A Brief 2013 Albums Of The Year List

I’ve been keeping an “Album Of The Year” list going back to 1977 or so, before which I didn’t own or properly listen to any music of note. Since then, there has usually been one album every year that stood above the others, or, if I’m lucky, an album that I’d truly cherish for years to come.

Over the last 10 years, I’ve been fortunate to have encountered a few such albums: “Everything Must Go” by Steely Dan, “Everybody Loves A Happy Ending” by Tears For Fears, “Milliontown” by Frost*, “English Electric Part 1” by Big Big Train, and “The Tall Ships” by It Bites. Unfortunately, there have been a few years where I’ve had to pretty much force myself to pick an album that might not otherwise top a “best of” list, simply because nothing really spoke to me that year…let’s not list those, eh?

For 2013, I can list three albums that meets at least one of two criteria: Will I want to listen to these again in 2014 and/or will it be an album I treasure for a lifetime.

They are:

“English Electric Full Power” – Big Big Train

Yes, nearly half of this album was the Album Of The Year for many in 2012 (including myself), and I’m not sure “English Electric 2” would have topped my AotY list by itself – it’d have been a strong #2 for sure – but to hear the new tracks from “Full Power” arranged among the revised tracklisting for this, the band’s final statement for this project, makes this an album that easily meet both criteria noted above.

Despite “English Electric” not being a concept album in a story sense, I do struggle a bit with how the leadoff track, “Make Some Noise,” fits in with the rest of the album, but having been that kid they sing about, I simply imagine how carefree life was in the summers of my youth, being able to play music with friends, before true responsibility knocked.

I can’t really add any meaningful superlatives to my appreciation of this album that haven’t been said time and again by others. Suffice to say: It’s magnificent.

“Dream Theater” – Dream Theater

Despite my glowing review of “The Enemy Inside,” the first single from Dream Theater’s self-titled album, I began to think that if I was in for an album-length assault in the vein of that track, this wouldn’t be a standout album for me. It’s obvious that I hadn’t learned to listen to an entire album before judging it, because this album stands out as one of their finest and a fine successor to “A Dramatic Turn Of Events.”

With the talent stockpiled in this band – especially now with a drummer in Mike Mangini possessing the technique and training on par with Jordan Rudess – it would have been easy for Dream Theater to overplay in every time signature for 75 minutes straight, but what we get instead is an incredibly balanced effort that keeps the technical playing mostly in check, letting the music breathe.

If I have any gripes – and this may be my problem – it’s that while each section of “Illumination Theory” is fantastic on its own (how about the section with the strings!), I was hoping the end of the track would reprise the themes from the beginning. Otherwise, it feels to me as if they took us out on a journey and didn’t quite bring us back (of course, that’s well within their rights as artists). Yes, I do hear the reference to one of the early guitar riffs later in the track, but somehow the end didn’t “tie the room together.” 🙂

However, I reserve the right to be wrong here, so fellow progheads, I’m counting on you to set me straight if I’m missing something!  In any case, don’t miss this album.

“Reaching Places High Above” – Persona Grata

Just as Big Big Train’s “English Electric 1” was a late-in-the-year find for me in 2012, this release from Bratislava’s Persona Grata (nice rhyme there) was that way this year. This six-song effort features three prog tunes in the vein of Dream Theater, plus a three-track instrumental arc in the middle that takes you on a thematic journey paralleling the titles of the tunes.

Beyond the writing, singing and playing on this album, I was most impressed with their attention to the arrangements.  Of the many prog albums that I gave a spins to this year, “Reaching Places High Above” grabbed me from the first listen.

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Finally, if I have a single of the year award to bestow, it’s for “Pale Blue Dot” by Sound Of Contact, part of a fine overall album. I dare you not to have Simon Collins’ melodies from the verses and chorus stuck in your head for days on end.  Great track!

Of course, there are many more albums out there likely deserving inclusion on my list, but these three (and Sound Of Contact) will be the ones that I’ll be spinning for years on end. Since our community of proggers is a tight-knit one that includes both artists and fans in a way that I doubt most other genres do, artists should note that I’m often a “late bloomer” with many albums, whether because it was completely off or under my radar, so don’t be surprised if I someday anoint your album as AotY that was released years before, like I did with “Once Around The World” by It Bites; it “only” took me some 20 years to learn who they were!

