My Album of 2018: Southern Empire’s “Civilisation”

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Unlike many fans who view progressive music as a genre requiring specific sounds, instruments and structures – usually from the 60’s and 70’s – I think of the term literally: Music that, while challenging and possibly containing traditional prog “signposts” along the way, is also pointing towards something more modern and different that what’s been done prior.

It’s that approach that endears 80’s Yes and Rush music to me. While many trash those bands for taking a more streamlined tack compared to their 70’s output, I could only applaud them for changing with the times and trying something new to them. Dream Theater had that streak in the 90’s, Spock’s Beard somehow made the old sound new in the 90’s and 00’s, and after sampling what was “new” in prog, Jem Godfrey gave us new and different sounds (at least to these ears) with Frost*.

I have the pleasure of being able to sample a lot of progressive albums, and while most admittedly do little for me – thus explaining my meager volume of columns here – I was taken by Southern Empire’s “Civilisation” this year, and repeated listens have left me declaring it to be my favorite of 2018 as it’s a modern, dynamic and forward-thinking album.

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Since I knew nothing of Southern Empire before this year, and with only two albums and a live album under their belts, I was able to catch up with this band quickly, first with their 2016 debut. Tracks like “How Long,” “Forest Fire” and “The Bridge That Binds” quickly caught my attention, with “How Long” taking up a LOT of listening time early on.

When I finally gave “Civilisation” a listen, I was immediately taken NOT by the epics (as many prog fans might be), but instead by the bookend tracks, “Goliath’s Moon” and “Innocence And Fortune.” Both of these tracks and the music on the first album showed a band that, while certainly playing well within the prog genre, was definitely looking forward with their sounds and production.

“Goliath’s Moon” starts with a vintage song reference, a funked-up beat, a hooky chorus and plenty of aforementioned “prog signposts” in the middle section to display their prowess – instrumental runs, great harmony parts, a Spock’s Beard-esque vocal section (because, really, are we going to give only Gentle Giant credit for this?) – before returning to close out and ends with and excerpt from U.S. President Richard Nixon’s call to the Apollo 11 crew.

The last track “Innocence And Fortune,” is a grandiose spine-tingler containing cool, proggy verses, a wonderful chorus befitting an album-closer. Its my go-track on the album, for sure.

For the longest time, it was those two tracks that dominated my “Civilisation” listening, but as with most epic-length tracks, a deep dive into them is usually necessary, and so it was with “The Crossroads,” a 29-minute beast with a ton of stylistic twists and turns, somewhat akin to Dream Theater’s “Learning to Live” (but nearly three times as long) and also not unlike early Spock’s. It’s WELL worth your time to absorb this, their longest track to date. Finally, the album’s 19-minute second track, “Cries For The Lonely,” is a slab of modern proggy goodness.

As one should expect, the playing is top notch and tight as hell throughout “Civilisation,” but I do want to mention the expressive and emotionally-delivered vocals of Danny Lopresto, which go a long way to make the band stand out.

Bravo forward-thinking prog. Bravo Southern Empire. Ever forward!

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Dream Theater Announce “Distance Over Time” Album, 2019 North American Tour

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I’m interrupting a summer (now gone) of digging deep into the recently-released Dave Matthews Band album, the two excellent Southern Empire albums (do pick them up), and my autumnal tradition of listening to all that is Big Big Train to report what’s been making the rounds on this midterm Election Day in America: Prog metal kings Dream Theater have announced a new album, “Distance Over Time,” which will be released 22 February, 2019.

The band will then hit the road for a North American tour starting in March, and while concertgoers will no doubt be treated to newly-released material from “DoT” (or, as a nod to Rush, should it be “d/t?”), the highlight of the tour will no doubt be the news of the band celebrating 20 years of their landmark album, “Metropolis Part 2: Scenes From A Memory.”

A short teaser from the forthcoming album, which was produced by guitarist John Petrucci and with sweet artwork by Hugh Syme, can be heard here:

Here are the “Distance Over Time” tour dates for America and Canada. The band also plans to follow the U.S. dates with a show in Mexico City in early May.

March 2019
20 – San Diego, CA
21 – Los Angeles, CA
22 – Los Angeles, CA
24 – San Francisco, CA
26 – Denver, CO
28 – St. Paul, MN
29 – Chicago, IL
31 – Milwaukee, WI

April 2019
2 – Detroit, MI
4 – Toronto, Ont.
5 – Montreal, Que.
6 – Quebec City, Que.
8 – Boston, MA
9 – Oakdale, CT
10 – Red Bank, NJ
12 – New York, NY
13 – Upper Darby, PA
15 – Washington, D.C.
17 – Nashville, TN
22 – Charlotte, NC
23 – Atlanta, GA
24 – Orlando, FL
26 – St. Petersburg, FL
27 – Jacksonville, FL
29 – Dallas, TX
30 – Houston, TX

May 2019
1 – Austin, TX

While I initially gave a solid review of their previous release, “The Astonishing,” I’ve since given it few listens when compared to the albums that came before it, especially the song-oriented releases (rather than concept albums). I don’t know that any information about the tracks on “Distance Over Time” has been made public, but I’m fairly certain that given the scope of “The Astonishing,” DT would likely return to a song-oriented effort on the next one, so I’m very much looking forward to hearing what’s next from the gang.

Big Big Train’s “Grimspound” – A Review

I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of listening to Big Big Train’s latest work, “Grimspound,” for a few weeks prior to its release, and it’s taken me as much time to figure out exactly what it is.

This isn’t about whether or not the music is good…oh, it’s good. Very good. It’s an absolute must-buy for Big Big Train “passengers,” both new and returning.

With each subsequent listen, I kept asking myself:

  • Is this merely a collection of leftover songs from what had to be a creative outburst when “Folklore” took shape?
  • Is this sort of a “Folklore Part 2?”
  • Is this a standalone album altogether?
  • Is this part of a much bigger canon of releases?

I’ve decided that the answer clearly isn’t “a collection of leftover songs” and it’s not really “Folklore 2,” but you could argue for the other two points.

Anyway, that’s just a frame on the picture. Let’s delve through the music, shall we?

Continue reading “Big Big Train’s “Grimspound” – A Review”

John Wetton: 12 June 1949 – 31 January 2017 – A Personal Appreciation

Many who follow prog and rock in general woke to the news that John Wetton, singer and bassist for such bands as King Crimson, UK and Asia, passed away after a long, courageous battle with colon cancer.

I know that many others here will write something far more in-depth and eloquent that I will at this time, but this is a heartbreaker for me.

I cut my teeth on prog in 1981 with Rush’s “Moving Pictures,” and a year later I heard Asia for the first time.  I was immediately taken with how these then-mysterious prog musicians – I hadn’t heard Yes, ELP or Crimson at that point – had managed to pack a ton of playing into a tight song format, and to this day, Asia’s debut album remains one of my four all-time favorite albums.

Of course, while Steve Howe, Geoff Downes and Carl Palmer supplied most of the busy playing in Asia, John Wetton anchored the group with his steady bass playing and, of course, that VOICE.

After following Asia for most of the 80’s, a friend and bandmate clued me in to what Wetton had been up to just before Asia, and that was my introduction to UK.  Just a stellar group of musicians who created a pair of fine albums and one exceptional live album, and I listen to their work often.

I’ll admit to not absorbing much of what Wetton did prior to UK, which we all know was Family, Uriah Heep, Crimson, Roxy Music, Eno, and others, but for me, Wetton’s presence in UK and Asia alone formed much of the soundtrack to my youth.

Since the 90’s, I’ve kept only a periphery eye on Wetton’s career as he returned to solo work, worked with Downes in Icon, reunited with Asia and UK, and worked with District 97, but I’ve always appreciated him and his career trajectory.

Like so many, I was saddened by the news that Wetton was being treated for cancer and closely followed him online during his battle.  I so hoped he would be healthy enough to perform at the 2017 Cruise to the Edge…not because I was attending, but it seemed that it was serving as inspiration for him during his recovery, and I was crushed for him when he recently announced that he couldn’t attend.

I spent much of my day going back through various Asia, UK, Crimson and solo tracks, and will no doubt spend more time in the future simultaneously mourning John, sending thoughts to his family, friends and bandmates, and celebrating the man’s “extraordinary life.”

My Top 8 Yes Abums

Seeing that I haven’t been absorbing a lot of new prog (Oh! The Horror!), I’ve spent most of 2016 happily revisiting my favorite prog (and proggy pop) from the past.  As I’ve written before, I’m at that age where 40 years’ worth of my favorite music is such that anything new really has to fight for a place among my listening.  However, with a community as great as this one, I’ve all the faith in the world that really good prog will find me, not the other way around.

2016 treated us not only to the further touring adventures of Yes, but also to the touring wonder that is Anderson Rabin Wakeman, which by most accounts was a wonderful tour, and I do hope that 2017 will see some original music from the lineup.

Inspired by Sir Thaddeus of Wert’s Top 10 Yes albums list, I just couldn’t resist compiling my own list of favorites from the boys.  I thought it’d be easy to name 10, but I quickly found that I just can’t; I would only be trying to round out the list by including some albums of theirs I like for maybe one or two songs at best, so why not list my true favorites?

Ahem…

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8. Talk

Like many who salivated at the news of a YesWest reunion in the early 90’s, I bought “Talk” as quickly as possible on release day.  The album’s bookend tracks – “The Calling” and “Endless Dream” – make this a top 10 record for me. Throw in the well-written “Walls,” and it’s a solid effort, despite a few tracks I can live without.

Continue reading “My Top 8 Yes Abums”

Review: Frost* – “Falling Satellites”

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No matter their level of activity, all’s right in the prog world when the on again/off again ensemble known as Frost* is in “On” mode.  Many of us have closely – and happily – followed the twists and turns of writer/keyboardist/vocalist Jem Godfrey’s group since they released the landmark album “Milliontown” back in 2006.

For those who may not have been exposed to the band back then, “Milliontown” was something altogether new, or at least sounded altogether new – an accessible, expertly-produced, keyboard-heavy, dense, dynamic, and at times industrial-sounding blend of prog rock not for the faint of speaker cones. It was not to be mistaken for yet another prog band channeling the 70’s with all the cliches that go with that era (band names withheld to protect the guilty). As a fan of modern prog, “Milliontown” easily became one of two of my favorite albums of the last 15 years – the other being It Bites’ “The Tall Ships” – and not a week has gone by in the last decade when I haven’t given at least some of “Milliontown” a listen (no, really).

Continue reading “Review: Frost* – “Falling Satellites””