While “pax” literally translates as peace, people generally use the term “Pax Romana” to refer to a golden age of Imperial Rome. Well, if that’s the case, then the year 2013 has left no doubt that we are in another golden age for progressive rock.
Now, you will have excuse me a bit for the “Progorama” thing in the title, but that’s the closest thing to alliteration that came to mind. “Pax Progtopia” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as well. There were a few other ideas I had, and none of them were very good … “Pax Progorama” worked the best, ok? Hyphens added upon request.
The other question is this – do I have the best, most appropriate historical metaphor? Could the current era be just as well described as a prog renaissance? Probably. We could liken the 1970′s as the original Pax Prog-O-Rama … the punk rockers as the barbarians who finally toppled a weakening empire … the 1980′s and early 1990′s as the Dark Ages (with of course, the neo-proggers being the Monks/Byzantines that preserved the flame of Western Civilization) … the rise of the Internet being equivalent to the Gutenberg printing press … and the late-1990′s and beyond representing the Renaissance and the spreading of new ideas, knowledge, and in our case here – art. Maybe I should go back and rewrite the beginning of this post. Then again, as Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber says …. naaaaahh (start at the point about where 1:00 minute remains …).
No matter what metaphor you choose, the resulting conclusion is still the same: Anno Domini 2013 was an incredible year for progressive rock, quite possibly the best ever. I don’t say that lightly. This year also gives weight to the opinion (mine, anyway) that our current Golden Age of prog has surpassed the previous one – and I don’t say that lightly, either. The past few years, and 2013 in particular, have been nothing short of an embarrassment of riches for prog lovers. Just how good was 2013? Let’s take a look. Read the rest of this entry
The year, frankly, has overwhelmed me—but all in a good way. As someone who has followed prog rather consciously since about 1981 (age 13) and has been exposed to it since about 1971 (age 3), I love the genre. Frankly, I love many forms of music, including classical, opera, and jazz. I’ve never learned to appreciate anything about country and rap, and, given that I’m 46, such prejudices will probably remain.
Sometime around age 22 or 23, though, I realized that financially, I was going to have to chose a genre if I wanted to collect and listen with any seriousness. Perhaps it’s the slight OCD or some other quirk I possess, but I’ve never liked doing any thing half way. In fact, as my maternal grandparents taught me—whether in taking care of the yard or cooking a meal or baking a loaf of bread or even in helping a neighbor—there’s no sense at all in doing something only partially. In fact, to do anything partially was to slap yourself, integrity, and God in the face. If you’re going to do something, do it well. In fact, do it with excellence, if you possibly can.
So, if I wanted to throw myself into a genre, and not do it halfway, I had to choose between jazz and prog. I love poetry too much, so prog seemed the best genre, as I find much to appreciate in fine lyric writing. And, even in psychedelic lyric writing, there’s a joy to figuring out the puzzle of imagery.
And, so choosing prog, I realized soon after that I’d chosen a genre made up a lot of folks like myself—a number of OCD perfectionists! And, I found that almost everyone making prog was (and is!) deeply committed and intelligent. And, so were (and are!) the fans. No one who loves the superficial of life becomes a prog musician, artist, or aficionado.
The problem was, of course, that when I was age 22 (1990), there wasn’t a lot of prog happening. At least not much new was coming out. Yet, prog could be found all throughout the rock world—though not always in the likeliest places. As a genre, though, prog was probably at its lowest point in terms of what was being released. Yet. . . yet. . . we were only a few years away from Brave and The Light and The Flower King . . .
Flash forward 23 years. Holy schnikees. What a year 2013 has been. Really, could it be better? Doubtful. And, as I mentioned in my Preliminary Awards piece a few days ago, an argument could be made that we’ve reached the pinnacle, the Mount Everest of Prog! I know, I know. Eric Perry is going to slap me down for being hyperbolic. Damnit, Eric, I’m from Kansas! We’re not exactly subtle!!!
Phew. Ok, I feel better getting all of that out.
Two quick comments. First, these are in no order, other than alphabetical. Frankly, these albums are just too good to allow my own will to separate one from another by “better or better.” With one exception. I would think any lover of the genre would want to own each of these. Second, there are several albums that I suspect are wonderful, but do to my loan limitation because of family and work, I didn’t have time to absorb. This latter list includes releases by Sam Healy (SAND is en route to the States as I type this), Mike Kershaw, Haken, Francisco Rafert, Ollocs,and Sky Architects, I apologize to these artists, as they took the time to contact me, and I was unable to give them credit where credit is due. In due time, I will, however.
