sacred. I usually decline because an honest response to the question would require a great deal of labor on my part to bring it about, and I’m not sure that my opinions are any more valid than those of others. Yet, I am continually asked, so I will attempt to formulate my thoughts in this abbreviated version.

One of the problems in answering such a question is that “contemporary music” covers such an incredibly broad spectrum that it is difficult to know exactly what part of that spectrum I am to comment on. Besides, exactly what are the boundaries of “contemporary” anyway? Five years, two years, ten years, a hundred? One thing I know; the fickleness of American popular music listeners is astounding. Today, a piece of music can cease to be contemporary in a matter of months! It turns stale like a piece of bread. We have divided recent eras of popular music into decades or less, as if any possible social or artistic relevance in a song could not reach beyond that short span of time.

This essay is well worth reading and considering.  To read the full thing, go here:

My First Progarchives Review: Glass Hammer’s THE BREAKING OF THE WORLD

Certainly one of the single best releases of 2015.

Certainly one of the single best releases of 2015.

5 stars Leave it to Babb and Schendel to make a truly gorgeous album out of the ACADEMIC work of Tolkien and Lewis, not just out of their fantastic works. Amazing. From the opening note to the closing one, THE BREAKING OF THE WORLD soars. Ever since CHROMONOTREE (itself, a thing of beauty), Glass Hammer has just gotten better and better, more adventurous, and, lyrically, more interesting. Add to Schendel and Babb the others in the band, and you realize that Glass Hammer is as much a movement–a community of true artists–as it is a band. In particular, I challenge anyone in the prog world to find someone better on vocals than Susie Bogdanowicz. She has equals, but not betters. I assume she had some kind of secret voice lessons in heaven at some point in her your life. And, Aaron Raulston, though too little known, is the equal of Peart, Portnoy, and NDV when it comes to the drums. What an astounding group of musicians to come together. While I generally prefer albums that are strictly concepts–such as LEX REX and PERILOUS–THE BREAKING OF THE WORLD is a rare and precious gem in a world torn apart by commercialization, ideologies, and fundamentalisms. Babb and Schendel, as always, are quite humane and quite exceptional. Long live Glass Hammer!

My 1980s.

One of the things that drives me a little wonky—as well as cracks me up—is seeing my students attempt to have a 1980s theme party.  They always wear too much makeup, put on bizarre leg warmers, and tease their hair.

Yes, some folks in the 1980s did that, but not many.  If students really want to understand what it was like to come of age in the 1980s, at least in the United States, they could do no better than watch THE BREAKFAST CLUB, the definitive artistic statement of my generation.

Even worse though, they pick just simply terrible music for their parties.  Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, the Go-Gos, Culture Club, Wham, Wang Chung, and Michael Jackson.  Ugh.  Sorry if I offend, but I despise these bands as much now as I did then.

I grew up in central (mostly rural) Kansas, and I still knew this music was nothing but the stuff that cattle leave all over the plains.  Not to be too graphic, but we referred to such cattle refuse as “prairie pizzas.”

Yet, I want to be somewhat fair as I look back on my junior high, high school, and college years (graduated college in 1990).  When I think of MY 1980s (beyond straight prog, that is), I think of U2, Thomas Dolby, XTC, Echo and the Bunnymen, Ultravox, Kate Bush, Depeche Mode, Suzanne Vega, General Public, English Beat, Talk Talk, Tears for Fears, The Cure, Psychedelic Furs, Big Country, Eurythmics, New Order, Midnight Oil, REM, ABC, Modern English, Oingo Boingo, Level 42, and Icehouse.

Let me bloviate a bit about my thoughts on some of this music now, late August 2015.  As I do, I’ll intentionally skip Talk Talk, XTC, The Cure, Kate Bush, Tears for Fears, The Smiths, and U2, as I still listen to their music all of the time.  Constant rotation for these bands on my stereo system.

One of the most interesting and innovative albums of the 1980s. Full of intensity and whimsy.

One of the most interesting and innovative albums of the 1980s. Full of intensity and whimsy.

Thomas Dolby.  His first two albums are nothing short of brilliant.  While most people remember Dolby for his novelty song, “She Blinded Me With Science,” the entirety of the first album is a vast exploration of soundscapes and weird rhythms.  In terms of musical innovation, his second album, THE FLAT EARTH, is even better with some of the best bass work I’ve ever heard.

Don't dismiss her because of her one pop hit. This artist knows her art and she know art.

Don’t dismiss her because of her one pop hit. This artist knows her art and she knows art.

Suzanne Vega.  Her first two albums are well worth owning.  She brings a power of conviction to her alternative-folk-pop that rivals any artist of the time.  Her lyrics are strange, yet meaningful, touching on the deepest things though seemingly in pedestrian ways.

