A Return to Brilliance: THE OPTIMIST by Anathema

Review of Anathema, THE OPTIMIST (Kscope, 2017).

anathema optimist
A return to brilliance.

THE OPTIMIST is a wonderful album, a true expression of the best that is in, ironically enough, a band named Anathema.

When the band returned to the music scene after a five-year absence in 2008 with a reworking of their previous music, HINDSIGHT, I was pretty much smitten.  Then, in 2010, with the release of their first proper album in seven years, WE’RE HERE BECAUSE WE’RE HERE, up through their 2013 live album, UNIVERSAL, Anathema was not only not only gloriously on fire but, perhaps, unstoppable.

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NAO’s THE THIRD DAY

NAO, THE THIRD DAY (Kscope/Snapper, 2014).  Tracks: Great Plains II; Elsewhere; August; A Nice Little Place; Penrose; Do Something Useful; Wires; Pines of Eden; Dust; When to Stop.

NAO TTD cover art
Not sure if The Third Day is related to Genesis, but it is epic.

And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good. Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so.  The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.  And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day.–GENESIS, Chapter 1

Though NAO’s Sam Healy is not religious in the least, there might be something culturally reflective here.  I have no idea, frankly.  But, I’m sure I’m not the only who imagined the Jewish creation story when reading the title of NAO’s third album.

Whatever the origin of the title, I was actually prompted to re-reveiw the album because of listening to the NAO compilation, LIBRARY STRIKES THE LIBRARY TWICE.  Listening to  the three tracks on that “best of,” taken from THE THIRD DAY, and listening to them out of context gave me an entirely new perspective on the 2014 album.

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An Apology to Mr. Steven Wilson

Steven Wilson
Steven Wilson, The LONDON GUARDIAN.

I will admit, I find it hard to believe that Steven Wilson’s HAND.CANNOT.ERASE. is now fourteen months old.  It arrived on my doorstep—courtesy of amazon.com—on the day it was released, and I played it immediately, of course.  At the time, however, I had become truly skeptical of anything Wilson was doing at that moment.  My dislike and distrust had not come on me suddenly, but, rather over a relatively long period of time.  As I mentioned in a previous post, I didn’t come across his work until a random turning on of album rock radio in Fort Wayne played an incredible song—“Trains” if I remember correctly—just as Porcupine Tree had released IN ABSENTIA.  I not only purchased that album that day at a Fort Wayne Bestbuy, but I also searched out an independent CD/record store, and purchased much of PT’s back catalogue.  To say that a decade of obsession (in the healthy, fan sense; not in the psychotic sense) with Wilson and all of his art set in.  I was certainly a completest.  If it had Wilson’s name on it, I owned it.

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A Not So Gentle Reminder: Anesthetize from Porcupine Tree

Porcupine Tree, ANESTHETIZE: LIVE IN TILBURG, OCTOBER 2008 (Kscope, 2cd/1dvd, 2015).

pt anes
Kscope, 2010, 2015.
I admit, I have a strange relationship with Steven Wilson.  Well, ok, it’s a totally one-sided relationship.

I’m a relative late comer to his music.  As chance happened (as chance does), I actually turned on a radio (something I’d really not done since the late 1980s) while driving through Fort Wayne, Indiana, in the early fall of 2002.  And, miraculously, at that moment, the station was playing something from IN ABSENTIA.

“Trains,” I think.

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iamthemorning’s Lighthouse: Neoclassical Beauty

lighthouse_cover

Imagine, if you will, a world where Aerial-era Kate Bush, Dumbarton Oaks-era Igor Stravinsky, and Sketches of Spain-era Miles Davis got together to compose a song cycle. They might come up with something to rival iamthemorning’s new album, Lighthouse, but it’s doubtful.

A work of astonishing beauty, Lighthouse is also deeply moving. The songs chronicle a young woman’s struggle to overcome mental illness, and her ultimate surrender to it. Heavy stuff, but fortunately the gorgeous musical arrangements make Lighthouse a work worth returning to again and again. iamthemorning takes the listener on this journey through the use of neoclassical music, prog, and classic jazz. Most of the songs feature a full chamber orchestra, while others are buttressed by the talents of Gavin Harrison and Colin Edwin – Porcupine Tree’s rhythm section. Mariusz Duda, of Riverside and Lunatic Soul fame, lends his distinctive vocals to the album’s centerpiece, “Lighthouse”.