So, the list of the must-own cds of 2013, with two important exceptions.
Ayreon, The Theory of Everything. I hope to offer a full review of this soon, and I think fellow progarchist Tad Wert will as well. The earlier series of Ayreon albums—possibly and arguably one of the most complex science fiction stories ever written—seems to have become self contained and at an end. Now, if I’m understanding the lyrics from Arjen Lucassen’s latest correctly, Ayreon has become a project about exploring the self rather than about the self exploring the universe. This is not easy listening, in terms of music or lyrics. The former is a shifting feast of glory, no idea lasting more than two or three minutes before gorgeously transforming into some new idea, and the latter is deeply introspective and intelligent. I’ve never had the chance to meet Arjen, but I would guess that he must be about as interesting as possible. For him to keep such a huge range of ideas in one album, musically and lyrically, screams brilliance. I only have one complaint with this release. I’m a huge fan of Arjen’s voice, and he relies on the voices of others. All good, if not outstanding, but I want Arjen’s voice.
Cosmograf, The Man Left in Space. Phew. Yes, let me write that one more time. Phew. That English chronometric and entrepreneurial demigod, Robin Armstrong, has now released four albums under the project name of Cosmograf. Each is better than the last. And, each of “the last” was pretty amazing and astounding and outstanding and lovely and meaningful and . . . you get the point. The Man Left in Space is existentialism at its best. Just as Arjen has written one of the finest science fiction stories of the last century, Robin has given us the musical equivalent of of the works of Albert Camus and Gabriel Marcel. Add to near perfect story telling the musical work of Greg Spawton, Matt Stevens, Nick D’Virgilio, and, among the best, Robin himself, and you have a work of art that will stand the test of time. A family man who loves speed, Robin also loves excellence.
Days Between Stations, In Extremis. This one was a complete surprise to me. A review copy arrived in the mail, courtesy of the band and the master of American prog PR, Billy James. I was intrigued by the cover [que, background sound, Brad’s mother: “Never trust a book by its cover. . . “], though I frankly don’t like it that much. It’s by the famous Paul Whitehead, but it’s a little too psychedelic for my tastes. But, then, I looked at the musician list. Holy smokes! Tony Levin, Billy Sherwood, Colin Moulding, and Rick Wakeman. How did this come about, I wondered? Sherwood and Moulding sing on the album, and neither has ever sounded better. Indeed, they seemed to have been created and birthed for this album. Overall, In Extremis is symphonic prog at its best. At 8 tracks over 70 minutes, the album never lags. It flows together beautifully and movingly. There are some of the most gut-wrenching passages, emotionally, I’ve ever heard in a prog album. And, the two main members of the band, Oscar Fuentis Bills and Sepand Samzadeh, know exactly when to linger over a musical part and when to move on. The high point: The Eggshell Man. I have no idea who or what he is, but I’d like to meet him.
The Fierce and the Dead, Spooky Action. Four great guys—Matt Stevens, Kev Feazey, Stuart Marshall, and Steve Cleaton—making the best music possible for two other great guys, David Elliott, European Perspective Guy (I think this is official superhero name) and founder of Bad Elephant Music, along with the hilarious and artful James Allen. Matt Stevens is a stunning person and artist. It’s been fascinating and heartening to watch him struggle as he makes his way into the profession. He very openly asks about opportunities. Should he pursue fame first or art first? I always know where Matt is going to land. Probably many of us do. He always comes down on the side of art, knowing the fame will follow when it follows. I hope and pray he never changes his mind or soul regarding this. There are lots and lots of folks out there—not just progarchists—cheering these guys on. As my close friend and fellow progarchist, Pete Blum, has said, nothing has hit him so hard since the days of Zappa. And, for Pete, this is a massive and important statement. Everything on this album is wonderful. In particular, I’m quite taken with Parts 4 and 5, a continuation of a theme that Matt and the guys started with Part I, their 19 minutes epic from their very first release. TFATD, not surprisingly, also seems to have started somewhat of a sub genre within prog, the prog instrumental album. In otherwords, what TFATD is doing is roughly equivalent to what progressive jazz was in the 1960s and 1970s. A good sign for the health of all concerned. In particular, newly emerging bands such as Ollocs and Rafert are also releasing instrumental albums, all of them quite good.
