And, my final “best of” post for 2014. Let’s hope that you’re not getting too tired of these!
I’ve saved the albums that hit me the hardest—at level of mind and soul—for the last. I guess it’s somewhat goofy to have a “top eight,” but these are my top eight. These are the albums that did everything right, the ones that pulled it all together, offering real glimpses of the turning spheres. The first seven are in no particular order. I like them equally, and I think they’ve each attained the highest an album can reach but in quite different ways.
What can one say about Poland’s greatest, Newspaperflyhunting? Craig Breaden has already explained—in perfect detail—why this is a perfect album. From atmospherics to piercingly intelligent lyrics to mood swinging melodies, these Eastern Europeans have created what is certainly one of the most innovating and interesting albums of the last few decades. The album, ICEBERG SOUL, has much in common with early 1990’s American psychedelic revival, and there’s a real Mazzy Star and Opal feel to much of the music. But, whereas Mazzy Star was really good, Newspaperflyhunting is simply excellent. Droning, walls of sound, haunting guitar lines—this album has it all.
Salander, a new band from England, has blown me away as much as Newspaperflyhunting, and the two bands have much in common. Slander is only two guys, each named Dave, but you’d never know it listening to the music. Much as Cailyn plays every single thing on her album, the two Daves do the same. Their two albums this year, CRASH COURSE FOR DESSERT and STENDEC, are really one album, a journey through the wonders and terrors of the world, seen and unseen. The two Daves move effortlessly from one style of music to another, but they always hold it all together with what can only be described as a Salander sound. These two albums provide a journey that you hope never ends.
Armed with some new producers and engineers and a barrel full of confidence, the Anglo-Dutch-American band, Fractal Mirror, has proven the worth of community and friendship a million times over with GARDEN OF GHOSTS, a landmark album. As mentioned previously, there’s a lot of Bauhaus and Love and Rockets in this album. But, whereas those 1980’s bands felt as though they had one cool trick, Fractal Mirror is the real deal. GARDEN OF GHOSTS is mind-bogglingly good—stunning in every way—and we are so blessed to be catching them at the beginning of their journey. Certainly, it’s Gothic in tone, but it’s always soaring and light and dark and maddening and enlightening and loving. . . . It’s also quite defiant, and, at times, the lyrics make Neil Peart look like a softy.
I think the first album by the Tin Spirits one of my all-time favorite albums. It would certainly be in my top ten all-time albums. In particular, the song “Broken” is a masterpiece, a progged-out Allman Brothers kind of song. I eagerly awaited SCORCH, and I’ve not been disappointed. This is guitar prog, pop prog, rock prog—however one might label it, it’s just amazingly good. The four guys in the band obviously really like one another, and their friendship comes out in a myriad of ways in the music. The best song on Scorch, “Summer Now,” might very well be the best song of the year. As with Flying Colors, the Tin Spirits should be playing on every single album-rock radio across North America. The contrast between the two bands? Where Flying Colors might cross the line and go “over the top,” the Tin Spirits go for taste, class, and a dignified restraint.
Not to be too jingoistic, but one of the best aspects of 2014 has been the emergence of a number of North American prog bands. I’ve already mentioned several over the last few posts. The very best of the American prog bands, though, is Fire Garden. Holy Schnikees these guys are good. Scratch that. These guys are amazing! They clearly love Dream Theater, but they’re also 20x better than Dream Theater. Just as the Tin Spirits goes for dignified restraint, so does Fire Garden. Rather than play 30 notes in a millisecond, master musician and lyricist Zee Baig goes for just the necessary ones, the ones most needed for creativity and beauty. Again, that dignified restraint, when employed properly, can be such a beautiful thing. As I noted with Threshold and Haken, I don’t generally gravitate toward the heavier stuff. With Fire Garden, I happily embrace it. Of course, their heaviness is more Rush than Metallica. But, again, everything is perfect. I’ve focused on the band’s ubercoolleader, Zee, but everyone is in top form here. Zee pulls it all together.
I’m almost afraid to mention John Bassett. I’ve praised the that English stocking cap-wearing bard so many times, folks might start to wonder if I have some bizarre motive or some mancrush. Trust me, I’m married and have six kids. Yet, I do really love Bassett—just not in THAT way. Bassett’s music, through Kingbathmat, appeared in my life just a few years ago, but I can’t imagine my love of prog or music without him now, even as I look back to four decades of music obsession. Bassett’s first solo album, Uneßarth, is a psychedelic folk album, the kind of album that Storm Corrosion should have been. Somehow, Bassett’s actual voice (vocals) have a guitar-like quality. It’s bizarre. Beautifully and wondrously bizarre. And, despite his own self-deprecating remarks about merely being a “muppet”, Bassett is one of our best cultural critics. Of course, I love Animal, and there is a slight resemblance. Equally interesting, Bassett went the Matt Stevens/Fierce and the Dead route with his second album of 2014, a vocal-less progressive metal affair called Arcade Messiah. Each reveals a fascinating side to this very fascinating artist. What would I love to see—Bassett to bring these two styles together in Kingbathmat, writing a full-blown prog epic, unapologetic and unrelentingly so.
Once again, here comes the bro-mance. Sorry, Sally! I love your man, too. Just in very different ways than do you. I’m not sure Andy Tillison is capable of a misstep. Not only has he been one of the two or three most important musicians of what he’s insightfully called “Third Wave Prog,” he’s now becoming one of the two or three most important musicians in what I’ve attempted—admittedly, not very successfully—“Fourth Wave Prog.” His only release this year (what a funny thing to type) is under the name, cleverly, The Andy Tillison Multiplex. The album: ELECTRONIC SINFONIA 2. Just as Cailyn has brought classical music back into the world of prog, Andy is bringing jazz and jazz fusion back into prog. This album is beyond stunning. It is the very essence of taste itself. Every note, every line, every segue is just astounding. Tillison is a perfectionist, and it shows on and in all that he does. Thank you, Mr. Diskdrive. Rage on.
And, so I come to my favorite album of 2014. It took a while for me to get here, and if you fine progarchist reader are still with me, bless you. God has granted you immense patience. Though, as I’ve noted, this has been one of the best years ever in prog—and I’ve loved everything I’ve mentioned in the previous posts—I’ve loved this the most: Cosmograf’s CAPACITOR. Made by master of chronometry, Robin Armstrong, CAPACITOR is the perfect album. To those of you who write and produce instrumental music, thank you. And, please accept my apologies. I love what you do, but, not being trained in music, I don’t always get what you’re doing, even if I love it. For me, prog has been centrally about the lyrics and the story telling, with the music augmenting the two. I love the Word and the words. And, that brings me to CAPACITOR, a story that has everything. It’s a mix of science fiction and the occult, a play on religious revivals and scientific fetishes of a century ago. It’s not steam punk, it’s seance punk! And, what a story. Simply put, it’s the best sci-fi story of 2014. Part Arthur Conan Doyle, part Ray Bradbury, it’s purely Robin Armstrong. And, as we all know, Robin is not only a perfectionist, he’s an aural genius. He knows exactly how to mix word and note. This album is so good, it, almost by itself, redefines the entire genre. This is an album to match CLOSE TO THE EDGE, SPIRIT OF EDEN, and, much more recently, ENGLISH ELECTRIC and LE SACRE DU TRAVAIL.
N.B. Please forgive any typos. I have a three-year old princess acting rather grumpy as she deals with the flu. Lots of distractions in the Birzer household.
Previous posts in my “Best of 2014” series: