The Anchoress, The Art of Losing

A prayer of the afflicted, when he is overwhelmed, and poureth out his complaint before the Lord.

Ascription for Psalm 102, King James Version

The Art of Losing, the second album by Catherine Anne Davies working as The Anchoress, hits where the listener lives. Lyrically erudite? You bet; Davies borrows the title from American poet Elizabeth Bishop, quotes a roster of literary titans from Julian of Norwich and C.S. Lewis to Margaret Atwood and Jorge Luis Borges in the liner notes, and eagerly inhales their words of wisdom on the album sleeve. Musically sophisticated? Again, a slam dunk; along with her compelling writing and powerful, nuanced singing, Davies plays most of the instruments with gusto, creates the unique sound world only a true studio virtuoso could, and pulls influences from Depeche Mode to modern classicist Max Richter into the mix.

But that’s all secondary, picked up on repeated listens, trailing in the wake of this music’s overwhelming initial impact. Davies’ keenly honed portrayals of mayhem, trauma, loss and grief (reflections of her recent life) suck you into a maelstrom where happiness is barely a consideration. The question she insistently asks on The Art of Losing is: how to endure?

How to endure being treated like a possession — by responding in kind? (“The Exchange”) How to endure in a world where the wicked and unjust prosper (“Show Your Face,” rocking like a truck full of bricks as Davies snarls the chorus)? How to endure the ache of separation, the innumerable endings that life inevitably brings (the uneasily propulsive title track and “Unravel”)? The preternaturally quiet “5 AM” arrives at the abyss: just piano, cello and Davies’ unflinching vocal, recounting incidents of domestic abuse, sexual assault and baby loss, implacably inventorying the damage that comes for no reason, beyond what others think you are or owe them.

Groping for a path forward, Davies broods on the nature of sacrifice in “The Heart Is A Lonesome Hunter”, then explodes on the fierce incantation “My Confessor”. “With the Boys” brings another hushed, apocalyptic reckoning, as Davies tallies up the price of her choices– and concludes they’ve been worth making:

All of my life I’ve been waiting for something I might call my own
And learn to hold something inside
A voice unworn that gets a little louder when you laugh at me
And tell me not to speak

And she goes round and round
Chasing circles with the palm of her hand
She got to be good got to be certain if she wants to play
With the boys . . .

But I can’t and I won’t shut my mouth this time
Can’t control what you don’t know
What was it you were hoping for guarding all the doors?
Guarding all the doors?

The Anchoress’ answers to the inherent ache of life — of embodiment in a broken world where, seemingly beyond redemption, we love things and use other people — aren’t cheap, easy or sentimental. But they are cathartic and genuinely moving. At the end of The Art of Losing, endurance is the only viable solution (and quite possibly its own reward); the acceptance of time’s passage and the willingness to continue is the only possibility worth pursuing. Where the strength to do it comes from — yourself? Others? Someone you pour out your complaint to? — may remain a mystery. But by channeling her (and our) dilemma into 45 minutes of ambitious, irresistible art-pop, Catherine Anne Davies has given us an undeniable gift. Open it for yourself and listen below:

The Art of Losing is available on LP and CD at Bandcamp and Burning Shed.

— Rick Krueger

In Concert: Todd Rundgren’s Clear Humanity

With multiple attempts at a 2020-21 tour yanked out from under him, Todd Rundgren has pulled a fresh concept out of his back pocket in turn. In lieu of a one-off worldwide livestream, Rundgren kicked off the “Clearly Human Virtual Tour” on February 14.

Sporting a setlist focused on the ambitious 1989 album Nearly Human, Rundgren and his 10-piece band (including bassist Kasim Sulton and synthesist Gil Assayas from the 2018 Utopia reunion tour) are now midway through a 25-date residency in Chicago; original talk of limiting each show’s streaming market via “geofencing” quickly gave way to a few visual and verbal nods to a different city each night. Intrigued, I ponied up $40 for February 25’s “Indianapolis” show; for more cash, you could control what camera angle you were seeing, order the usual merch, have your face projected onto video screens the band can see, or even attend in person (the last option subject to being one of 19 people to pay VIP prices, then pass a COVID test within 72 hours of the show).

It’s a great concept: cutting down overhead by staying in one place, Rundgren has added a horn section (Steven Stanley on trumpet and Nearly Human sax man Bobby Strickland), three backup singers (Nia Halvorson, Grace Yoo and Todd’s wife Michele), guitarist Bruce McDaniel and second keyboardist Elliot Lewis to his usual rhythm section of Sulton, Assayas and drummer Prairie Prince. The musical results all night were pretty marvelous, ranging from a smooth purr to a raucous roar, with lots of guts and grace to spare. Pin-sharp after two weeks with the material, the band eagerly powered through most of Nearly Human plus selected classics from the 1970s (the 10-part vocalese in “Can We Still Be Friends” was downright awe-inspiring), a few Utopia tunes and later R&B-inflected gems (with the precision funk of 2nd Wind’s “Love Science” and the slow burn of “God Said” from 2004’s Liars proving especially effective). Rundgren’s occasional forays into lead guitar on his iconic green instrument “Foamy” were spaced out for maximum impact; the rest of the time he stalked the lip of the stage, strutting his stuff while the players did their thing. His obvious delight in his “nebbish as soul man” persona was utterly endearing — and once he shucked his suit jacket to reveal a bit of a pot belly and comfy athletic shoes, you were in on the joke as well.

The only weak link, for this show at least, was Rundgren’s voice. His melodies, especially on his soul material, are fairly fearsome, multi-octave constructions; they require a sturdy vocal instrument, a comprehensive range, consistent breath support, and lots of stamina! On this night, Rundgren’s bottom and top were strong, but a little phlegmy and forced, and the midrange between the two was unsteady to the point of outright disappearance at times — including during the opener “Real Man”. (l’ve had to sing for numerous worship services or concerts with a dry throat, sinus congestion or a cold, and I think that’s what may have been going on. Take it from me, it ain’t much fun.) Previous reports have found Todd in great vocal form on this tour (and Cirdec Songs’ Cedric Hendrix reported that he was up to snuff for the next night’s show); hopefully, this was a one-time glitch that some rest — or maybe hot tea and honey — fixed! And in my book, Rundgren earned “show must go on” bonus points for his perseverance in difficult circumstances.

In short, Todd Rundgren’s come up with an enjoyable cure for the no-concert blues — one that, even on a bit of an off night, was highly effective, impressive and fun! If it’s been too long since you rocked out in your favorite venue, I recommend you check out the remaining livestream dates for the “Clearly Human Virtual Tour” at NoCap Shows.

— Rick Krueger

Setlist:

  • Real Man
  • Love of the Common Man
  • Secret Society (Utopia)
  • Something to Fall Back On
  • Parallel Lines
  • Unloved Children
  • Love in Action (Utopia)
  • Compassion
  • Can’t Stop Running
  • The Waiting Game
  • The Smell of Money
  • God Said
  • Love Science
  • Feel It
  • Sweet
  • Change Myself
  • Can We Still Be Friends
  • Lost Horizon
  • Rock Love (Utopia)
  • Hawking
  • The Want of a Nail
  • Hello It’s Me
  • I Love My Life

Neil Young’s Archives II: The Fourth Dimension

Previous installments in our thrilling saga:

Neil Young tries to sort out the shambles his Archives Volume II pre-order process became one more time, at the NYA Times-Contrarian:

A DELUXE edition with subtle art differences is coming for those who couldn’t get the limited first one because of the demand and shortage. Those who got the first limited one will get a letter of authenticity sent to them. The Deluxe set is coming March 5 2021. I really hope you all enjoy the music as much as we did making it back then.

Love and be well, Neil and NYA

Links to pre-order the Deluxe Edition (which features the “II” in red, for the same price as the sold-out Limited Deluxe Edition) and the Retail Edition (smaller box, smaller book, $90 less) from Young’s online store The Greedy Hand are now active.

So what have we learned from all this?

  • If you’re Neil Young, you’ve learned that these days it takes a minimum of four months for a second pressing of a box set, no matter how loudly you complain to your record company;
  • If you’re Warner Reprise, you’ve learned that Neil Young will never, ever let go of a bright idea unless he does so on his own — so for pity’s sake, don’t tell him something can’t be done;
  • If you’re a Neil Young fanatic, you’ve learned never to pay $3000 for a Limited Deluxe Edition on eBay — you never know what might happen;
  • If you’re me — well, at least I’ve learned I don’t have to wait four months for my copy. Just don’t expect me to frame my Certificate of Authenticity!

— Rick Krueger

Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to Us

“Is it a letter to your younger self?” I ask. “Is it to your children? Your wife? Your fans? To me?” Springsteen chuckles at the question: “It’s to you! It’s a letter to you! Whoever is listening. And, yeah, it is a summing up of what I’ve tried to do over the course of my 45, 50 years now, working.”

— Bruce Springsteen, interviewed by the American Association of Retired Persons magazine

Scoff if you will at the idea of Bruce Springsteen talking to AARP – but he is 71 now. And as I get closer to 60 than to 50, I’ve started to resonate, ever so gradually, with the ideas of summing up and finishing strong. Between my childhood love of the Beatles and my late adolescent discovery of prog rock, Born to Run was an early personal milestone: an album with operatic musical ambition, a formidable grasp of rock history, and a yearning to explore the ins and outs of freedom and community, their costs and their consolations. (It’s also the first album I remember wanting after I read about it, in Newsweek’s infamous cover story; thinking about it, that might be when my itch to write about music started.)

As Springsteen’s career flared, climbed, peaked, then settled into the after-life of a legacy rock star, he’s never really stopped exploring those core concerns, whether his immediate subject matter was escape, desperation, love, abandonment, friendship, loss, grief or jubilation. The good news is that Letter to You dives into all this and more, remembering friends now dead, reviving songs once abandoned, and — the best part — rocking out with a rejuvenated E Street Band.

The death of lifelong friend George Theiss left Springsteen as the last living member of his first band, The Castiles. That and the gift of an acoustic guitar from a fan inspired a weeklong burst of writing, followed by five days of live-on-the studio-floor recording. These new songs are urgent, forward looking yet haunted by the past; but they also revel in gratitude for the moment and for the memories of those no longer around. The performances range from hushed to full-out, crossing the boundaries of folk, country, blues, the British Invasion and more; a mix of old and new bandmates are at the ready with guitars that chime and growl, churchy keyboard work ranging from Gothic to gospel, rhythm section grooves spanning the subtle and the bombastic, and much, much more.

The E Streeters are in full flight throughout, no matter the dynamic and the mood, smoothly gliding behind Springsteen on the folky opener “One Minute You’re Here” and the R&B-inflected love song “The Power of Prayer,” then soaring in a magnificent meld of The Byrds’ jangle and the Band’s grit on the cowboy gallop “Burning Train” and the transcendent rocker “Ghosts.” The early Springsteen songs “Janey Needs A Shooter,” “If I Was the Priest” and “Song for Orphans” show that the man’s surreal wordplay earned his early “new Dylan” hype, and the band backs him with full-on psychedelic blues rock, the “wild mercury sound” the actual Dylan talked about back in his heyday.

And through all of this, Springsteen — looking back on a world-conquering career, 30 years of marriage, the raising of three now-grown children, and looking toward what comes next — grounds himself where he always has: on the power of music to connect with others and tell their stories back to them, with each side of the conversation reflecting the other . . .

Rock of ages lift me somehow / Somewhere high and hard and loud / Somewhere deep into the heart of the crowd / I’m the last man standing now

“Last Man Standing”

. . . on music’s vast potential to create, support and sustain community, even if it’s a community of lost souls, brought together for one night only . . .

Here the bitter and the bored / Wake in search of the lost chord / That’ll band us together as long as there’s stars / Here in the house of a thousand guitars

“House of A Thousand Guitars”

. . . on rich, unsparing empathy for the faces in the crowd, even the ones who’ve made bad bets, or trusted the wrong people.

They come for the smile, the firm handshake / They come for the raw chance of a fair shake / Some come to make damn sure, my friend / This mean season’s got nothing to do with them / They come ’cause they can’t stand the pain / Of another long hot day of no rain / ‘Cause they don’t care or understand / What it really takes for the sky to open up the land

“Rainmaker”

But there’s also something fresh here, and it’s what lifts Letter to You above standard-issue Bruce. In both “Ghosts” and the album’s moving finale, Springsteen sings to the ones who’ve died while pondering his own horizon, facing the homestretch of his life with a hope that disavows denial or facile optimism. (Possibly one rooted in his Catholic background?) It’s a hope that points toward life after death, but also asserts that the dead still live on, here and now, in the memories of those they loved:

I’ll see you in my dreams / When all our summers have come to an end / I’ll see you in my dreams / We’ll meet and live and laugh again / I’ll see you in my dreams / Up around the riverbend / For death is not the end / I’ll see you in my dreams

“I’ll See You in My Dreams”

And while the album was done and dusted before coronavirus reshaped the landscape, there’s another promise implicit in it all:

“All I can tell you is, when this experience is over, I am going to throw the wildest party you’ve ever seen. And you, my friends, are all invited.”

Bruce talking to the AARP

Consider Letter to You Bruce Springsteen’s reminder to save the date for that party, as well as one of his finest efforts — in my mind, ranking up there with Born to Run, Tunnel of Love, The Rising and Working On A Dream. When the man has something big to write about, he can cut straight to your heart, even from a secluded home studio in deepest New Jersey, and he’s done it again here. With the E Street Band on fire behind him, Letter to You could be the basis of a tour to top them all for Springsteen; but even if that never comes to pass, this album is something special, a hard-rocking reminder that yes, our days on this earth are numbered — but also that love is strong as death.

Listen to Letter to You on Spotify.

(This review is dedicated to the memory of my parents Carl & Carol Krueger, who bought me Born to Run for my 14th birthday.)

— Rick Krueger

Neil Young’s Archives II: On 3rd Thought …

Neil Young has walked back his walkback at the NYA Times Contrarian:

Reprise Records, my record company for about 50 years, underestimated the demand for Archives Volume II.  We were all surprised.  It is a beautiful package that I am proud to have made for you.  I do feel badly that we did not deliver it to many who were waiting so long for it.

We don’t feel that offering more of a product sold as a limited edition is a good thing to do.  Thank you to all who purchased this set.

In 2021 we will be offering more Archives Volume II products as Reprise had originally planned, available in all outlets.  These, while not the boxed set, will offer all of the music and discs with a smaller book.  The original large book will be available for separate sale.

Thanks!  NYA

So what are the implications here? These thoughts hit me:

  • Note that Reprise was already planning a cheaper version of Archives II. Back in 2009, the basic edition of Archives I (pictured above) dropped the same week as the more expensive DVD & Blu-ray versions (which weren’t considered this time around due to the Archives‘ migration online). It’s arguable that this staged marketing effort was a major reason Archives II’s limited edition sold out; nobody told Neil Young fans that a lower-priced version would eventually be available! (Of course, I wanted the limited edition no matter what, so mission accomplished.)
  • As physical product’s market share in the recorded music industry has eroded, first in favor of downloads, then streaming subscriptions, marketing strategies have also shifted. For the big boys (tech companies and the three major labels) the industry’s physical product (7 percent of US sales in the first half of 2020, measured in dollars) is now mostly a means to wring maximum amounts out of legacy fans with money to spend. The mass market belongs to streaming (85 percent of US sales) — which furnishes them the lions’ share of those proceeds, through paid subscriptions and advertising. Hmm . . . that couldn’t have skewed Reprise’s estimates for Archives II’s limited edition sales, could it?
  • These new realities have also strengthened the power of major labels in relation to artists. If Neil Young — one of the true 800-pound gorillas of rock culture, absolutely used to throwing his weight around to get his way — can’t get Warner Music to pony up a second printing of the limited Archives II, what chance does a start-up artist have pushing back on anything against Warner, Universal or Sony BMG? As David Lowery famously wrote back in 2012, “meet the new boss; worse than the old boss.”
  • The focus on streaming has also changed how legacy musicians and their support staff (or their estates) conceive of box sets and high-end collections. For example, the new super-deluxe edition of Prince’s Sign O’ the Times has a bonus track listing explicitly designed so fans can assemble their own playlists without having to purchase digital or physical versions. And let’s face it, Neil Young wants to sell you a subscription to the Archives website if at all possible; in 2020, downloads (6 percent of US sales) and physical sales are the gravy on top, not the meat and potatoes.
  • In addition to streaming online, the relative shift to LPs offline (currently accounting for 62% of income from US physical sales — it’s the product with a higher value per unit, that outsells CDs about 3 to 1 at independent record stores and still has a small footprint for impulse purchases in big-box chains) has tilted manufacturing and distribution accordingly. What does it say about the industry’s current capacity for physical media that the new indie album by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Love Is The King came out online this past week, but CDs and LPs won’t be available until January? If the big guns are simultaneously bearish on physical sales and hogging CD and vinyl production, how do the little guys get a shot?

In some ways, all of the above is irrelevant to the main thrust of this website. Progressive music in all its forms is, whether we admit it or not, an incredibly small niche in today’s recorded music industry — but one that, between two solidly-funded labels that can get product to the mass market (KScope and Inside Out, which seems to have considerable freedom as part of Sony BMG), a multitude of independent and artist-run ventures and potent distribution channels like Bandcamp and Burning Shed, has proved remarkably resilient. The persistence of prog is a big part of why we love it so.

On the other hand, the music industry already caught one bug in 2020, with US physical sales declining in the second quarter of this year due to the first wave of the COVID pandemic. And if the Goliaths come down with another economic cold . . . could the fallout spread to the little guys with slingshots that we want to support?

–Rick Krueger

Neil Young Archives II: The Saga Continues …

Neil Young apologizes at the NYA Times Contrarian:

As many of you know, the sales of my NYA Archives Volume II did not go quite as expected. I’m sorry so many of you were disappointed in not being able to snag one. Let me give you a little background and tell you what we’re going to do to make this right.

WBR/Reprise, my record label, is responsible for estimating the sales and then producing the product. Estimates are always difficult to predict with the world moving away from tangible, but they clearly failed to anticipate the demand we experienced. I would have preferred to have sold fewer and not have many of you disappointed.

Leading up to the release, we wanted to give you the same convenience of purchasing wherever you are in the world, so WBR built a Greedy Hand Store in the UK and another in Canada. But they were completed and came online late, just before Volume II went on sale, which added to the confusion. We later learned a WBR link for pre-ordering was apparently leaked. Obviously, I’m disappointed in how all this was handled, and will address this.

I read many of your comments, especially from those unable to make a purchase. Here’s what we’re going to do.

I’ve asked WBR/Reprise to create another version of Archives Volume II that will have all the same content, but with some changes in appearance to differentiate it from the first 3000. For those that pre-ordered with the expectation that there would only be 3000, we will allow you to cancel your preorder, if you choose. The new version will be sold at the same price and will come with the same hi-res digital downloads and free NYA membership.

Thanks for all your support. For those still with questions contact the customer support team on your Greedy Hand store or the NYA team.

My deepest apologies to all of you who were disappointed. The leaked preorder link from Warner Brothers is particularly disconcerting to us here at NYA. Warner is usually very reliable. We will be looking into who placed orders using that leak if we can. The second edition will be identical with a minor color difference to identify it.

Sorry, NYA and Neil — be well

— Rick Krueger

Neil Young Archives Volume 2: Pre-Order Details

UPDATED 10/18/2020: The deluxe edition of Archives Volume II is sold out. An official update from the NYA Times Contrarian:

Thanks so much for your support! A second edition is being planned. It will be unique and we will have news for you soon. Needless to say, we are surprised that it sold so quickly.

We are well into production on NYA Volume III and we are considering another edition of NYA Volume I. This labor of love is for you. We are glad you are enjoying this, even in the digital age, where tangibles are becoming more and more rare and costly.

Eleven years after releasing his first archival box set, Neil Young has launched Archives Volume II: 1972-1976. From the pre-order page at Young’s online shop, The Greedy Hand:

The deluxe edition box set of Archives Volume II: 1972-1976 contains 10 CDs with 131 tracks, including 12 songs that have never been released in any form, and 49 new unreleased versions of Young’s classics—studio and live recordings, both solo and with Crazy Horse (Odeon Budokan), The Stray Gators (Tuscaloosa),  the Santa Monica Flyers (Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live), Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and The Stills Young Band. It also includes a 252-page hardbound book with hundreds of previously unseen photographs, additional archival materials, a partial tape database, a detailed description of the music, a fold-out timeline of the period.  In addition, each purchase includes the hi-res 192/24 digital files of all 131 tracks, as well as a free one-year membership to the Neil Young on-line archives. The box also includes a massive poster.

Box sets are strictly limited worldwide to 3,000 units.

Your purchase includes one year NYA membership. You will receive information via email on how to redeem your membership on 11/20. If you already have an active membership, you may give this code to a friend, or use it to extend your membership for an additional year.

List price for the pre-order is $249.98 USD, with free shipping as one of the options for the US. (Separate Greedy Hand shops for Canada and the UK were also launched today.) While Archives Volume II is definitely a luxury item, it doesn’t quite rise to Pink Floyd levels; the hi-res downloads and the subscription to the online archives (a $20 value) offset the price tag at least a bit, while eliminating the extra production costs of a Blu-Ray or DVD version and throwing 12 months of hi-res streamed access to Young’s entire catalog in the bargain. One should also note that three of these discs (Tuscaloosa, Roxy:Tonight’s the Night Live and Homegrown) have been released just recently as separate items. No word on whether there will be lower-priced CD-only or digital releases for the set.

And yes, I’ve placed my order (the same day as I bit the bullet and bought the big new Porcupine Tree box). The credit cards groan …

For a more detailed breakdown of Archives, Volume II’s contents, see the post at The Second Disc. And whether you’re planning to buy or not, check out the unboxing video for the set below:

— Rick Krueger

The Big Fall Prog (Plus) Preview, Part 2: Box Set Bonanza!

Since the initial installment of our fall preview, deluxe box set announcements are coming thick and fast. This article includes those mentioned in the preview, plus new announcements that may appeal to our readers. I’ve included approximate list prices in USA dollars (not including shipping), as well as lower-cost options for those who want to hear and support the music without breaking their personal bank. Links are to the ever-ready folks at Burning Shed unless otherwise noted.

King Crimson, Complete 1969 Recordings: 20 CDs, 4 BluRays and 2 DVDs include every surviving note Crimson played in their first year — the seminal debut In the Court of the Crimson King plus the complete studio sessions, extant live bootlegs and BBC recordings. The crown jewels here are new stereo, surround and Dolby Atmos mixes of Court by Steven Wilson. Available October 23 ($210 – $240 list price, depending on your vendor); slimmed-down versions of In the Court on 2 CDs + BluRay (with the new stereo and surround mixes, alternate versions and additional material ; $40) or 2 LPs (with alternate versions and additional material; $35) are already available.

Joni Mitchell, Archives Vol. 1 – The Early Years (1963-1967): Nearly six hours of recordings from before Mitchell released her first album — home recordings, radio broadcasts, and live shows, including 29 songs not previously released with her singing them! Available from Mitchell’s website October 30 as follows: complete on 5 CDs ($65); Early Joni 1 LP (1963 radio broadcast; $25, black or clear vinyl) and Live at Canterbury House 1967 3 LPs (3 sets recorded in Ann Arbor, Michigan; $60, black or white vinyl).

More from Porcupine Tree, Tangerine Dream, Tears for Fears and others after the jump!

Continue reading “The Big Fall Prog (Plus) Preview, Part 2: Box Set Bonanza!”

Kansas, The Absence of Presence

For all that Kansas can’t (and shouldn’t) shrug off the legacy of their golden days, especially the double whammy of Leftoverture and Point of Know Return, they’ve built up quite a track record beyond the hits over the decades.  The live set that followed the big albums, Two for the Show, is still thrilling; the 1980s version of the band fronted by Steve Walsh and guitarist Steve Morse changed up the sound without diluting the essence on Power and In the Spirit of Things; the original line-up reunited for a triumphant set of new Kerry Livgren compositions on 2000’s Somewhere to Elsewhere.  And 2016’s The Prelude Implicit proved a first-class return to sustained action.  The new recruits, guitarist/songwriter Zak Rivzi and singer/keyboardist Ronnie Platt, jelled nicely with Kansas’ long-term bedrock (stalwart violinist David Ragsdale, bassist/vocalist Billy Greer) as well as the band’s remaining founders (piratical guitarist Rich Williams and progressive rock’s most criminally underrated drummer, the brilliant Phil Ehart).

The good news is that Kansas’ latest, The Absence of Presence, is another great leap forward; appealing melodies, heady complexity and breathtaking power unite for maximum impact, and the whole album is a joy to hear.  Each player has upped his game multiple notches — Ragsdale, Rivzi and Williams peel off one ear-catching riff and solo after another, Platt sings with smooth, soaring power and commitment (evoking Walsh while being utterly himself), and I could listen to Greer and Ehart’s rolling, tumbling thunder all day.  New keyboardist Tom Brislin is the perfect match for this line-up, dishing up just the right lick no matter what’s required — pensive piano intros, crushing organ and synth riffs, lush textures, wigged-out solos, you name it.

kansas band shot

But it’s how all these ingredients blend that makes The Absence of Presence compulsively listenable; the writing is more collaborative this time around (Rivzi and Brislin on music, Brislin, Pratt and Ehart on lyrics), and the band navigates the twists and turns of the tunes with pin-sharp focus.  The multi-sectioned title track, the instrumental “Propulsion 1” and the unexpected up-tempo groove of “The Song the River Sang” (with Brislin on lead vocal) revel in Kansas’ proggier side. “Throwing Mountains” “Jets Overhead” and “Circus of Illusion” prove solid rockers, laced with unpredictable musical curveballs that set up the compelling, aspirational lyrics.  And the obligatory power ballads “Memories Down the Line” and “Never” are earworms you may not want to shake, with words and melodies that bring home the heartfelt sentiments without bogging down in sticky sweetness.

In short, The Absence of Presence shows Kansas unlocking a new level of achievement, still going strong and making excellent new music more than 40 years after their initial breakthrough.  Recommended without hesitation; this one has already hit my shortlist for this year’s favorites.  Listen for yourself below.

— Rick Krueger

Further Thoughts on Nick d’Virgilio’s “Invisible” (or, Progging in the Pre-Nirvana Mainstream)

My copy of Nick d’Virgilo’s Invisible was still in the mail when I read Bryan’s first impressions of it.  Following its arrival and repeated listens, here are my two cents.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect from this release, and was pleasantly surprised as a result; it gets better every time I hear it.  As Bryan says, Invisible doesn’t sound much like Big Big Train (though it puts d’Virgilio’s jazz-rock flavored compositions for BBT in context), or even middle-period Spock’s Beard.  And it only dabbles in the hyper, clattery alt-pop NDV tackled with Randy McStine and Jonas Reingold on The Fringe.  Mostly, this is an album of classy, soulful rock and pop with R&B undercurrents, reminiscent of nothing so much as the pre-Nirvana mainstream. The progginess is in the extended structures, the virtuoso playing and the overall concept; “The Alan Parsons Project with a lot more horsepower” might be a good thumbnail description.

(Invisible is a pretty cool example of creative entrepreneurship in today’s music industry, too.  By leveraging his gig at Fort Wayne’s Sweetwater Studios, d’Virgilio managed to play ten different drum kits in exchange for promotional considerations — i.e. the drool-worthy “Drum Gear” booklet included with each copy —  and draw on a bevy of guest stars from studio master classes, with Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen as the wildest card in his deck.)

The down to earth storyline, a solid redemption narrative with some nifty twists, definitely helps make Invisible appealing and relatable.  But I would argue that the musical means d’Virgilio uses to build out his concept seal the deal.  Beyond his emotive singing and consistently brilliant drum work, Nick’s polished efforts on electric piano, loops, bass, bass synth and guitars provide a sturdy chassis for each track; his fellow Sweetwater pros, guest stars and prog buddies lovingly customize the power trains and bodies; and the strings and brass of the Orchestra at Abbey Road furnish plush aural upholstery (along with a recurring musical theme based on the chorus of “Where’s the Passion”).

As a result, every single track of this album grabs on tight from the beginning — not just revealing more depth and emotional resonance with every repeat, but also relentlessly propelling the overall narrative forward.  The desolation of the title track and the downbeat cover of “Money (That’s What I Want)”; the defiance of “Turn Your Life Around” and “Overcome”; the devastation of “Waiting for No One” and “Not My Time to Say Goodbye”; the cathartic deliverance of the finale “I Know the Way” — this is outright sonic cinema, pictures vividly created in your head by state of the art, high quality music.

So, yeah, I’m sold on Invisible; it’s already in contention for my end-of-the-year favorites list.  And I think you might dig it too.  So order it from NDV’s website or Burning Shed; heck, listen on Spotify if you can’t wait for it to arrive.  Whatever.  You really shouldn’t miss this one.

— Rick Krueger