Album Review: The Winery Dogs — III

They say the third time’s the charm. But the third album from The Winery Dogs is more than just charmed, because we have already heard undeniable magic on their first two albums. This time, however, we witness a truly jaw-dropping breakthrough.

What is worth noting here is that we have been given a solid album with ten songs that strongly lock together. They flow inexorably, as the coherent whole of what I believe will eventually be recognized as a classic album, one even better than the merely rave reviews it has already been getting. Its magnificence gets more and more impressive with each further listen.

On previous releases, I found myself picking out favorite songs. The range of the band’s material was stunning, and while all of it was impressive, there were still standout tracks that clearly rose above the rest. On the debut, for me those were: “Elevate,” “I’m No Angel,” “Not Hopeless,” and “Regret.” On Hot Streak, they were: “The Bridge,” “War Machine,” “Devil You Know,” and “The Lamb.”

But on this release, rather than pick favorite songs, I can only pick out favorite moments within the songs. Because every track is a standout, I love them all, and I cherish those detailed special moments that each one of them contain for the dedicated listener.

“Xanadu” and “Mad World” were the two pre-release singles, which led us to expect more of the same Winery Dogs virtuosity from their earlier albums. Their magical ability is to bring Richie Kotzen’s guitar and Billy Sheehan’s bass and Mike Portnoy’s drums together in astonishing acrobatic coordination, a higher realm of musical motion which only the true greats can access, like Alex and Geddy and Neil on “Free Will.”

Yet while we get more of such magic, we also get interesting new details on this album, like the startling jazz chords in “Mad World” or the unusually intriguing lyrics to “Xanadu” which shift and change even with the musical repetitions of the chorus. Kotzen’s impassioned vocals seem to be taking an accusation (living clueless in Xanadu/Malibu) and flipping the accusation around as a badge of honor to be worn, as Kotzen makes it clear he (and the band) doesn’t care what anyone else thinks.

With that declaration of independence, and with their secession from the world’s madness, The Winery Dogs then shift direction and reveal the first two tracks to have been something of a head fake. “Breakthrough” seems to me like the kind of killer radio-friendly track that a record company would demand as the first single. But, as track three, it comes as an unexpected twist after the clever “business as usual” first two tracks.

With this twist, the album launches into the upper echelons of the most classic of classic rock territory. The punchy power chords of the chorus invite air guitar participation. Both the riff and the vocal phrasings unexpectedly remind me of Saturation-era Urge Overkill, which I found to be a delightful and obscure surprise.

“Rise” astonishes with its complexity and soulfulness, as the band continues it third-album ascent, now conducting cakewalk “business as unusual.”

But it’s “Stars” that veers off into truly delightful prog territory. Sheehan supplies a steady bass pulse for Portnoy and Kotzen to go completely bonkers around. Kotzen demonstrates beyond all doubt that he is one of the greatest of all time on this track, because his guitar solo lasts for a minute and forty seconds of such insane, imaginative, and inventive sounds that it’s unbelievable. The song enfolds all this into such a satisfying and catchy groove, it marks an outstanding conclusion to a staggeringly impressive Side A.

But the album’s B-side is astonishingly equal in achievement to the A side. The kickoff, “The Vengeance,” has one of those cathartic Kotzen vocals (like “Regret” or “The Lamb”) whose emotions are equalled by the intelligence of the lyrics (which wisely affirm that it is the weak, not the strong, who need revenge).

This track illustrates well my thesis about each album track having additional small but memorable details: here, it is the helicopter-like synth-sounding pattern which leads into each chorus, and I call it “synth-sounding” because it somehow bleeds into what sounds like a guitar. It’s a truly magical transformation, and such a thrilling little detail, yet I have no idea how it is done, but it excites the listener to no end each time it is heard.

As if that were not enough, “The Vengeance” also has more Urge Overkill overtones, with those little “ooh ooh ooh” background vocals that remind me of the musical positivity of “Positive Bleeding.”

“Pharaoh” levels the listener with a heavy riff that knows just when to hold back and also just when to smash, all while Portnoy builds pyramids with massive slabs of pounding drums.

And then there’s no respite, as the following track, “Gaslight,” delivers a musical imitation of a gaslighting assault of craziness. Its boogie blitz comes charging out of the gate with more notes per second than the human mind can possibly count. All you can do is try and shake your tail feather to keep up.

Perfectly timed for breath-catching, “Lorelei” is a slow, bluesy 6/8 waltz. It’s the type of song that would function for a lesser band as a filler cool-down track at album’s end. But for The Winery Dogs, this become merely the penultimate track, and yet another one that they use to confound listener expectations.

Sometimes nothing is more boring than a blues guitar solo, but Kotzen convinces us that we have not heard it all before, as he plays his solo lines with such feeling that we find ourselves amazed. Not only that, when he sings on the chorus, he soulfully adopts such unusual phrasing that I am reminded of Steve Perry 80s Journey. The song unexpectedly wormholes me on a journey into a magic world of nostalgic teenage school dance waltzes.