The Flower Kings, Desolation Rose. This release surprised me as well, but not for the reason Days Between Stations did. As far as I know, I own everything Roine Stolt has made or contributed to since about 1994. Every side project, everything. So, there was never a question about whether or not I would buy the new Flower Kings album. I would certainly list Space Revolver (2000) and Paradox Hotel (2006) as two of my favorite albums of all time. Stolt always has the power to release wonder in me. Whether it’s the wonder about the first day of creation (Unfold the Future) or John Paul’s Pizza (Space Revolver), I love the libertarian, hippie, playful spirit of Stolt and the band. Really, think about the members of this band. Stolt, Bodin, Reingold, Froberg, and Lehrmann. Already reads like a “supergroup.” Not that they can’t be as serious as they can be trippy. One only has to listen to “Bavarian Skies” or the “Ghost of Red Cloud” to know just how deep they can be. What surprised me about the new album, “Desolation Rose” is just how political and angry it is. I don’t disagree with the anger or the politics. In fact, I think I totally agree. But, “Desolation Rose,” lyrically, is about as far away from “Stardust We Are” as one could possibly imagine. This diversity just demonstrates how talented this Swedish band really is. The entire album builds until it reaches its highpoint (in terms of intensity) in “Dark Fascist Skies.” The final two songs, “Blood of Eden” and “Silent Graveyards,” offer a rather calming denouement.
Fractal Mirror, Strange Attractors. I’ve already had a chance to write a long review of this excellent album on progarchy, and it was (and is) a great honor do so. Strange Attractors is not only one of the best releases of 2013, it’s the freshman release of a brand new group. Three folks—all of whom met one another through the internet prog community (how cool is this!)—makes up this band. Leo Koperdraat, Ed Van Haagen, and Frank Urbaniak. But, we have to add a fourth. It’s art comes from Brian Watson. This is really important. Not only is Watson an amazing artist, but he also creates an image for the band in the way one associates Yes with Roger Dean, Talk Talk with James Marsh, and Jim Trainer with Big Big Train. It’s one of the joys of prog. The art can be (and should be!) as beautiful and meaningful as the music and lyrics. But, back to the music. The three members of Fractal Mirror have created a stunning progressive soundscape, gothic and heavy in tone, but light in the space created. I realize this sounds like a contradiction, and I wish I had the ability to explain it better. I don’t, sadly. It’s really not like anything I’ve heard before. Suffice it to state, it’s quite refreshing and welcoming in its own intensity.
Leah, Otherworld. This is the only EP to make the “best of” list this year. It’s also the only release I’m listing in which the artist (Leah McHenry) doesn’t consider herself a progger. She places herself more in the metal camp, and this becomes obvious in the final song of the EP, “Dreamland,” a beauty and the beast duet with lots of metal “growling.” Whatever one wants to label Leah’s musical style—and I would call it a cross between Sarah Maclachlan and Arjen Lucassen—it is very artful. Leah’s voice could haunt a moor! So much depth, truth, and beauty in every note. The EP is only five songs long—Shores of Your Lies, Northern Edge, Surrounded, Do Not Stand, and Dreamland. The first four possess a very Celtic/Nordic northern edge to them. In fact, I called my initial review of the EP, “On the Northern Edge of Prog.” I’m not bragging, but I am rather proud of this title. it seems to capture exactly what Leah is. Arjen Lucassen, if you read this blog, please look into Leah’s music. I could see the two of you working very well together. Leah, as it turns out, is also about as interesting a person as one might find anywhere. Since Otherworld first arrived at progarchy hq, it’s been in constant listening rotation, and I pretty much have every note and lyric memorized at this point.
