Progarchy’s Best Commentator Ever: Indieun7

As we approach our third anniversary, it’s fun to look at the stats for the site.  And, one stat really sticks out.  One man has commented on nearly half of our posts, sometimes more than once.  Thanks, Indieun7!  We really appreciate the support.

And, here’s all we know of him.  He’s an American man of mystery.

Indieun7

Off the Rez.

I’m a mild-mannered Native-American writer who’s true-identity is the superhero known as “SUPA-NATIVE”!!!

Seriously though……….I’m a writer who writes WHAT he feels,WHEN he feels it!!! The one true thing I can guarantee You after reading my words,ARE…… it’s complete and total “Honesty”!!! For Honesty is NOT what You “think”……but what You “Feel”…….and in this case………ALSO……..what I “write”!!! ~Peace~

David Longdon Reflects

The ever-wonderful David Longdon, lead singer of Big Big Train, looks back at his life, 2013.  A fine reflection.

Here we are at the end of another year and what a fantastic year it has been, not only for Big Big Train but also for Progressive Rock Music in general. There have been some tremendous releases in our genre this year.

This post is intended to be a brief overview of our year, from my ‘behind the mic’ viewpoint.

On the 2nd of January 2 2013, we found ourselves on location at theEastleigh Railway Works in Southampton. As you would expect, it was cold despite the addition of an industrial heater. The works were in use by the railway carriage engineers and we were in awe of the sheer scale of the work that these men carry out, as if it was nothing. It felt most strange performing along to our track in the midst of all this dramatic industrial scenery. Eventually though, after a few runs through, we began to get used to the absurdity of it and we adjusted to the weirdness of it. The video was made to give those who are interested in us, a glimpse of what it might be like, when we perform live. The video was directed by Peter Callow and upon it’s release in September this year, it has helped to opened up new possibilities for us.

To keep reading, go here: http://soundemporium.blogspot.com/?spref=fb

My Review of 2013

2013, what a superb year for prog music, there have been dozens of fantastic albums released across the whole gamut, from classic English prog, to experimental rock music, and returns of several prog legends with fantastic new albums and new bands making waves and moving the genre on.
This is what I consider to be the albums that have been the strongest this year, and ones which I have kept coming back to over and over again, the musicality, the performances, the songwriting, the production, the sound is different from album to album, the topics wide ranging and when you listen to these albums back to back, they are all fresh, vibrant and new.
This is my sound of 2013, and these are albums that will stay with me, long after 2013 is but a memory.

Kingbathmat: Overcoming the Monster

Following on from last years superb Truth Button, Kingbathmat returned in triumph, on their most assured album to date, Overcoming the Monster is all about dealing with psychological obstacles, which is reflected in the brilliantly observant lyrics, and the superb cover art as well.
Masters of making an album, rather than just one track, the full force of Kingbathmats impressive musical arsenal is unleashed and untamed over these 6 fantastic tracks, with luscious harmonies reminiscent of Yes in their heyday, with tracks like the driving Parasomnia and the musical finale, the epic riff driven full on space rock masterpiece that is Kubrick Moon, with its superb guitar and keyboard work, and the interplay between all 4 members of the band is a joy to listen to as the track reaches its epic conclusion after 11 plus minutes of sheer musical abandon.

Lifesigns by Lifesigns

Keyboard player John Young, bassist Nick Beggs and Martin ‘Frosty’ Beedle have combined their not inconsiderable talents, and present 5 amazing tracks as the Lifesigns project.
With guests of the calibre of Steve Hackett, Thijs Van Leer, Robin Boult and Jakko Jakszyk Lifesigns fits nicely in the English progressive tradition, with inventive performances, quality musicianship, (the interplay between Beggs fluid bass playing and Youngs superb keyboard playing is a particular delight, while Beedle builds on and adds to a tradition of inventive percussion started by Bill Bruford and others) and instead of imitating or following a pre-ordained idea of what progressive rock should be, this is showing what it is.
Intelligent mature well crafted songs, atmospheric and ambient soundscapes created by the band, where Youngs emotive vocals weave over, and the beauty of the album from the superb Lighthouse to the closing 11 minutes worth of Carousel, Lifesigns is the sound of three talented musicians having the time of their life, not compromising, and delivering the album they were born to make.

Thieves Kitchen-One for Sorrow Two for Joy

The trio of Amy Darby, Phil Mercy and Thomas Johnson have moved from being a live band to a studio project, and in the process have moved organically away from Thieves Kitchens original prog roots, into something more prog folk, with some fantastic vocals from Amy, whilst Phil’s versatility as a guitarist shows all over this album from the brilliant The Weaver, the two epics in which the album hangs, Germander Speedwell and the closing Of Sparks and Spires, whilst Thomas is as inventive a keyboard player as any on the current scene. This is a well-performed, well-produced album, which is made to be listened as a whole. There’s no dipping in or out of songs here and this is a superb musical meeting point of songs and lyrics and performance, and a high point in Thieves Kitchens story so far.

