One idea afoot in the online prog world I’ve only encountered since I began writing here is the thesis that live recordings shouldn’t be on reviewers’ “best of the year” lists. As I understand it, the basic idea is that live albums are: a) a different breed of cat than studio albums, and; b) not usually recorded in the year they’re released, so they’re not really from the year in question. (Commenters can certainly enlighten me if I’m misreading the idea, or have other reasons the thesis is valid.)
Two arguments I’d have against this idea are: 1) my Top Favorite album of 2017, King Crimson’s Live in Chicago, was released the same year it was recorded (and, since it was the best rock gig I’ve ever seen, deserved a “best of” listing), and; 2) given record companies’ release cycles, most studio albums from the first half of a given year were probably recorded during the year before anyway.
But it’s true that live albums are usually meant to be different than a studio album: a momento or snapshot of a band performing repertoire from their studio output, caught on a given night, nights or tour — Robert Fripp’s “hot date” as opposed to a more considered “love letter”. And live albums from an archive (be it a band’s or a corporation’s) are definitely more akin to a reissue than to new music.
Anyhow, without necessarily conceding the point, my favorite live recordings released in 2018 (separated out in their own post) follow the jump. But first, a graphic tease:
Big Big Train, Merchants of Light: Every bit as engrossing and impressive as Stone and Steel (my introduction to the band) and A Stone’s Throw from the Line. Captured live at London’s Cadogan Hall late in 2017, Big Big Train delivers highlights from the breadth of their Albion-themed albums with palpable heart, plenteous technical aplomb, and sweeping, joyous grandeur. Bring on the matching BluRay, BBT’s new studio album (promised for May), and 2020’s proposed North American shows, please! In the meantime, this is a taste of the Train that Passengers old and new should savor.
Haken, L-1ve: Haken went for it at the Amsterdam stop of their 10th anniversary tour –and they got something special. Even more ecstatic and energetic than their stunning studio albums — the unique mix of prog and metal, head-spinning vocal counterpoint and harmony coalesces into an breathtaking, unstoppable unity. To my ears, this CD/DVD combo is Haken’s ultimate statement to date, all strong melodies and killer licks.
Marillion, All One Tonight – Live at the Royal Albert Hall: when Marillion came to Grand Rapids this year, their fans followed them — including a lovely couple from England that my wife and I met before the show. In their view, Marillion’s 2017 Albert Hall show wasn’t necessarily their best — and since they’ve seen the band 70-plus times, they’re entitled to their opinion! To these eyes and ears, however, All One Tonight is a moving encapsulation of a well-earned celebration. Marillion plays F.E.A.R. in its entirety to the rapt capacity crowd, then powers through a selection of past highlights, with a chamber sextet adding fresh color and finesse. Everything that makes hearing Marillion in concert essential (including their devoted following) is right here.
The Neal Morse Band, The Similitude of a Dream Live in Tilburg 2017: Similitude was my favorite album from Neal Morse in quite some time, and this video of the whole shebang in concert does it justice. The NMB is a marvelously simpatico troop of unabashed virtuosos, reveling in the twists and turns of Morse’s fertile musical imagination — whiplash stylistic changes, super-heavy riffage, delectable pop harmonies, you name it. Even better, all the sound and fury unreels the narrative of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress with remarkable verve and impact. This jaw-dropping, thoroughly thrilling show bodes well for the NMB’s upcoming album The Great Adventure, as well as their early 2019 tour.
Van der Graaf Generator, Live at Rockpalast – Leverkusen 2005: A key 1970s British band that never broke into the mainstream, VdGG’s style was acerbic, obsessive and challenging from the word go. Reveling in collision and contradiction, at once sharp-edged and tender-hearted, out of control and in sync, the music Peter Hamill, David Jackson, Hugh Banton and Guy Evans made on this reunion tour was the equal of what had come before — urgent, authentic, a triumph of their unique approach and chemistry, done for all the right reasons. This CD/DVD is strong stuff, its rough edges are proudly on display, and it’s not for the faint of heart; yet it’s ultimately life-affirming and (to my mind) absolutely essential.
— Rick Krueger
P.S. My reviews of live shows and events I saw and heard in 2018:
- The Musical Box
- Bill Bruford
- Todd Rundgren’s Utopia
- Lake Street Dive
- MC50 Presents Kick Out the Jams
- Progtoberfest 4, Part 1
- Progtoberfest 4, Part 2