2017: The Year of Big Big Train

Hello Progarchists!  I’m back. . . though a little later than I had meant to be.

For those two of you (ha) who you have been waiting eagerly to know my favorite album of 2017, I give you not one album.  Oh no, not one. . . but two albums and two EPs: Grimspound; Second Brightest Star; London Song; and the Merry Christmas EP.

All by one band, of course.  And not just any band, but an extraordinary band.  The best prog band in the world (tied with Glass Hammer, at least to my ears and soul), the band that reveals every.single.thing.that.is.good.in.prog, Big Big Train.

Grimspound 2017
Best album of 2017, 1.1, Grimspound.  Art by Sarah Ewing.

Greg, David, Dave, Nick, Rachel, Rikard, Andy, Danny, and, that 9th BBTer, Rob—congratulations.  Whatever other hells happened in the world in 2017, 2017 will always be, to me, the “Year of Big Big Train.”  You overwhelmed us not with quantity, but with quality.  And, dare I say it: with love.

Continue reading “2017: The Year of Big Big Train”

Pat DiNizio, 1955-2017

According to Variety,

Pat DiNizio, vocalist-guitarist-songwriter for the tough yet tuneful New Jersey rock band the Smithereens, died Tuesday. He was 62.

The group announced his passing on their web site. No cause of death was given, but the musician had been beset by health problems in recent years; in 2015 he was sidelined after losing the use of his right hand and arm following a pair of falls that incurred serious nerve damage.

I remember being knocked sideways hearing the Smithereens’ “Behind the Wall of Sleep” on the radio in 1986.  I was always scanning record stores and the airwaves for tuneful, Beatle-ish power-pop, and this filled the bill nicely:

Three things about the song grabbed me: the misquote of H.P. Lovecraft in the title; the 1960s callbacks in the lyrics; and the killer combination of catchy melody and hard-rock groove — more Cheap Trick than Marshall Crenshaw.

After that, I was always excited to hear the Smithereens on the radio.  Maybe the melancholy skew of their lyrics (“Blood and Roses,” “In a Lonely Place,” “Only A Memory,” — sensing a theme yet?) was another factor in their favor during my self-pitying single years.   When they had an actual hit (“A Girl Like You”) off a solid album (11, also featuring Belinda Carlisle’s duet with DiNizio on the Rubber Soul homage “Blue Period”), it felt like a triumph!

The window to mass culture closed on the Smithereens after their next album Blow Up, but not before they came to Grand Rapids and played a free show at the Civic Auditorium the night before my 30th birthday.  You had to go to the main location of the local chain Believe in Music to get tickets, which is where the band autographed the t-shirt pictured above.  It was a good show; I remember lots of audience interaction, including guitarist Jim Babjak venturing into the audience for the guitar solo on “Blood and Roses.”

The Smithereens made one more major label album, A Date with the Smithereens (first line of lyrics: “Guess what, there’s a black cloud inside of my head”) before fading into where-are-they-now territory.  Which turned out to be their original stomping ground of Carteret, New Jersey.  They made occasional albums:  some new material — including a Christmas disc; some live retreads; some tributes to the Beatles and the Who — for my money, their take on Tommy has more guts than the original.

The Smithereens were planning live shows in 2018, but it wasn’t to be.  In one of his final Facebook posts, Pat DiNizio turned to thoughts of Christmas:

In early December the church that I live directly across the street from here in Scotch Plains builds a life size classic manger scene that is among one of the most beautiful and detailed one that I have ever seen. I can’t say that I’m a church goer, but I was raised Catholic, and the aforementioned church was where I was baptized, received Holy Communion was confirmed, where my parents were married (as well as every other member of my family) and where the funerals were held for my father, grandfather, grandmother, aunts, uncles and virtually every member of my family. Most of them were married there too. So when Hollingsworth House, the home that I have lived in the past 20 years or so became available, it seemed to me a stroke of good fortune to be able to live a hundred yards away across the street from the church that was and has been such an important part of my life.

dinizio in memoriam

Here’s hoping that Pat DiNizio now enjoys the peace embodied across the street from his house.  Buona Natale!

YABOL (Part 1)

Yet Another ‘Best Of’ List, I’m afraid.

I can almost hear that sigh, almost sense you thinking ‘not another one’ – but this has been a painful process, and a minute or two of your attention would be much appreciated.

I really struggle with these, you see. I must do, given that it seems to have been four years since I last posted one here!

It’s not that I haven’t tried since then. I really have. But I just keep… running out of steam. There are too many tough questions to answer. How many releases do I list? 5? 10? 20? Then there’s the tricky business of deciding who’s in and who’s out, complicated by that quaintly British thing (or maybe it’s just me?) of feeling like I’d offend someone by omitting them. Not to mention the sheer agony of indecision when trying to rank my selection…

Deep breaths, Nick. Deep breaths…

And baby steps. Maybe that’s the best way to get this done.

Let’s start with some ground rules: First, no EPs, only full albums. That gets rid of Thumpermonkey’s hugely impressive Electricity. Second, no live albums – which neatly avoids any decision-making regarding The Fierce & The Dead’s Field Recordings, for example. Third, no reissues – which eliminates Songs From The Wood, Misplaced Childhood & OK Computer from further consideration (just three of a host of classics that reappeared this year).

