Album Review – The Aaron Clift Experiment – “The Age of Misinformation”

The Aaron Clift Experiment, The Age of Misinformation, 2023
Tracks: The Age of Misinformation (4:57), L.I.A.R. (5:14), Bet on Zero (10:43), Dark Secrets (3:35), Rise (5:55), The Color of Flight (5:45), Málaga (4:49), Weight of the World (5:47)
Players: Aaron Clift (vocals and keyboards), Anthony Basini (guitar), Clif Warren (bass), Pablo Ranlett-López (drums and percussion)

The Aaron Clift Experiment has gradually built themselves a solid following and growing respect in the prog world since their debut in 2012. The Austin-Texas proggers now have four studio albums and two live EPs under their belt.

On The Age of Misinformation, there are some glimpses of Steven Wilson/Porcupine Tree, 80s Rush, and Southern Empire. There are a variety of styles on the album, from heavy protest rock (“The Age of Misinformation”) to jazz fusion-ey rock (“Bet on Zero”).

The political nature of the opening track is a little in your face, which jarred me a bit at first, but the album pretty quickly settles down, and the melodies and musicianship promptly overrode my initial misgivings. It also helped to realize this record is more of a response to the overall experience of the last few years, rather than a political screed. I guess I’ve been so shaken by the same sorts of things the band is singing about that I’ve come to be repelled by any mention of it! Ha. But in the end, music is probably the best way to deal with these sorts of emotions. And what better way to do it than with a blend of hard rock, jazz, drum solos, and big band horns?

Oh yeah, did I mention there’s a drum solo on “Bet on Zero”? I can’t remember the last time I heard an extended drum solo on a new studio album. Great to hear. It reminded me a bit of Jethro Tull. In fact, musically the band reminds me a lot of Tull. Not because they necessarily sound just like Tull, but because they have that same approach of “we’ll try anything” to making music. There are lots of sounds used to wonderful effect. And lyrically they aren’t afraid to tackle difficult subjects, a fear Ian Anderson also has never had.

“The Color of Flight” is a quieter track with dense layering. Simple percussion, layered keyboards, violin. It’s a nice break from the heavier rock found on much of the rest of the album. “Málaga” has a strong Porcupine Tree influence, with a steady beat and keyboard atmospherics.

The variety on the record keeps this one interesting throughout. The album is under 50 minutes, but the different sounds and styles takes the listener on an exciting journey. The production value is high on the album, along with a very clear mix. The melodies and vocal lines are backed by intelligently placed guitar lines and backing instrumentation like the horns and violins. The result is very polished, making The Age of Misinformation certainly worth checking out.

https://www.aaronclift.com
https://theaaroncliftexperiment.bandcamp.com/album/the-age-of-misinformation
https://www.facebook.com/AaronCliftMusic/

Riverside Remind Us Who We Are – ID.Entity – Album Review

Riverside, ID.Entity, InsideOut Music, January 20, 2023
Tracks: Friend or Foe? (7:29), Landmine Blast (4:50), Big Tech Brother (7:24), Post-Truth (5:37), The Place Where I Belong (13:16), I’m Done With you (5:52), Self-Aware (8:43)

It’s been a long four and a half years since Riverside gave us their brilliant Wasteland, an album we seem to have been living in the years since its release. In 2019 I saw the band live for the first time, and I was blown away. It may have been the best concert I’ve ever attended. I was a fan before, but after that I became a FAN. I’m even a member of their fan club, Shelter of Mine, and I rank them up with Big Big Train as one of the finest bands in the progressive rock scene.

Perhaps you’re thinking there goes all objectivity in this review, and perhaps you’re right. Or perhaps Riverside really can do no wrong. I can think of very few bands that have never put out a bad album, especially over two decades of writing and touring. And yet here we are – their eighth album, multiple EPs, a few live albums (including one only available to fan club members), and they’re still putting out winners. Whether they’re heavy, quiet and atmospheric, or somewhere in the middle, Riverside have mastered all aspects of their sound.

Upon first listen, ID.Entity struck me as being a slightly new direction. I thought I remembered the band saying a couple years ago that their next album would be heavier, which made me think it might be more like Anno Domini High Definition, arguably their heaviest album to date. ID.Entity isn’t that heavy, but it’s heavier than Wasteland, which was, to be sure, a different album for Riverside. An excellent album, but different. Their first record without Piotr Grudziński on guitar, after his tragic passing in 2016, but before Maciej Meller joined them as a full member (he toured with them from 2017-2020, joining them as a full member in 2020). This album sounds like a more traditional Riverside album, with guitars taking a more prominent role again.

The more I listen to it, the heavier it sounds. The guitar riffing towards the end of “Big Tech Brother” is brilliantly headbangable. Michał Łapaj’s keyboards come in on top of that at the end, but it doesn’t lighten the sound at all. Łapaj’s touch on Riverside’s sound may be more recognizable than any other keyboardist in progressive metal, besides Jordan Rudess, of course. Łapaj’s signature Hammond along with his other synth sounds have long set Riverside apart from more generic progressive metal crunchers. I was especially impressed when I saw them live. He brings a real tube-powered Leslie speaker (or some similar speaker) to get an authentic Hammond sound out of his modern keyboard.

As usual, Mariusz Duda demonstrates why he’s one of the best bassists in the business. His crunchy bassline to open “I’m Done With You” is extremely satisfying, and it sets the stage for some grittier vocals in the chorus. Much of the song is stripped back a little, with pretty basic drums and a relatively simple bassline, but the guitar and keyboard lines are distinctly Riverside with a very catchy melody. Taken together, the song is actually pretty heavy.

