My best of 2014, Part II.  But I’m Not Dead Yet.

I, for one, completely disbelieve that “rock is dead” or almost dead.  Many folks I could care less about believe this, and many folks I think the world of believe it as well.  I just can’t accept it.

If rock—or what passes as rock—has been so commercialized and corporatized to die because the huge companies don’t know how to sell, promote, and market a band or singer any more, too bad and tough luck.  My guess is that that band or singer lost its or her or his soul long, long ago.  Too bad by far.  If rock is corporatized, it’s really not rock.

And, frankly, I hope Rolling Stone and NME each die a quick death.  They were never more than glossy catalogues anyway.  They wanted conformity, not excellence.  In their pretense to fight the Establishment, they were the Establishment.  I could start citing Marshall McLuhan and Noam Chomsky here—two thinkers I admire immensely—but it’s not the intent of this post.  Despite my nasty introduction, this is meant to be a post of celebration.

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The Incredible and the Magnificent of 2014.  Where to even start?  So much amazing music came out this year.  So very, very far from dead.  Not even close.

In no particular order (except for what I consider the absolute best-est of the year).

third day NAONorth Atlantic Oscillation, THE THIRD DAY.  I don’t think it would be possible for these guys to disappoint.  It’s obvious they put everything they have into the very structure and fabric of their music.  While I probably still prefer the more Mark Hollis-esque FOG ATLANTIC, The Third Day really offers some electronic beauty.

a1557280289_10The Black Vines, RETURN OF THE SPLENDID BASTARDS.  Doubting my claim that rock is very much alive?  Pop this baby into the CD player, and I give you Exhibit A of how great and alive rock is.  Schnikees, this baby rocks.  This rocks like rock should.  Clever, intense, and driving.

0002788885_10The Ben Cameron Project, TIPPING POINT.  Only two tracks long, TIPPING POINT is one of the most interesting and traditionally proggish of all prog this year.  An album is integrity and beauty.  You have to immerse yourself in this one.  You’ll be well rewarded for doing so.

rubensteinJason Rubenstein, NEW METAL FROM OLD BOXES.  Talk about putting the “progressive” in progressive rock.  No, not the Woodrow Wilson kind of progressive.  The real kind—the kind that does actually advance something.  Rubenstein is a genius, and his music shows just how much creativity and glory one person can offer in this rather tragic world.  This is the soundtrack to every Dirty Harry movie that mattered, but presented with 2014 technology and sensibilities.

galahad11Galahad, 3 EPS.  Who wouldn’t love Stu Nicholson?  God made the man for us all to love and admire.  Here, he takes prog toward House music.  This is highly danceable prog, and yet it maintains that high intelligence that Galahad has always brought to music.  There’s nothing really new, just new ways of looking at old things.  A great success.

glass hammer ode to echoGlass Hammer, ODE TO ECHO.  Again, who wouldn’t love Steve Babb?  The guy radiates charisma.  This outing sees Glass Hammer turn toward the mythic and the pagan.  While generally open about faith, GH follows the path of C.S. Lewis, noting that the Christian is also the pagan, at least in his or her imagination.  The bass thumps, the drums rock (phew!), the vocals soar, as do the keyboards and the guitars.

And, the adventure continues in Part III. . . .

Have We Entered a Fourth Wave of Prog?

I’ve been thinking about this for much of the year.  2014 seems like a very different year for prog—especially when compared with 2011, 2012, and 2013.

8 page booklet P8&1The incredible music of 2014 in the prog world—from John Bassett, Newspaperflyhunting, Fire Garden, Tin Spirits, Arcade Messiah, Andy Tillison, Cailyn Lloyd, Galahad (Stu Nicholson), Salander, Fractal Mirror, and a host of others–further convinces me we’ve entered into a new wave of prog, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post.

Andy Tillison and Brian Watson have convincingly argued in favor of dividing the history of prog into three waves, the third wave beginning around 1994 or so.

If Tillison and Watson are correct, and I suspect they are, I believe we might have entered what we could call the fourth wave.

The turning point came in 2013 with grand and profound releases from Big Big Train, The Tangent, and Glass Hammer.  These albums were so excellent, perhaps the best in prog history, that they might very well have represented the apex of third-wave prog.

arcade messiah artTake a listen to any of the above mentioned artists in 2014.  Their music, especially when compared to the releases of the previous several years, offers something much more experimental and reflective.  The story telling is less narrative and more punctuated, the lyrics more imagistic.

Anyway, I’m thinking (and typing) out loud.  I’ll give it more thought.

Seizing Galahad: The 3 2014 EPs

Review of Galahad, the 2014 Trilogy of EPs: “Seize the Day”; “Guardian Angel”; and “Mein Herz Brennt.”

Birzer Rating for all three: 9/10.

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Two caveats as I review these three EPs.  First, I’d not come upon Galahad as a band until being introduced to them just a few years ago by the first lady of prog, Alison Henderson.  When Galahad first emerged in the U.K., we Americans missed them for some reason.  I’m not sure why, and I think this is an American failing.  At the time Galahad came together as a band in the U.K., I was firmly listening to Grace Under Pressure, Power Windows, and The Flat Earth.  But, this failing is now thirty years in the past.

Second, the moment I started listening to the band, I felt an immediate kinship.  I love these guys, and I love what they’re doing.  Exploring their back catalogue has been one of my sonic joys of the last several years.  

I hope they don’t mind the comparison, but they sound like the legitimate successors to the Midge Ure-era of Ultravox (pre-Uvox).  For me, this is not just a great thing, it’s a grand thing.  I loved the songwriting and flow of Vienna, Rage in Eden, and Lament.  Each moved me immensely, and I’ve always wondered why a band didn’t embrace the Ultravox sound and prog it up.  An album such is Rage in Eden is so full of ideas, it could easily have been three times as long as it was.  One could readily take Ultravox toward more electronica and minimalism, or one could beef the sound up, making the pop elements a part of the sound rather than the core of it.  Galahad is that second band–Ultravox on steroids, beefed up and presenting the music as a deep work of art, immersed in gravitas, and willing to be profoundly adventuresome.

I was happily surprised when Stu Nicholson announced that the band would spend 2014 focusing on just a few EPs rather than on a full album.  After the 2012 barrage of two albums—each astounding in its own right—the band had to be exhausted.  The release of three EPs seemed a good idea.  Of course, I’d love another Galahad album, and I assume we will get one.  So, let the guys do what they need to do to get ready for the next big one!  I can be patient, especially when it comes to excellence, and I’m positive Galahad will deliver.  These are guys who–thankfully–never do a thing half way.

Now that the last of the three EPs has been released, we can readily assess just what Nicholson and co. have accomplished in 2014.  And, frankly, it’s quite a bit.

I’ve already reviewed Seize the Day at progarchy.  This is the longest of the EPs in terms of songs.  Six total.  Two versions of “Seize the Day,” including the definitive “full version”, two versions of “21st Century Painted Lady,” and two versions of “Bug Eye 2014,” including a live version.

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The second, “Guardian Angel,” came out this summer.  It presents the title song in four different versions, two of which appeared on the album, Beyond the Realms,  It also contains a piano version of “Beyond the Barbed Wire.”  Stripped down to its essence, the song reveals the delicate beauty and versatility of Nicholson’s voice.

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The final EP, “Mein Herz Brennt,” presents this title song in four versions as well.  I’m not familiar with the original song, and I’m still digesting this EP.  Though I was once fluent in Austrian German, I have a hard time appreciating the German vocals here.  They seem harsh and spooky, though this might very well have been Galahad’s intent.  The EP will probably grow on me.  When it does, I’ll report back.

Regardless, I’m really, really happy with what Galahad has done.  They’ve managed to remain prog while also being truly progressive, exploring new areas and sounds. 

I’m truly sorry they’ve not been a part of my life for thirty years, but I’m thankful they’ve been a part of it as long as they have.  A huge thanks to Lady Alison for sharing her love of this band with me.  Thank you, equally, to Stu and Co. for keeping alive the spirit of playful and meaningful innovation.  Galahad has always been the favorite knight of this Arthur-obsessed man, and Galahad has quickly become a favorite of this same prog-obsessed man as well. 

Long may they continue!

One may purchase each of the three EPs at amazon.com and at Galahad’s official site: http://www.galahadonline.com/

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Shakespearean Prog: Galahad’s Lastest Video, SEIZE THE DAY

The first of several EPs from Galahad in 2014.
The first of several EPs from Galahad in 2014.

Granted, it would make far more sense to think of Galahad, at least by the band’s title, as Arthurian prog, but Stu Nicholson’s profound sense of drama carries with it a distinctly Shakespearean air.  I, for one, am completely taken with it.

Glad to see Galahad release this video today.  Very nice cinematography and sound, and it’s inspiring to witness and enjoy the energy Stu and the band bring to the stage.  Not to be missed.

The video’s release coincides with the release of the latest ep from the band, SEIZE THE DAY.  Please support this brilliant band in any way you can.

Celebr8.3 News

Photo from PROG.
Photo from PROG.

Jerry Ewing’s PROG has a nice teaser about the forthcoming prog festival, Celeb8.3.  For our British and European readers especially.  The rest of us get to joy for you and sorrow for us!

Incredible lineup: Andy Tillison’s The Tangent, Robin Armstrong’s Cosmograf, Matt Stevens’ The Fierce and the Dead, and Stu Nicholson’s Galahad.  Sheesh, like “old home week” at college.  Ok, feeling nothing but joy for my prog friends on the other side of the Atlantic, nothing but joy. . . .

http://www.progrockmag.com/news/celebr8-3-confirms-first-acts/

Seize the Day: Galahad, BATTLE SCARS

[N.B.  Due to weather, our internet is out, and I’ve typed this and posted it using our cell connection.  Spotty at best.  If there are errors and typos in the post, please don’t let it reflect on all of progarchy.  When I have a real connection, I’ll clean it up.  Promise!–Brad, ed.]

I hate to admit it, but I didn’t know the music of Galahad until about a year and a half ago.

Alison Henderson, first lady of prog and a fellow progarchist, introduced me to the music at the time that Battle Scars (April 2012) came out.  “Brad, you have to check out the new Galahad album.  It’s brilliant.”  Actually, I’m paraphrasing, not quoting.  But, I bet I’m really close when remembering her email that day.

I never fail to follow the advice of Lady Henderson, and I downloaded the music that day.

From the opening plaintive words to the direct pleading lines of “Battle Scars, Battle Scars,” I was rather taken.  I wrote back to her almost immediately, “This is what Ultravox should’ve been!”  She replied that she would have to take my word for it.

Granted, I really dislike it when reviewers compare Big Big Train to Genesis, as though Genesis needed completing or as though Big Big Train exists to fill the void left by 1977 Genesis.  So, please don’t take my comparison as anything more than a joyful comparison.  Stu Nicholson’s voice has, in the best sense, a Midge Ure quality—bringing just the perfect amount of emotion and emphasis to a song.  So, imagine if Ultravox had decided to explore the farthest reaches of its potential after releasing Rage in Eden (especially side 2 of that amazing work).  Imagining such a  beautiful thing, I can see—far into the distance—Battle Scars or Beyond the Realms of Euphoria.

After the brief discussion with Alison, being the obsessive prog fan that I’m sure many progarchists are, I looked up everything I could find regarding Galahad.  I’d heard the name, many times, of course, before April 2012, but always in the context of “neo-prog.”

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Neo-Progressive Rock

As much as I pride myself (always dangerous) on my knowledge of prog, ca. 1971 to the present, I’m really weak on what’s called “neo prog” or “second-wave prog.”  At the time that second-wave prog emerged, my junior high, high school, and college years (Class of 1990), I was listening to so-called new wave such as Thomas Dolby, The Cure, and XTC, presuming them to be the rightful inheritors of Yes and Genesis.  For me, the ultimate prog album of the 1980s is Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden.  Next to Talk Talk, Rush was my favorite band.  I didn’t even know about Marillion until a friend introduced me to them in 1993.  He handed me a copy of Misplaced Childhood, and I was stunned such a group had existed without my knowledge (there’s that pride again).  I very much liked what I heard, but this was just before Brave, The Light, and The Flower King appeared—which almost completely stole my attention.

Needless to write at this point, my knowledge of Pallas, IQ, and Galahad—all supposed neo-prog—was pretty poor.  About eight or nine years ago, I started collecting the back catalogues of Pallas and IQ, but Galahad still remained off my radar.  I’m pretty much a complete “newbie” when it comes to other neo-prog artists.

I’m not sure if neo-prog is a sub-genre of progressive rock or really the “second wave of prog.”  Whatever it is, I like what I’ve heard. . . .

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Battle Scars

. . . . especially when it comes to Galahad.  I like it very much.  Indeed, this is an understatement.  From the moment I first heard Battle Scars, I knew this was a band I would come to cherish.  And, I have.  Though I regret having missed out on so much since 1985 when it comes to this band, I’m also really happy to have it all to explore again.  As I love to tell my students, I’m jealous that so many of them get to read The Lord of the Rings for the first time.  I would give a lot for that “first time” again.  I feel I’ve been given a gift by coming to Galahad late in life.

I really have no idea if Battle Scars is a “proper” neo-progressive album or not.  I don’t have the tools to judge, and I’m more than content to know it’s brilliant music, whatever label might adhere to it.

In terms of tone, Battle Scars is the Grace Under Pressure of our present age  In 1984, Rush explored—in a rather dour, harried, poetic fashion—the final days of the Cold War, though most of us didn’t know the days of the Soviet empire were numbered.  Gulags, holocaust camps, the loss of a friend, fear, acid rain, and rabbits running under are squealing wheels all haunted Grace Under Pressure.  Listening to this album while devouring various dystopian novels fundamentally shaped my perceptions of what I saw in the news.

With Battle Scars, Nicholson has equalled Peart in quality and tone, asking what a post-9/11, a post-Bush, world might mean.  But, just as with Grace Under Pressure, the events of the world offer a symbol for the events of the soul.  Disorder in one is disorder in the other.

The album opens with haunting words—even in delivery—of St. Paul.  Do our actions reap corruption and death or life everlasting?

I’m not sure if Nicholson wants his listeners to take these words literally or not, but they fit ominously and perfectly, setting the stage for some of the most important and meaningful questions we can ever ask ourselves, Greek or Jew, male or female, bond or free.

How to you want to live in this world.  With integrity and purpose or without?  Do you want to achieve and strive or do you want to glide and get by?  Do you want the message on your tombstone to read “he lived” or to read “he lived well”?

Though only seven tracks at 44 minutes, Battle Scars packs a serious punch.  After the contemplative opening moments quoting St. Paul in hushed tones, Battle Scars becomes relentless.  Indeed, a wave of strings and respectful vocals become pounding bass and drums, crying against vanity.  “Hollow words count for nothing.”

An explosion or implosion ends the first track, and it glides into some nice reverb and more pounding bass, guitar, and drums in the shortest track of the album, “Reach for the Sun,” the lyrics reminding the listener that “battle scars are real.”

Track three, “Singularity,” begins with some appropriate spacey ethereal washes of keyboards, and the distant angular guitar is especially good.  It breaks into a full rock song a little over a minute into the track, and the listener is propelled forward again.  Having reached beyond the pain and suffering of this world, the protagonist of “Battle Scars” has transcended reality in his imagination and integrity.  “You can’t touch me now.” The track ends with some beautiful, romantic piano.

“Bitter and Twisted,” track four, brings the listener back to the world, with every instrument back in full, driving play.  It’s in this track that the band displays their full strength, as individual players and as an artistic whole.  This is one very tight band.  Lyrically, it’s difficult to know if Nicholson is identifying with the protagonist here, expressing shock at betrayal, or if we’re given the standpoint of an observer misperceiving and misunderstanding the protagonist.  “You’re just a little piece of nothing at all.”

With track five, “Suspended Animation,” the protagonist identifies the evil that is in himself and the world around him.  Here, we find a movement toward reconciling the order of the inward and outer person.  The protagonist must reconcile his own troubles and problems, seeking some kind of forgiveness and atonement.  Another driving rock song.  Nicholson’s vocals are particularly good, especially as he proclaims and enunciates the words, “suspended animation.”

My favorite song on the album is the sixth, “Beyond the Barbed Wire.”  As one would expect with such a title, the song is not a happy one, though it might be a resigned one.  One of the quieter songs on the album, at least for its first minute or so, it reminds the listener that though the Nazis and Soviets might be gone, other evils remain in the world.  At least, as I’m understanding the lyrics, this is what I’m hearing.  The holocausts and gulags have just taken on new shape and new form, but the essence of such evils remains.  “I’m just thinking, just thinking, beyond the barbed wire.”  The protagonist, however, finds great strength in those who came before him.

The spirits of the lost reinforce my will

Their souls reunite in pure defiance

We will not disappear in mournful smoke.

This is a stunningly beautiful lyric, and Nicholson delivers it not just ably, but expertly.  The voice reminds the listener of the opening lines of the album, the words from Paul.

The final song, “Seize the Day,” is the longest track and it successfully ties the whole work together, allowing all to end in real joy.  The track also prepares the listener for the second Galahad release of the 2012, Beyond the Realms of Euphoria.  Still very much a rock song, “Seize the Day,” also embraces, very well, forms of electronica.  “Seize the day/relish every moment.”

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Thank you, Stu, Roy, Spencer, Dean, and Neil.  You have created a thing of beauty.  Long may the creativity and virtue of Galahad continue.