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.
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!
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.
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 4½. 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.
New music from Norwegian experimentalists Ulver is always something to savour, and its diversity might surprise you. 2016’s cryptically-titled ATGCLVLSSCAP was mostly instrumental and partly-improvised, veering from ambient to intensely atmospheric post rock and back again. Their latest release is a quite different proposition, however.
The Assassination Of Julius Caesar channels progressive, pop and electronica influences to utterly glorious effect. Repeated listens variously bring to mind Pure Reason Revolution, Anathema, New Order, Propaganda, early Simple Minds and Massive Attack, amongst others (a list of musical reference points that will have a few Progarchy readers salivating, I’m sure).
It’s difficult to pick out highlights in an album of such consistently high quality, but right now I’m particularly enamoured by the expansive dark groove of Rolling Stone (at over 9 minutes, the album’s longest track), the elegant pop of Southern Gothic and the achingly beautiful chorus in Transverberation.
I’m calling it now. One of the best albums of 2017.
More news on the next release from The Tangent, which now has the title The Slow Rust Of Forgotten Machinery. Andy put a 10-minute video on YouTube before Christmas, summarising plans for the album and giving us a tantalising preview of the music in demo form.
If that’s whetted your appetite, why not head over to the ‘prepreorder’ page on The Tangent’s website? £50 will buy you a signed CD with your name in the accompanying booklet and a personal message from Andy, and you’ll get it a couple of days before the official release. You’ll also get an hour’s worth of album demos right now and some more track samples in March. The price drops to £30 if you can live without your name in the booklet.
This is expensive, true – but Andy’s commendably honest about the reasons for these prices. Check out the prepreorder page for a full explanation and for a preliminary track listing.
Rest assured that a normally-priced preorder option will be available in due course…
There’s some really good stuff in here, particularly on the idea of ‘small but sustainable’, on the economic pressures favouring “solo projects with computers and acoustic guitars”, and on the role played by fortunate personal circumstances (the “Mumford & Sons route to success”), but I was particularly taken by the following amusing quote, from Tommy Shotton, former drummer of Do Me Bad:
We were among the last crop of bands who took advantage of an industry that had money to throw around… The label seemed to think that it validated their investment if we agreed to travel around in a funny taxi with flowers and magazines in the back. There was a lot of ‘Oh, give the artists space to be artists’ – but all we were doing was sitting about, arguing about the sound of a cowbell while eating free doughnuts.