Another month of thoroughly enjoyable releases across the progressive spectrum from quiet to loud, from controlled to anarchic — often all in the same album! As always, order links are included in the artist/album title listing, and streaming audio or samples follow the review.
Cosmograf, Heroic Materials: Robin Armstrong’s latest concept album speaks softly and hits home hard. As a World War II fighter pilot recalls the challenge he rose to as a young man and laments the passing of his golden era, he also sounds the alarm about the challenges the generations who’ve followed have inherited. Throughout, Armstrong’s lyrics are simply stated yet deeply affecting, sung with real gravity and soul. And as the music patiently unreels, it becomes impossible to pick out a standout track; each brooding acoustic interlude, each stinging electric solo, each cinematic ebb and flow leaves its indelible mark. Elegiac in its evocation of past glories, urgent in its call to action today, breathtaking in its poised blend of fragility and strength, Heroic Materials is a riveting listen and a thing of beauty, already on my list of favorites for this year.
Dim Gray, Firmament: a Norwegian band that’s getting a broader push courtesy of Kingmaker Management, with an opening slot on Big Big Train’s recent tour (to say nothing of Oskar Holldorf’s filling BBT’s keyboards/backing vocals slot live) and their second effort released through the English Electric label. Kingmaker knows how to pick ’em; Holldorff, guitarist Hakon Høiberg and drummer Tom Ian Klungland whip up a mighty noise on Firmament’s 12 succinct tracks, with Holldorff and Høiberg’s ethereal, evocative singing launched above one swirling, quasi-orchestral crescendo after another. From opener “Mare” to finale “Meridian”, middle-aged farts like me might hear echoes of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, Brian Wilson’s pocket symphonies and Avalon-era Roxy Music, while younger listeners may catch hints of Fleet Foxes’ seamless, potent vocalises and Sigur Ros’ relentless ensemble builds. Whatever Dim Gray’s influences, the trio’s pin-sharp ensemble and pacing, thrilling sense of dynamics and undeniable gift for melody make for an arresting sound, with impressionistic lyrics that complement the sweep and yearning of the music. Here’s an album that not only dreams big, but actually delivers.
Steve Hackett, Genesis Revisited Live – Seconds Out & More: by my count, this is Hackett’s sixth live set since the Genesis Revisited concept revived his worldwide touring mojo a decade ago, beating out even Rush’s late career live output. Too much of a good thing? Arguably — but on the other hand, both Bryan Morey and I raved about this tour when it hit the Midwest this past spring, so I can also argue that more is better! With Amanda Lehmann complementing his usual merry men on second guitar, Hackett and band rip through a set of solo classics (and I wholeheartedly include Surrender of Silence tracks “Held In the Shadows” and “The Devil’s Cathedral” in that description) that climax with Lehmann’s floating vocals and Craig Blundell’s jaw-dropping drum workout on the vintage “Shadow Of The Hierophant”. Then it’s nirvana for Hackett-era Genesis fans, with the entirety of their 1977 live masterwork reprised (and sometimes gently, sometimes deliriously reimagined) in one go. Gorgeous sound whatever the format, and nicely hi-def visuals on the BluRay; it all does what it says on the cover, with Hackett’s usual flair and panache. See you next year for the Foxtrot At Fifty set?
King’s X, Three Sides of One: “Calling all saviors/And I’m shouting at God/Oh won’t you come and save us/Don’t you think we need you now/So let it rain, to wash the fear away.” dUg pinnick’s vocal testifies while his bass thunders, Ty Tabor’s guitars chime and howl like lightning, Jerry Gaskill’s drums crack open the earth and sky. And the apocalyptic “Let It Rain” is only the start for a trio that’s lost none of its power. King’s X’s first album in fourteen years, Three Sides of One’s rock is thick, gnarly, punchy and unbelievably tough no matter the tempo or texture, always locked into a sweet groove that carries you along. With Pinnick’s gospel-rooted shouts complemented by Tabor and Gaskill’s spindly, psychedelic harmonies, the band prowls the waterfront of life today, calling out the hucksters of “Festival” and the digital overlords of “Swipe Up”, commiserating with “all the lonely people” of “Give It Up” and “Holidays”. Stir in the drained cynicism of “Flood Pt. 1” and the dystopian parable “All God’s Children” and you have a compelling vision of societal despair. Human love (“Take the Time”, “She Called Me Home”) offers respite, but there’s no closure in sight; as pinnick preaches on the final track, “The whole world is crying for love/Every everywhere.” Lighting candles and cursing the darkness with alternate breaths, King’s X rocks on regardless — and I consider that heartening in and of itself.
