And, my final “best of” post for 2014. Let’s hope that you’re not getting too tired of these!
I’ve saved the albums that hit me the hardest—at level of mind and soul—for the last. I guess it’s somewhat goofy to have a “top eight,” but these are my top eight. These are the albums that did everything right, the ones that pulled it all together, offering real glimpses of the turning spheres. The first seven are in no particular order. I like them equally, and I think they’ve each attained the highest an album can reach but in quite different ways.
What can one say about Poland’s greatest, Newspaperflyhunting? Craig Breaden has already explained—in perfect detail—why this is a perfect album. From atmospherics to piercingly intelligent lyrics to mood swinging melodies, these Eastern Europeans have created what is certainly one of the most innovating and interesting albums of the last few decades. The album, ICEBERG SOUL, has much in common with early 1990’s American psychedelic revival, and there’s a real Mazzy Star and Opal feel to much of the music. But, whereas Mazzy Star was really good, Newspaperflyhunting is simply excellent. Droning, walls of sound, haunting guitar lines—this album has it all.
Salander, a new band from England, has blown me away as much as Newspaperflyhunting, and the two bands have much in common. Slander is only two guys, each named Dave, but you’d never know it listening to the music. Much as Cailyn plays every single thing on her album, the two Daves do the same. Their two albums this year, CRASH COURSE FOR DESSERT and STENDEC, are really one album, a journey through the wonders and terrors of the world, seen and unseen. The two Daves move effortlessly from one style of music to another, but they always hold it all together with what can only be described as a Salander sound. These two albums provide a journey that you hope never ends.
Armed with some new producers and engineers and a barrel full of confidence, the Anglo-Dutch-American band, Fractal Mirror, has proven the worth of community and friendship a million times over with GARDEN OF GHOSTS, a landmark album. As mentioned previously, there’s a lot of Bauhaus and Love and Rockets in this album. But, whereas those 1980’s bands felt as though they had one cool trick, Fractal Mirror is the real deal. GARDEN OF GHOSTS is mind-bogglingly good—stunning in every way—and we are so blessed to be catching them at the beginning of their journey. Certainly, it’s Gothic in tone, but it’s always soaring and light and dark and maddening and enlightening and loving. . . . It’s also quite defiant, and, at times, the lyrics make Neil Peart look like a softy.
I think the first album by the Tin Spirits one of my all-time favorite albums. It would certainly be in my top ten all-time albums. In particular, the song “Broken” is a masterpiece, a progged-out Allman Brothers kind of song. I eagerly awaited SCORCH, and I’ve not been disappointed. This is guitar prog, pop prog, rock prog—however one might label it, it’s just amazingly good. The four guys in the band obviously really like one another, and their friendship comes out in a myriad of ways in the music. The best song on Scorch, “Summer Now,” might very well be the best song of the year. As with Flying Colors, the Tin Spirits should be playing on every single album-rock radio across North America. The contrast between the two bands? Where Flying Colors might cross the line and go “over the top,” the Tin Spirits go for taste, class, and a dignified restraint.
Not to be too jingoistic, but one of the best aspects of 2014 has been the emergence of a number of North American prog bands. I’ve already mentioned several over the last few posts. The very best of the American prog bands, though, is Fire Garden. Holy Schnikees these guys are good. Scratch that. These guys are amazing! They clearly love Dream Theater, but they’re also 20x better than Dream Theater. Just as the Tin Spirits goes for dignified restraint, so does Fire Garden. Rather than play 30 notes in a millisecond, master musician and lyricist Zee Baig goes for just the necessary ones, the ones most needed for creativity and beauty. Again, that dignified restraint, when employed properly, can be such a beautiful thing. As I noted with Threshold and Haken, I don’t generally gravitate toward the heavier stuff. With Fire Garden, I happily embrace it. Of course, their heaviness is more Rush than Metallica. But, again, everything is perfect. I’ve focused on the band’s ubercoolleader, Zee, but everyone is in top form here. Zee pulls it all together.
I’m almost afraid to mention John Bassett. I’ve praised the that English stocking cap-wearing bard so many times, folks might start to wonder if I have some bizarre motive or some mancrush. Trust me, I’m married and have six kids. Yet, I do really love Bassett—just not in THAT way. Bassett’s music, through Kingbathmat, appeared in my life just a few years ago, but I can’t imagine my love of prog or music without him now, even as I look back to four decades of music obsession. Bassett’s first solo album, Uneßarth, is a psychedelic folk album, the kind of album that Storm Corrosion should have been. Somehow, Bassett’s actual voice (vocals) have a guitar-like quality. It’s bizarre. Beautifully and wondrously bizarre. And, despite his own self-deprecating remarks about merely being a “muppet”, Bassett is one of our best cultural critics. Of course, I love Animal, and there is a slight resemblance. Equally interesting, Bassett went the Matt Stevens/Fierce and the Dead route with his second album of 2014, a vocal-less progressive metal affair called Arcade Messiah. Each reveals a fascinating side to this very fascinating artist. What would I love to see—Bassett to bring these two styles together in Kingbathmat, writing a full-blown prog epic, unapologetic and unrelentingly so.
