I thought I didn’t have a big list of favorites from this year’s listening — until I revisited my six-month survey from back in June and added in the good stuff I’ve heard since then! The listing below incorporates links to full or capsule reviews, or other relevant pieces on Progarchy and elsewhere; albums I haven’t written about yet get brief comments, along with my Top Favorites of the year. Most of these are available to check out online in some form; if you find yourself especially enjoying something, use that Christmas cash and support your choice with a purchase! And the winners are . . .Continue reading “Kruekutt’s 2021 Favorites!”
What new music and archival finds are heading our way in the next couple of months? Check out the representative sampling of promised progressive goodies — along with a few other personal priorities — below. (Box sets based on reissues will follow in a separate article!) Pre-order links are embedded in the artist/title listings below.
Amanda Lehmann, Innocence and Illusion: “a fusion of prog, rock, ballads, and elements of jazz-blues” from the British guitarist/vocalist best known as Steve Hackett’s recurring sidekick. Available direct from Lehmann’s webstore as CD or digital download.
Terence Blanchard featuring the E-Collective and the Turtle Island Quartet, Absence: trumpeter/film composer Blanchard dives into music both written and inspired by jazz legend Wayne Shorter. His E-Collective supplies cutting edge fusion grooves, and the Turtle Island String Quartet adds orchestral depth to the heady sonic concoctions. Available from Blue Note Records as CD or digital download.
The Neal Morse Band, Innocence and Danger: another double album from Neal, Mike Portnoy, Randy George, Bill Hubauer and Eric Gillette. No overarching concept this time — just everything and the kitchen sink, ranging from a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to brand-new half-hour epics. Available from Inside Out as 2CD, 2CD/DVD or 3 LPs/2 CDs
Trifecta, Fragments: what happens when Steven Wilson’s rhythm section turns his pre-show sound checks into “jazz club”? Short, sharp tracks that mix the undeniable chops and musicality of Adam Holzman on keys, Nick Beggs on Stick and Craig Blundell on drums with droll unpredictability and loopy titles like “Clean Up on Aisle Five” and “Pavlov’s Dog Killed Schrodinger’s Cat”. Available from Burning Shed as CD or LP (black or neon orange).
Upcoming releases after the jump!Continue reading “The Big Prog (Plus) Preview for Fall 2021!”
The Neal Morse Band, Innocence & Danger, Inside Out Music, August 27, 2021
Tracks: CD 1: 1. Do It All Again (08:55) 2. Bird On A Wire (07:22) 3. Your Place In The Sun (04:12) 4. Another Story To Tell (04:50) 5. The Way It Had To Be (07:14) 6. Emergence (03:12) 7. Not Afraid Pt 1 (04:53) 8. Bridge Over Troubled Water (08:08)
CD2: 9. Not Afraid Pt 2 (19:32) 10.Beyond The Years (31:22)
Last week I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Randy George from the Neal Morse Band about their upcoming album, Innocence & Danger. What an album! After back-to-back double concept albums, the band decided to make an album of independent songs. It’s still a double album, but it’s very digestible.
Innocence & Danger has quickly risen to one of my favorite albums of the year, and Randy George’s brilliant bass playing has a lot to do with that. His bass is more prominent in the mix, and it really shines opposite Mike Portnoy’s drums in the rhythm section. I think Neal Morse’s vocals also deserve a mention as they are the best they have sounded in years. Maybe that’s due to a lack of touring over the past year+, but he (and everyone else) sound great. The vocal harmonies are turned up to the max, and the prog is in full force. But don’t be surprised if you hear a few other surprise elements in the music – something we talk a bit about in the interview below. Oh, and “Beyond the Years,” the album’s 31-minute epic, may be the best long song I’ve heard from Neal Morse and company.
This interview was conducted on July 21, 2021 via Zoom. There was quite a bit of scratchiness in the Zoom audio, so I’ve decided to spare you that and just give you the transcript, which was edited lightly for readability. The interview is pretty wide ranging. We start with an update on the last year and a half for Randy before we go into a deep dive of the album. Then we discuss some of Randy’s influences as a musician before we talk a bit about the history of prog, it’s place in the music world, and how the future will look back on their music.
Bryan: Thanks for joining me here for Progarchy. I really appreciate you taking the time.
Randy: Yeah! Happy to do it.
Bryan: It’s been tough career-wise for musicians without being able to tour. How’ve you been in that regard?
Randy: Well, you know, I guess we’re all feeling it to some degree. I guess as a function of where I live it hasn’t really been that bad. We had done that Cover to Cover 3 CD, and it was wrapped and delivered to the label before the pandemic hit. There were some videos that needed to be [made]. We wanted to do videos, so there were a few videos, and I did a couple of those. And then Neal [Morse] did Sola Gratia. I recorded that and then we did videos for that. Then we did Morsefest in September, and my wife and I have been playing locally since September, pretty much twice a month or three times a month ever since last September.
In a lot of ways, yeah we had to wear masks a little more during the time, but for the most part we kept busy. We felt it most right at the beginning. Everybody was sort of freaked out, got shut down March through July or whatever. Then people started to open up a bit. So initially everyone was a little bit like, wow, there’s nowhere to go. But we both work from home. We really didn’t travel outside very much. We’re here on our own little plot. Plenty to keep us busy here. But yeah I watched it from a distance. I’m sure for some people it was really hard, and it sucks that it had to happen like that. I look forward to the end.
Bryan: Yeah I think everybody does. Morsefest was one of the first – definitely one of the biggest in the prog world of concerts that came back in person. That was kind of exciting because it was a glimmer of hope after so many months of nothing at all live-wise.
Randy: People will always find a way.
Bryan: Yeah exactly. I’ve had a chance to listen to Innocence and Danger a little bit over the last couple of days. It’s a fantastic album. It feels like a little bit of a different direction, especially after the last two concept albums. Can you tell me about how the album came together?
Randy: Well, the whole thing – we were going to start working on Innocence & Danger way back in the beginning of 2020. We initially signed a record deal with Inside Out. Then the pandemic hit. Mike [Portnoy] was really busy with Sons of Apollo, and we didn’t really have any clear cut date in mind that we could get together and do this. So quite honestly between signing the deal and getting in the studio to do this, it was more than a year. We did in January come together at Neal’s house and wrote the whole thing in about twelve days and tracked the drums and took it home and developed it over the next couple months, and Rich [Mouser] mixed it.
We went into it not having a lot of pre-written material. Neal didn’t have anything. Bill [Hubauer] and I both brought recorded ideas that were predominantly raw ideas that could be developed rather than finished demos that already had a lot of development to them. The Neal Morse Band tends to – no matter what you bring in, they want to redo it. So we kind of, it’s easier to bring in ideas that they can all sort of get their head into and write with. Some of it is much easier to do that, between Bill and I and Eric [Gillette], we have plenty of musical stuff. Neal, of course, he may not have come in with anything, but he gets up early in the morning and he’ll start writing and work on ideas then we end up working on them the same day or the next day. So Neal does actually write a fair amount of stuff. He just doesn’t always go into the session with all of it prepared, unless it’s a concept thing were he has an idea. We knew this wasn’t going to be another concept album. We just wanted to do an album of songs. We felt it was the right time for that.
As life in these United States opens up, my life finally seems to be settling down — at least for the summer. Which means it’s time to make up for the backlog of excellent albums (new and old) that I’ve heard since January, but haven’t written about here! Links to listen (to complete albums or samples) are included whenever possible.
New Albums: The Art of Losing (The Anchoress’ rich meditation on endurance) and the multi-version adrenalin rush of Transatlantic’s The Absolute Universe notwithstanding, most of the new albums I’ve loved so far have migrated towards jazz and classical — frequently with pianists at their center. Vijay Iyer’s Uneasy, made with bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, is a state of the art piano trio effort; blues and abstraction suspended in perfect balance and caught in an intimate, tactile recording. Canadian Bach and Mozart specialist Angela Hewitt shows off her range with Love Songs, a gorgeous confection of orchestral and art song transcriptions assembled in lockdown and performed with undeniable panache. The same goes for Danny Driver’s phenomenal rendition of Gyorgy Ligeti’s hypermodern 18 Etudes — virtuoso pieces whose serene surfaces turn out to be rooted in super-knotty counterpoint and off-kilter rhythmic cells. My favorite new album of 2021 to date? Promises by electronica artist Floating Points, spiritual jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, and The London Symphony Orchestra, which manages to bring all of the above (well, except for the piano!) together in one glorious, 40-minute ambient epic.
Reissues: Big Big Train’s double-disc update of The Underfall Yard has definitely had its share of listening time, between Rob Aubrey’s rich remix/remaster and the welcome bonus disc (featuring fresh recordings of the title track and “Victorian Brickwork” by the full band and brass quintet). With My Bloody Valentine’s catalog back in print, their masterpiece Loveless sounds as incredible as ever; crushing distortion and lush romanticism collide to channel the sublime. And Pete Townshend has masterminded a comprehensive Super Deluxe edition of The Who Sell Out, the band’s pre-Tommy high point. But my favorite reissues thus far have been It Bites’ The Tall Ships (especially the title track — what a power ballad!) and Map of the Past (a favorite of mine since its original release). With the then-unknown John Mitchell taking over from Francis Dunnery, IB sailed into the 21st century with their 1980s pomp intact, killer hooks, head-spinning riffs and all.
Live Albums: Beyond the visceral thrills of Fanfare for the Uncommon Man: The Official Keith Emerson Tribute Concert, I’ve had a blast hearing krautrock legends Can conjure up spellbinding group improvisation on Live in Stuttgart 75, an initial dip into their voluminous concert archives. I’ve been giddy to hear Kansas, bolstered by keyboardist Tom Brislin, get their mojo working on Point of Know Return Live & Beyond. (They’ll be my first post-lockdown rock show next month.) And my journey back into soul music (see below) set me up nicely for the razor-sharp, precision funk of Tower of Power: 50 Years of Funk and Soul Live at the Fox Theater, a deliriously exciting reunion show recorded in 2018.
From the Catalog: All the good new stuff above aside, this is where some of my most fruitful listening has been happening this year — frequently inspired by other media. Watching the movie One Night in Miami led me back to Sam Cooke’s Portrait of a Legend: 1951-1964; the resulting dive into soul music ultimately brought me to Marvin Gaye’s classic concept album What’s Going On — 50 years old in 2021! Perusing various “best of 2020” lists turned me on to the avant-garde jazz of trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusere’s on the tender spot of every calloused moment and Maria McKee’s art-pop song cycle La Vita Nuova (inspired by Dante, no less). Jazz/fusion legend Chick Corea’s death prompted a deep dive into his catalog; new favorites included Return to Forever’s Where Have I Known You Before and the fabulous Five Peace Band Live, Corea’s long-delayed collaboration with guitarist John McLaughlin. And after long years of the album doing nothing for me, Radiohead’s The Bends finally clicked when I read Steven Hyden’s fine band biography This Isn’t Happening. (Curt Bianchi’s wonderful new book, Elegant People: A History of the Band Weather Report, is prompting a similar deep dive into that quintessential jazz/rock band’s catalog; I highly recommend their cutting edge debut album from 1971 and their 1976 masterpiece of groove, Black Market.)
Coming Soon: In addition to Big Big Train’s Common Ground (take it from me, it’s a humdinger), I highly recommend MoonJune Records’ latest release, Indonesian fusion guitarist Dewa Budjana’s incandescent Naurora. I’m also eagerly anticipating new music from the Neal Morse Band (oops, NMB now), Steve Hackett and Isildur’s Bane & Peter Hammill; reissues of BeBop Deluxe’s Live in the Air Age and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass; and comprehensive box sets from The Beach Boys and Van Der Graaf Generator. Plus live shows from Kansas, Emmylou Harris and Los Lobos, King Crimson with The Zappa Band, and opening night of Genesis’ USA tour.
So, yeah, it’s taken a while — but at least from my point of view, 2021 has already been a solid year for music — and the prospects for it getting even better are looking up!
— Rick Krueger
As we (and everybody else in the prog rock world) announced back in November, Transatlantic’s fifth album The Absolute Universe will be unleashed on February 5. This album will arrive not just in multiple formats, but also in multiple versions: the 60-minute, 14-track The Breath of Life (Abridged Version), the 90-minute, 18-track Forevermore (Extended Version) and The Ultimate Edition box set (both versions on LP and CD, plus a 19-track 5.1 version on BluRay).
Having had the privilege of hearing the abridged and extended versions, I’ll testify that The Absolute Universe thoroughly satisfies my craving for that special Transatlantic blend of prog past, present and future. Everything that I love about the band is there, to (and sometimes beyond) the point of gluttony; I’ve come away from each listen delighted, thrilled and moved. So it was another real treat when, the week before Christmas, I got to chat with Neal Morse about this new music. (Neal also talked to Bryan Morey about his latest solo album, Sola Gratia, a few months back.) In this interview, Neal tells us how The Absolute Universe came together, why a double album wasn’t enough, and more.
So first, thanks for talking to me! I have been a Transatlantic fan for a long time back. SMPT:e was actually the first thing I ever heard with you involved in it, and that got me back into prog after some time away from it.
And then I saw you guys in 2010 in Chicago, and that was a great, great, great show! I enjoyed that so much.
That would have been The Whirlwind?
Yes, exactly right.
Was that at Park West? Yeah, that was a great night!
Yeah, it was Mike’s birthday.
Right! And they got us Giordano’s [“Chicago’s Famous Stuffed Deep Dish Pizza”] for after-show food! [Chuckles] I remember the really good pizza! It was a good night.
Yes, it was a great show. I missed you the last time through [touring the Kaleidoscope album]. But now you’ve got this new album coming through the pipeline, The Absolute Universe. And I guess my first question is: how does a new Transatlantic album happen? Was there a certain person or a certain thing that kickstarted the process? How did it come about?
Well, let’s see. I think it started with me! I think I emailed everybody, if memory serves, but that was a long time ago. It would have been near the end of 2018 or the beginning of 2019, I think. I started the conversation, and then we started talking about schedules. At first, it’s like “hey, do you wanna do it?” and everybody was like, “yeah, we’d like to, but …” We had to find the right time when everybody had time for it, which wound up being the end of September 2019 in Sweden.
I remember starting to write some demos for Transatlantic in March, I think, of 2019. And I think we went round and round about where to record and when to record for many months, till finally it was like, “OK, if we’re gonna do this, it needs to be in this window of time.” And so, we all convened in Sweden and worked on it for about two weeks – wrote and recorded what I would call the template. Not the keeper track, but the template for what became the long version of the album, Forevermore.
We left there in early October, and then Mike came here into Nashville to do his keeper drums. He would have done them in Sweden, but we ran out of time. In fact, we were still changing the album and writing it right up on the last day, when we had to go to the airport. And everything kind of fell into place right at the end; it was pretty amazing.
Anyway, Mike came here, did his drums in November. Then I did my parts in December and January, and then I left to go to Australia to play some shows and take a vacation in New Zealand. And that’s where I got away from the album, and I started working on my solo album Sola Gratia.
And then I listened to the Transatlantic album again in March, I think it was. And I kinda had the feeling like – and this is really unusual for me, cause a lot of times I want to make things longer! But I felt like maybe this album would benefit from some editing! So, I started editing some things out. I thought maybe some of the guys might like it as well, because when we were writing it in Sweden, several of the guys were wanting it to be a single disc, and they really didn’t want it to be a double.
Anyway, I sent off this edit with, I think, the subject line that read, “Am I Crazy?” I thought they might just dismiss the whole concept right away. But not everybody did. Some of them were like, “maybe this is a good way to go.” So then, we went round and round about that for a couple of months, trying to decide what was the best thing to do.
We were still trying to figure that out when Mike had the idea of releasing both! And then once we agreed to release both, then the idea was to make the versions as different as possible.Continue reading “Neal Morse on Transatlantic’s The Absolute Universe: The Progarchy Interview”
As always seems to be the case, there’s tons of great music coming out between now and Black Friday, November 27. Below, the merest sampling of upcoming releases in prog and other genres below, with purchase links to Progarchy’s favorite online store Burning Shed unless otherwise noted.
Simon Collins, Becoming Human: after 3 solo albums and Sound of Contact’s acclaimed Dimensionaut, Phil Collins’ oldest son returns on vocals. keys and drums; his new effort encompasses rock, pop, prog, electronica and industrial genres. Plus an existential inquiry into the meaning of life! Available on CD from Frontiers Records.
John Petrucci, Terminal Velocity: the Dream Theater guitarist reunites with Mike Portnoy on drums for his second solo set of instrumentals. Plus Dave LaRue of the Dixie Dregs and Flying Colors on bass. Expect lotsa notes! Available on CD or 2 LP from Sound Mind Records/The Orchard.
