Author Archives: Erik Heter
This is an absolutely brilliant version of the Yes classic, Awaken, by Todmobile (whom I’ve never heard of until this) with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, and Jon Anderson on vocals. I have never needed any convincing that this piece is incredible, but seeing this performance has only strengthened that conviction. Enjoy.
This past year was chock full of first world problems for many of us, myself most included. At the pace I’m buying music, my iPhone is full and stays full. Often times I have to shuffle out one album off to get a new album onto it, given the limited storage space. After all, having over 2200 songs on the go with me just isn’t enough. I’m going to have to upgrade from the 32 GB model to a newer 64 GB model. Sigh.
Many first worlders with iTunes installed on their computers received an unrequested U2 album, while others among us (myself included) actually had to make the effort to download it. And some of those that received it inadvertently didn’t want it … and actually had to go through the trouble of deleting it! Oh the humanity or something.
And then there is the problem that plagues virtually every reader and writer involved with this website – too much good prog, too little time. This past year gave us another bumper crop of outstanding releases. In fact, the problem was so bad, when I look around at some of the other year-end lists here, I notice a lot of albums (and band) of which I wasn’t even aware. There are many more to which I have given a listen or two, but have not fully digested. And then there are back catalogs to go through (I’ve spend the last two years working through Gazpacho’s back catalog, now I’m starting on Ayreon’s). So as the calendar flips to 2015, once again I find myself in the hole as far as keeping up with new developments in prog. It’s tough, I tell you. (Insert tiny, sarcastic violin music here).
But never fear, first worlders – there are a number of albums I did get to this year, ones that I listend to numerous times and thoroughly loved, albums that spent time (or still do) in heavy rotation.
One of the heavy rotation albums was Cosmograf’s Capacitor. Coming of an excellent release last year, Robin Armstrongand Co. upped their game with an even better album in 2014. Heavy and brooding in parts, introspective in others, the ensemble cast that plays on this album made it some of the best music of 2014, while Armstrong provided one of the most interesting concepts. It all adds up to a great album.
Prior to this year, my score with IQ was 1-1. The first IQ album I purchased was Dark Matter, which was excellent. The second was The Seventh House … which just didn’t do it for me. Consider the score now 2-1 – or maybe even 3-1 – after Road of Bones. Russell Clarke and Dave Smith both gave us reviews that were spot on. This was a stunningly good release. And why did I up my score to 3-1? Because the bonus disc, had it been released separately, would have been an excellent album on its own. This is what you call good value – a great concept album (disc 1) and an album of great songs (disc 2). This is also what you call “not to be missed.”
Gazpacho decided 2014 would be the year they freaked out their listeners, releasing what was (by their own account) the strangest album of their career, Demon. This album had a great concept behind it. It also differed somewhat in tone and timbre from their previous albums but nevertheless still had the trademark Gazpacho sound. As Mr. Wert mentioned, it takes a little bit of work, but it’s well worth the ultimate reward.
I don’t always understand the distinction between an LP and an EP, a question that came to mind with Haken’s Restoration EP. In the days when vinyl was king, this would have been considered a full album, clocking in at over 34 minutes in length. EP or LP, this was one of my favorite releases of the year, with three excellent tracks. The best of these in my opinion is Crystallised, a bloody good epic that is one of the best long form pieces of at least the last five years. I don’t know if this is available on CD, but it’s less than $3 USD on Amazon for a digital download, so there really is no reason not to pick this up and give it a shot.
My instrumental album of the year goes to Cailyn’s Voyager. This is almost unfair, as I was predisposed to liking this just knowing the inspiration behind it. But even if you are not a space geek like me, you should give this one a listen because Cailyn delivered a great work including both her own originals as well as some reinterpretations of Holst’s work from The Planets. My own review is here if you want to read more. But seriously, you should just give this a listen.
One of my new discoveries this year was the duet from St. Petersburg, Russia, iamthemorning. Their new album Belighted was one of my favorite finds this year. I love their style of “chamber prog”, what a great niche they have carved out for themselves. And Marjana Semkins voice is beautiful, silky smooth and irresistible. Most of the music is pretty mellow, although they do make space for an excellent rocker, The Howler. I really like this act, and I’m very much looking forward to what they will do in the future.
Mariusz Duda, the creative force behind Riverside, returned this year with another chapter in his solo project, Lunatic Soul. Walking on a Flashlight Beam was a worthy release, even if it wasn’t quite as good as the first Lunatic Soul album. Just about anything Duda does these days is worth the attention given to it, and this album is no exception. The songs are very moody, as one would expect, with Gutter being one highlight, while the haunting Sky Drawn in Crayon is probably the best track on the album.
My final entry for this piece is the excellent Ode to Echo by our favorite proggers from Tennessee, Glass Hammer. This album continues a streak of exceptionally strong releases that begun in 2010 with If. There is one quibble I have with this album though, although I do not think it’s the fault of Glass Hammer proper. That quibble is the continued monopolization of Jon Davison’s time by Yes. I’m not going to be one of those guys that says “it’s not Yes without Jon Anderson”, and I do think Davison is about as good a vocalist as they could get in Anderson’s absence. Still, I feel Davison’s home should be with Glass Hammer, whose last four releases (particularly Perilous) have been better than anything Yes has done in … ages. I read a few years ago that upon discovering Davison, the core of Glass Hammer told him that he was the vocalist they had always wanted – and I can certainly understand why. And it really stuck in my craw a few years ago when, on a Cruise to the Edge that included both of his bands, Yes would not allow Davison to perform with Glass Hammer. That was a very disrespectful move, if you ask me, one lacking in grace and class. Yes, I think it’s time for you to take a break, and maybe even consider retiring, as you have nothing left to prove and you’ve had a great career. And Mr. Davison, I think it’s time for you to go home to Glass Hammer and focus your creative energies where they will be best put to use.
There were a number of other albums I heard this year by bands such as North Atlantic Oscillation, Fire Garden, Enchant, and John Basset. But given the limited time and the overwhelming volume of good prog, I just haven’t been able to give them my undivided attention as of yet.
So another year of first world problems – insufficient iPhone storage space, unwanted free albums, and more incredibly good music than I could ever listen to – has come to an end. Still, I’m going to be thankful that I don’t have it as tough as these guys:
One of my pet peeves with much space-based science fiction has to do with setting. In particular, so many sci-fi novels, short stories, TV shows, and movies of the space-based variety are set in some far off galaxies on imimaginary planets. This doesn’t necessarily make those stories bad, and in fact some are very good (for example, the best sci-fi TV series ever in this reviewer’s opinion, Babylon 5). The reason it’s a pet peeve with me is that it gives a short shrift to our own cosmic backyard, the Solar System, which is chock full of some of the most fascinating wonders imaginable (to be fair, some action of Babylon 5 does take place on Earth, Mars, and near Jupiter).
In the music world, thankfully, there has been an acknowledgement that we live in a most interesting cosmic neighborhood. Gustav Holst was the first to do this with his suite, The Planets, which premiered in 1918. Between then and now, our knowledge of our own Solar System has grown exponentially. This is in no small part due to the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes. These probes were launched in the mid-1970’s and made their way through the Solar System in the 1980’s. Thus, Cailyn has now stepped in to build on both Holst and our expanded knowledge with her musical interpretation, Voyager.
Voyager is an album of 14 tracks, most of which address various celestial bodies encountered in the 1980’s by the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes. Four of the tracks – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune – are Cailyn’s re-interpretation of Holst’s original compositions from The Planets. While these are quite good in their own right, the best tracks on the album are Cailyn’s own original compositions. Seven of these tracks are directed to various moons of the outer gas giants. The track Voyager refers to the probes themselves, while Pale Blue Dot refers to our own planet as seen from Voyager at the outer rim of the Solar System. Heliopause refers to the outer boundary of the Solar System, which both Voyager probes have now passed beyond.