Once again, here comes the bro-mance. Sorry, Sally! I love your man, too. Just in very different ways than do you. I’m not sure Andy Tillison is capable of a misstep. Not only has he been one of the two or three most important musicians of what he’s insightfully called “Third Wave Prog,” he’s now becoming one of the two or three most important musicians in what I’ve attempted—admittedly, not very successfully—“Fourth Wave Prog.” His only release this year (what a funny thing to type) is under the name, cleverly, The Andy Tillison Multiplex. The album: ELECTRONIC SINFONIA 2. Just as Cailyn has brought classical music back into the world of prog, Andy is bringing jazz and jazz fusion back into prog. This album is beyond stunning. It is the very essence of taste itself. Every note, every line, every segue is just astounding. Tillison is a perfectionist, and it shows on and in all that he does. Thank you, Mr. Diskdrive. Rage on.
And, so I come to my favorite album of 2014. It took a while for me to get here, and if you fine progarchist reader are still with me, bless you. God has granted you immense patience. Though, as I’ve noted, this has been one of the best years ever in prog—and I’ve loved everything I’ve mentioned in the previous posts—I’ve loved this the most: Cosmograf’s CAPACITOR. Made by master of chronometry, Robin Armstrong, CAPACITOR is the perfect album. To those of you who write and produce instrumental music, thank you. And, please accept my apologies. I love what you do, but, not being trained in music, I don’t always get what you’re doing, even if I love it. For me, prog has been centrally about the lyrics and the story telling, with the music augmenting the two. I love the Word and the words. And, that brings me to CAPACITOR, a story that has everything. It’s a mix of science fiction and the occult, a play on religious revivals and scientific fetishes of a century ago. It’s not steam punk, it’s seance punk! And, what a story. Simply put, it’s the best sci-fi story of 2014. Part Arthur Conan Doyle, part Ray Bradbury, it’s purely Robin Armstrong. And, as we all know, Robin is not only a perfectionist, he’s an aural genius. He knows exactly how to mix word and note. This album is so good, it, almost by itself, redefines the entire genre. This is an album to match CLOSE TO THE EDGE, SPIRIT OF EDEN, and, much more recently, ENGLISH ELECTRIC and LE SACRE DU TRAVAIL.
N.B. Please forgive any typos. I have a three-year old princess acting rather grumpy as she deals with the flu. Lots of distractions in the Birzer household.
Previous posts in my “Best of 2014″ series:
Not sure I’ve put a post on here for ages, so apologies for that but I’ve been busy running up and down hills through the mud, puddles, cow dung and sheep poo of the fantastic Pennines in the UK, with all this wonderful music going around in my head …
Anyway, as is customary for me, a quick scattergun snapshot of my favourite albums of 2104, with three very noticeable exceptions that were actually released in 2013.
My most played album of the year is :
Vanden Plas – Chronicles of the Immortal
Dramatic, operatic, emotional, heavy and stunning. Never has an hour passed as quickly or enjoyably as this sublime album. Wonderfully structured with barely a note wasted, this is a true classic with a flow that simply cannot be bettered. Crunchy, clean production, massive riffs, melody to die for. Can’t wait for the next chapter in 2015 ….
And this lot aren’t so bad either ….
Seven Impale – City of the Sun
A fantastic smorgasbord of jazzy heavy brilliance that twists and turns through a myriad of styles to delight with every listen. Absolutely barkingly brilliant …
Gazpacho – Demon
Evocative, moving, emotional and deeply rewarding. True to their style, Gazpacho deliver a wonderfully elegant, understated and involving piece of work. Essential
Pineapple Thief – Magnolia
Bruce Soord comes up trumps again with a collection of intense snippets of emotion. No solos, no wasted space – just fantastic compact songs that delight every time. My favourite live band and Magnolia brought to live brilliantly in Manchester recently. Wonderful.
Tin Spirits – Scorch
Brings back memories of running high up in the Lakes on a hot day. Gorgeous, light and textured. Dave Gregory’s guitar work is sublime – a summer album for sure. Uplifting and memorable.
IQ – Road of Bones
An absolute blast from start to finish. Solid prog rock of the highest order and a regullar visitor to CD player in my car. Cracking stuff.
Now for the fellas that were released in 2013 but which I’ve become acquainted with this year and, I think, two have been re-released in 2014 so I guess they might count, particularly if, like me, you are never sure what year you actually in …
Leprous – Coal
Saw these guys live with Haken and for me, they were the highlight by far. Physcotically syncronated head-banging perfection. Engaging, powerful, emotional and with slight nods to 90’s electronic amidst the metal mayhem. Brilliant.
