A Life’s Soundtrack (In Progress): My Top 100 Albums

While knocking one of these lists out seems easy for the first 70-80 or so albums, there are hard choices to make once you near the 100 mark.

Do you include or exclude something based on it merely being one of the first albums that turned you on to music, whether or not you listen to it anymore?  Does the inclusion of a live album or compilation constitute cheating in some way?

With regard to the latter: To you, if a live album represents the definitive work of the artist, then why not?  Also, if your introduction to a band came via a compilation, I think that counts as it’s your “go to” album by them.  So, I’ve unapologetically added a few of those here.

With my list, it’s clear that my formative music-listening years were from around 1978 to 1988, but as a friend once told me, your years from 10 to 20 are when the bulk of your musical tastes are formed (might be up for debate, but not by me!).

The fun thing about these lists is that it’s not always about what’s on them, but what’s NOT on them. So, you’ll see that I wasn’t at all influenced by many of prog and/or hard rock bands that so many hold dear, such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd or Genesis. On the flip side, my love for some bands is such that numerous albums of theirs are represented here.

No matter what, these 100 – and others beyond – are the soundtrack to my life, 1968-present:

  1. AC/DC, Back In Black
  2. Alcatrazz, Disturbing The Peace
  3. Animal Logic, II
  4. Asia, Asia
  5. Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe, An Evening Of Yes Music
  6. The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
  7. The Beatles, Abbey Road
  8. Big Big Train, The Underfall Yard
  9. Big Big Train, English Electric
  10. Bourgeois Tagg, s/t
  11. Bourgeois Tagg, Yoyo
  12. Crowded House, Recurring Dream
  13. Dada, Puzzle
  14. Dada, s/t
  15. Dave Matthews Band, Remember Two Things
  16. Dave Matthews Band, Under The Table And Dreaming
  17. Dave Matthews Band, Before These Crowded Streets
  18. The Doors, Best of The Doors
  19. Dream Theater, Images And Words
  20. Dream Theater, Awake
  21. Dream Theater, Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence
  22. Dream Theater, A Dramatic Turn of Events
  23. Dream Theater, s/t
  24. Emerson, Lake & Powell, s/t
  25. Frost*, Milliontown
  26. Halloween, Alaska – Champagne Downtown
  27. Peter Gabriel, Security
  28. Peter Gabriel, Us
  29. Iron Maiden, The Number Of The Beast
  30. Iron Maiden, Piece Of Mind
  31. It Bites, Once Around The World
  32. It Bites, The Tall Ships
  33. Jane’s Addiction, Nothing’s Shocking
  34. Jane’s Addiction, Ritual de lo Habitual
  35. Billy Joel, The Stranger
  36. King Crimson, Discipline
  37. King Crimson, Beat
  38. King’s X, Gretchen Goes To Nebraska
  39. King’s X, Ear Candy
  40. Kino, Picture
  41. Luce, Never Ending
  42. KISS, Alive
  43. KISS, Alive II
  44. Barry Manilow, Live (you heard right)
  45. Marillion, Clutching At Straws
  46. Bob Marley, Legend
  47. Wynton Marsalis, Hot House Flowers
  48. Mr. Mister, Welcome To The Real World
  49. Mr. Mister, Go On…
  50. Mr. Mister, Pull
  51. Trevor Rabin, Can’t Look Away
  52. Roxy Music, Avalon
  53. Rush, A Farewell to Kings
  54. Rush, Hemispheres
  55. Rush, Permanent Waves
  56. Rush, Moving Pictures
  57. Rush, Power Windows
  58. Rush, Roll The Bones
  59. Saga, Worlds Apart
  60. Saga, Heads Or Tales
  61. Saga, Behaviour
  62. Saga, The Security Of Illusion
  63. Seal, s/t (second album)
  64. Simple Minds, Street Fighting Years
  65. Frank Sinatra, Classic Sinatra
  66. Spock’s Beard, Beware Of Darkness
  67. Spock’s Beard, Day For Night
  68. Spock’s Beard, V
  69. Spymob, Sitting Around Keeping Score
  70. Steely Dan, A Decade of Steely Dan
  71. Steely Dan, Everything Must Go
  72. Sting, Bring On The Night
  73. Sting, The Soul Cages
  74. Sting, Ten Summoner’s Tales
  75. Swing Out Sister, It’s Better To Travel
  76. Swing Out Sister, Live At The Jazz Café’
  77. Talk Talk, Sprit Of Eden
  78. Tears For Fears, The Seeds Of Love
  79. Tears For Fears, Raoul And The Kings Of Spain
  80. Tears For Fears, Everybody Loves A Happy Ending
  81. Threshold, Critical Mass
  82. Toto, XIV
  83. Toy Matinee, s/t
  84. Transatlantic, Bridge Across Forever
  85. U2, The Unforgettable Fire
  86. UK, Danger Money
  87. UK, Night After Night
  88. Van Halen, Fair Warning
  89. Whitesnake, s/t
  90. Winger, s/t
  91. XTC, Skylarking
  92. XTC, Oranges And Lemons
  93. XTC, Nonsuch
  94. Yes, The Yes Album
  95. Yes, Close To The Edge
  96. Yes, Drama
  97. Yes, 90125
  98. Yes, Big Generator
  99. Frank Zappa, Sheik Yerbouti
  100. 3, To The Power Of Three