Kingbathmat, Overcoming the Monster. When we first started progarchy just a little over a year ago, I received a note from Stereohead Records of the U.K., asking me if we’d be interested in reviewing a cd by Kingbathmat. Sure, I thought. Of course. Only the dead wouldn’t be intrigued by a band with that name. Well, since then, I’ve not only listened to about as much Kingbathmat as exists (still missing a small bit of their back catalogue, but this will be rectified at the beginning of 2014, when the new tax year begins!). I love these guys. I’ve had the chance to get to know John Bassett and Bernard (he seems to have several last names on the internet!). What incredible guys. Really a band of Peart’s “Tom Sawyers.” Mean, mean stride, never renting the mind to god or government. Smart, insightful, unafraid. Frankly, these are the kind of guys I would want next to me should I ever find myself under fire. As with Leah, I’m not sure that Kingbathmat is perfectly prog. But, then again, if it’s “perfectly prog,” it’s probably not prog at all. Kingbathmat mix a number of styles, many of them heavy, to form a mythic maze of musical inspiration. They are by far the heaviest in my list for 2013. The “Tom Sawyer” reference is not just lyrical. Parts of Kingbathmat pay great homage to early and mid-period Rush. Of all Rush albums, Counterparts is my least favorite. That doesn’t mean I don’t love it. I’ve been a Rush man since 1981, and I will die a Rush man. So, any criticism is relative. But, if you could imagine Rush entering the studio with the music of Counterparts, the lyrics more intense than culturally sensitive, and a producer who wants to rock, really rock, you’d have an inkling of what “Overcoming the Monster” is. Every song is a joy. Not in the precious, sappy sense, but in the satisfying, just sense. Everything is really quite perfect: vocals, bass, guitar, drums. Since I first received a copy of OVERCOMING, I’ve probably listened to it every other day. After a hard day of teaching (a job I love) or writing something scholarly, there’s nothing quite like putting this cd on, sitting back, and saying, “yeah, it was a good day.”
Nosound, Afterthoughts. Giancarlo Erra might be the anti-Kingbathmat. Erra, an Italian demigod of sound in his own right, loves silence and space as much as Kingbathmat loves walls of Rush/Soundgarden-like sounds of thunder! Indeed, Erra has a lot of Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock in him, a lot of Arvo Part, too. If there are three notes, maybe there should be two. If there are two notes, maybe there should be one. If there is one note, maybe you should let silence have its say. I’ve been following the work of Giancarlo Erra for almost a decade now. He always entrances and entices me. He creates soundscapes so powerfully delicate that one wants to drown in their dreamlike, twilight quality. He’s also every bit the lyricist Hollis was at his best. He’s also really a complete artist. He not only writes his music and lyrics, he creates his own packaging, is a rather jaw-dropping photographer, and even designs his own computer apps. I was thrilled that Kscope just re-released his early masterpiece, Lightdark (2008), remastered. As with Lightdark, Afterthoughts just flows. Gentle, punctuated, quiet, loud, emptiness, walls. Listening to Afterthoughts is akin to standing on a peak in the Idaho Rockies, watching a violent storm pass under you in an adjoining valley. Nothing is unneeded, and nothing needs to be added. Afterthoughts is what it is, another Erra masterpiece.
Two more to go, but supper’s ready . . . .
Last year was an incredible year for Progressive Music (note: upper case), but in my opinion, 2013 has been even better. Thanks to this community (Progarchy) and the ever-lively Big Big Train Facebook group, I have been exposed to more new prog in 2013 than in any year since the halcyon days of the early 70s. As a result, my wallet has been considerably lightened, but my musical universe has been enriched way beyond mere monetary value.
What follows is a brief review of my top ten purchases in 2013 – albums received for review or borrowed from friends are not included, however much I enjoyed them. The list is alphabetic, as each of these albums is my favourite when I’m listening to it, depending on my mood.
Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused To Sing: A superb album from start to finish, replete with powerful, hard-rocking passages, beautiful melodies, jazzy interludes, lush arrangements, and oodles of emotion (not something SW is renowned for). Much as I enjoy SW’s guitar playing, I’m delighted that he has handed over most of the guitar work to the incredible Guthrie Govan and stepped back to be more of a musical director – he has always been an excellent songwriter, but I think his compositions have benefitted greatly from this change of focus. I also think this is Wilson’s strongest and most confident vocal performance ever. Of course the rest of the band members are all outstanding, but in particular I love Wilson’s use of Theo Travis’ woodwinds to add an extra dimension that was sometimes lacking in the Porcupine Tree soundscape.
