To go along with the music that was the soundtrack to my youth, there’s been a lot of music that I’ve treasured over the last 15 years, both in new releases and in “Boy, was I late to the party” finds: Most of the Neal Morse-led Spock’s Beard albums, several Dream Theater releases (including the last two), the first couple Transatlantic efforts, Frost*’s “Milliontown,” Kino’s “Picture,” the recent work by the incredible Big Big Train, and It Bites’ “The Tall Ships,” a beautiful blend of rock, prog and pop that may very well be my favorite album since the century turned.
On the pop/rock side during that span, I’ve also come to love much of what Kevin Gilbert recorded, the brilliant “Everybody Loves A Happy Ending” by Tears For Fears, most of the work of Crowded House and Talk Talk, the post-“Skylarking” releases from XTC, and probably several more that don’t come to mind at the moment.
In talking about the dedication of fans catching many shows on the same tour, Professor Peart noted that concerts are a repeatable experience, and music is, of course, no less so. I’m sure I’ll catch grief for this, but as I get older, the amount of music I truly adore has reached a point where it can easily fill the time that a lot of great new releases might otherwise occupy. While I hope to have as many days in front of me as there are behind me, I often feel that I already have lifetime’s worth of wonderful music to enjoy again and again, making it hard for new music to find its way to my ears. So, while many hailed 2014 as one of the best years in prog, I was content to stay on the sidelines while fellow Progarchists wrote about what really moved them.
However, recent exchanges between fellow Progarchists about a few “glory years” of music, combined with what I’ve been listening to of late, suggests that perhaps there’s an opportunity to share some thoughts on what I’ve been spinning, no matter how new or old(er), prog or not. My hope is that I can add to the chorus for new releases and, in writing a bit about older albums, perhaps readers might be inclined to seek out said release or dust off that album and give it another go.
IQ – “The Road Of Bones”
My best friend has been trying hard to turn me on to IQ for years now, going on about “Subterranea” and seeing that I’m furnished with every new release in the hopes that something they do will find favor with me. Well, he again tried with “The Road Of Bones,” so I took it along on a commute and damn near jerked the car over to the side of the freeway when the title track came on.
There is a “denseness” to many neo-prog releases – much of it heavy rock/metal with a lot of musicians occupying the same space – and while I heard some of that that in “From The Outside In,” the first track from “The Road Of Bones,” the title track that followed was something altogether different. It’s atmospheric, moody, haunting…I hear echoes of “Famous Last Words” by Tears For Fears,” some percussive keyboard patches that call to mind “City Of Love” and “Hearts” from “90125,” and I even heard some synth swells that call to mind the droning chants from, of all things, Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.” There’s SO much tension built into this track. I’ve enjoyed the rest of the album and look forward to repeated listens, but I keep coming back to the title track, my favorite prog moment of 2014.
Mr. Mister – “Welcome To The Real World,” ‘Go On…” & “Pull”
There’s probably an article to be written about how Los Angeles was the Holy Land for eclectic pop and rock in the late 80’s. Bands such as Toy Matinee and the Trevor Rabin-led Yes were packing plenty of playing and production into radio-friendly tracks with mostly successful results (as were other bands, I’m sure).
Mr. Mister certainly belongs in this conversation. This group of studio guns came out of the gate in 1984 with a highly-synthesized debut, “I Wear The Face,” which while reflective of the time, didn’t really stand out among other 80’s pop albums of its kind.
Not so with their second album, “Welcome To The Real World.”
I was given a taped copy of WTTRW on cassette shortly after its release, and being the teenage know-it-all I (thought I) was, I knew plenty about the latest and greatest in 80’s pop and rock, but hadn’t heard of Mr. Mister. I listened to and enjoyed “Welcome To The Real World” thinking I was in on a secret not too many knew about.
Of course, that changed in a hurry when “Broken Wings” shot to #1 on the U.S. Billboard charts, followed by the amazing “Kyrie” (also #1) and a third Top 10 single, “Is It Love.” Anyone tuned to radio or MTV in 1986 simply couldn’t miss them. While still employing its fair share of synths and drum loops, “Welcome To The Real World” boasted a more aggressive sound that its predecessor, thanks to the guitar work of Steve Farris and the drumming of Pat Mastelotto…yes, you heard that right – King Crimson’s long-time drummer.
“Welcome To The Real World” got everything right – production, killer songwriting, playing, and a fine balance between instruments. There simply isn’t a bad track on this album and it’s well worth your time, despite it having nothing to do with prog.
Most of us who are/were turned on to Talk Talk saw a progression of increasingly artistic efforts with each successive release, and while the Misters’ progression wasn’t nearly as radical, they managed to catch many fans (and likely their record company brass) off guard with their follow-up album, 1987’s “Go On….”
Although the first single, “Something Real (Inside Me/Inside You),” was very much produced in the vein of their previous album and garnered Billboard Top 40 status, a listen to the majority of “Go On…” revealed increasingly personal lyrics and a raw production effort that waved goodbye to overly glossy techniques, leaving little doubt that the band was determined to use their success to make a more artistic statement. Bassist/singer Richard Page remains one of the best singers out there – Google his recent performances with Ringo’s All-Starr Band – and you’ll no doubt be taken by the sheer emotion in which he delivers the heartfelt lyrics on tracks such as “Dust,” “The Border” and “Power Over Me.” Sadly, “Go On…” fell out of print within a couple years of release, but the album survives through online retailers.
The band was served the ultimate insult by their record company with “Pull,” their fourth album, in that an even more daring effort was met with enough disdain from the record company that the album was shelved around 1990. Shelved! No release at all!
With the advent of the World Wide Web, rumors of the Misters’ unreleased album – recorded with session guitarists such as Trevor Rabin (!) and Buzz Feiten as Steve Farris as no longer in the group – began to circulate among a more interconnected, online community, and bootleg tracks later surfaced. While quite poor in quality and likely unfinished, the bootlegged tracks showed that Mr. Mister had made a fine album, which only intensified the calls for a proper release of “Pull.”
Finally, in 2010 – a full 20 years after its creation – fans got their wish when “Pull,” the rights to which had been wrested from the record company, was finally released by the the remaining members (Page, Mastelotto and keyboardist Steve George) with proper production and mastering.
“Pull” features what would have been a bonafide hit in “Waiting In My Dreams,” which according to Page was considered by director Cameron Crowe for inclusion in the John Cusack-led “Say Anything.” Prog fans will gravitate towards the tracks with Rabin’s contribution (he would have been a most-worthy replacement had Mr. Mister continued), will appreciate Mastelotto’s drumming throughout the album and may even catch the 11/8 feel of “Surrender.” It was worth the wait!
Spock’s Beard, “Day For Night” & “V”
My introduction to the Beard was likely the same for me as for many: The highly-influential Mike Portnoy couldn’t stop talking abut them.
As the 90’s ended, I seemed to be moving away from prog and gravitating towards groups such as the Dave Matthews Band, no doubt appreciating that aside from the bass, here was an acoustic band playing out of their minds, but in a easily-digestble format. But with Portnoy going on about Spock’s Beard, I found the band’s website and got a listen to some low-quality mp3’s from their then-latest album, “Day For Night,” and I thought enough of what I heard to snap up a CD from a local record store.
“Day For Night” turned out to be the perfect album for me at that time – here was a band that made prog sound wildly interesting, with chops in abundance, yet made sure their playing never overshadowed the song. There were obvious nods to 70’s prog with Mellotrons, organs, Rickenbackers and Moogs, but they were creating modern-sounding music.
The title track is a perfect example of everything that’s great about them, plus we’re treated to gems such as “The Distance To The Sun,” “Gibberish” and “Crack The Big Sky.” The album ends with the incredible “The Healing Colors Of Sound,” which blends the accessible with the epic – a Spock’s Beard specialty. I dare you not to find utter joy – a celebration of all that’s wonderful about music and our favorite genre – in that one track.
Of course, this all was my first introduction to Neal Morse’s playing, singing and formidable songwriting, and while in the process of wearing out D4N, I was off to a larger CD retailer to find anything I could by them, which led to my getting their previous three releases as well as “From The Vaults” and “The Beard Is Out There.” Needless to say, I was a hardcore fan, my faith in prog restored!
“V” became the first SB album that I was anticipating, and the emotional, pastoral opening to “At The End Of The Day” instantly drew me in. It’s an absolutely brilliant track with a gorgeous highlight in the middle when the band harmonizes harmonize a quiet section that reads,
It begins, it believes and it sees for all time
She’s coming down my way
It is here, as it breathes and it sees for the blind
She’s holding me finally
An goosebump moment, to be sure.
For as good as all the tracks on “V” are, this album is noteworthy for its “bookend” epic tracks – the aforementioned ATEOTD and “The Great Nothing,” a track that simply leaves you spent by its big, anthemic reprise of the “One note, timeless” section. Heck, a look at the “Making of ‘V'” video shows Neal breaking into tears while trying to get through that section. My best friend and I had the fortune to see the Beard on the V Tour in San Francisco, and it was easily one of the most joyful concerts I ever saw. No prog band I ever saw had more fun on stage than the mighty Beard.
This represents most of what’s getting played in the proverbial “prog pub” (oh, to actually own such a place). It goes without saying that I heartily recommend all of these albums and hope that one or more of these may become an recording that you treasure as well.