The Pineapple Thief, Versions of the Truth: Hot on the heels of their first US tour, Bruce Soord and Gavin Harrison helm TPT’s latest collection of brooding, stylized alt/art rock, honing in on the post-truth society’s impact on people and relationships. Available on CD, BluRay (with bonus track plus alternate, hi-res and surround mixes), LP or boxset (2 CDs/DVD/BluRay) – plus there’s a t-shirt!
Rikard Sjöblom’s Gungfly, Alone Together: Sjöblom spearheads a thoroughly groovy collection on vocals, guitar and organ, with Petter and Rasmus Diamant jumping in on drums and bass. Heartfelt portraits of daily life and love that yield extended, organic instrumental jams and exude optimism in the midst of ongoing isolation. Available on CD and LP (black or deep blood red vinyl).
[Upcoming releases follow the jump …]Continue reading “The Big Prog (Plus) Preview for Fall 2020!”
One of Robert Fripp’s “devil bugs” caught up with the Krueger household on February 24 — the same day a “bomb cyclone” hit West Michigan, causing a 30-degree temperature drop in 24 hours, along with whiteout snowstorms. It’s taken this long for us (and the region) to emerge from hibernation — but through the depths of winter to the cusp of spring, music has taken sad songs and made them better.
That very day late last month, I trekked across the state to catch The Neal Morse Band’s Great Adventour stop in suburban Detroit; Neal and his merry crew (including son Will and daughter Jayda at the merch table) didn’t disappoint. As I anticipated, The NMB’s live take on The Great Adventure was even tighter, more driven and more finely honed than the fine studio album (first half glitches to Morse’s keyboard rig notwithstanding).
Hearing all of TGA in one go brought home how thoroughly integrated the new effort is. The key musical themes (as well as flashbacks to The Similitude of A Dream) aren’t just repeated, they’re developed in near-symphonic ways: transposed, transformed rhythmically and harmonically, recapped in unexpected contexts throughout the work. Kaleidoscopic contrasts of rhythm, instrumental color, vocal textures (mainly from Morse, guitarist Eric Gillette, keyboardist Bill Hubauer) and tonality meshed smoothly with drummer Mike Portnoy and bassist Randy’s George’s badass forward propulsion, ably mirroring the lyrical highs and lows of another journey to the Celestial City.
In sum, TGA is a genuinely impressive concept work, marked by ambition, intelligence, technique and sentiment in just the right proportions. The result at the end of each set (and the encore medley that covered Morse’s entire solo career, ending the night where it began) was sustained, extended, unforced ecstasy in the audience — a feeling that, I believe, couldn’t have been manufactured or manipulated into existence. I couldn’t help think that, consciously or not, Morse’s recent work fully embodies the ongoing ideal of American revivalist religion — an ideal, whatever its flaws, that’s been a cultural constant from the Puritan theologizing of Jonathan Edwards to the rough-hewn democratic juggernaut of today’s Pentecostalism.
And, in the inspired, paradoxically complex simplicity of its drive to the finish, The Great Adventure live reminded me of nothing so much as Gustav Mahler’s massive Resurrection Symphony. Like Mahler, Morse and band embraced everything that came to hand, running the risk of grandiosity to shape a new musical world — a payoff acknowledged by the heartfelt, fervent applause of the 300 souls in attendance.
As Brad Birzer mentioned in another post, Eric Gillette is the lead guitarist for The Neal Morse Band, having contributed to their album The Grand Experiment and currently touring with them. Before he hooked up with Neal, Eric released a self-produced album, Afterthought, which certainly deserves to be recognized in its own right for the excellent slab of prog it is.
It begins with three very heavy guitar-based instrumentals, “Afterthought”, “Change”, and “You’re Full Of It”. Fans of Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson will eat these up, as they showcase Eric’s phenomenal guitar skills. Eric’s gift is his ever-present melodicism, regardless of how crunching the riffs are underneath.
The fourth track, “Lost” (featuring long-time Neal Morse collaborator Randy George on bass), is something very special. A 22 minute epic that begins with a fast Crimson-like guitar intro soon settles into a keyboard section reminiscent of classic Todd Rundgren while Eric sings, “Can you hear me? Is there anyone out there? I could use a helping hand…I will find my way; I won’t be afraid. I can feel you next to me.” After three blistering instrumentals, it is a startling and inspiring moment to hear his pure and strong vocals. “Lost” is a tremendous track, with not a note wasted during its entire length.