You are not my judge
You are not my God
You are not my own CEO
Why don’t you simply shut your mouth
And take your poison from my soul
Far away

I’m Done With You

Some of the vocal lines on “The Place Where I Belong” are a bit crowded in the quieter parts of the song – a lot of words condensed into a smaller musical space. But it’s a long song – their longest since “Second Life Syndrome,” in fact. And yet the song delights in the final third with this heartfelt lyrical passage:

I don’t have to be the best
Feel pressure all the time
The ‘winner takes it all’ is not my thing
Stop comparing me to someone else’s dreams
Let me stay in the place where I belong
For your bar is set to high
I’m sorry, I’m getting out of this race
Don’t want to take my part
For your bar is set to high
I’m sorry ,I’m checking out of this race
Don’t want to share my part
For your bar is set to high
I’m sorry, I’m getting out of this race
Don’t want to take my part…

The Place Where I Belong

I suppose the ironic thing here is Riverside really are the best.

Lyrically this album touches on themes of disconnection from others via social media and the associated polarization, as well as themes of big tech and government overreach. Considering the band members grew up in the waning days of communism in Poland, their words of warning on “Big Tech Brother” should wake all of us up.

So what’s it like
To stick your head in the sand
To choose ignorance
“I’ve nothing to hide,” you say
“It’s all okay and fine”
Being tracked
Being parsed
Being mined
Modified
Being used
Being searched
Being lied to
Monetised
All that we’ve got
Is not for free at all

When this life for everyone becomes too hard
What we must give in return is a bit too much
Mass control

Big Tech Brother

“Post-Truth” deals with the frustrations of the constant news barrage designed to keep us all perpetually enraged. How do we go on living in a world like this?

In a constant lie
In a constant lie
I live
Can no longer tell
Days from nights

Post-Truth

All these ideas, along with the other songs on the album, share common themes related to how we interact with and through the digital world. How we relate to each other, how media entities influence us, how companies and governments spy on and control us. Extremely relevant lyrics that aren’t pushy but remain a call to wake up to what’s happening. It’s a message pleasantly packaged in Riverside’s signature style of hard progressive rock. Lyrics have been an integral part of Riverside’s appeal to me since I first began listening to them. Thankfully that streak continues on ID.Entity.

This album contains everything I love about Riverside. Duda’s stunning vocals, his intricate bass, Floydian drums, synthy soundscapes and driving organ, and the Floydy guitars. Riffs abound, making it a very enjoyable listening experience to rock out to. With all that, is it too early to declare ID.Entity THE album of 2023? Maybe it is, but other bands are going to have to work awfully hard to top this.

https://www.riversideband.pl/en/
https://riverside.lnk.to/IDEntityID

Album out Friday, January 20, 2023.

Barricane Release New Single, “Saltwater”

From the inbox this morning, we got sent this new single from UK-based band, Barricane. The group is a six-piece based around singer songwriters Rosy Piper and Emily Green. Also featuring Charlie Lane (bass), Chris Alchin (keyboard, acoustic guitar and synt), Hamish Wall (electric guitar), and Gary Neville (drums).

“Saltwater” packs a lot into a mere five minutes. It begins with atmospheric guitars and spacey drums with ethereal vocals over the top before gradually building. The real treat is the ending where the song shifts into a proggy synth space before the electric guitar comes in for a hard rock solo complete with a wall of drums. It’s great. Check it out.

https://barricane.bandcamp.com/track/saltwater
https://www.barricanemusic.com

Asia to Release “Fantasia” Live in Tokyo 2007 3 LP Set in February

Press Release:

Asia - Fantasia Live in TokyoMulti-platinum selling English supergroup ASIA announce they are to release for the first time ever on vinyl ASIA ‘FANTASIA, LIVE IN TOKYO 2007 as a 3LP set.  Recorded on Asia’s 25th anniversary 2007 world tour, and featuring the reformed original line-up, FANTASIA, LIVE IN TOKYO 2007 is to be issued on vinyl as a 3LP set with booklet, including band photos, and sleeve notes through BMG Records on 24th February 2023.  

Pre-order it here: https://asiaband.lnk.to/fantasia3LPPR 

Celebrating the 25th anniversary of ASIA’s formation, this exciting 18-track live show from their 2007 world tour features the reformed original line-up pooling the talents of lead vocalist/bassist John Wetton (King Crimson), Steve Howe (guitars, Yes), Geoff Downes (keyboards, Yes and Buggles) and drummer Carl Palmer from Emerson, Lake & Palmer. 

The setlist focusses on their globally successful 1982 debut album Asia and features key tracks Only Time Will Tell, Sole Survivor and their worldwide anthem Heat Of The Moment along with select tracks from their second LP Alpha and one song each from the band members’ previous bands – Video Killed The Radio Star, Roundabout, Fanfare For The Common Man and The Court Of The Crimson King. 

Album artwork is by legendary designer Roger Dean, who produced all the ASIA original albums covers.   Continue reading “Asia to Release “Fantasia” Live in Tokyo 2007 3 LP Set in February”

Album Review – Haven of Echoes “The Indifferent Stars”

Haven of Echoes, The Indifferent Stars, 2022
Tracks: Sirensong (6:11), The Orator’s Gift (4:49), Stasis (5:31), Endtime (9:03), The Lord Giveth… (6:02), Let Them In (12:15)

UK and German duo Haven of Echoes have created a compelling blend of moody synth and bass-based prog. The group is a new project featuring UK-based Paul Sadler on vocals and electric guitar and Germany-based Andreas Hack on all other instruments. Sadler wrote the lyrics and vocal lines while Hack wrote and arranged the music, as well as produced and mixed the album. Their music is perhaps best described as melancholic progressive rock. Sadler is known for his work with progressive metal band Spires, while Hack is known for his work with Frequency Drift. The band was joined by electric harpist Nerissa Schwarz (Frequency Drift) on “Stasis” and “The Lord Giveth…”, the latter of which she wrote.

The opening of the record quickly shows how Hack has no intention of making “The Indifferent Stars” sound like a typical “prog” album. While one might be tempted to start the record with some soaring guitars, Hack chose a wall of drums with strings filling in the rest of the space. As the album progresses, it becomes clear that the approach to rock music is a bit more roundabout. Bass and drums create a solid rhythm section, but even the bass is very understated. The layers of synth sounds and Sadler’s layered vocals are what drive the record forward. The balance of delicate sounds with heavier broodiness create a unique and compelling sound.

“Endtime” has a melancholic brood to it with an interesting chant style to the singing in the second half. The song starts more upbeat before taking a dramatic turn in the second half. Sadler’s voice really shines, with his vocal layering done very well. A lot of times a singer harmonizing with himself doesn’t work very well, for me at least because it sounds so obvious, but Sadler sings in a couple different styles, which almost makes it sound like there are multiple vocalists. As such the vocal performances on the entire record stand out and make it an album worth listening to. On top of that, Sadler’s lyrics are interesting and intelligent, drawing the listener into reflection.

All man’s desire is nothing but fire

“Endtime”

As the longest track on the album, “Let Them In” has room to move through various musical themes. It can be elegant and gentle one minute with vocals over calm piano, while the next minute it’s building on top of heavier guitar, bass, darker piano, and a wall of synths. Before you know it, it’s back in a calmer space built on a layer of cleaner piano, bass, and guitars. The closing guitar solo real seals the deal.

The album was superbly mixed by Hack. There’s a lot of depth and clarity in the mix. There is a layered effect to it that invites you to dig deeper on repeated listens. There’s much to uncover in the subtle bass, dancing cymbals, and myriad keyboard sounds.

If I had a complaint, it would be the lack of electric guitar leads. Sadler only plays on the last track, and his solo is very good. I think it would have added another layer to the album if he played throughout. The record gets its depth and heaviness from a mix of moody synths and low bass. There’s nothing wrong with that – in fact the result is very interesting. But some more guitar solos wouldn’t have hurt either.

It’s clear that Sadler and Hack are an extremely dynamic duo. Sadler’s lyrics and vocal talent are a perfect match to Hack’s musicianship and skill as a producer and mixer. The band’s sound is built by a wall of sound, combining all the instruments to create an effect, rather than any particular instrument standing at the forefront. Their goal is more about the overall sound than the individual parts, as it should be. The result is worthy of your time and attention.

https://havenofechoes.com
https://frequencydrift.bandcamp.com/album/the-indifferent-stars

An Evening with Lingua Ignota

Lingua Ignota, Live at Union Transfer
Philadelphia, PA
December 15, 2022
8:30 pm

Concert review by Bob Turri

We arrived a half hour early or so on a rainy, dreary Thursday night in Philadelphia. Lingua Ignota, the enigmatic singer/multi-instrumentalist was scheduled to play two sets. In some ways a perfectly fitting scenario as to what we were about to experience. Lingua Ignota’s most recent album, Sinner Get Ready is a stunner of an album. Using central Pennsylvania as a backdrop, it evokes an emotional sound with religious overtones and conflicting emotions. I first read about Lingua Ignota in Prog Magazine. The reviewer mentioned some of the Pennsylvania references, wondering why an artist like this would choose to live there, but also ended the review by saying you should at least listen to the album once. This piqued my interest, and I ordered the album directly from her website. Her voice is somewhat Nico-esque but the emotional delivery and range is what hooked me. There is almost a reverent quality to her sound steeped in dark mysticism.

Union Transfer was the Spaghetti Warehouse prior to being turned into one of Philadelphia’s hippest musical nightspots. Because of the cavernous nature of the venue, the sound quality has been questionable in the past, but on this night, there was only a piano in the center of the stage with one spotlight on it. An email was sent on the day of the show letting attendees know the show would start on time. Not much after 8:30 the lights went dim, my eyes focused on the stage waiting for Lingua Ignota’s entrance. Much to my surprise a lone light shaped like a candlestick with a beaming almost fluorescent light at the top appeared in the middle of the floor and there was Lingua Ignota breaking into her first song, sung a cappella, which sounded like an African-American spiritual.

After finishing she quietly moved through the crowd and entered the stage, sat at her piano and started playing. The piano strings had been treated with metal objects and chains which gave a somewhat dissonant percussive sound as she struck the keys. She played a number of songs, mostly new, as far as I could tell, and went from one song to the other. The audience, mostly made of art school graduates or attendees, with some older folks thrown in to boot, was mostly transfixed throughout the first set and barely clapped, yelled or said anything. Lingua Ignota was completely silent except for her singing and piano playing. She ended the first set with a magnificent version of the Gavin Bryar song ìJesusí Blood Never Failed Me Yetî, and left the stage.

After a short break the second set began. This was different using taped music, piano, additional vocals, and possibly synthesizers, holding court utilizing the candle stick beaming lights, adjusting them now and again, and singing her head off, although her voice sounded like it might need a rest as she has been on tour for a while. There is a somewhat perplexing quality to her stage show and visuals. The projection screen throughout the second set consisted of Christian evangelical gatherings, spontaneous baptisms, people I’m guessing speaking in tongues, and evangelical preachers in a constant loop.

Her lyrics dive into religious topics and icons such as Jesus Christ, Satan, blood, the body, and the sacraments. It almost felt at times like being at a church service, but it was difficult to discern what the sermon was. Anti-Christian, pro-spirituality, or just a commentary on how religion can either guide or misguide people. It’s difficult to say but the way the music, singing and lyrics are presented, in such an emotional heartfelt way its hard not to get caught up in this.

In the same email that told everyone to get to the show on time it mentioned that Lingua Ignota was considering dropping her stage moniker and using her real name, Kristin Hayter. I think this would be a good idea as the Lingua Ignota persona may have reached a limit and it would be very interesting to see what this dynamic performer and singer might do next. The second set ended with an encore of the Dolly Parton song, “Jolene.” Again, her beautiful voice, expressed in many different octaves was captivating. The crowd during the end of the second set started to wake up, catcalls, whistles, and yelps began to be heard, and Ms. Hayter thanked the Philly contingent and said this time around was much better than the last visit. It’s tough to shake off our demons, but if there is one artist worth watching, you might want to tune in.

https://linguaignota.net/home

Bryan’s Best of 2022

This year has been an interesting one for me musically. For much of the middle of the year I was absorbed by older progressive metal music, primarily diving into back catalogs for Meshuggah, Pain of Salvation, TesseracT, and Caligula’s Horse. I found that I wasn’t as compelled by more traditional “prog rock,” at least not in its shorter forms. I did find myself enjoying some of the longer form tracks, like Lobate Scarp’s “Flowing Through The Change” and Ryo Okumoto’s “The Myth Of The Mostrophus.” Much of my favorite new music leaned towards post-progressive music, with a few more traditional picks thrown in as well. I’ve reviewed a lot of music this year and listened to far more, some of which would have made a best-of list in years past where I listened to less music. Alas.

The following order is relatively arbitrary apart from my top album at the end.

GH-2022-cover-1080px-PREVIEWGlass Hammer – At The Gate
The third record in Glass Hammer’s Skallagrim trilogy of fantasy albums doesn’t disappoint. In fact in may be the best of the trilogy. Equal parts heavy and proggy, I think my favorite parts are when the band goes full Rush. You don’t hear many bands really showing a mature Rush influence (as opposed to hearing elements of a Rush sound), and it was great to hear it on this album.

tangent-hard-shoulderThe Tangent – Songs From The Hard Shoulder
The Tangent returned this year with a collection of prog epics (and one R&B, disco, funk track), sure to thrill longstanding fans and possibly scare away the uninitiated. Check out my review of the album: https://progarchy.com/2022/06/28/album-review-the-tangent-songs-from-the-hard-shoulder/. Check out Rick Krueger’s interview with Andy Tillison, as well: https://progarchy.com/2022/05/27/andy-tillison-the-progarchy-interview/.

Lobate Scarp - You Have It AllLobate Scarp – You Have It All
This record was a long time in the making for Lobate Scarp and it’s mastermind, Adam Sears. The record masterfully blends prog with pop sensibility, all while bearing a strong Spock’s Beard influence. My favorite song is the 17-minute “Flowing Through The Change.” Beyond that, I’ve found many of the uplifting lyrics from other tracks running through my mind over the course of the year. Check out Time Lord’s review: https://progarchy.com/2022/05/06/album-review-you-have-it-all-by-lobate-scarp/.

a0006828710_10Dave Brons – Return to Arda
Dave Brons recently released a follow-up to his 2020 Tolkien-influenced record, Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost. Return to Arda looks at nature within Tolkien’s “Middle-Earth” through a celtic progressive rock lens. Featuring vocals from Sally Minnear, and mixing by Dave Bainbridge. Check out the album on Bandcamp: https://davebrons.bandcamp.com/album/return-to-arda.

Gabriel Keller - Clair ObscurGabriel Keller – Clair Obscur
I reviewed quite a few albums from France this year, and this record was my favorite of those. It contains a blend of English and French lyrics with multiple vocalists. The album has a variety of styles, gradually getting darker and heavier as it goes along. Check out my review: https://progarchy.com/2022/11/13/gabriel-kellers-stunning-musical-journey-clair-obscur/.

8716059014463-cover-zoomInhalo – Sever
I reviewed this debut album from the Dutch proggers for the Dutch Progressive Rock Page earlier this year, and it was a very pleasant surprise for me. It reminded me of TesseracT if they were playing just hard rock and not metal. Very atmospheric with a mature sound. I love their wall-of-sound approach. It’s a solid record, and I look forward to more music from the band. Check out my DPRP review: https://www.dprp.net/reviews/2022/071.

Big Big Train - Welcome to the PlanetBig Big Train – Welcome To The Planet
This record was bittersweet, being the final Big Big Train record to feature David Longdon on lead vocals. It was also an album of change for the band, with new member Carly Bryant taking a more prominent role on the record compared to Common Ground released a mere six months earlier. The record contains a pleasant blend of the band’s more accessible bits as well as their proggy moments. “Capitoline Venus” is a touching love song, while “Oak and Stone” fits in a long tradition of Big Big Train’s pastoral contemplative tracks. The title track is a bit unlike anything we’ve heard from the band, at least during Longdon’s tenure, reflecting Bryant’s new influence. It took me a few listens, as it took me by surprise at first. But once I “got” it, I really came to enjoy it. Check out my review: https://progarchy.com/2022/01/19/album-review-big-big-trains-welcome-to-the-planet/; and check out Rick’s review too: https://progarchy.com/2022/01/21/ricks-quick-takes-for-january/.

Big Big Train Summer Shall Not FadeBig Big Train – Summer Shall Not Fade
The band’s 2018 performance at the Night of the Prog in Loreley, Germany, has been a bit legendary amongst the band’s fans for years, and I suspect the band decided to release it this year due to Longdon’s tragic passing last year. The concert finds the “classic” lineup of the band playing at or near their best in front of a very large crowd. We’re reminded of how great a frontman Longdon really was. It’s a pleasant way to remember this part of the band’s history. Check out my review: https://progarchy.com/2022/11/05/big-big-train-summer-shall-not-fade/.

Bjørn Riis Everything to EveryoneBjørn Riis – Everything To Everyone
This record dominated my listening early in the year. Riis is an excellent guitarist, and his atmospheric rock is always compelling. Every one of his solo albums is worth listening to for his music, vocals, and lyrics. His albums are melancholic, like most of the progressive rock I’ve heard from Norway. Check out my review: https://progarchy.com/2022/05/09/album-review-bjorn-riis-everything-to-everyone/.

dt-lightwork-front-coverDevin Townsend – Lightwork/Nightwork
Devin may have gone quieter on Lightwork, but the album displays his talent as well as any of his records. His skills as a mixer, writer, composer, guitarist, and singer are on full display. The companion album, Nightwork, has some heavier moments, perhaps to soothe parts of his fan base. Either way, both records are great. Check out my review: https://progarchy.com/2022/12/22/devin-townsend-lights-the-night-lightwork-and-nightwork/.

meshuggah-immutableMeshuggah – Immutable
It has taken me close to a decade of listening to progressive metal before I was able to finally get into Meshuggah, and it happened this year! I’ve long known about them and respected them, but I just couldn’t get it. Maybe me getting into Devin Townsend’s more extreme side over the past couple years helped open that door, but I’m now a big Meshuggah fan. I could even hear a Meshuggah riff (from “Demiurge”) coming from my knife and cutting board when I was chopping celery last week. “Immutable” is a fantastic record, finding the band tweaking their sound a bit without changing their substance at all. “Broken Cog” is heavy, brooding, and atmospheric. The scream of “broken cog” close to the end is absolutely epic. Check out Mahesh Sreekandath’s review: https://progarchy.com/2022/11/25/immutable/.

