Big Wreck’s “Grace Street” is bold, beautiful, and bedazzling

In my mini-review of Ian Thornley’s outstanding Secrets I described the Big Wreck bw_gracestreetsinger/guitarist/writer’s solo effort as “acoustic, reflective, mellow, mournful, defiant, sad, and yet shot through with a sense of cautious hope.” The new Big Wreck album Grace Street has its reflective and mellow moments—”Useless” is a mesmerizing, melodic gem and “Motionless” is a soaring mid-tempo number—but the key, overlapping descriptives surely are “defiant” and “hope”. If I were to channel my 17-year-old self (30 years ago!), I would simply say, “This albums kicks ***!” Since reuniting in late 2011, the Canadian rockers have produced three must have albums: Albatross (2012), which includes one of my favorite rock songs, period;  Ghosts (2014), nominated for “Rock Album of the Year” at the 2015 Juno Awards; and now Grace Street. As many others have said, this band deserves far more attention for consistently producing albums filled with aural delights.

The opening song, “It Comes As No Surprise”, is apparently inspired in part by Thornley’s divorce and is equal parts bombast and vulnerability, with wall-of-sound guitars bringing to mind the Von Hertzen Brothers (fans of that group’s 2015 “New Day Rising” should embrace Grace Street readily), while the vocal harmonies remind me of something from Moon Safari or even the Beach Boys. While Big Wreck is not straight prog, it certainly embraces some prog elements—similar, I think, to how Queen used complex vocal harmonies, unusual chords, and elaborate guitar passages:

The second cut, “One Good Piece of Me”, is about as AOR-sounding as the band gets (the opening riff is pure Asia, circa 1983), the sort of song that would have chewed up the radio back in the Eighties, with its power chords, anthemic vocals, and driving bass. “Tomorrow Down” has more of a grunge sound, with Thornley sounding very much like Chris Cornell, especially in how he moves from seductive to snarling at a moment’s notice. “You Don’t Even Know” is loping ear candy, a blues-inflected, hand-clapping (yes, actual hand claps!) number that would—wait for it—make Los Lonely Boys proud, with the sort of tasty guitar solo that Thornley excels at.

The middle section of the generously timed album (just shy of 70 minutes) is simply brilliant. “Useless”, as hinted at above, is a sonic and musical marvel, described by Thornley as one of his favorites. “A Speedy Recovery”, the longest track (7:38), is the very definition of an earworm, with incredibly catchy drum/bass parts, swelling guitars, hypnotizing chorus, soaring vocals, and another glorious guitar solo:

“Motionless” displays Thornley’s astounding range atop a bed of layered sonic sweetness, while “Digging In” has a more raw, classic rock sound with several overt Led Zep shout outs. “The Receiving End” could have easily fit on Chris Cornell’s most recent solo album, replete with mandolin, some slide guitar, and some falsetto. “Floodgates” is equal parts grunge and funk—Extreme, anyone?—with bassist Dave Mcmillan laying down some fabulous bass lines.

The final three cuts have plenty to offer fans of prog: “The Arborist” is built on some deceptively snaky guitar parts, with plenty of minor-keyed darkness around the edges; “Skybunk Marché” is a 7-minute long instrumental with all sorts of guitar gifts; and “All My Fears On You” is a surging, Pink Floyd-ish closer with a classic Thornley solo bringing the album to conclusion.

The Prog Report, in its glowing review, states: “At times channeling Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and other 70’s acts combined with their own unique style, ‘Grace Street’ is an exhilarating and refreshing rock album, one that is already one of the year’s best.” That’s as good of summary as you’ll find of what is an early entry into CEO’s Top 10 Rock Albums of 2017.

From Carl’s Critical Kitchen: A Baker’s Dozen of Tasty Prog/Rock from 2014

guitar-and-music-paper-1927
“Guitar and Music Paper” (1927) by Juan Gris

In the process of putting together an end-of-the-year book list for CWR, I came upon my 2004 post on my favorite books and music of 2004. The music list is quite interesting, with just one overtly prog album (Pain of Salvation’s “Be,” which is, in hindsight, one of my least favorite POS releases), and a fair amount of jazz (no surprise) and country (some surprise). I’m glad to say I still listen to much of the music on that list.

This year, I’ve decided to break my music picks from 2014 into three categories: prog/rock, jazz, and the kitchen sink (country, electronica, weirdness). I want to emphasize “favorite” here because there were so many releases I simply didn’t get to, despite uploading over 6500 songs in the past 12 months. Ah well!

And I’m going to try to keep it short and simple, with the exception of my thoughts on my #1 pick in prog, which is also my Favorite Album of the Year. What is it? Read on!

Favorite Prog and Rock Albums of 2014:

12. “Live at Rome Olympic Stadium” by Muse and “Tales from the Netherlands” by Mystery. Muse is about as proggy as a mega-selling, world-famous band can be, known for putting on live performances that are equally energetic and well played. This July 2013 performance is no exception, with the trio ripping through nineteen of their eclectic songs, ranging from from electro-tinged funk (“Panic Station”) to Queen-ish pomp (“Knights of Cydonia”) to Floyd-ish slyness (“Animals”). The DVD is very impressive, not only because it was filmed with HD/4K cameras but also because the band is at the top of their game.

Mystery is fronted by Benoit David, who was lead singer for Yes for a short time a few years ago, before illness led to his firing. David never seemed comfortable with Yes, but his work with Mystery is of the highest caliber. The Montreal-based group is lead by multi-instrumentalist Michel St-Père  (guitars, keyboards, bass, production) and has an epic, soaring sound built on fabulous melodies and exquisitely structured songs. The production, for a live album, is excellent, and David (who has since left the group) is in top form; this is not easy music to navigate vocally, yet he nails it at every twist and turn.

11. “Magnolia” by Pineapple Thief. Bruce Soord has more talent in his toes than most alt-bands have in their entirety, whether it be as a writer, producer, player, or singer. I’ve enjoyed everything from Pineapple Thief, but this collection of incisive, beautifully burnished tunes is Soord’s best work yet, the sort of intelligent, catchy, and detailed modern rock that deserves to be all over the airwaves. Classic Rock magazine sums it nicely: “Small but perfectly formed pockets of 21st century prog.”

10. “The Ocean At the End” by Tea Party. I was thrilled that this Canadian trio (now based in Australia) got together again after several years apart; I still listen to their early albums (“Splendor Solis”, “Edges of Twilight”) which feature an overt Led Zep vibe with a brooding, even epic, melancholy, rooted in Jeff Martin’s powerful voice and bluesy guitar playing. The latter quality is more in evidence here, and the rocking cuts (“Brazil” and “The Cass Corridor”) are the least enjoyable for me. The highlights are the dark cover of “The Maker,” the aching “Black Roses”, and the tour de force “The Ocean at the End”. Distinctive, powerful, emotive rock.

9. “Beyond the Visable Light” by Ovrfwrd. This album made a late charge on my playlist, as each listen revealed deeper layers of detail, melody, and interplay. The four-man group from Minneapolis is instrumental only, with an emphasis on group dynamics and song structures that are complex but very accessible. There is a lot of territory covered in the 5-song, 48-minute-long album, with grungy, propulsive passages melting into subtle, jazz-ish sections, and then giving way to Deep Purple-ish organ, and so forth. Great use of piano throughout, which brings a distinctive detail to the entire, enjoyable affair. Continue reading “From Carl’s Critical Kitchen: A Baker’s Dozen of Tasty Prog/Rock from 2014”

Succinct Reviews of Seven Sterling (Non-Prog) CDs

I live with several people and many things: my wife, our three children, a dog, two cats, five chickens, numerous fish, a dated wardrobe, and countless delusions. Among those delusions is an unwarranted—irrational!—belief that I will write long, detailed reviews of every album I deem worthy of such. Reality smirks at such excessive dreams, but I continue to harbor them. Still, I sometimes relent to reality, with gritted teeth and a fleeting snarl. So, what follows are short reviews of seven recently released albums (mostly downloads, actually) that share two qualities: they are not prog, and they are excellent. I should note that although the main focus of Progarchy.com  (which I conceived and Brad birthed—ooh, that sounds a bit, uh, strange) is obviously prog, it is open to all forms of good music. Genre is of far lesser importance than quality. That said, let’s push “Play”.

• “Until The Quiet Comes” by Flying Lotus. This is my sort of electronica: richly detailed, sumptuous, quirky, edged with darkness, possessing a jazzy flair, and endlessly inventive. The jazzy element has a genealogy, as Steven Ellison (who is Flying Lotus) is the great-nephew of Alice Coltrane, wife of the late, legendary ‘Trane. Includes a track, “Electric Candyman”, with a certain Thom Yorke. A near perfect late night album, this rewards repeated listens.

• “3 Pears” by Dwight Yoakam. His music has always been lean and his lyrics dry, but the new twist is subtle: a warmth in both content and sound. An example of the first is “Waterfall”, which is playful, with a wry and wistful sense of joy. The second comes through in Yoakam’s superb vocals, set in arrangements that are fat-free and feature just the right amount of twang and reverb, with tasty touches of organ and piano. The man is a superior songwriter and this set is further proof that country music can be twangy and contemporary without being shallow and trendy.

• “Long Wave” by Jeff Lynne. A part of me was prepared to dislike this because it is a covers album and is quite short (barely 28 minutes). Yes, this is a rather nostalgic homage to songs Lynne grew up on (standouts include “She” and “Beyond the Sea”), but the wizard of ELO brings such an obvious love to the project, I was won over. It doesn’t hurt that it is impeccably sung, played and produced, with lush Lynne-harmonies and ELO-like arrangements that are all about the songs. Besides, if there is one thing Lynne’s music has always had, it was a sense of nostalgic melancholy and romantic regret. Short, bittersweet, and stellar.

• “Manu Katché” by Manu Katché. Who hasn’t this phenomenal drummer played with? Notable names include Peter Gabriel, Sting, Jeff Beck, Tears for Fears, Tori Amos, and about a billion others. This is Katché’s fourth disc for ECM, and each has been fabulous; this newest release is notable for its propulsive approach. As one reviewer noted (I’ve lost the link), this is perhaps the funkiest ECM album ever, the sort of playful, soulful jazz album that gives an assured nod to modern sounds (read: synths and loops), but is rooted in acoustic bliss, with plenty of warm horns and shimmering organ. Recommended for anyone who loves great jazz and anyone who needs an entry point for modern jazz that is equally brainy and passionate.

• “Albatross” by Big Wreck. I was oblivious to this fine group (a “neo-prog hard-rock outfit” according to AllMusic.com) until I stumbled upon this new release on emusic.com. Singer Ian Thornley brings Chris Cornell to mind with his powerful, expressive vocals, but is hardly a clone, nor does he try to be. Three successive songs—”Wolves”, “Albatross”, and “Glass Room”—are worth the price of admission. “Wolves” (see YouTube video), especially, is a dynamite track, a perfect four-minute modern rock song, with top-notch playing and subtle melody. One of my favorite releases of 2012.

• “Born to Sing: No Plan B” by Van Morrison. No need for a Plan B for the Belfast Cowboy because he is the supreme Celtic synthesist, so soaked in jazz, blues, roots, and early rock, he can sing about grass growing and it is magical (and, in that regard, reminds me of G.K. Chesterton). This jazz-oriented album, on the Blue Note label, is arguably his best in a decade; he sounds refreshed, focused, and even happy. The horn arrangements are special and the songs are leisurely without ever wandering, mellow without ever dragging. The real revelation here are Morrison’s horn-like vocals, which are strong, elastic, and restless. Great album by one of my favorite musicians.

• “Now Here This” by John McLaughlin and The 4th Dimension. Some fans of McLaughlin’s legendary projects from the 1960s and ’70s aren’t too taken with his recent albums, which often feature guitar-synth and other modern devices. But while this album is occasionally frenetic and has a very modern (and crisp) sound, the adjective that keeps coming to mind is “soulful.” This comes through more obviously when things slow down, as on the lovely “Wonderfall”. The guitar solos are technically brilliant of course, but also have passionate, hungry logic that cannot be denied. This is music for the mind and the soul, which is about the highest praise I can give it. Fantastic effort from the legendary axe man.