All of the tracks are worthy of mention, but I’ll just mention a few here. Io has some interesting contrast, including one musically volcanic eruption that is representative of that world. Titan is a study in dynamic contrasts shrouded in mystery, much like its namesake, which includes some nylon string guitar on top of heavier rock underneath and an atmospheric ending befitting of the only moon that has an atmosphere. Miranda at times feels like it’s alternating between a rock song and a Beethoven piano concerto, and can be dark and moody. Pale Blue Dot is a mellow and reflective piano-driven piece that hits home perfectly for its subject matter – the photograph of Earth, from one of the Voyager probes, as it was leaving the Solar System. But they are all good.
Although this is primarily a review of music, the packaging of Voyager definitely deserves mention here. In particular, there are notes in the booklet for every track that provide a description of its subject matter. For the celestial bodies themselves, this includes information about the origin of their respective names and physical composition. Reading these track descriptions is a must to get their full impact. They provide food for thought that is not typical for instrumental works. Better yet, they makes this album educational, as well as an enjoyable listen.
This album is best listened to in the dark, and if you want to really get your geek on, pulling up a desktop planetarium or space simulator in an otherwise darkened room and looking at the various planets and moons as their respective tracks play is a good way to go. Or perhaps if you live in an area away from the city lights, it would be a good listen while looking through a telescope. No matter what environment you choose, this album is a very satisfying musical and cosmic voyage that should not be missed.
The Demon Part:
Most of the reviews of Gazpacho’s latest album, Demon, are already in (including Progarchy’s own reviews). Mine here … well, it’s a little late, considering the album came out in spring and we are now on solidly in autumn. Nevertheless, I am going to pat myself on the back and say I’ve made quite an improvement for timeliness for Gazpacho reviews. You see, in June of 2013, I reviewed Tick Tock on this same site. Considering that album came out in 2009, my review was approximately four years after the fact. Now, I’ve whittled my Gazpacho review time down to mere months from release – an order of magnitude improvement! Note: you are not allowed to mention that I’ve never reviewed Missa Atropos or March of Ghosts, capisce?
So, about Demon itself? Haunting is one word that can be used to describe this album. Strange is another one. This album … it’s out there. At times it gives me the creeps, the willies, and the heeby-jeebies. You know what else? It’s damn good, brimming with excellence on par with the other great albums they have released beginning with 2007’s Night.
Demon takes us on a journey through the ramblings of a disturbed individual descending into outright madness. The idea behind the album originates from the writings of an unknown apartment dweller in Prague, with the lyrics based on these ramblings. I’m not going to pretend to have any deep understanding of these lyrics; I don’t. I’ve read through them numerous times and followed them through a few listens of this album. Sure, I have my own ideas as to various possible interpretations. But I do not grok them at this point.
Musically, the album has a very experimental feel to it, or at least more so than the typical Gazpacho album. Sonically, it has a sound quite different than any of their previous works, and yet it is unmistakably Gazpacho.
The album kicks off with I’ve Been Walking. The introduction is light, with a sound effect and some soft vocals before ever so slightly picking up the pace. Throughout the track, slower, mellower, minor key parts alternate with occasional louder, wall of sound bursts. Piano, choral arrangements, mellotron, and the smooth vocals of Jan Henrik Ohme all take their turns as the feature instrument. The track closes with some melancholy solo violin which has become a trademark of Gazpacho. This track is extremely effective in setting the mood for the album as a whole.
Next up is The Wizard of Altai Mountain. This song is almost whimsical sounding in it’s first of two very distinctive parts. At about the halfway point, the music takes a noticeable change of direction, to a folky accordion that reminds me of some traditional, Eastern European music. It fills me with the urge to drink vodka – no small feat with me being much more of a whisky/beer man. My mind’s eye can picture someone dancing the kazachoc, a traditional Slavic fast dance in which the dancer squats and alternatively kicks out his legs (yes, I had to look that up).
I’ve Been Walking (Part 2) follows, with a much different mood, one of a resigned sadness. Jan-Henrik Ohme’s vocals are excellent throughout the album, but they are especially great on this track. They are particularly effective in expressing the melancholy realization that comes with shattered illusions:
There’s no Altai Mountain
No eternal chord
Lost a diamond
No El Dorado
There is no reward
In the background of this piece a remote, old 78 plays to great effect. The mood of the track shifts a little bit toward the end, maybe as to signal some acceptance that there is “no El Dorado.” It’s one of the lightest parts of the album, along with the first half of The Wizard of Altai Mountain.
The final track, Death Room, is where the strangeness of this album comes to a head. The track announces itself with subterranean rumblings and electronic buzzing before settling into three note mandolin figure which produces some unbelievable tension that is occasionally punctuated by short saws of dissonant violin. This is one of the creepiest, strangest parts of an album full of them, and I can imagine Edgar Allan Poe feeling right at home listening to this as he spun out another macabre tale. Percussion soon joins and pulls the music along, until the piano announces itself and changes the mood with a sudden subtlety that nobody can pull of like Gazpacho. From there, the music progresses through a series of different moods, all suggestive of the unknown apartment dweller losing grip on his sanity. The track and the album proper ends with some very strange percussion that suggests the grip has finally been lost.
Earlier I offered a lame explanation in an attempt to justify the tardiness of my review, considering the album’s springtime release. But let’s get to the real reason. Currently, it’s Autumn – October to be specific. And this album is absolutely made for fall listening. The name Demon conjures up images of that most famous of October celebrations, Halloween. The CD case is a fall color, not unlike one you might see on a dying leave that is going out in one last blaze of colorful glory. And the music … well, it’s hard to define, but it’s definitely fall music. Recently, on Brad’s Facebook page, I saw him shout his love for the month of October, describing it as “purgatorial twilight.” I cannot think of a better light in which to listen to this album. Not the dark, certainly not the bright light of mid-day sun. But late in a fall day, when the last gasps of sunlight collide with the spectacular fall colors that both marvel our sight but also portend the cold grayness of winter is approaching? There could not possibly be a better time to listen to Demon.
If you are one of those lucky souls that lives in an area with a noticeable change of seasons, this is the time you need to get out this album and give it another listen (or a first listen if you haven’t heard it yet). Put the CD in your car’s player, grab your iPod, whatever. Just make sure you are outside toward the end of the day in the light described above … and immerse yourself in the beautiful madness that is Demon.
The Love Story Part:
It’s a little over two years now since I heard my first Gazpacho album, Night to be specific. Since that time, I’ve worked my way forward through their catalog, listening to and owning everything right up through Demon. While I still haven’t perused any of their pre-Night catalog, I’ve definitely heard enough to have seriously fallen in love with the music of this incredible band.
Describing the music of Gazpacho to someone who has never heard it is a bit of a challenge. In my review of Tick Tock, I described them subtle and meticulous. While those adjectives certainly ring true, they only convey a small part of the story. Another time recently, while introducing someone to Gazpacho, I described them as a cross between Pink Floyd and late-era Talk Talk. That also conveys part of the story, but by no means does it in full. On another prog site I occasionally visit, I have seen them described as crossover prog … I still have no idea what that means. And I’ve seen a number of other descriptions of Gazpacho, many of which give part of the picture, but none that quite give the whole. It’s not like describing a band such as Iron Maiden as heavy metal. That description gives you a pretty good idea of what they are about, at least in a musical sense. With Gazpacho, giving a two or three word description is never going to be sufficient.
In fact, even describing them as being progressive can be problematic. Don’t get me wrong, I would classify Gazpacho unequivocally as being prog. But they are unlike any other band in the genre.
With so much of the prog to which I listened on my initial discovery in the late 1970’s – Yes, ELP, Rush, Jethro Tull – there were always virtuoso musicians setting off instrumental fireworks. Gazpacho seems to have turned this ethic completely on its head. You don’t hear long, flashy guitar or keyboard solos, the pyrotechnic drums with a beat that is both discernable and just out of reach, and so on. Much of Gazpacho’s music is built in some very simple riffs. And yet as a testament to their supreme skill and artistry, these simple riffs are combined and arranged into a much greater whole, one of dizzying complexity that gets hidden ever so slightly below a veneer of simplicity. Using a sports metaphor, much of progressive rock could be analogized to professional football or basketball – an obvious complexity accompanied with dazzling theatrics. Gazpacho on the other hand would be more like professional baseball – a simple, subtle game on the surface with a world of complexity underneath for those willing to dig deeper.
