I realize it’s not the end of the calendar year, but it is the second day of Advent, and it seems like a proper time to list what I love about the music of this past year.
The year, frankly, has overwhelmed me—but all in a good way. As someone who has followed prog rather consciously since about 1981 (age 13) and has been exposed to it since about 1971 (age 3), I love the genre. Frankly, I love many forms of music, including classical, opera, and jazz. I’ve never learned to appreciate anything about country and rap, and, given that I’m 46, such prejudices will probably remain.
Sometime around age 22 or 23, though, I realized that financially, I was going to have to chose a genre if I wanted to collect and listen with any seriousness. Perhaps it’s the slight OCD or some other quirk I possess, but I’ve never liked doing any thing half way. In fact, as my maternal grandparents taught me—whether in taking care of the yard or cooking a meal or baking a loaf of bread or even in helping a neighbor—there’s no sense at all in doing something only partially. In fact, to do anything partially was to slap yourself, integrity, and God in the face. If you’re going to do something, do it well. In fact, do it with excellence, if you possibly can.
So, if I wanted to throw myself into a genre, and not do it halfway, I had to choose between jazz and prog. I love poetry too much, so prog seemed the best genre, as I find much to appreciate in fine lyric writing. And, even in psychedelic lyric writing, there’s a joy to figuring out the puzzle of imagery.
And, so choosing prog, I realized soon after that I’d chosen a genre made up a lot of folks like myself—a number of OCD perfectionists! And, I found that almost everyone making prog was (and is!) deeply committed and intelligent. And, so were (and are!) the fans. No one who loves the superficial of life becomes a prog musician, artist, or aficionado.
The problem was, of course, that when I was age 22 (1990), there wasn’t a lot of prog happening. At least not much new was coming out. Yet, prog could be found all throughout the rock world—though not always in the likeliest places. As a genre, though, prog was probably at its lowest point in terms of what was being released. Yet. . . yet. . . we were only a few years away from Brave and The Light and The Flower King . . .
Flash forward 23 years. Holy schnikees. What a year 2013 has been. Really, could it be better? Doubtful. And, as I mentioned in my Preliminary Awards piece a few days ago, an argument could be made that we’ve reached the pinnacle, the Mount Everest of Prog! I know, I know. Eric Perry is going to slap me down for being hyperbolic. Damnit, Eric, I’m from Kansas! We’re not exactly subtle!!!
Phew. Ok, I feel better getting all of that out.
Two quick comments. First, these are in no order, other than alphabetical. Frankly, these albums are just too good to allow my own will to separate one from another by “better or better.” With one exception. I would think any lover of the genre would want to own each of these. Second, there are several albums that I suspect are wonderful, but do to my loan limitation because of family and work, I didn’t have time to absorb. This latter list includes releases by Sam Healy (SAND is en route to the States as I type this), Mike Kershaw, Haken, Francisco Rafert, Ollocs,and Sky Architects, I apologize to these artists, as they took the time to contact me, and I was unable to give them credit where credit is due. In due time, I will, however.
So, the list of the must-own cds of 2013, with two important exceptions.
Ayreon, The Theory of Everything. I hope to offer a full review of this soon, and I think fellow progarchist Tad Wert will as well. The earlier series of Ayreon albums—possibly and arguably one of the most complex science fiction stories ever written—seems to have become self contained and at an end. Now, if I’m understanding the lyrics from Arjen Lucassen’s latest correctly, Ayreon has become a project about exploring the self rather than about the self exploring the universe. This is not easy listening, in terms of music or lyrics. The former is a shifting feast of glory, no idea lasting more than two or three minutes before gorgeously transforming into some new idea, and the latter is deeply introspective and intelligent. I’ve never had the chance to meet Arjen, but I would guess that he must be about as interesting as possible. For him to keep such a huge range of ideas in one album, musically and lyrically, screams brilliance. I only have one complaint with this release. I’m a huge fan of Arjen’s voice, and he relies on the voices of others. All good, if not outstanding, but I want Arjen’s voice.
Cosmograf, The Man Left in Space. Phew. Yes, let me write that one more time. Phew. That English chronometric and entrepreneurial demigod, Robin Armstrong, has now released four albums under the project name of Cosmograf. Each is better than the last. And, each of “the last” was pretty amazing and astounding and outstanding and lovely and meaningful and . . . you get the point. The Man Left in Space is existentialism at its best. Just as Arjen has written one of the finest science fiction stories of the last century, Robin has given us the musical equivalent of of the works of Albert Camus and Gabriel Marcel. Add to near perfect story telling the musical work of Greg Spawton, Matt Stevens, Nick D’Virgilio, and, among the best, Robin himself, and you have a work of art that will stand the test of time. A family man who loves speed, Robin also loves excellence.