Spock’s Beard – Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep: I love Nick D’Virgilio’s singing and drumming and was concerned when I heard that he’d left Spock’s Beard, but I needn’t have worried. I thought X was an excellent album, but Brief Nocturnes is even better. Ted Leonard not only brings his powerful and emotive vocal delivery to the band (I think he’s the best vocalist the Beard have had to date), but also his strong compositional skills, which were always evident with Enchant. And Jimmy Keegan is a monster drummer, a worthy full-time successor to the vacated “batterie” stool (he’s been touring with the band for years). Ryo’s keyboard work has also been going from strength to strength since Neal Morse, the uber-controlling force, left the band, while Alan Morse and Dave Meros seem to be even more energised by the injection of new blood into the band. A strong set of songs, powerfully delivered by a great band.
Sanguine Hum – The Weight of the World: Sanguine Hum are one of my favourite “new” finds. This Oxford-based band deliver layered and beautifully structured compositions with plenty of dynamics, which never fail to surprise and delight. One reviewer described their approach as “polymath”, but I think this may give the wrong impression – while their music is precise, it is never clinical, and while complex, it is never complicated for the sake of it. Although I slightly prefer their first album, “Diving Bell”, “Weight of the World” is an excellent album that gets repeated listening, and will continue to do so.
Riverside – Shrine of New Generation Slaves: “SoNGS”, to my ears, is the best Riverside album since their impressive debut “Out Of Myself” in 2004. With greater emphasis on songwriting rather than thrash, and more varied textures that their last few albums, this album is imminently listenable, apart from the rather tiresome first few minutes of the opening song, which seems to stutter along for ages before it gets going. Mariusz Duda’s side project, Lunatic Soul, is definitely bleeding back into Riverside, which I’m delighted about. More, please Mariusz…
Haken – The Mountain: For me, the find of the year. Two months go I’d never heard of this band, but now I have all three of their albums and can’t stop listening to them. “The Mountain” is a real tour de force, with light and shade, strong melodies, excellent harmonies, tight ensemble playing and impressive pyrotechnics that are just right in context of each song, when they explode. I think their “Gentle Giant” moment (The Cockroach King) is one of the finest since the great band themselves were performing – far better than Spock’s Beard’s efforts (which are nevertheless uniformly good), and rivalling Kevin Gilbert’s genius in his “Suit Canon”. This band has everything (except a permanent bass player – sad that I’m living on the wrong continent, too old and simply not talented enough to audition for the post… !). Great album, and great band with a stellar future.
Cosmograf – The Man Left In Space: I’m a sucker for good sci-fi – combine it with superb songwriting and musicianship from wide range of musicians and I’m in there, lead boots, space suit and all. The first time I heard this album, I thought some of the the interludes caused the album to lose momentum musically, but repeated listening has completely dispelled that impression. I now think this is a beautifully balanced album, lyrically and musically, and I’m really looking forward to the next Cosmograf album (which is always a good sign).
Big Big Train – English Electric Full Power: “English Electric”, parts 1 and 2, were already two of my all-time favourite albums, but the combined and expanded package, “Full Power”, has raised the bar even higher. I have already written full reviews of the individual albums (here on Progarchy and elsewhere), so suffice to say that the re-ordering of the songs and the additional material has created one of the most satisfying listening experiences I’ve had since I first became “aware” of music. Brilliant songwriting, meaningful lyrics, exemplary delivery, superb, lush production. And of course, there’s also the magnificent packaging…
Ayreon – The Theory of Everything: Two adjectives often associated with Ayreon are “bombastic” and “overblown”, but I prefer to use adjectives such as “majestic” and “melodic”. Arjen Lucassen has more musical ideas than is reasonable for any single human being, and he seems to be a helluva nice guy as well. “The Theory of Everything” is his best work, including side projects, since “The Human Equation”, which was my first encounter with his music and still my favourite. However, I’ve only had TTOE for two weeks, and already it is threatening to nudge THE aside. With a stellar cast of musicians and singers, including major prog alumni John Wetton, Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson, Jordan Rudess and Steve Hackett, he’s created another intense epic work that soars and delights, while examining the very human themes of genius, deception, ambition, pride and love. As a scientist, I also appreciate the recurring symbol of the lighthouse, representing intellect and science casting illumination through the gloom. Brilliant album.
