Memorial Day Weekend Prog and Prog Metal Round-Up

There is a lot of great prog and prog metal currently in the pipeline – either that has already been released or that will be in the coming months. Plenty of new singles and whole albums out.

Caligula’s Horse – Rise Radiant

Australian prog metal band Caligula’s Horse released their brand new record, Rise Radiant, today. For some reason their music never really connected with me before, but this album has. It is insanely good. It has the technicality mixed with the quirkiness that this generation of prog metal has become known for. Outstanding vocals as well. I’ve got some homework to do on their back catalog. If all goes well, they’ll be coming to North America next January-February for the very first time. https://caligulashorse.com

Haken – Virus

I’ve been able to listen to an advance copy of Haken’s new album for a few weeks now, and it is quite good. It has been a slow burn for me, but that could have something to do with absorbing it in the background while I work from home. It has the heaviness and the technicality we are used to, and melodies abound. There’s a gentleness in Ross Jennings’ voice that strikes me as something new, but I could be wrong. There are also musical nods to their last album as well as “The Cockroach King.” The title is bound to upset some people, but it’s not like Haken could have possibly known what was going to befall the world when they wrote and finalized the album. The release date has been pushed back a few weeks to June 19. I expect this is due to production issues with supply chains in the western world having been shut down for over two months. The band released another single today. https://hakenmusic.com

Nick D’Virgilio – Invisible

Big Big Train drummer Nick D’Virgilio has a new solo album coming out. Based on the single, it has a bit of a Big Big Train vibe in the song structure and general progression, but there’s also a Broadway theatricalness to it. The latter, according to D’Virgilio, comes from his time working with Cirque de Soleil. The album title comes from being an invisible member in the orchestra pit. Nick obviously plays the drums on this album, but he also sings. Anyone who knows his work from Spock’s Beard knows what a great voice he has. Jonas Reingold plays bass, Randy McStine plays guitars, and Jordan Rudess plays piano and sythns. Brass and string sections are courtesy of the Abbey Road Studios orchestra. Yeah this is some next level stuff. I’m looking forward to hearing the whole thing. Out June 26. https://www.nickdvirgilio.com

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Watson’s Best Prog Albums of 2017: Part 1 — The “Honorable Mentions”

This year has seen a bonanza of quality progressive music. I have probably listened to more great albums this calendar go-round then in any recent year. This list is, of course, totally subjective and based on my own predispositions towards symphonic, orchestral, and melody-hooked prog.  There was such a plethora of wonderfully creative work in 2017 that I am increasing the list from the usual Top Ten or Top Twenty to a whopping 40 best.

And though ## 40 – – 21 are being categorized as only “honorable mentions” they still deserve your attention.  All of the following releases are so good that on any given day (just not today) they might well “crack the ceiling” and wind up on my official TOP TWENTY (coming later this week).   And now, in descending order from number 40 to number 21 are this years:

“Honorable Mentions”

40) SACRED APE/Sacred Ape

sacredape

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CEO’s Ten Favorite Prog & Rock CDs of 2016

After failing to post any “Favorite Music of 2015…” lists last year, I’ve decided that I should avoid elaborate explanations for my choices, but simply note a thing or two about each release that captured my ears and held my attention. I’ve also decided to post three separate but fairly short lists: Prog/Rock, Jazz, and Everything Else. In short, I’m trying to kill my propensity for overkill. I suspect I’ll fail! Here, first, are my picks for favorite prog & rock albums of the past year (give or take a few months):

• “The Prelude Implicit” by Kansas | This is, I think, one of the best feel-good stories in kansas_thepreludeimplicitprog of 2016. After all, Kansas could have just kept touring and playing the same old—ranging from good to great to classic—tunes. Instead, they produced a very good, even great, album. As I wrote in my Progarchy.com review: “In short, the band has found a commendable and impressive balance between old and new, with plenty of prog-heavy, classic Kansas-like passages, but with an emphasis on ensemble playing over solos.  … Kansas is to be commended for embracing their past while clearly moving forward with a confident and often exceptional collection of songs. Highly recommended for both longtime Kansas fans and for those who like melodic, well-crafted prog that puts the emphasis on memorable songs and musical cohesion over theatrics and solos.”

 “Secrets” by Ian Fletcher Thornley | I was initially flummoxed by this album, expecting thornley_secretsa variation on the hard-rocking, high energy music of Big Wreck and Thornley, both fronted, of course, by the prolific Canadian singer, guitarist, writer, and producer. I finally listened to it late one night, in the dark, and I finally heard it on its own terms: acoustic, reflective, mellow, mournful, defiant, sad, and yet shot through with a sense of cautious hope. Thornley demonstrates that his remarkable writing skills are equal to his vocal prowess, which is an aural wine bearing hints of Big Country (“Frozen Pond”), Chris Cornell (“Feel”), Peter Gabriel (“Stay”), Bruce Springsteen (“Just To Know I Can”), and Jeff Buckley (“Blown Wide Open”). In the end, this is a modern blues record featuring every shade and hue of sadness, longing, and loss.

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Metal on Ice: Hockey Pucks and Heavy Metal from the Great White North

This month, the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has released his epic historical treatment of Canada’s national game.

Not only that, but the Canadian guitarist Sean Kelly has written a memoir that takes us through the history of Canada’s heavy metal scene in the 80s: Metal on Ice: Tales from Canada’s Hard Rock and Heavy Metal Heroes (also available in the USA and the UK).

Kelly got Canuck metal fans to pledge funds to produce a companion musical document to his book: the Metal On Ice EP, which now contains Kelly’s brand new 2013 re-recordings of classic Canadian metal anthems.

This awesome EP is now readily available. On its new versions of classic metal it features absolutely killer guest vocals from top talent: Brian Vollmer of Helix (track 1: “Heavy Metal Love”), Lee Aaron (the ultimate 80s “Metal Queen” who contributes a stunning new rendition of her world-famous epic on track 2), Nick Walsh of Slik Toxik (track 3: Kick Axe’s “On the Road to Rock”), Carl Dixon of Coney Hatch (track 4: “Hey Operator”), Darby Mills of Headpins (track 5: “Don’t It Make Ya Feel”), and Russ Dwarf of Killer Dwarfs (track 6: “Keep the Spirit Alive”).

There is also a special seventh track composed by Kelly and Walsh: “Metal On Ice”, featuring a group of the EP’s special guest vocalists paying tribute to the greatness of the Canadian heavy metal scene.

Here is a list of the EP’s 2013 remakes, along with the dates of the original versions given in square brackets for historical interest:

1. Heavy Metal Love [1983 – Helix, No Rest for the Wicked LP]
2. Metal Queen [1984 – Lee Aaron, Metal Queen LP]
3. On The Road To Rock [1984 – Kick Axe, Vices LP]
4. Hey Operator [1982 – Coney Hatch, Coney Hatch LP]
5. Don’t It Make Ya Feel [1982 – Headpins, Turn It Loud LP]
6. Keep The Spirit Alive [1986 – Killer Dwarfs, Stand Tall LP]
7. Metal On Ice [2013 – Sean Kelly, Metal on Ice EP]

Brian Vollmer – Vocals (Track 1);
Lee Aaron – Vocals (Track 2);
Nick Walsh – Vocals (Track 3);
Carl Dixon – Vocals (Track 4);
Darby Mills – Vocals (Track 5);
Russ Dwarf – Vocals (Track 6);
Sean Kelly – Guitars (All tracks);
Dave Langguth – Drums (All tracks);
Daryl Gray – Bass (Tracks 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6);
Victor Langen – Bass (Track 3);
Nick Walsh – Bass (Track 7)

I highly recommend this nostalgic EP to all you cosmopolitan Progarchists out there, especially those of you with prog metal tastes. That’s because the EP makes a nice palate cleanser when slipped in-between any two of 2013’s awesome prog metal masterpieces (e.g., the new discs from Haken and Caligula’s Horse). 

Everything on the EP is excellent, but my favorite trips down memory lane are: tracks 2, 5, and 6.

By the way, I have dropped the EP into a playlist of other terrific nostalgic EPs released in 2013—by Halestorm, Anthrax, and Adrenaline Mob—that contain updated cover versions of classic hard rock tunes.

