Author Archives: Thaddeus Wert

The Neal Morse Band – Alive Again and On Tour

Alive Again

Last Night in Nashville, TN, The Neal Morse Band kicked off their tour in support of their new album, The Grand Experiment. Performing in the intimate confines of Rocketown to a very enthusiastic audience, Neal and his cohorts tore through an energetic set that lasted more than 2 hours and included some surprises in the set list.

They got things started with the a cappella opening to “The Call”, with every band member nailing his vocal part perfectly. Eric Gillette, a veteran from the Momentum tour, is on lead guitar, while Bill Hubauer (another Momentum vet) plays keyboards, clarinet, and sax. Of course, no Morse band would be complete without longtime collaborators Randy George on bass and Mike Portnoy on drums. I brought a friend with me to the show, and he was blown away by Mike’s performance, saying, “I haven’t seen anyone play drums like that since Keith Moon!” Eric was incredible throughout the show, singing occasional lead vocals and playing some absolutely shredding guitar. Bill’s instrumental and vocal versatility give the band almost two musicians in one person, and Randy George holds it all together with his fluid bass runs. As Neal proclaimed at one point, “Randy with the bass pedal solo – how prog is that!”

The band played every song from The Grand Experiment except (surprisingly) “Agenda”. Highlights included Neal playing a beautiful instrumental on acoustic guitar that led into “Waterfall”, as well as the Kings-X-sounding title track. They also played “Into the Fire” from ?, “The Creation” from One, and they got a roar of approval when the intro to “In Harm’s Way” (from Neal’s Spock’s Beard days!) boomed out.

This being the first gig of the tour, there were some inevitable glitches, but Neal took them in stride – even stopping “The Grand Experiment” to restart a tricky vocal section. The audience loved it, and once they were back on track, they never looked back.

There are few performers who can connect with their audience the way Neal does – conducting them during singalongs, raising his arms in appreciation, and even jumping off the stage to sing and play among them. He and the entire band gave all they had, every minute. As my friend exclaimed to me in the middle of a song, “It sure is nice to see a band just having a great time playing together!”

Neal asked if we could handle “one more epic” (of course we could), and then launched into “Alive Again”. Neal has written many, many epics, and this one is near the top. It rocks, it soars, it ebbs, and just when you think it’s over, it comes roaring back for an incredible finale.

As far as the encores, I won’t be a spoiler. Suffice it to say that there are some really fun surprises, both in terms of performance and song selection!

It’s been said (I have no idea if it’s true) that Keith Richards was once asked what it was like to be the world’s greatest rock and roll band. He replied that on any given night, there was a band playing in a club, somewhere, and for that night they were the world’s greatest rock and roll band. Last night, Rocketown hosted the world’s greatest.

You can get details of the rest of the Alive Again Tour at Radiant Records. Don’t miss this one.

Update: I mentioned above that “Alive Again” is one of Neal’s best epics. Actually, all of the songs on The Grand Experiment are a group effort, and Neal, Mike, Randy, Eric, and Bill all deserve credit for them.

 

PJMedia’s “Best 6 Rush Albums”

In honor of Rush’s upcoming R40 tour, PJMedia’s J. Christian Adams ranks their top 6 albums. The list may surprise you!

Here’s an excerpt:

Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart have been producing music since they they first took the stage together at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena in August 1974. Peart was the new guy in the band then, but has since become its voice, penning lyrics that made hipster critics cringe – touching on, in chronological order – Tolkien, male baldness, the Solar Federation, starship Rocinante, forced equality of outcome, FM rock, automobile bans, Space Shuttle Columbia, concentration camps (Lee’s parents survived Auschwitz), Enola Gay, China, clever anagrams, chance, AIDS, the internet, expectations shattered by 9-11, more expectations shattered and finally, carnies.  It’s hard to find a list of rock’s greatest drummers that doesn’t include Neil Peart.

Over the decades, hipster critics praised acts like Elvis Costello, Tom Waits and the Talking Heads while they mocked Rush. But 40 years later, Rush fills arenas and tops album charts, forever reinventing a sound that defies categorization. It’s just Rush.

