Author Archives: bradbirzer

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 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 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.

In Hindsight, Frustration, and Adoration: Prog 2014, Part I

As I’ve noted too many times in these pages, I’ve been rather proudly listening to prog since the tender age of four or five, all the way back to 1972.  I’m the same age as Steven Wilson and Will Ferrell, not completely without surprise, a child born in the so-called summer of love.  Fortunate to be raised in a family that cherished all types of great music and the youngest of three boys, I inherited my tastes from good sources.  I heard the earliest of Yes and Genesis as a child, but nothing moved me at the time as much as Yessongs—in its music as well as its stunning artwork.  My first political memory is of Richard Nixon resigning (yay!), but my first musical memory is opening that three-album treasure, Yessongs.  What an invitation.  Floating islands, some idyllic wildlife, and weird looking guys.  The mystical called to me, and I gladly immersed myself in the wild world of Roger Dean.

Now that I’ve once again established my “prog street cred,” let me jump to the present.  Having listened to prog for forty years and having reviewed it for the past decade or so, I’ve never encountered a year like 2014.  Yes, this could sound downright silly.  No year is exactly like any other year.  But, as Andy Tillison and Brian Watson have so thoughtfully argued, we’ve been living in a third wave of progressive rock since about 1994.

the_tangent-not_as_good

A real work of genius, Andy Tillison’s NOT AS GOOD AS THE BOOK.

By the way, if you have not yet, you should read Andy’s discussion of Third Wave Prog in the novella accompanying the album, NOT AS GOOD AS THE BOOK.  Andy is well known for his complex and deep music, his immense integrity, and his snappy dressing—but he should also be recognized for his writing.  He is truly a master of all he does, and the world breathes a little easier because of genius.  His discussion of Third Wave Prog comes on pages 54-55 of the novella.  Indeed, NOT AS GOOD AS THE BOOK is so filled with insights and imaginings, that an academic course could be taught on it.

Back to our history and chronology.  2009 felt excellent and comfortable, as did 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013.  Each year, I thought, “this is THE best year ever in prog!”  Not that I’m innocent of hyperbole, but I meant what I wrote each year.  And, I also believe that the music being produced right now—not only in terms of quantity but much more importantly quantity—is the best since the genre first began.  What Yes and Genesis produced in the early 1970s might very well be called a “Golden Age,” but we’re not living—in any, way, shape, or form—some kind of “Bronze Age of Prog.”  If what was being produced in 1973 is gold, then what’s being produced now is Platinum.

Of course, the world of 2014 is not the world of 1974.  But, this is as true of the state of the world (very glad you’re dead Soviet Union!) as it is in Prog (good riddance, Sony Records!)  I’ll happily dance on the grave of the communists and the corporations.  Foul conformists and materialists, all!  May the abyss take them.

And since we’re on the bad news, there have been a number of nasty surprises for me this year.  I think Anathema hit its best with the stellar live DVD, Universal.  Sadly, its follow up, Distant Satellites, is as devoid of any real ideas as Universal is brilliant.  The same, I fear, is true of the new Lunatic Soul.  The albums of each reveal a profound and unhappy exhaustion.

One happy surprise for me in 2014, however, came from a reexamination of Steven Wilson’s The Raven.  I still believe it’s nothing but a rehash and reworking of Andy Tillison’s work.  But, if you have to imitate, you might as well imitate the best.

One of the finest albums of 2014.

One of the finest albums of 2014.

And, yet, so many, many great albums came out this year.  Really, give a good listen to Distant Satellites and then give an equally good listen to Newspaperflyhunting or any of the bands listed below.  Anathema simply sounds dead.  Newspaperflyhunting?  Holy Moses, keep it coming!

But, how to place these many new and newly reworked bands of 2014?  Musically, 2014 feels like a very different year than 2013.  I strongly suspect that the trio of outstanding releases last year—Big Big Train’s English Electric Full Power, The Tangent’s Le Sacre, and Glass Hammer’s Perilous—marked not only the high point, but the conclusion of third wave prog.  Simply put, these three albums are so outstanding, that they’ve surpassed the work of first and second wave prog.  The grandchildren have outlived and outperformed their grandfathers.  Not that the grandchildren could have done any of it without the grandfathers. . . but this is always true.  Granted, I’m quite fond of Roman republican notions of piety, but no progger worth her salt is not.  Of all participants and fans of genres of music, we proggers lovingly embrace pietism, genealogy, and lineage.  Only the true jazz lovers come close to us in our respect for those who came before.  Simply put, those who love prog are as much progressive as they are reactionary.  No shame in this.

But, Fourth-Wave Prog?  What might this be?  I don’t think it started this year, but it seems to have become prominent now.  Though I’m not entirely willing to commit to this (or any of this re: 4th Wave; I’m thinking out loud), I think we could probably tag ubermensch and Anglo-Saxon Guitar God, Matt Stevens, as the spearhead of the movement, an eclectic one to be sure.  I think that other great Anglo-Saxon (what is it with you English people?!?!?) bard, John Bassett.

Let me first try to define what Fourth Wave might be with the list of the best artists of the past year:  In no particular order: Jason Rubenstein, Salander, Fire Garden, Newspaperflyhunting, John Bassett, Matt Stevens, Fractal Mirror, Andy Tillison, Galahad, Glass Hammer, Cailyn Lloyd, NAO, Tin Spirits, Simon Godfrey, Flying Colors, and Heliopolis.

And, of course, Cosmograf.

More on each of these bands in the second post.

The Saving Grace of Neil Peart

In part, a review of Rob Freedman, Rush: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Excellence (Algora, 2014).

N.B. This post should be approached with caution.  It is at least PG-13, if not NC17.  Not for language, but for personal revelation and content.  Additionally, I’ve written about one or two of these things before, especially about Peart as a big brother.  Please don’t fear thinking—“hey, I’ve read this before.”  But, even the few things I’ve mentioned before are here rewritten.  Final note: for an exploration of Peart’s Stoicism, see Erik Heter’s excellent piece on the subject, here at progarchy.com.

Neil-Peart.jpg-3642

Neil Peart, ca. 1987.

***

As I’ve mentioned before in these pages and elsewhere, few persons, thinkers, or artists have shaped my own view of the world as strongly as has Neil Peart, Canadian drummer, lyricist, writer, and all-around Renaissance man.  I’ve never met him, but I’ve read all of his words and listened to all of his songs.  I’ve been following this man since the spring of 1981 when two fellow inmates of seventh-grade detention explained to me the “awesomeness” of Rush.  My compatriots, Troy and Brad (a different Brad), were right.  Thank God I got caught for doing some thing bad that day.  Whatever I did, my punishment (detention) led to a whole new world for me, one that would more than once save my life.

Having grown up in a family that cherished music of all types, I was already a fan of mixing classical, jazz, and rock.  Rush’s music, as it turned out, did this as well as any band.

While the music captivated me, the lyrics set me free.  I say this with no hyperbole.  I really have no idea how I would have made it out of high school and through the dysfunctional (my step father is serving a 13-year term in prison, if this gives you an idea how nasty the home was) home life without Peart.  I certainly loved my mom and two older brothers, but life, frankly, was hell.

I know that Peart feels very uncomfortable when his fan project themselves on him, or imagine him to be something he is not.  At age 13, I knew absolutely nothing about the man as man, only as drummer and lyricist.  Thus, even in 1981, I absorbed his lyrics, not directly his personality.  Though, I’m sure many of Peart’s words reflect his personality as much as they reflect his intellect.

Rush gave me so much of what I needed in my teen years.  At 13, I had completely rejected the notion of a benevolent God.  He existed, I was fairly sure, but He was a puppet master of the worst sort, a manipulative, Machiavellian tyrant who found glee in abuse and exploitation.  As a kid, I was bright and restless, and I resented all forms of authority, sometimes with violent intent.  Still, as we all do, I needed something greater than myself, a thing to cherish and to hold, a thing to believe in.

I immersed myself in science fiction, fantasy, and rock music.  Not a tv watcher in the least, I would put the headphones on, turns off the lights in my bedroom, lock the door, and immerse myself in the musical stories of Genesis, the Moody Blues, ELO, ELP, Alan Parsons, Yes, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, and, especially, Rush.  I could leave the horrors of my house for roughly 44 minutes at a time.

