Splendid stuff from BBT. Bit of an anthem, this…
Google have been doing some interesting research into data visualization. Here’s what their Music Timeline makes of prog:
The visualization is fully interactive; give it a try!
(By the way, if you are wondering at the absence of Big Big Train’s magnificent English Electric: Full Power, remember that I am excluding rereleases of older material; without that restriction, it would most certainly be up near the top of my list!)
The debut release from the formerly-dubbed Concrete Lake, featuring two alumni of The Tangent: guitarist Luke Machin and bassist Dan Mash. Be prepared for a rollercoaster ride through a dizzying array of different musical styles as this album jumps effortlessly from prog metal shredding to jazz to salsa (yes, really!) and back again. It’s bonkers, but I love it to bits.
A minor change in direction for Poland’s premier prog rockers finds them flirting with more straightforward hard rock, blues and even jazz influences in places, to great effect. The resulting album is more cohesive conceptually than any of their previous work and touches on similar issues to those explored by The Tangent’s latest opus. Disc 2 of the special edition features over 22 minutes of instrumental music quite different in tone from the main album but highly enjoyable nonetheless.
An accomplished follow-up to 2010′s Diving Bell from Joff Winks, Matt Baber & Co. Sanguine Hum’s sound calls to mind Turin Brakes, Pierre Moerlen’s Gong, the layered electronica of North Atlantic Oscillation and even Porcupine Tree in their more reflective moments. It’s captivating, however you describe it, and the songs on this album are beautifully constructed. Apparently, the band have two album’s worth of new material already written, which bodes well for the future.
The best release yet from the ‘Steely Dan of prog’, offering a more coherent vision than their earlier high points Not As Good As The Book and A Place In The Queue. With music loosely inspired by Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring and a thought-provoking, opinion-polarising message regarding the mundanity of the daily grind and our role as wage slaves, this is a progressive tour de force as far as I’m concerned.
Quite simply, Steven Wilson’s finest work to date. Opting for a live recording approach over meticulous overdubs has paid off handsomely and the music frequently builds to a thrilling intensity as this masterful band of players feed off each others’ energy. It is difficult to pick out highlights from something so consistently brilliant, but Guthrie Govan’s guitar solo in Drive Home really does take the breath away, leaving us wondering how in the name of prog Wilson is going to better this.
Following hot on the heels of Part 1, here is the second part of my ‘Best of 2013′ list: positions 10 to 6 in my Top Ten.
This liturgically-themed piece, recorded with the Tromsø Chamber Orchestra, was my introduction to Ulver. It had a powerful effect on me when first I heard it and I shall certainly be exploring their back-catalogue in future. Messe is solemn, haunting and mysterious – best heard on headphones late at night with the lights turned off.
A richly atmospheric, superbly recorded album, evoking the grandeur of Pink Floyd in places and with liquid guitar solos that Dave Gilmour would be proud to call his own. Rain‘s story is set during World War I and is based on the experiences of band member Pete Riley’s grandfather. It’s a powerful and moving piece of work that assumes particular relevance with the imminent centenary of that awful conflict.
A welcome return by Tim Bowness & colleagues, a mere twelve years after their debut release. The title is a neat little joke, given that this is an entirely instrumental album, Tim electing to merely play guitar rather than treat us to his wonderful and distinctive voice. What you get for your money here are four tracks of proggy, jazzy, semi-improvisational brilliance.
This collaboration between The Pineapple Thief’s frontman and Katatonia’s vocalist is a revelation. The album consists of nine simple, elegant songs written by Soord with Renkse in mind, and the clean, minimalist production gives that spellbinding voice the space to work its magic. A modern masterpiece.
Haken are arguably progressive metal’s leading proponents in the UK. Each album has improved upon its predecessor and The Mountain is their best yet. These guys have the musical chops of Dream Theater but are considerably more adventurous. They also don’t take themselves too seriously, as this brilliant video for The Cockroach King shows.
See Part 3 for my five favourite albums of 2013…
In this, the first part of my round-up of 2013′s best releases, I highlight eleven superb albums that all made it onto my shortlist and managed to remain there – no mean feat given the incredible quality of the new music that appeared this year. Each of these has made a huge impression on me and yet, amazingly, none of them feature in my Top Ten. (We’d best not dwell on the excellent releases from Days Between Stations, Lifesigns, Spock’s Beard and others that eventually got pushed off the bottom of this shortlist, but what can you do when progressive music is enjoying a fecundity not seen since the early 70s?)
I won’t even attempt to rank this selection, but will instead list the albums by artist, alphabetically. Think of them all as being in a notional 11th place in my Best of 2013 list!
