Bryan’s Best of 2020

Looking back at 2020, it’s hard to believe that we lost Neil Peart at the beginning of the year. That loss hit me pretty hard, since Rush’s music has been central to my life from an early age. I talk more about that in my tribute to Peart: https://progarchy.com/2020/01/12/neil-peart-a-misfits-hero/. I start off my year-end review list with a reminder of the loss of Neil because it seems like a fitting way to remember 2020. Peart’s loss represents what so many people have lost this year, whether it be family members and friends due to the virus or jobs lost due to draconian forced business closures that haven’t actually accomplished anything in slowing the viral spread. Not to mention the emotional distress that physical separation is causing many people.

Another thing we lost this year was live music from our favorite bands. Big Big Train had their first North American tour planned for late spring this year. Canceled. Devin Townsend was in the middle of a glorious North American tour with Haken when everything blew up. Canceled. Obviously this list could be expanded to every band that tours. Losing live music makes it even more difficult for bands in a niche genre to spread their music to more people.

But enough lamenting. We still got a lot of great music this year. The following list is in no particular order apart from my number one album at the end. I include both new albums and live records.

Haken – Virus
I was a little surprised that I was the only person over at the Dutch Progressive Rock Page to include this one in my top ten list for their annual list. Maybe people were really sensitive about the name of the album, but it was clear that the album was written and completed before the novel coronavirus was a known entity. The music is fantastic. It’s probably their heaviest album to date, but it still has some of their calmer moments. It’s Haken through-and-through, and it makes a wonderful companion to 2018’s Vector. We also get to hear some more about our old nemesis, the cockroach king. It’s pretty cool how they worked in some of those themes. Fantastic album that should’ve received more attention than it did. Check out my review: https://progarchy.com/2020/07/23/haken-goes-viral-virus-album-review-haken_official/

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Further Thoughts on Nick d’Virgilio’s “Invisible” (or, Progging in the Pre-Nirvana Mainstream)

My copy of Nick d’Virgilo’s Invisible was still in the mail when I read Bryan’s first impressions of it.  Following its arrival and repeated listens, here are my two cents.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect from this release, and was pleasantly surprised as a result; it gets better every time I hear it.  As Bryan says, Invisible doesn’t sound much like Big Big Train (though it puts d’Virgilio’s jazz-rock flavored compositions for BBT in context), or even middle-period Spock’s Beard.  And it only dabbles in the hyper, clattery alt-pop NDV tackled with Randy McStine and Jonas Reingold on The Fringe.  Mostly, this is an album of classy, soulful rock and pop with R&B undercurrents, reminiscent of nothing so much as the pre-Nirvana mainstream. The progginess is in the extended structures, the virtuoso playing and the overall concept; “The Alan Parsons Project with a lot more horsepower” might be a good thumbnail description.

(Invisible is a pretty cool example of creative entrepreneurship in today’s music industry, too.  By leveraging his gig at Fort Wayne’s Sweetwater Studios, d’Virgilio managed to play ten different drum kits in exchange for promotional considerations — i.e. the drool-worthy “Drum Gear” booklet included with each copy —  and draw on a bevy of guest stars from studio master classes, with Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen as the wildest card in his deck.)

The down to earth storyline, a solid redemption narrative with some nifty twists, definitely helps make Invisible appealing and relatable.  But I would argue that the musical means d’Virgilio uses to build out his concept seal the deal.  Beyond his emotive singing and consistently brilliant drum work, Nick’s polished efforts on electric piano, loops, bass, bass synth and guitars provide a sturdy chassis for each track; his fellow Sweetwater pros, guest stars and prog buddies lovingly customize the power trains and bodies; and the strings and brass of the Orchestra at Abbey Road furnish plush aural upholstery (along with a recurring musical theme based on the chorus of “Where’s the Passion”).

As a result, every single track of this album grabs on tight from the beginning — not just revealing more depth and emotional resonance with every repeat, but also relentlessly propelling the overall narrative forward.  The desolation of the title track and the downbeat cover of “Money (That’s What I Want)”; the defiance of “Turn Your Life Around” and “Overcome”; the devastation of “Waiting for No One” and “Not My Time to Say Goodbye”; the cathartic deliverance of the finale “I Know the Way” — this is outright sonic cinema, pictures vividly created in your head by state of the art, high quality music.

So, yeah, I’m sold on Invisible; it’s already in contention for my end-of-the-year favorites list.  And I think you might dig it too.  So order it from NDV’s website or Burning Shed; heck, listen on Spotify if you can’t wait for it to arrive.  Whatever.  You really shouldn’t miss this one.

— Rick Krueger

Nick D’Virgilio’s “Invisible” – First Impressions

My copy of Nick D’Virgilio’s new solo album, Invisible, arrived in the mail today, and a few things have struck me upon an initial listen. Please don’t consider this post a full review – just some first thoughts.

First, let me state that I consider Nick D’Virgilio to be the finest drummer in the world. His skill and creativity is blatantly obvious when you listen to a Big Big Train album. His style of playing is simultaneously smooth and complex. It remains intricate without overpowering the listener. He’s also remarkably ubiquitous as a drummer. Just check out the discography page on his website: https://www.nickdvirgilio.com/discography/. There are many albums he has drummed on that I enjoy and I never realized he was playing on them. I think that’s because he’s all about the music rather than it being about him… unlike some other famous prog drummers. On top of all that Nick has a golden voice, as any longtime listener of Spock’s Beard knows.

The concept for this album emerged from Nick’s time working for Cirque du Soleil, the first time in his career where he was “invisible” in the pit rather than center stage behind a kit or singing lead vocals. The main theme can be summarized with the idea that every person was put on this earth for a reason, and each person must figure out what that reason is and fully live it.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this album is that it isn’t just an album of D’Virgilio showboating on the drums. Rather the drums serve the songs, most of which feature lyrics Nick wrote. I recently reviewed an album for the Dutch Progressive Rock Page that was a solo album from a world-renowned drummer. That album was all about the drumming, and it got a little overpowering at points, even though I thought it was still a good album. On “Invisible” the drums play their role, and I think that’s one of the things that makes Nick so great. He doesn’t overplay, and he doesn’t underplay. He masterfully provides just what a song need.

Another first impression is this isn’t a Big Big Train album. I wasn’t really expecting it to sound too much like Big Big Train, but I thought it might since that’s Nick’s main band now. (His day job is working for Sweetwater music in Fort Wayne, Indiana.) Invisible is fully unique. There are plenty of guests, but a perusal of the album booklet didn’t see any BBT members guesting. Sure there’s the odd passage here and there that could be compared to BBT, but this is a totally different deal.

Abbey road’s orchestra is prominent throughout, which gives it a symphonic rock feeling at points, but the guitars and drums firmly ground Invisible as a progressive rock album. The album doesn’t fall into traditional tropes, however. It tells a story in a subtle way, which I think will keep it sounding fresh on repeated listens. It even manages a touch of musical theater in the track “Wrong Place Wrong Time,” which probably comes from Nick’s time with Cirque du Soleil.

Like I said – these are just some first impressions. If you buy the album from his website, not only will it come signed but also it will include an extra booklet featuring detailed descriptions of the drum setups used on each song. He used various drum kits on this album rather than one single kit. Or you could be like me and accidentally buy two copies – one from Nick’s shop and the other from Burning Shed.

https://www.nickdvirgilio.com/shop

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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