Well that’s helped, but not enough.

It’s time to get ruthless, through the application of what shall henceforth be known in these hallowed halls as The Birzer Principle: namely, the examination of music player stats.

With hard data to guide me, I am finally getting somewhere. Though only by discarding some excellent releases: Malina by Leprous;  Fate Outsmarts Desire from Kaprekar’s Constant; Tilt’s Hinterland; Magnified by Beatrix Players; and Koyo’s eponymous debut. All wonderful in their own ways, and all gone, with only an ‘honourable mention’ to show for it.

At least that leaves me with something manageable. So here they all are, in no particular order. Sixteen of the best from 2017:


Just looking at this montage, I’m already struck by the relative lack of ‘straight prog’ and harder, heavier stuff. Interesting…

As for the rankings: you’ll have to wait for Part 2 for those!

SNOW by Spock’s Beard: Two Stories

From Radiant Records.

As I am sure is true for all of us, albums I love and cherish and listen to, repeatedly, carry with them fond personal memories.  For better or worse, almost every single Neal Morse album and Spock’s Beard album comes with a story, and usually more than one.  As I’ve mentioned on progarchy before, I’ll never forget the release of the first Spock’s Beard album, THE LIGHT.  Being a prog fan since as far back as I can remember, I had no idea about the arrival of neo-Prog in England, and I had to content myself in the early 1990s with jam bands such as Phish and jam pop bands such as the Dave Matthews Band to satisfy my not so easily satisfied prog desires.  I had purchased so many CDs and had had so many discussions with the manager of Tracks in Bloomington, Indiana, that she remained on the lookout for me.  Anything that even remotely smacked of prog, she let me know.  She rather gleefully handed me a copy of THE LIGHT when it first came out.  To say I was thrilled would be an understatement.  I was just plain elated, inserting that cd in the tray, putting on my Sennheizers, and falling into prog bliss, attempting to follow all the nuances of the album and to figure out all of the lyrics.  I mean really, who is the catfish man?

And, why did this guy with such a great voice have to cuss so much?

Continue reading “SNOW by Spock’s Beard: Two Stories”

The Albums That Changed My Life: #9, Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning by Michael Praetorius

by Rick Krueger

By the mid-1990s, more classical music was being recorded and released worldwide than ever before.  Sony’s purchase of CBS Records had triggered a spending frenzy, both by the new Sony Classical and its competitors Polygram, EMI, RCA and Warner.  Occasional crossover chart smashes like The Three Tenors, Henryk Gorecki’s meditative Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, or the odd compilation of Gregorian chant had a glut of major and minor orchestras, choirs and ensembles chasing the next fluke hit — usually with A&R men breathing down their necks to justify the expense.

It was a mind-boggling time to be a classical collector.  Bookstores like Barnes & Noble and appliance shops like Best Buy opened in smaller and smaller towns, with deeper and deeper stocks of CDs.  Mall chains like Discount Records followed suit, and free-standing superstores like Tower Records went even deeper.  Detroit’s local chain Harmony House had a dedicated all-classical store; nearby Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan, had at least two or three at any given time.  Whether hitting 28th Street on my day off in Grand Rapids, or driving east to visit family, I knew there would be something great to find no matter where I went — I just didn’t know what.


Continue reading “The Albums That Changed My Life: #9, Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning by Michael Praetorius”

soundstreamsunday #89: “On the Sunny Side of the Ocean” by John Fahey

faheyBeginning in 1959, John Fahey’s “Blind Joe Death” excursions for solo acoustic guitar were the first to radically reconsider traditional blues and old-time music, extending by personalizing what Harry Smith did with the Anthology of American Folk Music (1952): rather than mythologizing what at that time was a largely unknown recorded legacy, as Smith did, Fahey made it breathe life, by quoting in his riffs on the traditional all manner of contemporary music.  There is not a folk or jazz or avant-garde or prog rock guitarist who doesn’t owe Fahey a debt for this, for not only breaking boundaries — with which he was hyper-literate — but making such things seem irrelevant in the music he made.

“On the Sunny Side of the Ocean” is from 1965’s Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death.  It is a masterpiece of droning open-tuned right-hand wonder, building steam and dimension until it opens up with an unexpected pull off that turns the entire ship eastward on its perfumed journey.  It is here, in this simple but everything phrase, that Fahey’s influence is apparent, as it would echo down the years through Popol Vuh and Opeth, just as Charley Patton and Mississippi John Hurt echoed through Fahey.

Transfiguration, certainly.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

Album Review: Rush – A Farewell to Kings 40th Anniversary — Drew’s Reviews

Everyone’s favorite Drew reviews the Rush reissue of A FAREWELL TO KINGS at his own excellent website.

Kevin McCormick will be writing something similar for progarchy very, very soon!  To read Kevin’s original review, click here.  It remains, to this day, one of progarchy’s most highly read pieces.  And, for good reason.

So sad, the Rush fan. Getting the band back together nowhere in sight, instead relegated to album anniversary issues as time doesn’t stand still. It’s all we have to look forward to anymore now that retirement seems reality as nary a peep on the home front of anything forth pending. Make that anything new. […]

via Album Review: Rush – A Farewell to Kings 40th Anniversary — Drew’s Reviews