Following hot on the heels of Part 1, here is the second part of my ‘Best of 2013’ list: positions 10 to 6 in my Top Ten.
This liturgically-themed piece, recorded with the Tromsø Chamber Orchestra, was my introduction to Ulver. It had a powerful effect on me when first I heard it and I shall certainly be exploring their back-catalogue in future. Messe is solemn, haunting and mysterious – best heard on headphones late at night with the lights turned off.
A richly atmospheric, superbly recorded album, evoking the grandeur of Pink Floyd in places and with liquid guitar solos that Dave Gilmour would be proud to call his own. Rain‘s story is set during World War I and is based on the experiences of band member Pete Riley’s grandfather. It’s a powerful and moving piece of work that assumes particular relevance with the imminent centenary of that awful conflict.
A welcome return by Tim Bowness & colleagues, a mere twelve years after their debut release. The title is a neat little joke, given that this is an entirely instrumental album, Tim electing to merely play guitar rather than treat us to his wonderful and distinctive voice. What you get for your money here are four tracks of proggy, jazzy, semi-improvisational brilliance.
This collaboration between The Pineapple Thief’s frontman and Katatonia’s vocalist is a revelation. The album consists of nine simple, elegant songs written by Soord with Renkse in mind, and the clean, minimalist production gives that spellbinding voice the space to work its magic. A modern masterpiece.
Haken are arguably progressive metal’s leading proponents in the UK. Each album has improved upon its predecessor and The Mountain is their best yet. These guys have the musical chops of Dream Theater but are considerably more adventurous. They also don’t take themselves too seriously, as this brilliant video for The Cockroach King shows.
See Part 3 for my five favourite albums of 2013…
by Frank Urbaniak
In an outstanding year of prog, with the heat of summer comes even more interesting soundtracks for 2013. These three releases are similar in their focus on audio excellence, none of the three are 100% prog, yet all three provide a good listening experience, but they do vary in terms of their ability to generate the desire for ‘go to’ repeat listens.
I originally didn’t want to review Wisdom of Crowds because while it is sonically rich, the music left me flat. After Carl Olson of Progarchy suggested differently I gave it a few more spins and have a more favorable opinion of the music, but still am a bit surprised by the glowing online reviews. As with more recent Pineapple Thief music, I find the song construction a bit predictable, with 2 verses, chorus, bridge/instrumental section and final verse/chorus. The music just doesn’t engage me enough to want to play it again/often. For instance the title track, “Wisdom of Crowds,” repeats the chorus for far too long, so that by the time I hear the song again I am ready to skip the track. The next track, “Radio Star”, has a weak melody so I am ready to move quickly to the best song on the CD, “Frozen North”, with lovely guitars and a haunting melody, which starts softly and then builds to an infectious finale. This track and the following track, “The Light,” reveal the great qualities of Jonas Renkse’s voice but overall, I find the songs just a bit long and I wish Soord had stretched a bit more compositionally as well as sonically. An enjoyable CD but I don’t see it in the top releases of the year.
(For an interesting transition, play Wisdom of Crowd’s “Flows Through You,” followed by Shinebacks’s “Here Come the Envoys.”)
Shineback’s Rise Up Forgotten, Return Destroyed is the top audio experience of the three releases and is worth repeat listens on headphones. Rise Up Forgotten is quite an eclectic mix of prog, dance, hip hop and pop (think ABC) which all comes together nicely, but is significantly enhanced by the quality of the recording. The dynamics are breathtaking. While there are similarities to Tinyfish’s Big Red Spark, this is much less ‘prog’ and this ‘story’ offers an opportunity for Simon to expand his musical palette. The proggier moments remind me of Frost* (go figure). There are only 6 songs three minutes or longer, connected by musical ‘blogs’. If you have the time to listen to the entire CD it works well, but the blogs are so short they sometimes seem to interrupt the flow of the songs, which is already challenging due to the diversity of the songs. I wish there were a few longer compositions as these short blogs aren’t easy to get into if you have a 20 minute drive or a short listening window. I also wish that they had used the female voice for more than the opening and closing songs, as Simon’s voice sometimes sounds thin on the choruses. Unfortunately I think that in a few months I will only return to this CD to revisit just the longer tracks. But hey, these are minor points, this is good stuff and worth an investment of your listening time and money. Hats off to Bad Ear Music and to Simon for taking such a gamble at such a precarious time in the industry.