Obsidian Kingdom – Mantiis
Stunning modern prog metal madness with jazz, death and brass thrown in to provide a Pans Labyrinth’an atmosphere of brooding intensity. Wonderful production as well … just listen to this track
Navigator – Ghostworld
Superbly engaging, soaring melodies with hooks that just won’t let go. Check them out – you won’t regret it. This is my most played album of December by far ….
My biggest disappointment of the year was ‘Distant Satellites’ by Anethema. What a mess of an album after the brilliance of the previous two albums. I know it was many people’s favourite but for me it had memories of the frankly awful Blackfield IV which will forever stay in my mind as one of the worst albums of all time …..
Anyway, onwards and upwards.
My running plans for 2015 are as expansive and ambitious as some of the music that has been released this year and I expect the same high levels for the coming year.
I, for one, completely disbelieve that “rock is dead” or almost dead. Many folks I could care less about believe this, and many folks I think the world of believe it as well. I just can’t accept it.
If rock—or what passes as rock—has been so commercialized and corporatized to die because the huge companies don’t know how to sell, promote, and market a band or singer any more, too bad and tough luck. My guess is that that band or singer lost its or her or his soul long, long ago. Too bad by far. If rock is corporatized, it’s really not rock.
And, frankly, I hope Rolling Stone and NME each die a quick death. They were never more than glossy catalogues anyway. They wanted conformity, not excellence. In their pretense to fight the Establishment, they were the Establishment. I could start citing Marshall McLuhan and Noam Chomsky here—two thinkers I admire immensely—but it’s not the intent of this post. Despite my nasty introduction, this is meant to be a post of celebration.
The Incredible and the Magnificent of 2014. Where to even start? So much amazing music came out this year. So very, very far from dead. Not even close.
In no particular order (except for what I consider the absolute best-est of the year).
North Atlantic Oscillation, THE THIRD DAY. I don’t think it would be possible for these guys to disappoint. It’s obvious they put everything they have into the very structure and fabric of their music. While I probably still prefer the more Mark Hollis-esque FOG ATLANTIC, The Third Day really offers some electronic beauty.
The Black Vines, RETURN OF THE SPLENDID BASTARDS. Doubting my claim that rock is very much alive? Pop this baby into the CD player, and I give you Exhibit A of how great and alive rock is. Schnikees, this baby rocks. This rocks like rock should. Clever, intense, and driving.
The Ben Cameron Project, TIPPING POINT. Only two tracks long, TIPPING POINT is one of the most interesting and traditionally proggish of all prog this year. An album is integrity and beauty. You have to immerse yourself in this one. You’ll be well rewarded for doing so.
Jason Rubenstein, NEW METAL FROM OLD BOXES. Talk about putting the “progressive” in progressive rock. No, not the Woodrow Wilson kind of progressive. The real kind—the kind that does actually advance something. Rubenstein is a genius, and his music shows just how much creativity and glory one person can offer in this rather tragic world. This is the soundtrack to every Dirty Harry movie that mattered, but presented with 2014 technology and sensibilities.
Galahad, 3 EPS. Who wouldn’t love Stu Nicholson? God made the man for us all to love and admire. Here, he takes prog toward House music. This is highly danceable prog, and yet it maintains that high intelligence that Galahad has always brought to music. There’s nothing really new, just new ways of looking at old things. A great success.
Glass Hammer, ODE TO ECHO. Again, who wouldn’t love Steve Babb? The guy radiates charisma. This outing sees Glass Hammer turn toward the mythic and the pagan. While generally open about faith, GH follows the path of C.S. Lewis, noting that the Christian is also the pagan, at least in his or her imagination. The bass thumps, the drums rock (phew!), the vocals soar, as do the keyboards and the guitars.
And, the adventure continues in Part III. . . .
Haken — Restoration ★★★★★
Time Lord rating: 10/10 ♫♫♫♫♫
This album is designated as an “EP,” but its three tracks in fact amount to a decent-sized length (34 minutes) for a traditional LP. Therefore, I consider it a full-blown album.
Long story short, it is pretty much the prog metal album of the year. Son of Aurelius’ Under a Western Sun was my other prog metal playlist favorite, and the closest contender. In any event, I certainly must include Haken’s Restoration among my Top Ten Prog Albums of 2014.
“Darkest Night” (6:44) is riff-tastic and lyrically profound all at the same time. It’s a perfect mix of everything excellent about prog metal. These guys sure can rock! Here’s the indisputable proof.
“Earthlings” (7:52) expands upon the excellence by developing a spooky mood that is downright creepy and terrifying, as it sings about genocide and watching your friends bleed. Think of how Kate Bush ended “Breathing,” with an incomparable building of a musical mood. Well, here we actually have something comparable. It’s hair-raising and spine-tingling and absolutely astonishing in the way the musical drama is woven here with such stunning effectiveness.