The epic final track, “The Red Wine,” begins by seeming to deliver on the promise of the album opener’s Rush-word: “Xanadu.” For the first eighteen seconds, “The Red Wine” sounds like classic Rush. I did a double-take the first time I heard those bars, and had to look again at the song name, which for those moments I thought was actually: “The Red Star.”

But after those opening flourishes, “The Red Wine” makes an abrupt stage-left turn and turns into a funky and groovy dance-along track, replete with a sing-along “party time” chorus. We even get a verse imagining senior citizens playing air guitar with their canes, as the whole world falls under the spell of The Winery Dogs’ live music.

Happily, the track ends back in Rush mode, as the camera pans up (or so I imagine) from the outside dance party, up past the patio lanterns, and then ascends into the stars as the band turns again into the Rush of the opening half-minute. We get a mellow cosmic cool-down to end the album, as the band invokes the atmospherics, yes you guessed it, of Rush’s classic “Xanadu” mood. Billy’s bass is the last one sucked into the Cygnus X-1 black hole, but it beams back a cosmic echo, advising you to buy this album and find your way to the Dogs’ dance party.

Confounding the cynics, Kotzen and Sheehan and Portnoy are clearly not just a super-group of super noodlers. With this album, they demonstrate they are one of the greatest bands to have ever rocked the Earth. With III, they leave their paw print in the pavement, preserved for all time, in the pantheon of the Rock of Fame.

Crown Lands — Starlifter: Fearless, Part 2

Crown Lands last thrilled us with a studio release in 2021, the White Buffalo EP, which included the stunning 13-minute epic, “The Oracle.”

Coming hot on the heels of the release of their undisguised Rush tribute, “Context: Fearless, Part 1,” it was yet another powerful announcement from this ambitious duo that they intended to boldly go where Rush could go no more.

Think of it as Rush: The Next Generation.

But are you ready now for these two musical ambassadors from Canada to engage you at warp speed?

Because that’s the significance of their new digital release today, the 18-minute plus track, “Starlifter, Part 2.”

The Rush allusions continue, not least with the subtitle: “Fearless, Part x,” which obviously invokes the “Fear” epic that Rush unveiled over four album releases.

Clearly, Crown Lands intends to unroll their long-form musical adventures in likeminded serial fashion, thereby leveraging the potential of digital age music delivery.

The composition itself is of the highest musical quality, and their performance of “Starlifter” calls to mind everything wonderful about Rush, including the intricate sci-fi storytelling.

Yet “Starlifter” should not be judged to be simply an exercise in nostalgia. Rather, it is the maintenance of a sacred trust, a carrying forth of a musical legacy that continues to be nothing short of inspirational.

You have it hear it. Take my word. It’ll be the best dollar you ever spend on a song download, so don’t hesitate to nab it today.

But feel free to listen for free below, if you are at all skeptical. Trust me, you will become a believer in TNG prog.

It’s truly a glorious epic, which I shall not hesitate to pronounce the Crown Lands career equivalent of a 2112-like milestone.

Chapter 1. Overture

It’s been three hundred years…

Chapter 2. Begin Transmission

The Oracle was right. I found what I sought, but at what cost?

Chapter 3. Fearless Awakens

To our doom… I am Fearless.

Chapter 4. Departure

The sentinels watch below… maybe there is a way to learn their patterns and slip in undetected?

Chapter 5. The Journey

I’m deep in the labyrinthian bowels of the ship now, and it’s clear there’s no going back.

Chapter 6. Interfacing the Machine

An unholy bio-mechanical mass of wires, knobs.. A conscious machine?

Chapter 7. Requiem

All systems operational. We awaken and are now as one. Not Man or machine. The singularity.

Chapter 8. The Battle of Starlifter

Computational error. An oversight. Catastrophe.

Chapter 9. Event Horizon

The black hole now looms overhead, promising to destroy us all.

IF LIFE IS A WHEEL…

Top 10 Albums of 2022

This year was packed with so many excellent new releases, I had a very difficult time compiling a list of the Top 10 Albums of 2022. I was able to put together a roster of my 30 favorite albums, but found it too hard to cut that down to 10. But, rather than inflict a list of 30 on you, I looked instead to my Apple Music data to find out which albums I gave the most number of listens. So, with that objective component to measure my own personal subjective pleasures, here is the slashed down list of 10. I begin with the best album of the year:

#1 Lobate Scarp, You Have It All

While it was arduous to edit down a list of the 30 best into my top 10, it is nonetheless very easy to name the #1 album of the year. Without a doubt, it is the amazing sophomore disc from Lobate Scarp. This CD was a decade in the making, and it could fill all ten slots of my top 10 list, if that could be allowed. It’s so good, you have to hear it to believe it, as I explained at length in my ecstatic Progarchy review.

#2 Pure Reason Revolution, Above Cirrus

The return of this band has been something special to celebrate ever since 2020’s Eupnea. Their stunning debut, 2006’s The Dark Third, has long been on the prog short list for a Greatest of All Time. I discuss in detail in my Prograchy review of Above Cirrus how this brilliant new disc fits within their exciting oeuvre.

