Author Archives: Thaddeus Wert

Glass Hammer Nails Down a Masterpiece

The cover art is as gorgeous as the music.  Now, THIS is a real album cover.

In a recent post, I (belatedly) sang the praises of Glass Hammer’s Ode To Echo. As good as that album is, their latest release, The Breaking Of The World, is even better. Every detail demonstrates this group’s striving for excellence: the beautiful cover reminiscent of Albrecht Durer, the individual photos of the band members, the layout of the lyrics in the booklet, the lyrics themselves, the MUSIC. Glass Hammer exemplifies the definition of arête more than any artist currently active.

From the opening blast of Mythopoeia to the closing bars of Nothing, Everything, there is not a wasted note. The creative fire that gave birth to Ode To Echo has not abated one bit, and one can only hope they continue on this extraordinary run of inspiration.

Highlights? There are too many to list them all, but Mythopoeia is the track I keep returning to. A tribute to J. R. R. Tolkien, it is a paean to divine inspiration that matches its ambition. Veering from some of the hardest rock they’ve ever done to marvelous acoustic sections, this is eight and half minutes of sheer bliss. And how about a shout-out to guitarist Kamran Alan Shikoh! He is masterful on both electric and acoustic instruments.

I also have to mention the incredible work of Steve Babb. Very few bassists can take the lead in a melody while continuing to provide the rock-solid foundation necessary to propel a band. Babb makes it look easy; he is one of the most inventive bassists I’ve ever heard.

Finally, we must recognize the enormous contribution Carl Groves makes. In my opinion, he is the best male vocalist Glass Hammer has ever had, and his lyrics are delightful. Bandwagon skewers the hypocrisy of our age of social media:

“We care!” Isn’t that what you said from your ocean-front home?

I know it’s got to make you feel so much nicer.

Groves’ clever use of paradox in Nothing, Everything would make G. K. Chesterton proud.  In a lament on the brevity of human life and humanity’s short memory, he sings,

We are nothing

A small imperfection on the flip side of a grain of salt

We are everything

The light that unthreads all our webs of doubt

It’s been said that Glass Hammer is heavily influenced by the sound of classic Yes. They are light-years beyond being influenced by any group’s sound. They have forged their own unique sound, and it is brimming with unquenchable confidence. May they never abandon their quest for perfection.

Glass Hammer: Philosopher Kings of Prog

I’m relatively new to Glass Hammer’s music; 2012’s Perilous was the first album I heard. It’s a fine album, but it didn’t knock my socks off. So I wasn’t prepared to give their 2014 release, Ode To Echo, more than a cursory listen. Big mistake!

The release this week of Glass Hammer’s The Breaking Of The World led me to go back and give Ode To Echo another spin. Am I glad I did – in the words of our beloved editor-in-chief, “Holy Schnikees!” Ode is a shining example of how prog can be both sophisticated and fun. Even though Brad Birzer has already published an excellent review of it, I wanted to put my two cents in.

glass hammer ode to echo

Maybe it’s lead vocalist Carl Groves’ presence, but there’s real power in both the lyrics and the playing on this album. For example, take the first song, Garden of Hedon, which begins with a description of what sounds like Eden, but gradually introduces some disquieting details:

Sensory – the flies a constant choir for your ears

(In Hedon even bugs we hold dear!)

Taste, touch, see – the sky a vivid uncensored screen

Showing everyone’s deepest dreams

Sensory – as always there’s the fruit of the tree

No restrictions, everything’s free

Taste, touch, see – the Garden offers you everything

In Hedon you can always be king.

Sure, you could say this song is another warning against the temptations of the hedonistic side of the internet, along the lines of Fear Of A Blank Planet. But where Steven Wilson keeps his concerns on a relatively mundane level (the internet anesthetizes its users), Glass Hammer takes it to a whole new one:

When the end comes will we stand tall

Without any shame when we hear our name?