The Aristocrats – Culture Clash: This band has literally blown my socks off (it’s OK, it’s summer in the southern hemisphere, so I’m not too uncomfortable). I bought the “Boing! We’ll Do It Live” DVD earlier this year, and was mesmerised by the incredible technical abilities of the three musicians, Govan Guthrie (guitar), Marco Minnemann (drums) and Bryan Beller (bass). But this is not just a musical show-off band – not only do they write splendid (instrumental) music that crosses a vast range of genres (truly Progressive), but their obvious enjoyment of the music, and each other, is completely infectious. “Culture Clash”, their second album, sees them settling into their relationships and interactions, and writing music specifically for each other – and it’s a sheer delight. Want more!
Antione Fafard – Occultus Tramatis: I get to listen to a lot of new music while I’m working, putting science textbooks together. Much of it tends to slip by me while I’m concentrating on the work, but every now and then an album wrests my attention from whatever I’m doing and forces me to focus on the music. “Occultus Tramatis” was one of those albums. Canadian bassist Antione Fafard has put together a star-studded cast of jazz, jazz-fusion and progressive rock performers including Jerry Goodman and drummers Simon Phillips, Chad Wackerman, Terry Bozzio and Gavin Harrison, and produced an outstanding album of prog fusion, which despite its musical complexity and ever changing time signatures is nevertheless fresh and rewarding, revealing different possibilities every time you listen to it. Each track has its own feel, with changes of pace, a variety of complex rhythms and contrasting instrumental arrangements, but the album still still has an organic flow. I listened to my review copy twice straight through, and immediately ordered the CD. Challenging, but excellent.
Thieves’ Kitchen – One For Sorrow, Two For Joy: I marginally prefer The Water Road, but this is a strong collection of jazzy prog songs.
Roy Harper – Man and Myth: Powerful, emotional work.
The Flower Kings – Desolation Rose: Their darkest album to date, but a real return to form. May have made it into my top 10 if it had arrived earlier.
Amplifier – Echo Street: Gorgeous guitar-based, atmospheric music.
Airbag – The Greatest Show On Earth: Only arrived last week. Excellent album that is rapidly growing on me.
Lifesigns: This is a strange one for me. I really like the instrumental work, but some of the compositions seem to meander for long periods. And I can’t get into the vocals – the delivery seems flat and unidimensional to me. Sorry.
Not considered (see above, but added to my wish list):
Comedy of Errors – Fanfare & Fantasy
Days Between Stations – In Extremis
Dream Theater – Dream Theater
KingBathmat – Overcoming the Monster
Levin Minnemann Rudess – LMR
Magenta – The Twenty Seven Club
Moon Safari – Himlabacken Vol. 1
Persona Grata – Reaching Places High Above
PFM – Da Mozart A Celebration
Shadow Circus – On A Dark and Stormy Night
Sound of Contact – Dimensionaut
The Tangent – Le Sacre Du Travail
TesseracT – Altered State
Verbal Delirium – From The Small Hours of Weakness
Von Hertzen Brothers – Nine Lives
So much to listen to, so little time. Prog has never been healthier.