Another brilliant year for progressive rock, to be sure!

Scaling The Heights Of Heavy Prog – Persona Grata’s “Reaching Places High Above”

Reaching Places High Above

It’s probably a blessing and a curse that I tend to compartmentalize progressive rock into sub-genres in order to sort out what I’m hearing.  It’s likely a blessing in terms of having “signposts” of historical reference when trying to determine where a band’s music fits within the prog category, but perhaps a curse that I feel the need to shoehorn the band and music into a sub-genre in the first place, for we all know that progressive music rarely fits neatly into one “slot.”

No matter the reasoning, let’s just say that the Slovak proggers Persona Grata surprised the heck out of me with their new release, “Reaching Places High Above,” which for this prog fan fits nicely into the sub-genre where Dream Theater camps out – one that I’ll call “heavy prog” – and made this album an absolute pleasure to listen to.

“Reaching Places High Above” is at times aggressive, intricate, mellow, adventurous, and dynamic, but always progressive in scope, and a delight to listen to. Sound a bit like Dream Theater there?

It should. Listeners will be treated to a group that, like DT, fires on all cylinders with tight songwriting and arrangements, along with the technical prowess that easily puts them in a league with top-tier prog bands.  It’s worth mentioning in advance that the album is produced and mixed wonderfully, which can’t always be said for up-and-coming groups. It’s a big plus.

“Ace” preps us for the places we’ll go with some airline samples and radio dial tuning, eventually morphing into the track’s intro.  Those who may not be a fan of the two vocal wails at the beginning, fear not – it’s not indicative of what’s exclusively in store from the vocals department; singer/guitarist Martin Stavrovsky has plenty of range and, unlike some capable of wailing in prog, he doesn’t loiter in the high register all that much. The band moves from section to section in rapid pace with plenty of playing that’ll impress anyone who fancies quite a bit of playing in their prog.  However, they steer clear of what sometimes turns people off about virtuosic prog – shredding for shredding’s sake. The band does a fine job of keeping the song in check thematically and the song seems over before it starts.

“Edge Of Insanity” brings things down a notch with an intro electric guitar and flute (man, the flute sure is back in prog, innit?), moving to a first verse that features a lovely male/female harmony verse. The band then crescendoes with layers of aggressiveness for the next set of verses before heading back to the harmony vocals of the first verse. However, dust never settles on Persona Grata, for the prog returns almost as quickly, building to a heavy section of soloing.  Halfway though the track, the band pulls back to a section of acoustic guitar, flute and synth that brings us back to the feel of a couple of the early verses. They build back up to full-tilt, heavy prog, but seeing the bigger picture of arrangement, they bring it back down to reprise the intro.  Fab track.

The band then takes us on a three-instrumental, cross continental-themed musical journey starting with the brief “Istanbul,” which calls to mind elements of DT’s “Home” with sitar/guitar playing over a Tool-esque drum pattern. We’re then taken aboard the “Orient Express,” full of twists and turns in the vein of “The Dance Of Eternity” at nearly 10 minutes in length, then the band brings things to a close with the concluding “Venice” piece, done on harpsichord.

The album’s epic ender, “I Am You,” has an ambient start, then sees the band floating over an intricate, 5/4 piano part, then moving to a heavy yet cinematic feel that’s all ear candy.  Again, the band has a great ear for arrangements, never bleeding a riff to death and flowing from one section to another naturally. The song’s halfway point sees the band put the brakes on the heaviness a la Frost*, giving way to plucked strings that build into a full instrumental section. The harpsichord from “Venice” is back for part of the section and after one more “drop out” to a quiet section, the band cranks up to a fever pitch, followed by the obligatory anthemic finish, fading out to the ambient keyboards we heard at the beginning.

It seems like every year brings a surprise for me amidst the mass of prog releases; last year it was Big Big Train – truly a once-every-decade find for me – and this year has brought Persona Grata to the forefront of my new music listening.  Those bands certainly occupy two different sub-genres of prog, but neither lack in creativity. With “Reaching Places High Above,” Persona Grata have put themselves near the summit of the the heavy prog-rock peak.

More information: http://personagrataofficial.tumblr.com