Scratch, scratch, side one.  Zip, turn.  Scratch, scratch, side two.

Rock music was the sanctuary of my world.  But, not just any rock.  ZZ Top and REO Speedwagon might be fun when out on a drive, but I needed a work of art that demanded full immersion.  I needed prog.  I was not only safe in these rhythmic worlds, I was intellectually and spiritually alive, exploring innumerable realms.  Pure, unadulterated escape.  But, escape into a maze of wonders.

The first time I heard the lyrics (at age 13, the spring of 1981) to “Tom Sawyer,” I knew Rush was MY band.  It seemed as though Peart was talking specifically to me, Bradley Joseph Birzer.  That’s right.  To 13-year old Brad in Hutchinson, Kansas.  Peart was 15 years older than I, and he must have gone through the same things I had.  Or so I thought.  Again, I knew him only through his lyrics.  But, did I ever cherish those lyrics.  I lingered over each word, contemplated not just the ideas, but the very structures of lyrics as a whole.

Though his mind is not for rent

Don’t put him down as arrogant

His reserve a quiet defense

Riding out the day’s events

No, his mind is not for rent to any God or Government

Always hopeful, yet discontent [corrected from my original typos]

He knows changes aren’t permanent, but change is

Though I’ve never given any aspect of my life to the Government (nor do I have plans to do so), I long ago surrendered much of myself to the Second Person of the Most Blessed Trinity and to His Mother.  While I’m no modern Tom Sawyer at age 47, I still find the above lyrics rather comforting.  And, I do so in a way that is far beyond mere nostalgia.

Armed with Peart’s words and convictions, I could convince myself to walk to Liberty Junior High and, more importantly, to traverse its halls without thinking myself the most objectified piece of meat in the history of the world.  Maybe, just maybe, I could transcend, sidestep, or walk directly through what was happening back at home.  I could still walk with dignity through the groves of the academy, though my step father had done everything short of killing me back while in our house.

[N.B. This is the PG13 part of the essay]  And, given all that was going on with my step father, the thought of killing myself crossed my mind many, many times in junior high and high school.  I had become rather obsessed with the notion, and the idea of a righteous suicide, an escape from on purposeless life hanged tenebrous across my soul.  After all, if I only existed to be exploited, to be a means to end, what purpose did life have.

What stopped me from ending it all?  I’m still not sure, though such desires seemed to fade away rather quickly when I escaped our house on Virginia Court in Kansas and began college in northern Indiana.  Not surprisingly, my first real friendship in college—one I cherish and hold to this day—came from a mutual interest in all things Rush.  In fact, if anything, my friend (who also writes for this site) was an even bigger Rush fan than myself!  I’d never met such a person.

Regardless, from age 13 to 18, I can say with absolute certainty that some good people, some good books, and some good music saved my life, more than once.  Neil Peart’s words of integrity and individualism and intellectual curiosity stood at the front and center of that hope.

Perhaps even more importantly to me than Moving Pictures (“Tom Sawyer,” quoted above) were Peart’s lyrics for the next Rush album, Signals.  On the opening track, a song about resisting conformity, Peart wrote:

Growing up, it all seemed so one-sided

Opinions all provided, the future predecided

Detached and subdivided in the mass production zone

No where is the dreamer or misfit so alone

There are those who sell their dreams for small desires

And lose their race to rats

Even at 14, I knew I would not be one who sold my dreams for small desires.  I wanted to be a writer—in whatever field I found myself—and I would do what it took to make it through the horrible home years to see my books on the shelves of a libraries and a bookstores.  Resist and renew.  Renew and resist.  Again, such allowed me to escape the abyss of self annihilation.

Indeed, outside of family members (though, in my imagination, I often think of Peart as one of my older brothers—you know; he was the brilliant one with the goofy but cool friends, the guys who did their own thing regardless of what anyone thought).  From any objective standpoint, as I look back over almost five decades of life, I can claim that Peart would rank with St. Augustine, St. Francis, John Adams, T.S. Eliot, Willa Cather, Ray Bradbury, Russell Kirk, and J.R.R. Tolkien as those I would like to claim as having saved me and shaped me.  If I actually live up to the example of any of these folks, however, is a different question . . .

