Here’s the link: http://www.dprp.net/dprpoll/index.php
Continuing with my Top Ten Prog Albums of 2014, let me say that Seven Impale came out of nowhere and blew me away this year with an incredible record. Jazz saxophones meets prog metal? Sounds like a psychotic recipe! But it works so well here. Listening to this record is like sitting in on one of the wildest jam sessions you will ever hear. City of the Sun is bursting with energy and passion and virtuosity. With this amazing album, Seven Impale have ascended into the upper echelon of prog achievement. Don’t miss it! A true delight.
By the way, here’s my Top Ten list so far:
Review: Rush, R40: The Completist/OCD Set (Anthem, 2014).
Birzer Rating: 10/10
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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).
North 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.
The 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.
The 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.
Jason 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.
Galahad, 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 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. . . .