Well, as tomorrow is Advent and the beginning of the Christian New Year, it seems as good a day as any (or better, frankly) to list my “best of 2013.”
Before I get to my own choices, however, I want to extend a huge, gargantuan, ginormous thanks to my fellow progarchists and to all of you who have supported us over our mere 14 months of existence. I’m proud of us. Extremely proud. A good pride, I hope—not the kind that goeth before the fall.
As with almost every one we write about (in fact, most musicians in all forms and genres of music), we each have full-time jobs and many of us have big families as well. We write for progarchy because, as I assume is obvious, we love music. So, again, a major thanks to all who have contributed through their time and talents. Even after 14 months, progarchy.com still boasts some of the best writing and analysts in the blogosphere. Indeed, I would gladly hold up our writers against any group of writers. We don’t agree on religion, politics, and a billion other subjects. But, we each believe the reviewer must attempt to write as art, at a level commensurate with what is being reviewed.
Though our intention in the first few days of our existence was to be a kind of Dutch Progressive Rock Page/ “European Perspective” (our models and favorites) for North America, we realized pretty quickly (after a week or so), that there’s room for some thing larger than just the music scene in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, also recognizing how intimately connected we each are, one to another, across this increasingly small globe. As I often remind my students in the history of western civilization, modern technology allows us to know of events in the world often much faster than large news agencies and governmental bureaucracies. How different from the six to eight weeks it once took to cross the Atlantic. One of my favorite moments over the last several years was receiving a demo copy of a song from Greg Spawton. I commented in real time as I listened to the music, and I think Greg and I both sighed in awe at our ability to communicate instantly, though separated by 4,500 miles. May we never take such things for granted.
The same is true with music. The internet has allowed us to form communities that geography once prevented. We can interact with the artists (should they be willing, and most are) in ways that were impossible 20 years ago. I’m sure this puts a certain strain on the artist, but it also has to be satisfying as well. We can react to songs, lyrics, and artwork in a truly satisfying manner. T.S. Eliot once argued that no poet can write in a vacuum, in pure originality, as art is always a communal experience, building upon the past and reaching out to those of one immediate family, kin group, and society.
I especially want to thank (in no particular order): Greg Spawton, Leah McHenry, David Longdon, Andy Tillison, Giancarlo Erra, Arjen Lucassen, Matt Stevens, Matt Cohen, Steve Babb, Robert Pashman, John Bassett, Sam Healy, Jim Trainer, and Jerry Ewing. Each of these men answered every question I asked them, usually very quickly and without any justified “why are you bugging me, Birzer?!?!”
An equally important thanks goes out to all of you who have trusted us with your art, your music, and your ideas. I hope you feel we’ve treated it with respect, a sacred trust.
Progarchy is also a way of saying thanks to the musicians and artists we love and who have inspired us. I’m rather happy to say that I’ve been listening to prog—in some form—since 1971, the year I turned four. Having two older brothers, I found the music of Yes, Jethro Tull, and Kansas immediately inviting. Even before 1971, I was rather obsessed with the theme song to the Banana Splits, often putting it on the turntable, blasting it, and waking the entire family at around 3 in the morning. My mother can verify this. She and my brothers would come down the stairs in our duplex in Great Bend, Kansas, to find 2-year old me dancing like a madman.
At the risk of my friend and fellow progarchist, Eric Perry, calling me out as “hyperbolic,” I state this with gusto and conviction. 2013 has the best year for music in my lifetime. I know of no other year that has been so filled with such innovation, harmony, varied time signature, and lyric quality. And, this is saying a lot. There have been a lot of great years for rock over the last five decades. From my perspective, third-wave prog is now in the position jazz was between about 1955 and 1975. This is OUR golden era, building up the brilliance of 40 years ago without imitating, mocking, or denigrating it. Whatever small part progarchy has done to contribute to this, amen. Again, I say, AMEN!
Preliminary Awards, 2013
Last year, I began December by offering a few “awards” to some amazing folks who are not themselves out front as musicians. This year, I’d like to do the same, especially as I offer the “best all around progger” award. This is the person who makes what so many others do possible. I have to split it this year, between an American and a Brit. For me, the American has been Billy James, president extraordinaire of Glass Onyon PR. This guy not only loves the genre of prog, he serves the indispensable role of promoting our genre in every venue possible, and he always does it with grace, class, and enthusiasm. Billy has been as kind and helpful as he has been informative.
