What a year. I would guess that when historians look back to 2016, they will see it as a year of extreme violence and angry populism. Sadly, both the violence and the politics revealed themselves from time to time in the prog world, but not detrimentally so.
Life, dignity, and art remain, however, no matter what the politicians scream. And, praise the Lord we have good music to heal so many hurts of this broken world.
Glass Hammer, VALKYRIE. Not just the best GH album, but one of the greatest rock albums ever made. Susie has never sounded better, and GH has gone well beyond their comfort level to explore a full-blown novel in this terribly moving story. This album strikes that perfect—and all too elusive—via media, balancing beauty and innovation. VALKYRIE is, undoubtedly, my favorite album of the year.
In the next several spots, I have to wrestle with myself. Frankly, any ranking after VALKYRIE, would change day by day and, perhaps, even hour by hour. So, I offer the following loves.
Cosmograf, THE UNREASONABLE SILENCE. I’m starting to notice a theme in my choices. I love perfection, and I love the reach for excellence. Robin performs brilliantly on this Cosmograf release. He’s not just a master of all things chronometric, as he proven time and time again, but he’s a master of production, writing, and executing. This is The Wall meets the XFiles. At the moment, Armstrong just seems unstoppable. The last three albums remain in constant rotation in the Birzer house, and I never cease to wonder at how he continues his pace and his drive for all that is good. Run, Robin, run!
BBT, FOLKLORE. This album possesses some astounding moments. Not just astounding, frankly, but mind boggling. In particular, “Along the Ridgeway and “Salisbury Giant” is one (yes, it’s really one track, though divided in two) of the best songs of any genre and any time. Almost as striking are “The Transit of Venus Across the Sun” and “Winkie.” There are a couple of versions of the album, so beware. Make sure you purchase the 11-track version rather than the 9-track one. While the 9 tracks are good, the 11-track version is superior not only in number of tracks, but in the order of tracks as well. BBT also released a state of the art (yes, take this literally) Blu-ray package, STONE AND STEEL. The Americas (North and South) never got a proper version of this, sadly, but STONE AND STEEL is still well-worth owning. I can’t play it on my stand-alone Blu-ray player, but it plays just fine on my Mac. The packaging is rather fetching, not surprisingly, with a beautiful photobook and a few liner notes. As if unstoppable, BBT also released a live CD package at the end of 2016, A STONE’S THROW FROM THE LINE.
Fire Garden, FAR AND NEAR. Granted, it’s Chicago’s Zee Baig, so what is there not to love? Baig is a master songwriter and composer. And, he knows how to lead, and he knows how to bring the best out of those who follow. This release features some of the best musicianship you’re likely to encounter in 2016 (or any other year of the rock era). More progressive than the first release, FAR AND NEAR explores the melodic side of progressive metal. Fire Garden is THE standard in the genre. It doesn’t hurt that Jimmy Keegan drums, Bruce Soord mixes the album, and Jordan Rudess contributes some keyboards.
Neal Morse Band, SIMILITUDE OF A DREAM. For better or worse, I must admit that nothing that came out this year befuddled me as much as this rock opera. I wrote and then despised my first review of the album. The second review was better but still not quite right. I loved the direction of the previous album, THE GRAND EXPERIMENT, a perfect mixture of beauty and innovation. The first track on the extra CD, “Freedom is Coming,” was my favorite track of 2015, and I was very much hoping that it offered a glimpse of what was to come. There’s nothing even close to that track on the new album, though there’s a lot of diversity in the styles employed, especially on disk one. SIMILITUDE won’t, most likely, ever be regarded as beautiful, but it will be understood as very innovative, in the line of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR and TOMMY. The more I listen to it, the more I come to admire what NMB is doing. I’m truly sorry that it took me so long to understand, especially in that I decided to vent my frustrations in the first (now deleted) review. A poor choice on my part, and one for which I very much apologize. Not only has this album grown on me, but it moved from a place in my personal abyss to one of the five best releases—to my mind—of 2016. The NMB also released ALIVE AGAIN.
SAND, A SLEEPER, JUST AWAKE. Granted, I pretty much find everything Sam Healy does wonderful. But, this latest release is simply extraordinary. Much like Glass Hammer (though the types of music are radically different, one from another), Sam just gets better with age and experience. His voice is striking, and he knows how to employ it as a wise weapon of both innocence and wonder.
Part II, soon.