Ravens & Lullabies: Gordon Giltrap & Oliver Wakeman

Two musical powerhouses in their respective fields, guitar maestro Giltrap and keyboard supreme Oliver Wakeman combine their considerable talents on this magnificent concept album on Esoteric.
With Giltraps effortlessly beautiful playing and Wakemans beautifully fluid keyboards, any album with one of them on is a joy; with them both together you’re getting a masterclass in collaborative performances.
With Olivers vocalist of choice the incomparable Paul Manzi on board (seeing Oliver and Paul perform together sends shivers down your spine) and with Wakeman and Giltrap trading licks, exchanging riffs and building things of beauty around each others talents, has to be heard to be believed.
This album is a thing of great power and great beauty and is one which you’ll find you keep returning to again and again, and each time you’ll discover something new, one of the best albums either man has put their name to, and this is one of those collaborations you hope continues.

John Lees’ Barclay James Harvest: North

The first new studio album from John Lees BJH since 1999’s Nexus, this is a superb continuation of the BJH sound, and a triumphant musical return for one of the most underrated bands of the progressive scene, this is classic BJH at its finest.
However in an album full of strong tracks like the digital single Unreservedly Yours, The highlights of this superb album, which as the name suggests draws on the Northern roots of the band, reflecting beautifully and evocatively on where they came from, is the epic and beautiful title track, which brings the landscape and area home to anyone from the North, especially if they are so far from home, that and its beautiful finale At the End of the Day, a wonderful musical end with words from a poem by Northern poet Ammon Wrigley, these two tracks close a magnificent and wonderful album, with grace, beauty and pathos
This deserves to be acclaimed as a great album from John Lees Barclay James Harvest, building on the fine musical tradition and heritage that BJH have, whilst giving their sound a contemporary feel.

Manning: The Root, the Leaf & The Bone

This is Guys 14th album, and he shows no sign of slowing up, with a magnificent concept all about change and time passing, brilliantly executed and realised, with superb pieces like the opening title track, the dramatic Forge with its fantastic percussive sound, and the lyrical themes running through the album about what has been lost to progress.
The core Manning band are a stunningly tight group, and guest musicians like Chloe Hetherington and Marek Arnold enhance the magic of Guys music.
This is a brilliant folk tinged work that shows Guys songwriting to be top notch and is another triumph for Manning.

The Tangent – Le Sacre Du Travail
L’Etagere Du Travail

After a break of 2 yrs Andy Tillison and the Tangent return with not one, but two stunning new albums.
The main treat is the new studio album proper Le Sacre Du Travail, which translates as the Rite of Work. Influenced strongly by Stravinskys Rite of Spring, this is a contemporary progressive symphony for modern times, with Andy thinking big about things that don’t necessarily fascinate other songwriters, the music itself is written and should be listened to as a complete symphony, like Andy says, progressive music should take you on a journey, and Le Sacre does that, from the opening of Coming up on the Hour (overture) the 22 minute epic Morning Journey and Arrival, its musical dexterity, with wryly observant and sympathetic lyrics, pulling you into the piece, and its counterpart the leading to the conclusion of the symphony, Evening TV, with its cyclical ending of ‘it all starts again’. This is one of the finest examples of a rock sinfonia I have ever heard.
The companion piece of an album as well L’Etagere Du Travail, the Shelf of Work, a 10 track supplementary disc of outtakes and alternate mixes available only from the Tangents website, from the older material the remix Dansant Du Paris is the Tangent go pop, with a fantastic sax break and clever remix, and a different version of the brilliant Ethernet. There are also 5 extra tracks on here, the brilliant Monsanto, the contemplative lost in Ledston, however the stand out track here is the fantastic Suppers Off, an amazing piece of work, from the free festivals of the 70’s to the corporate greed of today via questions about why people have stopped making things and only want to make money, this is a musical angry young man statement, with big questions about musical recycling, and how come big bands remaster stuff all the time, and people lap it up.
To create a masterpiece like Le Sacre is achievement enough, but to then follow it up with a companion album including Suppers Off which would be a significant track by anyone’s standards is an astonishing record by any musician, but to do it in one year as a simultaneous release reminds us why Andy Tillison is one of the most important voices on the prog scene.

Shineback: Rise up Forgotten Return Destroyed

This debut release by Tinyfish frontman Simon Godfrey with lyrics from Robert Ramsay, this is a step away from the Tinyfish sound.
Drawing on a diverse range of genres and sounds, this tells the story of Dora who videos her dreams and is drawn into a dark journey into her own past uncovering dark secrets.
Danny Claires vocals work so well on the album in the musical blog interludes, telling part of Dora’s story, whilst musically the genres flip from the driving electro rock of Is this the Dream? The synth driven Bedlam days that mixes techno and garage sounds, with some great keyboard work.
Godfrey has pulled together an amazing story and the electro emphasised music taking his muse in a totally different direction from anything he’s done before.
His own insomnia is drawn on throughout the album adding to the story, particularly on the mood changing piano driven Faultlines, his vocals being sublime throughout the album, whilst the title track is 10 minutes plus of musical brilliance.
This is a superb debut for a talented musician stepping out from the music he’s known for, into a left field musical future. The fact that this succeeds so well is testament to Godfreys talent and vision, and his choice of collaborators (including Matt Stevens, Dec Burke, Henry Rogers). This is fantastic.