Our Brit “all around progger” is none other than Sally Collyer. Sally contacted me about a year ago, saying, “I’ve seen your name and your ideas, and I think we have a lot in common.” Absolutely. Not only have we bonded on prog, but we have on the unlikely subject of horses as well! Progressive equines. Or, something like this. Again, a brilliant person, Sally answers everything, helps with everything, and continues to offer a brilliant support. We also all know she’s an absolute mainstay in the British prog community and an equally lovely person. The significant other of Andy Tillison, Sally keeps brightness, purpose, as well as levity, in the prog community.
So, to Billy and Sally: thank you, thank you, thank you.
Audiophile Award. This one, again, goes to Rob Aubrey. I know there’s a famous guy out there, now even more famous for his 5.1 mixes. But, for my money, the best man in the business is Aubrey. One only has to listen to his work this year for Big Big Train and Cosmograf to realize what an ear and mind he possesses. Exact, precise, yet imaginative. A hard combination to beat. He is our generation’s Phill Brown.
Best emergence of an artist/group. Fractal Mirror. Combining the talents of several spectacular musicians, including the drum work of Frank Urbaniak, the keyboard and bass playing of Ed Van Haagen, the artwork of Brian Watson, the haunting goth vocals of Leo Koperdraat, and the advice of a number of major figures in the scene, including Giancarlo Erra, what more could we want? I wish them all the well-deserved success in the world as they begin their journey as a group.
Best single song. Big Big Train, The Permanent Way. From the opening notes, David’s vocals move us into the twilight realms of quiet nostalgic, but without reason. The first few times I heard this, I couldn’t quite figure out what was happening? Was Aubrey cutting him out. Then, I realized, David is a gentleman artist. The voice of the song is John Betjeman. David, rather impressively was deferring to this great poet. From there, David build, flows, lulls, and, then, of course, rocks.
Best Packaging. What’s not to love about a cd or two accompanied by explanations, lyrics, and photos. This year, the award goes to the ninety six page booklet that comes with Big Big Train English Electric Full Power. The photos are gorgeous, the notes are meaningful, and the tributes to past and present allies of the band is heart warming, to say the least.
More to come. . . .
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!
I’ve been keeping an “Album Of The Year” list going back to 1977 or so, before which I didn’t own or properly listen to any music of note. Since then, there has usually been one album every year that stood above the others, or, if I’m lucky, an album that I’d truly cherish for years to come.
Over the last 10 years, I’ve been fortunate to have encountered a few such albums: “Everything Must Go” by Steely Dan, “Everybody Loves A Happy Ending” by Tears For Fears, “Milliontown” by Frost*, “English Electric Part 1″ by Big Big Train, and “The Tall Ships” by It Bites. Unfortunately, there have been a few years where I’ve had to pretty much force myself to pick an album that might not otherwise top a “best of” list, simply because nothing really spoke to me that year…let’s not list those, eh?
For 2013, I can list three albums that meets at least one of two criteria: Will I want to listen to these again in 2014 and/or will it be an album I treasure for a lifetime.
“English Electric Full Power” – Big Big Train
Yes, nearly half of this album was the Album Of The Year for many in 2012 (including myself), and I’m not sure “English Electric 2″ would have topped my AotY list by itself – it’d have been a strong #2 for sure – but to hear the new tracks from “Full Power” arranged among the revised tracklisting for this, the band’s final statement for this project, makes this an album that easily meet both criteria noted above.
Despite “English Electric” not being a concept album in a story sense, I do struggle a bit with how the leadoff track, “Make Some Noise,” fits in with the rest of the album, but having been that kid they sing about, I simply imagine how carefree life was in the summers of my youth, being able to play music with friends, before true responsibility knocked.
I can’t really add any meaningful superlatives to my appreciation of this album that haven’t been said time and again by others. Suffice to say: It’s magnificent.
“Dream Theater” – Dream Theater
Despite my glowing review of “The Enemy Inside,” the first single from Dream Theater’s self-titled album, I began to think that if I was in for an album-length assault in the vein of that track, this wouldn’t be a standout album for me. It’s obvious that I hadn’t learned to listen to an entire album before judging it, because this album stands out as one of their finest and a fine successor to “A Dramatic Turn Of Events.”
With the talent stockpiled in this band – especially now with a drummer in Mike Mangini possessing the technique and training on par with Jordan Rudess – it would have been easy for Dream Theater to overplay in every time signature for 75 minutes straight, but what we get instead is an incredibly balanced effort that keeps the technical playing mostly in check, letting the music breathe.
If I have any gripes – and this may be my problem – it’s that while each section of “Illumination Theory” is fantastic on its own (how about the section with the strings!), I was hoping the end of the track would reprise the themes from the beginning. Otherwise, it feels to me as if they took us out on a journey and didn’t quite bring us back (of course, that’s well within their rights as artists). Yes, I do hear the reference to one of the early guitar riffs later in the track, but somehow the end didn’t “tie the room together.”
However, I reserve the right to be wrong here, so fellow progheads, I’m counting on you to set me straight if I’m missing something! In any case, don’t miss this album.
“Reaching Places High Above” – Persona Grata
Just as Big Big Train’s “English Electric 1″ was a late-in-the-year find for me in 2012, this release from Bratislava’s Persona Grata (nice rhyme there) was that way this year. This six-song effort features three prog tunes in the vein of Dream Theater, plus a three-track instrumental arc in the middle that takes you on a thematic journey paralleling the titles of the tunes.
Beyond the writing, singing and playing on this album, I was most impressed with their attention to the arrangements. Of the many prog albums that I gave a spins to this year, “Reaching Places High Above” grabbed me from the first listen.
Finally, if I have a single of the year award to bestow, it’s for “Pale Blue Dot” by Sound Of Contact, part of a fine overall album. I dare you not to have Simon Collins’ melodies from the verses and chorus stuck in your head for days on end. Great track!
Of course, there are many more albums out there likely deserving inclusion on my list, but these three (and Sound Of Contact) will be the ones that I’ll be spinning for years on end. Since our community of proggers is a tight-knit one that includes both artists and fans in a way that I doubt most other genres do, artists should note that I’m often a “late bloomer” with many albums, whether because it was completely off or under my radar, so don’t be surprised if I someday anoint your album as AotY that was released years before, like I did with “Once Around The World” by It Bites; it “only” took me some 20 years to learn who they were!
Another brilliant year for progressive rock, to be sure!
Jason Warburg has an excellent review of Full Power over at The Daily Vault.
I really love how he starts it off:
I remember when an album was much more than just a collection of songs. Those old LPs, with their gatefold covers and thick booklets of detailed liner notes, were gateways into alternate realities, with artwork and presentation that enveloped the listener in a new experience, propelling you down the rabbit-hole.
Big Big Train remembers that feeling, too.
In fact, remembering is at the core of Big Big Train’s very identity …
And later on Jason makes an interesting observation about BBT’s orchestral arrangements:
Big Big Train often feels like a prog-rock orchestra even when the brass and strings are absent. There is a density of sound, sophistication and seriousness of purpose here that can only be achieved with careful attention to every detail of each arrangement and performance.
Set in stone. Chiseled, carved, done. Or, at the very least, set in digital stone.
For the ever-growing number of Big Big Train devotees (now, called “Passengers” at the official Facebook BBT page, administered by everyone’s most huggable rugged handsome non-axe wielding, non-berserker Viking, Tobbe Janson), questions have been raised and discussed as to how BBT might successfully combine and meld English Electric 1 with 2 plus add 4 new songs.
How would they do it with what they’re calling English Electric Full Power? Would they make it all more of a story? Would the album become a full-blown concept with this final version? Where might Uncle Jack, his dog, or the curator stand at the end of the album? Actually, where do they stand in eternity?
The members of BBT have already stated that EE as a whole calls to mind–at least with a minimum of interpretation–the dignity of labor. Would the new ordering and the four new songs augment or detract from this noble theme?
Somewhat presumptuously, many of us Passengers proposed what we believed should be the track order, and I even took it upon myself to email Greg last spring with a list. Well, I am from Kansas, and we’re not known for being timid–look at that freak, Carrie Nation, who dedicated her life to hacking kegs and stills to bits, or to that well-intentioned but dehumanizing terrorist, John Brown, who cut the heads off of unsuspecting German immigrants.
And, then, there’s the fact, for those who know me, that I can produce track lists like I can produce kids. No planning and lots and lots of results.
Or, that other pesky fact, that I’m so far into BBT that I could never even pretend objectivity. [Or, as one angry young man wrote to me after I praised The Tangent, “your head is so far up Andy’s @ss, you can’t even see sunlight.” Cool!; who wants to spend tons of time writing and thinking about things one doesn’t like? Not me! As Plato said, love what you love and hate what you hate, and be willing to state both. Guess what? I love BBT and The Tangent! And, just for the record, I’ve never even met Andy in person, so what was suggested is simply physically impossible.]
Admittedly, maybe I’m such such a fanboy that I’ve gone past subjective and into some kind of bizarre objectivity. You know, in the way Coleridge was so heretical that he approached orthodoxy. Or, maybe I’m just hoping that Greg and Co. will ask me to write the retrospective liner notes for the 20th anniversary release of EE Full Power. I’ll only be 66 then. Who knows? Even if I’m in the happy hunting grounds (I’m REALLY presuming now), I could ask the leader for some earth time. . . .
If you’ve read my bloviations this far, and you’re still interested in my thoughts on English Electric Full Volume, well, God bless you. A real editor would have removed the above rather quickly.
Back from the Blessed Isles of soulful prog realms. . . .
In my reviews of English Electric 1 and 2, I stated that these albums were the height of prog music perfection, the Selling England By the Pound of our day. I wouldn’t hesitate to proclaim this again and, perhaps, even more vocally and with more descriptives.
At the risk of turning off some of my friends, I would say that EEFP is even superior to its 1973 counterpart. How could it not be, really? Selling England is now an intimate and vital part of the prog and the rock music traditions, and it has been for forty years. Add that album and hundreds of others to the integrity, dedication,and purposeful intelligence, imagination, and talents of Greg Spawton, David Longdon, Andy Poole, Dave Gregory, Nick d’Virgilio, Danny Manners, and Rob Aubrey. Putting all of this together, well, of course, you’d demand genius.
You’d expect genius.
And, you’d be correct.
It’s the height of justice that Jerry Ewing of PROG awarded Big Big Train with the Prog Magazine Breakthrough Award.
That breakthrough started with that meaningful paean to British and western patriotism in Gathering Speed, reached toward sublime spheres in The Difference Machine, found a form of edenic Edenic perfection in The Underfall Yard and Far Skies (it’s hard for me to separate these two albums for some reason), and then embraced transcendent perfection in English Electric 1 and 2. Each member who has joined the original Greg and Andy has only added to the latest albums. Nick, the perfectionist drummer; Dave, the perfectionist guitarist; Danny, the perfectionist keyboardist; Rob, the audiophile. And by perfectionist, I don’t mean it in its modern usage, as without flaw, but rather as each having reached his purpose.
I don’t think this point can be stressed enough: these guys are perfectionist NOT against each other but with, around, near, above, and below each other. They are a unit of playful perfectionist individuals who become MORE individual, not less, in their community.
Looking at the history of art from even a quasi-detached and objective viewpoint, I think we all have to admit, this is more than a bit unusual.
Breakthrough, indeed, Mr. Ewing. Breakthrough, indeed.
Greg and Andy don’t become less Greg and Andy as the band grows beyond what they have founded, they become more Greg and more Andy. In the first and second wave of prog, how many bands are known for only getting better and better with each album? Those that did are certainly the exceptions. One of the most important differences of this third wave of prog is that the best only get better, even after twenty years of playing. Exhaustion and writers-block seem to be of another era.
BBT exemplifies this trend of improvement in this movement we now call the third wave of prog. And, not surprisingly, when BBT asks artists to guest with them, they invite those with similar trajectories–Andy Tillison and Robin Armstrong to name the most obvious.
Again, if you’ve made it this far in this review, you should be asking–hey, Birzer left out David Longdon above, what the schnikees?
Yes, I did. So, let me now praise famous Davids (with apologies to Sirach). I’ve not been shy in past writings (well, over the last four years) to note that I believe David is the finest singer in the rock world at the moment. He has some rather stiff competition, of course, and I reject the notion that he sounds just like “Phil Collins.”
No, David is his own man and his own singer. I do love and appreciate the quality of David’s tone and voice. He possesses a beautiful and talented natural one, to be sure. Nature or God (pick your theology) gave this to David in abundance, and he’s used his own drive and tenacity to bring his voice to the height of his profession.
But, what I love most about David is that he means every single thing he sings. These aren’t “Yeah, baby, let’s do it” lyrics. These are the lyrics of a bard (Greg’s lyrics are just as excellent, of course, as I’ve noted in a number of other articles; these are two of my favorite lyricists of the rock era–rivaling even Mark Hollis).
Longdon can make me as happy as one of my kids running to the playground on the first day the snow thaws (“Let’s Make Some Noise”); he can make me want to beat the living snot out of a child abuser (“ABoy in Darkness”); and he can make me want to start a novena for a butterfly curator.
In no small part, Longdon has a voice that makes me want to trust and follow him.
Put David and Greg together, and their lyrical abilities really knows no known bounds. They are the best writing team, to me, in the last fifty years. I know most would pick Lennon/McCartney, but I’m a firm believer that “electrical storms moving out to sea” trump “I am the walrus.”
So, what about this third manifestation of English Electric, English Electric Full Power? Well, all I can state with some paradoxical certainty, Spawton, Longdon, and five others, have now shown it is possible to perfect perfection. I’ll use perfect here in its proper sense: not as without flaw (though that would apply as well) but as having reached its ultimate purpose, as I noted above.
EEFP is still very much about the dignity of labor, and, as such, it has to deal with the dignity of the laborer, that is, the fundamental character of the human person in all of his or her stages.
The song order of EEFP, consequently, follows this natural logic.
The opening track, a new one penned by Longdon, celebrates the joys of innocence. David has said it was his goal to invoke the glam rock of his childhood. For me, it invokes the rock of my mother’s college days. A shimmering, pre-Rolling Stones rock.
The video that the band released just makes me smile every time I watch it. The video also confirms my belief that these six (and Rob, the seventh member) really, really like each other.
Rather gloriously, “Make Some Noise” fades into one of the heroic of BBT tracks, “The First Rebreather.” This makes “The First Rebreather” even better, especially when contrasted with the innocence of track one. After all, in The First Rebreather, the hero encounters beings from Dante’s Fifth Circle of Hell (wrath).
The second new song, “Seen Better Days,” begins with a strong post-rock (read: Colour of Spring) feel, before breaking into a gorgeous jazz (more Brubeck than Davis) rock song. All of the instruments blend together rather intimately, and David sings about the founders and maintainers of early to mid 20th century British laboring towns, while lamenting the lost “power and the glory” as that old world as faded almost beyond memory. The interplay of the piano and flute is especially effective.
The third track, “Edgelands,” begins immediately upon the end of “Seen Better Days,” but it’s short. Only 86 seconds long and purely a Manner’s piano tune, it connects “Seen Better Days” with “Summoned by the Bells.” If at the end of those 86 seconds the listener doesn’t realize the creative talents of Mr. Manners, he’s not thinking correctly.
The fourth new track, “The Lovers,” appears on disk two, after “Winchester” and before “Leopards.” The most traditionally romantic and folkish song of the four new ones, Longdon’s voice has a very “Canterbury” feel on this tune, and the tune provides a number of surprises in the various directions it takes.
What’s next for BBT?
Thanks to the delights of social networking, we know that Danny’s kids are concerned that he doesn’t look “rock” enough (he needs to show them some Peter Gabriel videos from Gabriel’s last studio album), and we know that Greg’s middle name is Mark.
Ok, yes, I’m being silly (though all of the above is true).
We do know that Big Big Train is working on a retrospective of their history, but with the current lineup. I don’t think any of us need worry that this (Station Masters) will be some kind of EMI Picasso-esque deconstruction of Talk Talk with a “History Revisited: The Remixes.” Station Masters will be as tasteful, elegant, and becoming as we would expect from Greg and Co.
After that, we know that BBT is writing a full-fledged concept album, their first since The Difference Machine. We know that the boys are in the studio at the very moment that I’m typing this (NDV included).
Perhaps most importantly, though, we trust and have faith that Greg and Co. are leading progressive rock in every way, shape, or form. EEFP is the final version of EE. At least for now. But, BBT is not just breaking through, it’s bringing a vast audience, sensibility, and leadership to the entire third movement of prog. And, for this, I give thanks. Immense thanks.
When it comes to BBT, perfection only gets more interesting.
Big Big Train loves Canada!
That’s the only conclusion I can draw after receiving my Make Some Noise EP and my English Electric Full Power Deluxe Edition CDs in the mail today—Thursday.
I placed my order on the eve of release day—Monday.
That’s some pretty amazing postal service!
Is it because we are part of the Commonwealth?
Whatever the reason, I am ecstatic that I have these discs to enjoy for the weekend.
Thank you, Big Big Train!
Marvelous that this precious cargo arrives in British Columbia, at the end of Canada furthest from you, in such good time.
I am curious if any other members of the Commonwealth also have tales of superior postal service to report?
Or perhaps I should simply conclude:
Big Big Train loves its fans.
Well, thank you, BBT.
To you we return that wonderful gesture of David Longdon in the “Make Some Noise” video (3:43)!
In one of his most famous books, The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton noted that men (persons; let’s not be sexist!) never come together merely by mutual consent for some advantage or personal gain, at least in the beginning. Long-term societies–civilizations–do not arise out of some abstract compact in which every person agrees to help every other person.
Instead, society–and, hence, civilization–arises when two or more persons find themselves as brothers (sisters, too!) in arms, defending what they believe sacred. Once they recognize they’re each fighting for the same thing, they trust one another, and society is born.
Call it the romantic in me, but Chesterton’s origin story is a lot of more compelling than, say, John Locke’s.
What does this have to do with Fractal Mirror, you might very well be asking? Everything.
As many readers of progarchy know, this site arrived in the world out of an intense love for Big Big Train and a desire to let others know about Greg, David, and co.
Not surprisingly, our progarchists have found that we actually really love all kinds of music, especially when it apprehends or reaches toward the beautiful. Not just BBT, but Cosmograf, Talk Talk, The Reasoning, Cailyn, Kingbathmat, TFATD/Matt Stevens, Ayreon, The Tangent, 3RDegree, Gazpacho, Neal Morse, Transatlantic, The Flower Kings, Nosound, Oceansize, Riverside, Rush, Spock’s Beard, Sanguine Hum, Glass Hammer, and the list goes on.
Some folks love prog for the innovations, and we progarchists (speaking broadly and a bit presumptuously) generally see the innovations as subservient to the drive for truth, beauty, and goodness.
It was almost exactly one rotation around the sun ago that the first post appeared at progarchy. Since, citizenship in our little quasi-anarchist polis has grown wildly. Amen.
As with progarchy, Fractal Mirror began out of a love for BBT, especially as a community formed around the BBT Facebook page. It’s one of the most interesting–and one of the most neglected aspects–of the current prog scene. Though this third wave of prog is now roughly 20 years old, tight communities have been growing within around, above, below, and near it for just as long!
Probably no current prog group, however, does this better than BBT. While the conversation can take an odd turn here or there, BBT’s FB page hosts and encourages some of the best discussion of music, culture, and history anywhere. Never a dull moment at the BBT FB page, administered, interestingly enough, by everyone’s favorite Swedish progarchist, Tobbe Janson.
There are more connections, some of them rather intimate. Leo Koperdraat inspired much of the writing for progarchy from and with his own many reviews written for DPRP (our heroes), while Frank Urbaniak (drummer) and Brian Watson (artist) are citizens of perfect standing in the pseudo-anarchical progarchy.
[Progarchy, it should be noted, has no border guards, border fences, customs officials, or TSA agents]
After reviewing and talking about music for years, DPRP’s Leo Koperdraat (voice, guitars, keyboards, and lyricist) decided to create a band. He and Ed Van Haagen (bass and keyboards) have been playing together for years, and the two recruited Frank (drums and lyrics on one song). Throw in Brian’s always stunning artwork (and the lyrics on one song), guest spots by Don Fast (an unofficial fourth member of the band and brother of famed keyboardist, Larry Fast) on guitar and Charlotte Koperdraat (Leo’s daughter) on vocals, and some advice from Nosound’s Giancarlo Erra, and the result is a thing of brilliance, a thing of beauty, a treasure, frankly.
I’m never a fan of labels or of categorization. Prog generally needs no descriptives to modify it. Retroprog, crossoverprog, etc., seem so bloody (may my English friends forgive me for employing their perfect word) redundant to me. I’m fully with Andy Tillison on this. Prog means everything can be thrown in the mix. It’s music as art, and art as music. In the same way that Arvo Part uses amplifiers to make a point in modern symphonies, so a rock artist should feel free to employ anything traditionally classical to underscore the drama of the music.
Prog, by definition, means breaking boundaries.
This written, even if I wanted to label Fractal Mirror’s first release, “Strange Attractors,” I’m not even sure how I would do so.
I can, however, state unequivocally, it’s gorgeous, stunning, moody, intense, brooding, uplifting, punctuated, driving, subtle, sustained, lush, flowing, inspiring.
One might call it New Wave/prog or alt rock/prog. Indeed, as I listen repeatedly (it’s rather addictive), I’m reminded much of the intensity of Peter Murphy or Robert Smith (Faith-era), the lushness of Reverberation-era Echo and the Bunnymen, the wall of sound of My Bloody Valentine, the punctuations of The Fixx, and the vocal sensibilities (though the voices sound NOTHING alike) of Andy Partridge on “This World Over.”
It would be fair, however, to label this music as moody, lulling, serious, and accompanied by waves of sound rather than a wall of sound. Ten tracks long, none of the songs meander, ranging from 2:56 to 5:42 minutes in length.
Yet, there’s a coherency to the album as a whole, and if an engineer–a la Todd Rundgren–might connect it all, one song to another, it would work just as well. Coherence without sameness.
The famed Rhys Marsh mastered “Strange Attractors,” and it shows. Each of the musicians is in top form. I’m especially taken with Koperdraat’s anguished vocals, Van Haagen’s fluid bass, and Urbaniak’s spacious drums. Each remains distinctive and alive, but always forming a coherent whole. Each offers a uniqueness as a part of a whole. Hard to explain, frankly, but it’s a fundamental part of this excellent album.
As some progarchists have noted, the number of releases that are prog or prog-related (those labels again!) is sometimes overwhelming, as though drinking from a fire hose. Fractal Mirrors MUST NOT get lost in this current deluge of goodness. It’s distinctive, and it needs a market. No, let me put that better. Right now, Fractal Mirror is looking at all distribution options. A record company would be foolish to pass this one up. These guys are at the beginning of something vital, ready to spring forth into the world.
I’m deeply honored to be a part of the BBT and the progarchy community, and I’m equally honored to know that something so gorgeous and meaningful has arisen out of these communities (Ave, Gregory Mark Aurelius Spawton!). Leo, Ed, and Frank–highest kudos to you. And, thank you–for trusting me with such glimpses of the rotating spheres. . . .
For more information, contact Leo at:
The new BBT discs are out today. So let’s celebrate!
Alison Henderson reports over at PROG on her amazing BBT initiative, The Big Big Weekend. A small sample:
Strolling down to the River Itchen – another central feature of Winchester From St Giles’ Hill – and arriving at the statue of King Alfred, Greg gave an impromptu talk on why Alfred was a such great monarch. The finale, the ascent of St Giles’ Hill, proved steeper than many anticipated, but the vista from the top across the whole city was probably the tour’s defining moment.
Sounds like a fantastic weekend!
I say: let the prog pilgrimages continue!
Nice work, Alison:
Following the Big Big Weekend, Andy Poole had this to say: “This was an inspired piece of top quality derring-do by Alison to organise and host this event in Winchester, her home city and the lyrical seat of several BBT tunes. It was no surprise that the folk who joined us were thoroughly good company and keen to soak up and explore the historical and visual wealth of the city … and then enjoy a jolly good ruby!”