From Carl’s Critical Kitchen: A Baker’s Dozen of Tasty Prog/Rock from 2014

guitar-and-music-paper-1927
“Guitar and Music Paper” (1927) by Juan Gris

In the process of putting together an end-of-the-year book list for CWR, I came upon my 2004 post on my favorite books and music of 2004. The music list is quite interesting, with just one overtly prog album (Pain of Salvation’s “Be,” which is, in hindsight, one of my least favorite POS releases), and a fair amount of jazz (no surprise) and country (some surprise). I’m glad to say I still listen to much of the music on that list.

This year, I’ve decided to break my music picks from 2014 into three categories: prog/rock, jazz, and the kitchen sink (country, electronica, weirdness). I want to emphasize “favorite” here because there were so many releases I simply didn’t get to, despite uploading over 6500 songs in the past 12 months. Ah well!

And I’m going to try to keep it short and simple, with the exception of my thoughts on my #1 pick in prog, which is also my Favorite Album of the Year. What is it? Read on!

Favorite Prog and Rock Albums of 2014:

12. “Live at Rome Olympic Stadium” by Muse and “Tales from the Netherlands” by Mystery. Muse is about as proggy as a mega-selling, world-famous band can be, known for putting on live performances that are equally energetic and well played. This July 2013 performance is no exception, with the trio ripping through nineteen of their eclectic songs, ranging from from electro-tinged funk (“Panic Station”) to Queen-ish pomp (“Knights of Cydonia”) to Floyd-ish slyness (“Animals”). The DVD is very impressive, not only because it was filmed with HD/4K cameras but also because the band is at the top of their game.

Mystery is fronted by Benoit David, who was lead singer for Yes for a short time a few years ago, before illness led to his firing. David never seemed comfortable with Yes, but his work with Mystery is of the highest caliber. The Montreal-based group is lead by multi-instrumentalist Michel St-Père  (guitars, keyboards, bass, production) and has an epic, soaring sound built on fabulous melodies and exquisitely structured songs. The production, for a live album, is excellent, and David (who has since left the group) is in top form; this is not easy music to navigate vocally, yet he nails it at every twist and turn.

11. “Magnolia” by Pineapple Thief. Bruce Soord has more talent in his toes than most alt-bands have in their entirety, whether it be as a writer, producer, player, or singer. I’ve enjoyed everything from Pineapple Thief, but this collection of incisive, beautifully burnished tunes is Soord’s best work yet, the sort of intelligent, catchy, and detailed modern rock that deserves to be all over the airwaves. Classic Rock magazine sums it nicely: “Small but perfectly formed pockets of 21st century prog.”

10. “The Ocean At the End” by Tea Party. I was thrilled that this Canadian trio (now based in Australia) got together again after several years apart; I still listen to their early albums (“Splendor Solis”, “Edges of Twilight”) which feature an overt Led Zep vibe with a brooding, even epic, melancholy, rooted in Jeff Martin’s powerful voice and bluesy guitar playing. The latter quality is more in evidence here, and the rocking cuts (“Brazil” and “The Cass Corridor”) are the least enjoyable for me. The highlights are the dark cover of “The Maker,” the aching “Black Roses”, and the tour de force “The Ocean at the End”. Distinctive, powerful, emotive rock.

9. “Beyond the Visable Light” by Ovrfwrd. This album made a late charge on my playlist, as each listen revealed deeper layers of detail, melody, and interplay. The four-man group from Minneapolis is instrumental only, with an emphasis on group dynamics and song structures that are complex but very accessible. There is a lot of territory covered in the 5-song, 48-minute-long album, with grungy, propulsive passages melting into subtle, jazz-ish sections, and then giving way to Deep Purple-ish organ, and so forth. Great use of piano throughout, which brings a distinctive detail to the entire, enjoyable affair.

8. “Incarnate” by Panic Room. I’ve gathered, from reading some reviews, that many fans were disappointed in this release, following up the exceptional “Skin” album. I was not disappointed at all, even though this album veers into more overtly pop (or even, dare I say, AOR) territory and is thus less prog, without doubt. But the songs range from good to exceptional, the playing and production are topnotch, and Anne-Marie Helder’s vocals are simply otherworldly—gorgeous, effortless, and beguiling. To get a good sense of the album, listen to “Waterfall,” my favorite cut.

7. “Perfect Beings” by Perfect Beings. This is one of the most deceptive albums of the year, as it sounds incredibly easy and simple, and goes down like a smooth India Pale Ale, but there is a lot—and I mean a lot—of stuff going on here, both musically and lyrically. The influence of the Beatles (“The Canyon Hill”) and the Beach Boys (“Remnants of Shields”) are evident, but then there is the whole concept album “thing,” which is based, apparently, on a sci-fi novel, TJ & Tosc: A Field Guide For Life After Western Culture, by Suhail Rafidi, whose site describes him as “a novelist and educator whose works explore the destiny of human values in a technological landscape.” I’ve not read the novel, but if it’s half as good as this outstanding album, it’s worth the read.