Porcupine-Tree-–-Closure-ContinuationPorcupine Tree – Closure Continuation
I didn’t get into Porcupine Tree until after their hiatus following 2009’s “The Incident” and subsequent tours. I had no real expectations for this record, since Porcupine Tree has played a lot of different styles over the course of their long career. I kept an open mind, and I was highly rewarded. This album is pure Porcupine Tree without feeling like it’s trying to create a certain sound. It’s just what came about from the members writing and playing together on occasion over the past decade. Upon reflection, I think my dislike for some of Steven Wilson’s poppier solo work might be tempered if he continues to make music like this in other outlets. Check out Rick Krueger’s review of the band’s live show in Chicago: https://progarchy.com/2022/09/23/porcupine-tree-in-concert/.

marillion-ahbitd-1Marillion – An Hour Before It’s Dark
Another record that dominated my listening early in the year. This record is almost as good as 2016’s F.E.A.R. Perhaps not quite, but it is close. It’s one I’ll likely enjoy for years to come. Well written music and lyrics (for the most part – I have my beefs with one track) that ponder the turmoil of the last few years. It’s a hopeful album that has some calls to reflect and change our ways. In the end, it makes you think, as all good art should. Check out my review: https://progarchy.com/2022/03/27/we-still-have-time-marillions-message-of-hope-an-hour-before-its-dark/.

Oak - The Quiet Rebellion of Compromise1. Oak – The Quiet Rebellion Of Compromise
Oak never disappoint me. Their latest record finds them evolving their sound a little bit, but it is still definitively Oak. Their layered soundscapes, haunting vocals, and thoughtful lyrics have kept them at the top of my list of favorite newer bands since I first heard them in 2016, and they’ve only confirmed that for me with this record. They’re a band that deserves far more recognition from the prog world. Check out my review: https://progarchy.com/2022/12/14/oaks-third-masterpiece-the-quiet-rebellion-of-compromise/.


steven-wilson_limited-edition-of-one_bookMy favorite prog book of the year was Steven Wilson’s Limited Edition of One. Breaking the mold of rock artist memoirs, Wilson (and Mick Wall, who helped him in the writing process) created a post-modern masterpiece. I typically dislike anything deconstructive (in an academic sense), but Wilson turned it into an art form. He combines memories with lists of his favorite music, books, and movies along with more philosophical commentary on his career and on music in general. Check out my full review of the book: https://progarchy.com/2022/05/08/more-than-a-memoir-steven-wilsons-limited-edition-of-one/.

I only went to one concert this year: Steve Hackett. Interestingly, Hackett was the last concert I saw before governments shut everything down for Covid. The band played the Seconds Out setlist, along with some of his solo tracks. It was a brilliant show, with Hackett clearly demonstrating that his band is the best thing touring right now. He even released a live album from the tour that is well worth checking out. Check out my concert review: https://progarchy.com/2022/04/27/live-again-steve-hackett-plays-st-louis-4-26-22/. And check out Rick’s concert review too: https://progarchy.com/2022/05/06/steve-hackett-in-concert-from-spectral-surrender-to-seconds-out/.

This best-of list feels woefully incomplete considering how much excellent music was released this year… Muse, The Flower Kings, Six by Six, Ryo Okumoto, The Bardic Depths, Cosmograf – all great records, but the above list really captured my attention for one reason or another.

Hopefully 2023 will be another great year for prog. As usual for me, music has been an escape, a sedative, a lighthouse in the storm. With 2022 being one of the most difficult years of my life, music provided much needed comfort and direction over the course of the year. I suspect that will continue in the new year.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, everyone. Thanks so much for reading.

Devin Townsend Lights the Night – “Lightwork” and “Nightwork”

Devin Townsend, Lightwork, 2022, Inside Out Music/Hevy Devy Records

Lightwork Tracks: Moonpeople (4:44), Lightworker (5:29), Equinox (4:39), Call of the Void (5:53), Heartbreaker (7:00), Dimensions (5:23), Celestial Signals (5:12), Heavy Burden (4:23), Vacation (3:10), Children of God (10:06)

Nightwork Tracks: Starchasm, Pt. 2 (4:34), Stampys Blaster (0:38), Factions (5:13), Yogi (3:57), Precious Sardine (10:14), Hope is in the World (4:16), Children of Dog (6:45), Sober (4:37), Boogus (3:33), Carry Me Home (4:04)

Devin Townsend seems to be the most eclectic artist operating in what could broadly be called the progressive music scene. He’s most well known for his work as a metal artist, having some of the finest clean and distorted vocals in the business. He’s also a stellar guitarist and an even better producer. Beyond the metal, he’s long dabbled in ambient music, and as of late he’s been blending the two together to marvelous effect. 2019’s Empath was a masterpiece demonstrating that extreme metal, musical theater, opera, and ambient music can blend into a powerful and moving epic.

Last year he released The Puzzle, a minor release that is primarily ambient with vocals serving more of an instrumental role, meaning it was more about the sound than the actual lyrics. That record reflected Devin’s mind as he processed the Covid-19 pandemic, especially the early phases of it. At the same time he released Snuggles, a shorter ambient album whose goal was to calm and soothe the listener. I can state from personal experience that it does just that. It’s a great antidote to anxiety and depression.

