“In Contact” continues impressive trajectory of Caligula’s Horse

Never felt like this before
Like the window in the water
Worlds of worthy sacrifice
But you made me feel alive
Like the light through dreamers eyes
I’m taking what I need
— Caligula’s Horse, “Dream the Dead”

Ever since hearing Moments From Ephemeral City back in 2011, I’ve looked forward to every release from Caligula’s Horse, the outstanding progressive quintet from Brisbane, Queensland. I didn’t write a proper review of that first release, but did say, “First, that’s a great band name. Secondly, that’s a good album title. Third, the music is just as inventive and attention-grabbing. Finally, the 12-minutes song ‘Alone in the World’ is one of my favorite songs of the year.”ch_incontact

That fabulous song contains all the ingredients that continue to shine forth in the band’s subsequent releases: a heavy-soft dynamic rooted squarely on founder and producer Sam Vallen’s stunning guitar work, a dark-light dynamic flowing from singer Jim Grey’s rich and expressive vocals, complex longer songs mixed with more immediate and very melodic shorter songs, and opaque lyrics containing a mixture of “the usual” (angst, love, fear, hope) and unusual (classical and historical references, musings on religion and spirituality). To my ear, these guys are really a cut or two above in terms of songcraft; every single solo or instrumental passage serves the greater good. There is no noodling or showing off, even though everyone has chops to burn.

Not to oversimplify, but it seems to me that most (most, not all) really good to great progressive rock bands have a riveting combination of distinctive vocals and guitar work. Vallen and Grey are world class in their respective crafts; in fact, Grey has shown in his work with the now-defunct Arcane that his distinctive pipes will stand out in any context; he discusses both bands in this excellent August 2015 interview. (Speaking of Arcane, the band’s final album, Known/Learned, is one of the finest prog albums of the past few years.) Grey is a vocalist with a remarkable combination of technical skill, as evidenced in his perfect control and pitch, and emotive impact; he can convey anger, vulnerability, joy, despair, and ecstasy with stunning ease, often on the turn of a dime.

I thought that 2013’s The Tide, The Thief & River’s End was a landmark album for the band (see my Progarchy.com review) and that Bloom continued the positive trajectory. In Contact proves the band is incapable of producing anything less than exceptional, and it is arguably their best work to date. In fact, I likely would say it is their best—period—save for the inclusion of an annoying and momentum-killing three-minute-long spoken track #8 (“Inertia and the Weapon of the Wall”), which I skip on every listen.

The opener, “Dream the Dead,” begins with a salvo of soaring guitar and then segues into a melodic verse over a little riff containing hints of Daniel Lanois, then building upon the heavy-soft/dark-like dynamics mentioned earlier. “Will’s Song” is, to my ears, the most run-of-the-mill cut, with some basic djent riffing and shouted choruses. But the rest of the album (again, save cut #8) is either above average or outstanding. “The Hands are the Hardest” has a wealth of great tones, a wonderful guitar solo, and a melancholic yet rousing series of choruses and bridges. “Love Conquers All” is a pithy and lovely tune featuring Grey at his most vulnerable:

The beast that I have become
Could set me free of this
If only I had the time
If only these hands were mine

It fades away far too quickly, giving way to “Song for No One,” which is, along with the final song, the nearly 16-minute-long “Graves,” the heart of the album:

“Capulet” returns to a more subdued, acoustic-ish soundscape before “Fill My Heart” embarks on a yearning, mid-tempo slow burn that features some tasteful drumming from newcomer Josh Griffin; the final three minutes are a perfect example of the Vallen-Grey interplay, with impressive leads by both. “The Cannon’s Mouth” lives up to the name, with a series propulsive, shot-like riffs and soaring vocals. The epic closer “Graves” brings it all together, with a masterful musical arc, a lush series of a cappella harmonies, a ear-worm chorus, devastating shredding by Vallen, and final barrage of heavy riffs and atmospheric vocalizing:

My take: this is one of the best prog releases of the year. Unless spoken word is your thing, I recommend skipping track #8 and enjoying yet another impressive effort from the best-named band from Down Under.

Happy 50th Birthday, Brad Birzer, Über-Progarchist!

bbirzer_1987Today is the birthday of Dr. Bradley Birzer, co-founder, lead editor, and driving force behind this little gem of a website. Happy Birthday, Brad!

Brad and I first met when I interviewed him about one of his many fine books (about Christopher Dawson, if I recall correctly), back in 2008. We quickly found out that we had much in common when it came to theology, philosophy, literature, and, yes, music. We began to share notes and thoughts about music, and eventually I suggested that we should consider putting together a site dedicated to any and all thoughts we had about music. The next day—the next day!—Brad sent me a link to Progarchy.com. Apparently he had stayed up most the night creating it. So when I think of Brad, these following descriptives come to mind: tireless, passionate, honest, brilliant, funny, self-effacing, joyful, and bursting with life.

I’m not sure of the exact date, but Brad created this site sometime in either late September or early October 2012. So we are now at the fifth anniversary. And anyone who pays attention to the site knows that Brad has been the heart and soul of what we do here. Thank you, Brad!

I hope Brad won’t mind, first, that I used one of his Facebook photos for this post: of the young Birzer in college thirty years ago. And, secondly, this playlist that he posted today:

Rush—Tom Sawyer
BBT-Hedgerow
World Party—Is it Like Today?
XTC—Then She Appeared
Beethoven’s 6th
Kevin McCormick—Solearas
Matt Stevens—Into the Sea
Cosmograf—The Vacuum That I Fly Through
The Tangent—The Canterbury Sequence
Echo—The Killing Moon
Flower Kings—I Am the Sun
King Bathmat—Sentinel
Mew—Snow Brigade
Marillion—Ocean Cloud
NAO—Wires
Peter Gabriel—Rhythm of the Heat
Porcupine Tree—Time Flies

Happy Birthday, Über-Progarchist!

Who knew The Atlantic could be so shallow?

ocean_manFirst, let’s give proper credit to James Parker, who is a contributing editor to The Atlantic and a white man who hates prog rock: he manages to avoid, in his review of David Weigel’s book The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock, the adjective “pretentious.” Kudos. Props. Cheers. Scattered applause.

The rest of his article—that is, the entire article—is appalling, bad, and cranky (the abc’s of lousy articles), starting with the title—“The Whitest Music Ever”—and taken up a few notches with the subtitle: “Prog rock was audacious, innovative—and awful.” Perhaps Parker was trying to top Kyle Smith’s embarrassing excursion into prog criticism. If so, he succeeds in some ways, if only because he doesn’t even try to construct an argument, provide much (if any) context or contrast, or observe any basic journalistic rules governing facts, truth, and other boring minutia. It’s so pathetic, it makes a typical blog rant on about any topic sound like “The Gettysburg Address” in comparison.

Here, bullet-pointed in order to keep me from wasting too much time shoveling on this, are five glaring problems with the article:

The word “was” in the subtitle. Just like Smith, Parker seems completely unaware of the history of prog after the late ’70s and is clueless about the steady re-birth of prog over the past 25 years or so. Everyone knows that prog experienced a serious dive in maintstream popularity; what many folks don’t admit is that prog didn’t die. You could say it went into hibernation, but there’s a real sense in which it actually fragmented or melted into the world of pop music—think Asia, Genesis, Yes (with Rabin), Alan Parson’s Project, and so forth—and then slowly began to reform throughout the Eighties, finally coalescing again in even more diverse and surprising ways in the Nineties. As Alexis Petridis observed in a 2010 article in The Guardian on the resurgence of prog:

The perceived wisdom is that it was utterly swept away by punk, but that doesn’t account for the string of British prog bands signed by major labels in the early 80s – not just Marillion, but IQ, Pendragon and Pallas – nor for the continued chart success of Yes, Rush and Genesis, although whether those bands’ 80s oeuvres could truly be considered prog is a matter of some debate…

I say “diverse” because prog in recent decades has become incredibly popular in places such as Italy, Spain, South America, and parts of Asia. Yes, it is still Euro-centric (ooh, how horrible), but it’s not about “white” as much as it’s about a certain stream of Western culture and artistic expression (ooh, that really is horrible). In sum: anyone who thinks prog died in the Seventies shouldn’t be writing about prog. Period.  Continue reading “Who knew The Atlantic could be so shallow?”

Don’t sleep on Bent Knee!

This isn’t a proper review, in part because even after 7 or 8 listens I am still trying to wrap my head around the beautiful, paradoxical wonder of this album. Rather, it’s more of a “you really need to check out Land Animal from Bent Knee—you can listen to it streaming here” sort of post.

The band, which was formed in 2009, is based in New England and consists of six members. From the band’s site:

Lead singer and keyboardist Courtney Swain’s soaring vocals are instantly arresting. Guitarist Ben Levin is one of the most dynamic and versatile guitarists around, shifting between the raging and raucous to the sublime and meditative. Bassist Jessica Kion and drummer Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth combine into an enthralling rhythm section that’s equal parts powerhouse and nuance. Violinist Chris Baum’s kinetic violin work provides drama, grace and intrigue. World-class producer and live sound designer Vince Welch weaves it all together with a captivating, expert touch.

My first Bent Knee song was the whip-lash, jaw-dropping cover of Johnny Cash’s dark nugget “You Are My Sunshine,” which demonstrates well the band’s rather unique mixture of technical dexterity, cathartic bombast, cerebral coolness, and inverted, addictive catchiness. (Did I mention “paradoxical” earlier? Yep.) This opening paragraph from the band’s bio page might sound a bit hyperbolic—but if it is, it isn’t by much:

Bent Knee is unlike any band you’ve ever heard. Its borderless sound combines myriad influences from across the rock, pop, minimalist, and avant-garde spectrums into a seamless, thrilling whole. Its new album Land Animal—Bent Knee’s first for InsideOutMusic/Sony—takes its sound to a new level. It offers a suite of songs full of addictive hooks, lush melodies and enthralling twists and turns that capture the reality of life in the 21st Century—a reality of people and nations in the midst of tumultuous change. It also communicates a ray of hope and desire for listeners to embrace the fact that they’re not alone in their struggles.

In some songs, especially in more serene passages or sections that bear some faint resemblance to orthodox pop music, I hear Kate Bush and even Sia (“Hole” is perfect example of the latter). In the more “out there” moments, when Swain unleashes her blistering, gorgeous wail, I hear snatches of Fleming & John (a criminally-ignored husband and wife duo) and early Björk (oddly enough, when she loses her mind at times on the 1990 jazz album “Gling Gló”). But these reference points are merely suggestive, as the whole of Bent Knee is, again, hard to describe, a mixture of orchestral-ish passages, raw but tight guitar, polyrhythmic craziness, classically-imbued moments of open tenderness, angst-packed explosions, and much more. (The bass lines, for example, are worth the price of entry.)

The songs are certainly songs—there is no noodling or needless wandering here—but they are also soundscapes. A perfect case in point is the title song. For those looking for progressive rock that is both a bit unsettling and strangely comforting, Bent Knee is worthy of your time:

Pretentious NRO “review” of prog rock fails in multiple ways….

… including the following:

(us.fotolia.com/pathdoc)

It’s condescending. And clichéd. Those of us who have followed prog for more than 20 minutes, unlike Mr. Kyle Smith, author of “Prog Rock: A Noble but Failed Experiment” (NRO, June 15, 2017), are all too familiar with the chortling and snorting that progressive rock is silly, outlandish, over-the-top, nerdy, self-indulgent, and—yes, you guessed it—pretentious. Kudos (I guess) to Smith for recycling all the usual jabs and wrapping them up in a few sentences; it must have taken some talent to do so:

Progressive rock is the nonpolitical description that stuck to the pretentious, arty, classical-and-jazz-influenced bands, most of them English, who created the music fad of the early 1970s. With their mystical themes, their surreal and sci-fi album covers, their outlandish costumes (capes, fox heads), their obsession with faeries and aliens and loopy 20-minute synthesizer solos, bands such as Peter Gabriel–era Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer led rock down a bizarre sonic detour first mapped out by the Beach Boys on Pet Sounds and the Beatles on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Prog rock was the exclusive domain of a certain kind of nervous, experimentally minded, cautiously intellectual young white guy. It was nerd rock. College rock. Dungeons & Dragons rock. Pimply-virgin rock.

This reminds me of how I was told, growing up in a Fundamentalist home, that all rock music was “of the devil,” that it was all about sex and drugs, that most albums featured nefarious, masked lyrics, and that it involved little talent (but plenty of hedonism and self-destructive behavior). In fact, there is a small element of truth to some of this, just as Smith’s smirking descriptive contains some shards of truth, while missing so much it becomes nothing more than a weird form of cultural virtue-signaling. Neither approach—the sophisticated sneering or the fundamentalist frothing—provides much in the way of context or content. Which is unfortunate, since the context and content of prog—then and now—are quite fascinating. Continue reading “Pretentious NRO “review” of prog rock fails in multiple ways….”

The best musical tribute to Chris Cornell so far…

Back in March 1994, shortly after Soundgarden’s masterful Superunknown was released, Melody Maker‘s Everett True wrote a detailed and often insightful piece about the band on the road (in Tokyo, specifically). Chris Cornell spoke openly with True about his struggles with depression and fear:

“I write songs best when I’m depressed,” Chris tells me. “No one seems to get this, but Black Hole Sun is sad. But because the melody is really pretty, everyone thinks it’s almost chipper, which is ridiculous. Fell On Black Days is another one. Like Suicide is a perfect example.”

We’re they inspired by specific events?

“Fell On Black Days was like this ongoing fear I’ve had for years. It took me a long time to write that song. We’ve tried to do three different versions with that title, and none of them have ever worked. Someday we might do an EP…

“It’s a feeling that everyone gets. You’re happy with your life, everything’s going well, things are exciting – when all of a sudden you realise you’re unhappy in the extreme, to the point of being really, really scared. There’s no particular event you can pin the feeling down to, it’s just that you realise one day that everything in your life is F—–!”

Exhibit A for a “chipper” version of the huge hit is this snappy, big band-ish, “are you kidding me?” version by Paul Anka (yes, the same Paul Anka who wrote the lyrics to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”—one of the very few Sinatra songs I find annoying, even revolting). And in the past few days, understandably, there have been a number of singers and bands playing the song as a tribute to Cornell, who took his life on May 18th, after a reportedly ragged show at Detroit’s famous Fox Theater.

Continue reading “The best musical tribute to Chris Cornell so far…”

The shocking death of Soundgarden’s legendary Chris Cornell [Updated]

Chris Cornell at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. (Wikipedia)

Update: There are now reports from the medical examiner that it was a suicide. Baffling and confounding.

——-

I awoke this morning to two texts from close friends. The first was terse and direct: “Chris Cornell has died.” The second:

“Just heard about Chris Cornell. Sad day for the music world. I’m in Detroit on my way to Florida. It’s all over the news here. Soundgarden played here last night. I doubt he killed himself.”

The first friend had accompanied me to Cornell’s stunning July 2016 concert at The Hult here in Eugene. We both agreed it was a remarkable show; it was even better than a solid 2013 show at a smaller venue just five minutes from my house. We marveled at Cornell’s range, presence, lyrics, musicianship.

Now we are both stunned by his sudden death in a Detroit hotel, not long after a Soundgarden concert that reportedly concluded with Led Zep’s “In My Time of Dying”—a staple in recent solo shows by Cornell.

There are reports that the death may have been a suicide. If so, that would be even more shocking. There had been ups and downs, but Cornell had avoided the deep dives into oblivion that eventually swallowed up Kurt Cobain, Andrew Wood, and Layne Staley. And had, over the past two decades, thrived both personally and professionally.

Cornell was a drug user in his early teens, then drank heavily (and apparently used drugs on occasion) during the heyday of Soundgarden in the 1990s. He hit bottom in the late ’90s as the band broke up and then his first marriage unraveled. Even then, however, he produced his (arguably) finest solo album “Euphoria Morning” (later updated to “Euphoria Mourning”), which demonstrated that he was not just about grunge, but could dip into gospel, blues, and folk. After a stint in rehab, he joined up with three members of Rage Against the Machine to form Audioslave, one of the finest supergroups in recent memory, producing three studio albums of muscular, confident rock that further demonstrated Cornell’s prowess as a songwriter. Several songs for movie soundtracks followed, including “You Know My Name”, the theme song to the 2006 James Bond film, Casino Royale. And Soundgarden’s 2012 “King Animal” was a solid, often brilliant, return for the legendary band.

Since the early 2000s, Cornell’s personal life appears to have been thriving. He married Vicky Karayiannis in March 2004, and by all accounts was a devoted husband and father. His most recent solo album “Higher Truth” was well received, revealing a mature and confident artist who was still trying new things as a songwriter and musician. In interviews, Cornell was thoughtful and funny; he seemed to embrace his fame without taking himself too seriously, which is not an easy thing to accomplish amid the fame and challenges of being a musician.

Again, I’m simply stunned. My God grant Chris Cornell peace and provide solace to his family during this most difficult time.