From its cover image reminiscent of the all-seeing camera eye of 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s HAL computer, to the final track “When the Air Runs Out”, Cosmograf’s new album, The Man Left in Space, is a profound meditation on the tragedy of modern man’s surrender to ambition and technology, and the ensuing isolation that results.
Beginning with a bewildered astronaut, Sam, asking, “How did I get here?”, the listener is transported to the near-future, where Sam is questioning his motives for agreeing to a mission to “change the human race”. Can over-achievement bring satisfaction and happiness?
Ambition brought me here.
A winner in my field.
Dare to be a dreamer.
Find your fate is sealed.
Hidden truths revealed.
Through memory flashbacks, snippets of dialog with the ship’s android, and sampled audio of actual NASA space missions, we share Sam’s growing sense of melancholic disconnection with reality.
I take these pills. They help me numb the pain.
They stop me from feeling blue.
I feel the days getting longer now.
I’d like to dream, but I’ve forgotten how.
He’s even reduced to crooning a love song to his “beautiful treadmill” that will “keep my soul in grace”. Throughout, the ship’s android is monitoring Sam and vainly attempting to create a normal environment. Earth’s Mission Control tries to contact him, but they cannot get through. Sam realizes that without human contact, he will eventually slide into madness. No simulation, no matter how realistic, can replace the touch of another person.
Eventually, the “man left in space” is forced to face his own mortality:
10 minutes more and the air will run out.
This craft will fall into the sun.
My chance of returning is none. None. None.
As the last chords of the final song fade away, the ship’s android repeatedly asks, “Please respond, Sam?”
Robin Armstrong, who is Cosmograf, has constructed a beautiful, allegorical warning for those of us who would replace face-to-face communication with all the technological means at our fingertips: emailing, texting, Tweeting, “liking” on Facebook, etc. Right on cue, Google is coming out with “Google Glass“, which will add even more distractions to our interactions with others. We must resist the temptation to withdraw into self-imposed isolation and foster real relationships, regardless of the risks.
The Man Left In Space would not be the success it is without having superb music to complement its message. Every track is extraordinary, and the album really must be listened to in its entirety. Highlights include “Aspire, Achieve”, which begins with a delicate acoustic guitar melody and vocal harmonies that shift into crunching metal worthy of Ayreon’s best work. “Beautiful Treadmill” has an indelible hook that will have you singing along in no time. The instrumental, “The Vacuum That I Fly Through”, featuring the marvelous Matt Stevens on guitar and Big Big Train’s Nick D’Virgilio and Greg Spawton on drums and bass respectively, rivals anything Pink Floyd ever committed to tape. Trust me, it’s that good.
Finally, some praise for the artwork. In this age of digital downloads, it’s worth it to get the physical CD. The booklet that comes with the album is essential to fully appreciating the album. The illustrations remind me of the incredibly realistic sci-fi artwork Shusei Nagaoka did for Electric Light Orchestra’s Out of the Blue album from the late ’70s. The attention to detail is amazing: every page features readouts of various gauges, creating the feeling that you are involved in monitoring Sam throughout his doomed journey. The ship’s android is named ESA-1410-4MY, which pops up in several places and adds to the sense of technological surveillance and control of Sam.
Even though we have yet to finish the first quarter of 2013, Cosmograf’s The Man Left In Space is certain to be in many Top Ten Albums of the Year lists.
Enjoy “The Vacuum That I Fly Through”:
By Brad Birzer
As you’ve probably noticed, we’ve been having a Big Big Train-love fest for the past several days at Progarchy. Even our criticisms (well, not mine; but I won’t point fingers) have been written out of love and respect.
Another recent release that deserves a massive amount of attention is the fourth cd by Robin Armstrong, writing under the name, Cosmograf. Yes, it deserves a MASSIVE (Ok, I’m yelling at you, fair reader; it’s not personal, I promise!) amount of attention. Massive.
Following Cosmograf’s history, it comes across far more as a project than a band. I’m not sure Robin would put it this way, but this is how it strikes me. Each album has been a concept with a variety of guest musicians. For this current album, The Man Left in Space, Robin has chosen the best of the best: Greg Spawton (who wouldn’t love this guy), Nick d’Virgilio (giving Peart a run for his money since 1990!), Matt Stevens (a young guy already inducted in the Anglo-Saxon pantheon of guitar gods), and other brilliant folks such as Dave Meros (ye, of the Beard!), Luke Machin, and Steve Dunn. Robin knows how to get the absolute best, and he knows how to bring the best out of his guests. Then, add the additional production of the ultimate audiophile of our time, Rob Aubrey. Can it really get much better than this? Not really.
By profession, Robin is a master of all things time-related. He’s a watch dealer and a watch repairman. I find this so very appropriate. What better thing for a musician and composer to be than to be a master Chronometer (I have no idea if this is the proper term, but I like the sound of it). Chronometrician? Ok, I’m floundering here, but I assume you get the point. Precision, mystery, time, eternity, space, place, humanity. . . Robin Armstrong. Read the rest of this entry
I often joke with my students that I can still remember the days when listening to progressive rock and watching Dr. Who could get a kid beaten up. Yes, 1981. I remember it well. Seventh grade at Liberty Junior High in Hutchinson, Kansas. Yet, it’s now 2013, and I’m still listening to Rush and watching Dr. Who. Obviously, I survived the bullies
But, I can get even nerdier. Much nerdier. I was also a huge Dungeons and Dragons guy. Yes, 1981. I remember it well. Yet, it’s now 2013, and I’m still playing DnD. Now, with my kids.
My love of all things progressive (music; not politics!), science fiction, and fantasy have come together quite nicely in a number of direct ways: Rush, Roswell Six, Rush again, Ayreon, more Rush, Cosmograf, Glass Hammer, The Tangent, Rush, Kansas, Star One, Spock’s Beard, and even more Rush.
Surprisingly, though, only a few rock bands have really explored the Arthurian legends. Those artists that have–such as Rick Wakeman and Gary Hughes–have gone all out, making nothing less than elaborate rock operas. While Wakeman’s Arthur seems rather French, Hughes’s remains very Celtic.
The French legends, generally centering on the love affair of Lancelot and Gwenivere, usually reflect the medieval notions of courtship as inherited from the Moors. The Celtic legends are almost always more mystical, suggesting strong relations between the Celtic gods (a twilight) and the Christian God. Famously, one Celtic god, Bran the Blessed, even went so far as to sacrifice himself so that the Christian God could reign supreme. How often does this happen in pagan myth?
One of my greatest pleasures of 2012–and there have been many–has been listening to massive quantities of progressive rock, mostly for pleasure.
Being a literary and humanities guy, I’d contemplated rejecting the entire numerical ranking scheme. Rather, I thought about labeling each of my best albums with various qualities of myth. These albums achieved the level of Virgil; these of Dante; these of Tolkien, etc. But, I finally decided this was way too pretentious . . . even for me.
Below are my rankings for the year. Anyone who knows me will not be surprised by any of these choices. I’m not exactly subtle in what I like and dislike. Before listing them, though, I must state three things.
First, I loved all of these albums, or I wouldn’t be listing them here. That is, once you’ve made it to Valhalla or Olympus, why bother with too many distinctions. The differences between my appreciation of number 8 and number 2, for example, are marginal at best.
Second, I am intentionally leaving a couple of releases out of the rankings: releases from Echolyn, The Enid, Minstrel’s Ghost, Galahad, and Kompendium, in particular, as I simply did not have time to digest them. Though, from what I’ve heard, I like each very much.
Third, I think that 2012 has proven to be the single greatest year in prog history. DPRP’s Brian Watson has argued that we’re in the “third wave of prog.” He might very well be right. But, I don’t think we’ve ever surpassed the sheer quality of albums released this year. This is not to belittle anything that has come before. Quite the contrary. I am, after all, a historian by profession and training. The past is always prologue. Close to the Edge, Selling England by the Pound, and Spirit of Eden will always be the great markers of the past.
Ok, be quiet, Brad. On with the rankings.
Progarchists, our friend and ally, Robin Armstrong, just announced a slight delay in the release of the new Cosmograf album, The Man Left in Space. The album will now be released at the end of January 2013, giving Robin a bit of cushion in the final production. Robin’s full post (complete with wonderful Rush references in the title) can be found here:
Also, Robin would like as many as possible to “like” Cosmograf on Facebook:
Of course, it should go with out stating that every Progarchist should own the first three Cosmograf albums as well as pre-order The Man Left in Space. Sadly, the first one is very difficult to find, but let’s hope Robin reissues it.
Comograf’s music can best be described–if a comparison is necessary–as a cross between Ayreon and Big Big Train–theatric, eclectic, and totally prog. Despite the comparison, Robin’s music is certainly original, and he is, no doubt, his own man and artist. The new album will feature other Progarchy favorites, Greg Spawton and Nick D’Virgilio of Big Big Train and Matt Stevens of The Fierce and the Dead. Additionally, our generation’s Phill Brown, Rob Aubrey, is helping with engineering. And (yes, I’m incredibly proud of this), I have a few spoken lines on the album. How cool is that? Very.
What would happen if Led Zeppelin and Queen joined forces to write not just a soundtrack but a full-fledged movie with a story told in the grand tradition of Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, or, the best of all, Walter Miller’s Canticle of Leibowitz? Maybe Vernor Vinge might contribute as well. Or, what if all five authors came together to produce one absolutely huge science-fiction story dealing with life, death, amusement, boredom, hypocrisy, statism, ideology, eco-destruction, godlessness, and every other issue that really matters but which we more often than not find convenient to ignore?
And, what might happen if you found Ridley Scott or Chris Nolan or Alex Proyas to direct?
Maybe you could throw some elements of The Island or Dark City or Equilibrium or Brazil into the film? The serious issues raised by the first, the film noir of the second, the violent intensity of the third, and the dark humor of the fourth.
And, maybe you might be able to get the man who made replicants feel so very, very real to lead this surreal dark descent into an ideological and inhumane dystopia (it’s worth remembering that when Plato used the Greek word, “utopia,” he chose the word because it meant “no where”)?
And, what if instead of Led Zeppelin and Queen you found a man who could not only write compelling space operas but who also had the courage to state some really uncomfortable truths about the post-modern world and where we might, as a species, be headed? And. . . who could also sing well and seemingly play very well every instrument known to the rock world?
And not just well, but really, really, really well?
If you could bring all of these disparate things together, you might find at the center of this eccentric collection one of the most interesting and original science-fiction story tellers of our day, a perfectionist by the name of Arjen Anthony Lucassen. Or, as he playfully puts it in the liner notes: “Recorded, produced, mixed and mastered by Arjen ‘I’m not a control freak’ Lucassen at the Electric Castle.” Oh, I like this man, and I’ve never had the grand privilege of meeting him.
And, you might find that all of his previous work–with the prog operas of Ayreon, the theatric romance of Ambeon, the prog metal of Star One, and the driving Goth prog of Guilt Machine–led to this most recent story, “Lost in the New Real.”
Lucassen has created a prog and science-fiction masterpiece with this brand new release. Every thing is perfect–the story, the lyrics, the narration (by Rutger Hauer, of Blade Runner fame), and even the CD booklet. Every thing. Perfect.
And, what an over-the-top bombast of thought–all connected, all meaningful–a trip through so many emotions and realizations. A blast, to be sure.