A word on criteria: I have considered only studio albums and I have ignored remasters, remixes and rereleases (whole or partial) of pre-2013 material. (In one case, this has had a significant impact on my choices.)
Ready? Off we go…
The masters of the heavy groove take a step back from the sprawling madness of 2011′s splendid The Octopus. The result is more reflective and refined but no less compelling. Echo Street is subtle rather than subdued, rich in atmosphere (‘matmosphere’?) and dreamy soundscapes but still with enough big riffs to get the blood pumping. The highlight is probably Where The River Goes, an epic that starts in delicate fashion with 12-string acoustic guitar before building to a thunderous conclusion.
Part 1 was my Album of 2012, but don’t be fooled by the follow-up’s apparent lowly position this year, as the difference in quality really isn’t that huge. Like its predecessor, Part 2 is a paean to the landscapes, history and fading industrial heritage of England. There are excellent songs to be found here – Worked Out, The Permanent Way and Keeper Of Abbeys are probably the highlights for me – but the album doesn’t flow as smoothly as Part 1 (a minor defect that combined album English Electric: Full Power has since rectified though a reordering of tracks and the introduction of new material).
Who knew that Echo & The Bunnymen guitarist Will Sergeant was such a fan of 70s electronica pioneers like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream? Or that he could pay homage in such a respectful and skillful manner? Assemblage is wonderfully evocative of that classic era of electronic music without being derivative. Strongly recommended if you are a fan of TD or other artists of that ilk. Its hypnotic rhythms will transport you to other realms…
‘Guapo’ means ‘handsome’ in Spanish, but I’m not sure that’s an entirely appropriate term for the music that Dave Smith, Kavus Torabi, James Sedwards & Emmett Elvin have produced here. Visitation, Guapo’s first recorded output for five years, is a satisfyingly dense and complex slab of instrumental art rock, full of dark tones and edgy riffs. Intense 26-minute opener The Pilman Radiant dominates, providing all the shifting moods and time signatures that a prog fan craves, while Complex #7 provides a richly atmospheric interlude in which to catch the breath before the mayhem resumes with up-tempo closing number Tremors From The Future. Highly recommended.
The glorious voice of Anne-Marie Helder continues to delight, this time in partnership with fellow Panic Room member Jonathan Edwards. Panic Room’s Skin was one of last year’s surprise hits for me, a powerful demonstration of the growing sophistication and maturity of their sound. Much of that improvement carries over to the efforts of this acoustic double-act (unsurprisingly, given they are the principal songwriters for the band). Sleeping Pills is a delicate and beautiful album, beguiling in its simplicity.
Imagine what it must feel like to be stalled in the midst of a lengthy and difficult recording process for your fourth album, when suddenly you lose your vocalist and principal songwriter! Midlake certainly demonstrated the ‘courage of others’ in scrapping two years of work and starting again from scratch. Given these circumstances, new album Antiphon, written and recorded in only six months, is a triumph. Stand-out tracks from these champions of American prog folk are probably The Old And The Young and Ages, although the whole piece is immensely enjoyable, albeit without quite the same degree of melancholic elegance as its predecessor.
A magnificent solo effort from North Atlantic Oscillation’s Sam Healy. Sam has suggested that Sand serves as a ‘musical palette cleanser’ before work begins on new NAO material, and he has spoken of this album’s different feel – but in truth, Sand could easily be mistaken for a new NAO album. The characteristic NAO ingredients are all here – drum machines, samples, layered electronics and dreamy vocal harmonies – but Sand manages to eclipse 2012′s Fog Electric, feeling somewhat gentler and more refined. Stand-out tracks for me are Clay, Destroyer and Astray.
A bold statement from Tinyfish frontman Simon Godfrey, ably assisted by lyricist Rob Ramsay. With its strong pop, dance music and electronica influences it certainly won’t be to every proghead’s taste, but adventurousness such as this is surely necessary to evolve and reinvigorate the genre. Highlights are probably Passengers, the languid Faultlines – the “A paper doll in Scissorland” lyric is particularly memorable – and the ten-minute title track. The vocals are at times a little too thin and tend to get overwhelmed by the more forceful passages of music, else this might have made my Top Ten.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Solstice. I saw them live many times during the mid 80s and the feel-good hippy vibe of their performances never failed to put a smile on the face. It was gratifying to see them return in 2010 with Spirit and even more gratifying to see them take further strides forward this year with Prophecy. The focal point, as ever, is the superb guitar playing of Andy Glass, but everyone plays their part and Jenny Newman’s violin playing contributes greatly to the overall feel of the album. Forget the new age lyrics if that kind of thing bothers you and just revel in the gloriously uplifting sounds that this band can produce. A most welcome bonus is a trio of Steven Wilson remixes of tracks from the band’s 1984 debut Silent Dance that greatly improve on the originals.
The debut release from the new project of Simon Collins and Dave Kerzner is another of 2013′s unexpected pleasures. The underlying concept doesn’t really fire the imagination, to be honest, but the music most certainly does! Ironically, the album’s prog epic – the 19-minute Möbius Slip – is probably the weakest track, but that’s mainly because the rest of it is so melodic and catchy as hell. It is difficult to pick out highlights, but the five-track sequence from Pale Blue Dot through to Beyond Illumination is near-perfect. Simon Collins is excellent on vocals, with just the slightest hint of father Phil prompting a shiver of recognition here and there.
Matt Stevens & Co move from strength to strength with this, their second album. As before, it’s an unfailingly energetic and heady mix of King Crimson, math rock, punk and other influences – difficult to categorise adequately, but that is surely part of the attraction. This is the sound of a band charting new ground and growing in confidence as they do so. I can’t wait to hear what they come up with next.
If you are of a certain age, you will probably be most familiar with Will Sergeant as guitarist and founder member of Liverpool legends Echo & The Bunnymen. Their classic album Ocean Rain became a particular favourite of mine during my student days in the mid 80s and I still consider it one of the best releases of that period.
But Will has not limited his musical horizons to the Bunnymen; he has worked on other projects over the past couple of years and discovering them has been one of 2013′s unexpected pleasures for me.
Back in January, Will and fellow Bunnyman Les Pattinson formed a new band called Poltergeist and announced a PledgeMusic campaign to fund production of their debut album. That album, entitled Your Mind Is A Box (Let Us Fill It With Wonder), appeared as a download for pledgers in March and had a worldwide release in June. According to Will,
We create a form of rock music with its toes paddling in the progressive ocean foam of the sixties and seventies and its head in the bone dry air of the present day.
Your Mind Is A Box is a splendid slice of instrumental prog/post-rock that deserves a place in my Best Of 2013 list, being denied that right solely due only to the incredible strength and depth of this year’s album releases. Fans of The Fierce & The Dead and their ilk should definitely give this a listen.
In September, Will launched another PledgeMusic campaign, this time for a new album from occasional project Glide. This resulted in the release of Assemblage One & Two at the start of November. Glide is a quite different beast to Poltergeist, drawing inspiration from the 1970s electronica of Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream. Will describes the project thus:
It is an unashamed self indulgent venture. I see nothing wrong with being self indulgent. In my view all art of any worth is built on self indulgence. From the first stroke of a brush, word of literature, note of an instrument or strike of the chisel against the cold stone or wood. The only person that a true artist should be aiming to please should be himself. If you start worrying about what the people may say about the work it is immediately compromised and is a dead duck. So I walk alone once more through electronic landscape for only one reason: I like it there.
Well I like it too, Will: as a devoted fan of early to mid-period TD, I like it very much indeed! The two tracks from Assemblage - clocking in at truly proggy lengths of 19:34 and 22:28, respectively – are hypnotic and utterly absorbing, evoking the spirit of this genre’s German pioneers superbly.
Last week I was privileged to attend a play-through of Assemblage One & Two by Will, in the planetarium at Liverpool’s World Museum. The computer-projected visuals of planets, stars and galaxies were the perfect mind-expanding accompaniment to the music. Will had a small merch desk at the event, so I took a punt on a CD of his from 2012, called Things Inside - and I am so glad I did!
Things Inside – available as a CD or as a download – is another instrumental album, but one quite different in tone from the work produced by the Poltergeist and Glide projects. For one thing, it is almost entirely acoustic. Instruments used include acoustic guitars, ukulele, melodica, vibraphone, hammered dulcimer, celeste, auto harp, Schoenhut toy piano, acoustic bass, flute, french horn and wind chimes! I’ve only listened to it a couple of times, but I’m already loving it.
It’s wonderful when an artist known for one particular style of music reveals a hidden side, a more broad-ranging creativity than you were expecting. Here’s hoping there is more to come from ‘Sergeant Fuzz’ in 2014!
One of the things I love about prog is that there’s very often an interesting story lurking behind a song.
Classic Genesis track The Battle Of Epping Forest is no exception to this, and I would imagine most Genesis fans have some idea of its origins, but Rob Webb has delved a little deeper to uncover more of the history.
Well worth a read.
