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Happy International Rush Day, 2014!

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Just How Wrong Can One Reviewer Be? Rush, Moving Pictures, 1981.

Let us count the ways. . . .  From the University of Notre Dame Observer, April 23, 1981, pg. 11.  My apologies for the quality–it’s from a microfilm machine.  A review of MOVING PICTURES.

rush 1981 moving pictures review

Review: Rush, R40: The Completist/OCD Set

Review: Rush, R40: The Completist/OCD Set (Anthem, 2014).

Birzer Rating: 10/10

R40, Anthem Records, 2014.

R40, Anthem Records, 2014.

I had a very good and hearty chuckle when I saw that Bestbuy and the official Rush website offered not just R40— a 10-disc set of every Rush concert DVD released over the past decade+—but actually offered a “Completist” set. 

The Completist set provides not just the 10 discs, but an extra disc containing roughly another hour-plus of video.  The non-Completist version already includes over two hours of never-before-seen video.  But, what self-respecting Neil Peart fan or Rush fan would not be a Completist.  To be a Rush fan is to be a Completist!  Being OCD comes easily for us Rush fans.

So, of course, I gritted my teeth and started exploring my local Bestbuys.  20 years ago, I loved Bestbuy.  Now, I find it suffocating.  But, it was worth it.  The Bestbuy website claims that R40 Completist set can only be purchased in the stores, not through the website.  Exploring a bit further, I found that the Bestbuy website won’t indicate which stores actually have the Completist edition.  For more than a few moments, I’d assumed Bestbuy had already sold out of it.  And, perhaps playing up on this belief, a number of editions have appeared on Ebay (and other sites) asking for double and some even triple and quadruple what the Bestbuy price is.  Sheesh.  Uncool, folks.

Again, gritting my teeth, I started to explore the Bestbuys across the Colorado Front Range.  I came very close to giving up.  The young guys working at the various Colorado Bestbuys had no idea what I was asking for.  Rush?  Rush Limbaugh.  He has concerts?  Dear God, no!  Even when they looked it up on the website (I assume they’re privy to one the public isn’t), they couldn’t find it.  No, sorry, we don’t have that in our “media warehouse.”  Will you get it in?  I don’t think so. 

Sigh. 

How could I satisfy that perfectionist/OCD nature that has plagued me since 1967???  Heck, Rush is only seven years younger than I am!

Then, after debating whether or not to try one last Bestbuy, I decided to give it a go.  I was tired, disbelieving, and ready to get home.  But, there was the Bestbuy, off to my left.  I even had to swerve into the exit lane, as I couldn’t quite decide whether to try it or not. 

After entering the store, itself overlooking I25, I looked in the music section.  Nothing.  I looked in movies.  Nothing. 

Holiday crowds swirled around me, each with that hungry desperate Holiday look, and insanely bad music blared from the store speakers.  And, then, perhaps guided by a Clockwork Angel, I looked on the floor—a jumble of non-reshelved releases—ready to be stepped on. 

And, lo and behold, there it was.  Huge, gleaming, calling to me—the R40 completist set.  I scooped it up (there were actually two copies, but I decided not to be greedy), and saw that the price was even cheaper than what the official Bestbuy price was supposed to be.  I honestly don’t think these folks know what they have.  And, of course, I bought a copy.

And, now, what do I think?  Holy Moses.  This is great stuff.  Yes, of course, I already have most of what’s being offered.  But, that which I don’t (or didn’t) have— is simply stunning.  I’d expected DVD-size packaging.  No, how could I forget?  This is Rush.  They don’t do anything halfway.  The book is actually a full-size hardback book of the highest quality.  Printing, paper, everything—a gorgeously crafted piece of art.  It even smells good. 

After a nice introduction by one of Rush’s chosen and favorite writers, Martin Popoff, the book presents a series of full-page concert photos.  After two decades or more of just looking at CD and DVD booklets, the full-size photos just pop out of the book.  A flashback to days of immense vinyl collections.  I love the photos.  And, they really do justice to the the three members of Rush.  Geddy at Red Rocks, Alex in full working-man rock mode, and Neil as a G-Nome.  Most importantly, the Rush monkey from Time Machine makes an appearance.  Geddy-monkey never fails to get a laugh out of the whole Birzer family, especially Harry, age 9.  And, our chosen family anthem, appropriately enough, is “The Main Monkey Business.”

After roughly fifty pages of photos, the book presents all 10 main DVDs in very high-quality cardboard.  Indeed, the quality is so high, I have to be careful taking the DVDs out of their firm and tight sleeves.  Very good for the long run.  I was a little surprised that the bonus DVD—“Rush, R40 Completist”—had just been placed in a plain white envelope, stuck haphazardly in the book.  I’ll have to pay special attention to this one so as not to lose it.  Not very Rush-like, but still, overall, an excellent package and worth this one defect.

Rather than describe all of the content, I’ve scanned the content page—complete with the Completist add-ons.  See below. 

Is the set cheap?  No.  Is it of good quality?  Except for the Completist DVD in the white envelope, of the highest quality.  Am I sad to have paid so much for what I already (mostly) own?  Absolutely not.  Some of the best money I’ve ever spent.  I’ll have this set, a thing of beauty until I die.  Then, a little monkey Birzer will get it.

Completist Packaging/Content list, Bestbuy R40.

Completist Packaging/Content list, Bestbuy R40.

