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Son of Aurelius — Under a Western Sun ★★★★★ @SonofAurelius

It is with great pleasure that I share with you a truly excellent prog metal album. Between July 1 and July 4, I selected my four favorite releases of the year thus far; over the past few days, I have been sharing them with you. I conclude that series of posts now with the album that I suspect will end up being ranked by me as Album of the Year when December rolls around.

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 will doubtless be our Prog Metal Album of the Year.

Son of Aurelius — Under a Western Sun

Max Zigman – Bass
Spencer Edwards – Drums
Cary Geare – Lead Guitar
Riley McShane – Vocals

Progarchist Rating: ★★★★★

Big Big Train News (from the source!)

English Electric Full Power.  A definitive album of third-wave prog.

English Electric Full Power. A definitive album of third-wave prog.

Big Big Train News

PROGRESSIVE MUSIC AWARDS NOMINATION

Big Big Train has been nominated in the Anthem category of the 2014 Progressive Music Awards which will be held in September at the Globe Theatre. Listeners can vote for their choice of Anthem and for their favourites in the other categories online at: http://awards.progmagazine.com/

BIG BIG TRAIN IN SESSION AT REAL WORLD

The band are spending a week at Real World studios in August 2014 where they will be rehearsing for live shows and filming performances of a number of songs for release on DVD and Blu-Ray. The band will be joined by Rikard Sjöblom of Beardfish who will be assisting with guitar and keyboards. Live shows will follow in 2015 and an announcement about the dates will be made in the autumn.

Some short films of the bands preparations and rehearsals for the Real World sessions are now online at: https://www.youtube.com/user/EngElecRecordings

NEW ALBUM

Big Big Train has been working on a number of new songs and it is expected that a new album will be released in 2015. Work also continues on the Station Masters retrospective collection.

LP’s AND TEE-SHIRTS

English Electric Part One and Part Two are both available as double LP’s on 180gm vinyl.

http://www.planegroovy.com/bigbigtrain.html

Big Big Train tee-shirts are available from our merchandising retailer, The Merch Desk:

http://themerchdesk.com/shop/index.php?route=product/category&path=87_115

Best wishes

Andy, Danny, Dave, David, Greg and Nick

Big Big Train

Follow the band on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/bigbigtrain

Join our Facebook group at: www.facebook.com/groups/bigbigtrain

What do Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado Have In Common with The Tangent and Big Big Train?

It's hard to tell, but I'm wearing my "Got Peart?" t-shirt.  And, there's a big, big train in the background.  Andy's motorcycle is missing, however.

It’s hard to tell, but I’m wearing my “Got Peart?” t-shirt. And, there’s a big, big train in the background. Andy’s motorcycle is missing, however.

 

Driving across the grass seas of western Nebraska and eastern Colorado this past week, I made sure my listening list was quite specific and quite orderly.  Across the western parts of Nebraska, traversing the mighty and winding Platte several times, I listened to Big Big Train, ENGLISH ELECTRIC PART ONE.  Not FULL POWER, but the original PART ONE.  Back to this in a moment.

Greg Marcus Aurelius Spawton

Greg Marcus Aurelius Spawton

Once the Platte split into north and south, I took the south fork, and I went for The Tangent’s THE MUSIC THAT DIED ALONE.  Andy always inspires me.  But, the combination of Andy and Roine Stolt as my car flew (legally, of course) through such nearly forgotten towns as Julesburg, Ovid, and Sedgwick proved perfect.  Andy never fails to find the beauty in lost hope.

Andy Tillison.  Master of Hope and Keytarism. (Picture - Martin Reijman)

Andy Tillison. Master of Hope and Keytarism.
(Picture – Martin Reijman)

A bit of patriotism hit me after The Tangent finished, so I went for Kansas’s THE POINT OF NO RETURN.  Amazingly enough, the entire album took me from the ending of THE MUSIC THAT DIED ALONE to our brand new house in Colorado.  Truly, as we driving up to the house in Longmont, the final notes of “Hopelessly Human” played.

As promised, back to BBT, ENGLISH ELECTRIC PART ONE (EEP1).  First, its pastoral tone fit the Nebraska countryside beautifully.  The skies, not surprisingly, were as broad as were deeply blue—the kind of blue one finds only in the Great Plains on a summer day.  But, the grasses were a treat as well—variations of greens and golds, generally quite tall and swaying under the pressure of the continental winds.

Second, I’ve not listened to EEP1 for at least a year.  Indeed, once ENGLISH ELECTRIC FULL POWER (EEFP) came out, I considered it the definitive edition, putting away PART ONE.

I won’t in any way, shape, or form suggest I had any thing at all to do with the final ordering of EEFP.  Such a claim would be nothing but hubris.  And, it would be completely false.  This was not, however, for want of trying.  I bugged Greg openly on the internet and privately through emails about this.  I interviewed him about it, and, as a friend, tried to put him in a corner.  Greg, the quintessential English Stoic gentleman, quietly (though not in quiet desperation, I pray) took the suggestions of this overly eager and earnest American (overly eager and earnestness are two of our defining traits as a people) with kindness.  Thank you, Greg.

I know there was some debate among the progarchists whether or not Greg and Co. were messing with a work of art unnecessarily by re-arranging the order of things and filling in the corners with EEFP.  But, from the beginning, I was on Greg’s side.  It’s his creation, and he can do with it as he will (and the rest of the members of the band, of course).

Listening to EEP1 this week only confirmed my thoughts.  It is a stunningly beautiful, calming, and mesmerizing work.  Like all great works of art, it demands full immersion by the participant.  Pastoral, it is also equally humane and cinematic.  It is a part of the English bardic tradition at its very best.  A community of minds and talents produced this album, and we are blessed indeed to exist in a world that allows such works of art to emerge and flourish.

But, for me, especially as a historian, EEP1 is now an incomplete yet intriguing part of a puzzle.  It belongs in the archives now, a glorious blueprint, but not quite the complete thing.

This discussion, I think, is not mere mental wrestling.  BBT is not just another band, and EEP1, EEP2, and EEFP are not just mere new releases.  BBT is a definitive band of prog’s third wave, and EEFP is possibly the finest statement of music over the last two and a half decades.  It is the legitimate successor to Talk Talk’s SPIRIT OF EDEN.

How the album came together, how it evolved, and how it is received is not merely academic.  It’s now a critical part of our history as lovers of music, art, and human genius.  It is now an integral part of the western tradition.  Long may it continue.

***

COL_00016_00022

Top Ten Prog Over Ten Minutes Long ★★★★★

In order to meet the challenge of listing my own Top Ten Prog Albums EVER, I imposed upon myself an additional requirement over and above the ones Brad specified.

Each album on the list, I insist, must contain at least one song that is over ten minutes long.

And so, given that sonnet-like constraint, here is my list:

★★★★★

Big Big Train — The Underfall Yard (H/T: “The Underfall Yard” [22:54] and “Victorian Brickwork” [12:33])

Kate Bush — Hounds of Love (H/T: “The Ninth Wave” [= Side Two of the LP, clocking in at 27 minutes])

Flying Colors — Flying Colors (H/T: “Infinite Fire” [12:00])

Genesis — Foxtrot (H/T: “Supper’s Ready” [23:06])

Haken — The Mountain (H/T: “Pareidolia” [10:51] and “Falling Back to Earth” [11:51])

King Crimson — Red (H/T: “Starless” [12:26])

Rush — A Farewell to Kings (H/T: “Xanadu” [11:12] and “Cygnus X-1″ [10:26])

Sound of Contact — Dimensionaut (H/T: “Möbius Slip” [19:36])

Transatlantic — The Whirlwind (H/T: The entire album is one song 78 minutes long! Or take “Dancing With Eternal Grace” [12:04])

Yes — Fragile (H/T: “Heart of the Sunrise” [11:33])

★★★★★

If I were allowed doubles then maybe I would substitute Yes’ Close to the Edge for the Haken and Big Big Train’s Far Skies Deep Time for the Sound of Contact.

But can I instead invent a new challenge?

How about the “Top Ten Rush Albums EVER”, ranked not alphabetically but in order of preference?

Vote for The Train

Make Some Noise is nominated in the Anthem Category. Lets make it a winner
Vote here

http://awards.progmagazine.com

Progarchy Post #999

We’ve reached our 999th post just four months shy of our second anniversary. Our progarchist (also a novelist, DPRP.net reviewer, as well as an all-around incredible guy) Eric Perry prompted me to write something for this auspicious occasion.

And, really, I would be a fool not to follow Eric’s advice on this or any thing else.

First, a huge thanks to all of the progarchists. Not a single one of us gets paid for any of this, but, as you can see, each and every member of the progarchy writing team gives her or his heart and soul to the endeavor. So much time, devotion, and dedication.

Progarchists might be faulted for being more enthusiastic than critical, but no one could fault us for not caring or for not putting forth our best. I am honored to write with such friends and allies in this world. Indeed, I’m more than a bit humbled to think that whatever powers that exist decided I’d get to share an existence with these fine folks.

Second, I want to thank the bands and individuals of the music community for being so open to us. We realize that every time you send us something, you do so as an act of faith. Not only do you spend an immense amount of your own money and your time to share your art with us, but you also extend to us your most sacred thoughts and ideas, your very creations from the very depths of your being.

Not only have we tried to treat your art with all the respect it demands, but we have done so by pledging that we will attempt to write as well as you construct, perform, and record your music.

Third, an equally immense thanks to all of our readers. Of course, you’re a most diverse group, and you come from every single part of the world, though the vast majority of readers come, understandably, from the U.K., the U.S., and other English speaking countries. We’re happy to have every one of you, and we thank you profoundly for allowing us to be a part of your lives. As of this writing, every single post goes via email to 1,951 of you. Another 200-1,500 readers visit us each day, depending on topic, day of the week, etc.

Though we founded progarchy—in large part—as a way to promote Big Big Train and The Tangent—we have, I think, added to this list while not neglecting our original desire to advance the art of Spawton, Tillison, and compatriots.

A final thanks to the labels, the promoters, and the PR women and men who have helped us in innumerable ways. Right off, I can think of Karisma, Glass Onyon, Fresno, Kscope, Cherry Red, Bad Elephant, Sally Collier, Chris Thompson (now retired), Billy James, Brian Rocha, Cleopatra, English Electric, and many others.

Our first post hit the web on October 11, 2012. So, we’re not quite two years old. Yet, so much has happened in the prog rock world since then. Already, the market was being saturated with prog releases and prog-related releases. Progarchists joked that we were drinking from the fire hose.

As of June 2014, this hasn’t subsided. But, the quality and expectations have risen dramatically. There really can no longer be any such thing as just “another release.” For an album to qualify as excellent or even very good, it has to reach a VERY different standard than it did only three years ago. Releases from Big Big Train, The Tangent, Cosmograf, and Glass Hammer especially have almost completely remade the genre. Not only are these bands and others releasing albums of the highest calibre, they have taken the genre to levels unimagined even during the first wave of Genesis, King Crimson, Yes, etc. Truly, there is progress.

We are, as mentioned earlier, absolutely thrilled to play any role—no matter how large or small—during this great moment of art, music, and history.

Big Big Train: Preparation for Real World

Some of you may have detected that a few of us Progarchists have, shall I say, a smidgen of rabid adoration for a British beat combo calling themselves Big Big Train.

BBT (for that acronym is how they are known to us!) are preparing for a live recording at Real World Studios in August of this year, and the chaps have just started posting videos of their preparations.

If you have heard BBT’s music you’ll certainly know how complex and multi-layered it can be, which is a potential challenge to bring to the stage, so it’s going to be fascinating to see how they’re going about it.

The first video sees Danny Manners and Andy Poole talk about how their keyboard rehearsals are going.

It’s very, very cool :)

BBT Video Opportunity

Fancy appearing on the forthcoming Big Big Train DVD?

All you need to do is film yourself asking the band a question. Greg Spawton provides further details on his blog.

Let’s see if any Progarchists can be immortalised on video…

A Progarchist Happy Birthday to John Simms

Progarchist John Simms with three members of Big Big Train.

Progarchist John Simms with three members of Big Big Train.

Using Available Light: The Skaldic Musings of Greg Spawton  

The cast.

The cast.

A review of “The Underfall Yard” from The Underfall Yard by Big Big Train (English Electric, 2009).  Song and words by Greg Spawton.  Additionally: David Longdon, vocals and vocal arrangements; Dave Gregory, guitars; Nick D’Virgilio, drums; Andy Poole, bass and keyboards; and [see image on right for a full list]

*****

As much I love albums, I’m always looking for that perfect song. The song that longs to linger in our souls after we’ve heard its last notes. The song that cries to the heavens in triumph, praise, and rage. The song that hovers over that second away from eternity, rooted in the human condition, but reaching for timelessness.

In my first two pieces of this series, I looked at Rush’s “Natural Science” (1980) and The Tangent’s “Where Are They Now” (2009)? In this article, I turn to none other than a well-recognized masterpiece, a (perhaps, THE) cornerstone of third-wave prog, “The Underfall Yard” (2009) by Big Big Train. It originally appeared at the final track of Big Big Train’s 2009 album of the same name, the first to feature the vocals of the incomparable David Longdon.

Six seconds short of twenty-three minutes in length, “The Underfall Yard” is epic in every sense of the meaning of the word. I once gave it to a non-prog friend of mine as an introduction to the genre. He liked it (really, who couldn’t?), but he also joked, “Brad, when I started the song, I didn’t realize I’d have to miss dinner to finish it.”

The lyrics of the song reveal its scope best:

Using available light

He could still see far skies,

Deep time

Beyond, above, and yet below the far skies rests (not contentedly) deep time. Indeed, given the song, one must imagine deep time as equal parts restless but also confident in its restlessness, sure of itself even in its transitions.

Always a superb lyricist, Spawton reveals his most intimate and poetic sense in this song overall. The words are at once hopeful and melancholic, the piece as a whole trapped in a slowly shifting twilight. The loss is of England’s entrepreneurial and industrial moments of the interwar era, the parents Edwardian, but the children Georgian.

As one stands with Spawton, watching this scene fade in golden and royal hues, he might just as readily be standing with King Alfred hopeful against heathen men as hairy as sin; with Harold of Hastings, tilting against a bastard’s armies; or with Winston Churchill, toiling and sweating against those would rend idyllic places such Coventry with insidious and inhumane progress.

Spawton’s words endlessly capture that which is always true but never quite obvious to all at all times.

The opening moments of the song move from an earnest guitar into a driving and equally earnest interplay of bass and drums, Gregory, D’Virgilio, Poole, and Spawton weaving something both tribal and civilized. More guitars appear, jutting and jetting. Strings emerge as if from the land itself. At 1:45, David Longdon’s voice enters into the art itself with the necessary pitch, the perfect lilt and quaver, and a resonant meaning. If Spawton is coming from sacred soil, Longdon is coming from the heavens, thus allowing the horizon and sky to meet in an infinite moment.

Almost uniquely among singers, Longdon possesses both assuredness and humility in all of his vocal arrangements, but none more so than in this song. While his voice is the voice of a man, it also is the voice of a chorus of men, a plea for generations.

Chasing a dream of the west

Made with iron and stone

Man, in Spawton’s vision, if armed with genius and integrity, reshapes the land, not in man’s image, but in the sacramental, Adamic way had things in Eden not soured.

These are old hills that stand in the way

breaking the line.

It came out of the storm,

out of the sea

to the permanent way

Using just available light,

he could still see far.

Even in his broken state, some men–seers, prophets, bards, skalds, poets and prog rockers–can see beyond the immediate, toward that which is far and that which is deep. Of all creatures, they alone can imagine the heights and the depths of existence.

In Spawton’s vision, England becomes not just another place on this earth, but a place sacred, sacred because man has recreated nature, not through domination, but through creative understanding, the soul and the intellect of each in harmony, not tension.

One is reminded of Spawton’s counterpart in the world of poetry, T.S. Eliot.

A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

–T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding

IMG_0001 - Version 3Even the timeless moment, though, can not be seen or understood forever. Timeless moments—the light falling on a secluded chapel—lasts only as long as man knows to look for it. As with all things of beauty, truth, and goodness, it is fleeing, at least through our abilities to perceive, incorporate, and understand.

Roofless engine houses

distant hills like bookends

frame electrical storms

moving out to sea

away from England.

Spawton’s words and Longdon’s voice combine to make the above lyrics not only the most moving parts of the song, but combine to make one of the most moving parts of any song in the rock era.

I could never even count how many times I’ve listened to this song over the last five years. Every time, my stomach drops and my heart and soul swell when I hear this. Every single time.

And, yet, despite the loss of the thing itself, the moment in all of the revelation of its glory, Spawton knows—with the greatest thinkers of the western tradition—that memory can comfort us. Perhaps memory alone.

Parting the land

with the mark of man,

the permanent way,

Using just available light,

he could still see far.

The imprint is true. It always exists. We, however, must choose to remember. When we do, the world becomes just a little brighter. Using just available light.

And, thus, Big Big Train reveals its ultimate contribution to the world of art. Somethings are worth remembering, whatever the cost, and memory itself is a precious and delicate thing beyond any cost.

Far skies, deep time.

IMG_0001

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