David Longdon, Door One: this posthumous solo album (completed by co-producer Patrick Phillips) may surprise, less because of what is isn’t — no obvious chips from the Big Big Train workbench — than what it is: unexpectedly straightforward, first-rate adult pop. The single “Watch It Burn” rocks hard, courtesy of an all-star session team and Longdon’s dramatic vocal; as a songwriter, he deftly explores multiple styles, bringing tinges of folk (“There’s No Ghost Like An Old Ghost”), orchestral balladry (“Sangfroid”) and even musical theater (“The Singer and the Song”) into the mix. Throughout, past failures haunt the narrator until, demons exorcised in the epic “The Letting Go”, Longdon can finally proclaim that “Love Is All”, his beautifully confident voice accompanied by that Greg Spawton 12-string sound. It’s true that, given Longdon’s untimely passing, what might have been may still haunt the listener, but what remains for all of us to hear is an utter delight. Thoughtful, heartfelt and moving throughout, Door One is much more than a keepsake lamenting lost potential. Put simply, this is one fine, fine record. (Preorder now for October 14th release.)
The Mars Volta: I have to admit that, back when Steven Wilson was talking about the Mars Volta as the future of prog, I couldn’t get through one of their albums without developing a migraine. The everything-at-once overspill of Cedric Bixler-Lavala’s motormouth word salads and Omar Rodríguez-López’s slabs of psychedelic wah-wah guitar (not to mention non-stop whiplash changes of speed and soundscape) got me every time. In contrast, this self-titled opus is an MV album I can listen to — multiple times, in fact! Their lyrical approach of filtering personal and societal trauma through a surrealistic prism is still firmly in place — with titles like “Graveyard Love”, “Flash Burns from Flashbacks” and “Palm Full of Crux” how could it not be? But this time, the music is gracefully (!) shaped into a continuous cycle of 14 short songs, replete with propulsive Latin rhythms and soundbeds of appealing subtlety, plus actual vocal hooks and choruses. It’s the Mars Volta’s equivalent of Peter Gabriel’s So (or perhaps Wilson’s To The Bone), peeling back previous impenetrabilities, enticing us in — and possibly even showing us the heart of what they’re trying to communicate? Only repeated hearings will tell the tale.
Rich Ruth, I Survived, It’s Over: the last thing you’d expect from Jack White’s Third Man label would be an extended instrumental meditation on damage and healing — but here you go! Truth to tell, Nashville guitarist Ruth runs closer to spiritual jazz than anything else; the kick-off track “Taken Back” is reminiscent of nothing so much as the languorous opening moments of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. But don’t plan on getting too comfortable; Ruth’s super-fuzz riffs and the cavernous saxophone drones on “Desensitization and Reprocessing” seem to summon his personal demons rather than exorcising them, and the deep, driving beat Cameron Carrus’ upright bass and Reuben Gingrich’s drums conjure on “Heavy and Earthbound” ultimately collapses into a free-jazz squall of saxes and synth. Which makes the lush collage of “Thou Mayest” (Rich’s guitar floating atop Whit Wright’s pedal steel and a harp, a joyfully unhinged sax/flute/synth trade-off, a coda that plays off a radio preacher riffing on John 14, an Irish hymn tune) feel like a ray of sunlight breaking through the storm clouds. The stirring jubilation of “Angel Slide” and the bountiful, colorful minimalism of the finale “Doxology” cement I Survived, It’s Over’s place as a truly remarkable release. A kaleidoscopic mash-up of the sacred and the profane that commands your attention from start to finish; in Rich Ruth, The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus might finally have an American counterpart.
— Rick Krueger
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