In his video promo for the album, Lucassen states the “Lost in New Real” is a culmination of every thing he’s done before in terms of musical styles: a mixture of psychedelic, of prog, of power pop, and of metal. But, the story is so compelling and immersive and the types of music so appropriate to each respective part of the story, all feels like one centric whole, no matter the style changes.
With Hauer’s narration and Lucassen’s flawless delivery, I happily journeyed down this rabbit hole.
The story revolves around a Mr. L, revived in the future and guided by an omnipresent “hardheaded shrink” (Rutger Hauer) to help this man of the past adjust to the future.
The future, known as “The New Real,” hasn’t worked out too well. For one thing, their history is totally off: Ronald Reagan won numerous Oscars; the Rolling Stones never touched drugs; and Madonna was actually a virgin.
At some point in the not so distant past of this future, Yellowstone blew, spewing toxic fumes around the world. Now all that remains of western North America is, presumably, a plaque to commemorate “Yellowstone Memorial Day,” the day that the human race finally learned that Mother Nature ultimately always trumps technology.
The e-police (a wonderful play on Cheap Trick’s famous song of yesteryear) watch over every thing and privacy is a thing long forgotten. Humans live to 164 and find life incredibly boring. Thankfully, though, Dr. Slumber will happily euthanize you into the next world, complete with pretty nurses and bouncy Beatle-like music.
Most interestingly, though, the government has instituted a “Parental Procreation” policy, and parents must submit official forms to the state for approval to bring children into the world. (I can guarantee the reader that should Mr. Lucassen’s vision ever become reality, your current reviewer and his family would be in serious trouble.)
In the end, Mr. L cannot determine if he’s human anymore or if he has become mechanized beyond recognition. “I’m alive . . . But in a dream. Am I only. . .a machine?” Whatever Mr. L’s fate, the story ends with his despair. Even the narrator seems to have given up after giving a bit of a tricksterish chuckle.
Ok, so let’s bring in not just Bradbury, Huxley, and Orwell (who appears in the story–he “was hot!”) but also every important critic of modernity, postmodernity, and extreme glorification of technology: from Romano Guardini to Russell Kirk to Marshall McLuhan. All of this can be found in this magical mystery tour through the whirligig of our post-modern abyss.
But, it’s not over. Disk Two (yes, Lucassen seems constitutionally incapable of doing any thing only partially) is full of really interesting covers (Pink Floyd (an absolutely stunning metal cover of “Welcome to the Machine”), Led Zeppelin, Alan Parsons, and Frank Zappa) as well as glorious original tunes–vignettes, if you will–of the world of the “New Real.” After exploring the essential questions of our humanity on Disk One, Lucassen asks the larger existential questions respecting the universe. The most intriguing question he asks (“Our Imperfect Race” and “So Is There No God?”): would it be better for aliens to exist or not? Wouldn’t it actually be the more horrible of the two possibilities if all of existence and life and purpose really did rest on us–and us alone–in the entirety of existence, time, and space?
As I stated earlier, this two-disk affair is one seamless, intelligent, and mischievous blast of sound and ideas. As many times as I’ve listened to it already, I can’t stop smiling. Every line, every transition just makes me thankful such a thing as this exists.
I’ve enjoyed every thing Lucassen has done over the past fifteen years, though he’s often much heavier in his music than I would have thought I would have liked–I being a Big Big Train, Talk Talk, Genesis, Marillion, Tin Spirits, Gazpacho, Matt Stevens kind of guy. (Still, I’m a huge Rush, The Reasoning, Riverside, and Oceansize fan–so maybe there’s more heaviness in my tastes than I often think).
But, I like every thing Lucassen has accomplished, and I’m certainly not alone. There’s a strong following behind Lucassen, and, I assume, it will grow only much wider and much deeper with this latest album. He is a man willing to take any number of chances, and, thus far, the deities of prog have been faithful to him.
With “Lost in the New Real,” Lucassen approaches as closely to Olympus as the gods will allow. Ave!
[A slightly different version of this appeared on my personal blog this past summer--ed.]