“Crystallized” (19:22) is the impressive epic that seals the deal on this album as one for the record books. It naturally breaks down into four quarters, which I give titles in my own mind (since iTunes, where I bought my copy, provided no lyric booklet or further breakdown):  “Echoes” (which begins with various orchestral accents that set up and foreshadow the epic finale);  “Passages of Time” (where Haken shows off their total musical mastery of all things, including dazzling vocal harmonies);  “Crystallizing” (which gets full-on crazy with its wild prog virtuosity that veers into all sorts of insanely quirky and heavy rocking); and  “Escaping the Past” (which provides an emotional catharsis as the epic orchestration returns and then a musical breakthrough suddenly occurs).
The glorious musical conclusion that is reached at the end of the epic “Crystallized” track is so amazing that I never fail to be astonished and moved by it each time I listen to it. The way that the lead guitar plays a line that is then echoed by the orchestra, the way that the brass then shines out heroically, the way that the luminous guitar scrambles up skyward with those flashy runs — it is beyond words, and simply breathtaking.
This is why we listen to music: to experience such magical musical experiences. And with this release, Haken has, incredibly, surpassed even what they did last year. EP? I think not! This is arguably the LP of the year, and not just the Prog Metal Album of the Year, but arguably the Album of the Year. It has everything, and it is crafted to sonic perfection.
Yet, there were so many good albums this year, it is so hard to pick just one to tag with the top designation. So, I won’t. I am content simply to compile a couple of Top Ten lists. Tomorrow, we continue with the upper-echelon prog magic of my Top Ten Prog Albums of 2014.
‘They call it a community, I like to think of it as home’
To quote a Pet Shop Boys lyric is an odd place to start an album review, but bear with me as I think this pretty much sums up mine (and many others) feelings about the Prog world that we are all a part of, and which we are proud to belong to, finding new bands, meeting new friends and making new spiritual and musical connections along the way.
Fractal Mirror is the ultimate reflection of this, a band, a connection of collaborators all brought together by the love of Prog music through the Big Big Train Facebook group of all things. This creative connection showcases all that is good about the power of social networks, and for every negative media comment about how it’s bad for us, and how it is just a minefield of bullying, there’s not enough positivity about the real friendships and bonds that are created online, and here, in my hands and in my CD player is the proof of the power of social media.
If there was no Facebook this group wouldn’t exist in this format, and that would be a damn shame.
Following up last years highly acclaimed debut album Strange Attractors, Garden of Ghosts is a wonderful album with stunning lyrics, amazing musical moments and is the complete package, with an amazing sleeve, an immersive example of the album as art.
The collaborators that are Fractal Mirror, Leo Koperdraat (keys, guitars, vocals) Ed van Haagen (bass, keys, sound enhancements) and Frank Urbaniak (drums, percussion) are all fantastic musicians, and here working together they all combine to create a mighty musical sound. Of course Fractal Mirror is a collective and the other members are the highly original and talented artist Brian Watson (whose the real go-to guy for album art, having worked on albums by Manning, The Tangent and Mike Kershaw) and whose artwork beautifully illustrates each song in the book, whilst the final member of this immensely talented quintet is Andre de Boer responsible for moving images and triangle.
As an aside talking of this community of folk I first had the pleasure of meeting Leo Koperdraat and Brian Watson (amongst others) at this years Eppyfest where they made me feel most welcome, again prog connects so many people.
From the album notes Fractal Mirror say this album is loosely connected around the themes of connections and relationships in the 21st century, all pervasive technology and how memory and perspective changes.
Three wholly relevant and widely debated topics that ask all sorts of questions, which would take someone far smarter than me to answer.
These 11 tracks on this superbly produced album (by Brett Kull from Echolyn who adds vocals and guitars to some tracks) are a wonderful variety of styles and moods, and like all the best albums should be listened to in one sitting.
This isn’t a dip in dip out kind of record, and it rewards the listener who takes the time to focus and appreciate the subtle nuances throughout.
There are plenty of musical guests joining the Fractal Mirror family on this record like Larry Fast on keyboards and mellotron, Don Fast lending his sitar to Orbital View, Charlotte Koperdraat on vocals and Jacques Varsalona on vocals.
These talented musicians add to an already impressive musical sound and all bring something to the party that enhances the texture throughout this album.
This album flows wonderfully from the opening House of Wishes, with some great vocals from Leo, and the Fractal Mirror sound exploding out from here.
The Phoenix, with its lyrics from Graham Smith, and additional vocals from Brett is a
The centrepiece of the album is the Powerless Suite, made of the four tracks Lost in Clouds, Solar Flare, The Hive and Solar Flare Reprise, a wonderfully written and performed quartet of tracks about the impact of technology on our lives, as well as our over reliance on technology and I am sure we have all felt lost in the cloud at some point, and in the ultimate of ironies my wi-fi dropped whilst I was trying to upload this review!
Lost in Clouds has some great harmony vocals and has some great musical parts, with some wonderful guitar solos and keyboard parts reminiscent of the Canterbury sound.
Solar Flare with some sublimely dramatic guitar and keyboard interaction, as well as some intense old school prog keyboard sounds is a warning to us all as to what could happen when the solar flares cut off all our power.
Whilst the Hives lyrics focus on the darker side of social media and the way that computers and technology are tracking our every move and our every like and dislike.
Words of warning wrapped up in a lighter, rockier tune, with some more of those wonderful vocal harmonies.
Whilst the instrumental Solar Flare reprise is an intense and amazing interlude, with the music as deep and absorbing and powerful as anything Floyd used on Dark Side or Wish You Were Here, the keyboards particularly invoking the spirit of Shine on You Crazy Diamond (pts VI to IX)
The Garden again changes pace, with its intimate vocal delivery and haunting keyboard sounds is almost the title track, and is as emotive a song in a similar vein to Old and Wise by the Alan Parsons Project, and is beautifully emotive.
Orbital View, with lyrics by Brian Watson, is an amazing track, the musical performances are amazing, with some truly wonderful musical interludes and harmony vocals to die for. However the true star in this track are the lyrics, Brian speaks here so eloquently and beautifully, that it’s hard not to agree with everything he’s saying and the point they are making musically is wonderful.
Event Horizon is a slower paced, melancholically reflective piece, with some fantastic guitar interplay from Leo, Brett and Don and Leo’s vocals bringing John Lennon to mind, whilst the beautifully haunting fade out is reminiscent of classical guitarist like John Williams or John Renbourn.
Legacy with it’s honest lyrics, and fantastic keyboard work, is underpinned by amazing drum and bass work from Ed and Frank, whilst Leo continues to weave his vocal magic, his versatile vocals a delight throughout the album. This, like many songs on the album mixes a prog sensibility with a more traditional rock approach, and the catchiness of the work is in part due to how Fractal Mirror make complex music sound so fresh and accessible.
There is real emotional and musical depth throughout this album, and a brutal honesty throughout the lyrics delivered in Leo’s honeyed vocals, reminiscent of the Beautiful South or Richard Thompson at their finest where the rawest truth is delivered in the sweetest musical package.
Closing finale Stars, with it’s ethereal choir, it’s orchestral sweep and it’s epic musical scope is a paean to loved ones who have been lost, and with lyrical vignettes like,
‘You taught us to realize
There were holes in the rain
And through them the stars prevail
Their light would remain’
Is as beautifully moving as any poetry by Simon Armitage, and with it’s big string driven sound is as emotive and emotionally charged as any of Jeff Lynne’s ELO big ballads, and is a superb way to close a triumphant second album. The Stephanus choir, with their vocals add so much emotional weight to this song, it is the point where rock and classical music crossover and create something beautiful.
There is always the sophomore curse, where some bands second albums are nowhere near as good as their first, due to, as the popular rumour goes, the band using all their ideas on the first record.
This isn’t the case with Fractal Mirror; they join a list of bands like The Beatles, led Zeppelin, ELO, where their second album is streets ahead of an amazingly strong debut.
There is nothing about this album I don’t like, I can put it on in my car, at home, on my iPod and it takes me somewhere else musically and spiritually.
In other words I cannot recommend this album enough and am really looking forward to hearing what visions we see through the Fractal Mirror on album number three.
In a previous post or two, I’ve tried to explain what I mean by 2014 being a significant year in the history of progressive rock. Something(s)—though I still can’t quite get my fingers exactly on it—is quite different. That is, 2014 is not 2013, in the way that 2013 resembled but improved upon 2012, 2011, and 2010.
And, just to be clear, I’m not one of those proggers who actually thinks all new music must progress in the sense of offering some new technique the world has never heard before. Sure, I love innovation. But, never for innovation’s sake. Innovation, by its very nature, is always momentary. I want permanence. And, permanence comes only with the discovery and uncovering of beauty. If the new technique or innovation leads to a better understanding of beauty, so be it. But, I would, I hope, always choose the timeless and true and beautiful over the clever and ephemeral.
So, what’s different about 2014 and what I believe to be a new wave of progressive rock? Three things spring to mind. First, the best of 2014—and there’s an immense amount of good—is beautiful. Second, it’s eclectic. Third, it’s atmospheric.
A few years ago, several progarchists were happily complaining that so much prog is being released into the world that it’s impossible to catch up with it or, once caught up, stay up with it. True, I think. And, all to the good. Competition is rarely a bad thing, and competition for market and attention has forced proggers to think in very creative and entrepreneurial ways. This is as true in selling music as it is in making music.
Take one very specific example. Andy Tillison has always been one of the two or three demigods of Third Wave prog. Take a listen, however, to his 2014 release, Electronic Sinfonia No. 2. It is a thing of intense beauty, eclectic, and atmospheric. It is the perfect fourth-wave prog release, in many, many ways.
Because we’ve been so overwhelmed with so much goodness over the last two decades, and, especially, the last few years, Anathema’s Distant Satellite is a severe disappointment. Had it been released five years ago, it would have been pretty great. Now, though, in this context, it’s simply a parody of Anathema and Radiohead.
Well, enough ranting. I’d like to start describing my favorites of this year. In no particular order, I offer my first glimpse into my loves of 2014. Pink Floyd’s THE ENDLESS RIVER. I’ve been shocked at how many folks on the internet have decried it, as a betrayal to Roger Waters and to traditional Pink Floyd. Since when has PF ever been traditional? The Endless River is something PF has never been before. It has echoes of Echoes, but it also had a lot of Tangerine Dream in it. It’s interesting, it’s soaring, it’s daring, it’s full of whale song. Just listen to Skins and Unsung. There’s no ego. Just flight.
And, what an incredible honor to the brilliance of Rick Wright.
I’e always liked Mike Portnoy. In fact, I’ve been quite taken with him, and I’ve been more than willing to put up with his own eccentricities and strong opinions. But, when he lamented a new PF album this past summer, something in me gave. My respect for the former DT drummer has declined dramatically.
Around the time that the Division Bell was released, Wright admitted that he feared that PF had lost some of its creativity, and he cited Mark Hollis as an inspiration. Talk Talk, he argued, got away with much, mostly because Hollis had the integrity to dream and dare. He wanted Floyd to have the same spirit.
Well, here it is. THE ENDLESS RIVER.
What do David Gilmour and Nick Mason have to prove? Nothing, really. And, they prove nothing except the ability to offer a memorial to Rick. Amen. If every person in the world offered such a tribute to a lost friend, this would be a much better world.
Gilmour and Mason, I salute you for doing the right thing, the good thing, the true thing.
Continuing with my Top Ten Prog Albums of 2014, today I commend to you this year’s stunning prog metal release from Son of Aurelius.
Son of Aurelius was a technical death metal band that has now grown into an innovative and unique prog metal band. Actually, what they do defies genre categorization. They even engage in a critique of the entire notion of “prog” here in the lyrics to track six, “Attack on Prague” (a clever variant spelling of “Prog”):
Freedom from impulse
has never been required more
than it is in relation to the state we’re in,
and it will take so much more
than progressive metal can hope to achieve
With all of its intention and spacey themes.
The band’s first release, The Farthest Reaches (2010), stuck solely with the genre’s usual monochromatic death metal vocals over top of technically accomplished metal. Now on this sophomore release, they have evolved musically and exited from the sub-sub-genre ghetto of death metal but incorporated the best of those sub-sub-genre tropes into a much, much greater musical accomplishment. I am struck by the level of transformation here, and to use an analogy that Progarchy readers will understand, it seems to me something like the difference between Rush’s first album and their second album. Under a Western Sun (2014) appears to be Son of Aurelius’ Fly by Night. In case you miss my point: with this release, we are now in the presence of true musical greatness.
There are fifteen tracks on this entirely independently-produced release. The old death metal screams and growls are incorporated here only as a smaller part of the full palette of an astonishingly dynamic range of vocals. Rather than death metal vocals for the sake of death metal vocals, Riley McShane’s screaming here is intelligently deployed simply as part of the emotional variation within the songs. The impact is incredibly effective and gives the sonic experience a unique range and power.
I think of the album’s fifteen tracks in three groups of five. First, there are five lengthy, mind-blowingly epic prog metal tracks:
2. Chorus of the Earth (7:11)
3. The Weary Wheel (6:46)
6. Attack on Prague (6:03)
13. Long Ago (6:53)
14. Under a Western Sun (7:15)
The technical virtuosity is amazing on every one of these tracks. If you want to have an experience similar to being a teenager listening to Neil Peart for the first time, listen to what Spencer Edwards does with his drumming: you will be astonished to discover that a human being is capable of making sounds like this on a drum kit. It is hard to pick a favorite track, because everything here is truly superb. Cary Geare on guitar and Max Zigman on bass will blow your mind with their unbridled excellence. There are even acoustic guitars and keyboards here and there, which showcases the musical intelligence and compositional skill of the band as they create prog soundscapes on an epic scale.
If I had to single out a favorite moment and a favorite track, it would be track 13, “Long Ago,” where Riley McShane at 4:09 holds the last syllable of the last word he sings in the chorus in an extended rock and roll yell over top of the blistering guitar power chords and the enfilading fire of the drum kit. It’s a truly transcendent moment, because it takes a few seconds for you to realize that Riley is not letting go of that note… and then he just keeps on going and going, for a whole twenty seconds! Unlike Roger Daltrey’s famous yell in “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” which telegraphs what it is about to do, this yell sneaks up on you instead. But it too delivers a truly great rock and roll moment that is no less classic.