Last month found Devin releasing his latest “major” release, Lightwork, along with its slightly heavier companion album, Nightwork. His intention was to go lighter on this record, although the metal elements still pop up now and again, especially in the vocals, which vary from clean to distorted depending on what the songs need. It’s a very different record than Empath. I hesitate to call it “pop,” as that might conjure up images of Steven Wilson’s The Future Bites. I think there are some interesting parallels between Townsend and Wilson that are worth exploring in a future article, but Townsend’s approach to pop (for lack of a better word) is far more introspective than Wilson’s. Wilson often wears his influences on his sleeve, while still creating a signature sound. Townsend creates his own sound, incorporating elements from myriad genres to make music that sounds like no one else. If Lightwork can be called pop, it is because it is more accessible than some of Townsend’s other work. It still remains complex in its layering, lyrical themes, and overall sound.

Lightwork has less of a flow to it, with the focus being more on the actual songs. With the wall of sound approach Devin is known for, there is some blending together between tracks, so it never feels disjointed. There is a loose overall theme to the record of love and light – a port in the storm, as it were. Musically it ebbs and flows. “Lightworker” has some epic soaring vocal moments with orchestral layers and backing vocals, not dissimilar from bits of Empath. Devin holds nothing back vocally.

“Equinox” sees Devin delving into his more atmospheric rock side while incorporating memorable melodies. The use of distorted vocals in parts of the song is a contrast to the spacier elements of the music, but since Devin’s distorted vocals are easy to understand (one of the reasons he’s my favorite metal vocalist), it works really at conveying the emotion of the lyrics.

The world is gonna turn without you baby
Don’t worry about a thing it’s all a game

Just as it’s falling apart, I’ve fallen for you
Just as I tear it apart, I’ve fallen for you

Though we try to pretend that it’s not the end
It keeps us calm now babe

“Equinox”

This is easily my favorite song on the record. It’s relatively simple, but the intricate layers and vocal work draw me in every time. I feel like I’m standing in a giant open space surrounded by stars and a dancing aurora as the music swells over my head. Perhaps that’s a testament to Devin’s unmatched skill on the mixing board.

From the very beginning going back to his Strapping Young Lad days, Townsend has always been blisteringly brutal and honest in his lyrics. Those lyrics reflected his emotional state at the time. His lyrics today are equally emotional and honest, but they’re so much more uplifting and hopeful. “Call of the Void” calls the listener to maintain composure in the face of the world’s insanity. Devin’s voice leads the charge with soulful grit.

Cause whеn you see the world’s insane reaction
To follow your hеart, the worst reaction is to freak out
So don’t you freak out
Cause when you feel the urge to feign reaction
Just follow your heart, the worst reaction is to freak out
So don’t you freak out
 
You want them to see the world the same as you and
To feel the pain the same as you
But everybody in the world’s different point of view
Can never see the world the same

“Call of the Void”
 

“Dimensions” is a heavier track with an industrial sound. The bass, courtesy of Jonas Hellborg, dominates. The song is metal, but not in a traditional sense. It’s closer to a band like Rammstein than Iron Maiden. The screamed section is sung over a quieter section of music, and when his vocals step into the background, the music gets louder. An interesting back and forth. The song also features a guitar solo from Mike Keneally.

“Celestial Signals” follows it with a much larger and more open sound, flinging us back amongst the stars in swirling guitars and swelling vocals from both Devin, the choir and Ché Aimee Dorval and/or Anneke van Giersbergen (both sing on both records, and usually it’s easy to tell the difference, but the backing vocals on this track are set pretty deep into the mix).

The final track, “Children of God,” is the longest at just over ten minutes. It also has a large and open sound with lyrics dancing on a cliff of blended sounds, with drums being the most distinct.

Lightwork is hard to nail down as any one “thing.” There’s so much going on. “Vacation” is in direct opposition to “Heavy Burden,” and yet somehow it works. Devin’s quirkiness keeps you on your toes.


While Nightwork may be a companion album, it’s every bit as good, or maybe better. As the name may imply, the album is heavier than Lightwork. It opens with a more straightforward “Devin” metal track. Blasting drums (thanks Morgan Ågren), crunching guitars, and both Devin and Anneke on vocals. Steve Vai also contributes “additional instrumentation” to “Starchasm, Pt. 2.” For those curious about “Pt. 2,” “Starchasm” is a track on last year’s The Puzzle. “Stampys Blaster” picks right up with a 38 second bit of uplifting heavy metal bordering on extreme metal with intense blast beats, all while Devin sings “I love you all.”

“Factions” is another blistering metal track with brilliantly complex drumming and Devin’s signature crunchy guitars and vocals. It’s lightyears away from Lightwork, yet it’s right at home in the Devin universe. The atmospheric screams of “Sorry… I’m sorry…” over a wall of drums is eminently relatable. The song has two neoclasslical style shredding guitar solos that sound different from Devin’s playing, but the album notes don’t say they were played by anyone else, so…

Nightwork does bounce around in style, though, with “Yogi” being a different animal entirely. Quirky, bouncy, not metal at all, but still definitely Devin. “Precious Sardine” reminds me of The Puzzle, with various musical styles and vocals acting more like background instruments. “Hope is in the World” and “Children of Dog” (a reworking of “Children of God”) are more upbeat tracks like Lightwork. They retain metal elements, but they’re brighter songs.

“Sober” is my favorite track off both albums. It is atmospheric, spacey, and intensely emotional. The backing sound of waves add to the ebb and flow of the song. The lyrics are profoundly moving, reflecting the confusion and desperation of addiction as it relates to relationships:

How can you want me, if I can’t stay sober?
And how could you leave me in this state?

I can’t help these feelings that have come into my life
I can’t seem to be the one I used to want to fight

How can you want me, if I can’t stay over?
And how could you leave me in this place?

Time is falling into silence
I’m already tired
All the dreams we had are dying
You’re not even trying

It’s alright

How can you want me, if I can’t stay sober?
And how could you leave me in this state?

How could you leave me?

