Lucid Planet, II, November 2020 Tracks: Anamnesis (12:25), Entrancement (5:33), Organic Hard Drive (9:39), Offer (4:15), On The Way (9:38), Digital Ritual (4:57), Face The Sun (11:49), Zenith (9:56)
Perhaps I’m going out on a limb in calling Lucid Planet’s new album “metal,” but I’ve always had a pretty broad understanding of what metal can include. For instance I’ve long considered much of Rush’s output to be metal. But be not deceived. Lucid Planet’s sophomore album, II, released five years after their debut, is not Dream Theater progressive metal. Rather they remind me of Tool in many ways, especially in the rhythm sections on “Anamnesis,” “Organic Hard Drive,” and “Zenith.”
Maybe “heavy prog” is a better term. The Melbourne, Australia-based band uses the terms “progressive,” “tribal,” and “psychedelic” on their website, and those are all good descriptors for what they do. They travel in and out of various styles and influences seamlessly. No one track limits itself to any particular style. The primal elements are particularly strong on “Entrancement,” which creates a psychedelic atmosphere through droning vocals and simple acoustic instrumentation. The song is a bit unexpected after the first track, but it works well in expanding the horizon of what the band does. Right away we know that this group plans to cover a lot of ground. The female vocals in parts of that track add a pleasant touch to what would otherwise be a rather dark song. The primal elements mesh well with their album artwork as well.
Everything from hardcore to classical segments can be burned into post-metal, and it would still be coherent, Lined in Silver is no exception. Song duration rivals prog, frequently illustrating those meandering atmospheric leads and hardcore riffs. Surprisingly they also sometimes lead to industrial passages. Covering this spectrum of influences and usually keeping with that shoegaze ambience, but again except for those instances of post-hardcore outbursts and hard to define avant-garde progressions. Seems like Breaths, just like post-metal, is easy to identify but often hard to describe.
As expected, album goes beyond metal. In fact, that famous post-metal emphasis on aesthetic, more than concrete musical influences cannot be more evident. Even though straddling genre boundaries, it’s always grim in a unique way. In other words, you don’t have to be a fan of doom metal to enjoy these sludgy passages; it can simply captivate anyone appreciating the dark and the melancholy.
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.
I don’t think I need to go into great detail here; we’ve all lived through it: the closing of restaurants, schools, and places of worship; the Orwellian slogans (“Together Apart,” “Alone Together,” etc.); a tumultuous presidential election here in the U. S.; racial unrest; etc. A hell of a year indeed.
During these last ten months I have often found myself confused, frustrated, and upset. I am a pessimist by nature, but I never would have expected a year like the one we just left behind. I find satisfaction in teaching my students face to face: but I had to settle for Zoom and Google Meet classes. I find solace in attending church: but for months I was prohibited from doing so. I find joy in conversing with friends face to face: but we stared at screens, instead.
So I turned to books and music, as I usually do, to give me perspective. One of my greatest faults, I am willing to admit, is my inability (at times) to recognize the goodness in the world—I suppose that’s primarily a result of my pessimistic nature. But as a high school history teacher, I also understand that humanity has endured far worse. For the past few months I have delved deeply into Wiesel, Solzhenitsyn, Orwell, and a variety of firsthand accounts from the survivors of the concentration camps and the Gulags. I understand this sounds a bit dramatic: I’m blessed to have been born in the USA, and in order to gain perspective on the current state of the world I’m reading stories of men and women who survived hell. But “suffering” is very much a relative term, isn’t it? And, for better or worse, I needed to be reminded of just how comparatively benign this pandemic has been compared to what others have endured in the past.
But it was music, and one song in particular, that provided me with the message I needed to hear above all others. This past fall I discovered U2’s second album, October. According to Bono, the effort to complete October nearly broke up the band: three of the four members are Christian, and they were concerned that the rock n’ roll lifestyle was incompatible with their faith. And yet they chose to make this album—what Bono called “the difficult second album”—about God. Talk about a risk.
There are several superb songs on this underrated album—“Gloria,” “Tomorrow,” and “Stranger in a Strange Land” are just three that come to mind—but the one that inspired my recent change of attitude was “Rejoice.” These lyrics in particular come to mind:
And what am I to do? Just tell me what am I supposed to say? I can’t change the world But I can change the world in me If I rejoice
That was what I needed to hear (repeatedly) in 2020: “I can’t change the world / But I can change the world in me / If I rejoice.” The pandemic is out of my hands. So are the lockdowns. So is any election. What matters most is changing who I am first—getting my own house in order, so to speak.
So I choose to rejoice in 2021. I know I’ll have my moments in the dark, but at the end of the day, things could always be worse.
I wish everyone here in our Progarchy community a joyful new year. Stay healthy, stay sane, and stay hopeful.
Here are my picks for the best of the year. I started with a list of thirty, and then cut it down to twenty by creating a list of ten pairs. Then I brutally cut that list of twenty down to ten, by jettisoning the member of the pair that had the lesser number of listens (according to my music playback software, Apple Music). Therefore, here are the ten best, ranked by my highest number of listens for 2020:
#1 — Unleash the Archers, Abyss
This long-form storytelling concept album is the sci-fi sequel to 2017’s Apex and it is unquestionably the most awesomely epic release unleashed this year. Unleash the Archers also gave the best pandemic live-stream performance of the year. If you missed it, then you can at least play this album on repeat. Favorite tracks include “Through Stars” (all the way back to the 80s), “The Wind That Shapes the Land” (a sprawling prog-metal masterpiece), and “Carry the Flame” (a killer duet).
#2 — Pallbearer, Forgotten Days
It’s hard to believe they could top their 2017 masterwork, Heartless, but all the same Pallbearer totally delivered the doom metal goods this year with this slow-growing, richly-textured slab of excellence. It will take multiple listens for you to appreciate all the complex nuances of this underappreciated release. Those who haven’t given it due honor have simply failed to invest the requisite time of listens required for this album to show itself fully. “Stasis” is the shortest track, so you may find access through it first, but “Silver Wings” is the longest track and sheer sonic proof of Pallbearer’s upper-echelon prog status.
#3 — Wytch Hazel, III: Pentecost
The noble tradition of classic metal is alive and well. Wytch Hazel rode atop our top ten list this year with their unstoppable momentum on III: Pentecost. Grab your sword and mount your horse as Wytch Hazel leads you into battle by setting scripture to music. They conquer all, galloping out of the gate with killer tracks like “Spirit and Fire”, “Archangel”, and “Dry Bones”.
#4 — The Night Flight Orchestra, Aeromantic
Climb aboard and get ready for a voyage in an aerial time machine, flying back to the time when radio actually played good music. These cats have mastered all the pop and rock idioms of Planet Earth’s golden age. On this disc, they perform the virtuoso trick of writing all the best songs of an era that they never actually existed in. Until now, by flying back to it this year. Start charting your own course with “Transmissions” (as you taxi a groove down the runway), “Aeromantic” (a totally exhilarating liftoff), and “Golden Swansdown” (a heavenly-perfect audio icon of falling in love).
#5 — Kelsy Karter, Missing Person
Rock and roll will never die as long as each new generation keeps producing truly talented and suitably demented offspring like Kelsy. “God Knows I’ve Tried” to be good, she sings. And she’s certainly achieved it on this debut disc. This is proof positive why artists should follow the maxim, “Stick to Your Guns”. Kelsy accordingly took her time to produce this fine album, and it’s a total blast from start to finish, all the way to the “Liquor Store On Mars” and beyond.
#6 — Pure Reason Revolution, Eupnea
Returning to their prog roots, Pure Reason Revolution pull off their best album since their stunning debut, The Dark Third. This album will become your “New Obsession”, because it was carefully crafted during a “Silent Genesis”, in order to give us a musical guide through the “Maelstrom” of 2020. Absolutely brilliant, this disc is a shining star in the prog firmament. Welcome back, PRR.
#7 — White Crone, The Poisoner
Here’s metal in the traditional style to make you stand up and take notice. If you need a prog awakening, check out the nifty musical intricacies on “Interment”, and then as it morphs into “Edge of Gone”. Every track rocks hard, but my favorite is “The Seven Gates of Hell”, which sports haunting vocals showing what Dio would have sounded like if he were a woman.
#8 — Kansas, The Absence of Presence
Kansas showed up in 2020 with a prog achievement beyond all expectation. This wonderful album proves that the greatest bands never go on past their prime. They just keep showing in new ways: why they are so remarkable, with no need to recycle their glory days. There’s maturity, vigor, and wisdom all here, with stunning tracks like “Memories Down the Line”, “The Absence of Presence”, and “Animals on the Roof”. Carry on, Kansas; carry on…
#9 — The Tangent, Auto Reconnaissance
The Tangent demonstrate yet again why they cannot be vanquished by any critics, because they simply cannot be reduced to any musical category and critiqued in a box. Instead they transcend all attempts to comprehend, and simply dazzle you with musical excellence. “Jinxed in Jersey” is jazzy storytelling that will have you laughing your head off. But the track of the year may very well be the amazing “Lie Back and Think of England” which is definitive proof that if you have ever objected to The Tangent’s “politics” on any release, you are foolishly missing the point. The Tangent’s vision is nothing but the finest humanism.
#10 — Smashing Pumpkins, Cyr
This surprise late entry stormed our top ten list with its unexpected synth rock unfolding atop a full flower of brilliant songwriting. Repeated listens are richly repaid, but you may hold onto early favorites, as I did, that also stand up over time: “Dulcet in E”, “Wyttch”, “Black Forest, Black Hills”, and “Haunted”. Billy Corgan’s immense talent for songcraft is on full display, but perhaps the most wonderful surprise is the radiant female background vocalists, Katie Cole and Sierra Swan, who stand out and shine as if they were fronting the band, making the Smashing Pumpkins now sound like an ideal Platonic form of pop/rock: a Pumpkin mashup with Metric.
Unfortunately, 2020 has more terrible news for us before the end of the year. America’s longest running prog-rock festival, RoSfest, has closed its doors. Over the last 16 years, RoSfest has included prog headliners from all over the world, such as Spock’s Beard, Glass Hammer, Brand X, PFM, The Flower Kings, Moon Safari, as well as wonderful less well-known bands and up-and-comers like Traverser, Perfect Beings, District 97, Kyros, and The Aaron Clift Experiment (to name a few). The festival moved to the 1000-seat Sarasota Opera House in Florida in 2019 from its original Gettysburg PA location and was forced to cancel its 2nd year at the opera house due to Covid-19 lockdowns. The 2020 line-up was supposed to include Big Big Train’s first show in the States, and CAST and Thank You Scientist as the other two headliners. Other acts on board were Dilemma, Pattern Seeking Animals, United Progressive Fraternity, The Tea Club, Lobate Scarp, Moon Letters, and Arc Iris.
George Roldan, organizer of RoSfest, put out a statement yesterday:
The Rites of Spring Festival says “Goodbye, for now”. RoSfest has been a treasure in the progressive rock world for the last 17 years and it has been my privilege to produce and host one of the best progressive rock music festivals in the world, but RoSfest will officially end its 16-year run in 2020. Dedicated to delivering the highest level of talent, production, and timing is central to what RoSfest represented; an outlet for a niche genre called Progressive Rock that provided a venue for new up and coming artists from around the globe. Running a music festival can be breathtakingly rewarding, but also quite expensive due to production, insurance, venue rental, hotel rental, staff accommodations, band expenses, vehicle rentals, etc. Additionally, the US government has made it harder and harder to acquire permits for working artists from around the world to perform in the US. Increasing artist permit requirements and fees makes it almost impossible for young bands to travel abroad. RoSfest has been a labor of love but has been struggling financially for years and can’t survive another “Covid” crisis. Unfortunately, we are not able to keep operating the festival at a loss. On a personal note, I feel so lucky to have been part of this organization. To work with such an incredible staff and dedicated volunteers and to interact with the best Progressive audiophiles in the world. RoSfest has been magical and could not have existed without YOU…. the best and most supportive audience anyone could hope for. Without such an incredible community, RoSfest would not have been possible. I am so thankful for all of your support and dedication throughout our festival years.RoSfest will continue its core mission to support the art of Progressive Rock and may surprise you (at some point) with a special concert in the future. But for now, with tearful heartfelt thanks from all of us at RoSfest, it’s been an honor to interact with such accomplished and inspiring musicians and music lovers in the progressive rock community. In the words of RoSfest’s production manager, Kevin Madrishin, “We did it right!”– George Roldan
Hopefully the emphasis is on “for now”, and perhaps within a few years we will see a resurgence of RoSfest either in its glorious festival form or maybe in the form of an occasional one-night special event.
Looking back at 2020, it’s hard to believe that we lost Neil Peart at the beginning of the year. That loss hit me pretty hard, since Rush’s music has been central to my life from an early age. I talk more about that in my tribute to Peart: https://progarchy.com/2020/01/12/neil-peart-a-misfits-hero/. I start off my year-end review list with a reminder of the loss of Neil because it seems like a fitting way to remember 2020. Peart’s loss represents what so many people have lost this year, whether it be family members and friends due to the virus or jobs lost due to draconian forced business closures that haven’t actually accomplished anything in slowing the viral spread. Not to mention the emotional distress that physical separation is causing many people.
Another thing we lost this year was live music from our favorite bands. Big Big Train had their first North American tour planned for late spring this year. Canceled. Devin Townsend was in the middle of a glorious North American tour with Haken when everything blew up. Canceled. Obviously this list could be expanded to every band that tours. Losing live music makes it even more difficult for bands in a niche genre to spread their music to more people.
But enough lamenting. We still got a lot of great music this year. The following list is in no particular order apart from my number one album at the end. I include both new albums and live records.
Haken – Virus I was a little surprised that I was the only person over at the Dutch Progressive Rock Page to include this one in my top ten list for their annual list. Maybe people were really sensitive about the name of the album, but it was clear that the album was written and completed before the novel coronavirus was a known entity. The music is fantastic. It’s probably their heaviest album to date, but it still has some of their calmer moments. It’s Haken through-and-through, and it makes a wonderful companion to 2018’s Vector. We also get to hear some more about our old nemesis, the cockroach king. It’s pretty cool how they worked in some of those themes. Fantastic album that should’ve received more attention than it did. Check out my review: https://progarchy.com/2020/07/23/haken-goes-viral-virus-album-review-haken_official/