Every one of these five lengthier tracks is a mini-masterpiece, and together they actually add up to the length of a regular vinyl album of five-star rank. But the band is kind enough to share more music with us, and so we get a CD that is 72:15 in total length. Let me tell you about the rest of it, which is like having ten bonus tracks added on to an already five-star classic prog metal album.
The second group of five tracks includes four instrumentals, and one more track, “The Prison Walls,” which, unlike the other vocal tracks on this release, is nothing but growling death metal vocals, and hence it harkens back to the old style of their first album:
1. Return to Arms (2:42)
7. Flailing Saints (1:19)
11. The Prison Walls (5:55)
12. Submerge & Surface (3:03)
15. Strange Aeons (2:29)
Personally, I find these exclusively growling death metal vocals completely boring and I can barely stand listening to track eleven. I feel my I.Q. dropping as the dumb growls plod on and on — although the demented riffing on the track does make for some great crazy metal music. There is an excellent instrumental break at about the three-minute mark, and so usually I just fast-forward to that, if I don’t skip the song entirely. I guess this track is a sop to the fans who loved their first album, but I just think it is time to grow and move on and leave this sort of thing behind. It works when it is deployed in very small doses as part of an escalating dynamic range, as within the five epic prog-length tracks, but on its own it is musically very dull.
“Flailing Saints” and “Strange Aeons” are brief fade-in and fade-out instrumental outtakes, but “Return to Arms” and “Submerge & Surface” are fully coherent instrumental wholes that are very, very impressive. If you want a quick sample of the band’s virtuosity, try out those two tracks. I especially love the bass solo on “Submerge & Surface,” because it explodes into an unexpected burst of feedback at the end. The instrumentation and arrangement is top-notch on these purely musical tracks. They work well in bringing variation and interest to an already stellar album.
The last group of five tracks consists of carefully-crafted songs that are shorter in length, but still packed with the musical virtuosity that is the hallmark of Son of Aurelius:
4. Coloring the Soul (3:56)
5. The Stoic Speaks (4:46)
8. A Great Liberation (5:27)
9. Clouded Panes (4:28)
10. Blinding Light (4:15)
“Coloring the Soul” and “The Stoic Speaks” give us lyrics sung from the perspective of a Marcus Aurelius character who seems to be standing outside of time. “Coloring the Soul” even sings at the end a quote from the Emperor’s actual Meditations:
The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.
The band gets its name from the successor Emperor, Commodus, who on their first release was changed by the lyrics into a fictional, super-powered lunatic. But on this release, the “son” of Marcus Aurelius could be anyone listening to the album who is spiritually attuned to what the lyrics are singing about — a “spiritual son” of Marcus Aurelius, in other words. Perhaps something of that vision even informs the lyrics to the epic track “Long Ago,” which could be giving voice to the album’s Marcus Aurelius character, standing outside of time, viewing the trajectory of the Roman Empire, and lamenting the way the world has gone.
Tracks eight, nine, and ten are all very different, but yet each one finishes up with a highly creative outro. Each outro is very satisfying and unexpected and impressive. “A Great Liberation” has screaming death metal vocals throughout, but while the growling ones on track eleven, “The Prison Walls,” are boring, these screaming ones at least have an interesting expressive dimension, and they actually work very well with the incredible music that comprises “A Great Liberation.”
The track “Clouded Panes” is a good short introduction if you can only play one short song for someone to show the truly amazing range of which Son of Aurelius is musically capable. Again, it’s hard to pick any favorites, but one of mine is “Blinding Light,” which for the first few minutes sounds exactly like it could be a Big Big Train song! But then, at the transition into the outro, power chords come ripping in unexpectedly, and Big Big Train turns into… Son of Aurelius! It’s an awesome moment. The vocals by Riley McShane are really great here, especially his quiet clean vocals which then erupt into rock singing. This is the stuff of greatness.
Son of Aurelius are the real deal. Don’t miss this album. It’s a special accomplishment and is arguably the Prog Metal Album of the Year. But tomorrow I will share another neck-and-neck contender for that title.
Son of Aurelius — Under a Western Sun
Max Zigman – Bass
Spencer Edwards – Drums
Cary Geare – Lead Guitar
Riley McShane – Vocals
Bad Elephant Music announced themselves on the prog scene last year with the amazing Shineback album, brainchild of the one and only Simon Godfrey, and following on the success of that album they released in swift succession Godfreys acoustic Motherland album, and The Fierce and the Deads frankly astonishing Spooky Action, putting them at the forefront of contemporary prog labels.
They have continued their stellar contribution to the prog world this year with a trio of albums covered here that enhance their reputation as one of the most exciting labels releasing contemporary prog (the other being the Esoteric Antenna label) and if you’ve missed any of these albums then you’re missing out.