I also like to say that Peart would have been a great big brother not just because he was his own person, but, most importantly, because he introduced me as well as an entire generation of North Americans (mostly males) to the ideas of Heraclitus, Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Cicero, Seneca, Petrarch, Erasmus, Voltaire, Adam Smith, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, T.S. Eliot, J.R.R. Tolkien, and others.

During my junior year of high school, I wrote an essay on the meaning of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, based on Peart’s interpretation.  I earned some form of an A.  In one of my core humanities courses, while at the University of Notre Dame, I wrote my major sophomore humanities term paper about the cultural criticisms of Neil Peart as found in his lyrics to the 1984 album, Grace Under Pressure.  Again, I received an A.

I’m not alone in this love of Rush.  The band is, of course, one of the highest selling rock acts of all time, and they are just now crossing the line into their fortieth anniversary.  Arguably, no other band has had as loyal a following as had Rush.  Thousands and thousands of men (and some women) faithfully attend sold-out concerts throughout North and South America to this day.  This is especially true of North American men, ages 35 to 65.  Now, as is obvious at concerts, an entirely new generation of Rush fans is emerging, the children of the original set.

Telling, critics have almost always despised Rush, seeing them as having betrayed the blues-based tradition of much of rock, exchanging it for a European (and directly African rather than African-American) tradition of long form, complexity, and bizarrely shifting time signatures.  Such a direction and style became unbearable for the nasty writers of the largest music magazines.  They have felt and expressed almost nothing but disdain for such an “intellectually-pretentious band,” especially a band that has openly challenged the conformist ideologues of the Left while embracing art and excellence in all of its forms.  Elitist rags such as the horrid Rolling Stone and equally horrid NME have time and time again dismissed Rush as nothing but smug middle-class rightists.

That so many have hated them so powerfully has only added to my attraction to the band, especially those who came of age in 1980s, despising the conformist hippies who wanted to mould my generation in their deformed image.  Rolling Stone and NME spoke for the oppressive leftist elite, and many of my generation happily made rude gestures toward their offices and their offal.  I had no love of the ideologues of the right, either.  But, they weren’t controlling the schools in the 1980s.  Their leftist idiotic counterparts were in charge.  They had no desire for excellence.  They demanded conformity and mediocrity.

[The best visual representation of this widespread if ultimately ineffective student revolt in the 1980s can be found in “The Breakfast Club” by John Hughes (RIP).]

To make it even more real for me, the parents of Geddy Lee, the lead singer and bassist of Rush, had survived the Polish holocaust camps, and the parents of Alex Lifeson, the lead guitarist of the band, had escaped from the Yugoslavian gulag.  Peart came from a Canadian farming community, his father an entrepreneur.  No prima donnas were these men.  They understood suffering, yet they chose to rise above it.  And, of course, this makes the British music press even more reprehensible for labeling the members of Rush as rightest or fascist.  Again, I offer the most dignified description for Rolling Stone and NME possible: “ideological fools and tools.”

At age 13, I stared and stared at this image.  I loved the look of each of the guys.  They couldn't be more interesting to me.

At age 13, I stared and stared at this image. I loved the look of each of the guys. They couldn’t be more interesting to me.

Enter Rob Freedman

In his outstanding 2014 book, Rush: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness (Algora Press), author, philosopher, and media specialist Rob Freedman has attempted to explain not just Peart’s popularity among his multitude of fans—some of the most dedicated in the music world—but also the Canuck drummer’s actual set of ideas and explored beliefs in his books and lyrics.  Not surprisingly, Freedman finds the Canadian a man deeply rooted in the western tradition, specifically in the traditions of western humanism and individualism.

As Freedman notes, one can find three themes in all of Peart’s lyrics: individualism; classical liberalism; and humanism.  It’s worth observing that Freedman has formal training in academic philosophy, and this shows in his penetrating discussion of the music as well as the words of Rush.

Cover of Rob Freedman, Rush: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Excellence (2014).  A must own.

Cover of Rob Freedman, Rush: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Excellence (2014). A must own.