Sounds of Contact’s Dimensionaut is the hardest release to review objectively as with this band you have to deal with Simon Collin’s legacy situation. Father Phil generates awe and respect as a drummer and singer in some camps, and quite caustic and disdainful online comments from others as a solo artist and singer/composer for his more commercial solo work and contributions to one of the genre’s most beloved bands in their later years. So lets get this out of the way: sometimes Simon sounds like his father around the time of Face Value but there are also hints of Sean Filkins, Jon Anderson and others in his singing. The only time I find this objectionable is on a track like “Dimensionaut” where his vocals are mixed with an echo that generates the ‘clip’ at the beginning of each phrase that was so oppressive in later Genesis recordings like “Throwing It All Away” and “Domino.” It isn’t needed, his voice is fine without it. And did I mention that the drumming genetics have been passed down nicely?
The other challenge in reviewing this is that while it is mostly progressive, there are some ‘modern rock’ songs bordering on AOR such as “Not Coming Down,” “Only Breathing Out” or “Closer to You,” clearly geared for more commercial appeal. On each of those songs the lyrics are nice but a bit ‘poppy’. In fact the lyrics on the entire CD alternate between ‘cosmic’ and pop but they work with the music. So you can either let the more commercial tracks put you off or you can just let the CD play end to end to appreciate a fine release, and just give these guys the respect I think they deserve out of the gate (as most seem to be doing). The recording is excellent and the band is solid (although the drums may be mixed slightly up front for some tastes).
Sound of Contact’s overall dedication to ‘bring the prog back’ is admirable, touring after only one album all across the US and Europe, joined by some other excellent bands in different cities on the tour. Talk about taking a risk! I give Sounds of Contact an A for effort and commitment to progressive music. If bands like this aren’t given a fair listen and support on their tours, then the genre’s future is at risk. (As I write this I see they are announced as the first signed band for Rosfest 2014!)
In fact all three of these releases deserve support and attention as these artists spread their wings musically and sonically, providing more reasons to celebrate 2013 as a great year for music.
[Frank Urbaniak is the co-owner of a successful retail technology consulting practice, living in the hinterlands of NJ. He has played drums since the age of 8 and followed progressive music since the age of 18 when he first heard The Yes Album in college. He is the father of two daughters who think his music is weird, and his wife agrees with them.]
For the first time we’ll be bringing in an outside producer, too: we’re honoured to welcome the wonderful Bruce Soord on board. The band are full of excitement and enthusiasm right now about getting firmly stuck into this new piece of work.
For the full article at PROG, go here–http://www.progrockmag.com/news/bruce-soord-to-produce-the-reasoning/
What a solid collaboration–one for the ages.
Kscope Music has been reissuing The Pineapple Thief’s albums beginning with their third, Variations on a Dream. With the recent release of their sixth, What We Have Sown, a wonderful back catalog is now available to those of us who missed them the first time around.
I happen to love Bruce Soord’s music, but there might be a “sameness” to it that can be frustrating to some prog fans. Soord’s compositional technique is very minimalist (in the same sense Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Arvo Part are minimalist). For example, the song “Vapour Trails”, from Variations on a Dream, is nine minutes long, and the entire lyrics consist of
we’re flying too low/we’re flying too low/and trying to go far/but finding it hard/we’ve got your vapour trails to follow/you home/we’ve got your vapour trails to follow/we’re flying too fast/we’re flying too fast/and finding it won’t last/but something will pass…/we’ve got your vapour trails to follow/you home
As the words are repeated over and over, they become part of the overall sound of the song, and small variations in the melody have a much greater impact. It takes patience to listen to a typical Pineapple Thief song, but it is definitely rewarding. Every song creates a sense of time being suspended, as endless permutations of the basic melody are worked out. Perhaps Soord is the Bach of prog, and his songs are fugues!
If you’ve never heard anything by The Pineapple Thief, a good place to start is the two-disc compilation, 3000 Days. Variations on a Dream (probably my favorite, with the amazing mini-suite “Part Zero”) is Pineapple Thief at their most Radiohead-like. 10 Stories Down is more acoustic and lighter in feel. Little Man is a heartbreakingly beautiful account of Soord’s loss of a child at birth.
What We Have Sown was initially released as a quickly-recorded farewell work for the Cyclops label just before The Pineapple Thief began its relationship with Kscope. Recorded in 8 days, it is a wonderful collection that features one of Soord’s finest songs, the 27-minute “What Have We Sown?” as well as the sinuous, Middle Eastern-flavored “Well, I Think That’s What You Said”. Kscope has tacked on two bonus tracks, making it an even better package than the original.
As a matter of fact, Kscope has done an excellent job with all four reissues. They come in attractive slipcases, and all have updated artwork. Variations on a Dream and 10 Stories Down each include a bonus disc of music that was originally given away in limited editions.
The Pineapple Thief represent a more contemplative side of prog, and based upon their latest release, All The Wars, they are still exploring new and exciting musical territory.