Misantrog is a wonderful musical offering of Trick of the Tail-era prog which paints a sympathetic portrait of a man in a hell of self-imposed isolation:

Leave me safe to be

In a place where there’s no need to see

Where the shadows are so real

And the coldness that I feel reminds me I’m alive.

Crowbone is an understated masterpiece which uses a few lines by Robert Low to impart the desperate nihilism of Viking raiders on a “black-glass sea”. They are mere “feathers on the breath of gods”, while the music progresses from a gorgeous acoustic backing to roaring, full-throated rock.

The centerpiece of Ode is I Am I , which features a dialogue between Echo and Narcissus. Echo tries to reach Narcissus, but he is too self-absorbed to even be aware of her. Susie Bogdanowicz’s vocals as Echo are flawless.

Lest the listener get a little down in the midst of all this hedonism, loneliness, and narcissism, the band resurrects the classic Monkees hit, Porpoise Song. A delightful slice of ’60s psychedelia, Glass Hammer outdo themselves in recreating that first era of prog. Their version is now the definitive one.

I could on and on; there isn’t a single weak track on Ode. It is an album of remarkable depth, both musically and lyrically. It is also a modern-day Book of Ecclesiastes – life is short, so don’t waste it in vain pursuits. It doesn’t hurt that this sobering theme is delivered with such extraordinarily good melodies.

A review of The Breaking Of The World is forthcoming, but I wanted to give Ode To Echo the praise it is due. 2014 was such a bountiful year for prog, I almost missed this one. Don’t make my mistake!

 

Sound Opinions Interviews Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason

nickmason_web

Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot of Sound Opinions have an excellent interview with Nick Mason, the only member of Pink Floyd to play in every incarnation of that classic group. You can listen to it here.

Swinging On the Porcupine Tree

Harrison -Polygraph

Well, this is certainly a surprise! Gavin Harrison, drummer par excellence of Porcupine Tree, has recorded an album of reworked PT songs, and it is not what you would expect. Rather than stick to a rock format, Harrison has entirely re-imagined these songs as big band jazz performances. And you know what? It works!

The key to Cheating the Polygraph’s success is that these are not note-for-note reproductions of the originals, but rather soaring flights of swing that use the original melodies as jumping off points. Freeing Steven Wilson’s melodies (and very few can write a melody as seductive as he can) from the strictures of rock, Harrison and his band really stretch out and explore the implications of Wilson’s chords through the harmonies and rhythms of jazz. And this is jazz that goes way, way out there. If Duke Ellington were alive today, he would probably be making music like this.

According to Harrison, the songs he selected are his personal PT favorites, which is fascinating. They aren’t the obvious choices, and most come from relatively obscure sources: “What Happens Now?” and “Cheating the Polygraph” are from the Nil Recurring EP, “So Called Friend” and “Futile” are from Recordings II, “Mother and Child Divided” is off the Arriving Somewhere soundtrack, and “The Pills I’m Taking” is a section from “Anesthetize” that I have from a BBC Radio One Rock Show Session (it may be available elsewhere; I’m not an obsessive PT collector!). So for many casual PT fans, Cheating the Polygraph may be the first time to hear these tunes.

A standout performance is “Heart Attack In A Layby”, where the somber mood of Wilson’s original performance is preserved, but marimbas and bass clarinet add an exotic element that is simply beautiful. Another highlight is “The Pills I”m Taking” which Harrison transforms into a suspenseful brass blast that would be right at home as the theme song for a 1950s TV crime drama. “Hatesong/Halo” begins with a marimba workout that soon morphs into an edgy flute-led arrangement; it sounds like a long-lost Stravinksy composition. The transition from “Hatesong” to “Halo” is masterful; pairing those two songs into a suite brings out the best in both.

What about Harrison’s own performance? Well, when I first saw the DVD of Porcupine Tree’s Anesthetize concert, I posted a review on Amazon, stating, “For me, this production highlights how indispensable Gavin Harrison is to Porcupine Tree. His drumming is simply phenomenal. Despite PT being Steven Wilson’s baby, Gavin is the true star of this DVD.” On Cheating the Polygraph, he has not lost one bit of his drive and grace. Every song is built on the foundation of his propulsive percussion. Harrison remains a master of energetic cross-rhythmic drumming while never sounding “busy”. He is to rock what Tony Williams was to jazz – always pushing the boundaries of what percussionists can do.

Cheating the Polygraph may not be “rock”, but it is challenging and very satisfying music. In my book, that makes it prog, and excellent prog at that!

Here is a preview of the album; Kscope Music plans to release it on April 13th:

Update: I should have mentioned Gavin’s collaborator, Laurence Cottle, is responsible for the marvelous arrangements of these songs. Let’s hope their partnership is not a one-shot deal!

 

Robin Armstrong Tells It Like It Is

Robin Armstrong’s (Cosmograf) latest post on his website is a must-read defense of Steven Wilson’s hard-won popularity. Here’s an excerpt:

Well here’s the rub, you, like me and thousands upon thousands of people making music in the world today are entitled to precisely nothing.  We have no right to be heard, no right to earn a living from our art and certainly no right to success.  For the mere mortals, these things have to be earned, slogged at, and when some little successes arrive, appreciate them.

The truth is, that making a record now has never been easier.  Making a record that people will listen to got harder, much harder.   When someone makes a record that people are falling over themselves to listen to, in a genre of music that’s similar to yours, be bloody inspired, I know I am…

Read the whole thing here.

Eric Gillette: The Best A Prog Fan Can Get

Gillette's first album.

Gillette’s first album.

As Brad Birzer mentioned in another post, Eric Gillette is the lead guitarist for The Neal Morse Band, having contributed to their album The Grand Experiment and currently touring with them. Before he hooked up with Neal, Eric released a self-produced album, Afterthought, which certainly deserves to be recognized in its own right for the excellent slab of prog it is.

It begins with three very heavy guitar-based instrumentals, “Afterthought”, “Change”, and “You’re Full Of It”. Fans of Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson will eat these up, as they showcase Eric’s phenomenal guitar skills. Eric’s gift is his ever-present melodicism, regardless of how crunching the riffs are underneath.

The fourth track, “Lost” (featuring long-time Neal Morse collaborator Randy George on bass), is something very special. A 22 minute epic that begins with a fast Crimson-like guitar intro soon settles into a keyboard section reminiscent of classic Todd Rundgren while Eric sings, “Can you hear me? Is there anyone out there? I could use a helping hand…I will find my way; I won’t be afraid. I can feel you next to me.” After three blistering instrumentals, it is a startling and inspiring moment to hear his pure and strong vocals. “Lost” is a tremendous track, with not a note wasted during its entire length.

“Rising” is another instrumental, this time featuring fellow NMB member Bill Hubauer on keyboards. “Bring You Down” is another heavy track with excellent vocals. It brings to mind Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor at his best. Unlike NIN, though, Gillete’s lyrics are more positive: “You don’t have to face it alone/Don’t let it bring you down.”

“Out Of Control” is another guitar showcase that would give Jeff Beck a run for his money. As a matter of fact, if you miss those classic Jeff Beck/Jan Hammer jams, then “Stagger”, “Blue Sky” and “Miles Away” will satisfy. The latter song, in particular, is simply gorgeous, and I am sure it was no accident that the title suggests Miles Davis’ balladry.

The album closes on a gentle note with a piano-based acoustic tour de force, “Above The Sky”. Eric’s multitracked harmonies sing a song of hope and redemption: “Darkness turns to light/Now you can finally see what this all meant/ No more questions why/The answer’s right in front of you, so open your eyes/Above the sky”.

It is an extraordinary achievement for a young musician to produce a debut album of such high quality. It’s no surprise Neal Morse included him in his new band – Eric Gillette is the real deal, and we will be hearing a lot more from him in the years to come.

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.

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