Bryan’s Best of 2019

Here we are at the end of another year. As you’re probably well aware, 2019 has been the latest in a string of great years for progressive rock and metal. Overall it didn’t blow me away like other years have (a few particular albums did however), but I think that’s more because of how my year has gone. I finished up grad school in the spring, and I spent the entire year job-searching before finally starting a new job at the beginning of this month. A couple of important people in my life died this year as well, so overall it has been a year full of challenges. My ability to properly soak in all the great music that has been released understandably suffered. But nevertheless, I found much to enjoy this year, and the following are some of my favorites. They are in no particular order except for my top three down at the bottom of this list.

Rise Twain – Rise Twain

The first album by Philadelphia-area duo Rise Twain is a stellar example of what popular music should be. Brett Kull and J. D. Beck are excellent songwriters and equally talented musicians. They combine the simplicity of a good song with the more technical aspects of prog. While it may be hard to call this a “prog” album, it certainly has many varied influences that make this a solid showing. Check out my review and interview with Brett Kull here: https://progarchy.com/2019/08/30/a-conversation-with-brett-kull-of-rise-twain/

Soen – Lotus

This is a magnificent album. Beautifully heavy, as any metal album should be, it retains an ability to move int0 peaceful contemplative spaces. When this album rocks, it rocks hard, and it keeps an upbeat tone that so many metal albums often lose. “Lotus” delivers musically, lyrically, and vocally. Check out Time Lord’s review here: https://progarchy.com/2019/01/09/album-preview-soen-lotus-soenmusic/

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Oak Releases Live-in-Studio Version of “Silent Night”

Ok, so I’m a few days late on this one. Norwegian prog band Oak have released their own version of the classic Christmas carol, “Silent Night.” They’ve given it their own arrangement, and it is uniquely their own.

Also a list of my favorite albums of the year should be coming to Progarchy this weekend, so stay tuned for that. I recently moved states to start a new job (my first full-time job post grad school!), so things have been a little hectic as of late. There should also be several reviews forthcoming of physical CDs sent to Progarchy in 2019, so stay tuned for that as well. (And for the artists who sent us physical CDs – no we haven’t forgotten about you! It’s just been a very busy year for me, and I’m the official Progarchy physical address.)

Anyways, here’s Oak’s “Silent Night.” Enjoy.

Review: M-opus – Origins

The very notion of a double album should be enough to make most people giggle a little bit. There are implications of ‘concept album’ and insinuations of ‘prog-rock’ involved in that notion. Neither of these things are not cool, but they encompass exactly what Origins is, and exactly what M-opus do.

After the release of a stunning debut album 1975 Triptych in 2015, which was thought-provoking as it was sonically mesmerising, the Dublin, Ireland trio didn’t take it for granted and rush into a songwriting process for their follow-up.

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The focus of the band’s attention has shifted somewhat, and although the debut was somewhat concept record, Origins is a piece of work that is entirely based on the story that deals with “redemption and destiny, the fulfillment of potential, through the story of a character who is a genius, but is his own worst enemy; a drunk gambler who is increasingly lost.

Throughout of the album’s 28-track repertoire, you get epic arrangements brought to perfection which are refined through a pleasant filter. Origins intersperses jangled guitars with angular complexities that might fly over some heads – repeat listens are deserved. The songs are organised so intricately that all the nuances and difficulties that might have gone into recording such an extraordinary album are totally lost in its beauty.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, sit songs which will shower the listener with jagged shards of heavy pounding; jagged shards that will bypass your vital organs and instead embed themselves within the deeper, darker echelons of your mind. Some of this album is simply unforgettable.

M-opus really do lead by example: with Origins acting as a fantastic example of how to take inspiration from all the sub-standard facets of day-to-day goings on to create a stunning collection of songs, they’ve proved that not everything in modern life is rubbish.

Follow M-opus on Facebook.

Time Lord’s Top 10 Metal Albums of 2019

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‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, the metal was cranked, and all the proggers were soused…

In that festive spirit, here now is a supplement to our previously published list of the Top 10 Prog of Albums of 2019. It’s a list of yet another batch of our ten most-listened-to albums of the year. This time it offers a record of the ten explicitly metal albums that we listened to the most (in chronological order) throughout the year.

True, there is much fine metal on the earlier list (Tool, Opeth, etc.), but this supplementary list had to be created because there were still more great metal albums that we listened to heavily, no matter how proggy or not they were.

So, without further ado, let us add to the historical record a list that is best appreciated in tandem with our earlier one. But this new list is called our Top 10 Metal Albums of 2019:

Soen, Lotus, kicked off the year with a slab of pure metal perfection. From the genuinely thrilling guitar sounds to the compelling vocals, this band has developed a unique sound that stands out among the competition. 2017’s Lykaia was a masterpiece, but the production had some flaws. On Lotus, any such obstacles have been removed, and the band rocks without restraint on it, yet still within the majestic confines of superb songwriting.

Battle Beast, No More Hollywood Endings, showcases an incredible versatility, part of which answers the question of what a metal ABBA would sound like. While the first three tracks deliver a more commercially presentable side, “Unfairy Tales” and “Endless Summer” do the same, but with even more of a heartstopping edge, furnishing what should have been number one radio hits, were radio still a thing. The sonic edge then becomes a metal sword slaying everything in its path with our favorites, “Raise Your Fists” and “The Golden Horde.” This album proves that a great band is never confined to one genre or style, but instead ranges freely, sowing musical excellence wherever they go.

Spirit Adrift, Divided by Darkness, is a non-stop metal thrill ride in the classic style from start to finish. But surely its finest track occurs unexpectedly, in the number four slot. “Angel & Abyss” clocks in at 6:32 and delivers a killer one-two punch of what is reminiscent of first Sabbath then solo Ozzy. The galloping Ozzy section contains what are the most exciting air-guitar inducing moments of 2019. There’s even a Crazy-Train style vibraslap and maniacal Ozzy-like laugh just before the fadeout. Metal doesn’t get any more satisfying than this. Trust us, every track on this disc is a winner too.

Black Sites, Exile, serves up a diverse yet classic rock-infused infused array of delights. If you need proof, start with the track “Feral Child” which rips your face off. Then stick around for the prog-worthy “Coal City,” which tells a fine story and delivers the musical goods beyond expectations. You’ll want to spin the album multiple times, again and again just like we did.

Cwn Annwn, Patron Saint, is the kind of album that makes doing this web site for free more than worthwhile. Every now and then, we get an email from an unknown band asking us to listen to their work. When we sampled Cwn Annwn’s latest, a band we knew nothing about, we were unprepared to be so blown away. This intense album was so good we just couldn’t stop listening to it, and in fact it probably came to be the most listened to disc we played all year. The songs are just that good, and the band plays with such conviction. The crowning glory on every track is rendered by vocalist Julie Stelmaszewski, who has one of the best voices we have ever heard. Why is she not famous, and packing the stadiums? Why is Cwn Annwn not recognized for being one of today’s greatest metal bands, and touring the world? Perhaps it is because of what are for most people unpronounceable names. Well, let us spell it out for you in clear monosyllables: BUY. THIS. DISC.

Paladin, Ascension, has some of the wildest metal we heard all year, with every ounce of guitar blazing with dazzling virtuosity. There are so many favorite moments here, we cannot begin to name them all, for we would never stop, not just with every track, but within every track. Anyway, check out the glories of “Divine Providence” and “Fall From Grace.” No doubt when these cats play live, the cops must want to give them speeding tickets as they walk off. If they can catch them, of course. Good luck with that.

Michael Sweet, Ten, doesn’t just turn it up to ten, he turns it up to eleven and beyond. There are in fact twelve tracks of unsurpassed metal here. The album just doesn’t quit with track after track of headbanging vigor and head-exploding guitar solos. There’s only one ballad track (“Let It Be Love”), but of course Sweet slays it on that one too, thanks to his preternatural voice. Our favorite rockers include “Lay It Down” and “When Love is Hated.” But to be honest, the favorite is always the track from it that is currently playing.

The Darkness, Easter is Cancelled, redeems rock and roll and brings it back from the dead beginning with its killer first track, “Rock and Roll Deserves to Die.” From there, things just don’t let up as “How Can I Lose Your Love” continues to convict us that this is the best album from The Darkness since Permission to Land. And then track number three, “Live ‘Til I Die,” tips the scales and makes this their best album ever. When Justin sings about his youth, the music turbocharges the track into pure transcendence:

Well, I went through some changes at the age of fourteen
And discovered all the joys of rock wear:
I made a point of wearing unfeasibly tight jeans
And endeavoured just to grow my hair.
But kids can be cruel; I wasn’t popular at school:
I became the subject of a campaign of ridicule.
But I’ll stick by my guns
And rise above the laughter of the ignorant ones.

Incredibly, the vocals on this track achieve the same heights (literal and metaphorical) as Freddie Mercury on Queen’s “Under Pressure.” In addition, note that the title track “Easter is Cancelled” is, like the album art, only apparently sacrilegious. On closer scrutiny, and on more careful interpretation, both are in fact mocking the sacrilegious conceptions of Christianity (hello, red hats) that hypocritically pursue worldly power and really see no need for redemption through suffering. Finally, the closing track “We Are the Guitar Men” celebrates the fact that rock and roll, even amidst this lousy generation, is truly alive and well, and The Darkness are its metal heralds.

Gygax, High Fantasy, sneaks its way onto our list with a svelte album that charms with only about half an hour of twin lead guitar-infused, spellbinding tracks. Compared to their previous two albums, it seems like they don’t bother self-editing on this one, since the guitar work is quite crazily bursting out at the seams everywhere. Some people might say this is overplaying, but holy shirt-balls is it awesome. We say it sounds like us jamming in the garage. Or at least what we are trying to sound like. Forking Gygax actually does sound like this!

Tygers of Pan Tang, Ritual, arrived late but dominated our playlist anyway. Where others could try to nitpick and find fault with one, two, or even three different tracks on here, we would rather disagree. They are are all fantastic songs, each in their own way. Perhaps our favorites can be named out loud: “Destiny,” “White Lines,” “Words Cut Like Knives,” “Damn You!” and “Love Will Find A Way.” Oh wait, also “The Art of Noise.” Oh man, we just named more than half the album. Okay then, we should really name the whole thing: Ritual. Yes, the entire album is killer. Rock on, you metal heads.

Audio Authenticity? Rafart – Dasein (2019)

Since it was released in October, I’ve been listening multiple times to Rafart’s new EP, Dasein.  Some might remember that I wrote, back in 2014, about Chilean composer and Chapman Stick player Francisco Rafart and his full-length release, The Handbook of the Acid Rider (2013). Since then, Rafart has released two EPs, the all-electronic Get in the Grid (2014), and Dark Night of the Soul (2015), as well as some individual tracks.  You can search “Rafart” on Spotify, or find him on Bandcamp, or go to his own web site.

 

Dasein features guitarists Filipe Saalfeld and Pat Nuño on guitars and Patrick Dalton on drums. Unlike Rafart’s previous releases, two of the four tracks on this EP include vocals.  I’ll admit to being partial to the instrumental tracks, but listen for yourself.  I would say that the urgency of Rafart’s vocal style adds an interesting additional dimension to his composition and performance.

Rafart presents Dasein as being about his quest for authenticity.  The reference of the title is to the concept of Dasein in the thought of German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976).  ‘Dasein‘ (literally “being there”) is the German word for existence, and Heidegger’s best known book, Being and Time (1927) made it into a technical term, in a way that has influenced a wide range of subsequent European philosophy, most famously the stream known as “existentialism.”  This reference caught my attention immediately, because his work has influenced my own thinking strongly, and I teach his writings to college students.  (Some readers might remember allusions to his thought here and there in my series of posts on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.

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Heidegger, around the time Being and Time was published

Rafart is attuned (a nice Heideggerian word) to the way in which my Dasein, my “being-in-the-world,” consists in my having been thrown into the world and enmeshed (before we are even conscious of it) in a matrix of meaning, toward which my most fundamental mode of directedness is care.  What this means is that whenever I stop and wonder about my existence, I find that it is already caught up in a complex set of caring relationships, caring about and for other people, caring about projects that I’m engaged in, caring about things (in the general sense, as in “how are things?”). Within that matrix, Heidegger notes that I am usually in a mode of going along with doing as “one” does, doing what “they” (Das Man) expect.  This is a sort of “falling” away from authenticity, where my doings might be doings that are authored by me, owned by me, my doings, rather than what they do, or what they expect me to do.  To be authentic does not come easily; it is not the default setting.  It requires effort, resoluteness.  One gets the sense that it is risky, and potentially costly.

Heidegger draws this understanding of authenticity (and the conviction that most of us are usually inauthentic) from the 19th Century philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, who is considered the first “existentialist.”  Heidegger (unlike Kierkegaard) seems to intend it as if it carries no value judgment, as if it is not necessarily bad to be inauthentic, or good to be authentic.  But it has been difficult for many to read Being and Time that way, to say the least.  The idea is also deeply complicated by the shadows of Heidegger’s association with the Nazis in the 1930s.  But Rafart joins a host of “existentialist” readers of Heidegger, who struggle deeply with their possibilities for authenticity.

So how is this struggle manifest in Rafart’s music?  I suppose the reader might expect me to pronounce, however provisionally, on his success at achieving authenticity.  But my (hopefully well-informed) suspicion is that it doesn’t work that way.  It is, for rather complicated reasons (having to do with the ways in which we are Dasein), always possible for others to look at my doings and to see them as inauthentic; authenticity is never worn unambiguously, “on my sleeve,” as the saying goes.  It’s not that one simply cannot tell.  It’s not that it is accessible to me but not to you; it’s not unambiguously accessible to me, either.  But rather than seeing that as some sort of failure or disappointment at not getting an answer, let’s change the question.

What happens when I listen to Rafart’s music as, itself, his struggle for authenticity?  What if the struggle is right there for me to hear, instead of being something that I try to detect behind, or even “within” the music?  I submit to you that if you understand from beginning that the music is the struggle, and not a manifestation, or “product” of the struggle, you will be able to hear it.

You will be able to hear it.  Notice that I held back from saying simply that you will hear it.  Why?  Because this whole “struggle for authenticity” thing can apply to listening just as much as it applies to composing, performing, etc.  One may always listen inauthentically.  I can listen as “one” listens, or as “they” expect me to listen.  I hope that I don’t have to give you a long, boring philosophical argument for this:  If my listening is not authentic, if it is not my listening, then am I not listening in a mode that will necessarily miss whatever it is in the music that goes beyond the saying of “one,” or of “them”?

I like Rafart’s composition and playing very much indeed, and I recommend it to you.  But what matters most to him, if we take seriously what he has written about his music, is that it is made and shared as authentically as possible.  So this is not just the sort of review that one writes when they ask for a review.  It is an invitation to accept Rafart’s gift, to listen with open (authentic, if you can manage it) ears, and to risk taking up your own side of the struggle.

Here is a playthrough of a track from Dasein, on YouTube:

https://www.rafartmusic.com/