My favorite Album of 2014, Redux

flyingcolors_2ndnaturecoverAt risk of annoying those who waded through my New Year’s Day post on my favorite prog/rock albums of 2014, I’m (re)posting my #1 pick from that list, as I think it stands alone just fine as a review. And because I think so highly of this album. Oh, and because I don’t post nearly enough on this fine blog, so maybe this can count toward my post total! By the way, a recent issue of PROG magazine (Issue 51 2014) raved about this album—but didn’t get into the lyrical content as I do below.

“Second Nature” by Flying Colors. Every once in a while—perhaps once every few years—I hear an album that I listen to again and again…and again: Jeff Buckley’s “Grace”, “OK Computer” by Radiohead, and Soundgarden’s “Superunknown” come to mind. I’ve now listened to this album 75 times or so (according to my iTunes), and I’ve not tired of it at all. Not even close. If anything, I like it more than ever, and I’m confident I’ll be listening to it for years to come. There are numerous reasons for my obsession with “Second Nature,” but I’ll note just a couple of big ones. It begins with the album title, “Second Nature,” which certainly references that this is the group’s second studio album and the fact that making music, for these five masters, is second nature.

But it finally points to the intertwining, overarching theme of the album, which is that of spiritual awakening, ascent, and transformation, the movement from putting off the “old nature” and putting on the “new nature,” spoken of by Paul the Apostle in his letter to the Ephesians (4:22-24). The arch can be seen in the opening and closing lyrics. “Open Up Your Eyes” is a song of self-examination and spiritual assessment:

Dream, empty and grey
A story waiting for a place to begin
Hands, laying all the best laid plans
But where do we leave our mark
In this life?

There is reference to original sin, echoing Eliot’s “Four Quartets”: “Torn, wearing the disease you mourn/Like a deep freeze it burns.” And then the promise and the hope is proffered: “Open up your eyes and come awake/You will be created now”—itself a reference, I’m quite certain, to the Apostle Paul’s various exhortations to rouse oneself from spiritual slumber and to be made a “new creation.” The language of redemption and salvation are shot through the entire album; in many ways, this is the most open and covert Christian album I’ve ever heard (up there with early King’s X), and the approach is perfectly balanced and executed.

“Mask Machine” laments the layers of deception inherent in the dominant, de-sacralized culture, “With love for sale and gold for dirt/I’ll worship every fleeting aching.” The song “Bombs Away” furthers the lament and confesses the sad state of the first and fallen nature: “Run by my instincts/I’m high on the freeway/And I’m scared I’ll come down.” But there is a recognition of the vocation to transcendence: “I’d love to be found” and, “I need to find a way beyond.”

The next four songs, “The Fury of My Love”, “A Place In Your World”, “Lost Without You”, and “One Love Forever” are love songs—but for whom? Or Whom? There is a certainly ambiguity in the first two, as if nodding to the face that earthly love is itself a reflection of heavenly love: “Singing I surrender/I surrender/Tearing all the walls away/I’m giving you a place.” but by “One Love Forever” the ambiguity is gone, replace by clarity and knowledge of the God-sized hole in the human heart: “One love forever/For one consuming hole inside/One love forever/… One love for all time/Is calling/Our eyes contain eternity.”

The final two songs, “Peaceful Harbor” and “Cosmic Symphony”, mark the apex of the redemptive ascent: arrival and contemplation. And the music, amazingly, more than matches the rather mystical topic at hand. “Peaceful Harbor” is a soaring, ecstatic hymn: “I’ll look beyond/With this bedlam behind me/And I embrace the sky/My soul will cry/May your wind ever find me.” The final song is both prog heaven and, well, a hopeful glimpse of heaven: “I’m searchin’ for the air but I’m stuck here on the ground … And when I get to walk the streets/Without this burden on my feet/I know I’ve been called home…”

The monumental final, three-part track, “Cosmic Symphony,” is deeply emotional but resolute in nature. Once again, Eliot comes to mind (“Preludes” and “The Hollow Men” in particular), with references to scarecrows and cigarettes, with descriptions both abstract and apocalyptic: “Shrinking violet wounded by her mother/Old men sleep while porcelain screams take over/And the wolf disguises her undying lover.” There is a recognition, it seems, that redemption comes through acknowledging our limits in this temporal realm: “I’m searching for the air but I’m stuck here on the ground now…” But the conclusion, again, is one of hope in the world beyond: “And when I get to walk these streets/Without a burden on these feet/I’ll know I’ve been called home…”

Secondly, as indicated, the music perfectly carries and conveys the rich lyrical content. We all know that these guys can play anything; what is especially striking to me is how they play as a band, for the sake of the music. There are no solos for the sake of solos; everything is at the service of the songs. Steve Morse, who I’ve been listening to for 30 years now, continues to amaze with his ability to play with such precision and economy, yet with such soulfulness. See, for example, his solos in “Peaceful Harbor” and “Cosmic Symphony”. Morse is always distinctly Steve Morse, and yet he has an uncanny—humble, really—ability to serve the music at hand (I also think of his masterful work on Kansas’ criminally underrated “In the Spirit of Things”). Neal Morse and Carey McPherson have apparently mind-melded as vocalists; at times it is hard to say who is singing, nor does it matter. The amount of energy and love they have poured into this album is obvious. Dave LaRue is the epitome of virtuoso bass playing that is rooted and melodic; his brief solo near the beginning of “Cosmic Symphony” is a piece of sheer beauty—again, at the service of the song. And Mike Portnoy’s playing is so very tasteful, with all sorts of meticulous detail.

In short, this is, for me, a magical album. Thank you, Flying Colors!

Tiger Moth Tales’ “Cocoon” – Synth-Driven Prog At Its Absolute Best

The Big Big Train Facebook group is a seething hotbed of excellent music tips, so when I saw a post about an album called “Cocoon” by Tiger Moth Tales (aka Nottinghamshire-based musician Peter Jones – read all about him here) I knew it was probably worth spending some time investigating.

The link to a song called “A Visit to Chigwick” immediately intrigued me (as I am sure it would for certain UK people who enjoyed children’s television back in the 60s and 70s…) so I clicked on it.

As the track played a broad grin developed, as well as, I must admit, a slightly moist eye. Something very special was happening here, so off I went to make a purchase, and it landed on my metaphorical New Zealand door mat yesterday afternoon.

Here’s what Peter himself has to say about the birth of this album (from the liner notes:)

It all happened by accident really. One day I sat down to try and write a song, and ended up with a prog song about Trumpton. I had no idea what I was going to do with it, but as I tried to focus more on conventional music, I kept getting more and more ideas about songs on childhood subjects and in my head it was all prog. It seemed there was nothing for it but to see the thing through and see what happened…

For those of you who didn’t have the childhood pleasure of watching stop-motion films about a bygone age such as Trumpton (or its prequels, Chigley and Camberwick Green) – here’s some background, and here’s a clip.

As well as some of my favourite kiddies’ TV programmes, Tiger Moth Tales also cites influences such as Frost, Big Big Train, Haken, Steve Hackett and Roine Stolt. These are excellent reference points that certainly raised my expectations – and thankfully Mr. Jones delivers with aplomb. I’d give some additional nods to Martin Orford, Andy Tillison and a certain Mr. R. Wakeman.

This is a synth-driven concept album that’s ostensibly about kids’ stuff but there are darker themes being explored as it’s also about growing up (and we all know how depressing that is, folks.)

The album is, by turns, uplifting, depressing, thought-provoking, amusing – and very robust so play it loud! There is a ton of absolutely superb music on this album – there’s not a single weak track, and the musicianship and vocals are excellent throughout.

This album easily gets added to my list of favourite 2014 albums. Shame I hadn’t heard it sooner!

You can buy it on CD or via Bandcamp.

Here’s a quick track-by-track walk through. If you want to hear about the tracks in Peter’s own words I recommend that you go here, where you’ll get his insights first-hand, plus some very droll humour on display, which always gets a big thumbs-up from me.

Overture

Everyone loves an overture, and this one certainly doesn’t disappoint. Plenty of suitably bombastic stuff going on, and all of it proggingly good!

Spring

We all love Spring, mainly because it isn’t Winter. The tweet of birds and the bleating of lambs (yum!) This is the first short interlude of (surprisingly) four, spread throughout the album. I won’t labour the meaning too much…

Isle of Witches

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

The ‘cautionary tale’ of three witches living on an island, and the wizards that covet their coven (so to speak.)

This is a big slab of proggy goodness describing the epic (and very, very loud) battle between the incumbents and the interlopers. Heavy in places and somewhat delicate in others, this track is interesting to say the least, and heavily drawn from a version written when Peter was a mere 13-year-old stripling.

Stylistically it’s a significant departure from the rest of the album, but as Peter comments, what better track to have on an album about childhood?

I love it!

Summer

Just one Cornetto…

Finally Summer is here! Swallows, ice cream vans, seagulls and pebbly beaches.

Tigers In The Butter

A slow, somewhat eerie start, gradually building towards a driving epic about the power and vulnerability of the childhood imagination. This is my joint-favourite track on the album, for reasons that may become apparent when you listen to it. A stonkingly-good track!

It was our time, it was our world, our imagination, yes we had it all. We never thought we’d see the end, we’d last forever.

The First Lament

Childhood innocence is eventually brought down to Earth with a bump.

Bump.

See?

With a haunting intro, this instrumental track slows the pace down somewhat but delivers plenty of power with some epic, soaring guitar work. Superb!

Autumn

When the only decent thing to be said about a season is that you like the colour of the dead and withering leaves, you know it should be abolished. Fireworks, brass bands and geese are some consolation, but they can’t override the cloying sense of existential…dampness.

The Merry Vicar

With a title like that, the presence of the opening church organ is almost compulsory.

This is a fun and rollicking piece about an unconventional vicar. Based loosely on a real person from Peter’s childhood, he’s clearly got the gossip-mongers talking in this track!

With a quirky, music hall-eqsue vocal approach, this puts a big smile on my face every time I hear it.

Doing a lot of good for God – He’s giving the church a bit of a prod… Three cheers for the Merry Vicar!

And just when you think it’s a routine romp, the song surprises you by presenting one of the coolest keyboard-fests I’ve heard for a very long time!

A Visit To Chigwick

This has become my other joint-favourite track. Having a sense of nostalgia for places that never existed may seem a bit odd, but I’m sure we’ve all done it.

This is a wonderful song about that feeling.

Why does it make me sad? How can you miss what you never had? Is there a way we can go back in time to the quiet little town in my mind?

Opening with a very familiar-sounding music box, the vocals and guitar build until…the train pulls into the station…at which point we are treated to another superb instrumental break, returning to the original theme for a warm, optimistic conclusion.

Winter

The true end of our childhood. Bummer.

Sleigh bells, Silent Night and the crunch of snow remind us of how benighted this season is.

Don’t Let Go, Feels Alright

Another music box opens this final track, but it’s playing a more plaintive tune. This is another slow burner, which builds to the epic proportions that the other tracks achieve.

What happens when finally we have to grow up? How do we reconcile who we were with who we have become?

And so we come to the crossroads of truth – do we hide in our own cocoon, or do we join this cruel world? Our childhood logic lies with us still shaping who we become…

And so the track closes on a positive note. Don’t deny your childhood – it made you who you are.

Looking at the pieces of my life, it feels alright, feels alright.

This album is a lot more than alright, of course. Kudos to Tiger Moth Tales for creating one of the finest albums of 2014.

Top 20 Albums of 2014

Ranked in no particular order, here again (on the occasion of New Year’s Eve) are my Top 20 Albums of 2014:

Top 10 Prog Albums of 2014

Top 10 Rock Albums of 2014

 

I make no claim to omniscience, so take this simply as the best of what I myself had the opportunity to hear this year. I very much enjoy reading your own “best of” lists and learning about new music from you which either escaped my ears or that I didn’t give enough of a fair chance to. I look forward to discovering, in the beginning of 2015, any albums that you recommend from 2014 that I can add to the upper echelon of my prog archives.

Long live rock! Prog on!

Top Ten Rock Albums of 2014 (Part 2)

I have already shared with you my Top Ten Prog Albums of 2014, but today I would like to share the last half of my Top Ten Rock Albums of 2014 list. Yesterday I shared the first half of the list.

The last five albums on my Top Ten Rock Albums of 2014 list (continuing in alphabetical order) are:

Smashing Pumpkins — Monuments to an Elegy

The Tea Party — The Ocean at the End

Weezer — Everything Will Be Alright in the End

Jack White — Lazaretto

Within Temptation — Hydra

The new album from Weezer was a great surprise with its solid return to the form of their classic first album. There’s even a musical apology, “Back to the Shack,” with an exhortation to rock out “like it’s ’94” and to “turn off those stupid singing shows.” And it even has a prog-length, three-part closing epic track, “The Futurescope Trilogy,” with references to the poetry of T.S. Eliot and Homer!

Within Temptation also gave us a totally fun album, and I recommend the deluxe edition that has bonus tracks consisting of a bunch of terrific covers that are better than the originals. On the album itself, my favorite track is “Covered By Roses,” which quotes bits from the end of John Keats’ “Ode on Melancholy“:

She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;
       And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
       Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
       Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
               Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
       Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shalt taste the sadness of her might,
               And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

I also ended up liking the new Jack White album much more than I expected too, in no small part because of really great songs like “Entitlement.” It’s the most fun I have had with his music since The White Stripes.

The Tea Party also released a brilliant album (The Ocean at the End) that is solid from start to finish. It has what is arguably the guitar solo of the year on its title track (“The Ocean at the End”), which is stunningly effective in the full musical context of the entire song. The title track is then followed by the last song on the album (“Into the Unknown”) which is a full-on prog experience of a Brian Eno-style soundscape. With it, we musically arrive at the ocean at the end!

Smashing Pumpkins also surprised us with a fantastic album that has simultaneously a fresh and a classic sound. The songs are all great, so don’t miss this one either.

That’s it! You now have my Top 20 — a balanced blend of the very best of prog and rock from 2014. By the way, I make no claim to omniscience, so take this simply as the best of what I myself had the opportunity to hear this year. I very much enjoy reading your own “best of” lists and learning about new music from you which either escaped my ears or that I didn’t give enough of a fair chance to. I look forward to discovering, in the beginning of 2015, any albums that you recommend from 2014 that I can add to the upper echelon of my prog archives.

Long live rock! Prog on!

Top Ten Rock Albums of 2014 (Part 1)

I have already shared with you my Top Ten Prog Albums of 2014, but today I would like to share the first half of my Top Ten Rock Albums of 2014 list.

These are ten additional albums that I think are a part of the cream of the crop of 2014, but they would probably not be counted by the Progarchists here as prog music.

They do exemplify, however, really great rock and roll. I listened to them a lot in 2014, and so I heartily recommend them to you, along with my regular Top Ten Prog list already shared.

The first five albums on my additional Top Ten Rock Albums of 2014 list (in alphabetical order) are:

Foo Fighters — Sonic Highways

Nothing More — Nothing More

The Pretty Reckless — Going to Hell

Slash — World on Fire

Sloan — Commonwealth

Note that side four of the Sloan album has a track that is 17:49 long, so there is an argument that could be made that this is a prog album. But due to the album’s other three (excellent) power pop sides, I place it on my rock list. Besides, the Top Ten Prog is already maxed out at 10 and chock full of excellence! But please, do check out the new Sloan album.

Tune in tomorrow for the last half of my Top Ten Rock Albums of 2014 list as I give you five more (in alphabetical order).

Long live rock! Prog on!

Dave Kerzner — New World (Best Prog Albums of 2014 — Part 10): ★★★★★ @DaveKerzner

With Dave Kerzner’s sonic marvel, New World, I today finish sharing with you my Top Ten Prog Albums of 2014. It’s been an incredible year for music, as the best of 2014 began with the release of the new Transatlantic, and then ended with this prog masterpiece from Dave Kerzner.

Tracks 1 and 11 on their own (“Stranded” [Parts 1-5: “Isolation,” “Delirium,” “March of the Machines,” “Source Sublime,” and “The Darkness”] and “Redemption” [“Stranded” Parts 6-10: “The Oasis,” “Resilience,” “High on the Dunes,” “Mirage of the Machines,” and “To the Light”]) would have been enough to make this a two-song Top Ten album, as together they comprise a 28-minute, ten-movement top-flight prog journey. But instead the two tracks are epic bookends to a concept album that tells a story with nine other amazing tracks between the bookends.

There are a number of great influences that can be heard on this album. It’s like Dave asked himself, “What could I do to make a prog lover smile from ear to ear?” and then went ahead and did it, with detail after detail. Dave is his own man, and transcends all his great influences, while simultaneously paying homage to them. You will begin listening to this album and be amazed that it sounds like a side three of Dark Side of the Moon, where in an alternate universe Genesis showed up and combined with Pink Floyd to rock further into the beyond. And no wonder: Steve Hackett actually shows up to provide wonderful guitar work on Parts 3, 9, and 10 of the epic “Stranded” bookend tracks.

Dave himself is able to sound somewhat like David Gilmour and his vocals on this album establish him as major force in prog. But even above and beyond his vocal charisma is the fact that he is now the Keyboard King of Prog, which he shows on this album with its incredible array of keyboard colors and textures. One of my favorite moments (on an album chock full of them) occurs in the song “The Lie” where, after Fernando Perdomo dazzles us with a virtuoso guitar solo, Dave comes in unexpectedly with a cool 80s synth sound and makes us smile from ear to ear. If I collected keyboards like Dave, I am sure I could identify the synth model that generates this distinctive retro sound, but the important thing is that it shows you what kind of guy Dave is and what he is up to on this album. Namely, every moment is obviously him saying to himself, “What would be awesome here…?” and “Hey, let’s try this… oh yeah!! That’s it!!! Hahaha!!!!” It is uncanny how Dave has a magic ability to surprise and excite us with his new sonic soundscapes and yet at the same time reference what is familiar to us from the history of prog. It is this “genius blend,” of the familiar old, blended with the articulation of the visionary new, that distinguishes this album. How many albums can you think of that pull this off, where they sound completely and astonishingly new, and yet feel familiar and comfortable, like an old friend? Dave does it!

The album is nicely paced between tracks that are bridges in the storytelling and that reward repeated listens because they reveal their subtle charms more slowly, and those tracks that arrest your attention immediately with their prima facie brilliance. I call these latter tracks the “event songs,” because their arrival instantly declares an undeniable excellence that is immediately convincing and appealing to even the general listener. For me, these “event songs” are all the odd numbered tracks, since they immediately show themselves to be instant classics accessible to all: i.e., in addition to the opening and closing bookends, we have “The Lie,” “Crossing of Fates,” “Ocean of Stars,” and “Nothing” that are undeniably rare events in the history of rock: unforgettably great songs channelled by perfect musicianship. The only exception to my “odd numbered track” rule is “My Old Friend,” which is obviously also an “event song,” (don’t believe me? I defy you not to think of Pink Floyd as Dave sings, “Hello…”); but that’s okay, it gets to be a special exception because it is the central track in the sequence, as 6 comes in the middle of 1 and 11, and it is obviously a totally epic prog guy move to have three “event tracks” positioned in the centre of your album: “Crossing of Fates,” “My Old Friend,” and “Ocean of Stars.”

Perhaps you might wish to quibble with my favorite tracks on this album; my favorites may be all the odd-numbered ones (because during the even-numbered ones I am always anticipating what is coming next), but no doubt you might have your own particular favorites. After all, who can deny the greatness of a track like “Into the Sun,” especially at the spine-tingling moment where Dave sings, “Brace yourself for impact”? This is a brilliant album and surely we can all agree to call it an “event album” — in its entirety.

With its arrival this year, we have witnessed what it is like to be present at the creation and dissemination of a seminal moment in prog. Don’t miss downloading this album this year and getting in early on what is destined to become a classic album for the ages. Nick D’Virgilio on drums is perfectly teamed up with Dave and Fernando, and I hope we will hear much more from this astonishing trio (and their parade of prog guest stars — be sure to read the jaw-dropping album credits!) in 2015. I can already predict that the Deluxe Edition of New World will be a highlight of next year.

Prog on, old friends!

Ascending Dawn — Coalesce (Best Prog Albums of 2014 — Part 9): ★★★★★ @AscendingDawn

Coalesce, the stellar debut album from Ascending Dawn, quickly ascended into my Top Ten Prog Albums of 2014.

I love this album and I think it is totally brilliant. It’s a rare thing for me to want to return again and again to listening to an album out of pure passionate craving. Usually, programming my playlists is more of a daily routine and chore: today I will listen to…. etc., etc. But lately, I had the happy experience where the first thing I wanted to listen to every day was Coalesce! And then, later in the day, I wanted to hear it again! I tell you, it has been awhile since I have so thoroughly enjoyed and craved an album with such intensity.

I know my desire comes from the intense musical intelligence that is built in to every song. This album has so many nice little touches and details to enjoy. The first track to instantly appeal to me was “Integral,” no doubt because it has a tastefully virtuoso guitar solo. But that track only came fourth on the album; it took me longer to appreciate the genius of the first three tracks because there was no flashy guitar solo to immediately leap out at me. Instead, there is a careful layering of sonic elements that appears quite dense in its ambient tone at first, but then slowly unfolds its beautiful structures with repeated listens. The band describes their ambient prog metal sound thus:

Pummeling riffs and soaring ambient lines are complemented by clean melodies and harmonic backings, defining our signature sound.

All in Now” (4:10) kicks off the album and it is really quite an interesting song. As here, the vocals on the whole album seem deliberately mixed lower in volume in order to make the vocals an integral part of the total band sound, rather than to place the vocalist up front and to relegate the other musicians to “back up” status. Yet Marlain Angelides is such a powerful singer that the listener’s first reaction is to want to hear her a bit more up front in the mix. For example, at 1:37 into the first track she belts out a dazzling melisma that makes you want to hear her highlighted more up front as the superstar vocalist that she obviously is. But, over time, a more profound appreciation for the band’s intricate craft grows, as you begin to understand how she is carefully woven into the musical panorama of the band’s signature sound for greater purposes. The “All in Now” track deceptively seems to end at 2:25, but it then mounts a comeback with some very satisfying musical surprises. It builds and builds with fabulous riffing and killer drums and siren-like vocals to announce as its implied conclusion: Watch out, world! Ascending Dawn has arrived!

“Miscommunication” (4:11) is the second track and it has a supercool riff with sharp contrasts of alternating timbre that is very unusual and extraordinarily fascinating. The whole track unfolds with Ascending Dawn’s characteristic tastefulness for building musical drama and interest. Particularly notable on this entire album is the way that drums and guitars are so tightly synchronized in ways you do not usually hear with other bands. Chalk that up to the fact that the band’s main composer, drummer Mark Weatherley, also plays guitars on the album. Constanze Hart on bass and Owen Rees on guitars also contribute to the solid arrangement of it all, and their musical talent is manifest in the unusually and impressively tight band sound of the coherent whole. Marlain Angelides co-writes all the songs with lyrics, and I suspect she must be thus responsible for the poetic side of musical images. These are some really great songs! What a band. They work together perfectly on this album.

“Cannonball” (4:40) regularly lays down an impressive enfilading fire of drum fills, yet the whole track is further proof of the band’s dedication of individual virtuosity to a greater group sound in service of the whole song. It’s the putative single off the album, but any of the first four tracks could serve that role, since they are each individual, self-contained wholes that introduce the band’s unique sound with carefully embedded musical touches that repay repeated listenings.

In fact, I would argue that the fourth track, “Integral” (4:40), is the more natural single off the album, since its instantly accessible guitar solo performs the invaluable service of getting prog metal heads like me interested in the band and willing to give them further listens, to unlock further access to deeper levels of musical virtuosity. “Integral” has some of my favorite lyrics on the album, and I really love it as the band rocks out at the end and Marlain’s soaring vocals exhort the listener to “become a truth addict.”

Beginning with track 5, “Opposites” (4:09), we have next a four-song sequence that is cross-faded together, so that unless you are paying attention you almost won’t be able to tell when one song turns into another. Thus, the album opens up into my favorite territory: a nineteen-minute prog epic that is comprised of “Opposites” (4:09), “Simplify” (4:11), “Inside the Silence” (6:19), and finally the dazzling ambient instrumental, “Opaque” (3:57). It is this coherent musical epic that had me returning again and again to listen to this brilliant album.

In fact, in my mind I consider album track 4, “Integral”, to be a kind of prelude to the whole sequence of the album tracks 5, 6, 7, and 8, and then I further consider track 9, “Indiscretion” (5:21), to be the epic coda to it that ties it all together. So, in effect, Ascending Dawn serves up a prog epic in six movements: tracks 4 through 9 — an epic 29 minutes in total.

I love the way the album pacing is constructed: tracks 1 through 3 get you warmed up, and then the epic goods are delivered for the remainder of the album. The instrumental track “Opaque” lets you experience the band in its full-on musical intensity of ambient intelligence, and then the whole experience concludes with Marlain’s epic wailing over the pummeling guitars that conclude “Indiscretion” (track 9). There is an uplifting and transcendent feel to the album’s conclusion that lives up to the band’s name. In the end, we ascend with Ascending Dawn.

Don’t miss this album. On it, you will discover all your own favorite moments with nice little touches, such as the musical burst at 2:47 in “Simplify” that is so perfectly timed you can never fail to revel in its satisfying sonic seductions. If you’re like me, you can’t get enough of top-quality music like this! This album rightly occupies its prominent place in my Top Ten Prog Albums of 2014.

Sitting at the prog bus stop – 2014 in review

Here we are again.

Actually it seems like just a year ago when I was thinking ‘here we are again.’ And you’re probably thinking the same thing at this point.

‘Best of’ posts seem to be a tradition at this point in time, when we also celebrate our planet returning to the same point (galactic orbit notwithstanding, naturally…) as it was 365-and-a-bit days ago. Hurrah! We’re back! Now, where did we leave our keys?

Johannes Kepler – the only man this year to publish a positive review of ‘Heaven and Earth’.

Of course if Johannes Kepler (pictured to the left, apparently pre-empting a delicious Chinese main course by snaffling a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer) was to try to build a predictive model of the prog releases even a year into the future he would probably end up a bit stumped, and would look stupid for even trying. So that’s why we don’t try to model prog – most of us look stupid enough without the ignominy of a failed ‘Theory Of Everything™’ on our CVs too.

Anyway, I digress, as is my wont.

Musically 2014 has been an interesting year. Mostly because it has been quite different from 2013.

“Well, colour me surprised, Mr. Clarke, that’s generally how the space-time continuum works!” I hear you shriek. But please set your Interweb keyboard warrior fury aside for a moment or two, and let me finish my epistle before you judge me too harshly.

My 2014 has felt pretty lacking when it comes to stand-out, arse-kicking, blindingly-brilliant music. Maybe we peaked in 2013. I mean, 2013 was pretty amazing for a number of reasons, not least:

  • Big Big Train released their insta-classic ‘English Electric:Full Power’ double album, making me homesick once again.
  • Haken’s ‘The Mountain’ rocked my world.
  • Thieves’ Kitchen’s ‘Of Sparks and Spires’ didn’t help with the homesickness thing, thanks very much indeed.
  • Spock’s Beard finally returned to form with the absolutely stonking ‘Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep.’
  • Scott and I  made a trip back to the mother country (that’s England – keep up, everyone) for The Big Big Weekend (Saturday and Sunday are here in glorious TechniPanaColourVision,) where we forged new friendships, ate curry and drank beer.

Now the above may be a small list, numerically-speaking, but each of those items was a Very Very Big Deal to me. In comparison 2014 really hasn’t lived up to the standards of 2013. How could it possibly?

There have been a few albums by artists whose back catalogues I have a lot of time for, but that this year have failed to set me on fire:

  • Gazacho’s “Demon” didn’t have the longevity I thought it would, which is a shame – it’s a nice enough album, but not something to draw me back time and again. If I am honest, I think my trajectory and theirs have diverging somewhat since Night.
  • Cosmograf’s “Capacitor” worked well for the first few spins in rapid succession, but then I think I over-listened to it. It takes (me at least) a lot of work to get the most out of it so I have to ration my exposure now. I go back once a month for a fix, but because of that, it hasn’t been entwined with my life this year. Perhaps that’s for the best – caviar gets boring when you eat it for every meal.
  • North Atlantic Oscillation’s “The Third Day” left me pretty cold. I loved 2012’s “Fog Electric”, and Sam Healy’s 2013 “Sand” was a damn fine album too. But TTD now sound like they have been re-treading the same ground over, and over, and over again. And again. And over again.
  • Anathema’s Distant Satellites started well but then fell apart. For my ears, the music certainly lived up to the band’s name.
  • I chose to completely bypass Yes’ “Heaven and Earth” for a number of reasons, not least of which is my refusal to continue to be serially disappointed by a band’s output for three entire decades. So I have finally given up watching that particular slow motion car crash.