#3 Brass Camel, Brass

Here’s an obscure one for you, but it will seduce your heart and mind. A genuinely unique mixture of hard rocking funk plus an intricately overlaid tapestry of prog. Dive into this album (the follow-up to their 2018 debut) by sampling the prog cred on tracks like “King for a Day,” “Easy,” and “Last Flight of the Vulcan.” I’d say one of the strongest contenders for Prog Song of the Year is “Last Flight of the Vulcan,” because the way that song takes flight is truly thrilling. As it fades out, you just want it to circle back and never end. The album itself ends perfectly with “Only Love.”

#4 Sloan, Steady

Canada’s own version of The Beatles (but with a harder edge). A four-man band of talented musicians and each of them songwriters, they gave us this incredible masterclass in power pop. Every track slays, but check out “Magical Thinking,” “Spend the Day,” and “Scratch the Surface” for a hard rockin’ intro. Then pick your own favorites, which for me include “Dream It All Over Again,” “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” and “Keep Your Name Alive.” But there’s enough here to excite anybody with classic tastes for the finest indie rock.

#5 Ghost, Impera

The union of AOR and metal takes the world by storm again. Radio would be conquered, if that were still a thing. But this gem of an album is where Ghost has perfected their previously undeveloped full potential. “Spillways,” “Call Me Little Sunshine,” and “Driftwood” are miraculous tracks that combine studio craftsmanship with the utmost musical skill, to achieve the most splendid of audio effects.

#6 Dorothy, Gifts From the Holy Ghost

The first track and the last track of this album grab you first, but then repeated listens pull you in ever further. While “A Beautiful Life” is a joyous song that can instantly turn your mood around for the better, and is thereby a perfect opening track, “Gifts From the Holy Ghost” also consolidates the uplifting mood and thereby makes for a perfect parting track, a rousing song full of hard-won wisdom, earned no doubt via 12-step recovery. Once you open yourself to this album, it will rock you hard, in an unexpected way, somewhat like the experience sung about on the suitably pounding track, “Hurricane.”

#7 Porcupine Tree, Closure/Continuation

Porcupine Tree never stole my heart, even if they had some head appeal thanks to their skillful artistry. On the contrary, Steven Wilson as a solo artist is what excited me the most, especially with Raven and Hand. But now this disc converts me to extended PT headphone excursions. Absolutely fascinating songs and sonic landscapes are discoverable here, thanks to Wilson’s uncanny production skills. And I really love the Rush “Tom Sawyer” allusions in the solo section of “Chimera’s Wreck.”

#8 Coheed and Cambria, Vaxis II: A Window of the Waking Mind

This may be a concept album with a story that arcs over multiple albums, but this disc alone is the one that blindsided me with its ridiculously catchy prog metal. Try out “Beautiful Losers,” “Shoulders,” and “The Liars Club” and see if you can resist its charms. The singing alone is so unique, and the band’s YouTube 2M2LN Rush tribute should garner your willingness to give this incredible new album a try. No wonder I listened to this CD again and again.

#9 Alter Bridge, Pawns & Kings

The first few tracks didn’t convince me right away, but the middle of this album is what knocked me over and brought on the repeated listens. “Sin After Sin” (which had me pumping the volume, thanks to its thrilling finale), “Stay,” “Holiday,” and the totally epic “Fable of the Silent Son” brought me back again and again to this album. The heavy guitar sound and the one-of-a-kind vocal gifts of Myles Kennedy are a perfect combination. Unexpectedly, on this disc, the songwriting breaks into a new level, making this my favorite of all the Alter Bridge albums, or of any Myles collaboration with Slash.

#10 The Cult, Under the Midnight Sun

If you thought The Cult was currently resting in The “Where Are They Now?” File, you are sadly mistaken. Sure, keep playing your copy of 1987’s Electric. But don’t miss this 2022 triumph, which shows the band to be moody and mature rock geniuses. Check out “Vendetta X,” “Outer Heaven,” and the six-minute prog-ish “Knife Through Butterfly Heart.” The title track, “Under the Midnight Sun,” invites your compulsive return, with its brooding and haunting poetry. With a short, thoughtful album that gets right to the point, these no-longer young dudes show they still know how to deliver the goods.

Keep calm and prog on, dear citizens of Progarchy. The year 2022 has been magnificent, and I look forward to all of us sharing new music with each other in 2023.

Progarchy’s Resident Drummer (Time Lord) on the Top Ten Albums of 2012-2022

Commemorating Progarchy’s anniversary month in Progtober, we have seen Bryan’s celebration of the decade’s best discs, as well as Rick’s top albums.

At the same time, too, we have been debating who the top artists of the past ten years are. Check out Bryan’s case for Steve Hackett; Rick’s case for Steven Wilson; and my case for Neal Morse & Mike Portnoy

Soon to follow (on the last day of October) will be our collective editorial vote for Big Big Train as being Progarchy’s defining band of the decade.

But, for today, allow me to name my ten favorite albums of the past ten years.

Revisiting my top ten lists from years past, I was surprised to see that my #1 albums were usually not the ones that I returned to in subsequent years. Instead, here are the idiosyncratic picks that give you a good idea of my most permanent musical taste. These are the albums that I have returned to more often than not, as the years have slipped by.

2021—Arc of Life, Arc of Life: As I said in my review of Dave Kerzner’s The Traveler (2022), Kerzner here collaborated on the best Yes album of the past decade, despite the ABWH-like absurdity whereby the musicians creating the masterpiece don’t call themselves Yes.

2020—Unleash the Archers, Abyss: Unleash the Archers puts the prog storytelling back into prog metal on this amazing release, which includes “Through Stars” (nicely taking us all the way back to the 80s), “The Wind That Shapes the Land” (a sprawling prog-metal masterpiece), and “Carry the Flame” (an absolutely killer duet). Unleash the Archers did a livestream concert during the pandemic that was so fantastic I watched it twice, as my ticket allowed me to do over the weekend. I would love to see it again. Maybe the band can offer a digital copy for sale?

2019—Tool, Fear Inoculum: This disc blew me away with its devastating sonic blast. There is so much happening here that must be celebrated. It is not only the greatest thing Tool has ever done, it attains the heights of the greatest and most compelling prog metal of all time. I agree with Rick K. that Tool has indeed here given us the album of the year for 2019.

2018—Brass Camel, Daniel James’ Brass Camel: Brass Camel rented space in our local planetarium to put on one of the greatest tribute concerts to the glory days of prog that I have ever seen. I wrote a review of this once-in-a-lifetime experience for Progarchy. That same year they released this CD, which I had to track down in a local vinyl record store that announced to the world their talent. Now, in this anniversary year of 2022 for Progarchy, Brass Camel has released Brass, which is currently in the running for the best prog album of the year. Check out “Last Flight of the Vulcan” if you want proof that this is a band to be reckoned with: While you’re on their Bandcamp page, give “King for a Day” and “Easy” and “Only Love” a spin. But take note: their prog supernova started back here with this hard-to-find disc, back in 2018. Don’t wait too long to let it reach your ears.

2017—Schooltree, Heterotopia: Adam Sears of Lobate Scarp, an impeccable musician with impeccable taste, tipped me off to this stunningly brilliant epic album. You can tell from my rapturous review what ecstasy it imparts. Also, thanks to that review, the mighty Rick K. found his way to write for Progarchy, if you have ever heard his origin story.

2016—Headspace, All That You Fear Is Gone: Damian Wilson is an incredible talent and this disc is the perfect prog metal venue for his gifts to shine at their brightest. But everyone on the album is amazing. This uplifting record never gets old for me.

2015—The Gentle Storm, The Diary: Anneke van Giersbergen does unbelievable work on this masterpiece. Teamed up with her metalhead pal Arjen Anthony Lucassen, the story is nonetheless told best on the disc marked as “The Gentle Version.” Check out Anneke’s work with Vuur if you want a harder-edged metal experience. But here, it’s her acoustic side that works best, especially as beautifully complemented by Arjen’s classical and exotic instrumentation.

2014—Sloan, Commonwealth: Sloan is one of my favorite bands of all time. They are essentially Canada’s version of the Beatles, but with an ability to rock even harder when appropriate. Back in 2014, they did this double album, where each member (similar to the unrestrained experimentation of the Pink Floyd of the early years) gets a whole album side devoted to their individual compositions. As Mike Portnoy has recognized, Sloan has released in 2022 a blast of power pop perfection that is an undisputed contender for album of the year (Steady), but back in 2014 I noted their turn to a prog aesthetic with that 17:40 song.

Note that Sloan only stole the 2014 album slot from Haken because Restoration was an EP, even though it has one of my favorite Haken songs, “Crystallized.” I’ll never forget seeing Haken perform that song live.

2013—Steven Wilson, The Raven That Refused to Sing and other stories: There’s not much I can say about Steven Wilson that Rick or Bryan has left unsaid. But I have to admit that Wilson and Porcupine Tree did nothing for me until this Raven album came out. It master the idioms of my favorite prog bands. Thus, Wilson has had my attention forever after. So, even though Hand Cannot Erase (I choose to erase the dopey periods) is the Wilson album I have probably listened to the most (and I loved the concert tour for that album which I was lucky enough to see live here in Vancouver and then review), I still choose Raven as the Wilson disc for my decade-long list of 10.

2012—Flying Colors, Flying Colors: As I have already noted, “Infinite Fire” is the track that sealed the deal to make me inescapably devoted to Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy. It’s a nice bonus, too, that Steve Morse adds his signature guitar stylings to this album, since I had been a big fan of that other Morse since his Dixie Dregs and Steve Morse Band days. But wow, with BBT on the other side of the Atlantic, and Morse and Portnoy and pals on this side, it is clear that, after decade, prog rock has achieved, if not world domination, at least residence in the hearts of all the citizens of Progarchy, our everlasting republic of musical freedom.

