One of my greatest pleasures of 2012–and there have been many–has been listening to massive quantities of progressive rock, mostly for pleasure.
Being a literary and humanities guy, I’d contemplated rejecting the entire numerical ranking scheme. Rather, I thought about labeling each of my best albums with various qualities of myth. These albums achieved the level of Virgil; these of Dante; these of Tolkien, etc. But, I finally decided this was way too pretentious . . . even for me.
Below are my rankings for the year. Anyone who knows me will not be surprised by any of these choices. I’m not exactly subtle in what I like and dislike. Before listing them, though, I must state three things.
First, I loved all of these albums, or I wouldn’t be listing them here. That is, once you’ve made it to Valhalla or Olympus, why bother with too many distinctions. The differences between my appreciation of number 8 and number 2, for example, are marginal at best.
Second, I am intentionally leaving a couple of releases out of the rankings: releases from Echolyn, The Enid, Minstrel’s Ghost, Galahad, and Kompendium, in particular, as I simply did not have time to digest them. Though, from what I’ve heard, I like each very much.
Third, I think that 2012 has proven to be the single greatest year in prog history. DPRP’s Brian Watson has argued that we’re in the “third wave of prog.” He might very well be right. But, I don’t think we’ve ever surpassed the sheer quality of albums released this year. This is not to belittle anything that has come before. Quite the contrary. I am, after all, a historian by profession and training. The past is always prologue. Close to the Edge, Selling England by the Pound, and Spirit of Eden will always be the great markers of the past.
Ok, be quiet, Brad. On with the rankings.
Category for best music, no lyrics.
Three. Storm Corrosion. An odd choice, I assume, especially in a category for music without lyrics. But, I absolutely adore the music, and I liked it from the moment I first received the album. The lyrics, though, are wretched and mar the music. Still, the music is so good, it’s worth it for me to get through the words. Folk, Traffic-esque (from Withering Tree days), Acid.
Two. Cailyn, Four Pieces. Though I’m not always one for labels, I might classify this masterful work as symphonic with rock sensibilities rather than as symphonic rock. A very–to put it mildly–multitalented instrumentalist, Cailyn possesses an uncanny sense of timing and taste. From soaring Stevie Ray Vaughn-influenced guitar work to the silences of Arvo Part, this young woman has accomplished much, and I predict we’ll be hearing much more from her.
One. The Fierce and the Dead, On VHS. I’m probably too taken with everything Matt Stevens does to be objective anymore, but I especially appreciate the “voice” of his guitar. I’ve already labeled 2012 as the year in which Matt finally gets the recognition he so justly deserves. If any justice can be found in this world, this man will be highly sought after for years to come. As a guitarist, he’s in league with Hendrix, Fripp, and Lifeson. The others in the band should never be forgotten, however. What an ensemble. About a year ago, I likened TFATD to the best of Rush and The Smiths combined. Indeed.
Category for best music with lyrics.
Twelve. Astra, The Black Chord. What can I write? These natives of San Diego rock with the best of them. This is Iron Butterfly for our era. The production is superb, and the music just grows and grows for the listener. Overblown and overthetop–all for the love of music. These guys must be some of the best musicians in the world right now.
Eleven. I and Thou, Speak. A beautiful–if not simply mesmerizing–piece of work. From the cover art to every lyric and note, a work of truth and goodness.
Ten. Enochian Theory, Life. This is, for all intents and purposes, the English version of one of my favorite bands, Poland’s Riverside. Though some of the lyrics and voices creep me out (not as much as the lyrics of Storm Corrosion), I especially love the production of this album. The flow of the album works perfectly as well. Rob Aubrey, not surprisingly, is the engineer.
Nine. IZZ, Crush of Night. This has a very similar feel to me as I and Thou, but this is more rocking. Beautiful flow of prog with exquisite vocals.
Eight. Coralspin, Honey and Lava. Blake McQueen is a master. The production on this album is outstanding, as it plays out the big sounds of Trevor Horn and Trevor Rabin. Soaring and rocking in every way; the lyrics are quite good, too.
Seven. The Reasoning, Adventures in Neverland. Admittedly, I’m a big Matt Cohen fan. And, his wife, Rachel. . . not only beautiful on the outside, but a deeply beautiful soulful person as well, as revealed by the quality of their lyrics. Of all the bands listed here, The Reasoning is probably the most direct in its rock. As with every one of their albums, The Reasoning’s Adventures in Neverland grabs you for the first note and takes you on a wild and good ride.