By the way, I reserve the right to sneak in here and swap out an album here and there – hey, like I said, it’s really hard to decide on those last few. 🙂

They Can’t Stop Thinking Big: Dream Theater’s “The Astonishing”

In a time when attention spans are such that some artists are abandoning album-length efforts in favor of EPs – or even releasing one or two songs at a time – Dream Theater decided to double down with a 34-track, two-hour play set to their brand of heavy, progressive rock with “The Astonishing.”

Such an effort almost demands that a willing listener block out all distractions, don a pair of headphones, and, with the lyric sheet in hand, attempt to make sense of this massive body of music that Dream Theater created on this, their 13th studio album, in one shot.

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They surely deserve our attention. Since forming in the mid-1980’s and finding commercial success with “Images And Words” in the early 90’s, the group’s formidable talent pool – no matter who has left or subsequently joined – at times almost seems unfair to other bands in the genre.

Think you have a singer?  James LaBrie’s voice and operatic training makes him better prepared to execute the demands of a progressive rock/metal group than most others. Think your prog band boasts the best keyboardist, bass player, guitar player, or drummer around?  Sorry, but your band is outmatched at every position by Jordan Rudess, John Myung, John Petrucci, and Mike Mangini – four of the most talented people to ever play their respective instruments.  That’s not to say that there aren’t other prog groups making wonderful music on par with Dream Theater – we all know that’s untrue – but there aren’t too many bands out there with the collective ability to play nearly anything they can conceptualize, which makes Dream Theater impossible to ignore.

I began this column shortly after the release of “The Astonishing,” but it was clear that after a thousand or so words (with tons more to type before even wrapping up Act I), the review was far more a commentary on each track and how it moved the story along than a review of the album….such is the effort to write about such a huge amount of music! Additionally, the sheer amount of distractions that come with family and work matters was such that I just couldn’t give “The Astonishing” full and repeated listens, so I’ve had to break up the album into “acts within acts” to get through it.

The album begins in predictable epic form with an overture containing melodies and themes we’ll no doubt hear throughout this play, but once we hear from LaBrie for the first time on “The Gift of Music,” the album steers towards the realm of theater. All of the band members deserve props for dialing back the shredding – or at least strategically picking their spots – in favor of keeping focus squarely on the story.

That story, which is well covered in reviews elsewhere and on the band’s website, represents quite a challenge for LaBrie as he not only sings over much of this album but inhabits the characters as he goes.

And make no mistake: “The Astonishing” is James LaBrie’s tour de force.  By virtue of this being a play set to music, LaBrie simply owns this album from start to finish, displaying his full, dynamic range of vocal ability.  I don’t envy the task of him trying to pull this all off in a live setting, but we have his brilliant performance committed to a recording that will endure well after the tour ends.

As for the individual pieces, “The Gift Of Music” is a classic DT rock track in the vein of the more song-oriented material heard on their previous release.  “When Your Time Has Come” has to be one of DT’s most accessible tracks ever written, certainly on par with a track like “Another Day” from “Images And Words.”  This album boasts more piano-oriented ballads than anything the band has done prior,  but Rudess’ piano playing is divine on this album.  In and around some tracks are musical interludes that take the music from merely supporting the story to animating the story.

“A Life Left Behind” is a track unlike anything we’ve heard from Dream Theater before, the intro reminding me of something Kevin Gilbert might have written.  The album’s penultimate track, “Our New World,” is a triumphant piece as the “The Astonishing” winds down.  Because there is so much music to absorb, repeated listens will undoubtedly bring other favorite tracks to the fore.

The mix on “The Astonishing” is much the same as on their previous two albums, which is that “rich piece of chocolate cake” that Petrucci talked about when referring to his guitar tone on the last album.  It’s a huge slab of ear candy to this listener, but I can understand those who criticize the overall tone as being too polished – it’s a slick-sounding album, no doubt about it – but I bet fans will feel different when this album is performed live.

“The Astonishing” is, quite simply, an intense, overwhelming effort, and Petrucci is to be commended for hatching an idea of this scope and getting the other band members on board with it.  For the listener, the adjectives noted above are pretty much the same, which makes the album a bit daunting when it comes to casual listening.  Since “The Astonishing” was released, I’ve paused to ask myself during morning and evening commutes if I really want to dive into the experience of this album or would I rather listen to something that can be consumed from start to finish in a shorter span.

Because of this, and drawing upon past experiences, I’ve decided not to try to rank “The Astonishing” alongside the rest of the Dream Theater discography, simply because it’s sheer scope sets it apart from everything else. I have the same feeling about Spock’s Beard’s “Snow” or Saga’s “Generation 13” – whether or not I like those albums, I feel like it’s unfair to judge those albums alongside the rest of the bands’ respective output – albums of this scale simply stand alone.

Whether or not one fully embraces the story may determine the emotional attachment one will have to “The Astonishing.” While the music is spine-tingling wonderful in many places, for me it doesn’t quite touch the emotional nerve of, say, the title track to
Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence” – the first time a piece of Dream Theater music reduced me to tears – but there is still plenty to enjoy about “The Astonishing,” and there’s no doubt that additional listens will reveal additional layers to this ambitious effort…

…and isn’t that what great, progressive rock is about?

Bravo, boys!

Geddy Lee Experiences The Chaos of ALDS Game 5 and Calls in to The Dan Patrick Show

“We interrupt our PROGramming to bring you this prog-related aside…”

When not dominating stages throughout the land with Rush, you’re likely to find Geddy Lee occupying choice seats behind home plate at Toronto Blue Jays games, seeing as how he’s a HUGE baseball fan.

With the band having wrapped their R40 tour and with the Jays having reached the American League playoffs for the first time since 1993, it’s pretty much a given that Dirk will be there if he’s in town.

In case you missed last night’s mayhem in Toronto, feel free to Google “Blue Jays Game 5,” find the highlights, and then click below to hear Geddy’s reaction to what he saw at last night’s game.

Geddy also talks about his baseball memorabilia collection, Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson’s photographic contributions to the band, compares lead singers to starting pitchers and, if he could get into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame or the Baseball Hall of Fame, which would he choose…and is Rush really done touring?

By the way, the Jays eliminated the Texas Rangers to advance to the American League Championship Series, so it’s a safe bet that we’ll see our favorite bass player even more this October!

“We now join our regularly-scheduled PROGramming, already in progress (and still on the same epic song, no doubt).”

Rush Releases “Jacob’s Ladder” from Forthcoming “R40 LIVE” Video

Following up on the recent release of the “Roll The Bones” video from Rush’s upcoming “R40 LIVE” concert film, the boys have posted a clip to one of the highlights of the R40 tour (and “Permanent Waves,” for that matter): “Jacobs Ladder.”

“R40 LIVE” will be released on November 20th.

I’ll say no more – enjoy the video!

The Eclectic Pop of Halloween, Alaska’s “Champagne Downtown”

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From the “Everyone needs to have heard them at least once” department – and given their name, just in time for the All Hallows Eve season – I bring you a group that none other Sir Jem of Godfrey from the fabulous Frost* turned me (and hopefully many others) on to a few years back.

The band: Halloween, Alaska.
The album: “Champagne Downtown.”

Released in 2009, this Minnesota-based group won’t ever be mistaken for a Mellotron-heavy prog band writing album side-length epics, but give “Champagne Downtown” a few spins and let their vivid blend of pop and rock (with a dose of electronica) serve as your rainy-day and/or road trip soundtrack, and hopefully you’ll be hooked on this album.

Hardcore progheads should be impressed at their time sense; they can seemingly be playing a straight 4 and then shake things up with an additional few beats or extra measure, just to keep you on your ties.

It’s a brilliant, lovely album. Give these tracks a spin!

Halloween, Alaska – Champagne Downtown

Halloween, Alaska – In Order

Musings from the “Prog Pub” – January/February, 2015

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.

prog-iq

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.

Oh my.

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.

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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.

Mr_Mister_Go_On

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.

Mr._Mister_Pull_2010_Album_Cover

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!

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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!

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“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.

Rush: My Essential 10 Albums

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The game is ON!

Chris Morrissey and our Fearless Leader, Brad Birzer, have issued a “Top 10 Rush Albums” challenge. In fact, Brad’s was pointed right at me via Twitter, so how can I say no?

This assignment was so easy, it was done on my lunch hour.

In order:

1. Moving Pictures (1981).  Two months ago this week, I penned what this album means to me. I’ll add no more here.

2. Permanent Waves (1980). Released on January 1, 1980, the album that thrust Rush into the mainstream grabbed my upon my first listen and never let go. Rush managed to blend epics and epic playing with a modern, urgent sound to remind everyone thinking they were just another bloated, long-song prog band that they were instead a progressive, HARD ROCK band.

3. Hemispheres (1978). The group’s most progressive album, sporting just four tracks in the vein of “Close To The Edge,” is fantastic from start to finish. They just played their asses off on this one. While most will point to “La Villa Strangiato,” the oft-played “The Trees” or even the album-side sequel to “Cygnus X-1” as the best tracks, I’ve always been partial to “Circumstances” the same way I’m fond of “Entre Nous” on “Permanent Waves” (both side two openers, by the way).

4. A Farewell To Kings (1977). Yes, I’ve now listed my top four Rush albums in reverse chronological order of release, but for me, 1977-81 was truly the band’s landmark period. “Xanadu” alone makes this a great album for me, as does “Cygnus X-1”, but while I rarely – which is to say, never – make a fuss of lyrics on albums, the sad truth is that Neil Peart’s lyrics in the title track ring true more and more with each passing year.

5. Power Windows (1985). While some may give “Signals” and Grace Under Pressure” a hard time for various song-related reasons, my issue with both of those albums wasn’t the songs…it was the production.  Both sounded either flat and/or muddy to me, but all that changed in the first few seconds of “The Big Money,” the opener to “Power Windows.” Heck, they could have just called it “The Big Album,” because producer Peter Collins – referred to by the group as “Mr. Big” – and his team just made this album shine.  Huge tracks and big themes populate this gem of a release.

6. Roll The Bones (1991). After the synth and sequencer-heavy “Hold Your Fire,” producer Rupert Hine was determined to get Rush back to its power trio roots and certainly did so with “Presto,” but for me, “Roll The Bones” took it one step further. Yes, there are songs on “Roll The Bones” that probably rival those on “Presto” – “Show Don’t Tell” vs. “Dreamline” and “Superconductor” vs. “The Big Wheel” – but in “RTB” we got our first instrumental since “YYZ” with “Where’s My Thing,” plus “Roll The Bones” features not one, but two brilliant tracks that tug at the heartstrings in “Bravado” and “Ghost of a Chance.” Those more than make up for the last two tracks on the album – “Neurotica” and “You Bet Your Life,” which I can do without.

This brings me to the point when I have to really think about what the last four are and in what order. Thinking…comparing…contrasting…okay, here goes:

7. Counterparts (1993). I can’t believe I’m putting this before the album at #8, but aside from a production superior to the previous two releases – “Presto” and “Roll The Bones” – and despite a bunch of standout tracks, Rush saved it’s best for last with the highly-emotional “Everyday Glory.” Prog bands rarely get points for squeezing emotion out of songs, but Rush just nailed it with this sad-yet-hopeful track.

8. Signals (1982). Certainly one of the biggest 180-degree turns made by a prog band between albums – rivaled by the “Drama” to “90125” succession – Rush’s first attempt to wedge its formidable musicianship into an album’s worth of shorter tracks was a triumph. We can point to the beautifully-structured “Subdivisions” and the band’s only U.S. Top 40 hit in “New World Man” – written only to balance out the lengths of the two sides as bands were still considering vinyl back then – but how about Alex Lifeson’s blazing solo in “The Analog Kid?” How about Geddy Lee’s and Peart’s work in “Digital Man?” How about Rush’s first attempt at a four-on-the-floor track with “The Weapon?”  Owwwwooooo! Scaddddy! 🙂

9. Grace Under Pressure (1984). A somewhat muddy production mars Peter “Hentor” Henderson’s time with the band, and if you read Peart’s notes from the GuP tourbook, this one was certainly recorded under pressure, but Rush continued to explore how to fit their chops into shorter tunes and mostly succeeded with gems such as “Distant Early Warning,” “Red Sector A,” the jazz-tinged “Red Lenses” and “we can still fit 5/4 into a song” with “Kid Gloves.” Once again, the band saved its best for last with the amazing “Between The Wheels” with its haunting intro and verses, giving way to a gorgeous, big chorus (note: I’m a sucker for a big chorus).

10. Snakes and Arrows (2007). The batch of “new millennium” Rush albums have been a bit of a mixed bag for me. “Vapor Trails” was the album the band simply had to make (and get through) in the wake of Peart’s personal tragedies, and it was reflected in that fragile recording. While many welcomed the first full concept album from Rush in “Clockwork Angels,” I guess I was well past the point where I wanted to absorb a concept album, plus I find myself skipping through a lot of the tracks save for “Caravan,” the title track and the magnificent “The Garden.” In between those two albums is the best of the bunch, and while there are some forgettable tracks for me, I do love works such as “Far Cry,” “Bravest Face,” “Armor and Sword,” “Workin’ Them Angels,” and “The Way The Wind Blows.”

Well then, I’m sure to be lambasted for ignoring “2112,” let alone the releases before it. They all have their respective places in Rush history and in moving the band towards what they’d become, but they just don’t do a ton for me. If it makes anyone feel better, though, “2112” would have come in at #11.

So…there. Back to work(in’ them angels). You can lambast me for that.

The Dramatic Rock of Fire Garden’s “Sound Of Majestic Colors”

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During the month of May, some of us Progarchists switched into “Rush Appreciation Mode” as we paid tribute to the group that, for some of us, forever altered our view of what music could be on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of their self-titled debut release. This very site is a reflection of our appreciation for a genre of music that, for so many of us, started with our first exposure to Rush. For so many, they were springboard into the world of progressive rock.

Of course, there’s another generation of progressive rock fans from the 1990’s who cut their teeth on prog through Dream Theater, while for some of us older folks, Dream Theater was the group that picked up the torch for progressive rock starting in the 1990’s, when iconic bands such as Rush and Yes had either changed their songwriting approach and/or gradually declined in popularity. Still other prog fans recently found their love of the genre through Tool’s and/or Steven Wilson’s works.

In the spirit of the more recent iconic, progressive hard rock groups such as Dream Theater, Chicago-based Fire Garden has released their first full-length album, “Sound Of Majestic Colors,” which follows their December 2012 EP release, “Prelude.” As is the case with most prog, repeated listens will reveal layers within the music, but the album is also accessible from the get-go.

Prog fans will have little trouble picking out styles and sounds similar to Dream Theater, but anyone who dismisses the group simply as a knockoff of DT does so at their own peril, for Fire Garden is very much their own band.

That said, the album opens with perhaps the group’s biggest nod to its Dream Theater influence in “The Joker.” Guitarist/songwriter Zee Baig channels John Petrucci’s guitar sound from “Train Of Thought,” there are echoes of the Derek Sherinian era DT with some nice organ work, some percussive keyboard patches that take from Jordan Rudess’ work in later years and even some fast kick drum work that might recall Mike Portnoy’s heavier playing prior to his departure from DT.  A vocal-heavy middle section breaks up the influences noted above, showcasing the group’s range.

Despite liking “The Joker” quite a bit over repeated spins, I was a bit fearful that I might be subjected to an album not unlike “Train Of Thought,” which is one of my least favorite DT albums, but oh, how Fire Garden quickly proved me wrong.

It’s rare that I’ll hear a succession of tracks for the first time and think, “This one’s my favorite!,” then say to the next, “No – THIS one’s my favorite,” but that’s exactly what unfolded during the first four tracks on “Sound Of Majestic Colors” as “The Joker” gave way to the soulful “Alone,” abandoning the bombast of the opening track for a slower, more atmospheric vibe. We then get a touch of “Images And Words”-era Dream Theater with the big-sounding “Time Machine,” but Fire Garden then shows us an altogether different side with “Endless Memories,” with bassist Barry Kleiber weaving melodic bass lines over acoustic/electric guitars, setting the tone for what is easily the most accessible track on the album. The track features a lovely, soaring chorus that’ll no doubt have audiences singing along.

This changing up and blending of styles that Fire Garden seem so comfortable writing continues throughout the album with a trifecta of big rtracks in “Redemption,” “Behind The Face”, and “Echoes Of Silence,” then broken up by the lovely, harmony-laden “Far From Grace,” and finally, the cinematic album ender, “The Last Step.” If rock radio was still open to progressive hard rock they way it was 20 years ago, tracks from “Sound Of Majestic Colors” would find a place in station’s rotation, to be sure.

It’s worth mentioning that throughout “Sound Of Majestic Colors,” singer Kevin Pollack does a fine job using his range – a bit lower but a welcome change from the wails of many prog/metal vocalists – bringing the proper measure of energy, emotion and, well, gravitas to each song.

The lyrics on the album tend to explore dark themes – battling demons both internal and external, sometimes literal – in “Alone,” “The Joker,” “Echoes In Silence” and “Redemption,” greed in “Time Machine,” love lost in “Endless Memories,” and finally, reaching for redemption/rejuvenation in “The Last Step.”

Half of the 10 tracks on “Majestic Colors” clock in between eight and nine minutes, giving the band plenty of space for stylistic exploration without falling into the noodling/padding trap that’s so often a cliche of prog.  They also avoid cramming as many time signatures into each tune as possible just for the sake of it, making the album quite accessible to those ears tripped up a bit by odd-meter shifts.

Fire Garden also gets it right with the album packaging and liner notes, very much reminiscent of Hugh Syme’s best work with Rush and Dream Theater, as each lyric is mated its own piece of artwork, beautifully complementing our listening experience in way that liner notes from the aforementioned bands do.

Knowing that the prog community is a tight-knit one, I would highly advise any reader with influence over any prog festival or cruise – as is the case these days – to quickly snap up Fire Garden as they’d be a worthy addition and sure-fire fan favorite. Better still, how’s about groups like Rush and Dream Theater consider the next generation of prog by dropping the well-worn “Evening with…” format and getting these guys out on tour to build as big a following as possible?

“Sound Of Majestic Colors” is more than enough evidence that Fire Garden has an extensive palette of talent and styles to “paint” with, making this release a more than worthy addition to prog fans’ libraries.  Dream Theater’s ridiculously, prodigiously-talented lineup may still have a tight hold on prog’s hard rock torch, but Fire Garden stands as a potential successor with “Sound Of Majestic Colors.”

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The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship – Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” and “Moving Pictures”

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I don’t know how many people can actually point to a single moment that changed their lives forever and for the better.  Yes, many would point to traditional milestones such as a graduation, wedding day, the birth of their children, etc. All valid events and experiences, to be sure.

I’m talking about something different. Something that might be best termed, to quote Robert Fripp, a “point of seeing.” A singular experience that truly alters your life’s course, where you can look back on that point, that one moment in your life where “your earth” seemingly moved under you. Everything in your world, everything you know, the very lens in which you viewed the world forever changed because of that moment.

Many might cite a religious experience as fitting the bill described above. For me, it was a musical experience.

First, a little backstory…

As a pre-teen kid from around 1978 to 1980, my musical “sun” rose and set with KISS, a band I spent hours upon hours listening to, reading about and talking about. I drew their iconic logo on anything I could find, thumb-tacking any poster of them I could come across on my bedroom walls and ceiling, playing air guitar and drums to them, dressing up like one of them (Ace, circa “Dynasty”) for Halloween, and just staring at their album covers for hours on end. As a beginning drummer, I first picked up the basics of rhythmically separating both hands and feet playing along to “Strutter” while on a family vacation.

Despite this level of fandom, my level of music appreciation probably wasn’t too different from most kids growing up at that time. Having been born in the late 1960’s to parents who parents who kept a couple dozen albums  – “Meet the Beatles” and “Elvis: Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite” among others – in the record bin of their furniture-sized record player/stereo (yet didn’t really use it), I cut my musical teeth on late-70’s pop, AOR and disco that came across AM radio. Artists such as Styx, Foreigner, The Bee Gees, Cheap Trick, AC/DC, and a couple others were among my first active musical experiences as opposed to passive ones.

That all changed In the spring of 1981 in a Northern California suburb, when a kid two doors down from me invited me over one afternoon following school to hear some music from a band called Rush. I knew nothing of Rush save for an entry in a late-70’s World Almanac that showed a number of their albums going gold or platinum. That was it.

I walked into my friend’s parents’ family room, sat cross-legged on an off-white, plush carpet floor as he took out an album, placed on the turntable and sat down near me.

The next 4 minutes and 33 seconds changed me forever.

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It was “Tom Sawyer,” the leadoff track from Rush’s new album, “Moving Pictures.”

The blend of instruments, how every instrument fit perfectly into this new (to me) music, the spacey sound that triggers throughout and, of course, a level of drumming I hadn’t heard before. It was rock and roll, yes, but the sound that spilled out of the stereo speakers was on a level of which I had no prior knowledge.

Without knowing anything about Rush, without knowing anything about the genre of music I was experiencing for the first time, I was hooked on this music.

I hadn’t even begun to decipher what was sung, but no matter; to paraphrase another quote of Fripp’s, “…music leaned over and took me into its confidence. I honestly can’t remember if my neighbor played it again after the first listen or not; for all I know, I probably went home in a daze.

Whenever I “came to,” I’m certain my first order of business was to ask my parents for some money so I could go to my small town’s record shop and see if they had “Tom Sawyer.” Despite it not quite being a Top 40 single in the U.S., it had been released as a single and the store had a copy in stock.