You can read the whole thing here.

I’m Making a List….

It’s never too early to start making a wish list for next Christmas, and this is one item that will be on mine. :)
lunchbox

Is 2014 Over Already?

Time flies when you’re having fun listening to great music! 2014 brought in a bumper crop of excellent music in general, and prog in particular. Here are my favorites of the year:

Robert-Plant-lullaby-and-The-Ceaseless-Roar_638

10. Robert Plant: Lullaby And …The Ceaseless Roar

Mr. Plant returns to his folk roots of Britain, and delivers a thoroughly enjoyable set of songs. A couple rock out, but this is mostly an acoustic tour de force that transcends any musical trends of the day.

WOAFB-cover

  1. Lunatic Soul: Walking On A Flashlight Beam

This album didn’t garner the rave reviews of his first two, but I still think anything Mariusz Duda produces is far better than 90% of anything else out there. “Treehouse” may be my favorite song he’s ever recorded.

So much greater than a muppet.

  1. John Bassett: Unearth

This album opened my eyes to entirely different side of Mr. Bassett’s talent, and I love it. I hope he does more music in this vein – thoughtful, melodic, acoustic pearls.

Disconnect-cover

  1. John Wesley: Disconnect

Mr. Wesley has been Porcupine Tree’s secret weapon when they play live, and on the side he has been quietly making extraordinary music of his own. Disconnect is his best ever, and it features the inimitable Alex Lifeson on “Once A Warrior”.

Demon-300x300

  1. Gazpacho: Demon

It took me awhile to get into this album, but it was definitely worth the effort. It is a beautiful package, from the artwork and lyrics to the music itself. The subject matter is very dark, but listening to the entire album is a cathartic experience. It also has Jan-Henrik Ohme’s strongest vocals to date.

nao cover THE THIRD DAY

  1. North Atlantic Oscillation: The Third Day

Their third album, and the third one to make one of my best-of-the-year lists. Soaring vocals, gorgeous string arrangements, a wall of sound that is indescribably exhilarating. If Brian Wilson produced Catherine Wheel, it might sound as good as this.

Stunning album cover.  A progged-out version of Dolby's GOLDEN AGE OF WIRELESS.  Brilliant.

  1. Cosmograf: Capacitor

A marvelous steampunk trip through metaphysical dimensions. Robin Armstrong’s imagination knows no bounds, and his musical talent matches it.

Second Nature

  1. Flying Colors: Second Nature

Wow. No “sophomore slump” for this band. One of the many Neal Morse/Mike Portnoy projects that are active these days, Second Nature is an outlet for the more melodic side of their talents. Throw in the genius guitar work of Steve Morse, and this is an irresistible set of songs.

Restorations_by_Haken

  1. Haken: Restoration

Their Mountain album was my favorite of last year, and the only reason this isn’t number one is because it’s only 34 minutes long. I admit it – I’m greedy for more Haken music!

transatlantic-kaleidoscope-box-set-cddvd-deluxe-edition-11801-MLB20049782288_022014-O

  1. Transatlantic: Kaleidoscope

With Kaleidoscope, Stolt, Morse, Portnoy, Trewavas finally become a real group. On earlier works, you could tell which bits were Neal’s, which were Roine’s, etc. Every song on Kaleidoscope is stamped with Transatlantic’s distinctive sound, and it is a glorious one.

Math-Inspired Prog!

I recently discovered this song by Alan Stewart that the good people at Numberphile posted. It’s a prog tune based on the digits of pi and tau. Now, before you turn up your nose at the thought of combining random digits with music, give it a listen. It’s quite good and packed with mathematical puns. For example, the camera makes a complete circle as the tune unfolds.

 

Reflections on Transatlantic’s “KaLIVEascope”

TA4liveA kaleidoscope takes a mishmash of glass bits, pieces of plastic and paper, and combines them into symmetric images. Random elements are jumbled together and reflected into scenes of beautiful harmony and balance. Just like the kaleidoscope’s mirrors create beauty from seemingly incompatible pieces of broken glass, Transatlantic takes four exceedingly talented and strong personalities and combines them in ways that generate some of the most beautiful and powerful music today.