6. “World on Fire” by Slash (feat. Myles Kennedy And The Conspirators). This makes sense, I suppose, since Alter Bridge’s astounding album, “Fortress,” was one of my top picks for 2013. Although I was never a Guns N’ Roses fan (that band, by the way, formed 30 years ago this March!), I thought their best songs had some of the best riffs and guitar work of the time, and this album demonstrates that Slash was indeed the main musical brain in that group. The combination of his guitar (“so many riffs that you won’t be able to get out of your head” said Metal Hammer mag) and Kennedy’s stellar vocals is a winning one, and while several of the songs fit comfortably in the classic rock/arena rock genre, several others are more ambitious (“Battleground” comes to mind), perhaps reflecting the songwriting input of the freakishly talented Kennedy, himself a world class guitar player (who, however, does not play guitar on this album).

5. “Ghosts” by Big Wreck. Another great group from Canada, whose outstanding 2012 release, “Albatross”, was my #5 pick of 2012. Singer and guitarist Ian Thornley takes center stage with his powerful vocals (Chris Cornell fans, take heed) and strong guitar solos. But the entire band is rocking, with a special nod going to bassist Dave Henning, who is incapable to laying down a mediocre or clichéd line. The title track, “Ghosts,” is a highlight, with the band extending a bit in jam form, while “Hey Mama” is a catchy, bluesy stomper that brings to mind another, aforementioned Canadian group: Tea Party.

4. “Scorch” by Tin Spirits. I knew nothing about this group prior to listening to the album and did not know what to expect. What I heard was pure proggy-pop-rock bliss, with catchy yet complex songs, stunning harmonies, and simply killer guitar work at every turn. As Dr. Brad stated, “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.” One of the best musical surprises of 2014 for me.

3. “Shadow Weaver” by The Choir. Wikipedia aptly describes The Choir as “an atmospheric Christian alternative rock band” and the Los Angeles Times says the group produces “magical songs that combine strains of murky psychedelia with pure pop”. That gets you in the front door, but there are a lot of territory to explore as The Choir has been one of the most influential alternative Christian groups since forming in the early 1980s. The group’s sound reminds me of The Church, with loads of reverb, atmospherics, and jangling guitars, all at the service of exceptional, slyly catchy songs that are vulnerable, deeply thoughtful, and sometimes quite sardonic, as in “Everybody’s Got a Guru,” one of the cuts on this fabulous release.

2. “One Thousand Wings” by White Moth, Black Butterfly. In my March 2014 review of this album–which is essentially a solo project by the super talented vocalist/instrumentalist/producer Dan Tompkins (Tesseract, Skyharbor)–I described it as “ambient/folk electronica prog” as “it is not guitar-driven, features nothing that resembles a solo, and is not really ‘rock’ in any obvious way.” It is a distinctive, Jeff Buckley-ish type record that is both haunting and uplifting in equal measure. Dip into “Midnight Rivers” and let the music flow.

And my favorite prog/rock album of the year is:

flyingcolors_2ndnaturecover1. “Second Nature” by Flying Colors. Every once in a while—perhaps once every few years—I hear an album that I listen to again and again…and again: Jeff Buckley’s “Grace”, “OK Computer” by Radiohead, and Soundgarden’s “Superunknown” come to mind. I’ve now listened to this album 75 times or so (according to my iTunes), and I’ve not tired of it at all. Not even close. If anything, I like it more than ever, and I’m confident I’ll be listening to it for years to come. There are numerous reasons for my obsession with “Second Nature,” but I’ll note just a couple of big ones. It begins with the album title, “Second Nature,” which certainly references that this is the group’s second studio album and the fact that making music, for these five masters, is second nature.

But it finally points to the intertwining, overarching theme of the album, which is that of spiritual awakening, ascent, and transformation, the movement from putting off the “old nature” and putting on the “new nature,” spoken of by Paul the Apostle in his letter to the Ephesians (4:22-24). The arch can be seen in the opening and closing lyrics. “Open Up Your Eyes” is a song of self-examination and spiritual assessment:

Dream, empty and grey
A story waiting for a place to begin
Hands, laying all the best laid plans
But where do we leave our mark
In this life?

There is reference to original sin, echoing Eliot’s “Four Quartets”: “Torn, wearing the disease you mourn/Like a deep freeze it burns.” And then the promise and the hope is proffered: “Open up your eyes and come awake/You will be created now”—itself a reference, I’m quite certain, to the Apostle Paul’s various exhortations to rouse oneself from spiritual slumber and to be made a “new creation.” The language of redemption and salvation are shot through the entire album; in many ways, this is the most open and covert Christian album I’ve ever heard (up there with early King’s X), and the approach is perfectly balanced and executed.

“Mask Machine” laments the layers of deception inherent in the dominant, de-sacralized culture, “With love for sale and gold for dirt/I’ll worship every fleeting aching.” The song “Bombs Away” furthers the lament and confesses the sad state of the first and fallen nature: “Run by my instincts/I’m high on the freeway/And I’m scared I’ll come down.” But there is a recognition of the vocation to transcendence: “I’d love to be found” and, “I need to find a way beyond.”

The next four songs, “The Fury of My Love”, “A Place In Your World”, “Lost Without You”, and “One Love Forever” are love songs—but for whom? Or Whom? There is a certainly ambiguity in the first two, as if nodding to the face that earthly love is itself a reflection of heavenly love: “Singing I surrender/I surrender/Tearing all the walls away/I’m giving you a place.” but by “One Love Forever” the ambiguity is gone, replace by clarity and knowledge of the God-sized hole in the human heart: “One love forever/For one consuming hole inside/One love forever/… One love for all time/Is calling/Our eyes contain eternity.”

The final two songs, “Peaceful Harbor” and “Cosmic Symphony”, mark the apex of the redemptive ascent: arrival and contemplation. And the music, amazingly, more than matches the rather mystical topic at hand. “Peaceful Harbor” is soaring, ecstatic hymn: “I’ll look beyond/With this bedlam behind me/And I embrace the sky/My soul will cry/May your wind ever find me.” The final song is both prog heaven and, well, a hopeful glimpse of heaven: “I’m searchin’ for the air but I’m stuck here on the ground … And when I get to walk the streets/Without this burden on my feet/I know I’ve been called home…” The monumental final, three-part track, “Cosmic Symphony,” is a deeply emotional but resolute in nature. Once again, Eliot comes to mind (“Preludes” and “The Hollow Men” in particular), with references to scarecrows and cigarettes, with descriptions both abstract and apocalyptic: “Shrinking violet wounded by her mother/Old men sleep while porcelain screams take over/And the wolf disguises her undying lover.” There is a recognition, it seems, that redemption comes through recognizing our limits in this temporal realm: “I’m searching for the air but I’m stuck here on the ground now…” But the conclusion, again, is one of hope in the world beyond: “And when I get to walk these streets/Without a burden on these feet/I’ll know I’ve been called home…”

Secondly, as indicated, the music perfectly carries and conveys the rich lyrical content. We all know that these guys can play anything; what is especially striking to me is how they play as a band, for the sake of the music. There are no solos for the sake of solos; everything is at the service of the songs. Steve Morse, who I’ve been listening to for 30 years now, continues to amaze with his ability to play with such precision and economy, yet with such soulfulness. See, for example, his solos in “Peaceful Harbor” and “Cosmic Symphony”. Morse is always distinctly Steve Morse, and yet he has an uncanny—humble, really—ability to serve the music at hand (I also think of his masterful work on Kansas’ criminally underrated “In the Spirit of Things”). Neal Morse and Carey McPherson have apparently mind-melded as vocalists; at times it is hard to say who is singing, nor does it matter. The amount of energy and love they have poured into this album is obvious. Dave LaRue is the epitome of virtuoso bass playing that is rooted and melodic; his brief solo near the beginning of “Cosmic Symphony” is a piece of sheer beauty—again, at the service of the song. And Mike Portnoy’s playing is so very tasteful, with all sorts of meticulous detail.

In short, this is, for me, a magical album. Thank you, Flying Colors!

Coming soon: my jazz picks for 2o14…

6 thoughts on “From Carl’s Critical Kitchen: A Baker’s Dozen of Tasty Prog/Rock from 2014

  1. Bryan Morey

    Fantastic, Carl! I was under the impression that the Muse Live in Rome show was released in 2013, (even though I watched it earlier this year) and that’s why I didn’t have it in my “best of.”

    Amazing analysis of Second Nature! I desperately wanted to find spiritual depth to this album, especially with “Peaceful Harbor,” mainly because of Neal Morse’s influence. You have broken it down in such a beautiful way. Thank you!

    Like

    1. carleolson

      Bryan: Whoops! Your impression is fact: it was released in November 2013. I bought my copy early in 2014, and for some reason assumed it was released in ’14. Ah well, it deserves mention, I think.

      Thanks for the kind words re: my analysis. I think it would be fascinating to interview Neal and Carey (the primary lyricists) about the lyrics of the album. Hmmm.

      Like

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