Architecturally, their songs defy any conventional structure, unfolding instead with a brilliant logic that becomes apparent by the time you’ve reached the end. It all adds up to a mixture that is challenging to grasp, but easy to love – and one that is progressive rock at it’s absolute, boundary smashing best.
It’s when I survey the current prog landscape that it really hits me, the incredible brilliance of this band. Myself and others on this site have written much about how blessed us fans are in the current age of prog. I loved how the proggers of the 1970s pushed the envelope of rock music to new artistic heights. And yet in what may be the ultimate compliment the previous generation, the best prog bands of today are showing us how their prog ancestors were only scratching the surface. Bands such as Riverside, Porcupine Tree and their leader, Steven Wilson, The Tangent, Big Big Train, and so on – all have taken prog in various directions previously unimagined. So to has Gazpacho. But more than all of these bands, Gazpacho, at least for me, is the most difficult to describe in words. And what really makes that so is this – they are simply the most unique and original sounding band in a golden age of prog that has produced many unique and original sounds. Is it any wonder I’ve fallen so in love with these guys?
(This is where you do a double take).
No, that wasn’t a misprint.
Rush lyrics (penned almost entirely by Peart from their second album onward) cover a lot of ground. Individual songs meditate on the dreariness of the suburbs, the balance between heart and mind, the individual vs. the collective, intolerance, the perils of fame, nationalism, the tensions of art vs. commerce and so forth. When you step back a bit to take a wider view, themes that stretch across a number of songs or even albums begin to emerge. Among those that emerge over the course of Rush’s output are themes of Stoicism. So let me just proclaim that Neil Peart is a Stoic and that Stoicism is a significant component in his philosophical approach to life itself.
I should probably give a brief primer on Stoicism here, and will do so with a bit of trepidation, as there are several other contributors to this site whose knowledge of this school of thought and philosophy (or any philosophy) vastly exceeds my own.
The Stoic school of thought originated with Zeno of Citium, who began teaching it in Athens around 300 B.C. It was later adopted by the Romans, including the famous three listed above. A fundamental tenet of Stoicism is to live in agreement with nature, i.e. “the way things are.” Another one is to learn to distinguish between those things which are under one’s control and those things that are not – and to not worry about the latter. A exceptionally difficult goal to attain to be sure, but one well worth striving for. Contrary to popular opinion, Stoicism does not teach the suppression of emotions, but rather that emotions are instinctive reactions to events, while our judgments of the same can either arouse or cool those emotions. Balance is key.
So how does all this tie in with Rush lyrics? Let’s take a look.
In recent days, the news has broke that it doesn’t look like rhythm guitarist Malcom Young will be returning to AC/DC due to an undisclosed illness. We wish you well, Malcom, and hope for a full and speedy recovery from whatever it is that ails you.
Now before I continue on, you are probably saying “why is there a post about AC/DC on Progarchy, of all sites?” Well, let me explain.
First of all, it’s true that AC/DC is nothing close to prog, nor are they the most artistic band in the world to put it mildly. But every yin needs its yang, and as much as I love the complexities and artistry of good prog rock, there are still times when I want to simply put the pedal to the metal, so to speak, and listen to something that is loud, simple, and just flat out rocks with no pretension of being anything else. AC/DC certainly fits the bill for that.
I’ve always thought of them as “audio testosterone.” As far as their sound, well, it hasn’t changed much over the years. To quote Malcom’s more visible brother Angus from an interview years ago:
I’m sick to death of people saying we’ve made 11 albums that sound exactly the same. In fact, we’ve made 12 albums that sound exactly the same.
Most of their songs are loud, rhythmically simple, and rely on a progression of three or four power chords or some other repetitive arpeggiated riff. There is some decent guitar soloing by Angus Young, made all the more impressive during live shows by his constant gyrations resembling something like that of an highly active four year old boy who just downed a double shot espresso from Starbucks. But mostly, it’s simple chords, simple bass, simple drums, 4/4 and all that.
Still, these self-imposed musical limitations matter not. As comedian Jim Breuer once stated, they could do the Hokey Pokey and tear it up (totally safe for work, and very funny):
How about lyrically? Well, here’s a phrase that has never, ever been uttered before in all of human history:
I’m not familiar with Greek mythology, therefore I don’t understand AC/DC lyrics.
Let’s face it, the song Hard as a Rock is not about the myth of Sisyphus. What Do You Do For Money, Honey is not a meditation on the writings of Adam Smith. And Hell Ain’t A Bad Place to Be has absolutely nothing to do with Dante’s Inferno.
And you know what? I don’t care. I love these guys anyway. If I was in my 20’s, back in college and heading for a party to blow off some steam after a hard week of studying, there are few bands whose music I would like to hear blaring from the speakers more than AC/DC.
I could go on and on trying to extol the virtues of AC/DC, but as the old saying goes, a video is worth a thousand words (it appears something was garbled in the translation). So indulge me here for a few minutes and watch this, or at least part of it. And what I want you to pay particular attention to is the crowd. After the break, I have a few more thoughts.
So let me ask you a few things about the people in the crowd? How many of them appeared to be wallowing in existential despair? How many of them were having a dark night of the soul? How many in that crowd are lamenting the injustices of life, indulging in self-pity, or stressing out about the next mortgage payment? The answer to all of those questions is a big, fat ZERO! No, what they are doing is having fun, getting their butts rocked off, and just simply living – truly living – in the moment. As the character Miles says in Risky Business, sometime you just gotta say what the … well, you know.
Getting back to the impetus for this piece, I again wish you well, Malcom. For those of you that include prayer as part of your daily lives, please send one or two his way. And to the rest of the members of AC/DC who plan to carry on and release another album later this year, what else can I say but … for those about to rock, I salute you!
Earlier today, Brad had an excellent post on Talk, the final album of the Yes-West era, as it is sometimes called. After submitting a comment on the post, I was invited to expand on it with a full post of my own. I am only too happy to oblige, so let’s go.
Talk is a difficult album to analyze, at least for me. The context for my own evaluation of this album pre-dates its release by some three years, with another big event in Yes history – the Union era. I’m not a big fan of the album itself (and prefer the Trevor Rabin-penned Lift Me Up and Miracle of Life over all other songs on that record), but I am ever thankful for the eventual tour it spawned. My first Yes concert (discussed here) was in 1979. After that there was turmoil, break-up, re-unification, more break-up, and re-re-unification. I had had two near misses with Yes concerts, one in 1984 and the other in 1988. And after Jon Anderson departed for ABWH, my thoughts were that I would not get another chance to see them live. So when I became aware of the Union Tour, I was very happy, and I was elated when their show at the then-named Walnut Creek Amphitheater in Raleigh, NC was announced. Tickets were purchased as soon as they were available, and on July 10, 1991, I finally caught up with my favorite band again. After thinking I’d never get another chance to see them, being there that night was very emotional for me. It was the best of both worlds, the classic Yes lineup and the Yes-West lineup, all in one. And it was an utterly fantastic show, the best of the six Yes concerts I’ve had the good fortune to attend.
In the wake of the Union-era, I had hoped that something more permanent would come out of it. Surely they could find some way to work together as a band, couldn’t they? With that in mind, the revelation that Talk would mark a return to just the Yes-West lineup, I was a bit disappointed. That disappointment was made more acute when I became aware of rumors that Rick Wakeman wanted to work on the album, and the band itself wanted the same. But apparently, lawyers and record companies got in the way, or so I am told. If so, a pox on their houses, as one of my unfulfilled Yes fantasies is that Rabin and Wakemen never worked on a Yes album together. It was pretty clear during the Union show I attended that they had some real chemistry together, particularly when Rabin would jaunt onto the stage during Wakeman’s keyboard solo and the two would trade licks. And Wakeman was one ex-Yes member who had great respect for what the band had accomplished with 90125.
The waiting continues to be the hardest part with respect to the release of the next Tool album. This Rolling Stone piece explains some of the reasons for the delay. There are also some tantalizing details about what might be forthcoming:
So far, the process has yielded one song that Jones describes as “pretty much done.” Carey says the yet-untitled track is at least 10 minutes, in which it “goes through lots of changes and it’s got really heavy elements.”