Transatlantic has just released a mammoth live set from their European tour in support of their recent album, Kaleidoscope, and it’s a scorcher. There are several different editions, and the smallest consists of 3 CDs/1 DVD (which is a steal at 23 USD). The CDs document their more than 3-hour-long show at Tilburg, The Netherlands, while the DVD covers their Cologne, Germany concert. The Tilburg show is really something special – Transatlantic and Neal Morse (as a solo artist) have performed there many times, and an obvious bond exists between the band and the audience. The DVD is very nice, because throughout the concert here is a huge screen behind the band with continually evolving kaleidoscopic/fractal patterns that enhance the viewing experience.

Transatlantic have grown tremendously as a group. For the uninitiated, it is a “super-group”, with members coming from some of the most successful prog acts ever: Neal Morse (Spock’s Beard, Flying Colors, solo), Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater, Winery Dogs, Adrenaline Mob, Flying Colors, etc., etc.), Roine Stolt (The Flower Kings), and Pete Trewavas (Marillion). Their first couple of albums, SMPTe and Bridge Across Forever were great, but one got the sense that the various members brought their own songs to the projects, and not a lot of collaboration happened. The musical interaction on their third album, The Whirlwind, was excellent, but the music had a sense of familiarity that was getting worrisome.

Fortunately, on Kaleidoscope, Transatlantic have truly come into their own as a group. It’s hard to tell where one member’s influence ends and another’s begins; they have established their own unique sound, and when all the parts lock together and take off, there isn’t another band that can touch them. The DVD documenting the making of Kaleidoscope confirms the collaborative nature of the songs – I had assumed that Neal Morse was the primary creative force, but surprisingly, Mike Portnoy comes across as the main driver of the composing and arranging.

For KaLIVEascope, the boys are supported by multi-instrumentalist Ted Leonard, which frees up Roine to concentrate on his gorgeous lead guitar lines. Mike Portnoy has to be the hardest-working drummer in show business – he is indefatigable through hours and hours of incredibly complex and lengthy songs. Neal Morse is the primary lead vocalist, and in both the Tilburg and Cologne shows he again demonstrates his uncanny ability to reach out and connect with the audience. Finally, both the CD and DVD mixes give bassist Pete Trewavas the prominence he deserves. I’m a sucker for energetic and melodic basslines, and Pete does not disappoint.

Both shows open with “Into the Blue”, off Kaleidoscope. Then comes “My New World” from their debut. Their performance of this song is a revelation, as Roine sounds like a fire’s been lit under him. It’s now one of my favorite songs from their extensive catalog. “Shine” follows, which is one of their most straightforward “pop” songs. There’s a 30 – minute “Whirlwind” medley, then Neal sings a brief “Beyond The Sun” alone. They immediately segue into the epic “Kaleidoscope” which is performed exceptionally well on the Cologne DVD. A highlight is a jazzy section where Neal and Roine bring to mind the classic live work of Jan Hammer and Jeff Beck.

At this point, most bands would call it a night and leave the stage utterly spent, but there’s much more music in store. Neal and Roine perform a beautiful duet on acoustic and electric guitars. Next is the perennial crowd singalong, “We All Need Some Light”, and then the show proper concludes with an electrifying performance of “Black As The Sky”. I’ve seen all of Transatalantic’s live DVDs, and on this song they are at the absolute top of their game. (Video is below)

For encores, the Tilburg and Cologne setlists diverge: Tilburg includes “Nights in White Satin”, and Focus’ “Sylvia/Hocus Pocus”, featuring Thys van Leer himself(!). The evening finally concludes with a rousing medley of “All Of The Above/Stranger In Your Soul”. The Cologne show skips the covers, and goes straight to the medley.

Transatlantic is not a super-group; they are a cohesive unit. They are far greater than the sum of their parts, and it shows in these performances. Even earlier material sounds new; they’ve achieved that mysterious ability of gifted musicians to anticipate each others’ next move, and push themselves to higher and higher levels.

 

New Music Video from Days Between Stations

Here’s the official video for their wonderful song, “The Man Who Died Two Times”, featuring the irrepressible Colin Moulding (of XTC fame). It’s from their outstanding 2013 album, In Extremis. You have to love a band that don’t take themselves too seriously!

 

The Siren Songs of Se Delan

Se Delan Cover There are music labels, and there are music labels. By which I mean: occasionally a label appears that maintains such a high quality roster of artists, and its production is so consistently excellent, that discerning listeners will buy anything that label releases. 4AD (home of Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, Lush, and This Mortal Coil, among others) was such a label for many music fans in the ’80s and ’90s. ZTT was another, with its over-the-top Trevor Horn productions, and copious and entertaining liner notes that more often than not baffled rather than illuminated the reader.

In this decade, KScope has become the go-to label for fans of edgy and intelligent music. One of my first posts (back in 2012) on Progarchy was a brief overview of KScope’s roster of “post-progressive” artists. Since then, they have expanded their offerings to include many new artists, and the latest star in their constellation is Se Delan (pronounced “say deh-LAN”, it’s Old English for “the deep”.). Consisting of multi-instrumentalist Justin Greaves (Crippled Black Phoenix) and singer Belinda Kordic (Killing Mood), their début album, The Fall, is a seductive, languorous gem that sneaks up on you and draws you into its dark beauty before you’re even aware of it.

Kordic’s breathy vocals bring to mind early Lush, while Greave’s acoustic-based compositions sound relatively simple until you allow yourself to be carried away by the multilayered deep grooves he develops. The songs feature slow yet insistent beats, punctuated by spaced-out bursts of bluesy guitar (i.e. the outstanding track, “Dirge”). If Twin Peaks were airing today, this album would be the perfect soundtrack.

Kordic’s lyrics imbue the music with a sense of  the surreal, while expressing a resigned longing:

Tonight, as you sleep

Time to let go

of those haunted thoughts

that keep you so damned low.

Dream…Tonight….Dream…

from “Tonight”

The only misstep is “The Hunt” – a dissonant track that doesn’t really fit the mood of the rest of the album. However, the closing song, “Lost Never Found” has an absolutely heartbreaking and spare beauty to it. Beginning with an unaccompanied piano, Kordic eventually sings a few lines while a violin softly enters. Drums, bass, and guitars join in and bring the song to a stirring conclusion. Fans of Nosound will love it.

With The Fall, Se Delan have delivered a very impressive début. The first listen intrigues, the second pleases, the third leaves you somewhat discomfited and wanting more. Here’s hoping this is not a one-time collaboration.

 

Rush’s Finest Album? (Hold Your Fire until you’ve read my analysis!)

The boys were most stylish in 1987.

The boys were most stylish in 1987.

The first Rush album I bought was A Farewell To Kings – it was a cutout*, and I had heard they were a pretty good progressive rock trio. Geddy’s vocals turned me off initially, but Neil’s lyrics were very intriguing. The next album I acquired was Permanent Waves, because “Spirit of Radio” was all over the radio, and Geddy’s voice had mellowed a bit. That album remained in permanent rotation on my dorm room’s turntable for months, and I still listen to it often. Moving Pictures upped the ante even more, and Rush were becoming one of my all-time favorite bands. However, to my ears Signals was a letdown – the pervasive whoosh of synthesizers seemed to overwhelm Alex’s guitars, and the melodies weren’t as memorable as those in Moving Pictures. So I skipped Grace Under Pressure, convinced that Rush’s best days were behind them in the Permanent Waves/ Moving Pictures era. (In case you’re inclined to quit reading, in disgust at my ignorance of the greatness of Grace Under Pressure, I did eventually get it!)

In the mid-‘80s, I worked in record store, and we prided ourselves on listening to the cutting edge of everything new wave and postpunk: Cocteau Twins, The The, Simple Minds, The Smiths, R.E.M., The Cure, Talk Talk, etc. One day, our import buyer (who was the hippest employee in the store) was very excited, because it was the release date for Rush’s new album, Power Windows. I was surprised, to say the least, because Rush was not cool, like a 4AD band automatically was. But when he put it on the store’s sound system, and those glorious “Big Money” power chords poured out of the speakers, I was hooked. Rush was back! I played the cassette in my car constantly, and when the compact disc came out, I immediately got a copy. Power Windows was the first and only album of which I owned the cassette, the Lp, and the CD.