Relying on interviews with the band, the music journalism (much of it bogus and elitist idiocy) of the last forty years, and actually serious works of Rush criticism, such as that done admirably by Steve Horwitz in Rush and Philosophy (Open Court, 2011), Freedman offers not so much a biography of the band, but rather a map of their intellectual influences and expressions.  Freedman possesses a great wit in his writing, and the book—relatively short at 164 pages—flows and flows, time standing still until the reader reaches the end.  For all intents and purposes, Freedman’s book serves as an intellectual thriller, a page turner.

As a lover of Rush, I have a few (very few) quibbles with Freedman’s take.  Mostly, from my not so humble perspective, Freedman gives way too much space to such charlatans as Barry Miles of the English New Music Express who claimed Rush promoted neo-fascism in the late 1970s.  Freedman, while disagreeing with Miles, bends over backwards defending Miles’s point of view, as it did carry immense weight in the 1970s and wounded the band deeply.  From my perspective, there is no excuse for Miles.  He maliciously manipulated and twisted the words of Peart—using his lyrics and a personal interview—which were as deeply anti-fascistic as one could possibly imagine (paeans to creativity and individualism) and caused unnecessary damage to the reputation of three men, two of whom who had parents who had survived the horrors of the twentieth-century ideologues, as noted above.  Miles’s take on Rush is simply inexcusable and no amount of justification explains his wickedness and cthluthic insensibilities toward three great artists.  Dante best understood where such “men” spent eternity.

Author Rob Freedman.

Author Rob Freedman.

I also believe that Freedman underplays the role of Stoicism in his book.  The venerable philosophy barely receives a mention.  Yet, in almost every way, Peart is a full-blown Stoic.  In his own life as well as his own actions, Peart has sought nothing but excellence as conformable to the eternal laws of nature.  This is the Stoicism of the pagans, admittedly, and not of the Jews or Christians, but it is Stoicism nonetheless.  Freedman rightly notes that Plato and, especially, Aristotle influenced Peart.  But, so did Zeno, Virgil, Cicero, and Seneca.  This comes across best in Peart’s lyrics for “Natural Science” (early Rush), “Prime Mover” (middle Rush), and in “The Way the Wind Blows” (recent Rush).  In each of these songs, Peart presents a view of the world with resignation, recognizing that whatever his flaws, man perseveres.  Erik Heter and I have each attempted to explore this aspect of Peart’s writings at progarchy.  Heter has been quite successful at it.

As the risk of sounding cocky, I offer what I hope is high praise for Freedman.  I wish I’d written this book.

Peart as Real Man

Neil-Peart later

Neil Peart, ca. 2008.

In the late 1990s, Peart experienced immense tragedy.  A horrible set of events ended the life of his daughter and, quickly after, his wife.  Devastated, Peart got on his motorcycle (he’s an avid cyclist and motorcyclist) and rode throughout the entirety of North America for a year.  It was his year in the desert, so to speak.

Then, in 2002, Rush re-emerged and released its rockingly powerful album, Vapor Trails.  The men were the same men (kind of), but the band was not the same band.  This twenty-first century Rush, for all intents and purposes, is Rush 2.0.  This is a much more mature as well as a much more righteously angry and yet also playful Rush.  This is a Rush that has nothing to prove except to themselves.  The last albums—Vapor Trails (2002); Snakes and Arrows (2007); and Clockwork Angels (2012)—have not only been among the best in the huge Rush catalogue, but they are some of the best albums made in the last sixty years.  They soar with confidence, and they promote what Rush has always done best: excellence, art, creativity, distrust of authority, and dignity of the human person.

Peart is not quite the hard-core libertarian of his youth.  In his most recent book, Far and Near, he explains,

The great Western writer Edward Abbey’s suggestion was to catch them [illegal immigrants], give them guns and ammunition, and send them back to fix the things that made them leave.  But Edward Abbey was a conservative pragmatist, and I am a bleeding-heart libertarian==who also happens to be fond of Latin Americans.  The ‘libertarian’ in me thinks people should be able to go where they want to go, and the ‘bleeding heart’ doesn’t want them to suffer needlessly” [Far and Near, 58]

If he has lost any of his former political fervor, he’s lost none of his zest for life and for art.  “My first principle of art is ‘Art is the telling of stories.’  What might be called the First Amendment is ‘Art must transcend its subject’.” [Far and Near, 88]

These twenty-first century albums speak to me at age 47 as much as the early albums spoke to me at age 13.  I’ve grown up, and so has Rush.  Interestingly, this doesn’t make their early albums seem childish, only less wise.

After my wife and I lost our own daughter, Cecilia Rose, I wrote a long letter to Neil Peart, telling him how much the events of his life—no matter how tragic—had shaped my own response to life.  I included a copy of my biography of J.R.R. Tolkien.  Mr. Peart sent me back an autographed postcard as thanks.

I framed it, and it will be, until the end of my days, one of my greatest possessions.

After all, Neil Peart has not just told me about the good life, creativity, and integrity, he has shown me through his successes and his tragedies—and thousands and thousands of others—that each life holds a purpose beyond our own limited understandings.  As with all things, Peart takes what life has given and explodes it to the level of revelation.

Have We Entered a Fourth Wave of Prog?

I’ve been thinking about this for much of the year.  2014 seems like a very different year for prog—especially when compared with 2011, 2012, and 2013.

8 page booklet P8&1The incredible music of 2014 in the prog world—from John Bassett, Newspaperflyhunting, Fire Garden, Tin Spirits, Arcade Messiah, Andy Tillison, Cailyn Lloyd, Galahad (Stu Nicholson), Salander, Fractal Mirror, and a host of others–further convinces me we’ve entered into a new wave of prog, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post.

Andy Tillison and Brian Watson have convincingly argued in favor of dividing the history of prog into three waves, the third wave beginning around 1994 or so.

If Tillison and Watson are correct, and I suspect they are, I believe we might have entered what we could call the fourth wave.

The turning point came in 2013 with grand and profound releases from Big Big Train, The Tangent, and Glass Hammer.  These albums were so excellent, perhaps the best in prog history, that they might very well have represented the apex of third-wave prog.

arcade messiah artTake a listen to any of the above mentioned artists in 2014.  Their music, especially when compared to the releases of the previous several years, offers something much more experimental and reflective.  The story telling is less narrative and more punctuated, the lyrics more imagistic.

Anyway, I’m thinking (and typing) out loud.  I’ll give it more thought.

Minstrel’s Ghost: Funds for Art Needed

Blake

Blake Carpenter, international man of mystery and, in at least one parallel earth, Mr. Malfoy.

One of my favorite bands, Minstrel’s Ghost, is launching a fund-raising campaign to finance their next album (writeup below).  In the Middle Ages and Early Modern period of western civilization, every great artist had a patron.  Such a system is long gone, but we know have the chance to offer such help in a democratic age.  We all know that major labels have one foot in the grave.  Such fundraising is the hope of excellence of art in this world.

So far, progarchy has encouraged the funding of Leah (success!) and Lifesigns (in process).  Let’s offer the same for Minstrel’s Ghost.

Here’s what I received from Blake (leader of MG)

****

Who is The Minstrel’s Ghost?

The Minstrel’s Ghost is a melodic rock/progressive band featuring Blake Carpenter (writer, singer, keyboards and guitars), Troy James Martin (bassist and singer), Mike Troupe (drummer and singer) and Jartse Tuominen (lead guitars). If you love Pink Floyd, The Alan Parsons Project, Asia, Saga and the like then you will love us too. We do not try to sound like anyone else but the influences can be heard in our music. From the jazzy drums and rippling bass to the fluid guitar leads, sweeping keyboard riffs and story telling vocals our music takes you on a journey from beginning to end.

What is this all about?

This campaign is to raise funds for our third album and a movie to accompany it. The album is a take on the life of Jack the Ripper, a kind of back story if you will. A little creative license applied and we see how difficult growing up in the late 19th century is for a young boy. The harsh realities of prostitution, brutality and shocking loss leave young Jack struggling to cope. How will he deal with it all? We are planning on making a silent film using the music from the album as the story teller.

This has been in the head of Blake, the writer of the album, for a long time. The vision of making a movie instead of a couple of videos to accompany an album came when he was looking through old Victorian images on the web and trying to put a story line together with pictures.  There is a story to be told here, this is about Jack but it could be about anyone who suffers hardship and tragedy at a young age. We all handle our pain in different ways and that, at least to some extent, defines us, no matter where or when we live.

Why we need you…..