Almost a couple of months ago, Brad wrote about L’Étagère Du Travail, the long-awaited companion disc to the wonderful Le Sacre Du Travail. With uncharacteristic restraint, I chose not to listen to the proffered download of this, preferring to wait instead for my physical CD. But it finally arrived last week – hence these words.
I won’t attempt to duplicate Brad’s eloquent review, but I thought his favourite track, Supper’s Off, deserved some deeper analysis, since it struck me also as a particularly noteworthy piece.
I’ll say right up front that I regard Andy Tillison as a major figure in prog, not just because of the sublime music that he creates, but because he has something important to say, too. In a genre where oblique lyrics and obscure concepts are considered almost a virtue in some quarters, his style is admirably direct and unusually relevant. Le Sacre‘s critique of the rat race certainly put one or two noses out of joint, and the pointed observations he makes here may have a similar effect.
Critics will no doubt latch on to the Genesis reference in the track’s title, as well as the lyric
We tried to change the world
But the world won’t take the hint.
They go running off back to Genesis,
and all the other bands are skint.
But this is not a dig at Genesis fans in particular. Tillison writes in the sleeve notes that “Genesis were great. I don’t mean to offend either them or their fans. Just the non-inquisitive attitude of people who will never listen to the myriad of bands who offer an equally adventurous experience to their heroes of the 1970s and who don’t necessarily have blood line with them.”
Other lyrics, spoken over the music, deliver the crux of his argument with laser-like precision:
And of the thousands of people who watched Yes at QPR in 76, only a few hundred will turn up to watch their descendants on a whole tour.
Yet if The Who were to plan some kind of comeback, they’d sell tickets for 90 quid to hundreds of thousands of people my age all over the world, who’ll turn up in posh cars and 4x4s, because I am talking about my generation…
There are some important and interesting questions at the root of all this. Is it not true that people retain a great fondness for the music they fell in love with during their formative years? And if this is the case, why don’t they make the connection to contemporary artists doing the same kind of thing? Do people form allegiances to bands rather than to styles of music? Do they prefer nostalgia to the joy of discovering new music? I could go on…
Those who would rush to condemn Tillison for his abrasiveness should think first about how difficult it is to make music for a niche audience these days. The digital revolution has been a double-edged sword, democratising production whilst simultaneously devaluing the product in the eyes of the general public. David Byrne argued cogently in UK newspaper The Guardian recently about the particular threat to creativity posed by streaming, for example.
I’ve never heard a prog artist put money up at the top of their agenda, but there’s no denying that artists need some kind of income from their music if they are to continue as artists. Besides the fact that it is a deserved reward for an artist’s efforts, money buys them time and space, the freedom to make good art – and we all benefit as a result.
So here’s my plea (I guess I’m preaching to the converted here, but what the hell):
By all means, go see the rock legends in the big arenas, but don’t forget about the little guys. Buy their albums. Go see them if they are playing anywhere near your home town, however pokey the venue is. And if you have to choose between tickets for a comeback tour by dinosaurs looking to put an extra couple of Ferraris in the garage or for a band still writing exciting new music whilst trying to make ends meet… Well, you know what the right thing to do is!
Splendid stuff from BBT. Bit of an anthem, this…
This is the new single from the mighty Haken’s rather wonderful third album, The Mountain.
Let nobody say that Prog is without a sense of humour!
Robert John Godfrey, maestro of The Enid, has written to members of fan club The Enidi confirming the sad news that he is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He writes
I suppose I had “known” that I was ill for maybe a year. I began to notice changes with the way I perceived my surroundings and with my day to day activities. I felt there was something wrong and I suspected it might be dementia (or worse).
My diagnosis has come as no surprise. It is just my very short term memory that is different and my ability to recall the names of people I know well. I still have all my long term memories – I probably will have right up to the end. My intellect still seems as good as ever, though that will probably not last. I have not noticed any changes with regard to my creative abilities and so far nothing has changed with regard to playing the piano.
The search now begins for a successor. Robert hopes he will have two or three years in which to get this new band member settled in the role:
He will need to be young and have a good piano technique with a background in classical/romantic music rather than jazz; a knowledge of music technology; a talent for finding a good tune and a thorough understanding of harmony. Above all he will need to be generous in spirit and willing to collaborate with those who have different but nevertheless just as valuable abilities as his own.
Robert signs off with characteristic grace and dignity:
I have had a great life doing nothing but music – I have wonderful friends within the band and the Enidi. I feel very much loved and appreciated – I lost any fear of death many years ago and the story of my life will come full circle as indeed it must. A symphony with a silence at either end.
God bless you, sir.