Emmett Elvin: Bloody Marvels
Keyboard player for Knifeworld and multi talented multi instrumentalist, Emmett Elvin releases his quite extraordinary solo album. Joining label mates like The Fierce and the Dead and Trojan Horse, Emmett Elvins unique musical take is firmly at home on Bad Elephant as he joins their talented musical family.
This solo journey is piece de resistance for Elvin, whose work with the frankly superb Knifeworld has laid down the benchmark for contemporary post rock prog.
With a diverse mix of sounds here from the fantastic opener of Artificial Pterodactyls Over Leytonstone which has to be one of the best song titles ever, Elvins knack for a sound and trick with a melody is spot on, as the album develops and as you replay it, you start to hear different sounds and get different things each time. The brilliant Witness Unknown, with its nagging guitar riff, and its echoed vocals evoke memories of early Hawkwind and manages to be both sinister and beguiling at the same time, a trick that very few artists can pull off. Whilst tracks like X Corpus, with its almost pensive tones and the closing majesty of Dustbowl Prizewinner are begging to be used in films. In fact the whole album has a widescreen soundtrack style to it, with music concrete elements and snippets of dialogue in the songs.
Freed from the band vision of Knifeworld, Elvin lets his musical imagination run riot, and the result is an eclectic, innovative and exciting triumph, an album of contrasts and depth, light and shade and some of the fantastic music I have heard this year.
Not many artists can claim to perform on two of the best albums of the year, with the Knifeworld album and now this Emmett is one of them.
The Gift: Land of Shadows
Another gem from Bad Elephant, The Gift are one of the third wave prog bands that made their name in the early part of the millennium, and return here with Land of Shadows an album of immense beauty and perception.
With the London based band now being made up of founder member Mike Morton co conspirator David Lloyd, new drummer Scott Tipler, keyboards from Samuele Matterucci, Franz Vitulli on bass and Gary Lucas on guitar, this is the follow up to arguably one of the prog albums of the 2000’s Awake and Dreaming.
With its contemplative spoken word intro I sing of changing leading into the 12 minute epic The Willows with its superb lyrics, its wonderful guitar work and its magnificent movements, this is contemporary symphonic prog at its finest. With some fantastic songs that tell stories of modern life mixed with the musical brilliance and intuition that only the best prog performers have, Land of Shadows is truly a masterpiece, songs like Road runs on til Morning and the rocking Too many hands are fantastic, whilst the 19 minutes plus magnificence that is The Comforting Cold (a song cycle that has been worked on since 2010 and encompasses the loss of Mortons Father in Law and Mother and other life changes) it channels so many emotions into one beautifully written and performed piece of music, with its mood changes, its symphonic widescreen sound and its musical interplay and emotionally honesty that picks you up, pulls you along in its awake and leaves you somewhere else emotionally and spiritually (the only other epic piece I can think of comparing it to is the equally superb This Strange Engine by Marillion). The musical performances here are peerless, the lyrics are so well observed and the interplay between keyboards and guitars are amazing, and with the coda of As finishing this album, Land of Shadows is as perfect a prog performance as you will hear all year and is a welcome addition to everyone’s record collection, and shows how damn magnificent those chaps at Bad Elephant are for treating us to music like this.
Trojan Horse: World Turned Upside Down
We have already been treated to The Fierce and the Dead, Emmett Elvin, Simon Godfrey, The Gift and now their unstoppable assault on the world of prog continues with World Turned Upside Down, the second long player release from Manchester’s Trojan Horse, self proclaimed noisy prog rock bastards.
This inventive and eclectic quartet formed of the Duke Brothers (Nicholas, vocals, guitar, Hammond, keyboard, percussion. Lawrence, vocals, bass, guitars, percussion, Eden, vocals, keys, synths, bass) and Richard Crawford on drums, guitars, vocals, are a phenomenal live force of nature.
Their powerful and inventive live show carries over here on to this record, where they build on the power of their debut with some fantastic musical turns, the opening Juraspyche park for instances features them sparring with the ever inventive Kavus Torabi from Knifeworld, whilst live favourite Scuttle spreads its wings and impresses here. There is plenty of light and shade within this album, as tracks like the 12-minute epic Hypocrites Hymn simmers with the tension and righteous anger of the downtrodden. It’s no surprise the album title is taken from the 1646 revolutionary pamphlet, and the whole record bristles with anger at the austerity policies forced upon this country by the current Government. Songs like Death and the Mad Queen and the frankly amazing Paper Bells sum this up, both lyrically and musically. Who said protest song wasn’t dead?
Trojan Horse is a musical phenomenon, defying easy categorisation, and writing heartfelt lyrics and intense musical moments, combining to create one of the albums of the year.
For further information check out http://www.badelephant.co.uk