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The Sadly Decaying Orbit of Anathema: Distant Satellites Fails

[Review of Anathema, Distant Satellites (Kscope, 2014). Reviewed from digital files and without liner notes or lyrics.]

anathema-distant-satellitesNOT RECOMMENDED.

I would give much either to have the opportunity to write a different review or avoid writing a review of this album altogether. The latter is my usual M.O. when I don’t like something or when I think something is subpar. Though other progarchists would justly and properly disagree with me on this issue, I think it important to spend our time writing and thinking about beautiful things. Life is simply too short to waste on mud, muck, and decay, and art is too precious and rare to squander or abuse it.

Also, simply put, I’m not good at writing about things I don’t like. I would also guess that spending time with things that are poor or corrupt damage my soul (and yours) irreparably.

But, I can neither ignore the new Anathema nor write a positive review of it without being dishonest. Distant Satellites is not corrupt, but it is, for the band, sub par. I wish Anathema would have taken more time with the writing of this album or simply have taken time off for a rest. Or, perhaps, the band could have released just a few of the best songs as an EP rather than as a full-fledged album.  As an album, it can’t hold together.

A year ago, if someone had asked me to discuss the present state of rock music, I would have sung the praises of Big Big Train and The Tangent, correctly claiming that each band was reach so far and attaining so much that they were very close to becoming untouchable. 2014 wouldn’t change this assessment. BBT and The Tangent are not only at the very top of their game, they are at the very top of THE game. Outside of North American bands (I’m intentionally excluding Rush and Glass Hammer), I would have gladly said that Cosmograf and Anathema were so close to untouchable as to be nearly at the level of the top two. 2014, thus far, has drastically changed the prog landscape. Whereas Cosmograf has moved into the top three with its new masterpiece, Capacitor, Distant Satellites reveals a broken or, at best, wounded, decaying Anathema.

How different a year ago was. Looking at the trajectory of Anathema—from A Natural Disaster to Universal—I would have placed good money on the rise of the band. Well, not really, I think gambling is a waste of time and money. But, you get the idea. I mean, really, Universal has to be one of the best live albums of the rock era. In terms of intensity and significance, this was a band with everything. While I would not have rated the two lead vocalists of Anathema—Vincent Cavanaugh and Lee Douglas—at the level of, say, David Longdon, Susie Bogdanowicz, or Leah McHenry, they would be close.

As mentioned above, I really wish I could write a different review for the new album. I have now listened to Distant Satellites close to a dozen times in hopes of coming to love it. Every listen, though, only makes realize how poor it is compared to their previous releases. Not that it’s terrible. Overall, it’s ok, but it’s, unfortunately, not much better than ok. I find myself wanting to skip through almost every song. There are two exceptions to this. Track Four, “Ariel,” has to be one of the single best songs Anathema has ever written.

The second best song on the album, “Distant Satellites,” is fascinating, but not necessarily for the right reasons. I’m fairly sure that if I allowed 100 dedicated prog fans to listen to it for the first time without giving them a single piece of information about the track, 75 to 90 of them would claim it to be a never-before-recorded track from Radiohead’s Kid A sessions. Indeed, I won’t be totally surprised when my physical copy finally arrives from the UK, if the liner notes reveal that Thom Yorke actually wrote the track and sang lead vocals on it. It’s one thing to pay homage to an exemplar, it’s a very different thing to mimic them. I really don’t know what to make of all of this, or why Anathema decided to pursue the course it did.

I really wish I could proclaim Distant Satellites to be the finest work yet by Anathema. I would be lying, though.

If you’re an Anathema or Kscope completest, buy this. Otherwise, I simply can’t recommend it. Other than tracks 4 and 9 and, possibly, 10, it’s not worth the price. Purchasing it would be kind of like putting stock in the Skylab project a few days before it crashed into Australia.

Let’s all hope the band’s followup puts them back into orbit.

An Edwardian Trip through Hades: CAPACITOR by COSMOGRAF

Stunning album cover.  A progged-out version of Dolby's GOLDEN AGE OF WIRELESS.  Brilliant.

Stunning album cover by the wonderful Graeme Bell. A progged-out version of Dolby’s GOLDEN AGE OF WIRELESS. Brilliant.

Cosmograf’s CAPACITOR is everything a rock album should be.  And, I do mean EVERYTHING.  EVERY.  SINGLE. THING.  It is wholesome, fractured, creepy, uplifting, contemplative, mythic, existentialist, moving, intense, wired, dramatic, contemplative, Stoic, mystifying, weird, satisfying, honed, nuanced, dark, and light.

 

The Meaning of It All

If I could capture the album in one sentence, comparing it to other forms of art, I would and will put it this way: CAPACITOR is an Edwardian journey into the Hades of the Ancient Greeks but emerging in BIOSHOCK.

Then, think about the artists involved.  Andy Tillison plays keyboards on it.  Matt Stevens plays guitar on it.  Nick Beggs and Colin Edwin play bass on it. NVD plays all of the drums. Our modern master of sound, Rob Aubrey, the Phill Brown of our day, engineered it.