My Best of 2014, Part I: By the Way. Which one is Pink?

PINK-FLOYD-THE-ENDLESS-RIVER-album-artwork-low-res-600x350In a previous post or two, I’ve tried to explain what I mean by 2014 being a significant year in the history of progressive rock.  Something(s)—though I still can’t quite get my fingers exactly on it—is quite different.  That is, 2014 is not 2013, in the way that 2013 resembled but improved upon 2012, 2011, and 2010.

And, just to be clear, I’m not one of those proggers who actually thinks all new music must progress in the sense of offering some new technique the world has never heard before.  Sure, I love innovation.  But, never for innovation’s sake.  Innovation, by its very nature, is always momentary.  I want permanence.  And, permanence comes only with the discovery and uncovering of beauty.  If the new technique or innovation leads to a better understanding of beauty, so be it.  But, I would, I hope, always choose the timeless and true and beautiful over the clever and ephemeral.

So, what’s different about 2014 and what I believe to be a new wave of progressive rock?  Three things spring to mind.  First, the best of 2014—and there’s an immense amount of good—is beautiful.  Second, it’s eclectic.  Third, it’s atmospheric.

A few years ago, several progarchists were happily complaining that so much prog is being released into the world that it’s impossible to catch up with it or, once caught up, stay up with it.  True, I think.  And, all to the good.  Competition is rarely a bad thing, and competition for market and attention has forced proggers to think in very creative and entrepreneurial ways.  This is as true in selling music as it is in making music.

Take one very specific example.  Andy Tillison has always been one of the two or three demigods of Third Wave prog.  Take a listen, however, to his 2014 release, Electronic Sinfonia No. 2.  It is a thing of intense beauty, eclectic, and atmospheric.  It is the perfect fourth-wave prog release, in many, many ways.

Because we’ve been so overwhelmed with so much goodness over the last two decades, and, especially, the last few years, Anathema’s Distant Satellite is a severe disappointment.  Had it been released five years ago, it would have been pretty great.  Now, though, in this context, it’s simply a parody of Anathema and Radiohead.

Well, enough ranting.  I’d like to start describing my favorites of this year.  In no particular order, I offer my first glimpse into my loves of 2014.  Pink Floyd’s THE ENDLESS RIVER.  I’ve been shocked at how many folks on the internet have decried it, as a betrayal to Roger Waters and to traditional Pink Floyd.  Since when has PF ever been traditional?  The Endless River is something PF has never been before.  It has echoes of Echoes, but it also had a lot of Tangerine Dream in it.  It’s interesting, it’s soaring, it’s daring, it’s full of whale song.  Just listen to Skins and Unsung.  There’s no ego.  Just flight.

And, what an incredible honor to the brilliance of Rick Wright.

I’e always liked Mike Portnoy.  In fact, I’ve been quite taken with him, and I’ve been more than willing to put up with his own eccentricities and strong opinions.  But, when he lamented a new PF album this past summer, something in me gave.  My respect for the former DT drummer has declined dramatically.

Around the time that the Division Bell was released, Wright admitted that he feared that PF had lost some of its creativity, and he cited Mark Hollis as an inspiration.  Talk Talk, he argued, got away with much, mostly because Hollis had the integrity to dream and dare.  He wanted Floyd to have the same spirit.

Well, here it is.  THE ENDLESS RIVER.

What do David Gilmour and Nick Mason have to prove?  Nothing, really.  And, they prove nothing except the ability to offer a memorial to Rick.  Amen.  If every person in the world offered such a tribute to a lost friend, this would be a much better world.

Gilmour and Mason, I salute you for doing the right thing, the good thing, the true thing.

In Hindsight, Frustration, and Adoration: Prog 2014, Part I

As I’ve noted too many times in these pages, I’ve been rather proudly listening to prog since the tender age of four or five, all the way back to 1972.  I’m the same age as Steven Wilson and Will Ferrell, not completely without surprise, a child born in the so-called summer of love.  Fortunate to be raised in a family that cherished all types of great music and the youngest of three boys, I inherited my tastes from good sources.  I heard the earliest of Yes and Genesis as a child, but nothing moved me at the time as much as Yessongs—in its music as well as its stunning artwork.  My first political memory is of Richard Nixon resigning (yay!), but my first musical memory is opening that three-album treasure, Yessongs.  What an invitation.  Floating islands, some idyllic wildlife, and weird looking guys.  The mystical called to me, and I gladly immersed myself in the wild world of Roger Dean.

Now that I’ve once again established my “prog street cred,” let me jump to the present.  Having listened to prog for forty years and having reviewed it for the past decade or so, I’ve never encountered a year like 2014.  Yes, this could sound downright silly.  No year is exactly like any other year.  But, as Andy Tillison and Brian Watson have so thoughtfully argued, we’ve been living in a third wave of progressive rock since about 1994.

the_tangent-not_as_good

A real work of genius, Andy Tillison’s NOT AS GOOD AS THE BOOK.

By the way, if you have not yet, you should read Andy’s discussion of Third Wave Prog in the novella accompanying the album, NOT AS GOOD AS THE BOOK.  Andy is well known for his complex and deep music, his immense integrity, and his snappy dressing—but he should also be recognized for his writing.  He is truly a master of all he does, and the world breathes a little easier because of genius.  His discussion of Third Wave Prog comes on pages 54-55 of the novella.  Indeed, NOT AS GOOD AS THE BOOK is so filled with insights and imaginings, that an academic course could be taught on it.