Progarchy’s Artists of the Decade: Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy

Neal Morse & Mike Portnoy: Prog Artists of the Decade (2012-2022)

Progarchy has been here for a decade now. So, we’re celebrating in this October anniversary month by looking back at the past ten years.

Already in this series, “Progarchy’s Artists of the Decade,” we’ve had two strong cases made for Steve Hackett and Steven Wilson. Undeniably, two guys named Steve loom large over the past ten years of prog.

Indeed, those are two eminent artists. Hackett looks back to the golden age of prog’s birth. He draws upon the best of Genesis to make new music and also to keep the Genesis legacy alive. Wilson is a next generation prog polymath whose creativity has exploded over the last decade and given us all many hours of ecstatic listening.

All the same, I am going to have vote for the dynamic duo of Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy as the team whose energy has been unmatched in productivity and prog excellence. The two Steves, prolific as they are, are still no match for the dazzling output from the two men who, ever since they respectively left Spock’s Beard and Dream Theater, have delivered an astonishing stream of recordings for our enjoyment.

I myself have spent more hours over the past decade listening to the many albums that Morse and Portnoy have been involved in—more hours of albums than the two Steves combined. And I have no hesitation in ranking them together as my ten-year pick, despite the mighty works (both concerts and albums) of the Steves of prog.

Two decades ago, Morse left Spock’s Beard. But it was with Momentum (2012), a decade ago, that his output began to dominate my playlists. It was a decade ago that Progarchy started up, as we founders rallied around a shared love of Big Big Train in order to get the word out online about the new birth of prog happening with a new generation after Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Rush, and all the other greats who shaped our formative years.

That Morse solo album included Portnoy on drums. I couldn’t get enough of it, and the solo section on the powerful title track will be forever burned into my mind with its dazzling keyboards by Morse—and Paul Gilbert’s mind-blowing guitar solo. For me, it definitely announced the dawn of a new interstellar age of prog glory, with Portnoy’s kick drums propelling us forward at warp speed overdrive.

But that Morse and Portnoy dominance of my playlists was foreshadowed by the release in that same year, just a couple months earlier than Momentum, of the stunning supergroup debut of Flying Colors’ Flying Colors (2012). That entire album is a masterpiece. My two favorite tracks are “The Storm” and “Infinite Fire,” the latter of which ranked right up there for me with the greatest of Yes. Yes, “Infinite Fire” was reminiscent of Yes because it induced the same ecstatic prog experience when listening to it. And with the Steve power of another Morse adding his guitar into the music, the cathartic axe-work on “The Storm” delivered prog positivity to the max, with a song capable of turning any bad day around on a dime.

Morse and Portnoy went on to apply their indispensable talents to powering Transatlantic’s Kaleidoscope (2014) and The Absolute Universe (2021) into new galaxies of prog. What’s truly amazing is that these two albums could stand on their own to rule the past decade. But sandwiched between them we have an incredible series of albums exhibiting unmatched creativity.

Indeed, Flying Colors itself gave us two more stunning albums, with Second Nature (2014) and Third Degree (2019). But the Neal Morse Band, under another dynamic duo pseudonym, gave Morse and Portnoy another pretext to record albums together. And these NMB albums arguably overshadow the two Transatlantic and the three Flying Colors albums, because Morse and Portnoy shine even brighter, as they step to the forefront even more than they would otherwise do within the supergroup dynamics of the Transatlantic and Flying Colors.

The NMB albums are four in number: The Grand Experiment (2015), The Similitude of a Dream (2016), The Great Adventure (2019), and Innocence & Danger (2021). Stepping back and looking at the sweeping ambition of these four albums, it is unbelievable how much they draw upon the epic prog heritage of epic-length tracks, while still further taking that classical genre to new levels of excellence. Again, just these four lengthy albums could lay claim to dominance of the prog achievement of the past decade of music. But placed alongside Transatlantic and Flying Colors, I think they supply definitive proof that Morse and Portnoy deserve the title of Prog Artists of the Decade (2012-2021).

Morse and Portnoy have a shared love and mastery of the greatest music of decades past. Proof positive may be found on their Cover to Cover albums. Check out their Cov3r to Cov3r Anthology (vols. 1-3), which includes the exuberantly playful discs Cover 2 Cover (2012) and Cov3r to Cov3r (2020) added to the joyous original.

Once upon a time, I would argue for Neal Peart as the GOAT. But listen to all of the above albums, and then you will realize how Portnoy extends that noble heritage of the savvy prog group drummer into an unmatched variety of ensemble collaborations.

Over the past decade, Portnoy is apparently the hardest working drummer in show business. Of course, he always has time for working with Neal, as when the two of them snuck in their work on Sola Gratia (2020). This shows us again, Portnoy’s humility is pretty much the archetype of the drummer’s Platonic form. He seemingly has no ego, always willing to play on what is officially called a Neal Morse solo album or a Neal Morse Band collaboration. But Portnoy is clearly the indispenable other half of Morse’s past decade of output. What’s amazing is that Portnoy is happy just to play drums and let his playing speak for itself.

Let Portnoy’s discography of collaborations conclude the case I am making in this post. Consider his unmistakable sound as part of Adrenaline Mob (three albums: 2011, 2012, and 2013); as part of Metal Allegiance (three albums: 2015, 2016, and 2018); as part of Sons of Apollo (two albums: 2017 and 2020); as part of BPMD, American Made (2020); with John Petrucci, Terminal Velocity (2020); with Liquid Tension Experiment 3 (2021); and as part of The Winery Dogs (three albums: 2013, 2015, 2017).

That’s fourteen more albums of Portnoy added to the fourteen I already mentioned above! 28 albums over a decade? Sounds like we have a winner here, an equal partner with Morse who more than carries his weight in every collaboration.

Morse and Portnoy have been the dominant artists in my past ten years of listening. The stats from my Apple Music app tell me so. So here’s my Progarchy salute to congratulate them both. Other bands and other artists come and go. But these two have left a permanent mark of excellence. And I get the feeling that they are working away together on even more new music. Excelsior!

Album Review: The Traveler, Dave Kerzner

Dave Kerzner, The Traveler (Sonic Elements, 2022): ★★★★½ = 9/10 = A+

Dave Kerzner’s third studio solo album is another triumph. Collaborating with some of the greatest musicians in prog, Kerzner produces another astonishing sonic experience. As with his previous solo works, his technical expertise places the highest quality audio elements in the service of loving song-craft.

This time around, Kerzner’s solo writing is the strongest it has ever been. If you want prog epics, go to Arc of Life (where Kerzner collaborated on the best Yes album of the past decade, despite the ABWH-like absurdity whereby the musicians creating the masterpiece don’t call themselves “Yes”), but if you want concise mastery of the art of songwriting, check out The Traveler masterclass, where Kerzner’s lyrics rise to the highest level in order to fully complement his sonic world of wonders.

The B-side of the album (tracks 5 to 9), however, could be considered a prog-length suite, since tracks 5 and 9 (“Here and Now”, Parts 1 and 2) act as an impressive frame for the seamless sonic journey that unfolds over the inner tracks 6 to 8 (“Better Life,” “Cannot Get It Back,” and “Feels Like Home”).

“Here and Now, Part 2” is itself worth the price of admission for the entire disc. Genesis fans will smile as Kerzner takes a page out of the Genesis playbook and cleverly references “Cinema Show” at the beginning of the track, and he then proceeds to put Tony Banks’ keyboard sounds to further exciting use. With Nick D’Virgilio on drums and Billy Sherwood on bass powering the song, the track brings the album to an exhilarating climax, ending with a reference to both the opening track “Another Life” and also to the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.”

The Genesis keyboard tricks are deployed throughout the album, on tracks like “A Time in Your Mind” (which sounds like 80s Genesis), confirming Kerzner as the premier keyboard wizard of our time. The keyboard sounds on this album are consistently jaw-dropping and make it immensely pleasurable for listen after listen.

D’Virgilio plays on most of the album, but there’s also Marco Minnemann on tracks 1 and 2. “Ghostwritten Fables” (track 2), in particular, exhibits such astonishingly virtuosic drumming that it proves what a huge difference it makes to have only the highest echelon talent behind the kit on any song. Because Kerzner is the coolest guy in prog, he gets collaboration from amazing musicians on every track. Check out the credits (found at the end of this review) for many other eye-popping surprise appearances here, like Steve Hackett and David Longdon.

Speaking of Longdon, “For Granted” serves up a poignant mediation on loss, making it another highlight on an album full of unusually strong songs. In addition to the Genesis inspirations and literal keyboard references, Kerzner also crafts his own unique sound, which on this disc seems to infuse an uplifting slab of Sigur Ros-like walls of sound into Kerzner’s signature blend. It’s yet more proof that we are living, here and now, in nothing less than the best days of prog. I think with this particular sound blend on The Traveler, Kerzner has truly found his own distinguishing keyboard sound that is nonetheless rooted in the tradition of the greatest.

The organic way in which the guitars are interwoven into the songs, especially on the standout track “Better Life” with its cathartic guitar textures, is unexpected from a solo artist like Kerzner who specializes in delivering the highest level of keyboard experiences. But it’s more proof of Kerzner’s ability to collaborate with only the best, and yet at the same time draw from them their very best playing on each of the tracks. No one is ever showboating, but yet they all manage to impress with their dedication to an exalted sonic service of the song. Fernando Perdomo, in particular, again leaves his indelible mark on a Kerzner album, as he seems to be an indispensable half of the Kerzner dynamic duo.

For those curious, Kerzner explains the album’s story concept, which will please those who like their prog with a unifying conceptual justification:

All three of my studio solo albums are concept albums and the stories are connected to each other. The character, The Traveler, is able to travel in time through his mind and influence the past or future. On “New World”, he’s stranded in the desert and has to find his way home which he thinks is in the future, on “Static” he’s lost in a chaotic world of distractions (like Idiocracy or today! haha) and on “The Traveler” he’s traveled so far into the past and future that he finally comes full circle to appreciate love, peace and harmony in the “here and now”.