In fact, “heavy” is a word both band members use to describe their new sounds. “Sometimes I feel we get a little too proggy or too into exploring time signatures but not getting heavy enough for my taste,” Jones says. “There are some good nose-bleeding riffs happening, and I’m really happy about that. It’s not out-of-the-gate crazy heavy, but there are these little journeys with nice paths that end up very heavy.”
“It’s all a little more ‘metal’ sounding, if I may,” Carey says with a laugh. “I’m having fun drumming on it. There is one other song [beyond the 10-minute tune] that I would say is pretty much there. It’s another one that’s pretty gnarly with some good double-kick [drumming] going on in it.”
Ok, so I’m sitting at work today just minding my own business and getting things done when an email comes in from WordPress. It asks me to approve a couple of pingbacks to a piece I had written about the incredible Rush album, Moving Pictures. Well, the next thing you know, I’m seeing several posts about Rush’s top 10 albums, as well as a few regarding top prog albums or top long-form prog pieces. So now, instead of working, I’m spending at least an hour reading Progarchy posts instead of working. You guys are destroyers of discipline!!!
Although I’m usually not one for lists that require ranking, the invitation to rank the top 10 Rush albums has proven to be irresistible to me. So, without further ado, here we go:
1) Moving Pictures: I’ve written extensively about this one, so I’ll just add the link here.
2) Grace Under Pressure: When this album came out, I was a few months shy of 20 years old, and in the Navy. At the time, I was stationed in Newport News, VA, as the submarine upon which I would serve, the USS Olympia, SSN 717 (Este Paratus) was under construction in the docks at Newport News Shipbuilding. While an attack submarine and not a ballistic missile sub, the Olympia would be configured to carry Tomahawk land attack missiles with nuclear warheads. The Cold War was heating up, and our main adversaries, the Soviet Union, had three submarines for every one of ours. And my job, as a sonar technician, was going to be to find theirs before they found us. In short, there was a certain “heaviness” in my life at the time. That made the timing of this album absolutely perfect. Lyrically, this is the heaviest album Rush has ever done. The pressures of life, both great and small, weave their way through this album. Indeed, like many of my shipmates, I felt like “the world weighs on my shoulders” at that time. This album resonated. It also has some outstanding music on it, and like Moving Pictures, it has an almost perfect balance between guitars and keyboards.
3) 2112: The theme of resonating continues here. There are a number Rush albums other than those listed that I like better than this from a musical perspective. But this one resonates on a different level and thus gets a high ranking on this list. As I recounted here, around the same time I first heard this album, I had numerous conversations with my maternal grandmother, who along with the rest my mother’s immediate family, was a refugee from what was then communist East Germany. The individual vs. the state, freedom vs. tyranny, individualism vs. collectivism – all those themes of the conversations with my grandmother were echoed in the lyrics of the title suite. This was the first time I had really contemplated lyrics that were about larger things in the world. And because of this, I always paid more attention to Rush lyrics than I would with other bands, always looking for deeper meaning and larger truths. This carried over to side 2 of the album, as the messages contained within Lessons and Something for Nothing led me to realize that while I was fortunate enough to have been born in a relatively free country, it was my own responsibility to make the most, and best, of that freedom.
4) Clockwork Angels: I am simply gobsmacked that a band that has been around as long as Rush can be this creative this late in their career. My first true prog love, Yes, was a great band for a while, but they haven’t been creatively great in decades, instead mostly living off of past glories (although what incredible glories they were). Rush on the other hand, despite having some incredibly glorious moments in their own musical past, has never rested on them. Instead, they pushed themselves forward and continued to create great music, and really hit a home run here. I love the lyrics in this album, which open themselves to a number of interpretations. Whereas Brad has found themes of small-r republican liberty and individualism within them, I have found a lot of Stoic wisdom weaving its way through Neil’s words, particularly in the latter half of the album as the protagonist starts to have one epiphany after another. I have little doubt that Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius would readily understand messages contained within The Garden. Throw in some great guitar work, the excellent bass work, and the always stellar drums, and you’ve got a recipe for greatness, age of the cooks be damned.
5) Power Windows: Controversial to some because of the keyboards, but not to these ears. This is a great collection of songs. With all of the malfeasance in the financial markets and corruption of the political system, The Big Money seems even more relevant today than when it was released. Middletown Dreams is a great meditation on the quiet desperation of some ordinary lives. I loved Marathon when this album was first released and the wisdom contained in the lyrics has only become more evident as I have piled on the years. And Grand Designs is a great critique of lowest common denominator pop culture and the struggle to maintain integrity within. There is some great playing on this album, such as Geddy Lee’s bass during Marathon and some blistering guitar work by Alex Lifeson on The Big Money. This album has definitely earned its place in the top 5.
6) Hemispheres: This is the most overtly prog album Rush ever did, at least in the 70’s sense of the word. The title suite that encompasses the side 1 of the original LP was a thing of beauty, with excellence in all phases: guitar, bass, drums, and lyrics. In the overarching theme of Hemispheres, Peart provides more wisdom to latch onto and live by. The Trees is a great metaphor for the perils of enforced equality. And La Villa Strangiato is one of the most fascinatingly complex instrumentals ever done by any rock band.
7) Permanent Waves: Like Moving Pictures, this is a transitional album, as the transition of Rush from the 70’s to the 80’s really took two steps. The first step was here, as they pared down some of the excess of the previous three albums. The most well-known song is, of course, The Spirit of Radio, about the tension between art and commerce and maintaining one’s integrity through the same. Several other great tracks are here too. The thunderstorm imagery invoked by Jacob’s Ladder is a thing of lyrical beauty, while Free Will, Different Strings, and Entre Nous are all excellent in their own right. But it is the mini-epic Natural Science that really puts this album over the top for me. I was finally able to witness the performance of this song live on the Snakes and Arrows tour, and it was one of those moments I will never forget.
8) Vapor Trails: This album just screams TRIUMPH!!! After the well-documented tragedies, travels, and searching for answers, Rush returned from a near death of their own with a spectacular album. One Little Victory taught us to take joy in even the smallest victories, while the title song reminds us of our transitory nature. Ghost Rider takes us on the road with Neil, while Secret Touch implores us to have the fortitude to endure. The underrated gem and favorite track for me on this album is Earthshine, with it’s amazement at nature’s beauty. This is a statement album by Rush, and that statement was, emphatically, “we are BACK!”
9) A Farewell to Kings: The title track, Cinderella Man, Cygnus X-1 and Madrigal are all excellent tracks in their own right. But the two tracks that really make this albums are the anthem Closer to the Heart and the epic Xanadu. These became two of my favorite Rush tracks upon initially hearing them and they remain so to this day. That being said, the one downside of this album for me is the production, which was a bit harsh and dry. Particularly with Xanadu, I’ve always preferred the live version from Exit Stage Left over the studio version.
10) Signals: This is a difficult album for some, mainly due to the fact that it is probably the most keyboard dominated Rush album, and thus Lifeson’s guitar often gets lost in the mix. That’s still not enough to knock it out of my top 10, as the songs are still just too good. Subdivisions is another Rush anthem, one full of great insights and even more wisdom. For guitar excellence, The Analog Kid and New World Man are two tracks where it didn’t get lost in the mix. And while few others would mention it, the heart of my inner space geek is warmed to no end by Countdown, which ultimately celebrates humanity’s ability to create and do great things.
Looking at the other lists of best Rush albums here, it’s evident that each of us differs somewhat from one another in our preferences. And I myself will agonize over some of the albums left off the list. I’ve listed ten albums above which I consider to be truly great albums, and I’ve had to wonder if I should have had others on the list. But how many bands ever release ten great albums? Neither The Beatles, nor prog-gods Yes, nor 70’s icons Led Zeppelin can claim to have ten great albums in their catalog (Zeppelin didn’t even get ten studio albums total, unless you count the posthumous Coda). In comparison, some of the albums that didn’t make my list (or that of others) are truly great albums. And therein lies yet another testament to the true greatness, the unparalleled excellence that is Rush.