Six. Arjen Lucassen, Lost in the New Real. As we get closer to number one, my objectivity decreases absurdly. Lucassen is a hero of mine. I’ve never had the good privilege of meeting him, but I very much hope to at some point. Everything I know about this guy, I love. That he’s not more recognized as a writer of science fiction is a crime. He’s one of the best story tellers of the genre alive. Lost is a complex story of dystopia. Disk one follows the a man (somewhat related to Philip K. Dick’s work) revived in a world that has almost completely collapsed physically, morally, and spiritually. Disk two offers vignettes of that larger Lucassen world that didn’t fit the narrative of disk one.
Five. Gazpacho, March of Ghosts. Gazpacho’s music is as much art, indeed, as it is rock. I’m not sure why this album didn’t make more of a splash when it came out last spring, especially now that Kscope is promoting the band. Lyrics are of the highest quality (never expect less from Gazpacho), and Jan’s voice is one of the best in rock. He knows exactly how and when to sing with the music. Despite the name, this very Norwegian band carries on the medieval legacy of the eddas and the sagas. This album in particular has a very purgatorial and gothic (in the proper sense; not in The Cure sense) quality to it. Art Rock at its highest.
Four. Rush, Clockwork Angels. Again, my objectivity is out the window here. I would give so much for Neil Peart to consider me his little brother. This man has guided my life–my mind and, dare I say it about a skeptic, my soul–since I was age 13 back in 1981. I’ve written about Rush quite a bit this year. The single best thing I read about Rush, this year, however, came from RushVault:
The story of Rush is a story of validation. When the band first started out, the mainstream music establishment largely ignored them. Geddy’s voice was the brunt of jokes, Alex’s guitar playing got no respect, Neil’s lyrics were pretentious and channeled a kooky Ayn Randian ideology, and he played too many drums, all of them with the passion of a mathematician. Meanwhile, musicians and music aficionados loved them, so you had this great narrative tension. Now they’re nearing their 40-year anniversary, their old critics are in nursing homes, their fans are in leadership positions in business, science, government, and the arts, and they’re looked to as elder statesmen of rock.–Rob Freedman
Three. Neal Morse, Momentum. Again, I’ve written much about Morse, another personal hero, this year. Momentum is Morse, George, and Portnoy at their absolute best. The lyrics possess a poetic and empathetic quality, and Morse’s love of life shines through in every note and word. Some of the album is intensely clever (“Thoughts Part Five” is the most obvious example on the album), and some of the album is utterly profound (especially the 34 minute epic, “World without End”). Morse has to be one of the–if not THE–hardest working man in music today. And, yet, his quality only increases with his quality. Considering his leadership of Spock’s Beard help create this “third wave of prog,” Morse is one of its elder statesmen.
Two. Glass Hammer, Perilous. I’m not sure what to say about this one. I expected it to be excellent, but its brilliance has astounded me. In a sense, I should have put it aside with The Enid, Echolyn, etc. But, I can’t put it aside! It’s that kind of album. From my first listen, I thought it was something special and certainly not just another prog rock release. But, that feeling only deepened when I finally sat down and read the lyrics. Schnikees, Babb can write. Reading the lyrics proved a “T.S. Eliot” moment for me. I didn’t come to Glass Hammer until 2002’s Lex Rex. It’s been a solid relationship since then, but nothing prepared me for the overwhelming quality of Perilous. Take the absolute best music of GH over the past decade, but then add in an amazing story and some of the best lyrics ever written, and you have Perilous. Much more to come on this album.
One. Big Big Train, English Electric Part I. This is not only the best album of 2012, it’s the single best album since Talk Talk’s 1988, “Spirit of Eden.” A true master work in every way. I could write pages and pages about this album, but I’ll just say this: buy it, listen to it, and cherish it as a glimpse of all that is eternally good. Hail, Greg, David, Dave, Andy, Nick, and Rob! This is your year, in every way. It’s also your quarter century. I’m so very glad to see the adventuresome spirit and striving for excellence that Mark Hollis, Tim Friese-Greene, and Phill Brown demonstrated in 1988 alive today. Truly, of all releases this year, this one best points the way to Proghalla.