All three albums have a duality of being sci fi stories and, at the same time, being stories we can relate to because they’re also about us! We’re all “time travelers” in that most of us spend more time thinking about the past or future than getting the most out of the present moment.

Complementing this uplifting concept, the music also speaks for itself, and the lyrics of each individual song stand on their own merits. This is some of the best prog you will hear, especially if you appreciate subtle art and elegant audio refinements. It’s a shoo-in for the year’s top ten, and Progarchy salutes Dave Kerzner for making the world a better place, and for showing us the way to living a better life.

Dave Kerzner – The Traveler

 Reviewed by C. S. Morrissey for Progarchy.com

1. Another Lifetime 
2. Ghostwritten Fables 
3. A Time In Your Mind 
4. For Granted 
5. Here and Now Pt1 
6. Better Life 
7. Cannot Get It Back  
8. Feels Like Home 
9. Here and Now Pt2  

All songs written by Dave Kerzner except: 
Cannot Get It Back music written by Dave Kerzner, Randy McStine and Fernando Perdomo, Lyrics by Dave Kerzner

Here and Now pt 1 & 2 music written by Dave Kerzner, Randy McStine and Fernando Perdomo, Lyrics by Dave Kerzner

Ghostwritten Fables by Dave Kerzner and Gene Siegel, Lyrics by Dave Kerzner

Cover artwork by Rafal Olbinski 
Graphic Design by Dave Kerzner 

Musicians:  
Dave Kerzner – Lead vocals, keyboards, acoustic guitars and drum programming 
Fernando Perdomo – Guitar on all tracks, bass on tracks 1, 4, 6  
Francis Dunnery – Guitar on track 6  
Randy McStine – Guitar on tracks 5, 7 and 9 
Nick D’Virgilio – Drums on tracks 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 9 
Marco Minnemann – Drums on tracks 1 and 2  
Alex Cromarty – Drums on track 8 
Stuart Fletcher – Bass on track 8 
Matt Dorsey – Bass on tracks 2, 5, 7 and 9 
Billy Sherwood – Bass on tracks 5, 7 and 9 
Jon Davison – Vocals on track 8 
Durga McBroom – Backing vocals on tracks 3, 4, 6, 7 and 8  
Alex “Yatte” Chod – Backing vocals on tracks 1, 3 
Joe Deninzon – Violins and Violas on tracks 1, 2, 5 and 9 
Ruti Celli – Cello on tracks 1, 2, 5 and 9

 

Cameo spoken word appearances by Emily Lynn, Heather Findlay, Lara Smiles and David Longdon (Here and Now pt1) as well as a guitar cameo from Steve Hackett (For Granted). 

 

Mixed and Mastered by Dave Kerzner

“Prog Architects at Heart” — @Metric

Progarchy is pleased to announce Metric releases their new album today: Formentera ★★★★ 8/10 A-

There is a great interview and analysis, along with track previews, over at Apple Music:

They may be synonymous with nervy dance-punk and neon-lit electro-pop, but Metric have always been prog architects at heart—think of the multi-sectional sprawl of early standards like “Hustle Rose” or “Empty,” or the two-part cosmic synth suite “The Face” that closed out 2015’s Pagans in Vegas. And with the first track of their eighth album, Formentera, they erect their most labyrinthine musical obstacle course to date. Clocking in at over 10 minutes, “Doomscroller” instantly thrusts you into a nightmarish beatscape, as lead singer Emily Haines dispenses vivid vignettes of the cabin-fever claustrophobia that defined pandemic life for so many. But after building to a mid-song climax, “Doomscroller” simmers down into a wounded but comforting piano-ballad finale that shifts the vibe from Kid A to Queen, providing a road map of the therapeutic emotional arc that plays out over the course of the record. “We weren’t interested in making a pandemic record,” guitarist James Shaw tells Apple Music. “We were interested in making an end-of-pandemic record. We wanted to soundtrack people’s journey out of this hellhole.”

For Metric, the destination they had in mind was Formentera, the Balearic island that the group spotted in a travel magazine they discovered in Shaw’s rural Ontario studio, and which became their lodestar as they sheltered and recorded in place with producers Liam O’Neil and Gus van Go. As Shaw tells it, that isolating experience ultimately proved to be liberating for a band entering its third decade of existence. “What we realized in the course of making this record was that we actually can do whatever we want,” Shaw says as he begins his track-by-track commentary for the album. “We’ve built a career that is somewhat insulated from a lot of external forces, and that was very freeing—like, ‘Yes, we can start our record with a 10-and-a-half minute song!’”

“Doomscroller”
“We didn’t set out to make a 10-and-a-half minute song. The first half of the song was something that Liam and I had been working on; Emily listened to it and sang her whole part in one take. But there was something about the song that just felt unfinished. It felt kind of stark—doomscrolling is not the most uplifting feeling! We wanted to add some sort of redemption, and Emily came in with this other piece of music and thought, ‘What if we segued into this?’ Once we got to the place where the two things melded, I really wanted the ending to feel like a big hug after the whole thing you just went through.”

