While “pax” literally translates as peace, people generally use the term “Pax Romana” to refer to a golden age of Imperial Rome. Well, if that’s the case, then the year 2013 has left no doubt that we are in another golden age for progressive rock.
Now, you will have excuse me a bit for the “Progorama” thing in the title, but that’s the closest thing to alliteration that came to mind. “Pax Progtopia” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as well. There were a few other ideas I had, and none of them were very good … “Pax Progorama” worked the best, ok? Hyphens added upon request.
The other question is this – do I have the best, most appropriate historical metaphor? Could the current era be just as well described as a prog renaissance? Probably. We could liken the 1970’s as the original Pax Prog-O-Rama … the punk rockers as the barbarians who finally toppled a weakening empire … the 1980’s and early 1990’s as the Dark Ages (with of course, the neo-proggers being the Monks/Byzantines that preserved the flame of Western Civilization) … the rise of the Internet being equivalent to the Gutenberg printing press … and the late-1990’s and beyond representing the Renaissance and the spreading of new ideas, knowledge, and in our case here – art. Maybe I should go back and rewrite the beginning of this post. Then again, as Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber says …. naaaaahh (start at the point about where 1:00 minute remains …).
No matter what metaphor you choose, the resulting conclusion is still the same: Anno Domini 2013 was an incredible year for progressive rock, quite possibly the best ever. I don’t say that lightly. This year also gives weight to the opinion (mine, anyway) that our current Golden Age of prog has surpassed the previous one – and I don’t say that lightly, either. The past few years, and 2013 in particular, have been nothing short of an embarrassment of riches for prog lovers. Just how good was 2013? Let’s take a look.
One of the most anticipated releases of the year was Big Big Train’s continuation of the English Electric set. In March, they graced us with English Electric, Part II, and they did not disappoint. EE Pt. II (for short) picked up right where its predecessor left off, leading off with what I believe to be the best track of the entire EE bunch, East Coast Racer, with The Permanent Way running a close second. Following that up, they released the EP Make Some Noise, which included the final four tracks of the EE set, and then repackaged it all into EE Full Power and released a 96-page booklet along with it (including in .pdf form – THANK YOU!!). Great vocals, great arrangements, and some great playing provide a backdrop for what can be described equally as a melancholy reflection as well as celebration of the glory of England’s industrial past. This is progressive rock at its finest.
Another highly anticipated album released this year was from Arjen Anthony Lucuassen’s project, Ayreon. With artistic ambition as big as a topographic ocean, Lucassen’s Ayreon presented us with The Theory of Everything – a rock opera having four tracks of 20+ minutes each, subdivided into 42(!) tracks total. The album features many prog luminaries, among them Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson, Jordan Rudess, John Wetton, and Steve Hackett. The music and the story are both spectacularly good. It’s well worth reserving a block of time to sit down and listen from start to finish with lyrics in hand. Concept album? Check. Rock opera? Check. Epic-length tracks? Check. Cool cover art? Check. All-star musicians showing off their chops? Check. Incredible story and music? Check. Honestly, what more could a prog fan want?
I have to admit, I wasn’t really taken with the first two Steven Wilson solo efforts. I liked a majority of his work with Porcupine Tree, particularly the incredible Fear of a Blank Planet. However, his previous solo effort, Grace for Drowning had some interesting bits on it to be sure, but something just seemed to be missing for me. And his first solo effort … for some reason, I couldn’t really get into it. Thus, I approached his latest release, The Raven That Refused to Sing with a bit of skepticism. Fortunately, that skepticism did not survive my first listen. For my ears, this album is by far Wilson’s best solo effort, one that saw him branching out in different directions. It felt less like Porcupine Tree or an extension of his previous two solo efforts and more of something new. I particularly liked the keyboards on this album, which were more dynamic and varied than the atmospheric keys on previous works involving Wilson. While I love every track on this album, the standouts for me are the haunting, beautiful title track (which, BTW, is used to great effect in the trailer for the upcoming movie ‘Pompeii‘ – a little past the 1:00 minute mark), The Watchmaker and The Holy Drinker. This album is and will remain in heavy rotation for a while.
For introspection, 2013 brought us a number of releases that provided food for thought. Riverside’s Shrine of New Generation Slaves ends this year as my favorite album of theirs from a conceptual/philosophical standpoint (musically, the honor still belongs to Rapid Eye Movement). In SoNGS as it became known, Mariusz Duda and company challenge us to make an effort to look at the world and our own lives differently, to take control instead of falling into the path of least resistance that leads us into emptiness and despair. Along the way, there is some sharp commentary on the wider culture, most notably on Celebrity Touch.
The Tangent also provide us with more food for introspective thought this year with Le Sacre Du Travail. For my money, this is the best work done by any lineup of The Tangent since The Music Died Alone. There are a lot of things I could say about the subject matter of this album, but no matter how hard I try, I can never say it better than our own Nick did in his review. So Nick, I hope you don’t mind if I borrow your words, but here they are:
This is incisive social commentary, full of the wit so evident in Tillison’s lyrics from earlier albums (Tech Support Guy and Bat Out Of Basildon spring to mind as good examples) and with a dose of world-weary cynicism that may not be to everyone’s taste. But this is more a plea than a whinge, imploring us to remember there is more to life than the rat race.
It can’t be said better than that. Period.
Cosmograf brought us The Man Left in Space, a meditation on the price of ambition, and the even higher price of unchecked ambition. Although this album includes several standout tracks, it’s really one that is best listened to from start to finish in one sitting. The story follows an astronaut sent on a mission to save the Earth that proves fatal to him in order to bring home the idea of “what price achievement?” It also explores the motivations that propel those that seek to be high achievers, and as noted in Tad Wert’s excellent review here, a warning on the over-reliance on technology to replace real human interaction. As far as those standout tracks go … well for me, Aspire Achieve did a great job of establishing the flow of the album after the prologue of How Did I Get Here. Beautiful Treadmill was positively eerie, a testament to our astronaut’s extreme loneliness. And the finale, When the Air Runs Out wraps it up nicely, particularly with the spoken names of others who paid a high personal price for their high achievements.
As an aside to the previous paragraph, sometime during the year the mind behind Cosmograf, Robin Armstrong, asked on Facebook if concept albums were still important in the age of the digital download. Robin, the answer is an emphatic YES!! – more than ever.
In the Rookie of the Year department, we have newcomers Sound of Contact and their excellent first release, Dimensionaut. A lot of commenters made note of the production of this album, stating that it was somewhat “pop”. That is not entirely without merit. It probably has something to do with SoC’s drummer and lead vocalist being Simon Collins, son of Phil. And the most popular track, Not Coming Down, might add more merit to the charge, although it’s an excellent track nevertheless. But make no mistake, this is a prog album through and through, as evidenced by its best track – the nineteen minute plus epic closer, Möbius Slip, as well as the fact that Dimensionaut is a sci-fi concept album. This was a great debut, and I am very much looking forward to seeing what these guys will do in the future.
Barely a year after their last release, The Flower Kings returned with Desolation Rose. Normally a bright and sunny band (I Am the Sun!), the new album saw The Flower Kings go dark, as in darkly commenting on the state of the modern world. Despite going out of character, our favorite Swedish hippies have still managed to make a great album. I don’t want to get political here, but the lyrics of Dark Fascist Skies resonate with me rather acutely. Other dark themes abound as well, but occasionally the band’s trademark sunniness creeps through the clouds, on Blood of Eden, providing a contrast that sharpens the overall message of the album. I found this shift to darkness by The Flower Kings to be, in an odd sense, refreshing, as it illustrated another side to this band that has previously been unheard. If progressive rock is about breaking new ground, then The Flower Kings have done just that by stepping out of their normal comfort zone. Well done, guys.