What a bountiful year 2013 has been for good music. All the albums on my Best Of list are destined to become classics, I’m sure! So, let’s count them down, all the way to Number 1:
11. TesseracT: Altered State. I’ll kick the list off with the most unabashedly heavy album, but one that has grown on me over the past few months. Ashe O’Hara is a terrific vocalist, and the band lays down a multilayered bed of crunching guitars, drums, and bass for him to soar over. The songs are divided into four groups, “Of Matter”, “Of Mind”, “Of Reality”, and “Of Energy”. These guys know their mathematics, as well! One of the songs is “Calabi-Yau”, and the artwork includes the E8 Root System, a hypercube, and an Apollonian sphere. Best track: “Nocturne” (Check out the moment of transcendence at 3:14) -
10. Riverside: Shrine of New Generation Slaves. Mariusz Duda’s side project, Lunatic Soul, has had a pronounced effect on Riverside’s music, and that’s all to the good, in my opinion. SoNGS is more melodic and varied than anything they’ve produced so far, and even though it came out early in 2013, it still stays close to my sound system. Go for the two-disc set, which adds two extended tracks that flirt with ambient jazz. Best track: “Feel Like Falling” -
9. Steven Wilson: The Raven That Refused To Sing. Very few artists push themselves as hard as Steven Wilson, and TRTRTS is another leap forward for him. I’m thinking at this point he’s left the world of prog, and he is his own genre. Not everything works – “Luminol” is too much Yes-jams-with-Herbie-Hancock for my taste, but when he clicks, no one comes close. Best track: the achingly beautiful “The Raven That Refused To Sing” -
8. Big Big Train: English Electric: Full Power. Much has been written on this site about the sheer wonderfulness of this collection. The care that went into the accompanying booklet is a joy to behold. The resequencing of songs works well, and the new opener “Come On Make Some Noise” is as fun as a classic Badfinger single from the 70′s. I’m a Tennessee boy, but I could easily spend the rest of my days in the pastoral Albion depicted in BBT’s Full Power. Best Track: “Uncle Jack” -
7. Cosmograf: The Man Left In Space. A sci-fi concept album about the dangers of all-consuming ambition and the isolation that results, this is a very satisfying album both musically and lyrically. One of the most-played discs of the year in my household. Best track: “Aspire Achieve” -
6. Ayreon: The Theory Of Everything. A recent release, so I haven’t had a chance to fully absorb this sprawling work. Arjen Lucassen is the Verdi of progressive rock, composing magnificent operas that explore what it means to be human in today’s dehumanizing times. For TTOE, Lucassen gathered the most talented roster of musicians and vocalists yet – including John Wetton, Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson, Jordan Rudess, and Steve Hackett. The story itself leaves behind the sci-fi thread that previous Ayreon albums followed to chronicle the travails of a small group of family and colleagues torn apart by autism, deception, envy, academic ambition, and pride. Throw in a dash of the supernatural, and this is a very thought-provoking work. Best track: “Magnetism” -
And now it’s time for the Top Five!
5. Kingbathmat: Overcoming the Monster. This band has been very prolific lately, releasing Truth Button and Overcoming the Monster in a matter of months. OTM is a fantastic set of songs about the different “monsters” we all encounter in our day to day lives. Most impressive of all, Kingbathmat have developed a truly unique sound that is accessible yet new. I can’t wait to hear the next iteration of it. Best track: “Kubrick Moon” -
4. Sound Of Contact: Dimensionaut. I’m sure SoC’s vocalist and drummer Simon Collins is tired of comparisons to Genesis (he’s Phil’s son), but that is what first strikes the hearer of this outstanding album. Fortunately, repeated listening reveals SoC’s extraordinary talent in their own right. The songs themselves are perfectly constructed gems, and the production is top-notch. The band moves effortlessly from straight pop (“Not Coming Down”) to the most complex prog epic (“Mobius Strip”). Best track: “Pale Blue Dot” -
3. Days Between Stations: In Extremis. I’ve already written a full review of this immensely rewarding album in an earlier Progarchy post. Suffice it to say that this is already a classic. And Sepand Samzadeh is one of the nicest guys in the prog world! Best track: “Eggshell Man” -
2. Sanguine Hum: The Weight of the World. If XTC and Jellyfish had a child, Sanguine Hum might be it (with Frank Zappa for a godfather). This album is simply a delight to listen to, from start to finish. It’s one that reveals new details, regardless of how many times you hear it. Their secret weapon is Andrew Booker on drums. Reminiscent of Stewart Copeland’s work with The Police, Booker has a light and inventive touch that often becomes the lead instrument. The entire band generates an organic sound that is seductive and playful. Best track: “The Weight of the World” -
Album of the Year
1. Haken: The Mountain. Until a couple of months ago, I had never heard a note by this band. Fast forward to now, and there hasn’t been a 48-hour period when I haven’t listened to this album, in its entirety, at least once. An extraordinary meditation on the importance of never giving up on overcoming obstacles, The Mountain is a deeply moving work. Musically, it is progressive metal in the same vein as Dream Theater, Devin Townsend, and even Rush. Every single song is indispensable, but if I had to pick one, it would be “Pareidolia” -
Well, reader, thanks for hanging in there to the bitter end. I hope I’ve affirmed some of your own opinions and perhaps piqued some interest in an artist or two you’re not aware of yet. Here’s hoping 2014 is as good as 2013!
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”: