So you’re watching a baseball game. The pitcher for one of the teams has yet to give up a hit. In fact, he’s retired every batter that he’s faced, giving up not so much as a walk. And even as the game stretches into the latter innings, he’s not getting tired. He’s struck out six batters in a row and is just completely shutting down the opposition in a manner reminiscent of the way noted Rush fan Randy Johnson used to do. You look at that guy and think “man, he’s on a roll.”
Maybe it’s a team that has won a number of games in a row. Maybe it’s a business leader who has led his company into the stratosphere with one popular product offering after another.
Or maybe you are a fan of prog rock. In fact, you probably are just that if you’re reading this. You look back a few years ago, at 2012, and realize it was a good year, producing a number of excellent albums, including Echolyn’s “Windowpane” album, Glass Hammer’s incredible Perilous, and Gazpacho’s March of Ghosts (highly underrated if you ask me). Then 2013 comes along, and you think, “what an amazing year,” as your album collection grows with releases such as Ayreon’s The Theory if Everything, The Tangent’s magnum opus Le Sacre Du Travail, and Haken’s outstanding The Mountain. There is no letup at all in 2014, more new releases, many of them are “must haves”, such as IQ’s The Road of Bones and Cosmograf’s Capacitor among them. And now, here we are in 2015, and you’ve been deluged with more incredible music in what has been yet another great year in prog. And you think, “man, prog on a roll!”
Indeed it is.
Each December for the last several years, we at Progarchy have gushed about the abundance of great prog music coming out and the health of the current prog scene. We are getting to be like a broken record. But can you blame us? And would you rather it be different, like the early 90’s or so when the prog light was a dimly flickering candle?
What else can I say? Well, I can start talking about the albums.
Album of the Year:
In a year of stellar releases, my hands down album of the year with a bullet is Riverside’s utterly brilliant Love, Fear, and The Time Machine. I simply cannot overstate how much I love this album, or how good it is. Riverside has tamed much of their heavy metal side, moving in more melodic direction – while still retaining the dynamism and overall sound that is unmistakably Riverside. While the album still has some of their trademark moodiness, the darkness has been replaced with a mature, tempered, and realistic optimism that grows throughout. This album was quite a leap for Riverside in terms of direction, and yet they pulled it off flawlessly.
Most others have put Steven Wilson’s Hand Cannot Erase at the top of their album of the year charts. I can’t do that, and I’m probably not quite as
much of a Wilson fan as most of the hardcore proggers are today. That being said, this was a pretty good album for me, if a bit depressing in subject matter. But musically, Wilson and his band are firing on all cylinders. Home Invasion/Regret #9 stands out as my favorite track on the album, although you really have to listen to the whole thing to get the gist.
One of my new discoveries this year was Nad Sylvan, and his excellent solo album Courting the Widow. Sylvan’s album builds on the classic/symphronic prog sound of an earlier era, and yet sounds fresh and modern. It works especially well since Sylvan’s natural singing voice seems to be a perfect mix of Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins, making it no mystery as to why Steve Hackett selected him as a touring vocalist. Standout tracks on this album include the title track, Echoes of Ekwabet, and the excellent epic, To Turn The Other Side.
Gazpacho didn’t wait long after their release of Demon in 2014, coming back this year with an equally strange album Molok. Like its predecessor,
this album is very strange – but don’t mistake that for a lack of quality. All the Gazpacho trademarks are there, the meticulous subtlety, the unusual structures that take time to reveal themselves, and the thin veneer of simple riffs on top with a staggering complexity underneath. Conceptually, this album is not easy to explain, and it’s best to read the band’s explanation put up on their Facebook page. It’s hard to pick out a favorite track since the album has to be taken as a whole … although Molok Rising provides a strong and satisfying end to the album.
Everything Arjen Anthony Luccassen touches turns to awesome, and The Diary by his project with Anneke van Giersbergen, The Gentle Storm. This was really two albums in one, a heavy version (Storm) with all the songs “metaled up” by Arjen, and a lighter version (Gentle) which relied more heavily on acoustic instruments and folky sounds. Both are excellent and it’s tough to pick on. Shores of India seems to work best in the Gentle form, while The Storm, appropriately, seems to work best in the Storm version.
