Further Thoughts on Nick d’Virgilio’s “Invisible” (or, Progging in the Pre-Nirvana Mainstream)

My copy of Nick d’Virgilo’s Invisible was still in the mail when I read Bryan’s first impressions of it.  Following its arrival and repeated listens, here are my two cents.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect from this release, and was pleasantly surprised as a result; it gets better every time I hear it.  As Bryan says, Invisible doesn’t sound much like Big Big Train (though it puts d’Virgilio’s jazz-rock flavored compositions for BBT in context), or even middle-period Spock’s Beard.  And it only dabbles in the hyper, clattery alt-pop NDV tackled with Randy McStine and Jonas Reingold on The Fringe.  Mostly, this is an album of classy, soulful rock and pop with R&B undercurrents, reminiscent of nothing so much as the pre-Nirvana mainstream. The progginess is in the extended structures, the virtuoso playing and the overall concept; “The Alan Parsons Project with a lot more horsepower” might be a good thumbnail description.

(Invisible is a pretty cool example of creative entrepreneurship in today’s music industry, too.  By leveraging his gig at Fort Wayne’s Sweetwater Studios, d’Virgilio managed to play ten different drum kits in exchange for promotional considerations — i.e. the drool-worthy “Drum Gear” booklet included with each copy —  and draw on a bevy of guest stars from studio master classes, with Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen as the wildest card in his deck.)

The down to earth storyline, a solid redemption narrative with some nifty twists, definitely helps make Invisible appealing and relatable.  But I would argue that the musical means d’Virgilio uses to build out his concept seal the deal.  Beyond his emotive singing and consistently brilliant drum work, Nick’s polished efforts on electric piano, loops, bass, bass synth and guitars provide a sturdy chassis for each track; his fellow Sweetwater pros, guest stars and prog buddies lovingly customize the power trains and bodies; and the strings and brass of the Orchestra at Abbey Road furnish plush aural upholstery (along with a recurring musical theme based on the chorus of “Where’s the Passion”).

As a result, every single track of this album grabs on tight from the beginning — not just revealing more depth and emotional resonance with every repeat, but also relentlessly propelling the overall narrative forward.  The desolation of the title track and the downbeat cover of “Money (That’s What I Want)”; the defiance of “Turn Your Life Around” and “Overcome”; the devastation of “Waiting for No One” and “Not My Time to Say Goodbye”; the cathartic deliverance of the finale “I Know the Way” — this is outright sonic cinema, pictures vividly created in your head by state of the art, high quality music.

So, yeah, I’m sold on Invisible; it’s already in contention for my end-of-the-year favorites list.  And I think you might dig it too.  So order it from NDV’s website or Burning Shed; heck, listen on Spotify if you can’t wait for it to arrive.  Whatever.  You really shouldn’t miss this one.

— Rick Krueger

Rick Wakeman, The Red Planet

Upon being told his Prog fans were hoping he’d shoved the Prog Fader up to 11, [Rick] Wakeman replied, “That could be a problem… as it’s already at 14!!!”

The man ain’t kidding.  The Red Planet, Wakeman’s 18th or 122nd solo album (depending on how you count) features eight all-instrumental portraits of Martian landscapes, awash in growling Hammond organ licks and nimble Moog synthesizer solos.  So far, so good, if typical — but what makes Wakeman’s latest effort a genuine delight is both the welcome variety of his new compositions and the stellar contributions of his supporting players.

The opening “Ascreaeus Mons” subtly shocks long-time listeners right away,  kicking off with a sprightly pipe organ/harpsichord riff (usually the pipes don’t come out until a Wakeman album’s climax), then shifting to a genially chugging melody (doubled by choir on the repeat) for the B section.  Through all these pieces, there’s an attractive new compositional freedom at work — texturally, dynamically, rhythmically.  The chilled-out groove of “Tharsis Tholus” is lashed with sudden, lightning-fast jazz-fusion riffs; “Arsia Mons” features big, sweeping synth washes underpinned by acoustic guitar strumming; “Olympus Mons” actually swings at one point; the heavy Deep Purple-style Hammond riff of “The North Plain” is prefaced by thundering piano octaves over an exotic soundscape.  Unexpected tone colors (the Rhodes electric piano underpinning “Pavonis Mons”) and structures (the massive bolero build of “Valles Marinens”) add to the fun; when Wakeman fires up his usual scales and arpeggios on the Moog, the solos take on a fresh aspect, because he’s playing over something completely different.  Stir in the lyricism of his recent solo piano albums, referenced in the more reflective “South Pole,” and you’ve got a well-rounded self-portrait of the complete musician, fully on display.

But Wakeman also deserves credit for recruiting possibly his finest supporting cast ever.  Guitarist Dave Colquhoun, bassist Lee Pomeroy (who worked live with Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman) and drummer Ash Soan are perfect for The Red Planet — constantly driving the compositions forward, laying down thick, powerful rhythm beds, playing both around and with what they’re given.  And each of them get their chance to shine as virtuosos — check out Soan’s thundering toms on “Ascraeus Mons” and flashy hi-hat work on “Olympus Mons”, Pomeroy’s whacked-out tags on “Pavonis Mons” and mind-blowingly limber solo on “Valles Marinens”, and Coloquhoun’s stinging breaks and spring-loaded grooves throughout.  Adding their parts on their own, with no instructions from Wakeman, his collaborators amply repay his trust by giving the album an extra spark that helps it soar.

Last year in an interview with Rolling Stone, Wakeman said that arthritis developing in his hands would probably put an end to his touring days relatively soon (though a solo piano tour of Britain is currently planned for later this year).  He didn’t rule out further recordings, though — and if The Red Planet is any indication, he’s got a lot more good music in him.  Certainly Wakeman’s new album is in the vein of his Six Wives of Henry VIII/Journey to the Center of the Earth/King Arthur glory days — but by digging deeper, writing smarter and grooving harder, Wakeman and his friends have given his classic style a ripe new maturity, polish and kick for the present.  This one is well worth your time, attention and cash.

Special CD and LP editions of  The Red Planet are available now through MusicGlue; the standard editions will be released worldwide on August 28th and are available for preorder through Burning ShedCheck out a series of 10 videos on “Recording the Red Planet” at Rick Wakeman’s website.

— Rick Krueger

“An Accidental Musician”: Judy Dyble, 1949-2020

Judy Dyble, whose crystalline vocals were key contributions to the early days of folk-rock legends Fairport Convention and progressive pioneers King Crimson, has died at the age of 71, following a late-life musical renaissance as a solo artist.

Dyble, who titled her 2016 memoir An Accidental Musician, grew up in North London. Drawn to the ferment of the Smoke’s music scene, she fell in with Ashley Hutchings, Simon Nicol, Martin Lamble, fellow singer Ian Matthews and Richard Thompson, who eventually became Fairport Convention.  Their kick-off single “If I Had a Ribbon Bow”, a oddball update of a 1940s big band shuffle, was a prime example of the early Fairport’s wildly eclectic style:

The band’s first self-titled album from 1968 featured a vivid mix of originals and covers (of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell among others), but Dyble was shuffled out of the band soon after, briefly joining an embryonic version of King Crimson (then trading as Giles, Giles and Fripp):

Following a final stint with cult duo Trader Horne, Dyble drifted away from singing, marrying music critic/record shop owner Simon Stable, then moving to the country and raising a family.  Invited to the occasional Fairport Convention reunion at the Cropredy Festival, she began singing in public again after her husband’s death.  A trilogy of electronica-based collaborations with Australasia’s Marc Swordfish eased Dyble back into songwriting — which led to 2009’s marvelous Talking with Strangers, co-produced by Tim Bowness of No-Man and Alistair Murphy (aka the Curator) and featuring contributions from Nicol, Fripp, and a starry host of other guests on the acoustic-prog epic “Harpsong.”

Further solo albums and guest appearances followed, including a vocal on Big Big Train’s “The Ivy Gate” from the Grimspound album.   Her latest effort Between a Breath and a Breath, a collaboration with David Longdon featuring contributions from the rest of BBT, has just been announced as a late September release.  While fighting her final illness, Dyble penned these reflections on the new album, showing both her unquenchable spirit and her wickedly impish sense of humor:  

The lyrics for these songs virtually wrote themselves, with minor tweaks, as music grew around them. All were written before I was diagnosed and before the dreadful virus stamped its footprint on our world.

“Quite a few of my lyrics have a touch of sadness about them but always with an optimism for the future and a desire to know what happens next. France, Whisper and Obedience tell stories suggested in conversations and Between A Breath And A Breath is sheer magic. Astrologers was a simple ‘Hmmpph! Stop it!, while Heartwashing and Tidying Away were just poems which wrote themselves.

David Longdon has written a tribute to Dyble which appears on the front page of Big Big Train’s website.  Two songs from the Dyble/Longdon sessions not included on Between a Breath and a Breath will be released as Bandcamp downloads later this year, with proceeds benefiting Dyble’s favorite charity, The Barley Greyhound Sanctuary.  A selection of Dyble’s albums (including a freshly released live recording from 2016, Weavings of a Silver Magic) are most easily available from Burning Shed and Amazon UK.

Oddly enough, I’d been celebrating the upcoming release of Between a Breath and a Breath last night, listening to Talking with Strangers again and re-reading An Accidental Musician.  So Dyble’s final words in her memoir have an uncanny resonance today:

There may be trouble ahead, but while there’s poetry and starlight and mellow autumn colour in the woods and a dog at my side, I’ll face the music and slightly dance.  To be continued.  I expect …

For all those who sorrow at Judy Dyble’s passing, I wish them comfort as they remember her life with gratitude, as well as continued delight in the beautiful music she made.

 

— Rick Krueger

 

20 in 2020: My Highlights So Far

It’s been a grim old half-year, hasn’t it?

If you were to hunt for any positives to come out of lockdown, one of the few might be the increased opportunities it has afforded many of us to sit down and listen to music, in lieu of social or outdoor activities. Indeed, this simple act seems more important than ever as a means of raising spirits and maintaining one’s mental health in these troubled times.

The pandemic has wrecked the live music scene for the moment, and made the business of recording new material much more challenging, but it doesn’t seem to have stemmed the flow of new releases too much just yet, thankfully. So here’s a round-up of twenty things that have particularly caught my ear over the past six months.

Note: wherever possible, links in this piece are to the relevant Bandcamp page (or, failing that, to sites like Burning Shed or Music Glue).

Let’s start with stuff that might be regarded as ‘mainstream prog’. The epitome of this has to be The Red Planet by Rick Wakeman – an album that ploughs a much proggier, Moog-laden furrow than the maestro’s other recent, piano-based work. It’s a delight from start to finish, and my only regret is that I opted for the digital release rather than the CD or vinyl with their distinctive cardboard pop-up covers.

The Red Planet, by Rick Wakeman (Pop-up vinyl version)

Also firmly and squarely in the ‘mainstream prog’ camp lie Pendragon‘s latest, Love Over Fear, and Masters Of Illusion by Magenta. The former is easily the band’s best work for quite a while and features gorgeous aquatic-themed cover art (see below-left). The latter is an intriguing concept album paying tribute to Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Christopher Lee and other stars of classic horror movies. Even better than both of these is the splendid Things Unseen, by I Am The Manic Whale, an album that is uplifting and light in tone yet also satisfyingly intricate. Highlights are the 19-minute epic Celebrity and the touching paean to a newborn infant, Smile.

I’ve avoided lumping new Glass Hammer album Dreaming City in with the aforementioned ‘mainstream prog’ releases, only because this album has a pleasing, harder-than-expected edge to it. I’ll admit that Glass Hammer’s output hasn’t always clicked for me, but I’ve very much enjoyed the heavier tone here, as well as the forays into electronica. Heavier still, and just as engrossing, are Inescapable by Godsticks, and Jupiter Hollow‘s latest, Bereavement.

What else has grabbed my attention? Pure Reason Revolution‘s comeback album Eupnea stands out, as does Celexa Dreams by Kyros – an even better album than 2016’s impressive Vox Humana, I reckon. Earworm Rumour and the dramatic In Vantablack are especially noteworthy. If you enjoy slap bass and plenty of synths, you should definitely check this one out!

Rumour by Kyros, from Celexa Dreams

The pop and contemporary music influences that have shaped Celexa Dreams are even more prevalent in another couple of this year’s quality releases: The Empathy Machine by Chimpan A, and Valor by The Opium Cartel. Chimpan A is a side-project of Magenta’s Rob Reed which has been dormant since a 2006 debut album. This long overdue follow-up is a slick, smooth, highly palatable mix of prog, pop, electronica and dance beats, with excellent vocal performances. Valor, meanwhile, is a more straightforward homage to the pop music of the 1980s, but is no less elegant or enjoyable for all that. Elegance is also the watchword in Modern Ruins, by Tim Bowness & Peter Chilvers. This is minimalist art rock at its finest, with Bowness as soothing and seductive as he’s ever been.

In The Streets by The Opium Cartel, from Valor

Instrumental albums have very much been on my radar this year: not just Rick Wakeman’s aforementioned offering, but also material from younger, less established acts. Zopp’s eponymous debut release is a superb slice of jazz-tinged, Canterbury-inspired prog, featuring guest appearances from Andy Tillison and Theo Travis (Andy also engineered and co-produced this one). Much more squarely in jazz territory lies the Jazz Sabbath project, from Rick’s son Adam Wakeman. This imagines an amusing alternate history in which Black Sabbath made their name by ripping off the songs of jazz pianist Milton Keanes! The version of Iron Man on here is especially entertaining. Finally, I can’t leave the Instrumental category behind without mentioning Final Quiet, from the gloriously-named Flies Are Spies From Hell. This is post-rock, but with more delicacy and subtle variation than is generally found in that particular sub-genre.

Before The Light by Zopp, from Zopp

Funnily enough, my favourite releases of 2020 so far would mostly not be categorised as prog. Chief amongst these is Darkness Brings The Wonders Home by Smoke Fairies – a moody, mesmeric album in which minor keys, intertwined guitar parts and vocal harmonies combine to bewitching effect. Stand out tracks are Coffee Shop Blues, Chocolate Rabbit and Chew Your Bones. Equally compelling is Jonathan Hultén‘s acoustic solo album Chants From Another Place, a haunting, mysterious work that taps into obscure folk and choral traditions.

Chew Your Bones by Smoke Fairies, from Darkness Brings The Wonders Home

Folk influences also permeate two other 2020 releases that are particularly dear to my heart: Let It All In by Baltimore band Arbouretum, and The Life Of The Honeybee And Other Moments Of Clarity, from Glasgow-based Abel Ganz. The former deftly blends americana, psych and even krautrock, courtesy of the pulsating, hypnotic 11-minute title track. The latter is a majestic and beautiful prog album that somehow improves upon the mood-enhancing, sunny, summery feel of its 2014 predecessor. I guarantee it’ll lift your spirits if you give it a spin. It’s hard to pick a favourite track, but the epic Sepia And White is truly spectacular.

I’ll finish with a shout-out for KOYO, a band local to me, whose new album You Said It has been on constant rotation at home. This is more direct and punchy, and less psychedelia-influenced, than its 2017 predecessor. Overall, it’s not especially proggy, though album closer Against All Odds definitely leans in that direction, while Out Of Control wouldn’t sound out of place on Steven Wilson’s To The Bone. In fact, it’s easy to imagine Wilson producing an album like this, were he to opt for a grungier, more alt rock direction on some future release. However you want to label it, this is a hugely engaging, lively and enjoyable listen, and one of my favourites of the year so far.

Out Of Control by KOYO, from You Said It

The Progarchy Interview: Lonely Robot’s John Mitchell

Whether contributing to Clive Nolan’s Arena and Jem Godfrey’s Frost*, driving the bus in collaborations like Kino and the latter day It Bites, or helming his own Lonely Robot project, John Mitchell has brought the progressive rock world tons of cool music in the last decade-plus.  His irresistible melodic hooks, exciting riffage, heart-on-sleeve lyrics, passionate singing and meticulous craftsmanship are instantly recognizable and (at least for me) guaranteed to raise a smile.

Mitchell’s latest album, Lonely Robot’s Feelings Are Good, pivots from the high-concept themes of the Astronaut Trilogy (2015’s Please Come Home, 2017’s The Big Dream and 2019’s Under Stars), refocusing his sharp observational eye on the rich, sometimes heart-stopping drama of daily life — while resculpting the music to match, aided and abetted by ace drummer Craig Blundell.  Released by Inside Out on July 17th on CD, LP and download, Feelings Are Good  is a thrilling, wildly eclectic, moving, just plain fun listen.

Getting the chance to interview John Mitchell was just as much fun — he’s warm, humorous and gregarious, serious about his art and at ease with himself.  And as you’ll see in the video below, he was definitely having a better hair day than me!  An edited transcript of our talk follows the jump.

Continue reading “The Progarchy Interview: Lonely Robot’s John Mitchell”

Coming from Inside Out Music …

Hardly breaking stride, Inside Out Music ramps up their summer schedule with a fistful of new releases (some of which had to be rescheduled due to manufacturing delays).  Unless otherwise noted, links go to CD versions of these upcoming albums available at Burning Shed; LP and download editions will also be available.

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July

August

September

 

— Rick Krueger

Nick D’Virgilio’s “Invisible” – First Impressions

My copy of Nick D’Virgilio’s new solo album, Invisible, arrived in the mail today, and a few things have struck me upon an initial listen. Please don’t consider this post a full review – just some first thoughts.

First, let me state that I consider Nick D’Virgilio to be the finest drummer in the world. His skill and creativity is blatantly obvious when you listen to a Big Big Train album. His style of playing is simultaneously smooth and complex. It remains intricate without overpowering the listener. He’s also remarkably ubiquitous as a drummer. Just check out the discography page on his website: https://www.nickdvirgilio.com/discography/. There are many albums he has drummed on that I enjoy and I never realized he was playing on them. I think that’s because he’s all about the music rather than it being about him… unlike some other famous prog drummers. On top of all that Nick has a golden voice, as any longtime listener of Spock’s Beard knows.

The concept for this album emerged from Nick’s time working for Cirque du Soleil, the first time in his career where he was “invisible” in the pit rather than center stage behind a kit or singing lead vocals. The main theme can be summarized with the idea that every person was put on this earth for a reason, and each person must figure out what that reason is and fully live it.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this album is that it isn’t just an album of D’Virgilio showboating on the drums. Rather the drums serve the songs, most of which feature lyrics Nick wrote. I recently reviewed an album for the Dutch Progressive Rock Page that was a solo album from a world-renowned drummer. That album was all about the drumming, and it got a little overpowering at points, even though I thought it was still a good album. On “Invisible” the drums play their role, and I think that’s one of the things that makes Nick so great. He doesn’t overplay, and he doesn’t underplay. He masterfully provides just what a song need.

Another first impression is this isn’t a Big Big Train album. I wasn’t really expecting it to sound too much like Big Big Train, but I thought it might since that’s Nick’s main band now. (His day job is working for Sweetwater music in Fort Wayne, Indiana.) Invisible is fully unique. There are plenty of guests, but a perusal of the album booklet didn’t see any BBT members guesting. Sure there’s the odd passage here and there that could be compared to BBT, but this is a totally different deal.

Abbey road’s orchestra is prominent throughout, which gives it a symphonic rock feeling at points, but the guitars and drums firmly ground Invisible as a progressive rock album. The album doesn’t fall into traditional tropes, however. It tells a story in a subtle way, which I think will keep it sounding fresh on repeated listens. It even manages a touch of musical theater in the track “Wrong Place Wrong Time,” which probably comes from Nick’s time with Cirque du Soleil.

Like I said – these are just some first impressions. If you buy the album from his website, not only will it come signed but also it will include an extra booklet featuring detailed descriptions of the drum setups used on each song. He used various drum kits on this album rather than one single kit. Or you could be like me and accidentally buy two copies – one from Nick’s shop and the other from Burning Shed.

https://www.nickdvirgilio.com/shop

Morse, Portnoy, George launch video for cover of “It Don’t Come Easy”

From Inside Out Music:

Mike Portnoy, Neal Morse, Randy George
Photo Credit: Robert Smith

Neal Morse, Mike Portnoy & Randy George recently announced their return to the Cover To Cover series of albums with ‘Cov3r To Cov3r’, the brand new third installment. Featuring their renditions of classic tracks by the likes of King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Gerry Rafferty, David Bowie & more (including their cover of ‘No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed’ featuring vocals from Yes singer Jon Davison), the album will be released on July 24th as CD, Gatefold 2LP + CD & as Digital Album.

Today they are pleased to reveal a video for their cover of ‘It Don’t Come Easy’, originally by Ringo Starr, and you can watch it now here:

Continue reading “Morse, Portnoy, George launch video for cover of “It Don’t Come Easy””

Unleash the Archers: Abyss @UnleashArchers

Album out August 21st: Abyss. Frontwoman Brittney Slayes says about Abyss:

“This track set the tone for the whole record; conceptually, lyrically, musically, it all started here. Andy came up with the opening riff back when we were writing Apex, but I knew right away it didn’t belong on that record. When we finally started writing Abyss in 2019, this was the first song we wrote and it was the first song I listened to when the record was done. It symbolizes five years of hard work for us, and I think it does a great job of putting the listener in the right place emotionally to start the record. It hints at what the rest of the album is all about, but also doesn’t give it all away, not by a long shot!”

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The End of Dormancy – EP

Often reminding us of 70s prog or jazz rock, and at times of their Motörhead roots, Voivod sound pretty much their usual self. Live recording adds some rough textures, but not enough to eclipse the classical symphony, or those intricate transformations, or even those strange lyrical plots. It’s also easy to notice that interesting contrast — two songs on the EP occupying slightly different ends of their musical spectrum. ‘The End of Dormancy’ reflecting their proggy sophistication, while ‘The Unknown Known’ rooted in their more dissonant past. Giving us all a glimpse into that unique set of influences only Voivod dares to blend.

Roman Horník / CC BY-SA