The Fierce and the Dead: Spooky Action

The Fierce and the Dead is this intense, powerful, exciting groove monster.
The 11 new tracks that make up this mighty album all take you different places, and into unexpected territories, from the opening groove of Part 4, the driving intensity of the single Ark underpinned by a monster bass riff, and powerful percussion sound, whilst the twin guitars trade riffs and licks of an almost industrial nature, it’s a mighty blend of light and shade.
There are hints of jazz, of rock, of prog, of allsorts running through this album, and plenty of sounds coming through that you wouldn’t expect a guitar to be able to make, the fantastic Lets start a Cult with its stabs of brass and epic finish, the funk stomp of I like it, I’m into it, with its great drum beats and dirty bass and guitar sound, and a that killer riff, this is the sound of a band operating at full capacity.
Kev Feazey plays his bass like a third guitar, whilst the guitar sparring of Matt Stevens and Steve Cleaton is exemplorary, both being mighty guitarists, whilst the drums of Stuart Marshall underpin everything and build to the mighty sound of the Fierce and the Dead.
This is experimental, this is exciting, this is everything that is good about instrumental rock, new, fresh and an album you will keep returning to, time and time again as there is so much depth to these tracks that you pick something new up every time you listen.

Sanguine Hum: The Weight of the World

Oxfords Sanguine Hum took their debut, Diving Bell as their starting point, and pushed their music even further creatively and musically, creating as they do so, one of the most interesting, exciting and unpredictable albums I have heard all year.
From the musical tour de force that is the epic title track, clocking in at well over 15 minutes, and not one minute of which is wasted, there are hints of electronica running throughout the album, pulsing through the fantastic Cognoscenti, providing an exciting counterpoint to the beautifully melodic guitars and the driving percussion, whilst Day of Release provides one of the many musical highpoints, with hints of early OMD and Joffs vocal melody providing a sublime contrast.
From the start not a moment is wasted, not a foot is put wrong, and there is beauty throughout the album, in the music, the lyrics, the spaces between the notes.
This is an album like albums are supposed to be made, running almost seamlessly from start to finish.
I would argue that they are one of the few truly progressive bands out there, not copying, but creating, not imitating, but innovating.

Conundrum in Deed – Gentlemen

This is London based quartet Conundrum In Deeds debut album and is classic jazz prog rock, with their sound being enhanced by the fact that instead of different keyboard sounds, its just Sadlers piano adding to the rock, sound, and from the opening Falling leaves, right through to the closing title track, the music entrances you, draws you in and takes you on a journey.
With the lyrics as important (if not more so) than the music, songs like the beautifully mellow Strangers in Sympathy, the driving funk bass driven Love in the Age of Technology, the brilliant Holy Flowers, and the majestic Rise/Church Bells with its stunning bass/piano interplay.
Conundrum in Deed are the finished article, a superb band with something new to say, echoing the sounds of yesterday, reminiscent of bands like Caravan and others of that ilk from the Canterbury Scene.

Big Big Train – English Electric Full Power

A monumental collection by anyone standards, this is strange as it may seem, my first introduction to Big Big Train, and what an introduction.
This is English Electric parts One and Two, and the EP Make some Noise, in a lavish hardback book with some beautiful new pictures, stories behind the songs, and is a weighty package suitable for one of the greatest musical projects its been my pleasure to listen to.
From the opener of Make some Noise, and into the albums proper, the expansive sound, the powerful musicianship, the intelligent and well observed lyrics, this is a complete musical package.
Tracks like Uncle Jack, the haunting and poignant A boy in darkness, the English sound of Hedgerow and Keeper of Abbeys, and the frankly brilliant East Coast Racer make this a double album to get lost in, you don’t listen to one or two songs, you clear the decks, turn off the phone or internet, put the album on and sit down, let it wash over you, as you absorb its beauty, its strength, its power.
This is a magical work and one, which in 20 years time will be looked on as a significant musical achievement.

There are loads more albums that could have made this list, and some honourable mentions must go out to Chris Wade, whose been so prolific this year (three Dodson & Fogg albums, and one prog instrumental one) that it has been hard to choose between them, the musical maturity and progression from Derring Do, to The Call, via the Sounds of Day and Night have been exciting to listen to, and fascinating to see where Chris is going to take his musical talent next, I predict even bigger things for him in 2014.
Haze’s fantastic Last Battle saw their triumphant return, and what was nearly a goodbye has become a new beginning for them.
Jump just get better and better, and like a fine wine keep on maturing, and their stunning Black Pilgrim takes familiar themes and weaves their musical magic round them.
If I’ve missed out some other big releases like the Steven Wilson album, or the new Magenta album then it’s because sadly I’ve not heard them yet!
2013 will go down in Prog history as a superb year, and I am already excited about the prospect of 2014, so I shall end by wishing you all Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

2013 – The Pax Progorama

 Image

While “pax” literally translates as peace, people generally use the term “Pax Romana” to refer to a golden age of Imperial Rome.  Well, if that’s the case, then the year 2013 has left no doubt that we are in another golden age for progressive rock.

Now, you will have excuse me a bit for the “Progorama” thing in the title, but that’s the closest thing to alliteration that came to mind.  “Pax Progtopia” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as well.  There were a few other ideas I had, and none of them were very good … “Pax Progorama” worked the best, ok?  Hyphens added upon request.

The other question is this – do I have the best, most appropriate historical metaphor?  Could the current era be just as well described as a prog renaissance?  Probably.  We could liken the 1970’s as the original Pax Prog-O-Rama … the punk rockers as the barbarians who finally toppled a weakening empire … the 1980’s and early 1990’s as the Dark Ages (with of course, the neo-proggers being the Monks/Byzantines that preserved the flame of Western Civilization) … the rise of the Internet being equivalent to the Gutenberg printing press … and the late-1990’s and beyond representing the Renaissance and the spreading of new ideas, knowledge, and in our case here – art.  Maybe I should go back and rewrite the beginning of this post.  Then again, as Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber says …. naaaaahh (start at the point about where 1:00 minute remains …).