Combine all of the above with a very busy and sometimes fraught year at work and home, and it adds up to make me feel that things just aren’t what they used to be.

But like Climate Change there are peaks and troughs. Are we in a trough in 2014? Was I just looking the other way while all the cool stuff happened? Maybe I was at the shops.

Looking forward my personal highlights for 2015 will be Big Big Train releasing the Real World DVD and playing live at King’s Place in August (and yep, we will be there!)

We have new material from Phideaux, Spock’s Beard and Haken among others, which I am also very excited about. The list is not endless, but it’s promising. Fingers crossed…

Anyway, back to the year in question. 2014. What has floated my boat?

IQ – The Road Of Bones

This album is absolutely the best thing to come out of 2014.

It’s still as fresh as it was when I first heard it, and it’s still a firm favourite on my car media player. In fact, it’s rarely not being played. I have played it to death, and yet it still lives! It is absolutely the pinnacle of IQ’s output. You may recall I quite liked it and said as much a while back. If you haven’t heard it, you should really, really hear it. And of course, buy the bonus CD.

Uphill Work – Missing Opportunities

This album was a real surprise find for me. A very late arrival to my ears, once again the Progstreaming site came up trumps while I was browsing during a quiet moment earlier this month.

Uphill Work are a Moscow-based group formed in 2002. I’d never heard of them – it’s discoveries like this that make me very happy The Interwebs, and sites like Progstreaming, exist.

This album’s an absolute bloody gem – quirky, interesting, humourous, very droll lyrically, and a great vocal approach.

Listen to it (and buy it!) on Uphill Work’s Bandcamp page.

Dave Kerzner – New World

Another December find, this is a musical feast. I don’t identify as a Pink Floyd fan at all, and a lot of parallels have been drawn between this release and the Pink Floyd sound, and yes, they’re definitely there. The big difference for me is that I like this album and I haven’t liked any PF albums. So I guess I win!

This album keeps pumping from start to finish – every track delivers something different, and it’s all good, every last bit of it. Recommended!

Listen to it, and get it, here!

In Summary – It’s Me, Not You…

Three keepers in a year, the first of which was released in May, and the other two which I was introduced to in December. That’s a big gap! I would have despaired if IQ had been the only transcendent release in the year. So for that number to treble in the space of a week or two, well I consider that excellent luck! Thanks goodness for happy accidents.

All that aside I actually don’t really believe in the good musical year/bad musical year thing.

You make your own good year/bad year.

What floats your boat sinks others’, and vice versa.

You get out what you put into it.

OK, I will stop sounding like your grandmother now.

I’m sure I missed a bunch of other good musical stuff while I was doing other non-musical stuff. Such is life, and I’m also sure that if it’s that good I’ll discover it next year.

Anyways, it’s Boxing Day here in New Zealand.

12:02 pm.

That’s Beer O’Clock.

Cheers and Happy 2015!

 

Voyager — V (Best Prog Albums of 2014 — Part 8)

Before I devoted a lot of listening time to Voyager’s V, I was warned that the back half of it wasn’t as good as the front. But the odd thing is that as I got to know the album better, it was actually the back half of it that I liked the best! The songs that made the best early impression on me began with “Embrace the Limitless” (track 6) and went on to the end (“Seasons of Age”, track 13).

The dopey repetition in the chorus of the first track (I instantly hated the repetition of the word “Hyperventilating”) and the almost-grating second track annoyed me in the beginning (“Breaking Down” seemed too slogan-ey as a chorus phrase to me: an undeveloped idea, not a full lyric). Only as I warmed to the whole album did I eventually come to enjoy the first five tracks maximally. It just took awhile. After all, the guitar solo break in “Hyperventilating” is awesome and the musicianship is stellar, as it is everywhere on this disc.

I came to think of the album in three sections: the first five tracks (which it took the longest for me to warm up to, due to their seemingly too-commercial sound); the middle three tracks; and the last five tracks.

“Embrace the Limitless” (track 6) is a refreshing burst of loopy synth metal energy. Where none of the first five tracks grabbed me, this one actually made me sit up and take notice. Then track 7 (“Orpheus”) gets all dark and cool and interesting with even a bit of guttural vocals to match its mythological underworld theme. And finally track 8 was able to get me totally enthused with its cool riffing action and intelligent lyrics (“The Domination Game”). For a while, I would just skip the first five tracks and begin listening at track 6 to the album — with the first five appended to my playlist at the end (to hear if I had time). Eventually, I came to love the whole album and I now just listen to it sequentially as released, with no more playlist shenanigans.