[Correction: from Rob Aubrey.  My apologies for getting the credits and terms mixed up.  "Hi All, Actually I didn’t ENGINEER it as such…. I recorded the Drums with NDV and then everything else was Produced and Engineered by Robin… He Mixed the album at home and I was here in an advisory role, just giving a hand when he ran into problems or I felt things needed more work. Robin and I mastered the album together just a few Months ago on my studio system here (Pro Tools) using all of his original sessions so Robin could make adjustments to the overall dynamic and “tweak” individual sounds if necessary. I cannot take credit for much as Robin really is the genius here!"]

Then, of course, there’s the artist supreme, the writer, director, and producer of it all, Robin Armstrong. English wit, critic, musician, lyricist, father, husband, entrepreneur, and demigod of chronometry, Armstrong is one of the most interesting persons of our day and age. He’s already proven everything an artist should in his previous albums, especially in The Man Left in Space.

Armstrong is a driven man, and it’s impossible to think of him without thinking not only of perfectionism, but also of his insatiable desire to perfect a thing even more so. In terms of constitution, he is probably incapable of doing otherwise. We all benefit from his unrelenting drive.

On the latest album, CAPACITOR, Armstrong explores the Edwardian fascination with spiritualism, giving us not “steam punk” but what should be called “vacuum tube punk,” something quite different from that of either H.G. Wells or Bruce Sterling.

The statement “energy cannot be created or destroyed” appears in print, in word, and in song multiple times on CAPACITOR. If this is true, Armstrong asks through his characters and story, where does our energy—our soul—go after the body fails us? We are everywhere and in every time, he notes, surrounded by the ghosts of the dead. Even if we don’t personally believe in an afterlife, we see “what they left with us.”

Ghosts appear frequently on the album, as does a vaudevillian preacher and a spiritual medium. In the end, though, especially by the final two tracks, Armstrong is critiquing the rise and predominance of “the machine,” any gadget that mechanizes us, makes us less than human, and distracts or captures our very soul and very essence, thus diminishing our humanity.

The person, it seems, can never be fully an individual without body and soul, not in war with one another, but in healthy tension.

 

The Meaning of It All, Continued

Musically, CAPACITOR immerses us into perfection itself. See above for the musicians Armstrong has brought together. He’s obviously a creator of community and a leavenor of talent. He’s also within the prog tradition, with musical passages inspired by, indirectly, Porcupine Tree, Pink Floyd, Big Big Train, and The Tangent and, directly, The Beatles. Indeed, one of the most rousing moments musically comes in “The Reaper’s Song,” a song that, in large part, pays homage to THE MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR by the Beatles (1967).

The white car.  Original photography by Dan Armstrong.  Booklet art by Robin Armstrong.

The white car. Original photography by Dan Armstrong. Booklet art by Robin Armstrong.

Sitting in a station, waiting for a train to come

Frighten all the people, standing on the platform

Trying not to push them over

Trains are gonna crush them

Stupid little people

Stupid little people

Another track, “White Car,” has absolutely nothing to do with the unfinished fragment of the Yes song from DRAMA (1980). Yes’s song will have to continue in my soul as an unresolved enigma until the end of time.

 

A Masterpiece

It goes without stating (though, I will state it anyway!), the last several years have been not only amazing when it comes to rock, but they have also been, probably, the best years in the history of progressive rock.

2014 has been no different.

Please, however, don’t think of Cosmograf’s CAPACITOR as merely another Cosmograf release or as merely another prog rock release.

Of course, there is no such thing as “just another Cosmograf release,” though we might become a bit jaded when it comes to another “prog rock release.” There’s so much coming out at the moment, it would be understandable—if not forgivable—to take the historic moment for granted. Even with the somewhat overwhelming number of music cds appearing over the last several years, CAPACITOR is truly something special and, dare I use a word overused and misused for its sappiness, precious.

From my way of thinking, CAPACITOR is the best cd of 2014 and one of the best prog rock releases of all time. It is, at least this year, the one for all others to surpass. I very much look forward to those who embrace the challenge.

 

To pre-order for the June 2, 2014, release, please go here.

Progarchist and quasi-Kiwi Russell Clarke receives his copy and is quite elated.

Progarchist and quasi-Kiwi Russell Clarke receives his copy and is quite elated.

Cosmograf, CAPACITOR: Preorder Tomorrow, April 11.

Stunning album cover.  A progged-out version of Dolby's GOLDEN AGE OF WIRELESS.  Brilliant.

Stunning album cover. A progged-out version of Dolby’s GOLDEN AGE OF WIRELESS. Brilliant.

Master of all things Chronometric and Progometric, Robin Armstrong, has just announced that the new Cosmograf CD, CAPACITOR, will be available for pre-order tomorrow, Friday, April 11.

Progarchy’s advice: pre-order early and often.

Pre-order will be available through the Cosmograf website: http://www.cosmograf.com

To see the album trailer, watch below.

Cosmograf Trailer, “Capacitor”

Here She Comes: April 5 Progarchy News

Just when I thought spring might have sprung in Michigan, vernal verities hit hard. Upon arising from my heavy slumbers, I have looked out the window to discover there’s a fresh layer of snow upon everything. Old Tom was right: April is the cruelest month.

Some great things happening in the world of music, especially as interests the citizens of progarchy. So, in no order discernable to me:

Unearth-Album-Cover

Bassett, contemplating immensity.

John Bassett, Integrity’s Minstrel, continues to receive nothing but excellent reviews for his solo album, Unearth.  Not surprisingly.

Mischievous progger, Andy Tillison.

Mischievous progger, Andy Tillison.

Andy Tillison reports the first version of the new The Tangent album is done and will be released early next year by Insideout Music.

Also, don’t forget that Andy is selling much of his excellent back catalogue through his online website.  To purchase, go here: http://thetangent.org [navigate through a couple of pages; it's worth it]

Leah, Metal Maid.

Leah, Metal Maid.

Our own lovely metal maid, Leah McHenry, has just raised the full $25,000 of her Indiego campaign. And, even three days early of her goal. Congratulations to Leah! We’re extremely proud of her. And, of course, we’re looking forward to the followup to her spectacular Otherworld.

Mike Kershaw, Wakefield's progger.

Mike Kershaw, Wakefield’s progger.

The ever-interesting Mike Kershaw is about to release his next album.  We very much look forward to it as well.

Edited by everyone's favorite Master of Fate, Jerry Ewing.

Edited by everyone’s favorite Master of Fate, Jerry Ewing.

PROG magazine, edited by the incomparable Jerry Ewing, will now be distributed in physical form throughout North America.

cover

The Black Vines, heavy rockers, from the Sheffield area of England, have just released their second album, Return of the Splendid Bastards. It’s some great, great rock. To download or purchase the physical CD, go here: http://blackvines.bandcamp.com

Dr. Rachel Cohen, lead singer of The Reasoning.  Photo by Tim Hall.

Dr. Rachel Cohen, lead singer of The Reasoning. Photo by Tim Hall.

The Reasoning is offering some really nice bundles at their online webstore:

You may also have noticed that our website has been updated. We have had a clear-out, done a major restructure and completely rebuilt the shop. Rob, our ivory tickler, has done a splendid job and we here at Comet HQ are extremely grateful to him. You will find the new shop stocked to the hilt with a bunch of wonderful new discounted “bundles” plus new individual items and, of course, the usual shop fair. There may even be some copies of CDs that have not been available for a very long time (wink, wink). Your shopping experience is now going to be quicker AND simpler. Win! Have a look at what’s available and treat yourself… because you’re worth it.

To check out the bundles, go here: http://www.thereasoning.com/shop/

Lego Arjen.

Lego Arjen.

From a few hints offered, it appears that Arjen Lucassen is deep into his next project. His legions of fans can collectively sigh, “amen.”

Stunning album cover.  A progged version of Dolby's GOLDEN AGE OF WIRELESS.  Brilliant.

Stunning album cover. A progged version of Dolby’s GOLDEN AGE OF WIRELESS. Brilliant.

The new Cosmograf, Capacitor, is done, and from the trailer, it looks nothing short of spectacular. Indeed, when it comes to watching this video, I might have an addiction problem. “Hello, my name is Brad Birzer, and I’m a Cosmografaholic.” Righteously ominous.  To watch (and you should, repeatedly), go here: http://progarchy.com/2014/04/01/capacitor-the-amazing-spirit-capture/

New progarchy editor, Craig Breaden.

New progarchy editor, Craig Breaden.

I’m very happy to announce that within the quasi-anarchical structure of progarchy, Craig Breaden has achieved the rank of editor! This comes with a Vorpal Blade and an additional 17 hit points. Craig has been a close friend of mine since 1990, and he first introduced me to some of the greatest music of the late 1960s and 1970s, especially to much of the best rock not found in what’s typically called progressive or new wave. From Spooky Tooth to Richard Thompson to Newspaperflyhunting and everything in between, Craig throws himself into reviewing, always revealing equal depths of intellect, humanity, and grace in his articles. He is a real treasure in the world of music. He’s also, importantly, a professional sound archivist, as well as a devoted father and husband. He’s a hard guy not to love and respect.

The elusive Nemo Dre.

The elusive Nemo Dre.

Nemo Dre finally revealed to me his real name.

 

One of Suzanne Vega's best albums, Nine Objects of Desire.

One of Suzanne Vega’s best albums, Nine Objects of Desire.

Burning Shed is now selling Suzanne Vega’s music. This is very cool and speaks well of both Vega and Burning Shed.

One of the best albums of all time, The Colour of Spring.

One of the best albums of all time, The Colour of Spring.

Finally, it’s April 5, International Talk Talk Day. http://progarchy.com/2013/04/05/here-she-comes-laughter-upon-her-lips-talk-talks-1986-masterpiece/  Make sure you listen to your favorite Talk Talk album today to celebrate.

 

Cosmograf News

cosmograf

One of our heroes, Robin Armstrong, just posted the following at Facebook:

Album update – It’s finished!, well very very nearly. Last night was spent holed up in Aubitt Studios with Rob Aubrey, working into the wee small hours putting the final mixes in place. Just final tweaks and then the final master next week. Expect some sort of pre-order info next week…. and of course the big reveal for the title and artwork.

Progarchists everywhere await this with eager enthusiasm.

I’m not the-list-kind-of-guy but…

…nevertheless I have done my homework and now will present my list of the best albums from this absolutely fantastic year of prog! :) I mean 2012 and 2013 have been excellent years both of them but 2013 has been special. I think we can agree on that even though our personal lists may differ a bit. Not to be spoiling too much, but the number one was a no-brainer really, but then it was extremely hard to distinguish between albums 2 to 6. These are five albums that actually can interchange their positions depending on what kind of day it is for me. :) This is how it all ended up today at least. So off we go!

10. Camelias Garden – You Have A Chance

You Have A Chance

Lovely debut album by this Italian band. Folky prog a bit in the vein of Harmonium.

9. Spock’s Beard – Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep

sb

Well, who would have thought that my favourite SB-album would be the one without both Neal and Nick? But so it is!

8. Haken – The Mountain

haken1

Rawk’n’rawl and some real quirkiness in a fine mix! Will always remember sitting in Mr Ian Greatorex’s listening room with high end stereo equipment, giving this a first listen…with a Big Big Beer in my hand.

7. Lifesigns – Lifesigns

Lifesigns CD (2)

After feeling it was a bit “meh” to start with this lush album has grown and grown. Some really beautiful songs here!

6. The Tangent – Le Sacre du Travail

tangent 2013 cover

Mr Andy Tillison’s magnum opus to date! Greatness! And with Gavin on drums and Jonas on bass, what can possibly go wrong?

5. Cosmograf – The Man Left In Space

cosmograf

Superb album by Robin Armstrong’s brainchild, comsograf! It’s one of those you just have to listen to from beginning to end totally undisturbed. 

4. Moon Safari – Himlabacken Vol. 1

Himlabacken Vol. 1

I can’t resist this band’s music! It always makes me so very happy and warm inside! Lovely peeps in the band as well!

3. The Flower Kings – Desolation Rose

"Pure Flower Kings, pure prog and Kingly epic."

Best TFK album since Space Revolver I dare say. So glad they’re back and sounding so fresch and on their toes again!

2. Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused To Sing

Raven That Refused to Sing

What can I say? It’s a gorgeous album!

1. Big Big Train – English Electric: Full Power

Progarchy Best Packaging, 2013: Big Big Train, English Electric Full Power.

Well, nobody’s probably really surprised about this being my number one of 2013. :D It’s a stunner and will be for many years to come! It’s the best album of any genre for me this year. Without competition.

So…that’s it folks. Outside my list of Top 10 you can find some that are very fine albums and would have made any Top 10 from any other year before 2012. Vienna Circle – Silhouette Moon, Days Between Stations – In Extremis, Johannes Luley – Tales From The Sheepfather’s Grove and Shinebacks fine album Rise Up Forgotten, Return Destroyed (added 20130103) are examples of albums bubbling just beneath position number 10. Then we find albums that I haven’t found the time, motivation or curiousness to listen to more than very casually at the best. Riverside, Airbag, Fish, Nemo, Maschine etc are among those bands or artists that I haven’t given proper attention as of yet.

Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year everyone!

PS. Best prog-related and most fun and interesting experience of the year: Big Big Weekend 14-15 September in Winchester and Southampton!

My best of, must owns, of 2013

Prog7 - Version 2I realize it’s not the end of the calendar year, but it is the second day of Advent, and it seems like a proper time to list what I love about the music of this past year.  

The year, frankly, has overwhelmed me—but all in a good way.  As someone who has followed prog rather consciously since about 1981 (age 13) and has been exposed to it since about 1971 (age 3), I love the genre.  Frankly, I love many forms of music, including classical, opera, and jazz.  I’ve never learned to appreciate anything about country and rap, and, given that I’m 46, such prejudices will probably remain.

Sometime around age 22 or 23, though, I realized that financially, I was going to have to chose a genre if I wanted to collect and listen with any seriousness.  Perhaps it’s the slight OCD or some other quirk I possess, but I’ve never liked doing any thing half way.  In fact, as my maternal grandparents taught me—whether in taking care of the yard or cooking a meal or baking a loaf of bread or even in helping a neighbor—there’s no sense at all in doing something only partially.  In fact, to do anything partially was to slap yourself, integrity, and God in the face.  If you’re going to do something, do it well.  In fact, do it with excellence, if you possibly can.

So, if I wanted to throw myself into a genre, and not do it halfway, I had to choose between jazz and prog.  I love poetry too much, so prog seemed the best genre, as I find much to appreciate in fine lyric writing.  And, even in psychedelic lyric writing, there’s a joy to figuring out the puzzle of imagery.

And, so choosing prog, I realized soon after that I’d chosen a genre made up a lot of folks like myself—a number of OCD perfectionists!  And, I found that almost everyone making prog was (and is!) deeply committed and intelligent.  And, so were (and are!) the fans.  No one who loves the superficial of life becomes a prog musician, artist, or aficionado.

The problem was, of course, that when I was age 22 (1990), there wasn’t a lot of prog happening.  At least not much new was coming out.  Yet, prog could be found all throughout the rock world—though not always in the likeliest places.  As a genre, though, prog was probably at its lowest point in terms of what was being released.  Yet. . . yet. . . we were only a few years away from Brave and The Light and The Flower King . . .

Flash forward 23 years.  Holy schnikees.  What a year 2013 has been.  Really, could it be better?  Doubtful.  And, as I mentioned in my Preliminary Awards piece a few days ago, an argument could be made that we’ve reached the pinnacle, the Mount Everest of Prog!  I know, I know.  Eric Perry is going to slap me down for being hyperbolic.  Damnit, Eric, I’m from Kansas!  We’re not exactly subtle!!!

Phew.  Ok, I feel better getting all of that out.

Two quick comments.  First, these are in no order, other than alphabetical.  Frankly, these albums are just too good to allow my own will to separate one from another by “better or better.”   With one exception.  I would think any lover of the genre would want to own each of these.  Second, there are several albums that I suspect are wonderful, but do to my loan limitation because of family and work, I didn’t have time to absorb.  This latter list includes releases by Sam Healy (SAND is en route to the States as I type this), Mike Kershaw, Haken, Francisco Rafert, Ollocs,and Sky Architects, I apologize to these artists, as they took the time to contact me, and I was unable to give them credit where credit is due.  In due time, I will, however.

***

So, the list of the must-own cds of 2013, with two important exceptions.

ayreon

Ayreon, The Theory of Everything.  I hope to offer a full review of this soon, and I think fellow progarchist Tad Wert will as well.  The earlier series of Ayreon albums—possibly and arguably one of the most complex science fiction stories ever written—seems to have become self contained and at an end.  Now, if I’m understanding the lyrics from Arjen Lucassen’s latest correctly, Ayreon has become a project about exploring the self rather than about the self exploring the universe.  This is not easy listening, in terms of music or lyrics.  The former is a shifting feast of glory, no idea lasting more than two or three minutes before gorgeously transforming into some new idea, and the latter is deeply introspective and intelligent.  I’ve never had the chance to meet Arjen, but I would guess that he must be about as interesting as possible.  For him to keep such a huge range of ideas in one album, musically and lyrically, screams brilliance.  I only have one complaint with this release.  I’m a huge fan of Arjen’s voice, and he relies on the voices of others.  All good, if not outstanding, but I want Arjen’s voice.

***

cosmograf

Cosmograf, The Man Left in Space.  Phew.  Yes, let me write that one more time.  Phew.  That English chronometric and entrepreneurial demigod, Robin Armstrong, has now released four albums under the project name of Cosmograf.  Each is better than the last.  And, each of “the last” was pretty amazing and astounding and outstanding and lovely and meaningful and . . . you get the point.  The Man Left in Space is existentialism at its best.  Just as Arjen has written one of the finest science fiction stories of the last century, Robin has given us the musical equivalent of of the works of Albert Camus and Gabriel Marcel.  Add to near perfect story telling the musical work of Greg Spawton, Matt Stevens, Nick D’Virgilio, and, among the best, Robin himself, and you have a work of art that will stand the test of time.  A family man who loves speed, Robin also loves excellence.

***

days_between_stations_in_extremis_resized

Days Between Stations, In Extremis.  This one was a complete surprise to me.  A review copy arrived in the mail, courtesy of the band and the master of American prog PR, Billy James.  I was intrigued by the cover [que, background sound, Brad’s mother: “Never trust a book by its cover. . . “], though I frankly don’t like it that much.  It’s by the famous Paul Whitehead, but it’s a little too psychedelic for my tastes.  But, then, I looked at the musician list.  Holy smokes!  Tony Levin, Billy Sherwood, Colin Moulding, and Rick Wakeman.  How did this come about, I wondered?  Sherwood and Moulding sing on the album, and neither has ever sounded better.  Indeed, they seemed to have been created and birthed for this album.  Overall, In Extremis is symphonic prog at its best.  At 8 tracks over 70 minutes, the album never lags.  It flows together beautifully and movingly.  There are some of the most gut-wrenching passages, emotionally, I’ve ever heard in a prog album.  And, the two main members of the band, Oscar Fuentis Bills and Sepand Samzadeh, know exactly when to linger over a musical part and when to move on.  The high point: The Eggshell Man.  I have no idea who or what he is, but I’d like to meet him.

***

firece spooky action

The Fierce and the Dead, Spooky Action.  Four great guys—Matt Stevens, Kev Feazey, Stuart Marshall, and Steve Cleaton—making the best music possible for two other great guys, David Elliott, European Perspective Guy (I think this is official superhero name) and founder of Bad Elephant Music, along with the hilarious and artful James Allen.  Matt Stevens is a stunning person and artist.  It’s been fascinating and heartening to watch him struggle as he makes his way into the profession.  He very openly asks about opportunities.  Should he pursue fame first or art first?  I always know where Matt is going to land.  Probably many of us do.  He always comes down on the side of art, knowing the fame will follow when it follows.  I hope and pray he never changes his mind or soul regarding this.  There are lots and lots of folks out there—not just progarchists—cheering these guys on.  As my close friend and fellow progarchist, Pete Blum, has said, nothing has hit him so hard since the days of Zappa.  And, for Pete, this is a massive and important statement.  Everything on this album is wonderful.  In particular, I’m quite taken with Parts 4 and 5, a continuation of a theme that Matt and the guys started with Part I, their 19 minutes epic from their very first release.  TFATD, not surprisingly, also seems to have started somewhat of a sub genre within prog, the prog instrumental album.  In otherwords, what TFATD is doing is roughly equivalent to what progressive jazz was in the 1960s and 1970s.  A good sign for the health of all concerned.  In particular, newly emerging bands such as Ollocs and Rafert are also releasing instrumental albums, all of them quite good.

***

"Pure Flower Kings, pure prog and Kingly epic."

The Flower Kings, Desolation Rose.  This release surprised me as well, but not for the reason Days Between Stations did.  As far as I know, I own everything Roine Stolt has made or contributed to since about 1994.  Every side project, everything.  So, there was never a question about whether or not I would buy the new Flower Kings album.  I would certainly list Space Revolver (2000) and Paradox Hotel (2006) as two of my favorite albums of all time.  Stolt always has the power to release wonder in me.  Whether it’s the wonder about the first day of creation (Unfold the Future) or John Paul’s Pizza (Space Revolver), I love the libertarian, hippie, playful spirit of Stolt and the band.  Really, think about the members of this band.  Stolt, Bodin, Reingold, Froberg, and Lehrmann.  Already reads like a “supergroup.”  Not that they can’t be as serious as they can be trippy. One only has to listen to “Bavarian Skies” or the “Ghost of Red Cloud” to know just how deep they can be.  What surprised me about the new album, “Desolation Rose” is just how political and angry it is.  I don’t disagree with the anger or the politics.  In fact, I think I totally agree.  But, “Desolation Rose,” lyrically, is about as far away from “Stardust We Are” as one could possibly imagine.  This diversity just demonstrates how talented this Swedish band really is.  The entire album builds until it reaches its highpoint (in terms of intensity) in “Dark Fascist Skies.”  The final two songs, “Blood of Eden” and “Silent Graveyards,” offer a rather calming denouement.

***

fractal mirror

Fractal Mirror, Strange Attractors.  I’ve already had a chance to write a long review of this excellent album on progarchy, and it was (and is) a great honor do so.  Strange Attractors is not only one of the best releases of 2013, it’s the freshman release of a brand new group.  Three folks—all of whom met one another through the internet prog community (how cool is this!)—makes up this band.  Leo Koperdraat, Ed Van Haagen, and Frank Urbaniak.  But, we have to add a fourth.  It’s art comes from Brian Watson.  This is really important.  Not only is Watson an amazing artist, but he also creates an image for the band in the way one associates Yes with Roger Dean, Talk Talk with James Marsh, and Jim Trainer with Big Big Train.  It’s one of the joys of prog.  The art can be (and should be!) as beautiful and meaningful as the music and lyrics.  But, back to the music.  The three members of Fractal Mirror have created a stunning progressive soundscape, gothic and heavy in tone, but light in the space created.  I realize this sounds like a contradiction, and I wish I had the ability to explain it better.  I don’t, sadly.  It’s really not like anything I’ve heard before.  Suffice it to state, it’s quite refreshing and welcoming in its own intensity.

***

leah otherworld

Leah, Otherworld.  This is the only EP to make the “best of” list this year.  It’s also the only release I’m listing in which the artist (Leah McHenry) doesn’t consider herself a progger.  She places herself more in the metal camp, and this becomes obvious in the final song of the EP, “Dreamland,” a beauty and the beast duet with lots of metal “growling.”  Whatever one wants to label Leah’s musical style—and I would call it a cross between Sarah Maclachlan and Arjen Lucassen—it is very artful.  Leah’s voice could haunt a moor!  So much depth, truth, and beauty in every note.  The EP is only five songs long—Shores of Your Lies, Northern Edge, Surrounded, Do Not Stand, and Dreamland.  The first four possess a very Celtic/Nordic northern edge to them.  In fact, I called my initial review of the EP, “On the Northern Edge of Prog.”  I’m not bragging, but I am rather proud of this title.  it seems to capture exactly what Leah is.  Arjen Lucassen, if you read this blog, please look into Leah’s music.  I could see the two of you working very well together.  Leah, as it turns out, is also about as interesting a person as one might find anywhere.  Since Otherworld first arrived at progarchy hq, it’s been in constant listening rotation, and I pretty much have every note and lyric memorized at this point.

***

Kingbathmat OTM

Kingbathmat, Overcoming the Monster.  When we first started progarchy just a little over a year ago, I received a note from Stereohead Records of the U.K., asking me if we’d be interested in reviewing a cd by Kingbathmat.  Sure, I thought.  Of course.  Only the dead wouldn’t be intrigued by a band with that name.  Well, since then, I’ve not only listened to about as much Kingbathmat as exists (still missing a small bit of their back catalogue, but this will be rectified at the beginning of 2014, when the new tax year begins!).  I love these guys.  I’ve had the chance to get to know John Bassett and Bernard (he seems to have several last names on the internet!).  What incredible guys.  Really a band of Peart’s “Tom Sawyers.”  Mean, mean stride, never renting the mind to god or government.  Smart, insightful, unafraid.  Frankly, these are the kind of guys I would want next to me should I ever find myself under fire.  As with Leah, I’m not sure that Kingbathmat is perfectly prog.  But, then again, if it’s “perfectly prog,” it’s probably not prog at all.  Kingbathmat mix a number of styles, many of them heavy, to form a mythic maze of musical inspiration.  They are by far the heaviest in my list for 2013.  The “Tom Sawyer” reference is not just lyrical.  Parts of Kingbathmat pay great homage to early and mid-period Rush.  Of all Rush albums, Counterparts is my least favorite.  That doesn’t mean I don’t love it.  I’ve been a Rush man since 1981, and I will die a Rush man.  So, any criticism is relative.  But, if you could imagine Rush entering the studio with the music of Counterparts, the lyrics more intense than culturally sensitive, and a producer who wants to rock, really rock, you’d have an inkling of what “Overcoming the Monster” is.  Every song is a joy.  Not in the precious, sappy sense, but in the satisfying, just sense.  Everything is really quite perfect: vocals, bass, guitar, drums.  Since I first received a copy of OVERCOMING, I’ve probably listened to it every other day.  After a hard day of teaching (a job I love) or writing something scholarly, there’s nothing quite like putting this cd on, sitting back, and saying, “yeah, it was a good day.”

***

KSCOPE245

Nosound, Afterthoughts.  Giancarlo Erra might be the anti-Kingbathmat.  Erra, an Italian demigod of sound in his own right, loves silence and space as much as Kingbathmat loves walls of Rush/Soundgarden-like sounds of thunder!  Indeed, Erra has a lot of Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock in him, a lot of Arvo Part, too.  If there are three notes, maybe there should be two.  If there are two notes, maybe there should be one.  If there is one note, maybe you should let silence have its say.  I’ve been following the work of Giancarlo Erra for almost a decade now.  He always entrances and entices me.  He creates soundscapes so powerfully delicate that one wants to drown in their dreamlike, twilight quality.  He’s also every bit the lyricist Hollis was at his best.  He’s also really a complete artist.  He not only writes his music and lyrics, he creates his own packaging, is a rather jaw-dropping photographer, and even designs his own computer apps.  I was thrilled that Kscope just re-released his early masterpiece, Lightdark (2008), remastered.  As with Lightdark, Afterthoughts just flows.  Gentle, punctuated, quiet, loud, emptiness, walls.  Listening to Afterthoughts is akin to standing on a peak in the Idaho Rockies, watching a violent storm pass under you in an adjoining valley.  Nothing is unneeded, and nothing needs to be added.  Afterthoughts is what it is, another Erra masterpiece.

***

Two more to go, but supper’s ready . . . .

Robin Armstrong, “On the Shoulders of Giants”

cosmografIt’s almost impossible to go wrong when quoting Bernard of Chartres.  It’s also nearly impossible to go wrong when you’re Robin Armstrong.  A moving piece of gratitude.

This is turning out to be quite a year for Cosmograf.   February saw the release of TMLIS which has exceeded all my expectations in terms of critical acclaim.  I was even nominated for a PROG award, as well as the album getting great reviews in the progressive rock press.

The new album scheduled for release in Spring 2014 is now all written and about to go through the exciting phase where I start asking guests to bring the whole thing to life.  Once again I’ve been blessed to be able to add Nick D’Virgilio to the cast, and the gods of prog have aligned, allowing his incredibly busy schedule to afford me a tiny window to add his talent on the drum throne.

To keep reading a must-read piece, click here: http://www.cosmograf.com/on-the-shoulders-of-giants/

The Modern Condition: Cosmograf’s “The Man Left In Space”

cdcover-tmlisFrom its cover image reminiscent of the all-seeing camera eye of 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s HAL computer, to the final track “When the Air Runs Out”, Cosmograf’s  new album, The Man Left in Space, is a profound meditation on the tragedy of modern man’s surrender to ambition and technology, and the ensuing isolation that results.  

Beginning with a bewildered astronaut, Sam, asking, “How did I get here?”, the listener is transported to the near-future, where Sam is questioning his motives for agreeing to a mission to “change the human race”. Can over-achievement bring satisfaction and happiness?

Ambition brought me here.

A winner in my field.

Dare to be a dreamer.

Find your fate is sealed.

Hidden truths revealed.

Through memory flashbacks, snippets of dialog with the ship’s android, and sampled audio of actual NASA space missions, we share Sam’s growing sense of melancholic disconnection with reality.

I take these pills. They help me numb the pain.

They stop me from feeling blue.

I feel the days getting longer now.

I’d like to dream, but I’ve forgotten how.

He’s even reduced to crooning a love song to his “beautiful treadmill” that will “keep my soul in grace”. Throughout, the ship’s android is monitoring Sam and vainly attempting to create a normal environment.  Earth’s Mission Control tries to contact him, but they cannot get through. Sam realizes that without human contact, he will eventually slide into madness. No simulation, no matter how realistic, can replace the touch of another person.

Eventually, the “man left in space” is forced to face his own mortality:

10 minutes more and the air will run out.

This craft will fall into the sun.

My chance of returning is none. None. None.

As the last chords of the final song fade away, the ship’s android repeatedly asks, “Please respond, Sam?”

Robin Armstrong, who is Cosmograf, has constructed a beautiful, allegorical warning for those of us who would replace face-to-face communication with all the technological means at our fingertips: emailing, texting, Tweeting, “liking” on Facebook, etc. Right on cue, Google is coming out with “Google Glass“, which will add even more distractions to our interactions with others. We must resist the temptation to withdraw into self-imposed isolation and foster real relationships, regardless of the risks.

The Man Left In Space would not be the success it is without having superb music to complement its message. Every track is extraordinary, and the album really must be listened to in its entirety. Highlights include “Aspire, Achieve”, which begins with a delicate acoustic guitar melody and vocal harmonies that shift into crunching metal worthy of Ayreon’s best work. “Beautiful Treadmill” has an indelible hook that will have you singing along in no time. The instrumental, “The Vacuum That I Fly Through”, featuring the marvelous Matt Stevens on guitar and Big Big Train’s Nick D’Virgilio and Greg Spawton on drums and bass respectively, rivals anything Pink Floyd ever committed to tape. Trust me, it’s that good.

Finally, some praise for the artwork. In this age of digital downloads, it’s worth it to get the physical CD. The booklet that comes with the album is essential to fully appreciating the  album. The illustrations remind me of the incredibly realistic sci-fi artwork Shusei Nagaoka did for Electric Light Orchestra’s Out of the Blue album from the late ’70s. The attention to detail is amazing: every page features readouts of various gauges, creating the feeling that you are involved in monitoring Sam throughout his doomed journey. The ship’s android is named ESA-1410-4MY, which pops up in several places and adds to the sense of technological surveillance and control of Sam.

Even though we have yet to finish the first quarter of 2013, Cosmograf’s The Man Left In Space is certain to be in many Top Ten Albums of the Year lists.

Enjoy “The Vacuum That I Fly Through”:

Update: A brief, but illuminating interview with Robin Armstrong.

Chronometry, Cosmograf, and Perfection: The Man Left in Space

By Brad Birzer

cosmografAs you’ve probably noticed, we’ve been having a Big Big Train-love fest for the past several days at Progarchy.  Even our criticisms (well, not mine; but I won’t point fingers) have been written out of love and respect.

Another recent release that deserves a massive amount of attention is the fourth cd by Robin Armstrong, writing under the name, Cosmograf.  Yes, it deserves a MASSIVE (Ok, I’m yelling at you, fair reader; it’s not personal, I promise!) amount of attention.  Massive.

Following Cosmograf’s history, it comes across far more as a project than a band.  I’m not sure Robin would put it this way, but this is how it strikes me.  Each album has been a concept with a variety of guest musicians.  For this current album, The Man Left in Space, Robin has chosen the best of the best: Greg Spawton (who wouldn’t love this guy), Nick d’Virgilio (giving Peart a run for his money since 1990!), Matt Stevens (a young guy already inducted in the Anglo-Saxon pantheon of guitar gods), and other brilliant folks such as Dave Meros (ye, of the Beard!), Luke Machin, and Steve Dunn.  Robin knows how to get the absolute best, and he knows how to bring the best out of his guests.  Then, add the additional production of the ultimate audiophile of our time, Rob Aubrey.  Can it really get much better than this?  Not really.

By profession, Robin is a master of all things time-related.  He’s a watch dealer and a watch repairman.  I find this so very appropriate.  What better thing for a musician and composer to be than to be a master Chronometer (I have no idea if this is the proper term, but I like the sound of it).  Chronometrician?  Ok, I’m floundering here, but I assume you get the point.  Precision, mystery, time, eternity, space, place, humanity. . .  Robin Armstrong. Read the rest of this entry

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