I’m going to go slightly off script here into the realms of heavy metal, because my list would not be complete without a mention of Iron Maiden’s stunning album, The Book of Souls. Why am I only slightly off script? Because this album is the proggiest thing Iron Maiden has ever done, even though it retains their previous heavy metal elements. While this album is excellent from start to finish, the boys of Maiden are at their strongest here when they are on their proggiest – the 10 minutes plus title, track, the 13 minutes plus The Red and the Black, and the closing, 18 minute epic, Empire of the Clouds. For the shorter, more familiar Maiden, Speed of Light is a particularly strong track. I’ve always defended the members and the music of Iron Maiden as being more intelligent and thoughtful than that of their heavy metal peers, and this album is the best evidence yet of that. This is truly a crowning achievement on an amazing career.
Moving back into prog-proper territory, Andy Tillison and his band The Tangent followed up 2013’s outstanding Le Sacre Du Travail with an equally excellent release, A Spark in the Aether. One of the things that really comes through on this album (and makes it so excellent) is that is sounds like Tillison was having tongs of fun in making it. The joy really shines through on one of my favorite tracks, Codpieces and Capes, a celebration of prog’s glorious past. Even better is The Celluloid Road, Andy’s insightful look at America through the lens provided in film, i.e. movies that is. It’s the highlight of an album full of highlights. Oh, and speaking of America …
Three Cheers for the Red, White and Blue:
This year was an exceptional year for prog from this side of the Atlantic, better than I can remember in some time. For one, Echolyn returned with I Heard You Listening, which more or less picks up where they left off in 2012. There were no bad tracks on the album, but Messenger of All’s Right, Different Days, and All This Time We’re Given were especially strong.
District 97 returned with their eclectic and somewhat heavy brand of prog, bringing us In Vaults. The early part of this release starts out sounding similar to their previous release, Trouble With Machines, but gradually evolves into new territory. I absolutely love the leadoff track, Snow Country, and am also partial to A Lottery and On Paper. The playing is top notch throughout. But what I like best about this album is the outstanding vocal performance of Leslie Hunt, who continues to make a strong case for the title of First Lady of Prog. Whether it’s her breathy jazz phrasing, her power vocals, or something in between, she hits it perfect every time.
Our favorite boys from Joisey, 3rd Degree, came out Ones and Zeros: Vol. 1. I’m hoping that the Vol. 1 part of the title is an implicit stating that there will be a Vol. 2, because I definitely want more of this. A concept album that explores our relationship to technology (the digital world in particular), the lyrics are both clever and insightful. This one will be interesting to come back to five or ten years hence to examine the lyrics/concept in the context of how times will change.
The Ted Leonard era of Spock’s Beard continued apace with The Oblivion Particle. I won’t mince words here – I think Leonard is the best vocalist Spock’s Beard has ever had, and I love where they are going with him at the mike. Bennett Built a Time Machine is an excellent track, and I love Minion as well (would have liked the move Minions to have worked a little prog into their soundtrack with this one …). They musicianship is as stellar as ever, and combined with Leonard’s voice, the Beard sounds as good as ever to these ears.
One final entry here is Dave Kerzner’s New World. Now technically, this album was initially released in 2014, but after many had already compiled their year-end best-of lists. It didn’t seem fair to me that such a fine album wouldn’t make the cut simply because of the timing of its release. So I’m going to include it here as a 2015 release and put it on my list – and on the merits it most definitely belongs.
And no, I haven’t forgot about Glass Hammer’s highly acclaimed Breaking of the World. But I must confess I haven’t gotten around to listening to this one yet. So much prog, so little time.
So another great year is almost in the books. What will 2016 bring? Well, if current trends continue, it’s going to be a pretty good year. For one, we will probably get the DVD of The Theater Equation, and I’m very much looking forward to that. Let’s just hope things stay where they’re at – on a roll.