Despite the advance word on the album, for me the finest moments come in the last block of five songs. Track 8 (“Peacekeeper”) is borderline dopey with its almost too-cute lyrical conceit, but it actually maintains its perfect metal balance and never crosses the line for me. In fact, it became one of my early favorites (and remains so) because the music is so darn good. Okay, confession: I love the guitar work on this album. The guitar sounds are just so excellent and well produced. And this track is a prime example.

But the best is yet to come: Track 9 (“It’s a Wonder”) has a strong claim for totally favorite track, especially because of its out-of-left-field uber-cool outro, which I absolutely love; it makes me want to listen to the track on repeat, every time!

But then, instead of hitting the replay button, we get the treat of the epic-scale last three tracks. “The Morning Light” (track 11) is a glorious sonic marvel. It clocks in as the longest track (5:58) with metal riffs and keyboards taking us to the prog places we all want to go. Whew! What a ride! Can it get any better? Well, we actually get to catch our breath with track 12 (“Summer Always Comes Again”), a stunningly beautiful song that is completely unexpected as a ballad-ey break. It’s only 2:21 long, but we end up wishing the beauty could go on forever.

The album could have ended there, leaving us with a sweet sense of infinite beauty and infinite longing. Instead, we get total appetitive gratification with the amazing album-closer: Track 13, “Seasons of Age”. This song has a magical sound and it totally rocks its way out to a jaw-dropping, drum-whacking finale.

This is proggy metal at its most melodic and accessible. Don’t be a hater; embrace the excellence. Superb musicianship, luminous production, and superstar vocal stylings? Yes! This disc definitely makes the cut for my Top Ten Prog Albums of 2014.

Is 2014 Over Already?

Time flies when you’re having fun listening to great music! 2014 brought in a bumper crop of excellent music in general, and prog in particular. Here are my favorites of the year:

Robert-Plant-lullaby-and-The-Ceaseless-Roar_638

10. Robert Plant: Lullaby And …The Ceaseless Roar

Mr. Plant returns to his folk roots of Britain, and delivers a thoroughly enjoyable set of songs. A couple rock out, but this is mostly an acoustic tour de force that transcends any musical trends of the day.

WOAFB-cover

  1. Lunatic Soul: Walking On A Flashlight Beam

This album didn’t garner the rave reviews of his first two, but I still think anything Mariusz Duda produces is far better than 90% of anything else out there. “Treehouse” may be my favorite song he’s ever recorded.

So much greater than a muppet.

  1. John Bassett: Unearth

This album opened my eyes to entirely different side of Mr. Bassett’s talent, and I love it. I hope he does more music in this vein – thoughtful, melodic, acoustic pearls.

Disconnect-cover

  1. John Wesley: Disconnect

Mr. Wesley has been Porcupine Tree’s secret weapon when they play live, and on the side he has been quietly making extraordinary music of his own. Disconnect is his best ever, and it features the inimitable Alex Lifeson on “Once A Warrior”.

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  1. Gazpacho: Demon

It took me awhile to get into this album, but it was definitely worth the effort. It is a beautiful package, from the artwork and lyrics to the music itself. The subject matter is very dark, but listening to the entire album is a cathartic experience. It also has Jan-Henrik Ohme’s strongest vocals to date.

nao cover THE THIRD DAY

  1. North Atlantic Oscillation: The Third Day

Their third album, and the third one to make one of my best-of-the-year lists. Soaring vocals, gorgeous string arrangements, a wall of sound that is indescribably exhilarating. If Brian Wilson produced Catherine Wheel, it might sound as good as this.

Stunning album cover.  A progged-out version of Dolby's GOLDEN AGE OF WIRELESS.  Brilliant.

  1. Cosmograf: Capacitor

A marvelous steampunk trip through metaphysical dimensions. Robin Armstrong’s imagination knows no bounds, and his musical talent matches it.

Second Nature

  1. Flying Colors: Second Nature

Wow. No “sophomore slump” for this band. One of the many Neal Morse/Mike Portnoy projects that are active these days, Second Nature is an outlet for the more melodic side of their talents. Throw in the genius guitar work of Steve Morse, and this is an irresistible set of songs.

Restorations_by_Haken

  1. Haken: Restoration

Their Mountain album was my favorite of last year, and the only reason this isn’t number one is because it’s only 34 minutes long. I admit it – I’m greedy for more Haken music!

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  1. Transatlantic: Kaleidoscope

With Kaleidoscope, Stolt, Morse, Portnoy, Trewavas finally become a real group. On earlier works, you could tell which bits were Neal’s, which were Roine’s, etc. Every song on Kaleidoscope is stamped with Transatlantic’s distinctive sound, and it is a glorious one.