by Frank Urbaniak
In an outstanding year of prog, with the heat of summer comes even more interesting soundtracks for 2013. These three releases are similar in their focus on audio excellence, none of the three are 100% prog, yet all three provide a good listening experience, but they do vary in terms of their ability to generate the desire for ‘go to’ repeat listens.
I originally didn’t want to review Wisdom of Crowds because while it is sonically rich, the music left me flat. After Carl Olson of Progarchy suggested differently I gave it a few more spins and have a more favorable opinion of the music, but still am a bit surprised by the glowing online reviews. As with more recent Pineapple Thief music, I find the song construction a bit predictable, with 2 verses, chorus, bridge/instrumental section and final verse/chorus. The music just doesn’t engage me enough to want to play it again/often. For instance the title track, “Wisdom of Crowds,” repeats the chorus for far too long, so that by the time I hear the song again I am ready to skip the track. The next track, “Radio Star”, has a weak melody so I am ready to move quickly to the best song on the CD, “Frozen North”, with lovely guitars and a haunting melody, which starts softly and then builds to an infectious finale. This track and the following track, “The Light,” reveal the great qualities of Jonas Renkse’s voice but overall, I find the songs just a bit long and I wish Soord had stretched a bit more compositionally as well as sonically. An enjoyable CD but I don’t see it in the top releases of the year.
(For an interesting transition, play Wisdom of Crowd’s “Flows Through You,” followed by Shinebacks’s “Here Come the Envoys.”)
Shineback’s Rise Up Forgotten, Return Destroyed is the top audio experience of the three releases and is worth repeat listens on headphones. Rise Up Forgotten is quite an eclectic mix of prog, dance, hip hop and pop (think ABC) which all comes together nicely, but is significantly enhanced by the quality of the recording. The dynamics are breathtaking. While there are similarities to Tinyfish’s Big Red Spark, this is much less ‘prog’ and this ‘story’ offers an opportunity for Simon to expand his musical palette. The proggier moments remind me of Frost* (go figure). There are only 6 songs three minutes or longer, connected by musical ‘blogs’. If you have the time to listen to the entire CD it works well, but the blogs are so short they sometimes seem to interrupt the flow of the songs, which is already challenging due to the diversity of the songs. I wish there were a few longer compositions as these short blogs aren’t easy to get into if you have a 20 minute drive or a short listening window. I also wish that they had used the female voice for more than the opening and closing songs, as Simon’s voice sometimes sounds thin on the choruses. Unfortunately I think that in a few months I will only return to this CD to revisit just the longer tracks. But hey, these are minor points, this is good stuff and worth an investment of your listening time and money. Hats off to Bad Ear Music and to Simon for taking such a gamble at such a precarious time in the industry.
Sounds of Contact’s Dimensionaut is the hardest release to review objectively as with this band you have to deal with Simon Collin’s legacy situation. Father Phil generates awe and respect as a drummer and singer in some camps, and quite caustic and disdainful online comments from others as a solo artist and singer/composer for his more commercial solo work and contributions to one of the genre’s most beloved bands in their later years. So lets get this out of the way: sometimes Simon sounds like his father around the time of Face Value but there are also hints of Sean Filkins, Jon Anderson and others in his singing. The only time I find this objectionable is on a track like “Dimensionaut” where his vocals are mixed with an echo that generates the ‘clip’ at the beginning of each phrase that was so oppressive in later Genesis recordings like “Throwing It All Away” and “Domino.” It isn’t needed, his voice is fine without it. And did I mention that the drumming genetics have been passed down nicely?
The other challenge in reviewing this is that while it is mostly progressive, there are some ‘modern rock’ songs bordering on AOR such as “Not Coming Down,” “Only Breathing Out” or “Closer to You,” clearly geared for more commercial appeal. On each of those songs the lyrics are nice but a bit ‘poppy’. In fact the lyrics on the entire CD alternate between ‘cosmic’ and pop but they work with the music. So you can either let the more commercial tracks put you off or you can just let the CD play end to end to appreciate a fine release, and just give these guys the respect I think they deserve out of the gate (as most seem to be doing). The recording is excellent and the band is solid (although the drums may be mixed slightly up front for some tastes).
Sound of Contact’s overall dedication to ‘bring the prog back’ is admirable, touring after only one album all across the US and Europe, joined by some other excellent bands in different cities on the tour. Talk about taking a risk! I give Sounds of Contact an A for effort and commitment to progressive music. If bands like this aren’t given a fair listen and support on their tours, then the genre’s future is at risk. (As I write this I see they are announced as the first signed band for Rosfest 2014!)
In fact all three of these releases deserve support and attention as these artists spread their wings musically and sonically, providing more reasons to celebrate 2013 as a great year for music.
[Frank Urbaniak is the co-owner of a successful retail technology consulting practice, living in the hinterlands of NJ. He has played drums since the age of 8 and followed progressive music since the age of 18 when he first heard The Yes Album in college. He is the father of two daughters who think his music is weird, and his wife agrees with them.]