No matter what metaphor you choose, the resulting conclusion is still the same: Anno Domini 2013 was an incredible year for progressive rock, quite possibly the best ever.  I don’t say that lightly.  This year also gives weight to the opinion (mine, anyway) that our current Golden Age of prog has surpassed the previous one – and I don’t say that lightly, either.  The past few years, and 2013 in particular, have been nothing short of an embarrassment of riches for prog lovers.  Just how good was 2013?  Let’s take a look. Continue reading “2013 – The Pax Progorama”

My best of, must owns, of 2013

Prog7 - Version 2I realize it’s not the end of the calendar year, but it is the second day of Advent, and it seems like a proper time to list what I love about the music of this past year.  

The year, frankly, has overwhelmed me—but all in a good way.  As someone who has followed prog rather consciously since about 1981 (age 13) and has been exposed to it since about 1971 (age 3), I love the genre.  Frankly, I love many forms of music, including classical, opera, and jazz.  I’ve never learned to appreciate anything about country and rap, and, given that I’m 46, such prejudices will probably remain.

Sometime around age 22 or 23, though, I realized that financially, I was going to have to chose a genre if I wanted to collect and listen with any seriousness.  Perhaps it’s the slight OCD or some other quirk I possess, but I’ve never liked doing any thing half way.  In fact, as my maternal grandparents taught me—whether in taking care of the yard or cooking a meal or baking a loaf of bread or even in helping a neighbor—there’s no sense at all in doing something only partially.  In fact, to do anything partially was to slap yourself, integrity, and God in the face.  If you’re going to do something, do it well.  In fact, do it with excellence, if you possibly can.

So, if I wanted to throw myself into a genre, and not do it halfway, I had to choose between jazz and prog.  I love poetry too much, so prog seemed the best genre, as I find much to appreciate in fine lyric writing.  And, even in psychedelic lyric writing, there’s a joy to figuring out the puzzle of imagery.

And, so choosing prog, I realized soon after that I’d chosen a genre made up a lot of folks like myself—a number of OCD perfectionists!  And, I found that almost everyone making prog was (and is!) deeply committed and intelligent.  And, so were (and are!) the fans.  No one who loves the superficial of life becomes a prog musician, artist, or aficionado.

The problem was, of course, that when I was age 22 (1990), there wasn’t a lot of prog happening.  At least not much new was coming out.  Yet, prog could be found all throughout the rock world—though not always in the likeliest places.  As a genre, though, prog was probably at its lowest point in terms of what was being released.  Yet. . . yet. . . we were only a few years away from Brave and The Light and The Flower King . . .

Flash forward 23 years.  Holy schnikees.  What a year 2013 has been.  Really, could it be better?  Doubtful.  And, as I mentioned in my Preliminary Awards piece a few days ago, an argument could be made that we’ve reached the pinnacle, the Mount Everest of Prog!  I know, I know.  Eric Perry is going to slap me down for being hyperbolic.  Damnit, Eric, I’m from Kansas!  We’re not exactly subtle!!!

Phew.  Ok, I feel better getting all of that out.

Two quick comments.  First, these are in no order, other than alphabetical.  Frankly, these albums are just too good to allow my own will to separate one from another by “better or better.”   With one exception.  I would think any lover of the genre would want to own each of these.  Second, there are several albums that I suspect are wonderful, but do to my loan limitation because of family and work, I didn’t have time to absorb.  This latter list includes releases by Sam Healy (SAND is en route to the States as I type this), Mike Kershaw, Haken, Francisco Rafert, Ollocs,and Sky Architects, I apologize to these artists, as they took the time to contact me, and I was unable to give them credit where credit is due.  In due time, I will, however.

***

So, the list of the must-own cds of 2013, with two important exceptions.

ayreon

Ayreon, The Theory of Everything.  I hope to offer a full review of this soon, and I think fellow progarchist Tad Wert will as well.  The earlier series of Ayreon albums—possibly and arguably one of the most complex science fiction stories ever written—seems to have become self contained and at an end.  Now, if I’m understanding the lyrics from Arjen Lucassen’s latest correctly, Ayreon has become a project about exploring the self rather than about the self exploring the universe.  This is not easy listening, in terms of music or lyrics.  The former is a shifting feast of glory, no idea lasting more than two or three minutes before gorgeously transforming into some new idea, and the latter is deeply introspective and intelligent.  I’ve never had the chance to meet Arjen, but I would guess that he must be about as interesting as possible.  For him to keep such a huge range of ideas in one album, musically and lyrically, screams brilliance.  I only have one complaint with this release.  I’m a huge fan of Arjen’s voice, and he relies on the voices of others.  All good, if not outstanding, but I want Arjen’s voice.

***

cosmograf

Cosmograf, The Man Left in Space.  Phew.  Yes, let me write that one more time.  Phew.  That English chronometric and entrepreneurial demigod, Robin Armstrong, has now released four albums under the project name of Cosmograf.  Each is better than the last.  And, each of “the last” was pretty amazing and astounding and outstanding and lovely and meaningful and . . . you get the point.  The Man Left in Space is existentialism at its best.  Just as Arjen has written one of the finest science fiction stories of the last century, Robin has given us the musical equivalent of of the works of Albert Camus and Gabriel Marcel.  Add to near perfect story telling the musical work of Greg Spawton, Matt Stevens, Nick D’Virgilio, and, among the best, Robin himself, and you have a work of art that will stand the test of time.  A family man who loves speed, Robin also loves excellence.

***

days_between_stations_in_extremis_resized

Days Between Stations, In Extremis.  This one was a complete surprise to me.  A review copy arrived in the mail, courtesy of the band and the master of American prog PR, Billy James.  I was intrigued by the cover [que, background sound, Brad’s mother: “Never trust a book by its cover. . . “], though I frankly don’t like it that much.  It’s by the famous Paul Whitehead, but it’s a little too psychedelic for my tastes.  But, then, I looked at the musician list.  Holy smokes!  Tony Levin, Billy Sherwood, Colin Moulding, and Rick Wakeman.  How did this come about, I wondered?  Sherwood and Moulding sing on the album, and neither has ever sounded better.  Indeed, they seemed to have been created and birthed for this album.  Overall, In Extremis is symphonic prog at its best.  At 8 tracks over 70 minutes, the album never lags.  It flows together beautifully and movingly.  There are some of the most gut-wrenching passages, emotionally, I’ve ever heard in a prog album.  And, the two main members of the band, Oscar Fuentis Bills and Sepand Samzadeh, know exactly when to linger over a musical part and when to move on.  The high point: The Eggshell Man.  I have no idea who or what he is, but I’d like to meet him.

***

firece spooky action

The Fierce and the Dead, Spooky Action.  Four great guys—Matt Stevens, Kev Feazey, Stuart Marshall, and Steve Cleaton—making the best music possible for two other great guys, David Elliott, European Perspective Guy (I think this is official superhero name) and founder of Bad Elephant Music, along with the hilarious and artful James Allen.  Matt Stevens is a stunning person and artist.  It’s been fascinating and heartening to watch him struggle as he makes his way into the profession.  He very openly asks about opportunities.  Should he pursue fame first or art first?  I always know where Matt is going to land.  Probably many of us do.  He always comes down on the side of art, knowing the fame will follow when it follows.  I hope and pray he never changes his mind or soul regarding this.  There are lots and lots of folks out there—not just progarchists—cheering these guys on.  As my close friend and fellow progarchist, Pete Blum, has said, nothing has hit him so hard since the days of Zappa.  And, for Pete, this is a massive and important statement.  Everything on this album is wonderful.  In particular, I’m quite taken with Parts 4 and 5, a continuation of a theme that Matt and the guys started with Part I, their 19 minutes epic from their very first release.  TFATD, not surprisingly, also seems to have started somewhat of a sub genre within prog, the prog instrumental album.  In otherwords, what TFATD is doing is roughly equivalent to what progressive jazz was in the 1960s and 1970s.  A good sign for the health of all concerned.  In particular, newly emerging bands such as Ollocs and Rafert are also releasing instrumental albums, all of them quite good.

***

"Pure Flower Kings, pure prog and Kingly epic."

The Flower Kings, Desolation Rose.  This release surprised me as well, but not for the reason Days Between Stations did.  As far as I know, I own everything Roine Stolt has made or contributed to since about 1994.  Every side project, everything.  So, there was never a question about whether or not I would buy the new Flower Kings album.  I would certainly list Space Revolver (2000) and Paradox Hotel (2006) as two of my favorite albums of all time.  Stolt always has the power to release wonder in me.  Whether it’s the wonder about the first day of creation (Unfold the Future) or John Paul’s Pizza (Space Revolver), I love the libertarian, hippie, playful spirit of Stolt and the band.  Really, think about the members of this band.  Stolt, Bodin, Reingold, Froberg, and Lehrmann.  Already reads like a “supergroup.”  Not that they can’t be as serious as they can be trippy. One only has to listen to “Bavarian Skies” or the “Ghost of Red Cloud” to know just how deep they can be.  What surprised me about the new album, “Desolation Rose” is just how political and angry it is.  I don’t disagree with the anger or the politics.  In fact, I think I totally agree.  But, “Desolation Rose,” lyrically, is about as far away from “Stardust We Are” as one could possibly imagine.  This diversity just demonstrates how talented this Swedish band really is.  The entire album builds until it reaches its highpoint (in terms of intensity) in “Dark Fascist Skies.”  The final two songs, “Blood of Eden” and “Silent Graveyards,” offer a rather calming denouement.

***

fractal mirror

Fractal Mirror, Strange Attractors.  I’ve already had a chance to write a long review of this excellent album on progarchy, and it was (and is) a great honor do so.  Strange Attractors is not only one of the best releases of 2013, it’s the freshman release of a brand new group.  Three folks—all of whom met one another through the internet prog community (how cool is this!)—makes up this band.  Leo Koperdraat, Ed Van Haagen, and Frank Urbaniak.  But, we have to add a fourth.  It’s art comes from Brian Watson.  This is really important.  Not only is Watson an amazing artist, but he also creates an image for the band in the way one associates Yes with Roger Dean, Talk Talk with James Marsh, and Jim Trainer with Big Big Train.  It’s one of the joys of prog.  The art can be (and should be!) as beautiful and meaningful as the music and lyrics.  But, back to the music.  The three members of Fractal Mirror have created a stunning progressive soundscape, gothic and heavy in tone, but light in the space created.  I realize this sounds like a contradiction, and I wish I had the ability to explain it better.  I don’t, sadly.  It’s really not like anything I’ve heard before.  Suffice it to state, it’s quite refreshing and welcoming in its own intensity.

***

leah otherworld

Leah, Otherworld.  This is the only EP to make the “best of” list this year.  It’s also the only release I’m listing in which the artist (Leah McHenry) doesn’t consider herself a progger.  She places herself more in the metal camp, and this becomes obvious in the final song of the EP, “Dreamland,” a beauty and the beast duet with lots of metal “growling.”  Whatever one wants to label Leah’s musical style—and I would call it a cross between Sarah Maclachlan and Arjen Lucassen—it is very artful.  Leah’s voice could haunt a moor!  So much depth, truth, and beauty in every note.  The EP is only five songs long—Shores of Your Lies, Northern Edge, Surrounded, Do Not Stand, and Dreamland.  The first four possess a very Celtic/Nordic northern edge to them.  In fact, I called my initial review of the EP, “On the Northern Edge of Prog.”  I’m not bragging, but I am rather proud of this title.  it seems to capture exactly what Leah is.  Arjen Lucassen, if you read this blog, please look into Leah’s music.  I could see the two of you working very well together.  Leah, as it turns out, is also about as interesting a person as one might find anywhere.  Since Otherworld first arrived at progarchy hq, it’s been in constant listening rotation, and I pretty much have every note and lyric memorized at this point.

***

Kingbathmat OTM

Kingbathmat, Overcoming the Monster.  When we first started progarchy just a little over a year ago, I received a note from Stereohead Records of the U.K., asking me if we’d be interested in reviewing a cd by Kingbathmat.  Sure, I thought.  Of course.  Only the dead wouldn’t be intrigued by a band with that name.  Well, since then, I’ve not only listened to about as much Kingbathmat as exists (still missing a small bit of their back catalogue, but this will be rectified at the beginning of 2014, when the new tax year begins!).  I love these guys.  I’ve had the chance to get to know John Bassett and Bernard (he seems to have several last names on the internet!).  What incredible guys.  Really a band of Peart’s “Tom Sawyers.”  Mean, mean stride, never renting the mind to god or government.  Smart, insightful, unafraid.  Frankly, these are the kind of guys I would want next to me should I ever find myself under fire.  As with Leah, I’m not sure that Kingbathmat is perfectly prog.  But, then again, if it’s “perfectly prog,” it’s probably not prog at all.  Kingbathmat mix a number of styles, many of them heavy, to form a mythic maze of musical inspiration.  They are by far the heaviest in my list for 2013.  The “Tom Sawyer” reference is not just lyrical.  Parts of Kingbathmat pay great homage to early and mid-period Rush.  Of all Rush albums, Counterparts is my least favorite.  That doesn’t mean I don’t love it.  I’ve been a Rush man since 1981, and I will die a Rush man.  So, any criticism is relative.  But, if you could imagine Rush entering the studio with the music of Counterparts, the lyrics more intense than culturally sensitive, and a producer who wants to rock, really rock, you’d have an inkling of what “Overcoming the Monster” is.  Every song is a joy.  Not in the precious, sappy sense, but in the satisfying, just sense.  Everything is really quite perfect: vocals, bass, guitar, drums.  Since I first received a copy of OVERCOMING, I’ve probably listened to it every other day.  After a hard day of teaching (a job I love) or writing something scholarly, there’s nothing quite like putting this cd on, sitting back, and saying, “yeah, it was a good day.”

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Nosound, Afterthoughts.  Giancarlo Erra might be the anti-Kingbathmat.  Erra, an Italian demigod of sound in his own right, loves silence and space as much as Kingbathmat loves walls of Rush/Soundgarden-like sounds of thunder!  Indeed, Erra has a lot of Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock in him, a lot of Arvo Part, too.  If there are three notes, maybe there should be two.  If there are two notes, maybe there should be one.  If there is one note, maybe you should let silence have its say.  I’ve been following the work of Giancarlo Erra for almost a decade now.  He always entrances and entices me.  He creates soundscapes so powerfully delicate that one wants to drown in their dreamlike, twilight quality.  He’s also every bit the lyricist Hollis was at his best.  He’s also really a complete artist.  He not only writes his music and lyrics, he creates his own packaging, is a rather jaw-dropping photographer, and even designs his own computer apps.  I was thrilled that Kscope just re-released his early masterpiece, Lightdark (2008), remastered.  As with Lightdark, Afterthoughts just flows.  Gentle, punctuated, quiet, loud, emptiness, walls.  Listening to Afterthoughts is akin to standing on a peak in the Idaho Rockies, watching a violent storm pass under you in an adjoining valley.  Nothing is unneeded, and nothing needs to be added.  Afterthoughts is what it is, another Erra masterpiece.

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Two more to go, but supper’s ready . . . .

Rush 2.0: Clockwork Angels Tour (2013) Review

rush clockwork tourA friend of mine said to me—in response to my obvious glee that Rush’s Clockwork Angels Tour Blu-ray had just arrived in the mail—“it’s good to be childlike every once in a while.”  Well, maybe it was the reaction of a 13-year old trapped in a 46 year-old body.  Regardless, the reaction was sincere.  Rush!

Three thoughts and images (images as thoughts, and thoughts as images) come to me whenever I think of Rush.  Rush—brilliance.  Rush—inspiration.  Rush—comfort.  For thirty-three years, they’ve been all of these things to me.  Thank the Good Lord for that detention in seventh grade, and thank the Good Lord again for sharing that detention with Brad and Troy, the two guys who introduced me to Moving Pictures and, consequently, to Rush.  That was a heady spring.  I had also heard The Wall for the first time, the U.S. had just defeated the Soviets in hockey, and some idiots tried to kill the U.S. president and the Pope and came damn close to succeeding.  7th grade.  Prog Rock, Dr. Who, and Dungeons and Dragons.  But, most of all, Rush.

Maybe I never grew up.  These are still the things I love and share with my own kids (the oldest, now 14; he proudly wears a “prog rock—all else is noise” t-shirt; he and my twelve-year old daughter will be seeing that majesty that is Transatlantic in Chicago this coming February).

Oh, fair reader, back to the subject at hand.  Rush, Clockwork Angels Tour Blu-ray.  Holy schnikees.  Yep, God rest Chris Farley’s soul.  Holy schnikees.  What a work of absolute joy.  Over three hours of absolute joy.  A precious document of their massive tour, 2012-2013, the blu-ray captures them for a Dallas, Texas, show.

As Kev pointed out in his review of the same, there was a time when Rush fans could calculate an era by what live CD had been or was just about to be released.  All the World’s a Stage for the hard prog stage; Exit Stage Left for the melodic prog stage; A Show of Hands for the synth prog stage; and Different Stages for the return to guitar/alt rock stage.

But, this was all for Rush 1.0, testing for echo.

After the horrific tragedies in Peart’s life, his purgatory and redemption (symbolically), we’re at Rush 2.0.

I would argue rather forcefully that this is a different band, a band that finally (yes, these guys are truly humble and always have been despite their driving ambition) realizes its more than a mere band.  You can see this realization dawn, finally (again, finally!) on them in Beyond on the Lighted Stage and on the Colbert Show.

They have nothing to prove anymore when it comes to acceptance.  They never really did, but they always thought they did.  They only have to prove their excellence.  And, to me, they’ve done this in spades.  As one of my favorite Rush writers, Rob Freedman, wrote about a year ago (and I quote this whenever I can)

The story of Rush is a story of validation. When the band first started out, the mainstream music establishment largely ignored them. Geddy’s voice was the brunt of jokes, Alex’s guitar playing got no respect, Neil’s lyrics were pretentious and channeled a kooky Ayn Randian ideology, and he played too many drums, all of them with the passion of a mathematician. Meanwhile, musicians and music aficionados loved them, so you had this great narrative tension. Now they’re nearing their 40-year anniversary, their old critics are in nursing homes, their fans are in leadership positions in business, science, government, and the arts, and they’re looked to as elder statesmen of rock.

Amen, Rob.  Amen.  On this issue, I can speak from some personal experience.  As I look back over my own life as a historian, a writer, and an academic, I can easily claim that Peart has had as much influence on my own thinking as any of the other greats I looks to for ideas and inspiration: Russell Kirk, Friedrich Hayek, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ray Bradbury. . . .  A whole generation of us can claim to be Peart’s little brothers.  Like any older brother, Neil almost certainly will not agree with all of my own views, or with what I’ve done with his ideas.  But, then, Neil never—in any way—sought to conform the world.  One of the greatest things Neil gave to a generation was the advice to develop and hone what is best in each of us, whatever that best might be.

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Not content to fade, Rush 2.0 has decided to shimmer with excellence.  I can’t help but think of Neil’s words off of Signals, “Losing It.”

Some are born to move the world

To live their fantasies

But most of us just dream about

The things we’d like to be

Sadder still to watch it die

Than never to have known it

For you, the blind who once could see

The bell tolls for thee….

Rush is proving that greatness can beget greatness.  As I see it, Rush’s last three studio albums have done nothing if not prove this.  Vapor Trails, Snakes and Arrows, and, especially, Clockwork Angels.  While building upon everything from Rush to Test for Echo, the last three Rush albums come with a confidence, not of resignation, but assertion.  Nature has given us this time, I’ll be damned if I let it fly by unused and unappreciated.  Indeed, one can say with the last three albums, Rush looked at the world not just with confidence, but with gratitude.

So, when the band decides to release a live album for each tour, I can only shout “hooray.”  Give us as much as you can, Rush.  So many of us want to keep journeying with you in any way we can.

As with the previous tour, this one is a massive production.  Explosions, lasers, weird sets, and, best of all, incredible film clips add to the already stunning music.  The background story for the Clockwork Angels Tour film clips—an IRS agent looking for the Watchmaker is just outstanding, drop-down, gut-wrenching funny.  Geddy, Alex, and Neil appear as rather mischievous “G”nomes.

And, it’s just a joy to watch these guys perform.  They obviously love each other and what they’re doing.  In terms of playing, none of the members of Rush have ever been this good.  They are each in top form.  Watching each of them play guitar, bass, and drums is nothing if not humbling.  I hope I give as much in my lectures as these guys give in their playing.  Phew.

Musically, of course, what more could we want?  Knowing that they’ve been releasing lots of tour material over the last decade, Rush chose to play a significant portion of their 1980s material—stuff that’s not appeared on any of their live releases in a long time.  It’s worth remembering, however, that this is Rush 2.0.  They bring the sensibilities of the last three albums to the previous multitude of albums.  There’s not a dud in the live set, but songs that stand out in ways the originals didn’t: Force Ten; The Body Electric; and The Analog Kids.  Schnikees (again, apologies to Chris Farley), these are amazing.  Rocking, rocking, rocking.