Of course, the true stars of Lighthouse are the members of iamthemorning, vocalist Marjana Semkina, and pianist Gleb Kolyadin. Semkina’s vocals are heartbreakingly beautiful, moving from peak to peak as the songs unfold. Kolyadin’s piano work is perfectly simpatico with Semkina’s singing, providing graceful accompaniment. On “Harmony”, he takes center stage, leading a sextet through a swinging instrumental.

The mood of the album flows from the somber overture of “I Came Before the Water, Pt. 1” through the melodic “Clear Clearer”, to the relatively upbeat “Harmony” and “Matches”, before descending again with “Belighted”. “Chalk and Coal”, in the words of Semkina, “represents the final twist of the album story-line, the final breakdown”. The first half of “Chalk and Coal” features the most straight-ahead rock of the album before the band seamlessly shifts into chamber jazz for the second half. “I Came Before the Water” returns, with Semkina, unaccompanied, singing of accepting defeat while a gradually swelling string chorus provides solace. The tender and brief “Post Scriptum” is a final elegy, and Lighthouse is over.

Even though the album is almost entirely acoustic, it packs an enormous punch. It is a work that is best experienced by listening to it in its entirety. Everything, from the cover art to the extraordinarily high level of musicianship, combine to create a tasteful and sophisticated work. This is music that transcends categorization; it is music that is timeless and evocative. iamthemorning have come up with an album that is destined to be a classic of modern music, regardless of the genre.

 

Swinging On the Porcupine Tree

Harrison -Polygraph

Well, this is certainly a surprise! Gavin Harrison, drummer par excellence of Porcupine Tree, has recorded an album of reworked PT songs, and it is not what you would expect. Rather than stick to a rock format, Harrison has entirely re-imagined these songs as big band jazz performances. And you know what? It works!

The key to Cheating the Polygraph’s success is that these are not note-for-note reproductions of the originals, but rather soaring flights of swing that use the original melodies as jumping off points. Freeing Steven Wilson’s melodies (and very few can write a melody as seductive as he can) from the strictures of rock, Harrison and his band really stretch out and explore the implications of Wilson’s chords through the harmonies and rhythms of jazz. And this is jazz that goes way, way out there. If Duke Ellington were alive today, he would probably be making music like this.

According to Harrison, the songs he selected are his personal PT favorites, which is fascinating. They aren’t the obvious choices, and most come from relatively obscure sources: “What Happens Now?” and “Cheating the Polygraph” are from the Nil Recurring EP, “So Called Friend” and “Futile” are from Recordings II, “Mother and Child Divided” is off the Arriving Somewhere soundtrack, and “The Pills I’m Taking” is a section from “Anesthetize” that I have from a BBC Radio One Rock Show Session (it may be available elsewhere; I’m not an obsessive PT collector!). So for many casual PT fans, Cheating the Polygraph may be the first time to hear these tunes.

A standout performance is “Heart Attack In A Layby”, where the somber mood of Wilson’s original performance is preserved, but marimbas and bass clarinet add an exotic element that is simply beautiful. Another highlight is “The Pills I”m Taking” which Harrison transforms into a suspenseful brass blast that would be right at home as the theme song for a 1950s TV crime drama. “Hatesong/Halo” begins with a marimba workout that soon morphs into an edgy flute-led arrangement; it sounds like a long-lost Stravinksy composition. The transition from “Hatesong” to “Halo” is masterful; pairing those two songs into a suite brings out the best in both.

What about Harrison’s own performance? Well, when I first saw the DVD of Porcupine Tree’s Anesthetize concert, I posted a review on Amazon, stating, “For me, this production highlights how indispensable Gavin Harrison is to Porcupine Tree. His drumming is simply phenomenal. Despite PT being Steven Wilson’s baby, Gavin is the true star of this DVD.” On Cheating the Polygraph, he has not lost one bit of his drive and grace. Every song is built on the foundation of his propulsive percussion. Harrison remains a master of energetic cross-rhythmic drumming while never sounding “busy”. He is to rock what Tony Williams was to jazz – always pushing the boundaries of what percussionists can do.

Cheating the Polygraph may not be “rock”, but it is challenging and very satisfying music. In my book, that makes it prog, and excellent prog at that!