“All Comes Crashing”
“We were getting near the end of the record, and we had written a ton of music. We were trying to assemble this group of songs, and we knew we were missing one. So, right at the end, Emily sat me and Gus down and played us three songs that she had just recorded on the piano. This song was the last one that she played for us. Gus and I both looked at each other and we’re like, ‘You’re kidding, right?’ Of all the music that we’d written over two years, this was the most straightforward, completely relatable song! Emily’s talking about a love that’s not bound by the conventions of heterosexual romantic relationships, or even romantic relationships at all. When everything really hits the fan, we have an opportunity to find out who that important person is for you—maybe it’s your neighbor, maybe it’s your pal, maybe it’s your dog.”

“What Feels Like Eternity”
“This started as an electronic piece but definitely developed into more of a band moment—especially in the bridge, where I got to exercise my love for Johnny Marr’s playing. When we started sequencing the record, we realized the narrative arc is that it starts in a lot of turmoil and anxiety, and this song is sort of the height of that stress we were all feeling about a year into this [pandemic] mess and wondering, ‘Is this thing ever gonna end?’ It just felt like every step forward was actually two or three steps backwards.”

“Formentera”
“What happened to us over the course of the last two years is encapsulated more in this song than anything else. We realized that everything you thought you were in control of, you weren’t. But in that process of realizing how little control you actually have in the world, there’s a huge amount of freedom. So, when you get to this point on the record, an orchestra carries you into the escapism of ‘Formentera,’ which is where we went in our imaginations. Emily says in the song, ‘Why not just let go?’ Emily tends to be the canary in the coal mine in the group—she was like, ‘Hey, guys, I think I’m free. And it’s pretty nice in here. Let’s go to Formentera.’”

“Enemies of the Ocean”
“In the narrative arc, this is the moment where you realize, once you find peace, it’s OK to reflect. You’re not in a struggle anymore, so you can come to terms with what happened and where you are and where you’ve been and what the hell’s going on. When I heard this the other day again, I thought, ‘Man, we must have listened to a lot of Mercury Rev!’”

“I Will Never Settle”
“Liam and I were working, and I pulled up an old, little fragment of music from maybe 2014. We resurrected it and completely changed the vibe, and then we sent it to Emily, and she said, ‘OK, you guys are insane—mind blown. I guess I’m writing a new song to this.’ It ended up being like a midpoint mission statement: Once you’ve left all the anxiety and demons behind, then you can put your fist up and say, ‘I’m not doing that again—I’m not going to settle for that kind of life. I know what I can do in this world, and I know what I’m capable of.’”

“False Dichotomy”
“Emily became obsessed for a minute with the idea of a false dichotomy and how there’s so many things in the world where you’re told that you can only do one or the other, and that they’re mutually exclusive—like success and integrity. This is like an extension of ‘I Will Never Settle.’ It’s saying, ‘I don’t have to be one or the other. I don’t have to be starving to be a poet. I don’t have to only express love or hate. It’s just not that simple.’ When you embrace the complexity of things, it allows you to lead a much richer and deeper existence.”

“Oh Please”
“This was a very early track that we did in summer 2020. And it was just Emily expressing an excitement over not being held down by anything. It’s basically her saying, ‘Whatever you think I am, I am something else. You can’t peg a title on me. You don’t know what I am—I know what I am.’”

“Paths in the Sky”
“Because this album starts with so much stress, we felt it was important to end on a really peaceful note—but also have it feel a little bit open-ended. ‘Paths in the Sky’ is really just an ode to true friendship. We all have those people in our lives that you can call and say, ‘Meet me at the back of the bar’ and tell them how shitty things are, and they’ll hear you, and they’ll give you advice—and you probably won’t take it! Emily’s always writing songs about friendship. There’s people who write songs about romance a lot—romance gets a ton of airtime, but friendship doesn’t get that much, and it kind of deserves it.”

Splintered Throne, “The Reaper is Calling” (May 27)

Rawr! Get ready for Splintered Throne’s new incarnation with vocalist Lisa Mann, whose solo album The Poisoner (recorded under her alias White Crone) was chosen here at Progarchy as one of the ten best albums of 2020.

Splintered Throne’s new single is coming this Friday, May 27, in advance of the whole album’s release on August 19. Check below for the full track list.

Keep an eye on https://splinteredthrone.bandcamp.com/ for this Friday, indeed, but you can also right now order CD copies there of Splintered Crone’s 2018 metal masterpiece, Redline. Don’t be misled by its first three tracks, which are relatively traditional; the album unfolds with undeniable prog sensibilities with a veritable cascade of standout tracks like “Nature’s Design,” “Fog of War,” and “Inside Looking Out,” and then finally crescendoes into the absolutely epic “Take It to the Grave.”

It’s going to be great to hear what Lisa Mann’s Dio-like charisma will bring to the band. Compare her own prog chops on tracks like “Interment,” “Edge of Gone,” and “18 Rabbit” from her sledgehammer showcase The Poisoner. The new Throne disc seems likely to achieve the greater good of metal, thanks to her exciting new vibe.