Days Between Stations, In Extremis. This one was a complete surprise to me. A review copy arrived in the mail, courtesy of the band and the master of American prog PR, Billy James. I was intrigued by the cover [que, background sound, Brad’s mother: “Never trust a book by its cover. . . “], though I frankly don’t like it that much. It’s by the famous Paul Whitehead, but it’s a little too psychedelic for my tastes. But, then, I looked at the musician list. Holy smokes! Tony Levin, Billy Sherwood, Colin Moulding, and Rick Wakeman. How did this come about, I wondered? Sherwood and Moulding sing on the album, and neither has ever sounded better. Indeed, they seemed to have been created and birthed for this album. Overall, In Extremis is symphonic prog at its best. At 8 tracks over 70 minutes, the album never lags. It flows together beautifully and movingly. There are some of the most gut-wrenching passages, emotionally, I’ve ever heard in a prog album. And, the two main members of the band, Oscar Fuentis Bills and Sepand Samzadeh, know exactly when to linger over a musical part and when to move on. The high point: The Eggshell Man. I have no idea who or what he is, but I’d like to meet him.
The Fierce and the Dead, Spooky Action. Four great guys—Matt Stevens, Kev Feazey, Stuart Marshall, and Steve Cleaton—making the best music possible for two other great guys, David Elliott, European Perspective Guy (I think this is official superhero name) and founder of Bad Elephant Music, along with the hilarious and artful James Allen. Matt Stevens is a stunning person and artist. It’s been fascinating and heartening to watch him struggle as he makes his way into the profession. He very openly asks about opportunities. Should he pursue fame first or art first? I always know where Matt is going to land. Probably many of us do. He always comes down on the side of art, knowing the fame will follow when it follows. I hope and pray he never changes his mind or soul regarding this. There are lots and lots of folks out there—not just progarchists—cheering these guys on. As my close friend and fellow progarchist, Pete Blum, has said, nothing has hit him so hard since the days of Zappa. And, for Pete, this is a massive and important statement. Everything on this album is wonderful. In particular, I’m quite taken with Parts 4 and 5, a continuation of a theme that Matt and the guys started with Part I, their 19 minutes epic from their very first release. TFATD, not surprisingly, also seems to have started somewhat of a sub genre within prog, the prog instrumental album. In otherwords, what TFATD is doing is roughly equivalent to what progressive jazz was in the 1960s and 1970s. A good sign for the health of all concerned. In particular, newly emerging bands such as Ollocs and Rafert are also releasing instrumental albums, all of them quite good.
The Flower Kings, Desolation Rose. This release surprised me as well, but not for the reason Days Between Stations did. As far as I know, I own everything Roine Stolt has made or contributed to since about 1994. Every side project, everything. So, there was never a question about whether or not I would buy the new Flower Kings album. I would certainly list Space Revolver (2000) and Paradox Hotel (2006) as two of my favorite albums of all time. Stolt always has the power to release wonder in me. Whether it’s the wonder about the first day of creation (Unfold the Future) or John Paul’s Pizza (Space Revolver), I love the libertarian, hippie, playful spirit of Stolt and the band. Really, think about the members of this band. Stolt, Bodin, Reingold, Froberg, and Lehrmann. Already reads like a “supergroup.” Not that they can’t be as serious as they can be trippy. One only has to listen to “Bavarian Skies” or the “Ghost of Red Cloud” to know just how deep they can be. What surprised me about the new album, “Desolation Rose” is just how political and angry it is. I don’t disagree with the anger or the politics. In fact, I think I totally agree. But, “Desolation Rose,” lyrically, is about as far away from “Stardust We Are” as one could possibly imagine. This diversity just demonstrates how talented this Swedish band really is. The entire album builds until it reaches its highpoint (in terms of intensity) in “Dark Fascist Skies.” The final two songs, “Blood of Eden” and “Silent Graveyards,” offer a rather calming denouement.
Fractal Mirror, Strange Attractors. I’ve already had a chance to write a long review of this excellent album on progarchy, and it was (and is) a great honor do so. Strange Attractors is not only one of the best releases of 2013, it’s the freshman release of a brand new group. Three folks—all of whom met one another through the internet prog community (how cool is this!)—makes up this band. Leo Koperdraat, Ed Van Haagen, and Frank Urbaniak. But, we have to add a fourth. It’s art comes from Brian Watson. This is really important. Not only is Watson an amazing artist, but he also creates an image for the band in the way one associates Yes with Roger Dean, Talk Talk with James Marsh, and Jim Trainer with Big Big Train. It’s one of the joys of prog. The art can be (and should be!) as beautiful and meaningful as the music and lyrics. But, back to the music. The three members of Fractal Mirror have created a stunning progressive soundscape, gothic and heavy in tone, but light in the space created. I realize this sounds like a contradiction, and I wish I had the ability to explain it better. I don’t, sadly. It’s really not like anything I’ve heard before. Suffice it to state, it’s quite refreshing and welcoming in its own intensity.
Leah, Otherworld. This is the only EP to make the “best of” list this year. It’s also the only release I’m listing in which the artist (Leah McHenry) doesn’t consider herself a progger. She places herself more in the metal camp, and this becomes obvious in the final song of the EP, “Dreamland,” a beauty and the beast duet with lots of metal “growling.” Whatever one wants to label Leah’s musical style—and I would call it a cross between Sarah Maclachlan and Arjen Lucassen—it is very artful. Leah’s voice could haunt a moor! So much depth, truth, and beauty in every note. The EP is only five songs long—Shores of Your Lies, Northern Edge, Surrounded, Do Not Stand, and Dreamland. The first four possess a very Celtic/Nordic northern edge to them. In fact, I called my initial review of the EP, “On the Northern Edge of Prog.” I’m not bragging, but I am rather proud of this title. it seems to capture exactly what Leah is. Arjen Lucassen, if you read this blog, please look into Leah’s music. I could see the two of you working very well together. Leah, as it turns out, is also about as interesting a person as one might find anywhere. Since Otherworld first arrived at progarchy hq, it’s been in constant listening rotation, and I pretty much have every note and lyric memorized at this point.
Kingbathmat, Overcoming the Monster. When we first started progarchy just a little over a year ago, I received a note from Stereohead Records of the U.K., asking me if we’d be interested in reviewing a cd by Kingbathmat. Sure, I thought. Of course. Only the dead wouldn’t be intrigued by a band with that name. Well, since then, I’ve not only listened to about as much Kingbathmat as exists (still missing a small bit of their back catalogue, but this will be rectified at the beginning of 2014, when the new tax year begins!). I love these guys. I’ve had the chance to get to know John Bassett and Bernard (he seems to have several last names on the internet!). What incredible guys. Really a band of Peart’s “Tom Sawyers.” Mean, mean stride, never renting the mind to god or government. Smart, insightful, unafraid. Frankly, these are the kind of guys I would want next to me should I ever find myself under fire. As with Leah, I’m not sure that Kingbathmat is perfectly prog. But, then again, if it’s “perfectly prog,” it’s probably not prog at all. Kingbathmat mix a number of styles, many of them heavy, to form a mythic maze of musical inspiration. They are by far the heaviest in my list for 2013. The “Tom Sawyer” reference is not just lyrical. Parts of Kingbathmat pay great homage to early and mid-period Rush. Of all Rush albums, Counterparts is my least favorite. That doesn’t mean I don’t love it. I’ve been a Rush man since 1981, and I will die a Rush man. So, any criticism is relative. But, if you could imagine Rush entering the studio with the music of Counterparts, the lyrics more intense than culturally sensitive, and a producer who wants to rock, really rock, you’d have an inkling of what “Overcoming the Monster” is. Every song is a joy. Not in the precious, sappy sense, but in the satisfying, just sense. Everything is really quite perfect: vocals, bass, guitar, drums. Since I first received a copy of OVERCOMING, I’ve probably listened to it every other day. After a hard day of teaching (a job I love) or writing something scholarly, there’s nothing quite like putting this cd on, sitting back, and saying, “yeah, it was a good day.”
Nosound, Afterthoughts. Giancarlo Erra might be the anti-Kingbathmat. Erra, an Italian demigod of sound in his own right, loves silence and space as much as Kingbathmat loves walls of Rush/Soundgarden-like sounds of thunder! Indeed, Erra has a lot of Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock in him, a lot of Arvo Part, too. If there are three notes, maybe there should be two. If there are two notes, maybe there should be one. If there is one note, maybe you should let silence have its say. I’ve been following the work of Giancarlo Erra for almost a decade now. He always entrances and entices me. He creates soundscapes so powerfully delicate that one wants to drown in their dreamlike, twilight quality. He’s also every bit the lyricist Hollis was at his best. He’s also really a complete artist. He not only writes his music and lyrics, he creates his own packaging, is a rather jaw-dropping photographer, and even designs his own computer apps. I was thrilled that Kscope just re-released his early masterpiece, Lightdark (2008), remastered. As with Lightdark, Afterthoughts just flows. Gentle, punctuated, quiet, loud, emptiness, walls. Listening to Afterthoughts is akin to standing on a peak in the Idaho Rockies, watching a violent storm pass under you in an adjoining valley. Nothing is unneeded, and nothing needs to be added. Afterthoughts is what it is, another Erra masterpiece.
Two more to go, but supper’s ready . . . .