A little more than a decade ago, founding member and de-facto leader of Spock’s Beard, Neal Morse, left the band. In a Genesis-like maneuver, he was replaced on lead vocals by drummer Nick D’Virgilio (NDV). In 2011, NDV amicably left Spock’s Beard, and the question on everybody’s mind is whether or not they would be able to successfully make the transition to a new vocalist, or, in another Genesis-like maneuver, fizzle as they did in the wake of Phil Collin’s departure. Thankfully, this story had a happy ending. Instead of paralleling Ray Wilson-era Genesis, the Beard made a triumphant return with Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep. The band does a fine job of breaking in new vocalist Ted Leonard with a number of good songs including the leadoff track, Hiding Out, A Treasure Abandoned, and the closing mini-epic, Waiting for Me. Not only did they manage a difficult transition as flawlessly as one could have hoped, but this lineup of the Beard shows great potential for future works.
One other album that deserves mention in 2013 is a re-release – the remixed version of Rush’s triumphant 2002 return, Vapor Trails. The mix of the original release was found wanting, and our own Craig Breaden offers an excellent explanation of why in the comments section of Brad’s review – go read it now if you haven’t. Problem solved on the re-release, as the instruments are given their proper space to breathe, thus giving this album a completely new life. If you’ve never bought Vapor Trails before, this is the version to get. And if you have, you still might want to pick this up.
One more album I want to mention is Haken’s The Mountain. I have only recently acquired this one, but so far I am simply blown away. How is it that I haven’t heard of these guys before? This album definitely puts the “rock” in progressive rock. Still, as much butt as it kicks, it also has some very intricate passages and a nice mix of instrumentation. I haven’t dug deep into the lyrics yet, although I understand that conceptually, the album is a meditation on the struggles we all face in life and the metaphorical mountains we must all climb. I’m sure delving into this aspect of ‘The Mountain’ will only fuel my enjoyment of the same that much more.
Yet with all the great music I’ve listed above, I’ve still missed a number of albums this year that have appeared on the lists of other Progarchists. Among these are releases by Days Between Stations, Nosound, and Sanguine Hum. I’ve had one listen of what I call the “grunge prog” of King Bathmat’s Overcoming the Monster, although I definitely plan to return to this one. Eventually, I will get around to hearing all of these albums. When? I don’t know. The sheer volume of excellent new music, along with the desire to explore the back catalog for artists that I had previously missed will continue to consume much of my listening time. Just to give you a flavor of what I’m up against, The Theory of Everything was my first foray into Ayreon, and that will compel me to listen to the earlier works under that name. Gazpacho is to release an album next year, and yet I’ve still only heard two of their albums so far (but I have it on good authority that Santa has packed a copy of last year’s March of Ghosts in his bag for me this year). And while I own a few Flower Kings albums, including the one mentioned above, there are several more that I don’t, although that is something else to be remedied. In fact, of the artists listed above, only Riverside and Rush fall into the category of bands whose output I have heard in their entirety.
It’s simply unbelievable to me how much great progressive rock is out there now. As I metaphor-ized (!!) above, the 1980’s and early 1990’s were the Dark Ages in terms of prog. It was even darker for those like me who were, at that time, unaware of the neo-prog movement across the Atlantic. During those times I remember dreaming, wishing, hoping for a day when would again see the prog movement come alive again, a time when we would have more than just a few active prog bands to choose from, and a time when we would see new artists releasing good music within the genre. What we are witnessing now, especially in 2013, is far, far beyond my wildest dreams or fondest hopes.
The year 1972 gave us Close to the Edge, Thick As a Brick and Foxtrot, 1973 gave us Selling England By the Pound, Brain Salad Surgery, and Dark Side of the Moon, 1974 gave us Relayer, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, Warchild‘, and Turn of the Cards. All considered to be great releases by most progressive rock fans, and there were a number of other excellent records put out in those years. And yet, 2012 and even more so, 2013, stack up very well next to any of those years in terms of the quality of new progressive music. In terms of quantity? These last two years simply blow away any year of the 1970’s. Somewhere I read (wish I could remember) that there were an estimated 2000 prog/prog-related releases slated for 2013. It wouldn’t surprise me if the number of prog/prog-related releases combined in the years 1972-74 didn’t even approach that number. But the way I see it, with regard to the present age, there is no such thing as too much of a good thing.