Have some fun and grab yourself this formidable Metal On Ice EP today!

O, Canada…

Take an emotional, brilliant ride with Caligula’s Horse

I have, to the best of my knowledge, all of the less than two hours of music produced by the Australian group, Caligula’s Horse (website)—an hour and 44 minutes, to be exact, the sum total of their studio output so far. But whatever is lacking in quantity is more than made up for in outstanding quality. The group’s first, full-length album, Moments From Ephemeral City (2011), was attention-grabbing and quite memorable, featuring the virtuosity of guitarist (and band founder, producer, songwriter, etc.) Sam Vallen, and the powerful, soulful Jeff Buckley-ish vocals of Jim Grey, who apparently hails from the U.S. The two combine to create alternative prog that brilliantly marries technical prowess with emotional potency, compelling melodies, and lyrical mystery—always a winning combination in my book.

caligulashorse_ttttreWhile Moments was, again, exceptional—check out the song, “Alone in the World”, for example—the band’s new offering, The Tide, The Thief & River’s End, goes beyond exceptional. It is, as the reviewer at Murder the Dance rightly concludes, an “11/10” album: “Caligula’s Horse’s sophomore record is an exhilarating listen; the band in its entirely channel the emotions of their instruments throughout, and the structural dynamics here are constructed intelligently. However, it’s Grey and Vallen that truly shine on ‘The Tide, the Thief and the River’s End’. Their collective arsenal alone is enough to earn the band a perfect score.” I cannot improve on what another reviewer, over on the ProgArchives.com site, says about TTTTRE:

I put it to you that it does indeed compete and then some with this album and is sure to make my top albums of 2013 with Steven Wilson’s ‘The Raven that Refused to Sing (And Other Stories)’, Tesseract’s ‘Altered State’, and Haken’s ‘The Mountain’. But to those who haven’t heard the band before, what can you expect to hear? Caligula’s Horse possess the juggernaut riffing of Periphery, the delicate emotional sensibility of Pain of Salvation, the perfectly tasteful and never over or understated rhythm section of Porcupine Tree, all cast to the harmonic ingenuity of Steely Dan. Some of you may be reading this and getting a little excited, it is exciting – it’s downright awesome and executed flawlessly by a cohort of young yet seasoned masters.

The album is a concept album, but is not obvious or direct lyrically; an apparent theme is the oppression of women by religions, yet specifics are difficult to apprehend. All the better, in my opinion, as I prefer ambiguous, expressionist lyrics when it comes to rock music in general. That said, there is undoubtedly a deep sense of tension, urgency, and conflict within the lyrics, intermixed at times with glimpses of hope and a deepening resolve, as evidenced in the final lines of the concluding song, “All Is Quiet By the Wall”:

Hand in hand with our own
This is our home. This is our home
Let our sign say: “Let them come and meet their end”
Now the world is quiet, this is where we make our stand

My favorite cut is probably the second song, “Water’s Edge,” which has a bit of everything:

The band’s site states that Caligula’s Horse are influenced by “such artists as Devin Townsend, Opeth, Steely Dan, Jeff Buckley, Frost, Muse, Karnivool, Meshuggah, Rage Against the Machine, Pain of Salvation, Steeleye Span, the Beatles, Foo Fighters, Frank Zappa, the Dear Hunter, Steve Vai, Fair to Midland, Tori Amos, Lunatic Soul, Katatonia, Tracey Chapman, A Perfect Circle and many others…” I’m familiar, to one degree or another, with all of those groups/artists, and I can hear bits of most of them in the music. (Beatles’ fans can check out Vallen and Grey performing “Across the Universe”.)

Certainly Opeth, Karnivool, Pain of Salvation, Dear Hunter, Katatonia, and A Perfect Circle are readily evident, and any fan of those artists should check out Caligula’s Horse. Vocally, Buckley’s ghost is right in the ear, as this acoustic version of  “Silence” (from Moments…) aptly demonstrates: “I want to be ignorant to the frailty of my life/Days are grains of sand in a disciple’s hand/Looking out my window/Through the grey and lifeless sky/I know what I am…”:

Highly recommended!