Back to our history and chronology.  2009 felt excellent and comfortable, as did 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013.  Each year, I thought, “this is THE best year ever in prog!”  Not that I’m innocent of hyperbole, but I meant what I wrote each year.  And, I also believe that the music being produced right now—not only in terms of quantity but much more importantly quantity—is the best since the genre first began.  What Yes and Genesis produced in the early 1970s might very well be called a “Golden Age,” but we’re not living—in any, way, shape, or form—some kind of “Bronze Age of Prog.”  If what was being produced in 1973 is gold, then what’s being produced now is Platinum.

Of course, the world of 2014 is not the world of 1974.  But, this is as true of the state of the world (very glad you’re dead Soviet Union!) as it is in Prog (good riddance, Sony Records!)  I’ll happily dance on the grave of the communists and the corporations.  Foul conformists and materialists, all!  May the abyss take them.

And since we’re on the bad news, there have been a number of nasty surprises for me this year.  I think Anathema hit its best with the stellar live DVD, Universal.  Sadly, its follow up, Distant Satellites, is as devoid of any real ideas as Universal is brilliant.  The same, I fear, is true of the new Lunatic Soul.  The albums of each reveal a profound and unhappy exhaustion.

One happy surprise for me in 2014, however, came from a reexamination of Steven Wilson’s The Raven.  I still believe it’s nothing but a rehash and reworking of Andy Tillison’s work.  But, if you have to imitate, you might as well imitate the best.

One of the finest albums of 2014.

One of the finest albums of 2014.

And, yet, so many, many great albums came out this year.  Really, give a good listen to Distant Satellites and then give an equally good listen to Newspaperflyhunting or any of the bands listed below.  Anathema simply sounds dead.  Newspaperflyhunting?  Holy Moses, keep it coming!

But, how to place these many new and newly reworked bands of 2014?  Musically, 2014 feels like a very different year than 2013.  I strongly suspect that the trio of outstanding releases last year—Big Big Train’s English Electric Full Power, The Tangent’s Le Sacre, and Glass Hammer’s Perilous—marked not only the high point, but the conclusion of third wave prog.  Simply put, these three albums are so outstanding, that they’ve surpassed the work of first and second wave prog.  The grandchildren have outlived and outperformed their grandfathers.  Not that the grandchildren could have done any of it without the grandfathers. . . but this is always true.  Granted, I’m quite fond of Roman republican notions of piety, but no progger worth her salt is not.  Of all participants and fans of genres of music, we proggers lovingly embrace pietism, genealogy, and lineage.  Only the true jazz lovers come close to us in our respect for those who came before.  Simply put, those who love prog are as much progressive as they are reactionary.  No shame in this.

But, Fourth-Wave Prog?  What might this be?  I don’t think it started this year, but it seems to have become prominent now.  Though I’m not entirely willing to commit to this (or any of this re: 4th Wave; I’m thinking out loud), I think we could probably tag ubermensch and Anglo-Saxon Guitar God, Matt Stevens, as the spearhead of the movement, an eclectic one to be sure.  I think that other great Anglo-Saxon (what is it with you English people?!?!?) bard, John Bassett.

Let me first try to define what Fourth Wave might be with the list of the best artists of the past year:  In no particular order: Jason Rubenstein, Salander, Fire Garden, Newspaperflyhunting, John Bassett, Matt Stevens, Fractal Mirror, Andy Tillison, Galahad, Glass Hammer, Cailyn Lloyd, NAO, Tin Spirits, Simon Godfrey, Flying Colors, and Heliopolis.

And, of course, Cosmograf.

More on each of these bands in the second post.

The Saving Grace of Neil Peart

In part, a review of Rob Freedman, Rush: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Excellence (Algora, 2014).

N.B. This post should be approached with caution.  It is at least PG-13, if not NC17.  Not for language, but for personal revelation and content.  Additionally, I’ve written about one or two of these things before, especially about Peart as a big brother.  Please don’t fear thinking—“hey, I’ve read this before.”  But, even the few things I’ve mentioned before are here rewritten.  Final note: for an exploration of Peart’s Stoicism, see Erik Heter’s excellent piece on the subject, here at progarchy.com.

Neil-Peart.jpg-3642

Neil Peart, ca. 1987.

***

As I’ve mentioned before in these pages and elsewhere, few persons, thinkers, or artists have shaped my own view of the world as strongly as has Neil Peart, Canadian drummer, lyricist, writer, and all-around Renaissance man.  I’ve never met him, but I’ve read all of his words and listened to all of his songs.  I’ve been following this man since the spring of 1981 when two fellow inmates of seventh-grade detention explained to me the “awesomeness” of Rush.  My compatriots, Troy and Brad (a different Brad), were right.  Thank God I got caught for doing some thing bad that day.  Whatever I did, my punishment (detention) led to a whole new world for me, one that would more than once save my life.

Having grown up in a family that cherished music of all types, I was already a fan of mixing classical, jazz, and rock.  Rush’s music, as it turned out, did this as well as any band.

While the music captivated me, the lyrics set me free.  I say this with no hyperbole.  I really have no idea how I would have made it out of high school and through the dysfunctional (my step father is serving a 13-year term in prison, if this gives you an idea how nasty the home was) home life without Peart.  I certainly loved my mom and two older brothers, but life, frankly, was hell.

I know that Peart feels very uncomfortable when his fan project themselves on him, or imagine him to be something he is not.  At age 13, I knew absolutely nothing about the man as man, only as drummer and lyricist.  Thus, even in 1981, I absorbed his lyrics, not directly his personality.  Though, I’m sure many of Peart’s words reflect his personality as much as they reflect his intellect.

Rush gave me so much of what I needed in my teen years.  At 13, I had completely rejected the notion of a benevolent God.  He existed, I was fairly sure, but He was a puppet master of the worst sort, a manipulative, Machiavellian tyrant who found glee in abuse and exploitation.  As a kid, I was bright and restless, and I resented all forms of authority, sometimes with violent intent.  Still, as we all do, I needed something greater than myself, a thing to cherish and to hold, a thing to believe in.

I immersed myself in science fiction, fantasy, and rock music.  Not a tv watcher in the least, I would put the headphones on, turns off the lights in my bedroom, lock the door, and immerse myself in the musical stories of Genesis, the Moody Blues, ELO, ELP, Alan Parsons, Yes, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, and, especially, Rush.  I could leave the horrors of my house for roughly 44 minutes at a time.

Scratch, scratch, side one.  Zip, turn.  Scratch, scratch, side two.

Rock music was the sanctuary of my world.  But, not just any rock.  ZZ Top and REO Speedwagon might be fun when out on a drive, but I needed a work of art that demanded full immersion.  I needed prog.  I was not only safe in these rhythmic worlds, I was intellectually and spiritually alive, exploring innumerable realms.  Pure, unadulterated escape.  But, escape into a maze of wonders.

The first time I heard the lyrics (at age 13, the spring of 1981) to “Tom Sawyer,” I knew Rush was MY band.  It seemed as though Peart was talking specifically to me, Bradley Joseph Birzer.  That’s right.  To 13-year old Brad in Hutchinson, Kansas.  Peart was 15 years older than I, and he must have gone through the same things I had.  Or so I thought.  Again, I knew him only through his lyrics.  But, did I ever cherish those lyrics.  I lingered over each word, contemplated not just the ideas, but the very structures of lyrics as a whole.

Though his mind is not for rent

Don’t put him down as arrogant

His reserve a quiet defense

Riding out the day’s events

No, his mind is not for rent to any God or Government

Always hopeful, yet discontent [corrected from my original typos]

He knows changes aren’t permanent, but change is

Though I’ve never given any aspect of my life to the Government (nor do I have plans to do so), I long ago surrendered much of myself to the Second Person of the Most Blessed Trinity and to His Mother.  While I’m no modern Tom Sawyer at age 47, I still find the above lyrics rather comforting.  And, I do so in a way that is far beyond mere nostalgia.

Armed with Peart’s words and convictions, I could convince myself to walk to Liberty Junior High and, more importantly, to traverse its halls without thinking myself the most objectified piece of meat in the history of the world.  Maybe, just maybe, I could transcend, sidestep, or walk directly through what was happening back at home.  I could still walk with dignity through the groves of the academy, though my step father had done everything short of killing me back while in our house.

[N.B. This is the PG13 part of the essay]  And, given all that was going on with my step father, the thought of killing myself crossed my mind many, many times in junior high and high school.  I had become rather obsessed with the notion, and the idea of a righteous suicide, an escape from on purposeless life hanged tenebrous across my soul.  After all, if I only existed to be exploited, to be a means to end, what purpose did life have.

What stopped me from ending it all?  I’m still not sure, though such desires seemed to fade away rather quickly when I escaped our house on Virginia Court in Kansas and began college in northern Indiana.  Not surprisingly, my first real friendship in college—one I cherish and hold to this day—came from a mutual interest in all things Rush.  In fact, if anything, my friend (who also writes for this site) was an even bigger Rush fan than myself!  I’d never met such a person.

Regardless, from age 13 to 18, I can say with absolute certainty that some good people, some good books, and some good music saved my life, more than once.  Neil Peart’s words of integrity and individualism and intellectual curiosity stood at the front and center of that hope.

Perhaps even more importantly to me than Moving Pictures (“Tom Sawyer,” quoted above) were Peart’s lyrics for the next Rush album, Signals.  On the opening track, a song about resisting conformity, Peart wrote:

Growing up, it all seemed so one-sided

Opinions all provided, the future predecided

Detached and subdivided in the mass production zone

No where is the dreamer or misfit so alone

There are those who sell their dreams for small desires

And lose their race to rats

Even at 14, I knew I would not be one who sold my dreams for small desires.  I wanted to be a writer—in whatever field I found myself—and I would do what it took to make it through the horrible home years to see my books on the shelves of a libraries and a bookstores.  Resist and renew.  Renew and resist.  Again, such allowed me to escape the abyss of self annihilation.

Indeed, outside of family members (though, in my imagination, I often think of Peart as one of my older brothers—you know; he was the brilliant one with the goofy but cool friends, the guys who did their own thing regardless of what anyone thought).  From any objective standpoint, as I look back over almost five decades of life, I can claim that Peart would rank with St. Augustine, St. Francis, John Adams, T.S. Eliot, Willa Cather, Ray Bradbury, Russell Kirk, and J.R.R. Tolkien as those I would like to claim as having saved me and shaped me.  If I actually live up to the example of any of these folks, however, is a different question . . .

I also like to say that Peart would have been a great big brother not just because he was his own person, but, most importantly, because he introduced me as well as an entire generation of North Americans (mostly males) to the ideas of Heraclitus, Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Cicero, Seneca, Petrarch, Erasmus, Voltaire, Adam Smith, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, T.S. Eliot, J.R.R. Tolkien, and others.

During my junior year of high school, I wrote an essay on the meaning of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, based on Peart’s interpretation.  I earned some form of an A.  In one of my core humanities courses, while at the University of Notre Dame, I wrote my major sophomore humanities term paper about the cultural criticisms of Neil Peart as found in his lyrics to the 1984 album, Grace Under Pressure.  Again, I received an A.

I’m not alone in this love of Rush.  The band is, of course, one of the highest selling rock acts of all time, and they are just now crossing the line into their fortieth anniversary.  Arguably, no other band has had as loyal a following as had Rush.  Thousands and thousands of men (and some women) faithfully attend sold-out concerts throughout North and South America to this day.  This is especially true of North American men, ages 35 to 65.  Now, as is obvious at concerts, an entirely new generation of Rush fans is emerging, the children of the original set.

Telling, critics have almost always despised Rush, seeing them as having betrayed the blues-based tradition of much of rock, exchanging it for a European (and directly African rather than African-American) tradition of long form, complexity, and bizarrely shifting time signatures.  Such a direction and style became unbearable for the nasty writers of the largest music magazines.  They have felt and expressed almost nothing but disdain for such an “intellectually-pretentious band,” especially a band that has openly challenged the conformist ideologues of the Left while embracing art and excellence in all of its forms.  Elitist rags such as the horrid Rolling Stone and equally horrid NME have time and time again dismissed Rush as nothing but smug middle-class rightists.

That so many have hated them so powerfully has only added to my attraction to the band, especially those who came of age in 1980s, despising the conformist hippies who wanted to mould my generation in their deformed image.  Rolling Stone and NME spoke for the oppressive leftist elite, and many of my generation happily made rude gestures toward their offices and their offal.  I had no love of the ideologues of the right, either.  But, they weren’t controlling the schools in the 1980s.  Their leftist idiotic counterparts were in charge.  They had no desire for excellence.  They demanded conformity and mediocrity.

[The best visual representation of this widespread if ultimately ineffective student revolt in the 1980s can be found in “The Breakfast Club” by John Hughes (RIP).]

To make it even more real for me, the parents of Geddy Lee, the lead singer and bassist of Rush, had survived the Polish holocaust camps, and the parents of Alex Lifeson, the lead guitarist of the band, had escaped from the Yugoslavian gulag.  Peart came from a Canadian farming community, his father an entrepreneur.  No prima donnas were these men.  They understood suffering, yet they chose to rise above it.  And, of course, this makes the British music press even more reprehensible for labeling the members of Rush as rightest or fascist.  Again, I offer the most dignified description for Rolling Stone and NME possible: “ideological fools and tools.”

At age 13, I stared and stared at this image.  I loved the look of each of the guys.  They couldn't be more interesting to me.

At age 13, I stared and stared at this image. I loved the look of each of the guys. They couldn’t be more interesting to me.

Enter Rob Freedman

In his outstanding 2014 book, Rush: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness (Algora Press), author, philosopher, and media specialist Rob Freedman has attempted to explain not just Peart’s popularity among his multitude of fans—some of the most dedicated in the music world—but also the Canuck drummer’s actual set of ideas and explored beliefs in his books and lyrics.  Not surprisingly, Freedman finds the Canadian a man deeply rooted in the western tradition, specifically in the traditions of western humanism and individualism.

As Freedman notes, one can find three themes in all of Peart’s lyrics: individualism; classical liberalism; and humanism.  It’s worth observing that Freedman has formal training in academic philosophy, and this shows in his penetrating discussion of the music as well as the words of Rush.

Cover of Rob Freedman, Rush: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Excellence (2014).  A must own.

Cover of Rob Freedman, Rush: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Excellence (2014). A must own.

Relying on interviews with the band, the music journalism (much of it bogus and elitist idiocy) of the last forty years, and actually serious works of Rush criticism, such as that done admirably by Steve Horwitz in Rush and Philosophy (Open Court, 2011), Freedman offers not so much a biography of the band, but rather a map of their intellectual influences and expressions.  Freedman possesses a great wit in his writing, and the book—relatively short at 164 pages—flows and flows, time standing still until the reader reaches the end.  For all intents and purposes, Freedman’s book serves as an intellectual thriller, a page turner.

As a lover of Rush, I have a few (very few) quibbles with Freedman’s take.  Mostly, from my not so humble perspective, Freedman gives way too much space to such charlatans as Barry Miles of the English New Music Express who claimed Rush promoted neo-fascism in the late 1970s.  Freedman, while disagreeing with Miles, bends over backwards defending Miles’s point of view, as it did carry immense weight in the 1970s and wounded the band deeply.  From my perspective, there is no excuse for Miles.  He maliciously manipulated and twisted the words of Peart—using his lyrics and a personal interview—which were as deeply anti-fascistic as one could possibly imagine (paeans to creativity and individualism) and caused unnecessary damage to the reputation of three men, two of whom who had parents who had survived the horrors of the twentieth-century ideologues, as noted above.  Miles’s take on Rush is simply inexcusable and no amount of justification explains his wickedness and cthluthic insensibilities toward three great artists.  Dante best understood where such “men” spent eternity.

Author Rob Freedman.

Author Rob Freedman.

I also believe that Freedman underplays the role of Stoicism in his book.  The venerable philosophy barely receives a mention.  Yet, in almost every way, Peart is a full-blown Stoic.  In his own life as well as his own actions, Peart has sought nothing but excellence as conformable to the eternal laws of nature.  This is the Stoicism of the pagans, admittedly, and not of the Jews or Christians, but it is Stoicism nonetheless.  Freedman rightly notes that Plato and, especially, Aristotle influenced Peart.  But, so did Zeno, Virgil, Cicero, and Seneca.  This comes across best in Peart’s lyrics for “Natural Science” (early Rush), “Prime Mover” (middle Rush), and in “The Way the Wind Blows” (recent Rush).  In each of these songs, Peart presents a view of the world with resignation, recognizing that whatever his flaws, man perseveres.  Erik Heter and I have each attempted to explore this aspect of Peart’s writings at progarchy.  Heter has been quite successful at it.

As the risk of sounding cocky, I offer what I hope is high praise for Freedman.  I wish I’d written this book.

Peart as Real Man

Neil-Peart later

Neil Peart, ca. 2008.

In the late 1990s, Peart experienced immense tragedy.  A horrible set of events ended the life of his daughter and, quickly after, his wife.  Devastated, Peart got on his motorcycle (he’s an avid cyclist and motorcyclist) and rode throughout the entirety of North America for a year.  It was his year in the desert, so to speak.

Then, in 2002, Rush re-emerged and released its rockingly powerful album, Vapor Trails.  The men were the same men (kind of), but the band was not the same band.  This twenty-first century Rush, for all intents and purposes, is Rush 2.0.  This is a much more mature as well as a much more righteously angry and yet also playful Rush.  This is a Rush that has nothing to prove except to themselves.  The last albums—Vapor Trails (2002); Snakes and Arrows (2007); and Clockwork Angels (2012)—have not only been among the best in the huge Rush catalogue, but they are some of the best albums made in the last sixty years.  They soar with confidence, and they promote what Rush has always done best: excellence, art, creativity, distrust of authority, and dignity of the human person.

Peart is not quite the hard-core libertarian of his youth.  In his most recent book, Far and Near, he explains,

The great Western writer Edward Abbey’s suggestion was to catch them [illegal immigrants], give them guns and ammunition, and send them back to fix the things that made them leave.  But Edward Abbey was a conservative pragmatist, and I am a bleeding-heart libertarian==who also happens to be fond of Latin Americans.  The ‘libertarian’ in me thinks people should be able to go where they want to go, and the ‘bleeding heart’ doesn’t want them to suffer needlessly” [Far and Near, 58]

If he has lost any of his former political fervor, he’s lost none of his zest for life and for art.  “My first principle of art is ‘Art is the telling of stories.’  What might be called the First Amendment is ‘Art must transcend its subject’.” [Far and Near, 88]

These twenty-first century albums speak to me at age 47 as much as the early albums spoke to me at age 13.  I’ve grown up, and so has Rush.  Interestingly, this doesn’t make their early albums seem childish, only less wise.

After my wife and I lost our own daughter, Cecilia Rose, I wrote a long letter to Neil Peart, telling him how much the events of his life—no matter how tragic—had shaped my own response to life.  I included a copy of my biography of J.R.R. Tolkien.  Mr. Peart sent me back an autographed postcard as thanks.

I framed it, and it will be, until the end of my days, one of my greatest possessions.

After all, Neil Peart has not just told me about the good life, creativity, and integrity, he has shown me through his successes and his tragedies—and thousands and thousands of others—that each life holds a purpose beyond our own limited understandings.  As with all things, Peart takes what life has given and explodes it to the level of revelation.

Have We Entered a Fourth Wave of Prog?

I’ve been thinking about this for much of the year.  2014 seems like a very different year for prog—especially when compared with 2011, 2012, and 2013.

8 page booklet P8&1The incredible music of 2014 in the prog world—from John Bassett, Newspaperflyhunting, Fire Garden, Tin Spirits, Arcade Messiah, Andy Tillison, Cailyn Lloyd, Galahad (Stu Nicholson), Salander, Fractal Mirror, and a host of others–further convinces me we’ve entered into a new wave of prog, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post.

Andy Tillison and Brian Watson have convincingly argued in favor of dividing the history of prog into three waves, the third wave beginning around 1994 or so.

If Tillison and Watson are correct, and I suspect they are, I believe we might have entered what we could call the fourth wave.

The turning point came in 2013 with grand and profound releases from Big Big Train, The Tangent, and Glass Hammer.  These albums were so excellent, perhaps the best in prog history, that they might very well have represented the apex of third-wave prog.

arcade messiah artTake a listen to any of the above mentioned artists in 2014.  Their music, especially when compared to the releases of the previous several years, offers something much more experimental and reflective.  The story telling is less narrative and more punctuated, the lyrics more imagistic.

Anyway, I’m thinking (and typing) out loud.  I’ll give it more thought.

Minstrel’s Ghost: Funds for Art Needed

Blake

Blake Carpenter, international man of mystery and, in at least one parallel earth, Mr. Malfoy.

One of my favorite bands, Minstrel’s Ghost, is launching a fund-raising campaign to finance their next album (writeup below).  In the Middle Ages and Early Modern period of western civilization, every great artist had a patron.  Such a system is long gone, but we know have the chance to offer such help in a democratic age.  We all know that major labels have one foot in the grave.  Such fundraising is the hope of excellence of art in this world.

So far, progarchy has encouraged the funding of Leah (success!) and Lifesigns (in process).  Let’s offer the same for Minstrel’s Ghost.

Here’s what I received from Blake (leader of MG)

****

Who is The Minstrel’s Ghost?

The Minstrel’s Ghost is a melodic rock/progressive band featuring Blake Carpenter (writer, singer, keyboards and guitars), Troy James Martin (bassist and singer), Mike Troupe (drummer and singer) and Jartse Tuominen (lead guitars). If you love Pink Floyd, The Alan Parsons Project, Asia, Saga and the like then you will love us too. We do not try to sound like anyone else but the influences can be heard in our music. From the jazzy drums and rippling bass to the fluid guitar leads, sweeping keyboard riffs and story telling vocals our music takes you on a journey from beginning to end.

What is this all about?

This campaign is to raise funds for our third album and a movie to accompany it. The album is a take on the life of Jack the Ripper, a kind of back story if you will. A little creative license applied and we see how difficult growing up in the late 19th century is for a young boy. The harsh realities of prostitution, brutality and shocking loss leave young Jack struggling to cope. How will he deal with it all? We are planning on making a silent film using the music from the album as the story teller.

This has been in the head of Blake, the writer of the album, for a long time. The vision of making a movie instead of a couple of videos to accompany an album came when he was looking through old Victorian images on the web and trying to put a story line together with pictures.  There is a story to be told here, this is about Jack but it could be about anyone who suffers hardship and tragedy at a young age. We all handle our pain in different ways and that, at least to some extent, defines us, no matter where or when we live.

Why we need you…..

Making this movie is a big deal for us! We are still a young band trying to make our way into a much larger family of melodic, progressive bands. We hope that this movie will help us reach more of those whom we know would love our music. Please know that what ever we do it will always be about the stories inside the music and giving you the opportunity to laugh or cry, smile or frown and take something away from the music and story that will help you through your day, week, or life.

What We Need & What You Get

We have some things already in place and are using the barter system to get portions of the production done but we still need some equipment and perhaps some licenses to use public areas for filming. This fundraiser is also for CD and DVD manufacture as well as artwork for the whole project.
We are looking for $15,000 to secure:

  • camera and lighting rentals
  • a video editing machine
  • any licenses we may need for filming in public places
  • any potential extras needed for the film such as wood, paint and other building materials for sets
  • paid actors (if we need to as most are included in the bartering)
  • feeding actors and crew
  • all artwork for the CD and DVD (not your typical insert, a full sized newspaper)
  • CD and DVD manufacturing
  • Photo shoot for the artwork
For your contribution you can get:
  • posters
  • t-shirts
  • Signed copies of both CD and DVD from all members of the band
  • your name in lights at the beginning or the end of the movie
  • and much more

If the goal is not reached, we will do what we can with the funds raised and work out other arrangements for the perks we are not able to fulfill. We will work with you personally on all substitute perks if it comes to that – but let’s make sure it doesn’t come to that!

Risks & Challenges

We have been down this road before, just like so many other bands and artists so we know all too well that things happen that can get in the way of a happy ending. We also know that we have you, our friends and fans to join us in jumping over any hurdles we may come across. That said, we will be sure to make this happens in some way, shape or form for everyone to enjoy.

Other Ways You Can Help

We know that some people just can’t contribute, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help:

SHARE, SHARE, SHARE, SHARE!!!!!!!!!! Tell your friends, use Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, and all the other outlets you can to let everyone know about this project. Don’t forget music forums you may be a member of, please, if you can, print up a few flyers and throw them up around town. Don’t forget that there are tools right here on this page that you can use to share this project and help it reach as many people as it can.

Don’t forget to sign up for the The Minstrel’s Chronicle our (almost) monthly newsletter atminstrelsghost.com

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-minstrel-s-ghost-jack-a-different-tale-cd-dvd

Hello, Patricia Tallman!

One of the many exciting things about writing for an active website is finding out who is following you. Every week, progarchy.com receives new followers at its own website (through wordpress—we’ve over 2,400 subscribers as I type this), through twitter, and on Facebook. We have some accounts on some other social media, but I’ve (–Brad) have never quite figured out to use them.

Maybe Chris or Carl can.

More often than not, understandably, the follows come from musicians, agents, and music fans. Makes sense. But, every once in a while, one comes out of left field.

This week, I was thrilled to see that Patricia Tallman is following us on twitter.

Patricia-TallmanCurrently the CEO of Studio JMS, Tallman will be familiar to most of you as the face of Lyta Alexander, the most powerful telepath in the Babylon 5 universe. By season of that greatest of all TV shows (EVER!), she is the post-Vorlon weapon of mass destruction. And, what a character and what an actress. I become rather taken with her from the first moment she flashed those intense eyes, red hair, and brilliant intellect on screen.

She also has appeared as an actress and stunt person in numerous TV shows and movies, including various incarnations of Star Trek, Army of Darkness, and Austin Powers.

And, back to B5 for a moment. As most of you probably know, Christopher Franke, German krautprog demigod composed all of the music for the series. Naturally, it’s rather good though now currently difficult to find.

Pat Tallman, whether you’re joining us because you’re a music fan or simply because you know we’re YOUR fans, welcome. Glad to have you aboard.

Neither Bending Nor Conforming: Fractal Mirror Comes of Age

Review of Fractal Mirror, “Garden of Ghosts” (privately released, 2014). The Band: Leo Koperdraat; Ed van Haagen; and Frank Urbaniak. Art by Brian Watson and layout by Frank Urbaniak. Additional personnel: Brent Kull (mixer); Larry Fast; Don Fast; and Andre de Boer.

Songs: House of Wishes; The Phoenix; Lost in Clouds; Solar Flare; The Hive; Solar Flare Reprise; The Garden; Orbital View; Event Horizon; Legacy; and Stars.

Birzer rating: 9.5/10.

GOG

Take a Dutch singer/keyboardist and a Dutch bassist, an American drummer, and an English artist. Add a little Kashmir-Zeppelin and a lot of Bauhaus, some Cure from the Faith period, and a touch of Gilmour-era Pink Floyd. Mix in some master jazz and prog stars to produce, contribute, and engineer. Throw in a dash of social media to connect it all. Finally, glue it all together with lyrics that might make Neil Peart blush at the timidity of his own Canuck individualism. Even with such diverse and various ingredients, you’d probably still not arrive at the genius that is Fractal Mirror.

“I will not bend or conform; this is how I’m meant to be.”

Indeed, it is. The first Fractal Mirror album proved a spectacular success. This second release, even more so. By infinite degrees. This sophomore release offers a full-bodied constitution and a virtuous soul to the emerging voice that was the new-born first album.

Fractal Mirror has come of age.

In a very definite sense, the title of this release “Garden of Ghost,” tells the listener almost all of what he or she needs to know about the whole. From the opening lyrics, Leo Koperdraat’s haunting, quavering voice shakes the listener to his deepest longings and desires as well as to his greatest fears and anxieties. This is not an album for the weak of soul, the narrow of mind, or faint of heart. This album is full-bodied, and it demands immersion, not just polite appreciation. While the ghosts fits the tone of the album completely, a “maze” might have worked as well as “garden.” The garden, if it exists, is the garden one finds in a nineteenth-century cemetery. It is certainly not the English garden of even the most psychedelic of Beatle songs. Here, if it exists, the garden collects stones, obelisks, mutated lambs and gargoyles, crumbling and cracked names, and pieces of rod iron and greened bronze and copper. A fog hovers over it all, and the damp penetrates all who enter it.

Fractal Mirror’s Garden of Ghosts is fully prog, though not the prog of our fathers. If Andy Tillson and Brian Watson (who also happens to be the main artist of FM) are correct that we have been living in the third wave of prog since about 1994—and I think they are right—2014 might very well reveal a transition to a new wave. As I look back over my posts for the past five years, I realize that every single year I write something akin to “201X, the greatest year in prog yet.” Yes, I’m prone to hyperbole, but I did mean this every time I wrote it. For the first time in a half-decade, I’m not sure this year, 2014 by Christian accounting, is the best year in prog. There have been some truly brilliant releases this year, indeed, some of the best prog I’ve ever heard. I think it is quite possible, however, that Big Big Train, The Tangent, and Glass Hammer took us to an unsurpassable level last year, perhaps the very culmination of third-wave prog.

The best releases of this year, such as those by Cosmograf, John Bassett, Salander, and Fractal Mirror, offer a progressively retro look, in theme and in musical styles. That is, many of the best releases this year have been scavenger hunts of the years 1979-1984 while cleaning those remaining and latent treasures and reimaging them.

What we have this year, 2014, is prog, to be certain, but it comes very close to post-post modern prog. Atmospheres, tones, and lingerings have replaced force, rhythm, and drive. “Ocean Rain” might serve as the touchstone rather than “Close to the Edge.”

To put it another way, the music of 2014 seems as intense as anything before it, but it also seems content to be contemplative and deeply intellectual, an autumnal repose of the mind and soul, an in-taking of breath, anticipating exhalation.

“This winter feels like forever, a garden of regret.”

FM has created a thing of real genius with Garden of Ghosts. I apologize that this review is so introspective and reflective, so utterly subjective. But, the 2014 prog scene has brought out the most existential questions in me. As I listen and listen and listen to Fractal Mirror, I can’t help but feel a most fundamental soul searching.

For what it’s worth, I’ve been listening to this album for roughly a month now, and I’ve found it one of the most difficult things I’ve ever reviewed. Not because it’s bad, but for exactly the opposite reason. It’s so interesting and complex, so very good, that I wanted to give my own thought processes time to catch up with it. I’m certain that as I continue to listen, I will discover even more depths as well as breadths.

I must also note: it’s well worth getting the physical CD. Brian Watson has presented us with some of his best artwork, and Frank Urbaniak’s layout sets what should be the standard for all cd layouts. The lyrics are well worth reading over and pondering, again and again. The band even included a brief description of the intent and meaning of each song. I resisted reading these until just right now, as I come to a close with this review. As it turns out, my interpretation of the themes of the album—loss, age, regret, concern, and hope—mesh with what the band has explained here. Again, a masterwork of autumnal existentialism.

For more information, see www.fractalmirror.net.

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