YABOL (Part 3)

In Part 2 of Yet Another ‘Best Of’ List, I showed you the albums that I’d ranked sixteenth to ninth; now its time to conclude proceedings by counting down my top eight releases from 2017…

8. Damanek – On Track


I confess to being ignorant of Guy Manning’s repertoire, which is very remiss of me if this is any way representative of his output. Put simply, this album is an absolute joy, wonderfully melodic and catchy as hell – read Erik Heter’s excellent review if you want a detailed breakdown of its myriad delights. A sure sign of a great album is the difficulty you have in singling any track out for special praise, but I feel compelled to highlight the cool jazz-funk of Believer – Redeemer and the extended soloing in Oil Over Arabia as particular favourites. Guaranteed to get those toes tapping!

7. White Moth Black Butterfly – Atone


The second album to emerge from Daniel Tompkins’ collaboration with Skyharbor’s Keshav Dhar. (I’ve yet to hear the first.) When I checked my music software stats, I just couldn’t believe how often I’ve played this. To these ears, it is a thing of beauty, flowing effortlessly from one track to the next, with Symmetry and The Sage the tracks that particularly stand out. Critics may lament the lack of bite, but if you just sit back and give it a chance, its gentle charms may seduce you and warm your soul. Who needs chemical stimulation when you have something as genuinely mood-enhancing as this?

Continue reading “YABOL (Part 3)”

YABOL (Part 2)

Welcome to Part 2 of Yet Another ‘Best Of’ List!

After presenting that montage of my top sixteen albums from 2017 in Part 1, it’s time to start ranking them. So here we go, from sixteenth place to ninth place…

16. Tangerine Dream – Quantum Gate


A controversial release, given the opinion of some that ‘The Tangs’ should have bowed out gracefully following the death of founder and last remaining original member Edgar Froese a couple of years ago. But Thorsten Quaeschning has proven himself a safe pair of hands, more than capable of moulding the ideas and musical thumbnail sketches that Edgar left behind into something that is most satisfying, and recognisably a TD album. Definitely worth a listen if you are a fan of the band, or of electronic music in general.

15. Charlie Cawood – The Divine Abstract


Charlie’s taken time out from bass-playing duties with Knifeworld and his various other musical projects to produce his first solo release – and very good it is, too! An utterly delightful collection of subtle and fascinating compositions, some with a distinctly oriental feel, played largely on acoustic instruments. Charlie handles guitars & sitar, and a host of others play everything else (among them various other members of Knifeworld, and Haken’s keyboard maestro Diego Tejeida). Particular highlights are The Earth’s Answer, Garden Of The Mind and closing track Apotheosis.

Continue reading “YABOL (Part 2)”

YABOL (Part 1)

Yet Another ‘Best Of’ List, I’m afraid.

I can almost hear that sigh, almost sense you thinking ‘not another one’ – but this has been a painful process, and a minute or two of your attention would be much appreciated.

I really struggle with these, you see. I must do, given that it seems to have been four years since I last posted one here!

It’s not that I haven’t tried since then. I really have. But I just keep… running out of steam. There are too many tough questions to answer. How many releases do I list? 5? 10? 20? Then there’s the tricky business of deciding who’s in and who’s out, complicated by that quaintly British thing (or maybe it’s just me?) of feeling like I’d offend someone by omitting them. Not to mention the sheer agony of indecision when trying to rank my selection…

Deep breaths, Nick. Deep breaths…

And baby steps. Maybe that’s the best way to get this done.

Let’s start with some ground rules: First, no EPs, only full albums. That gets rid of Thumpermonkey’s hugely impressive Electricity. Second, no live albums – which neatly avoids any decision-making regarding The Fierce & The Dead’s Field Recordings, for example. Third, no reissues – which eliminates Songs From The Wood, Misplaced Childhood & OK Computer from further consideration (just three of a host of classics that reappeared this year).

Well that’s helped, but not enough.

It’s time to get ruthless, through the application of what shall henceforth be known in these hallowed halls as The Birzer Principle: namely, the examination of music player stats.

With hard data to guide me, I am finally getting somewhere. Though only by discarding some excellent releases: Malina by Leprous;  Fate Outsmarts Desire from Kaprekar’s Constant; Tilt’s Hinterland; Magnified by Beatrix Players; and Koyo’s eponymous debut. All wonderful in their own ways, and all gone, with only an ‘honourable mention’ to show for it.

At least that leaves me with something manageable. So here they all are, in no particular order. Sixteen of the best from 2017:


Just looking at this montage, I’m already struck by the relative lack of ‘straight prog’ and harder, heavier stuff. Interesting…

As for the rankings: you’ll have to wait for Part 2 for those!

True Colors

Now this is interesting.

I’d no idea that Flying Colors were unhappy with the final ‘commercial’ mastering of their debut album – yet clearly they were, because they’ve released the raw master as a digital download.

Your $8 buys you a stonking 1GB of stuff, including all the music, in multiple compressed and uncompressed formats, and a 102-page digital booklet that includes new artwork and previously unreleased photos.

Get it now from the band’s Calliopia web store.

Evolution, Not Revolution: Inside “To The Bone”

Much has been written already about Steven Wilson’s supposed change of direction, with the great man himself talking up this new release as his “pop album”. Others have likened Wilson’s recent trajectory to that which took Peter Gabriel from the innovative, Fairlight-driven experiments of ‘4’ (or Security, if you prefer) to the more finely-honed commercialism of So.

Yet as I press Play for the umpteenth time, I’m not struck by any real sense of sonic revolution. To these ears, at least, To The Bone sounds like an entirely natural progression: a logical step further down a path he had oriented himself towards with 2015’s Hand. Cannot. Erase. The clues to how this new album sounds are there in HCE’s title track and in ‘Perfect Life’, and they are there in ‘Vermillioncore’ from the 2016 follow-up mini-album . There are pointers from further back in his career, too, should you care to look for them: ‘No Part Of Me’ on Grace For Drowning, ‘Abandoner’ on Insurgentes (echoed here in more up-beat fashion by ‘Song Of I’), even some of his work with Porcupine Tree and No-Man.

If anything, Wilson seems to be not so much moving in a new direction as he is circling back to revisit and revive influences that have been present only intermittently in recent years, bringing them to the forefront and giving them more room to breathe. But even that may be overstating the case.

All of which makes the whines of complaint from certain unenlightened denizens of Internet forums simply mystifying. How well do these people understand Wilson’s artistic credentials? Have they never listened to No-Man, or Blackfield, or his covers of Abba and Prince? Whilst not liking what he’s done here is fine, to suggest he’s ‘sold out’ or is somehow ‘betraying prog roots’ is frankly absurd.

I suppose this album could be described as more pop than prog in the sense that Wilson has taken the opportunity to rein in what some see as the bombast of earlier solo work. This is no Raven, which unashamedly flaunted the virtuosity of its stellar contributors. The closest it comes to excess is in the extended guitar wig-out of the nine-minute epic ‘Detonation’; barring that, this is an altogether more restrained and refined affair.

Which is not to say that To The Bone lacks drama or intensity. There is plenty of that on display – the thrilling sudden crescendo in ‘Pariah’ as Ninet Tayeb’s voice gloriously spans octaves stands out, as do the angry wails and unexpected profanity that open ‘People Who Eat Darkness’. But generally this album dials back the melancholy and strips away some of the concept album earnestness that permeates (permanates?) earlier work.

Be in no doubt that this is recognisably a Steven Wilson album, beautifully crafted and balanced, but with few real surprises. The biggest eyebrow-raiser by far – and the only genuine indulgence in pure straightforward pop to be found in the solid hour of music on offer here – is the pulsing three-and-a-half minute ‘Permanating’, an infectiously joyful earworm quite different from anything appearing on his earlier albums. Whisper it, but Steven could actually be having fun here… Yes, shocking, isn’t it?

If To The Bone isn’t quite as dense and audibly complex as earlier work, there are still many layers to explore. The production is impeccable, of course – we’ve come to expect nothing less – but it is the songcraft that shines through, more than Wilson’s customary nerdish attention to the minutiae of the recording process. This may not be the absolute pinnacle of his achievements, but it is surely his most accessible work to date: a hugely enjoyable album whose subtle charms deserve to be relished rather than dismissed.