It’s set two, however, that boggles the mind, the set that includes almost all of Clockwork Angels and—gasp!—a string quartet.  Phew.  Amazing.   So much energy emerges from the blu-ray in set two, it’s actually a bit wonderfully overwhelming.  YYZ is especially spectacular with the strings.

Bonus material on the blu-ray includes: Limelight, Middletown Dreams, The Pass, and Manhattan Project, as well as all of the movie clips from the tour and some documentaries.

For me, this is pretty much perfection itself.  33 years of loving this band comes down to this 3plus hour set.  Yes, Geddy, Neil, and Alex, I could never thank you enough for the confidence you’ve given me, the excellence you’ve shown me, and the hope you embody.  Whether you ever expected to get here or not, you are the embodiment of the best of rock, you are now the elder statesmen of culture.  You have persevered, and we have as well!

May the journey long continue.

A Brief 2013 Albums Of The Year List

I’ve been keeping an “Album Of The Year” list going back to 1977 or so, before which I didn’t own or properly listen to any music of note. Since then, there has usually been one album every year that stood above the others, or, if I’m lucky, an album that I’d truly cherish for years to come.

Over the last 10 years, I’ve been fortunate to have encountered a few such albums: “Everything Must Go” by Steely Dan, “Everybody Loves A Happy Ending” by Tears For Fears, “Milliontown” by Frost*, “English Electric Part 1” by Big Big Train, and “The Tall Ships” by It Bites. Unfortunately, there have been a few years where I’ve had to pretty much force myself to pick an album that might not otherwise top a “best of” list, simply because nothing really spoke to me that year…let’s not list those, eh?

For 2013, I can list three albums that meets at least one of two criteria: Will I want to listen to these again in 2014 and/or will it be an album I treasure for a lifetime.

They are:

“English Electric Full Power” – Big Big Train

Yes, nearly half of this album was the Album Of The Year for many in 2012 (including myself), and I’m not sure “English Electric 2” would have topped my AotY list by itself – it’d have been a strong #2 for sure – but to hear the new tracks from “Full Power” arranged among the revised tracklisting for this, the band’s final statement for this project, makes this an album that easily meet both criteria noted above.

Despite “English Electric” not being a concept album in a story sense, I do struggle a bit with how the leadoff track, “Make Some Noise,” fits in with the rest of the album, but having been that kid they sing about, I simply imagine how carefree life was in the summers of my youth, being able to play music with friends, before true responsibility knocked.

I can’t really add any meaningful superlatives to my appreciation of this album that haven’t been said time and again by others. Suffice to say: It’s magnificent.

“Dream Theater” – Dream Theater

Despite my glowing review of “The Enemy Inside,” the first single from Dream Theater’s self-titled album, I began to think that if I was in for an album-length assault in the vein of that track, this wouldn’t be a standout album for me. It’s obvious that I hadn’t learned to listen to an entire album before judging it, because this album stands out as one of their finest and a fine successor to “A Dramatic Turn Of Events.”

With the talent stockpiled in this band – especially now with a drummer in Mike Mangini possessing the technique and training on par with Jordan Rudess – it would have been easy for Dream Theater to overplay in every time signature for 75 minutes straight, but what we get instead is an incredibly balanced effort that keeps the technical playing mostly in check, letting the music breathe.

If I have any gripes – and this may be my problem – it’s that while each section of “Illumination Theory” is fantastic on its own (how about the section with the strings!), I was hoping the end of the track would reprise the themes from the beginning. Otherwise, it feels to me as if they took us out on a journey and didn’t quite bring us back (of course, that’s well within their rights as artists). Yes, I do hear the reference to one of the early guitar riffs later in the track, but somehow the end didn’t “tie the room together.” 🙂

However, I reserve the right to be wrong here, so fellow progheads, I’m counting on you to set me straight if I’m missing something!  In any case, don’t miss this album.

“Reaching Places High Above” – Persona Grata

Just as Big Big Train’s “English Electric 1” was a late-in-the-year find for me in 2012, this release from Bratislava’s Persona Grata (nice rhyme there) was that way this year. This six-song effort features three prog tunes in the vein of Dream Theater, plus a three-track instrumental arc in the middle that takes you on a thematic journey paralleling the titles of the tunes.

Beyond the writing, singing and playing on this album, I was most impressed with their attention to the arrangements.  Of the many prog albums that I gave a spins to this year, “Reaching Places High Above” grabbed me from the first listen.

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Finally, if I have a single of the year award to bestow, it’s for “Pale Blue Dot” by Sound Of Contact, part of a fine overall album. I dare you not to have Simon Collins’ melodies from the verses and chorus stuck in your head for days on end.  Great track!

Of course, there are many more albums out there likely deserving inclusion on my list, but these three (and Sound Of Contact) will be the ones that I’ll be spinning for years on end. Since our community of proggers is a tight-knit one that includes both artists and fans in a way that I doubt most other genres do, artists should note that I’m often a “late bloomer” with many albums, whether because it was completely off or under my radar, so don’t be surprised if I someday anoint your album as AotY that was released years before, like I did with “Once Around The World” by It Bites; it “only” took me some 20 years to learn who they were!

Another brilliant year for progressive rock, to be sure!