I probably should have my Progarchy.com credentials revoked as I not only missed the Stick Men’s concert here in Eugene, Oregon, last Friday, I wasn’t even aware of it until Saturday (which explains why I missed it, but…). Anyhow, the band, which consists of prog giants Tony Levin and Pat Mastelotto, along with another virtuoso, Markus Reuter, have produced some really inventive, complex, and accessible music in their most recent album “Prog Noir”, which Levin reflected upon in an interview with The Register-Guard:
After failing to post any “Favorite Music of 2015…” lists last year, I’ve decided that I should avoid elaborate explanations for my choices, but simply note a thing or two about each release that captured my ears and held my attention. I’ve also decided to post three separate but fairly short lists: Prog/Rock, Jazz, and Everything Else. In short, I’m trying to kill my propensity for overkill. I suspect I’ll fail! Here, first, are my picks for favorite prog & rock albums of the past year (give or take a few months):
• “The Prelude Implicit” by Kansas | This is, I think, one of the best feel-good stories in prog of 2016. After all, Kansas could have just kept touring and playing the same old—ranging from good to great to classic—tunes. Instead, they produced a very good, even great, album. As I wrote in my Progarchy.com review: “In short, the band has found a commendable and impressive balance between old and new, with plenty of prog-heavy, classic Kansas-like passages, but with an emphasis on ensemble playing over solos. … Kansas is to be commended for embracing their past while clearly moving forward with a confident and often exceptional collection of songs. Highly recommended for both longtime Kansas fans and for those who like melodic, well-crafted prog that puts the emphasis on memorable songs and musical cohesion over theatrics and solos.”
• “Secrets” by Ian Fletcher Thornley | I was initially flummoxed by this album, expecting a variation on the hard-rocking, high energy music of Big Wreck and Thornley, both fronted, of course, by the prolific Canadian singer, guitarist, writer, and producer. I finally listened to it late one night, in the dark, and I finally heard it on its own terms: acoustic, reflective, mellow, mournful, defiant, sad, and yet shot through with a sense of cautious hope. Thornley demonstrates that his remarkable writing skills are equal to his vocal prowess, which is an aural wine bearing hints of Big Country (“Frozen Pond”), Chris Cornell (“Feel”), Peter Gabriel (“Stay”), Bruce Springsteen (“Just To Know I Can”), and Jeff Buckley (“Blown Wide Open”). In the end, this is a modern blues record featuring every shade and hue of sadness, longing, and loss.
One of my favorite albums of 2016 (full list coming soon!) is Ian Fletcher Thornley’s stunning “Secrets”, which came out in late 2015 and has been a part of my listening rotation since I first heard it. Thornley—who is a remarkable vocalist. virtuoso guitarist, accomplished songwriter, etc.—has been producing a significant amount of good music in recent years, including Big Wreck’s exceptional “Albatross”—one of my favorites of 2012—and 2014’s excellent “Ghosts”. Early 2017 (February 4th) will see the release of “Grace Street”. The first two singles/songs are already available, and one of them is a “must hear” for fans of top-notch, guitar-oriented instrumental rock. Clocking in at just over 7 minutes, “Skybunk Marché” has hints of Satriani, Jeff Beck, and Rush, with three guitars rollicking with precise abandon through a variety of keys and movements:
To get a better sense of who’s playing what, watch the band play the song live (9:45 mark):
The last song in the Dunlop Sessions (above), titled “Come Again”, features the sort of searing, beautifully constructed solo that Thornley turns out on a regular basis. Can’t wait to hear this entire album, which promises to be one of the best of 2017.
Yes, I’m getting a jump on things. After failing to pen a “Favorite Albums of 2015” earlier this year, I figured I need to strike while the iron was hot and I had a few moments of free time.
Those who follow the proceedings here at Progarchy.com likely know that I am the resident “jazz guy.” Jazz probably makes up close to half of the 75,000 or so songs in my collection. I first “discovered”—that is, really listened to—jazz in my early twenties; my first jazz albums were Keith Jarrett’s “The Köln Concert” and “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis—one being the best-selling solo piano album of alltime and the other being the most famous jazz album yet produced. “Kind of Blue” is notable here because the first song on The Tierney Sutton Bands’ (www.tierneysutton.com) brilliant album “The Sting Variations” is “Driven to Tears”, but opens by directly quoting Davis’ “So What”:
Below is the short review I recently left at Amazon.com.
This exceptional album, which continues Tierney Sutton’s impressive run of very good to outstanding releases, is a revelation in several ways.