“Sober”

It’s a very reflective song, which is slightly disturbed by the next song, “Boogus.” “Boogus” is a very fun song made in a distinctly 1960s style reminding me of The Munsters sound track. It’s very fun, and not a style you hear much anymore. But, I think it should have been placed somewhere else on the album, with “Carry Me Home” following “Sober” to close the record. “Carry Me Home” is a peaceful track reflecting the realities of a couple’s love after many years into a relationship:

But oh, I hope you understand
I still love you now the way I did back then

“Carry Me Home”

Mental health has been a prominent theme in Devin’s lyrics in the past, especially in more recent years with his positivity seemingly meant to uplift his listener’s spirits.

‘Cause it’s so hard to give when it’s hard enough to live
And you wanna die, defeat flat on the floor
Well, the nights go by, and still we try to keep some sense of this
Give me hope
Home, on the way home
And I wonder why I ever left at all
Carry me home, all the way home
Let’s simplify and get right back to it all
Carry me home…

“Carry Me Home”

Sometimes life is just hard, and we need someone to carry us home.


In many ways, Nightwork is my favorite of the two records, despite it being a companion. Perhaps the heaviness of the first few tracks is more my speed, or the atmospheric brilliance and honesty of “Sober” and “Carry Me Home” keep running through my head. I find it hard to separate the two albums. I bought the fancy special edition in a vinyl gatefold-sized package (2 CDs, 1 blu-ray) with colorful artwork for days, and my iTunes automatically put Nightwork as disc two of the deluxe edition of Lightwork, rather than a separate album.

The variety of musical sounds on these albums might not be for everyone, but I appreciate the art Townsend is making. He’s making the music he feels like making, even if he knows (and worries) that it may upset some people. His sensitivity shines through, and if you keep an open mind, you’ll find a lot to enjoy while broadening your musical horizons. For those turned off in the past to Devin’s heavier side, Lightwork is a must-listen. I think you’ll find it much more accessible, and perhaps you too can come to more fully appreciate the brilliance of Devin Townsend. He is, after all, one of the most interesting artists in music. Everything he makes is worth paying attention to. As such, I recommend you get one of the editions that includes both albums, rather than just Lightwork.

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Oak’s Third Masterpiece – “The Quiet Rebellion of Compromise”

Oak, The Quiet Rebellion Of Compromise, 2022, Karisma Records,
Tracks:
Highest Tower, Deepest Well (5:57), Quiet Rebellion (4:51), Dreamless Sleep (5:37), Sunday 8 AM (5:54), Demagogue Communion (6:16), Paperwings (13:52), Guest of Honour (7:03)

Oslo’s Oak have been my favorite “new” band since I discovered them in 2016 when they released their 2013 album, Lighthouse, on CD. The album blew me away. I had never before heard rock, classical, and atmospheric music synthesized with such precision and in such a beautiful way. I was equally if not more stunned with their 2018 follow-up, False Memory Archive. It continued their sound, and it saw the band mature as they developed their wall of sound, their compositions, and their arrangements.

In November the band released The Quiet Rebellion of Compromise, a masterpiece standing toe-to-toe with both their previous releases and any release from the giants of the genre (I’m looking at you Marillion, Porcupine Tree/Steven Wilson, Big Big Train). Upon first listen I thought perhaps this record didn’t live up to its predecessor, but that was based upon my mild shock at some of the new elements the band added to their sound. After a few listens, their brilliance convinced me. I don’t typically rate albums for my Progarchy reviews, but in this case I give it a 10 out of 10.

This record includes the atmospheric overtones, the piano, the swelling rock sounds, singer Simen Valldal Johannessen’s deep brooding vocals and his evocative lyrics – everything the previous albums contained. But they’ve included more of the electronic influence to their sound on this record. While always there, it is more pronounced, especially on “Paperwings.” Typically not a genre I listen to, I wasn’t sure how to respond to the electronic elements at first, but after careful listens, I came to appreciate how it fit into the music and into the band’s sound.

Another element I did not expect was the introduction of black metal-style distorted vocals. I don’t listen to black metal, but I’m familiar with the unique form of distortion those vocalists use. It’s different from the type of metal I typically listen to, which tends to use either a grittier distortion (Meshuggah) or a higher-end distortion (Devin Townsend). Black metal vocals are low and smooth, befitting Johannessen’s natural singing voice. To be clear, he uses it on four lines on “Paperwings,” and considering the lyrical content of the album, it fits perfectly. The album covers intense themes of mental health and suicide, with the font used on the album cover based upon handwriting from actual suicide notes. Chilling, to say the least. But the band did their research, consulting scholars and mental health professionals. All that to say, the distorted vocals, while new to Oak’s sound, are used sparingly and to great effect when you consider these lyrics in the light of suicidal thoughts:

One thought takes hold
Seeps out rules all
Lights fade, time bends
One step so it ends

Oak – “Paperwings”

It took me over ten listens before I picked up on distorted growls deep in the mix on other tracks, not singing any particular lyrics – just adding to the band’s wall of sound. I think it appears in two places, and it’s very subtle. I’ll let you listen for it.

I appreciate how the band reach back into their previous work and pull in brief lyrical and musical excerpts, tying this record to those others and creating a sense of continuation. In doing so, Oak create their own mystique – a musical world you can fall into and feel like you’re somewhere else. Interestingly, it makes me feel connected to potential future albums as well.

Musically Oak blows me away. Whether its Johannessen’s soothing piano, Sigbjørn Reiakvam’s intricate drumming, Stephan Hvinden’s atmospheric guitars, or Øystein Sootholtet’s basswork (as well as acoustic and electric guitar and keyboards) – this band stands out. Steinar Refsdal adds some wonderful saxophone, which dances nicely atop the wall of sound created in the swelling instrumental passages that have become a signature part of Oak’s sound.

One of my favorite parts on the album is the bassline in the second half of “Sunday 8 AM.” The first half of the song is a bit of slow burn for me, but when it hits the instrumental part halfway through, I’m in musical heaven. The drums sing, the piano and keyboards build gently, and then that deep bassline comes in – wow. The musical highlight of the year for me. Even when the saxophone comes in on top of that, it’s the bass that steals the show with a memorable line that makes you want to skip back to the beginning of the instrumental passage once the song ends. I can’t even imagine how amazing this would be live.

I’ve mentioned the “wall of sound” a couple of times. What I mean by that is the way the band layer and gradually add (or subtract) musical elements to create a sound more majestic and powerful than any of the parts taken in isolation. Devin Townsend and Steven Wilson are masters of this sound, and I would place Oak up with them in terms of quality and its prominence on their records. It also helps that the album is mixed very well. There is a lot of dynamic range, with the record sounding very clear. They’ve also played a bit with the stereo mix, with some of the programmed sounds or percussion dancing around the mix.

The band use a variety of sounds, some of which have become staples in their music – percussion sounds I haven’t heard other bands use, thus making Oak’s music instantly identifiable for me. By including them on this record, I feel a sense of nostalgia to when I first started listening to Oak five years ago, even if the band have begun to include other elements in their sound. It still sounds unmistakably like them. They also include spoken tracks, probably from other sources like movies, which help add to the mystique. “Paperwings” has a passage with a hypnotist speaking to a patient over a calm musical section, which immediately proceeds a heavier and more chaotic section that eventually includes the distorted vocals. Musically we are drawn into the hypnosis with the subject.

Oak know how to end an album like few bands. “Psalm 51” off False Memory Archive may be one of the best album closers I’ve ever heard. The musical build-up to end the song is absolutely perfect. You’re left completely satisfied. I don’t think “Guest of Honour” is quite that good, but it was a high bar to match. Nevertheless, it’s a great song. The lyrics, “Walking blind through damp corridors / Piercing sounds, of footsteps or guns / Racing heart – I’m wearing you out” have particularly stuck with me, especially that last line.

The physical CD comes in a digipack, making it the nicest of their physical releases thus far. I’m sure the vinyl is even more stunning. I liked the album art from their first two albums a lot more than this, because I felt those fit the band’s aesthetic better. With that said, there’s something very unsettling about the expression on the face of the female bust on the cover, which given the subject matter on the album seems entirely the point. Suicide and mental health concerns are inherently unsettling.

It didn’t take long for The Quiet Rebellion of Compromise to blow everything else out of the way at the top of my best albums of the year list. It’s an album I can listen to over and over again, finding new bits to enjoy and investigate after many listens. That’s one of the things I’ve loved about their previous records. I can keep listening and never grow tired of them, and it appears this record has that same quality. Oak are a criminally under-appreciated band that deserve widespread attention. They’re one of the most imaginative bands in the genre right now, and they aren’t to be missed. Everything they have done is worth paying attention to. It isn’t often that a band like this comes around. Don’t let the close of the year pass without diving into this record.

https://www.oakinoslo.com
https://oakinoslo.bandcamp.com/album/the-quiet-rebellion-of-compromise
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Album Review – Fearful Symmetry’s “The Difficult Second”

Fearful Symmetry, The Difficult Second, 2022
Tracks: Mood Swings and Roundabouts (6:00), The Difficult Second (3:56), Light Of My Life (5:39), Shifting Sands (4:07), Eastern Eyes (5:15), The Song Of The Siren (4:57), Hope (5:35), Sandworm (6:37), Shukraan Jazilaan (3:23), Warlords (14:45)

Fearful Symmetry is the brainchild of Suzi James, a UK-based multi-instrumentalist. working with Yael Shotts (vocals) and Sharon Petrover (drums, arrangements), along with Jeremy Shotts, who helped write the album’s epic, “Warlords.” James plays guitars, bass, all manner of keyed instruments, and various other stringed instruments… and based on the emojis used in the booklet to indicate what instruments she plays, she also plays a camel. Prog has always been about pushing boundaries, I suppose. Ha.

The opening track is clearly an intentional nod to Yes, and I have to say it’s done very well. Yael Shotts’ vocals are close enough to Jon Anderson’s to make it work, and the instrumentation is classic 70s prog. A strong bass line, a clear and prominent electric guitar, keyboards and organs galore – it’s a fun throwback. “Time and a Word” even gets a nod in the lyrics.

Catchy melodies abound on the record, such as the chorus on “Light Of My Life.” “Sandworm” has another catchy melody, with a vintage organ sound to match. In addition to the classic prog takes, jazz has a strong influence on the record, particularly on “The Song of The Siren.” The drums especially take on a jazz edge.

There are Middle Eastern influences on the record, like “Shifting Sands,” an instrumental with Middle Eastern vocalization done in a more traditional western style of singing. There’s a moment when the melody is played with violin, and it reminded me a bit of Kansas, despite the different style of music being played. The Middle Eastern themes are repeated in “Eastern Eyes,” although they aren’t quite as pronounced, and they remain rooted in rock music with shredding guitars and bass. I’m usually wary of artists pulling the Middle Eastern influences into progressive rock because it can quickly become corny, but it feels very natural on this record, perhaps because it was done through a more western interpretation rather than simply plugging a sitar into the mix.

“Warlords” is the epic on the album, at just under fifteen minutes in length. The intro overture has a swelling sound with guitars and bass working together to create an epic feel. It narrows in with a more gently keyboard driven section before expanding back out into a guitar solo. The song, divided up into five parts, is a story about a grand battle – very proggy indeed. As the song moves along, the Yes influence remains the most prominent, although thematically I’m also reminded of Genesis. But even so, the variety of instruments that Suzi plays keeps the track sounding particularly modern. Despite the song being about a battle, the music remains very bright.

“The Difficult Second” is an enjoyable throwback album that doesn’t feel oppressively tied to the past. The album is upbeat, with good melodies, solid instrumentation and vocals, and clever lyrics. The guitar solos are especially worth checking out.

https://www.fearfulsymmetry.rocks
https://fearfulsymmetry.bandcamp.com/album/the-difficult-second