Making this movie is a big deal for us! We are still a young band trying to make our way into a much larger family of melodic, progressive bands. We hope that this movie will help us reach more of those whom we know would love our music. Please know that what ever we do it will always be about the stories inside the music and giving you the opportunity to laugh or cry, smile or frown and take something away from the music and story that will help you through your day, week, or life.

What We Need & What You Get

We have some things already in place and are using the barter system to get portions of the production done but we still need some equipment and perhaps some licenses to use public areas for filming. This fundraiser is also for CD and DVD manufacture as well as artwork for the whole project.
We are looking for $15,000 to secure:

  • camera and lighting rentals
  • a video editing machine
  • any licenses we may need for filming in public places
  • any potential extras needed for the film such as wood, paint and other building materials for sets
  • paid actors (if we need to as most are included in the bartering)
  • feeding actors and crew
  • all artwork for the CD and DVD (not your typical insert, a full sized newspaper)
  • CD and DVD manufacturing
  • Photo shoot for the artwork
For your contribution you can get:
  • posters
  • t-shirts
  • Signed copies of both CD and DVD from all members of the band
  • your name in lights at the beginning or the end of the movie
  • and much more

If the goal is not reached, we will do what we can with the funds raised and work out other arrangements for the perks we are not able to fulfill. We will work with you personally on all substitute perks if it comes to that – but let’s make sure it doesn’t come to that!

Risks & Challenges

We have been down this road before, just like so many other bands and artists so we know all too well that things happen that can get in the way of a happy ending. We also know that we have you, our friends and fans to join us in jumping over any hurdles we may come across. That said, we will be sure to make this happens in some way, shape or form for everyone to enjoy.

Other Ways You Can Help

We know that some people just can’t contribute, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help:

SHARE, SHARE, SHARE, SHARE!!!!!!!!!! Tell your friends, use Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, and all the other outlets you can to let everyone know about this project. Don’t forget music forums you may be a member of, please, if you can, print up a few flyers and throw them up around town. Don’t forget that there are tools right here on this page that you can use to share this project and help it reach as many people as it can.

Don’t forget to sign up for the The Minstrel’s Chronicle our (almost) monthly newsletter atminstrelsghost.com

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-minstrel-s-ghost-jack-a-different-tale-cd-dvd

Feast of St. Cecilia, Patroness of Music

Blanchard,_Jacques_-_Saint_Cecilia_-_17th_cExcuse the overt religiosity of this post, but I just can’t let the Feast of St. Cecilia, patroness of music, pass without acknowledgement.

My maternal grandmother kept a picture of St. Cecilia above her bed, and my wife and I were blessed to inherit this image.

I have a great aunt, Cecelia, who passed away at the age of 21 (from tetanus) and a daughter, Cecilia Rose, who died on the day of her birth, August 8, 2007.  May all Cecilias dance together in eternity.

Hello, Patricia Tallman!

One of the many exciting things about writing for an active website is finding out who is following you. Every week, progarchy.com receives new followers at its own website (through wordpress—we’ve over 2,400 subscribers as I type this), through twitter, and on Facebook. We have some accounts on some other social media, but I’ve (–Brad) have never quite figured out to use them.

Maybe Chris or Carl can.

More often than not, understandably, the follows come from musicians, agents, and music fans. Makes sense. But, every once in a while, one comes out of left field.

This week, I was thrilled to see that Patricia Tallman is following us on twitter.

Patricia-TallmanCurrently the CEO of Studio JMS, Tallman will be familiar to most of you as the face of Lyta Alexander, the most powerful telepath in the Babylon 5 universe. By season of that greatest of all TV shows (EVER!), she is the post-Vorlon weapon of mass destruction. And, what a character and what an actress. I become rather taken with her from the first moment she flashed those intense eyes, red hair, and brilliant intellect on screen.

She also has appeared as an actress and stunt person in numerous TV shows and movies, including various incarnations of Star Trek, Army of Darkness, and Austin Powers.

And, back to B5 for a moment. As most of you probably know, Christopher Franke, German krautprog demigod composed all of the music for the series. Naturally, it’s rather good though now currently difficult to find.

Pat Tallman, whether you’re joining us because you’re a music fan or simply because you know we’re YOUR fans, welcome. Glad to have you aboard.

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