Which is my long-winded way of setting the stage for when I first encountered Hold Your Fire. The day before the official release date, I unpacked the box in which our store’s copies were packed, and gazed in admiration at the cover:

rush-holdyo_07 This was something unprecedented in Rush album cover art – instead of a meticulously detailed Hugh Syme painting containing visual puns, there were just three red spheres suspended over a red background. The obvious conclusion was that Alex, Geddy, and Neil were now reduced to the simplest, most perfect solid in geometry – polished and ready to bounce off of each other like billiard balls. Visually, at least, Hold Your Fire was sleek and minimalist. Peter Collins, who produced Power Windows, was back in the saddle, which boded well. I couldn’t wait to hear the music.

 

Inside the booklet, there was a spread that was more like what Rush fans expected: a man juggled three flaming balls (hold your fire, indeed), the building behind him vaguely resembled the façade in the Moving Pictures cover, in one of the windows you could make out the three vintage television sets from Power Windows, on the sidewalk stood the red fire hydrant from Signals, and the Chinese restaurant’s clock read 21:12 in military time (it turns out the restaurant’s sign reads Tai Shan, as well).

holdyourfire-1-s The first track, “Force Ten”, opens with a bone-rattling jackhammer and sampled choir, quickly followed by a straight-ahead drumbeat while the bassline leaps and bounds. Alex’s guitar is punk-like in its simplistic riffing – this is one of the most aggressive songs Rush has written up to this point in their career. Which makes the second track such a surprise. “Time Stand Still” features Aimee Mann, leader of the pop group ‘Til Tuesday, on vocals. Aimee Mann?? Once the shock of hearing someone besides Geddy sing on a Rush song, it’s clear this is actually a nicely constructed, interesting tune. Alex’s arpeggiated, brittle guitar sound is great in this context, and “Time Stand Still” stands the test of time as one of Rush’s most radio-friendly tunes. Neil’s wistful lyrics are very touching:

“Summer’s going fast- Nights growing colder Children growing up- Old friends growing older Experience slips away…”

“Open Secrets” is a bass/synthesizer dominated song with Alex providing some tasteful guitar filigrees as Geddy sings about how true communication is difficult between two people, due to their reluctance to be open and honest. As a matter of fact, the entire album’s theme is one of restraint. Where Power Windows was about power and the use of it, Hold Your Fire is about controlling that power – exercising restraint, in other words.

“Second Nature” begins with a nice keyboard riff, and slowly builds in intensity. Neil’s drums are excellent on this track, as he lends a touch of exotic rhythm to it. The song has a laconic pace to it, with lots of swirling synthesizer washes throughout.

Things definitely pick up in “Prime Mover”, which features some of Geddy’s finest bass work ever. In the same way New Order’s bassist Peter Hook often plays lead, Geddy carries this tune while Neil and Alex play over, under, and around him. This one of the strongest tracks on the album, and it benefits from a nice balance of keyboards vs. guitar/bass/drums.

“Lock and Key” was the first single off the album, and it’s a very good track. [Update: a Progarchy reader has informed me that “Force Ten” is actually the first single off of HYF. Thanks, Will!] Alex gets to rock out with some fat power chords and a fine solo, while Neil really shines on drums. This track will give your subwoofer a workout! The lyrics deal with how everyone keeps their “real” feelings under lock and key, in order to maintain civility:

“We don’t want to be victims On that we all agree So we lock up the killer instinct And throw away the key”

“Mission” contains the album title: “Hold your fire/Keep it burning bright/Hold the flame/’Til the flame ignites/A spirit with a vision/Is a dream with a mission.” Not one of my favorite tracks, but it is still an enjoyable listen.