For whatever reason, I just can't stomach REM anymore. Pretension for the sake of pretension.

For whatever reason, I just can’t stomach REM anymore. Pretension for the sake of pretension.

REM.  I used to love this band.  For some reason, the band means less than nothing to me now.  A few notes make me want to melt all of my disks.  Not rational, but to be sure, but heartfelt.  For some reason, all of their songs feel as though they were written by clever juvenile pretenders.

Even the title is ideological. Blah.

Even the title is ideological. Blah.

Depeche Mode.  Just horrible.  I have no idea what once attracted me to them.  Effete superficiality masquerading as legitimate angst.

Admittedly, there are worse album covers, but not many.

Admittedly, there are worse album covers, but not many.

Icehouse.  Great song writing, but the production is wretched.  I could, however, easily see a remaking of Measure for Measure with a serious engineer and producer such as Rob Aubrey.

Some extraordinary guitar rock from these Scots.

Some extraordinary guitar rock from these Scots.

Big Country.  Uneven feelings on my part toward them, but, overall, I love the first two albums.  Songs such as “In a Big Country” do nothing for me anymore, but others such as “The Storm” and “Steeltown” are as fresh now as they were then.  The third album starts to fall apart, but few songs of the 1980s could rival “The Seer” featuring Kate Bush.

Tight production that makes it sound interesting rather than flat.

Tight production that makes it sound interesting rather than flat.

Modern English.  I know little about this band beyond AFTER THE SNOW.  But, this album is a fine one.  Claustrophobic to be sure, but captivating and interesting.

Clever, but ultimately superficial.

Clever, but ultimately superficial.

Oingo Boingo.  While I was never obsessed with the band as I was, say, with Talk Talk or Tears for Fears, I did really like them, despite their questionable and vulgar lyrics.  Now, listening to them is just embarrassing.  There are still some great moments, such as “Just Another Day,” but, overall, it’s good that Elfman quit pop and went into Hollywood soundtracks.

I worry with the title of the band that they're fascists. Let's hope not. Regardless, they make some fine music when they're not pursuing the top 40.

I worry with the title of the band that they’re fascists. Let’s hope not. Regardless, they make some fine music when they’re not pursuing the top 40.

New Order.  Ok, so I never—even at the time—liked their pop/dance music.  But, one album is genius: LOW LIFE.  Again, claustrophobic, but so utterly earnest.  As with Dolby’s THE FLAT EARTH, some truly astounding bass playing.

The single best unknown prog album of the 1980s.

The single best unknown prog album of the 1980s.

Wang Chung.  Ha.  You weren’t expecting this one.  It’s very difficult to find now, but Wang Chung, strangely enough, did the soundtrack for the nefarious TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.  It’s probably the single best unknown prog album of the 1980s.  Not a pop note to taint the thing.  Intense and nerve-wracking.

Trevor Horn at his best.

Trevor Horn at his best.

ABC.  Almost everyone remembers ABC for their nasty “How to be a Zillionaire.”  Before this, however, ABC made two exceptional albums.  Pop, but progressive pop in the line of Kate Bush and XTC.  If you can, get their first two albums.  Clever and catchy.  The second album especially  has some biting lyrics that could have come from Pink Floyd’s THE FINAL CUT.

Enticing left wing anger.

Enticing left wing anger.

Midnight Oil.  I never knew this band well, but I always loved the anger and conviction in the lyrics.  Not something I could listen to often, but I do respect the band quite a bit.

Richard Butler deserves many more accolades than ever offered to him. This is rock at its best.

Richard Butler deserves many more accolades than ever offered to him. This is rock at its best.

The Psychedelic Furs.  I probably shouldn’t even be commenting on this band, as I listen to them constantly to this day.  Really, they should go up in my excluded list.  Still, I list them here because most Americans remember them only for their mid to late 1980s hit, “Heartbreak Beat.”  Prior to this, however, the PFs produced really clever rock.  The lyrics were intelligent and the music well crafted, always presented with conviction.  In the 1990s, the band reformed as LOVE SPIT LOVE (and their first album is a top fifty all time album for me).

A rare album without a flaw.

A rare album without a flaw.

Finally, The Fixx.  Another mixed bag for me.  The first album was mediocre.  But, then, you get to REACH THE BEACH and PHANTOMS, each of which defined the very best of what was called new wave.  REACH THE BEACH, in particular, is without flaw.  PHANTOMS now sounds a bit dated, but not REACH THE BEACH.  The fourth album, WALKABOUT, is good, but it feels like The Fixx was just trying to replicate the previous two albums.

Ok, that’s enough, Birzer.  Shut up.  Let the readers go enjoy some music. . . .

Just to set the record straight. This is how we looked in the 80s. Yours truly.

Just to set the record straight. This is how we looked in the 80s. Yours truly.


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