As personal testimony to the greatness of our current era, I’ve noticed my listening habits have changed over the past few years. Up until say, 2010 or so, I listened to more prog from the classic era than any other. That started changing in about 2011 or so, and it’s progressed to the point where now, I spend far more time listening to new prog releases than I do listening to music from the heyday of Yes, Tull, Genesis and Floyd. That’s quite a shift for me, particularly considering how bat-shinola crazy I went over 70’s prog upon my initial discovery of Yes, and how my affinity for music from that era continued through the decades since.
The only real lament I have about the current era relative to the previous golden age is mostly based on an accident of geography. Living in Austin, (Republic of) Texas, I rarely get an opportunity to see progressive rock performed live. I was lucky that Rush decided to open the second leg of their ‘Clockwork Angels’ tour here in Austin this spring, but other than that, I hadn’t seen any live prog since … um, Rush on the ‘Snake and Arrows’ tour. And while the city I live in is renowned for live music, much of that scene is controlled by the hipsters, cool people, and other fashionistas that don’t have much use for prog. So those of you on the other side of the Atlantic that do get to see current wave bands live in concert, count your blessings.
Will next year keep the current trend going? Who knows. From what I know, next year will bring us new albums from Gazpacho, Lunatic Soul, and Glass Hammer, among others. I’m confident there are many, many more of which I am not yet aware. But even if next year doesn’t live up to the standards of 2013, it still has plenty of room to be a very good one. After all, 2013 has set the bar stratospherically high. Furthermore, even if the current golden age of prog ended with a sudden bang, the sheer number of good albums released in the last several years could keep one busy for quite a while.
One other thing I want to say about this year as that it has been one of vindication – for both prog fans and artists alike. It’s doubtful that any style of rock has ever been savaged by the critics more than progressive rock. It was never the “cool” style of music. Wearing a Rolling Stones tongue T-shirt may have marked you as cool at one point, but wearing a T-shirt from Rush’s Hemispheres tour most certainly did not. As the 1970’s gave way to the 1980’s, spiked (and often times, colored) hair while talking about the latest Duran Duran video marked one as cool, while listening to prog marked one as a dinosaur. And in the 1990’s, being cool meant grungy clothes while smelling like teen spirit, while prog didn’t even rise to an afterthought outside of its own dedicated fanbase. Still, virtually all of us who contribute on this site and prog fans around the world kept listening anyway, no matter the fact that we were the terminally unhip. We didn’t conform, and we didn’t give a rip if the cool would cast us out. We knew that it really was the music itself that mattered, not whether liking this band or that band, this genre or that one, branded you as being cool.
Somewhere along the line, our persistence, our integrity, began to pay off. Some prog fans who were also musicians and singers and writers began to form bands and release albums. And with the help of the internet, the word spread, and the progressive movement once again began to snowball. The critics who had tried to kill the progressive rock movement had failed and failed miserably. Meanwhile, one of prog’s most enduring and established bands kept plugging away, releasing some of the best work of their career after the turn of the millennium. While the critics still tried to ignore them, the persistence which had provide such a shining example for prog fans everywhere eventually led to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They could no longer be denied. One of progressive rock’s harshest critics, one who swore no prog band would ever be inducted could no longer avoid saying their name. Watch this in whole, and see who gets the most rousing ovation. It’s not even close.
Now that’s vindication. For Rush. For progressive rock. For the fans who stuck with both all these years.
Most of us (if not all) who contribute to this site are much older and grayer now than when we first started listening to prog. We have jobs, mortgages, kids, and maybe in a few cases, grandkids. Our eyesight isn’t what it was in our younger years, and we have to be much more careful about what we eat. But we still have much for which to be thankful. Among that for which we can be thankful is the fact that the musical movement that we are all so fond of is quite alive and healthier than it has ever been. Andy Tillison’s fear of the music dying alone has not been realized. Instead – with Tillison’s help – it is reaching new artistic heights while happily overwhelming us with a previously unknown abundance of good new music. There has never been a better time than the present to be a progressive rock fan – and there has never been a better year to be one than 2013. Long live the Pax Progorama.