Frank Urbaniak: Best Progressive Moments of 2012

Taken from Prog magazine.
Taken from Prog magazine.

by Frank Urbaniak

I always enjoy reading best of lists  for progressive music.  To see how the music I listened to resonated with other listeners, to agree or disagree with the finalists, to discover a gem that might not have hit my radar, it’s a great time of the year, especially with the strength of the music in 2012.

Let me start by saying that I list both my good list and not so good list, which may ruffle a few feathers if those releases were on your good list.  However, having played drums since the age of 8, and still trying to play along with these amazing musicians via headphones today, I have profound respect for the challenges and extraordinary effort it takes artists to produce an album today.  There are few dedicated musicians, especially in progressive music, due to the need for other sources of income to support themselves and their families.   If you have ever sat through recording sessions, it is painful, tedious, boring and demanding.  And we really don’t appreciate how good these musicians are today, the hours of practice, the days of writing, to produce this body of work we pick through for our best of lists.

Top 7 Releases of the Year

Echolyn- The Windows CD.  Beautiful production, brilliant harmonies, outstanding attention to detail by a band who has been at it for 16 years and keeps getting better.

Big Big Train-English Electric 1.  High expectations, and the band did not disappoint.  Another great production,, with a larger soundstage and bigger sound, continuing the brass but adding some fiddle/violin and strings, recorder, banjo and a dense chorus of vocals.  Tied with Echolyn for most ear time in 2012. 

Anglagard-Viljans Oga.  Superb musicians take a bit of Crimson, the Scandinavian influences, folk, classical and progressive elements and blend them into a unique offering.   Only their third release in 20 years (!), the band has had a rocky past  and has restructured since the release of this CD, with the departure of Mattias Olson and the addition of a new drummer and keyboard player.

IZZ-Crush of Night.  Strong composition and consistent performance make for another great IZZ CD that has held up great since release.  Love the mix of male and female vocals.

Gazpacho-March of Ghosts.  Not quite up to Tick Tock and Night, but a beautiful soothing release.  Wish they could tune the production a bit as the mix gets messy in the louder sections.

Glass Hammer-Perilous.  I still like IF better, and the drums are kind of muddy/muffled, but the music is a progressive feast.    I could do without the similarities to Anderson in both style and lyrics-(we dance, we sing, the river, I could see the truth and at once we raced from darkness to light) make the similarities to Yes a bit unnerving in a few sections.

Sylvan-Sceneries.  Maybe because it was released in spring, and there are some beautiful dramatic moments, but I have enjoyed this CD all year.

Continue reading “Frank Urbaniak: Best Progressive Moments of 2012”

A Different Kind of Truth (Best of 2012 — Part 6)

Van Halen

Mike Portnoy, in an interview with iDrum magazine, made an interesting remark about all the guys in the supergroup Flying Colors; namely, their running joke during the writing process:

We almost felt like the Village People! I’m the metal guy, Neil Morse the prog guy, Casey McPherson the pop guy, [Steve] Morse the country guy and Dave LaRue the funky guy!

I feel the same way about the supergroup team here at Progarchy. In addition to our shared loves, we also have our distinctive tastes. Me, I’m the metal guy; Brad Birzer is the prog guy; Carl Olson is the jazz guy; Kevin McCormick is the classical guy…

Continue reading “A Different Kind of Truth (Best of 2012 — Part 6)”

The Best 15 Albums of 2012, The Greatest Year in Prog. Ever.

IMG_3725by Brad Birzer, Progarchy editor

One of my greatest pleasures of 2012–and there have been many–has been listening to massive quantities of progressive rock, mostly for pleasure.

Being a literary and humanities guy, I’d contemplated rejecting the entire numerical ranking scheme.  Rather, I thought about labeling each of my best albums with various qualities of myth.  These albums achieved the level of Virgil; these of Dante; these of Tolkien, etc.  But, I finally decided this was way too pretentious . . . even for me.

Below are my rankings for the year.  Anyone who knows me will not be surprised by any of these choices.  I’m not exactly subtle in what I like and dislike.  Before listing them, though, I must state three things.

First, I loved all of these albums, or I wouldn’t be listing them here.  That is, once you’ve made it to Valhalla or Olympus, why bother with too many distinctions.  The differences between my appreciation of number 8 and number 2, for example, are marginal at best.

Second, I am intentionally leaving a couple of releases out of the rankings: releases from Echolyn, The Enid, Minstrel’s Ghost, Galahad, and Kompendium, in particular, as I simply did not have time to digest them.  Though, from what I’ve heard, I like each very much.

Third, I think that 2012 has proven to be the single greatest year in prog history.  DPRP’s Brian Watson has argued that we’re in the “third wave of prog.”  He might very well be right.  But, I don’t think we’ve ever surpassed the sheer quality of albums released this year.  This is not to belittle anything that has come before.  Quite the contrary.  I am, after all, a historian by profession and training.  The past is always prologue.  Close to the Edge, Selling England by the Pound, and  Spirit of Eden will always be the great markers of the past.

Ok, be quiet, Brad.  On with the rankings.

Continue reading “The Best 15 Albums of 2012, The Greatest Year in Prog. Ever.”

Yet Another Best of 2012

10. Flying Colors – At first I thought this was more “pop” than “prog”, but I kept coming back to it throughout the year. It’s prog, and it’s very good!

 

9. Neal Morse – Momentum. Neal stays true to his beliefs, while delivering the best album of his solo career. Full of energy and great melodies, he, Randy George, and Mike Portnoy create a masterpiece with this one.

Momentum

8. Jeff Johnson & Phil Keaggy – WaterSky. A beautiful set of ambient pieces that were recorded while on retreat at a lodge in rural Texas. The sympathetic interplay between Johnson’s keyboards and Keaggy’s guitar is simply wonderful. My students request this music while working on math problems! Continue reading “Yet Another Best of 2012”

Of Earth & Angels (Best of 2012 — Part 5)

LEAHtheMusic.com

Another one of the albums in my Top Ten for 2012 is Leah’s Of Earth & Angels.

First, I heard her track “Ex Cathedra” and was immediately intrigued by the mix of medieval Latin and symphonic metal.

Next, I encountered the lovely track “Ocean,” which sealed the deal.

Buy your copy of this superb album today and support this talented artist; then you will remember 2012 as the year you discovered Leah:

The art of LEAH is one of diverse influence: Haunting celtic melodies, mysterious eastern vibes, heavy symphonic rhythm, and most of all… A voice that will utterly enchant and inspire you.

Listen to LEAH and you may hear a touch of Loreena McKennitt, a glimpse of Enya, or of something darker like Lacuna Coil or Nightwish. Mostly you will hear something unique from this emerging artist from British Columbia, Canada… And it will please your senses.

LEAH has accumulated a catalog of original songs. When you hear her work, you agree her song writing knows no limits: From symphonic metal, to organic singer-songwriter ballads, to ethereal electronica—she does it all—almost effortlessly. She specializes in the darker, more mystical melodies which gives Christmas carols and ancient Irish poems a haunting and tantalizing twist.

LEAH also has a work ethic that much of the young generation is missing. As a homeschooling mother, writer and prolific songwriter, she knows how to get things done—and done well.

A few footnotes:

Electronica is not really my thing, but I love what Leah has done with her track “Sanctuary.” Amazing that she does both symphonic metal and this sort of experimentation equally well.

At Christmas, I have always considered “Silent Night” one of the most musically boring carols ever; so I will always welcome a clever makeover. Now, here is Leah, doing the unexpected and making it sound truly incredible. Enjoy!

LEAHtheMusic.com

Flying Colors (Best of 2012 — Part 4)

Flying Colors

Another one of the albums in my Top Ten for 2012 is Flying Colors.

The sad fact is that so many “supergroup” collaborations end up being less than the sum of their parts.

But this collaboration is a glorious exception. Everything has gone right here.

Neal Morse (and Mike Portnoy) teaming up with Steve Morse (and Dave LaRue)?

Continue reading “Flying Colors (Best of 2012 — Part 4)”

Momentum (Best of 2012 — Part 3)

Momentum

Another one of the albums in my Top Ten for 2012 is Neal Morse’s Momentum.

Brad Birzer appends a useful album overview to the end of his epic CWR review of Neal Morse’s career:

Not a concept in the way several of his other albums are, Momentum most resembles his penultimate album with Spock’s Beard, “V.” As with its 2000 counterpart, Momentum has six songs. The first five are eight minutes or less long, with the last song being a 34-minute epic.

With skill and passion, Morse’s new album considers [in “Momentum”:] the pace of modernity and our reactions to it, [in “Thoughts Part 5”:] the necessity of appearing deep in conversation, [in “Smoke and Mirrors”:] how to weather deception in this world, [in “Weathering Sky”:] how one interprets his calling in the world, and [in “Freak”:] the way a powerful spiritual figure would be perceived should he arrive bodily in the present day (I’ll leave it for the reader to discover the identity of the protagonist in the track, “Freak,” as Morse deftly leaves the identity a mystery until the very end of the song) in his shorter tunes.

The epic is, well, epic. As the title, “World without End,” suggests, the thirty-four minutes explore the motivations of a person, and especially whether he or she is trying to shape the ephemeral or the permanent and timeless.

I have to admit that one of my favorite moments on the disc is when the title track glides on into the killer guitar solo that is expertly framed by an ecstatically swirling keyboard flight path:

Go listen to 3:10—4:10 on the album track…

Indeed, that is definitely one of the best minutes of prog we have heard all year.

(Note: 2:49—3:18 in the video below has the killer guitar solo, but omits the awesome keyboard/guitar dogfight. But I am not complaining: I love that I heard the Single Edit version first by watching it as a sneak peek on YouTube; and then, even though I had already fallen in love with the song, when I downloaded the album itself, I got the extra thrill of hearing the suddenly-new keyboard/guitar dogfight now added to the end! It was a unique experience unparalleled by any previous prog preview encounter!)

