Well, it seems a little early to talk about Christmas. But, not about Christmas music! As we get close to Advent (begins this Sunday) and prepare for Christmas and the holiday season, you have a lot of wonderful offerings from the music community. Indeed, there almost seems to be a revival of the Christmas song. Lots and lots to choose from.
If you want a great two-track EP, get The Reasoning’s “It’s Christmas (Sing it Loud),” out today, and available from amazon.com and iTunes. Rachel Cohen has the voice of an angel, of course, and it shows in every note she sings with one of the greatest prog/rock outfits around today. Thank you, Matt Cohen, master of many, many things. For those of you who shy away from prog, no worries. This is just a wonderfully joyous song. I think it could’ve easily been the finale to HOME ALONE.
Neal Morse, never unwilling to profess his own faith (in Christianity and in prog!) has two CDs out you might like. The first, out last year at this time and still available, is a PROGGY CHRISTMAS–featuring just about everyone you could imagine. As I wrote last year:
All of the members of Transatlantic (Portnoy, Trewavas, and Stolt), Steve Hackett, Steve Morse, and Randy George. Portnoy is even “The Little Drummer Boy”! Jerry Guidroz does his usual extraordinary mixing and engineering.
Also available–as a member of the Neal Morse Inner Circle–“Christmas 2013.” These songs date back almost 20 years. Very delicate as well as energetic.
Our own progarchist, lovely Leah, “metal maid,” has a gorgeous EP out, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” Three tracks introduce the listener to our favorite Canuck rocker (that is, below the age of 60. Sorry Geddy, Alex, and Neil) and the spirit of a metal Christmas.
Finally, out just since last Friday, is another progarchist album, In Dulci Jubilo. This one comes from classical and progressive guitarist Kevin McCormick and his oldest daughter, Rachel. My best description of this album is “immaculate.” In Dulci Jubilo is 14 tracks long at 46 minutes. A much more detailed review forthcoming.
The number that most embodies the spirit of the season depicts a violent robbery of Santa Claus. Thirty-five Christmases ago, The Kinks released “Father Christmas,” a gritty tale about a department-store Santa getting rolled by a gang of teenagers. “Father Christmas, give us some money/We got no time for your silly toys/We’ll beat you up if you don’t hand it over/Give all the toys to the little rich boys.”
It’s a 45 with a sense of humor. It also has a sense of the Beatitudes.
If upon first listen “Father Christmas” rings as cynicism inverting the spirit of giving into one of taking, subsequent spins reveal a track telling us to give thanks for our good fortune rather than the small fortune under the tree. A hoodlum instructs St. Nick to hold off on the Bionic Man costume for his brother and the cuddly doll for his sister. “But give my daddy a job cause he needs one/He’s got lots of mouths to feed.”
“Father Christmas” invites us to be more Christ like. An ode superficially about the ultimate expression of materialism (theft) becomes a spiritual admonition to remember the least among us.
And, as Dan points out, the ultimate coda to the song is how Ray Davies actually got shot in New Orleans when he chased two muggers!
By the way, Dan says the best Christmas songs “can be counted on an eight-beaded abacus” and lists “Silent Night” as one of the eight best.
I have to say that the only version of “Silent Night” that I can wholeheartedly endorse is Leah’s version. And I wish Dan could have seen her amazing show last night, because she did epic metal versions of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”, “The Holly and the Ivy”, and “God Rest Ye Merry”, which Dan will have to make room for on his abacus! But more about Leah’s incredible concert later on, as Progarchy shall post a full review…
My first recommendation is the 2009 two-disc edition of The Jethro Tull Christmas Album. Disc 1 of this set is a reissue of the original 2003 album. It contains some reinterpretations of seasonal Tull material such as Ring Out Solstice Bells and A Christmas Song plus some new songs and some new arrangements of traditional tunes.
Even more interesting is Disc 2, a recording of a 2008 concert at St Bride’s Church in London. The concert features live versions of half of the material from Disc 1, interspersed with readings and carols sung by choir and congregation.
My second recommendation is Chris Squire’s Swiss Choir. This album appeared in 2007, over three decades after Squire’s first solo album, but it is quite unlike that earlier work. Twelve of the album’s thirteen tracks are traditional carols or Christmas songs. The album title is a Spoonerism rather than a clue as to the nationality of the singers, for it is The English Baroque Choir that plays a pivotal role here. Some of the tracks are largely choral in nature whilst others have a predominently pop/rock flavour. Squire is on bass throughout (of course), with Steve Hackett guesting on guitars.
The final track is a remix of the enjoyable 1981 Chris Squire-Alan White Christmas single Run With The Fox. You can listen to the original version here:
Review of Neal Morse/Prog World Orchestra, A Very Proggy Christmas (Radiant Records, November 20, 2012)
Every Thanksgiving night, we watch “Home Alone,” knowing perfectly well how successful Kevin’s antics will be. This little ritual of laughs inaugurates the annual Christmas season for the Birzers.
From that showing of Home Alone until the arrival of the Three Wise Men on Epiphany, we celebrate the season of Christmas rather vigorously in our house. Though we don’t put up the tree until the 24th of December, we certainly let the house ring with festive music–operatic, pop, classical, jazz, and rock. Indeed, such music plays almost the entire season.
I must admit, I’m a big fan of Christmas albums. There’s something about such familiar and comforting music being reworked in some kind of new fashion that almost always hits me in particular but probably predictable ways.
I am always especially impressed with artists who rework these Christmas classics, knowing that their songs will be judged by enduring and relatively rigorous standings. In particular, I especially enjoy the Christmas music of George Winston, Vince Garibaldi, Sixpence None the Richer, Sarah McLachlan, and Loreena McKennitt.
This year, joining this impressive list is Neal Morse’s Christmas band, “Prog World Orchestra.” Arriving on November 20 (Tuesday, a week from tomorrow) from one of the finest record labels around (Radiant), “A Proggy Christmas” offers a wonderful take on a number of holiday classics. Not surprisingly–as this comes from the mind of Mr. Progressive himself–the production is rigorous, the music is serious but tinged with Morse’s humor, and a number of pleasant surprises await the listener.
The name of the group, “Prog World Orchestra,” is appropriate. All of the members of Transatlantic (Portnoy, Trewavas, and Stolt), Steve Hackett, Steve Morse, and Randy George. Portnoy is even “The Little Drummer Boy”! Jerry Guidroz does his usual extraordinary mixing and engineering.
Songs include “Joy to the World,” “O Holy Night,” “Hark! The Angels Sing,” “Carol of the Bells,” and the aptly named “Shred Ride.”
While I’m thoroughly enjoying the entire album (breaking my rule of not listening to Christmas music until Thanksgiving), my favorite track is “Frankincense,” an absolutely brilliant collision of Edgar Winters and “Deck the Halls.” I can’t help but smile for all 3 minutes and 53 seconds of the song. I would love to know the story behind this song–especially how Morse came up with it.
My second favorite track is Morse’s rendition of “Carol of the Bells,” perhaps the most purely prog song on the album. At almost eight minutes long, keyboard solos abound.
As I listen to this song, I can help but be reminded of Kevin running to his home after the conversation with the “South Bend Shovel Slayer” in the church in his neighborhood. The clock tower bells are tolling nine.
Please don’t get the image that this album is in any way sacrilegious, as I’m afraid some of my above descriptions might very well seem to make it. The music is certainly playful, but it’s never in bad taste. Not in the least. This is Neal Morse, after all. Neither, though, is the album as a whole evangelical in the sense that, say, Morse’s excellent “God Won’t Give Up” is. Perhaps the closest Morse gets to evangelical is in his delivery of the traditional lyrics of “Hark! The Angels Sing.” Of course, if this song can’t be pro-Christian and evangelical, no Christmas song can!
Again, the album is done in good and respectful taste, but with definite prog and metal arrangements. There’s an equal amount of jazz, pop, and big band in here as well.
If you have even the slightest love of prog (and, you probably wouldn’t be reading this unless you do), “A Proggy Christmas” is a must own. Even if you only pull “A Proggy Christmas” out with your other Christmas albums once a year, it’s still a must own.
My guess is that even non-proggers will immensely enjoy Morse’s take on Christmas as well. Remember how wildly popular the Mannheim Steamroller/Fresh Aire Christmas albums were in the 1980s? Some of Morse’s arrangements have that same feel, but “A Proggy Christmas” is much, much better. The same is true, of course, of the Jethro Tull Christmas album. Still, Morse’s is better. This album might even be a great way to introduce a non-progger to prog.