Here is a preview of the album; Kscope Music plans to release it on April 13th:

Update: I should have mentioned Gavin’s collaborator, Laurence Cottle, is responsible for the marvelous arrangements of these songs. Let’s hope their partnership is not a one-shot deal!

 

The Siren Songs of Se Delan

Se Delan Cover There are music labels, and there are music labels. By which I mean: occasionally a label appears that maintains such a high quality roster of artists, and its production is so consistently excellent, that discerning listeners will buy anything that label releases. 4AD (home of Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, Lush, and This Mortal Coil, among others) was such a label for many music fans in the ’80s and ’90s. ZTT was another, with its over-the-top Trevor Horn productions, and copious and entertaining liner notes that more often than not baffled rather than illuminated the reader.

In this decade, KScope has become the go-to label for fans of edgy and intelligent music. One of my first posts (back in 2012) on Progarchy was a brief overview of KScope’s roster of “post-progressive” artists. Since then, they have expanded their offerings to include many new artists, and the latest star in their constellation is Se Delan (pronounced “say deh-LAN”, it’s Old English for “the deep”.). Consisting of multi-instrumentalist Justin Greaves (Crippled Black Phoenix) and singer Belinda Kordic (Killing Mood), their début album, The Fall, is a seductive, languorous gem that sneaks up on you and draws you into its dark beauty before you’re even aware of it.

Kordic’s breathy vocals bring to mind early Lush, while Greave’s acoustic-based compositions sound relatively simple until you allow yourself to be carried away by the multilayered deep grooves he develops. The songs feature slow yet insistent beats, punctuated by spaced-out bursts of bluesy guitar (i.e. the outstanding track, “Dirge”). If Twin Peaks were airing today, this album would be the perfect soundtrack.

Kordic’s lyrics imbue the music with a sense of  the surreal, while expressing a resigned longing:

Tonight, as you sleep

Time to let go

of those haunted thoughts

that keep you so damned low.

Dream…Tonight….Dream…

from “Tonight”

The only misstep is “The Hunt” – a dissonant track that doesn’t really fit the mood of the rest of the album. However, the closing song, “Lost Never Found” has an absolutely heartbreaking and spare beauty to it. Beginning with an unaccompanied piano, Kordic eventually sings a few lines while a violin softly enters. Drums, bass, and guitars join in and bring the song to a stirring conclusion. Fans of Nosound will love it.

With The Fall, Se Delan have delivered a very impressive début. The first listen intrigues, the second pleases, the third leaves you somewhat discomfited and wanting more. Here’s hoping this is not a one-time collaboration.

 

Mini-Review: The Pineapple Thief’s 137

Continuing its series of top-quality reissues of The Pineapple Thief’s back catalog, Kscope Music has just released their sophomore effort, One Three Seven. It’s a surprisingly mature and accomplished set of songs. Bruce Soord’s vocals are reminiscent of Thom Yorke’s, but distinctive enough to not be derivative. The first track, “Lay On The Tracks” and the sixth, “Ster”, are among the poppiest songs he’s ever written. “Perpetual Night Shift” features a laconic melody with a droning bass line. I like it a lot. “Kid Chameleon” was included on the 2009 compilation 3000 Days, and it is outstanding. In it, Soord channels David Gilmour for an exquisite guitar solo that perfectly complements a memorable song. “Release the Tether” is an instrumental raveup that is relentless in its drive.

There isn’t a single clunker among the thirteen tracks, but the highlight is the nearly twelve-minute track, “pvs”, which begins with a beautiful acoustic setting, transforms into Led Zep heaviness, and ends with a classically styled piano/cello/guitar coda.

Originally performed, recorded, and mixed by Soord between June 2000 and March 2001, 137 is fascinating to listen to as a document of him developing his minimalist technique of composition. My initial impression is one of immediacy – Soord is a man with something to prove, and he isn’t afraid to get in your face, both musically and lyrically. The album features some of his most aggressive guitar work, along with lyrics like this:

it’s taking a while he said

keep shouting at the wall

never get out, he said

unless you take the fall

taking too long, i said

i cannot climb this wall

it’s taking too long, i said

watch me as i fall….

If you’ve not heard The Pineapple Thief, 137 is an excellent entry point. It nicely balances Bruce Soord’s deft pop touch with his heavier side. Having a length of more than 70 minutes, this is a lot of music to absorb, but it never drags. And hey, you have to admire a band that uses a Fermat spiral for the cover art!