“Turn the Page” is a whole ‘nother matter, though! This song is one of the best Alex, Geddy, and Neil have ever recorded. An unaccompanied bass riff starts things off, until Alex enters with some slashing guitar, and Neil lays down a rapid pulse. When the chorus begins, there is an atmosphere of time being suspended as Neil hits every other beat, then suddenly kicks it into overdrive with his patented bass pedal and cross-rhythmic work. After Alex’s solo, a stomach-churning bass synth explodes (at the 3:43 mark), and there is a mad dash to the end.

“Tai Shan” is an oddity – it has a too-obvious Asian influence musically, and the lyrics concern a fabled mountain in China where supposedly you are granted long life if you reach the top and raise your arms. It doesn’t exactly fit the tone of the rest of the album, though.

“High Water” closes things out on a relatively subdued note. A fitting conclusion to an album full of dynamic contrasts. By 1987, compact discs had become popular enough that Geddy, Alex, and Neil no longer felt constrained by vinyl’s time limitations. Hence, Hold Your Fire clocks in at a generous 50:30 minutes. It was followed by their third live album, A Show Of Hands. The DVD of that album is available as part of the Replay set, and it is an excellent summary of Rush’s “Synthesizer Period”. The Hold Your Fire tour was the first time I saw Rush live, so it holds a special place in my journey with Rush.RushTicket After A Show Of Hands, Rush left their longtime label, Mercury, and signed to Atlantic. They eventually scaled back the keyboards, and returned to a more guitar-based sound. Hold Your Fire was the culmination of elements they had been developing since Signals, and they wisely stepped back from going down a synth-heavy pop/rock path.

Do I believe Hold Your Fire to be Rush’s finest album? No, I give that honor to Permanent Waves. However, I don’t think Hold Your Fire has ever gotten the respect it deserves. Rush plays relatively few songs from it on their tours, and it peaked at #13 on the charts when it was released. If listened to in conjunction with Power Windows, it completes what that album began. Enough time has passed to listen to it with fresh ears, and we can appreciate it for what it is: a successful attempt to craft a radio-friendly album filled with accessible songs. Sometimes you just have to have some fun!

* For our younger readers, a cutout was an Lp that the label deeply discounted because the title was overstocked. The label would cut a notch in the cover, and stores would sell it for 70% – 80% off the retail price.

“Turn The Page”, from A Show Of Hands:

 

[Ed. note–Tad’s is the first in a series of posts celebrating the fortieth anniversary of our beloved Rush]

 

For more from Progarchy on Rush

The first Rush album reviewed by Craig Breaden

http://progarchy.com/2014/02/22/rushs-first/

A review of A Farewell to Kings by Kevin McCormick

http://progarchy.com/2013/01/21/rush-a-farewell-to-hemispheres-part-i/

A review of Power Windows by Brad Birzer

http://progarchy.com/2013/12/14/power-windows-rush-and-excellence-against-conformity/

Kevin Williams on Clockwork Angels Tour

http://progarchy.com/2013/11/24/rushs-clockwork-angels-tour-straddles-the-80s-and-the-now/

Brad Birzer on Clockwork Angels Tour

http://progarchy.com/2013/11/27/rush-2-0-clockwork-angels-tour-2013-review/

Erik Heter on Clockwork Angels Tour Concert in Texas

http://progarchy.com/2013/04/24/you-can-do-a-lot-in-a-lifetime-if-you-dont-burn-out-too-fast-rush-april-23-2013-at-the-frank-erwin-center-austin-texas/

A review of Vapor Trails Remixed by Birzer

http://progarchy.com/2013/10/05/resignated-joy-rush-and-vapor-trails-2013/

A review of Grace Under Pressure by Birzer

http://progarchy.com/2013/02/21/wind-blown-notes-rush-and-grace-under-pressure/

Another John Wesley Post (with Free Music!)

John-Wesley-banner

In an earlier post on Progarchy, I raved about John Wesley’s latest album, Disconnect (released today in the U.S., yesterday everywhere else).

Mr. Wesley is very generous with his music; you can download for free mp3 versions of  his previous albums. They are available here, or simply click on the banner above.

Enjoy!

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