So, for the next month or so, I proceeded to listen to my “Tom Sawyer” 7-inch single over and over (not so much the B-side, “Witch Hunt,” at the time), never tiring of it and surely wearing out my family who heard the same song from my bedroom every weeknight and weekend.

Later, with school out and with some half-decent grades, I was rewarded with the opportunity to buy a couple albums and “Moving Pictures” was, of course, the only album I really cared about owning. The rest of my summer was mostly spent holed up in my bedroom, playing one side of “Moving Pictures” and then the other, over and over, every day.

With what was possibly my first album lyric sheet, I first memorized the lyrics to the six songs with vocals and later began to draw mental pictures of what Neil Peart wrote (with Pye Dubois’ help on “Tom Sawyer”) and what Geddy Lee sang, most of those pictures still vivid all these years later, available simply by playing any of the songs on the album…the “repeatable experience” that Peart has commented on.

I’ve never been able to recreate that first-listen experience, no matter how many hundreds times I played it again that year and the (likely) thousands of times I’ve heard it in the last 33 years. It was almost like the Nexus in “Star Trek Generations,” where Guinan explained to Captain Picard that being in the Nexus was like “being inside joy,” prompting one to do ANYTHING to get back to that place.

“Tom Sawyer” gave me my first exposure to a philosophy put to music:

“No his mind is not for rent…to any god or government.” 

What a WAY of thinking for an impressionable teen! Only years of maturity keeps me from determinedly thrusting my fist into the air any time I hear that line sung.

“Red Barchetta” was the first telling of a short story put to music I had heard, “YYZ” was my first rock instrumental (rock bands PLAY instrumentals?) and “Limelight” seemed like the perfect side closer. Really, is there a better album side (of songs) in progressive rock? In all of rock?

“The Camera Eye” was the first epic I ever heard; the intro to it remains one of my all-time favorite intros. “Witch Hunt” initially served as a perfect soundtrack to drawing up AD&D adventures in my bedroom – yes, I was THAT kind of kid – and much later I came to really appreciate Alex Lifeson’s riffs on that track. Finally, while reggae was an unknown genre to me, I came to like “Vital Signs” as something different, more “digital” in the sequencers, shimmering chords and tight snare in the track – and boy, would we be treated to something different on their next album!

The front and back covers of “Moving Pictures” are legendary images to me, as are the sleeve notes, lyrics (down to the fonts) and the images of the band playing their instruments; until that point, the only pictures of them I saw were the ones from the “Tom Sawyer” single and I didn’t who played what!

Aside from being exposed to a couple Rush classics such as “Fly By Night” and “Working Man” – both doing almost nothing for me as they lacked the modern sounds and playing of “Moving Pictures,” my next Rush album was “Exit..Stage Left,” then I moved backwards to take in – in order – “2112,” “Permanent Waves,” “Hemispheres” and “A Farewell To Kings,” all before “Signals” came out in the fall of 1982.

“Moving Pictures” turned out to be the first of four albums that would define and dominate the soundtrack of my life: 1982 brought me “Asia,” in 1983, Yes’ “90125” was released and soon after I got my first listen to their previous masterwork, ‘Drama.” While these albums might not carry the same level of adoration for many that numerous progressive rock albums of the ’60’s and ’70’s do, they set me on a musical journey that continues today, pointing me towards a genre of music where MUSIC is valued above all else.

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However, I can trace my love of music in general – which, to me, is like breathing – as well as anything I do musically, back to those 4 minutes and 33 seconds on a spring day in 1981, when I experienced “Tom Sawyer” for the first time…

…because you never forget your first time.

Frost* – The Rockfield Files DVD Trailer

Lest anyone think the lack of Jem Godfrey’s often hilarious “Frost* Reports” means the band have been hibernating, fear not: The boys are back with a new DVD just in time for the holidays!

Aside from brilliant re-workings of Frost* staples, the photography and lighting are REALLY good here, so do check out this trailer. Cheers!