And, my final “best of” post for 2014. Let’s hope that you’re not getting too tired of these!
I’ve saved the albums that hit me the hardest—at level of mind and soul—for the last.I guess it’s somewhat goofy to have a “top eight,” but these are my top eight.These are the albums that did everything right, the ones that pulled it all together, offering real glimpses of the turning spheres.The first seven are in no particular order.I like them equally, and I think they’ve each attained the highest an album can reach but in quite different ways.
What can one say about Poland’s greatest, Newspaperflyhunting?Craig Breaden has already explained—in perfect detail—why this is a perfect album.From atmospherics to piercingly intelligent lyrics to mood swinging melodies, these Eastern Europeans have created what is certainly one of the most innovating and interesting albums of the last few decades.The album, ICEBERG SOUL, has much in common with early 1990’s American psychedelic revival, and there’s a real Mazzy Star and Opal feel to much of the music.But, whereas Mazzy Star was really good, Newspaperflyhunting is simply excellent.Droning, walls of sound, haunting guitar lines—this album has it all.
Salander, a new band from England, has blown me away as much as Newspaperflyhunting, and the two bands have much in common.Slander is only two guys, each named Dave, but you’d never know it listening to the music.Much as Cailyn plays every single thing on her album, the two Daves do the same.Their two albums this year, CRASH COURSE FOR DESSERT and STENDEC, are really one album, a journey through the wonders and terrors of the world, seen and unseen.The two Daves move effortlessly from one style of music to another, but they always hold it all together with what can only be described as a Salander sound.These two albums provide a journey that you hope never ends.
Armed with some new producers and engineers and a barrel full of confidence, the Anglo-Dutch-American band, Fractal Mirror, has proven the worth of community and friendship a million times over with GARDEN OF GHOSTS, a landmark album.As mentioned previously, there’s a lot of Bauhaus and Love and Rockets in this album.But, whereas those 1980’s bands felt as though they had one cool trick, Fractal Mirror is the real deal.GARDEN OF GHOSTS is mind-bogglingly good—stunning in every way—and we are so blessed to be catching them at the beginning of their journey.Certainly, it’s Gothic in tone, but it’s always soaring and light and dark and maddening and enlightening and loving. . . .It’s also quite defiant, and, at times, the lyrics make Neil Peart look like a softy.
I think the first album by the Tin Spirits one of my all-time favorite albums.It would certainly be in my top ten all-time albums.In particular, the song “Broken” is a masterpiece, a progged-out Allman Brothers kind of song.I eagerly awaited SCORCH, and I’ve not been disappointed.This is guitar prog, pop prog, rock prog—however one might label it, it’s just amazingly good.The four guys in the band obviously really like one another, and their friendship comes out in a myriad of ways in the music.The best song on Scorch, “Summer Now,” might very well be the best song of the year.As with Flying Colors, the Tin Spirits should be playing on every single album-rock radio across North America.The contrast between the two bands?Where Flying Colors might cross the line and go “over the top,” the Tin Spirits go for taste, class, and a dignified restraint.
Not to be too jingoistic, but one of the best aspects of 2014 has been the emergence of a number of North American prog bands.I’ve already mentioned several over the last few posts.The very best of the American prog bands, though, is Fire Garden.Holy Schnikees these guys are good.Scratch that.These guys are amazing!They clearly love Dream Theater, but they’re also 20x better than Dream Theater.Just as the Tin Spirits goes for dignified restraint, so does Fire Garden.Rather than play 30 notes in a millisecond, master musician and lyricist Zee Baig goes for just the necessary ones, the ones most needed for creativity and beauty.Again, that dignified restraint, when employed properly, can be such a beautiful thing.As I noted with Threshold and Haken, I don’t generally gravitate toward the heavier stuff.With Fire Garden, I happily embrace it.Of course, their heaviness is more Rush than Metallica. But, again, everything is perfect.I’ve focused on the band’s ubercoolleader, Zee, but everyone is in top form here.Zee pulls it all together.
I’m almost afraid to mention John Bassett.I’ve praised the that English stocking cap-wearing bard so many times, folks might start to wonder if I have some bizarre motive or some mancrush.Trust me, I’m married and have six kids.Yet, I do really love Bassett—just not in THAT way.Bassett’s music, through Kingbathmat, appeared in my life just a few years ago, but I can’t imagine my love of prog or music without him now, even as I look back to four decades of music obsession.Bassett’s first solo album, Uneßarth, is a psychedelic folk album, the kind of album that Storm Corrosion should have been.Somehow, Bassett’s actual voice (vocals) have a guitar-like quality.It’s bizarre.Beautifully and wondrously bizarre.And, despite his own self-deprecating remarks about merely being a “muppet”, Bassett is one of our best cultural critics.Of course, I love Animal, and there is a slight resemblance.Equally interesting, Bassett went the Matt Stevens/Fierce and the Dead route with his second album of 2014, a vocal-less progressive metal affair called Arcade Messiah.Each reveals a fascinating side to this very fascinating artist.What would I love to see—Bassett to bring these two styles together in Kingbathmat, writing a full-blown prog epic, unapologetic and unrelentingly so.
Once again, here comes the bro-mance.Sorry, Sally!I love your man, too.Just in very different ways than do you.I’m not sure Andy Tillison is capable of a misstep.Not only has he been one of the two or three most important musicians of what he’s insightfully called “Third Wave Prog,” he’s now becoming one of the two or three most important musicians in what I’ve attempted—admittedly, not very successfully—“Fourth Wave Prog.”His only release this year (what a funny thing to type) is under the name, cleverly, The Andy Tillison Multiplex.The album: ELECTRONIC SINFONIA 2.Just as Cailyn has brought classical music back into the world of prog, Andy is bringing jazz and jazz fusion back into prog.This album is beyond stunning.It is the very essence of taste itself.Every note, every line, every segue is just astounding.Tillison is a perfectionist, and it shows on and in all that he does.Thank you, Mr. Diskdrive.Rage on.
And, so I come to my favorite album of 2014.It took a while for me to get here, and if you fine progarchist reader are still with me, bless you.God has granted you immense patience.Though, as I’ve noted, this has been one of the best years ever in prog—and I’ve loved everything I’ve mentioned in the previous posts—I’ve loved this the most: Cosmograf’s CAPACITOR.Made by master of chronometry, Robin Armstrong, CAPACITOR is the perfect album.To those of you who write and produce instrumental music, thank you.And, please accept my apologies.I love what you do, but, not being trained in music, I don’t always get what you’re doing, even if I love it.For me, prog has been centrally about the lyrics and the story telling, with the music augmenting the two.I love the Word and the words.And, that brings me to CAPACITOR, a story that has everything.It’s a mix of science fiction and the occult, a play on religious revivals and scientific fetishes of a century ago.It’s not steam punk, it’s seance punk!And, what a story.Simply put, it’s the best sci-fi story of 2014.Part Arthur Conan Doyle, part Ray Bradbury, it’s purely Robin Armstrong.And, as we all know, Robin is not only a perfectionist, he’s an aural genius.He knows exactly how to mix word and note.This album is so good, it, almost by itself, redefines the entire genre.This is an album to match CLOSE TO THE EDGE, SPIRIT OF EDEN, and, much more recently, ENGLISH ELECTRIC and LE SACRE DU TRAVAIL.
N.B. Please forgive any typos. I have a three-year old princess acting rather grumpy as she deals with the flu. Lots of distractions in the Birzer household.
I, for one, completely disbelieve that “rock is dead” or almost dead. Many folks I could care less about believe this, and many folks I think the world of believe it as well. I just can’t accept it.
If rock—or what passes as rock—has been so commercialized and corporatized to die because the huge companies don’t know how to sell, promote, and market a band or singer any more, too bad and tough luck. My guess is that that band or singer lost its or her or his soul long, long ago. Too bad by far. If rock is corporatized, it’s really not rock.
And, frankly, I hope Rolling Stone and NME each die a quick death. They were never more than glossy catalogues anyway. They wanted conformity, not excellence. In their pretense to fight the Establishment, they were the Establishment. I could start citing Marshall McLuhan and Noam Chomsky here—two thinkers I admire immensely—but it’s not the intent of this post. Despite my nasty introduction, this is meant to be a post of celebration.
The Incredible and the Magnificent of 2014. Where to even start? So much amazing music came out this year. So very, very far from dead. Not even close.
In no particular order (except for what I consider the absolute best-est of the year).
North Atlantic Oscillation, THE THIRD DAY. I don’t think it would be possible for these guys to disappoint. It’s obvious they put everything they have into the very structure and fabric of their music. While I probably still prefer the more Mark Hollis-esque FOG ATLANTIC, The Third Day really offers some electronic beauty.
The Black Vines, RETURN OF THE SPLENDID BASTARDS. Doubting my claim that rock is very much alive? Pop this baby into the CD player, and I give you Exhibit A of how great and alive rock is. Schnikees, this baby rocks. This rocks like rock should. Clever, intense, and driving.
The Ben Cameron Project, TIPPING POINT. Only two tracks long, TIPPING POINT is one of the most interesting and traditionally proggish of all prog this year. An album is integrity and beauty. You have to immerse yourself in this one. You’ll be well rewarded for doing so.
Jason Rubenstein, NEW METAL FROM OLD BOXES. Talk about putting the “progressive” in progressive rock. No, not the Woodrow Wilson kind of progressive. The real kind—the kind that does actually advance something. Rubenstein is a genius, and his music shows just how much creativity and glory one person can offer in this rather tragic world. This is the soundtrack to every Dirty Harry movie that mattered, but presented with 2014 technology and sensibilities.
Galahad, 3 EPS. Who wouldn’t love Stu Nicholson? God made the man for us all to love and admire. Here, he takes prog toward House music. This is highly danceable prog, and yet it maintains that high intelligence that Galahad has always brought to music. There’s nothing really new, just new ways of looking at old things. A great success.
Glass Hammer, ODE TO ECHO. Again, who wouldn’t love Steve Babb? The guy radiates charisma. This outing sees Glass Hammer turn toward the mythic and the pagan. While generally open about faith, GH follows the path of C.S. Lewis, noting that the Christian is also the pagan, at least in his or her imagination. The bass thumps, the drums rock (phew!), the vocals soar, as do the keyboards and the guitars.
In a previous post or two, I’ve tried to explain what I mean by 2014 being a significant year in the history of progressive rock. Something(s)—though I still can’t quite get my fingers exactly on it—is quite different. That is, 2014 is not 2013, in the way that 2013 resembled but improved upon 2012, 2011, and 2010.
And, just to be clear, I’m not one of those proggers who actually thinks all new music must progress in the sense of offering some new technique the world has never heard before. Sure, I love innovation. But, never for innovation’s sake. Innovation, by its very nature, is always momentary. I want permanence. And, permanence comes only with the discovery and uncovering of beauty. If the new technique or innovation leads to a better understanding of beauty, so be it. But, I would, I hope, always choose the timeless and true and beautiful over the clever and ephemeral.
So, what’s different about 2014 and what I believe to be a new wave of progressive rock? Three things spring to mind. First, the best of 2014—and there’s an immense amount of good—is beautiful. Second, it’s eclectic. Third, it’s atmospheric.
A few years ago, several progarchists were happily complaining that so much prog is being released into the world that it’s impossible to catch up with it or, once caught up, stay up with it. True, I think. And, all to the good. Competition is rarely a bad thing, and competition for market and attention has forced proggers to think in very creative and entrepreneurial ways. This is as true in selling music as it is in making music.
Take one very specific example. Andy Tillison has always been one of the two or three demigods of Third Wave prog. Take a listen, however, to his 2014 release, Electronic Sinfonia No. 2. It is a thing of intense beauty, eclectic, and atmospheric. It is the perfect fourth-wave prog release, in many, many ways.
Because we’ve been so overwhelmed with so much goodness over the last two decades, and, especially, the last few years, Anathema’s Distant Satellite is a severe disappointment. Had it been released five years ago, it would have been pretty great. Now, though, in this context, it’s simply a parody of Anathema and Radiohead.
Well, enough ranting. I’d like to start describing my favorites of this year. In no particular order, I offer my first glimpse into my loves of 2014. Pink Floyd’s THE ENDLESS RIVER. I’ve been shocked at how many folks on the internet have decried it, as a betrayal to Roger Waters and to traditional Pink Floyd. Since when has PF ever been traditional? The Endless River is something PF has never been before. It has echoes of Echoes, but it also had a lot of Tangerine Dream in it. It’s interesting, it’s soaring, it’s daring, it’s full of whale song. Just listen to Skins and Unsung. There’s no ego. Just flight.
And, what an incredible honor to the brilliance of Rick Wright.
I’e always liked Mike Portnoy. In fact, I’ve been quite taken with him, and I’ve been more than willing to put up with his own eccentricities and strong opinions. But, when he lamented a new PF album this past summer, something in me gave. My respect for the former DT drummer has declined dramatically.
Around the time that the Division Bell was released, Wright admitted that he feared that PF had lost some of its creativity, and he cited Mark Hollis as an inspiration. Talk Talk, he argued, got away with much, mostly because Hollis had the integrity to dream and dare. He wanted Floyd to have the same spirit.
Well, here it is. THE ENDLESS RIVER.
What do David Gilmour and Nick Mason have to prove? Nothing, really. And, they prove nothing except the ability to offer a memorial to Rick. Amen. If every person in the world offered such a tribute to a lost friend, this would be a much better world.
Gilmour and Mason, I salute you for doing the right thing, the good thing, the true thing.