“Rising” is another instrumental, this time featuring fellow NMB member Bill Hubauer on keyboards. “Bring You Down” is another heavy track with excellent vocals. It brings to mind Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor at his best. Unlike NIN, though, Gillete’s lyrics are more positive: “You don’t have to face it alone/Don’t let it bring you down.”
“Out Of Control” is another guitar showcase that would give Jeff Beck a run for his money. As a matter of fact, if you miss those classic Jeff Beck/Jan Hammer jams, then “Stagger”, “Blue Sky” and “Miles Away” will satisfy. The latter song, in particular, is simply gorgeous, and I am sure it was no accident that the title suggests Miles Davis’ balladry.
The album closes on a gentle note with a piano-based acoustic tour de force, “Above The Sky”. Eric’s multitracked harmonies sing a song of hope and redemption: “Darkness turns to light/Now you can finally see what this all meant/ No more questions why/The answer’s right in front of you, so open your eyes/Above the sky”.
It is an extraordinary achievement for a young musician to produce a debut album of such high quality. It’s no surprise Neal Morse included him in his new band – Eric Gillette is the real deal, and we will be hearing a lot more from him in the years to come.
Last Night in Nashville, TN, The Neal Morse Band kicked off their tour in support of their new album, The Grand Experiment. Performing in the intimate confines of Rocketown to a very enthusiastic audience, Neal and his cohorts tore through an energetic set that lasted more than 2 hours and included some surprises in the set list.
They got things started with the a cappella opening to “The Call”, with every band member nailing his vocal part perfectly. Eric Gillette, a veteran from the Momentum tour, is on lead guitar, while Bill Hubauer (another Momentum vet) plays keyboards, clarinet, and sax. Of course, no Morse band would be complete without longtime collaborators Randy George on bass and Mike Portnoy on drums. I brought a friend with me to the show, and he was blown away by Mike’s performance, saying, “I haven’t seen anyone play drums like that since Keith Moon!” Eric was incredible throughout the show, singing occasional lead vocals and playing some absolutely shredding guitar. Bill’s instrumental and vocal versatility give the band almost two musicians in one person, and Randy George holds it all together with his fluid bass runs. As Neal proclaimed at one point, “Randy with the bass pedal solo – how prog is that!”
The band played every song from The Grand Experiment except (surprisingly) “Agenda”. Highlights included Neal playing a beautiful instrumental on acoustic guitar that led into “Waterfall”, as well as the Kings-X-sounding title track. They also played “Into the Fire” from ?, “The Creation” from One, and they got a roar of approval when the intro to “In Harm’s Way” (from Neal’s Spock’s Beard days!) boomed out.
This being the first gig of the tour, there were some inevitable glitches, but Neal took them in stride – even stopping “The Grand Experiment” to restart a tricky vocal section. The audience loved it, and once they were back on track, they never looked back.
There are few performers who can connect with their audience the way Neal does – conducting them during singalongs, raising his arms in appreciation, and even jumping off the stage to sing and play among them. He and the entire band gave all they had, every minute. As my friend exclaimed to me in the middle of a song, “It sure is nice to see a band just having a great time playing together!”
Neal asked if we could handle “one more epic” (of course we could), and then launched into “Alive Again”. Neal has written many, many epics, and this one is near the top. It rocks, it soars, it ebbs, and just when you think it’s over, it comes roaring back for an incredible finale.
As far as the encores, I won’t be a spoiler. Suffice it to say that there are some really fun surprises, both in terms of performance and song selection!
It’s been said (I have no idea if it’s true) that Keith Richards was once asked what it was like to be the world’s greatest rock and roll band. He replied that on any given night, there was a band playing in a club, somewhere, and for that night they were the world’s greatest rock and roll band. Last night, Rocketown hosted the world’s greatest.
You can get details of the rest of the Alive Again Tour at Radiant Records. Don’t miss this one.
Update: I mentioned above that “Alive Again” is one of Neal’s best epics. Actually, all of the songs on The Grand Experiment are a group effort, and Neal, Mike, Randy, Eric, and Bill all deserve credit for them.
At 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!