First, the playing and singing is of the highest order, with Sutton and band so perfectly sympatico that they should appear as one definition of “organic” in Webster’s Dictionary. There is a remarkable economy married to robust breadth and depth; in other words, the musicians never overplay—every note is necessary and purposeful—but they also never under-commit; each song is played with masterful purpose, focus, and command. An example of this is “Seven Days”, which opens with a simple bass line and plaintive, quiet vocals and then builds in both musical and emotional complexity, capturing the conflicted (“Though I hate to make a choice”) but assertive (“the fact remains, I love him so…”) lyrics. Sutton’s vocals are spell-binding, combining both a light innocence and a rich maturity; the countless shades of emotion and intonation are remarkable.
Finally, the selection of Sting songs is inspired, not simply because Gordon Sumner draws deeply on jazz in his songwriting, but because the lyrical content is so eclectic and his best songs are immediately memorable but never simplistic. That Sutton brings a female voice and feminine genius to the entire project makes this, in my opinion, a truly special recording. A perfect example is found in “Every Breath You Take (Lullabye)”, in which the mega-selling single is both subverted and reimagined, turned from a somewhat unsettling stalking tune into a hushed and then soaring reflection on the complexities of loving one’s child.
An album of covers can be many things: an homage, an exercise, a one off, a replication, a dedication. This album, however, is a work of musical art, which demonstrates the musicians’ respect for the songs and songwriter not through slavish imitation, but brilliantly imaginative explication that looks backward and forward in perfect balance, as most great art does. A masterpiece.
The title of the new Kansas album—“The Prelude Implicit”—is open to some interpretation, but the intent of the cover art, which features a phoenix, seems clear enough: regeneration and rebirth. The legendary band has long been known for non-stop touring, but the past few years have seen the sort of changes that either mark the end or a new beginning (and that is, I suppose, the likely implicit message of the album’s title). Like many other groups that achieved great commercial success in the 1970s, Kansas has gone through several line-ups, as I cover in some detail in this 2013 review of a John Elefante album.
And there, of course, is the Big Rub, because when bands split and original members leave, fans are often faced with a dilemma: Is Kansas really Kansas without Steve Walsh singing and playing keyboards, or Kerry Livgren playing guitar and keyboards, or Robby Steinhardt on violin and vocals? (Those who like to keep track of such things can find a good chronology here.) Livgren, of course, was key to the band’s distinctive, detailed, and orchestrated sound in the first decade, writing music that was at turns melodic (“Dust in the Wind”), anthemic (“Carry On My Wayward Son”), and esoteric (“Incomudro – Hymn to the Atman”, “Cheyenne Anthem”, etc), with lyrics that were loaded with references to spiritual turmoil, seeking, and wandering. And Walsh, the bad boy of the group, proved to be one of the finest vocalists of the era, with a pure, powerful tenor that was equally muscular and soulful (until the excesses of the oft-cited “rock lifestyle” began to eat away at it). Both facts come through clearly in the excellent documentary “Miracles Out of Nowhere”, which marked the band’s 40th anniversary and, it seems, marked a certain line of demarcation. “In truth,” I wrote in my review of the documentary,
some bands are far more interesting for what they did off the stage than for what they did on the stage. And then there are bands that really are, at the end of the day, all about the music, and it seems quite clear that Kansas is in the latter camp. It is rather striking how ordinary these six musicians appear to be, with only Walsh (who retired last year) giving occasional glimpses into a more prickly, difficult side. Ehart, whose warm humor and casual self-deprecating approach make him the star of the documentary, is keen to praise his bandmates, expressing obvious awe over Walsh’s vocal prowess and Livgren’s songwriting, saying that back in the day he didn’t think of Livgren as a musical genius, but perhaps only because they ate hamburgers together. And even Livgren, who nearly died in 2009 after suffering a stroke, seems genuinely surprised at the astounding run of classic songs he produced in those years, offering up thanks to God in a somewhat “Ah, shucks” sort of way.
Watching “Miracles Out of Nowhere” three times and listening to “The Prelude Implicit” some two dozen times now, I think that while the genius of Livgren and the distinctive abilities of Walsh are essential to the classic Kansas sound (the five first albums especially), we mustn’t overlook the duo that has proven to be the glue for Kansas for so long now: guitarist Richard Williams and drummer (and manager) Phil Ehart. I have long thought that Ehart, in particular, has never received proper recognition for his drumming, which is both virtuosic and musical—just listen, say, to “Song for America” and hear how he carries the entire tune and yet does so without drawing attention to his playing. In a word, his playing is “tasteful”. Ehart is the ultimate team player, and that quality comes through in the new album, on which he co-wrote nine of the 10 cuts. There is a certain Kansas-ish structure to songs—even ballads such as “The Unsung Heroes”—that shines through, and Ehart’s playing is essential to it. Continue reading