Continue reading “Momentum (Best of 2012 — Part 3)”

Clockwork Angels (Best of 2012 — Part 2)

Another one of the albums in my Top Ten for 2012 is Rush’s Clockwork Angels.

Stories like “Xanadu” and “Cygnus X-1” were what first enthralled me. So it is a dream come true to have a full-blown concept album from Rush after all these years. And with an accompanying novel, no less.

“Though Rush has often embraced huge themes and stories, sometimes over several albums, this is the first time the band has attempted a full concept. The story, nearly sixty-seven minutes long, follows the journey of a young man finding his own voice in a society ruled by indeterminate god-like fates (the Watchmaker and the Clockwork Angels), a rule-based conformity but peopled by a number of eccentric persons and subcultures,” writes Brad Birzer.

The story seems to be ever ancient (obviously it’s an epic remake of Red Barchetta, and Subdivisions, and [insert your favorite Rush song here]), yet ever new: “a very Calvinistic set of gods attempt to control all through mechanized precision, while alchemy, rather than science, has progressed. The album is divided into twelve songs, each represented by an alchemic symbol positioned at each hour of a twelve-hour clock.” (Brad Birzer on the story)

Brad also notes:

What is especially fascinating is that Rush—in music and lyrics—has with Clockwork Angels created an all-embracing mythos, referencing their own works and music going back to the band’s very first album. There are hints, some overt and some not, from albums across the past four decades, and the protagonist must—as with Aeneas and a number of other classical heroes—experience, survive, and outwit the gods.

In Clockwork Angels, though, the hero realizes one very vital thing: the divine will always control time. The gods might not control our individual fates—despite what the priests and politician tells us—but, in the end, Chronos devours all. But, within that given time in the world, man can do many things, and he can even dream and pursue the highest of all things.

In other words, Neil Peart continues to inspire. As Brad has noted elsewhere, “Neil was the big brother who introduced us to the literature our teachers seemed to have misplaced: classical myth, Voltaire, Coleridge, Twain, Dos Passos, Hemingway, Rand, Tolkien, Eliot, and others.”

Brad’s tribute to Rush there hits the target:

In the late 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s many of us lovingly thought of ourselves as the younger brothers of Peart. He was the genius kid with integrity, who always walked through the halls with two hilarious, equally smart (if not overtly intellectual) and infinitely loyal friends. One of his friends had parents who had survived the Holocaust camps of the Nazis. The other friend had folks who had escaped the prison camps of the Communists. Now, the three were free to express themselves in any way they so decided on this side of the Atlantic.

These three confidently confronted the world as a perfect trio, unbreakable and ever mutually re-enforcing and inspiring.

We looked up to all three as those who could understand our failures and successes, our desires and our alienation, our rejection of conformist culture and our drive to better ourselves.

Going where I want, instead of where I should
I peer out at the passing shadows
Carried through the night into the city
Where a young man has a chance of making good

A chance to break from the past
The caravan thunders onward
Stars winking through the canvas hood
On my way at last 

Also on my 2012 list is Oceania. Like Brad, fan boy Billy Corgan also knows how to pay appropriate tribute to Rush.

Oceania (Best of 2012 — Part 1)

The Smashing Pumpkins

One of the albums in my Top Ten for 2012 is The Smashing Pumpkins’ Oceania.

Volcanic bass guitarist Nicole Fiorentino and Rush fanboy Billy Corgan deliver some especially mind-blowing musical moments. The title track invites us to go swimming in 9:07 minutes of heavy prog wonder, in which we encounter an acoustic guitar island and then ride out more waves with multiple distorted guitar solos.

But every track is a keeper. In the album order, my four fave tracks are “Quasar” (which rocks things off with an appropriately heavy mystic quest, as the chorus sings out the Tetragrammaton—YHWH—until meditative bliss is encountered), “The Celestials” (complete with a heavenly epiphany—see next paragraph below), “My Love is Winter” (an incredibly melodic mind-grabber that builds the tension expertly in a prolonged way and then attains delirious resolution after teasing us delightfully with the extended musical deferral), and “The Chimera” (for its epic monster riffing).

“My Love is Winter” was the divinely lovely song that stayed with me most when away from the headphones; but “The Celestials” is perhaps my upper-echelon selection for epic greatness. It opens with an awesome sing-along acoustic guitar enticement. Then it blasts into rock trio orbit at 1:16 as the bass (oh yeah! dig the bass!), the guitar, and the drums prepare for the jump to light speed. And wham, at 1:52 we launch into hyperspace and the whole world suddenly accelerates and then magically slows down as, now outside time, we cosmically survey it all via the synthesizer’s lens. Powered into crazy warp speed by the ripping guitar beginning at 2:22, then eventually, at the edge of the universe, at the three-minute mark, the horizon of spiritual enlightenment is crossed as the music invites us to contemplate the spiritual master’s most divine insight (sung in harmony with the guitar): “Everything I want is free.”

Wow.

“Everything I want is free.”

Give somebody this album as a gift for Christmas.

May the music help you swim in the ocean of love. Ride on!

Oceania