There’s a nice piece on prog rock by Kalefa Sanneh in the latest issue of The New Yorker magazine. Clearly, the author isn’t sure what to make of the genre, but he gives a fair assessment of its early years, and the unfair treatment rock critics dished out in the seventies. I wish he had written more on the current thriving scene, but it’s nice to get some respect in a mainstream publication.
One of my top albums of 2015 was John Mitchell’s Lonely Robot: Please Come Home. In addition to my rave review, several other Progarchists recognized that album’s greatness, putting it on their Best-Of lists for 2015.
It’s two years later, and Mitchell has returned with the second installment of the Lonely Robot saga: The Big Dream. I always approach sophomore efforts with some trepidation, because an artist often uses up all of his or her best ideas in the début. No worries on that front this time! Fresh off of his work with Jem Godfrey in Frost*, Mitchell has crafted a near-perfect pop/prog collection of songs that hearken back to the glory days of Peter Gabriel’s solo work, Porcupine Tree, and others.
According to Mitchell, The Big Dream continues the saga of the astronaut in Please Come Home. He has awakened from a cryogenic sleep, and finds himself in a woodland inhabited by human/animal hybrids. The concept is a bit hazy, while the music itself is tight as a nut. I am hard pressed to think of any songs that pack a bigger 1-2-3 punch than “Awakenings”, “Sigma”, and “In Floral Green”. I had to put those three on Repeat for several listens before I even heard the rest of the album.
If you thought, like me, that Please Come Home was terrific, The Big Dream actually tops it in every way. Big melodies that grab your ears and won’t let go, great vocals, John’s always outstanding guitar – all combine to deliver an album that will definitely be on many Top Ten of 2017 lists.
Rather than taking my word for it, just check out the first single, “Everglow”:
There’s a new band on the prog block: Birzer Bandana, which is Progarchy’s own Brad Birzer (lyrics) and Salander’s Dave Bandana (music and performance). According to Brad’s liner notes, his lyrics were jumpstarted by the science fiction classic A Canticle For Leibowitz, and the opening track, “Awash”, definitely conjures up images of a post-nuclear wasteland.
Awash in light, bathed and comforted
Head… deadly, deadly, deadly heat
Burns the skin and the retinas
Irradiated skies baptize the earth.
Bandana’s music is appropriately somber and evocative of someone trudging through desert sands. Olga Kent’s beautiful violin lends an exotic air.
Things pick up a bit in the second song, “Dance”. I love Bandana’s double-tracked vocals here, and the combination of acoustic guitar, hand percussion (tabla?), Kent’s bewitching violin, and some classic-era prog organ make for a terrific track. Imagine late-period Beatles collaborating with Pink Floyd, and you get an idea of how this one sounds.
A fired-up and ready-to-rock Neal Morse Band kicked off its 2017 Similitude Of A Dream Tour last night at RockeTown in Nashville, TN. They performed the entire album before an ecstatic crowd, most of whom knew every word of the 2-disc magnum opus.
This was a different kind of show than Neal and his band mates have performed before. It’s clear that they want the album as a whole to take center stage, and not the musicians themselves. For instance, Neal did not even address the audience until after Shortcut To Salvation, which was in the second half of the set. Mike spoke briefly before Freedom Song. Other than those breaks, the focus was entirely on the songs.
The performance began with a darkly cowled Neal singing Long Day off to the side, illuminated with a handheld light. Then the entire group exploded into Overture, and we were off on an adventure through all kinds of trials and tribulations. Throughout the show stunning videos complemented the songs, and Neal wore various masks and outfits.
As a group, Neal, Mike, Randy, Bill, and Eric have melded into a mighty musical force. When Randy George and Mike Portnoy lock into their groove, the result is ferocious thunder. Eric Gillette has matured into an extraordinary guitarist and vocalist (give him more lead vocals!), and Bill Hubauer’s keyboards and vocals are always rock-solid. Neal, of course, is the consummate showman – singing, pulling off amazing guitar solos, and mugging for the crowd before every keyboard showcase.
But the real star of the evening was The Similitude of a Dream. Everything was done in service to the tale of a pilgrim on a spiritual journey – one that went from the City Of Destruction through doubt, fear, confusion, sloth, and battle until he reaches the shining city on a hill. When I first heard TSOAD, I liked it, but I wasn’t knocked out – it was just too sprawling a work for me to take in. After last night’s performance, I get it now. It all holds together as a unified work of art, and it is a beautiful allegory.
Highlights of the show were So Far Gone, where everyone takes a turn on lead vocals; a very moving Breath of Angels, which ended the first half; Shortcut to Salvation; a heavy Man in the Iron Cage; an all-acoustic Freedom Song; and the concluding Broken Sky/Long Day. By the end, everyone was wrung out and happy.
For an encore, the band tore through rip-roaring renditions of Momentum, Agenda, and The Call. Lasting nearly three hours, it was a very satisfying evening. The boys travel to Seattle and other parts west before heading up to Canada and then over to Europe and Israel. If there is any way you can catch this show, do it – it’s an amazing visual and musical experience.
Every year, Andy Cirzan – the Dr. Demento of obscure holiday music – releases a mix of songs from his vast collection. This year’s is Warblings From The Enchanted Forest, and it has to be heard to be believed. Joanie Sommers’ “The Peppermint Engineer” is a bizarre psychedelic children’s song, while Jimmie Dale and the Jimmy’s “Kangi – The Kangaroo (His Xmas Hula Hoop)” unashamedly rips off “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”. Thankfully, it never achieved the popularity Rudolph did.
I wasn’t too adventurous in my listening this year – maybe because artists I’m already familiar with released so much good music that they kept me busy!
Here’s what I liked in 2016 in the world of prog:
10. Yes: Tales From Topographic Oceans (Blu-ray ed.)
Technically not a 2016 release, but with Steven Wilson’s 5.1 mix, this is a new album to my ears. This has everything a Yes fan could ask for – versions of TFTO that include the original mix, a radio promo, a “needle-drop” vinyl transfer, an instrumental version, in addition to Wilson’s new mixes – literally hours of music. A sometimes maligned work gets its proper release, and it really shines.
9. The Mute Gods: Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me
I love Nick Beggs’ blend of 70s – era FM rock with snappy songwriting. Turns out he’s much more than one of the best bassists ever.
CFCF is Michael Silver, from Montreal (where a local TV station is CFCF-TV). I discovered his music via Spotify, where it is part of their Atmospheric Calm playlist. My students enjoy working on calculus problems while it plays in the background.
The playlist is several hours long, and CFCF’s songs consistently grabbed my attention. I went ahead and purchased his 2013 album, Outsiders, and it is a true work of beauty. He mixes 21st century ambient electronics with subdued vocals and compelling melodies. Fans of classic Peter Gabriel, Talk Talk, and Brian Eno will love this stuff. It has a definite ’80s vibe, in a respectful and appreciative way. I can’t stop listening to it.
Here’s one of the best songs off of Outsiders, “Strange Form Of Life”: