With 2018 coming to a close, Spotify users can now review their music history through a feature called 2018 Wrapped. This feature, which has been around for three years now, shows users cool statistics such as one’s number of minutes listened, most streamed songs and, based on one’s top artists and bands, one’s top genre. Although I rarely use Spotify for streaming, Spotify determined that my favorite genre was rock . . . and for good reason. Three of my favorite bands– Phish, Radiohead and YES– are all typically termed as rock bands. Yet, despite their collective grouping under the genre, these bands could not be more different. While listening to these bands alone demonstrates the vast variations which exist within the rock genre, nothing proves this more than experiencing each of these bands live. This year, I set out to do just that.
I saw YES this summer at Riverbend Music Center in Cincinnati. One of the most acclaimed progressive rock bands ever, YES, in their 50th anniversary tour, continued to demonstrate their greatness. Although no founding members remain in YES (note: there are now two incarnations of YES and each had their own 50th anniversary tour: YES and YES Featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, and Rick Wakeman–this article addresses the former), its current members, including long time guitarist Steve Howe and Alan White, continue to evoke the features which led to YES’ distinctive sound–experimentation, harmony, and avant-garde lyrics. This commitment to founding principles made up for the lack-luster lights and atmosphere and resulted in a great show. While most of YES’ music does not quite match my tastes, I still hold tremendous respect for their contributions to music and am glad that I managed to see them live.
I had waited a long time to see Radiohead and this year I finally received the opportunity. I saw them twice this summer: first at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit and second at US Bank Arena in Cincinnati. Each performance was incredible in its own way. In Detroit, Radiohead displayed its incredible versatility, playing both driving, dissonant songs such as “2+2=5,” and softer, intimate songs such as “Fake Plastic Trees.” Their performance, coupled with mesmerizing lights and the incredible atmosphere of the newly renovated arena, made for an unforgettable experience. While some set-list similarities existed in Radiohead’s Cincinnati show, overall, they played a lot of different songs and gave almost an entirely different show. Since the show did not sell out, my brother and I managed to get closer to the stage and that made it all the more memorable. The coolest moment from the Cincinnati show, however, occurred when Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien both gave me a wave before exiting the stage. Radiohead closed out both shows with one of their more widely recognized songs– “Karma Police.” Hearing a stadium full of people sing along to this song was nothing short of magical. It was a moment I hope to never forget.
I saw Phish twice at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, IL. Although I had seen them live before, I did not truly appreciate the awesomeness of their live sets until this year. Many people label Phish as merely a jam band. While they do jam, they always change the structure and sound of their jams, making their music extremely interesting and fun. One never knows quite what to expect from them because of their vast number of songs and the improvisations made within those songs. Their musicianship always mesmerizes me. Phish also possesses some of the nicest, loyal fans and their concerts always feature incredible light displays. Overall, Phish’s live concerts always guarantee a unique, unforgettable experience (go to one of their live concerts and you will understand what I mean).
While 2018 gave me some incredible memories, I look forward to 2019 and the new musical adventures that await. Although I love to stream music and follow my favorite bands and artists online, nothing truly compares to the beauty of live concerts. Music, after all, surpasses the boundaries of sound. It represents a spectrum of emotions and these emotions are best shared with other people.
For me, the only great thing to come out of the Mike Portnoy/NHS controversy (which doesn’t seem like it should have been a controversy, at least to this American) was that it re-awakened my interest in Portnoy’s time in Dream Theater. I’ve followed him almost religiously in his non-DT efforts (Transatlantic, Neal Morse Band, Flying Colors), and I think the world of him—as a person and as a drummer. Yeah, he’s got a bit of a temper—but he seems to let it run wild only when life calls for it to run wild. I can’t really blame him. Plus, the guy is so outstanding in what he does, I can’t help but admire him. I would give a lot to have his restraint, frankly.
But, my point in this post is not about that “controversy.” Instead, that moment in England caused me to pull out all of my Portnoy-era Dream Theater, 1992. I’m not what you’d call an intense fan of Dream Theater, but I have purchased every single album (studio, live, ep) as it’s has come out since IMAGES AND WORDS.
When I first got IMAGES AND WORDS, I was impressed with it. I listened to it with fervor, but, even then, I really loved side two and I really didn’t love side one.
1992 was a great year for music, but it was an uncertain year for prog.
At the time, The Cure’s WISH seemed as likely a candidate for inheriting the mantle of prog as did Dream Theater’s IMAGES AND WORDS. In hindsight, it’s easy to give the award to Dream Theater, but not so easy in 1992. Go back and listen to “From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea,” but also listen to “Open,” “Cut,” “To Wish Impossible Things,” and “End.” There’s a LOT of prog on that Cure album. Plus, I would consider DISINTEGRATION a prog album. My point: if you listened to Dream Theater (metal prog) and The Cure (pop prog), it was impossible to determine who was more prog. At least in 1992.
Add the albums from Phish, Pearl Jam, and U2 that year.
A lot could’ve happened.
Well, here we are 23 years later. Thanks, Mike. You paved the way then and you continue to do so.
Earlier today, before a quick hike in the Rockies with my kids, I asked Johnny Unicorn (in reality: John Adams; but not the former president) to give me a bit of history of himself. He very kindly sent the following (below). As some of you might remember, I was really taken with his previous release–SADNESS AND COMPANIONSHIP.
The forthcoming, ANGELS IN THE OORT CLOUD, looks even more interesting. As I mentioned at the time of the first release, I think that Johnny Unicorn embraces the spirit of PHISH–wacky, innovative, and yet always very serious about the art.
Here’s what Mr. Unicorn wrote today (a huge thanks to him for taking the time!):
“Johnny Unicorn” has been my solo project since 2006.
2006, 2007, 2008 – “Dates Or Non-dates”, “Riversongs”, and “Put Your Mind Inside My Mouth”
JU was the only member of the recorded or live band except for occasional live backing vocalists (Audri the Great, Joy Moore) and one show with a full band (Jabari Parker on drums, Joel Weinstein on bass, and Audri and Joy on backing vocals).
2010 – “Sweet Edith Manton”
JU recruited old friend Jason Campbell to play drums on the album. Toured the Northern U.S. as a one-piece
2011 – “Thinking Hard To Overcome Nervousness”
Lots of guest musicians played on the album. JU toured the U.S. again as a one-piece. Later in the year, Naomi Smith and Jesse Mercury (formerly Plack)(http://jessemercury.bandcamp.com) joined the live band on synth and drums respectively. Roy Garcia played drums in the live band also in 2011.
2012 – West coast tour with Plack, Smith, and Unicorn (playing JU songs and Jesse Mercury songs) plus Autumn Electric.
2013 – “Sadness And Companionship” – Album recorded with just two musicians, JU and Naomi Smith. After successful Kickstarter campaign, Max Steiner joins live band as guitarist, and Ian Steiner replaces Jesse on drums for another Northern U.S. tour.
2014 – “Angels In the Oort Cloud” – Album recorded with a handful of guest musicians, including “Edith Manton” drummer Jason Campbell. Chris Barrios joins live band on drums. Max Steiner moves to Germany.
2015 and beyond – “Heavy Jugs To the Moon” is a 25-27 song double album that includes a horde of guest musicians, including all current live band members and many past members, and people i met on the internet. The songs are in a dramatic range of styles and they are all relatively short. The following album “Indentations” will be a four song album (all over 15 minutes) and will only include the current live band members and possibly some piped in guitar from overseas, except for one song that is a string quartet with vocals. Following this album, I am writing an album for jazz orchestra. In the interest of saving my ears, future JU tours will most likely be acoustic. After that, it’s all just vague ideas that will solidify as soon as room is freed up in my brain.
I am currently actively working with the following bands:
Yesterday was one of those days where I felt like I did next to nothing but grade. Freshmen midterms, upper-class midterms. Midterms galore, and avalanches of blue books. I also proofed a senior thesis.
Enough, Birzer! Don’t bore the readers into madness. . . .
As I was calling it a day, a song from Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy came into my mind. I have no idea why. Sometimes, these things just happen. And, the thought of the song led me to ask, when did that album come out. As I looked it up, I realized how quickly 20 years had gone by. I’m a historian, and I study memory, time, eternity. But, this hit me. “Last Exit” was 20 years old. So, I did a quick search. What else came out that year. And, I came up quickly with this list of music that meant something to me (and still does) that came out that year.
Tori Amos, Under the Pink. One of my favorite albums of all time. So deadly in its perceptiveness of life. So gloomy, so bouncy, so Tori. “A pretty good year. . . .
Phish, Hoist. I had the great privilege of meeting all of the guys of Phish in the spring of 1990. They were the featured band at a campus event. Amazingly, only about 20 of us came to watch them. I was mesmerized. These guys are a lot like Dave Matthews in terms of genre, but Phish is Monty Python to Matthew’s John Hughes. Even after two decades, the lyrics of Hoist crack me up. The music hasn’t stood up all that well. But, still good. The best song is the concluding “Demand.”
Dead Can Dance, Toward the Within. Seriously weird and gorgeous all at once. In particular, “I Can See Now” and “American Dreaming” are two fantastic songs.
Dave Matthews Band, Under the Table and Dreaming. When this album first appeared, I was rather blown away. This struck me as a proper pop album. Matthews has a good voice, and his lyrics can be quite infectious. It doesn’t mean that much to me anymore, and I’m not sure I would do much to seek the album out. But, still, “typical situation” remains a fine song. Indeed, it’s one of the best of that decade.
Marillion, Brave. Another mind boggler. I’ve written quite a bit about Brave elsewhere, and I plan to do so again. But, sheesh, nothing captured the zeitgeist of the post-Cold War world more than this album did. It could also be counted as one of the two of three albums that ushered in the third wave of prog. Those bastards will find us another one!
Love Spit Love, self titled. I always liked the P-Furs, and this band was a worthy successor. Sadly, I think almost everyone in the music business forgot this album even existed. But, I’ve never stopped listening to it–even after two decades. Butler has a voice that one either loves or hates. I, for one, love it. Though I risk a tongue lashing from Eric Perry, I regard this as one of the great rock-pop albums of the last fifty years. Hooks, pauses, pounding drums, pauses, plaintive lyrics, wacky psychedelic keyboards, pauses, carnival-esque sound scapes, and still more pauses. Phew. . . this is a masterful pop album. Every single song is a wonder, but none more so than “Green” and “St. Mary’s Gate.” If these songs doesn’t bring a tear to your eye. . . nothing will. If I had to compare this album to Amos’s Under the Pink and choose one over the other, I’m not sure I could. When I feel imaginative and want to walk over grassy hills, I listen to Love Spit Love. When I’m angry and feeling a bit like forcing some social justice down someone’s throat, I listen to Tori Amos. In the end, though, I’d pick this one over Under the Pink.
So, in sum: 1994 was, as Tori Amos proclaimed, a pretty good year.
But, then, I thought of 1984. Holy Schnikees. More than pretty good, it was given to us on a silver salver. But, that’s for another post.
Well, the title isn’t exactly right. But, hey, the world’s best biographer of the 40th president of the United States likes us. That counts for something. In fact, it counts for a heck of a lot. Thanks, Steve Hayward!
I just yesterday stumbled across the obscure cultural fact that at the 2010 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Phish—one of those hippie-jam band successors to the Grateful Dead—opened the proceedings with a dead-on cover of one of the oldest and least accessible tunes ever done by Genesis: “Watcher of the Skies,” from Genesis’s 1972 album “Foxtrot.” The thing about “Watcher” is that it’s one of those prog tunes that takes a long time to get going, and once you’re finally under way. . . well, let’s just say it’s an acquired taste and leave it at that. (Though I’ll admit it is a taste I fully acquired in college in the late 1970s. Must have been all that second-hand smoke. . .)
To keep reading at Powerline (one of the most influential websites in the world. . . yeah, I’m not letting this one go easily), click here.
A few days ago, Progarchist and classical philosopher Chris Morrissey asked about our first introductions to music.
The youngest of three boys, born in the summer of love (September 6, 1967—only 3 months and five days after the release of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by the Beatles), and coming of age in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I grew up on progressive rock: Yes, Kansas, Genesis, and the Moody Blues. We faithfully shunned the 3-minute pop format and we sought mightily the 20- and 30-minute epics of European (usually liturgically derived) symphonic music with rock instrumentation and bizarre time signatures.
I remember hearing lots of longish, prog songs as early as 1971 or 1972. Though I’ve never played an instrument with any degree of passion, I’m assured by my mom and two older brothers that I was obsessed with music even as a toddler. Somehow, I figured out how to crawl out of my crib and down the stairs to the family stereo. Even as a one-year old, I would wake the entire household up, blaring the Banana Splits or Snoopy and the Red Baron at 3 in the morning.
My first great awakening came, though, from seeing the sleeves of YesSongs. I spent hours trying to figure out how the animals made it from one floating island to the next. And, I’ll never forget the first time I played side one of YesSongs—I was overwhelmed by the depth and complexity of it.
As is now well recognized, the prog lyrics as well as the cover art tended to be fantastic, pretentious, overblown, and theological. There have even been some interesting scholarly articles about progressive rock thriving in the western and midwestern states of America, mostly among middle-class, conservative kids. And, of course, we, with great confidence, derided disco and top-40 music through junior high, high school, and college. Disco and top-40 music, as we understood it, were decadent and vacuous. As far as we were concerned, progressive rock artists (and some New Wavers) were the only real musicians outside of the classical and jazz world.
In many ways, progressive rock helped define my own childhood and teenage years. I will never forget seeing abolitionist John Brown on the cover of a 1974 Kansas album (it sparked all kinds of historical questions re: Kansas, abolitionism, and the American Civil War); hearing Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” at the University of Notre Dame in the fall of 1979; being introduced to Rush’s 1981 “Moving Pictures” in the Liberty Junior High School library in Hutchinson, Kansas; or listening to Yes’s “Fragile” over and over again and trying to figure out the “deep” meaning of the lyrics. In high school, I worked as on overnight D.J. at a local rock station (KWHK), which doesn’t exist anymore. And, while in college at Notre Dame, I had a Friday-night progressive rock show (WSND) my junior and senior years, often playing two hour blocks of Rush or other groups.
As powerful as any of the albums just mentioned, though, was my first listen to Talk Talk’s Colour of Spring in the spring of 1987 and, even more so, my first listen to Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden in September 1988.
My comrade in arms in college was the singer of the most popular band on campus, St. Paul and the Martyrs. They even opened for Phish when Phish played on campus, spring 1990. The leader singer, Kevin McCormick, even became my oldest son’s godfather! Now, he’s a well-known classical guitarist and even a Progarchist.
But, I’ll never forget the two of us listening to Spirit of Eden for the first time. We were just stunned and in complete silence as we explored every note and every silence of the album.
Having turned 13 in the autumn of 1980, I also, of course, grew up with New Wave: Thomas Dolby, Kate Bush, The Police, The Cure, Oingo Boingo, XTC, Siouxie and the Banshees, and Echo and the Bunnymen. Over the Wall!
Our local Kansas radio station—KWHK—had briefly been formatted for New Wave, so I was able to get every new album sent by the record labels. The one that hit me hardest was XTC’s Skylarking.
My college radio show at Notre Dame focused on progressive rock, as mentioned above, but I threw in a lot of New Wave. New Wave just seemed the more radio-friendly version of progressive rock. And, by the early 1980s, progressive rock seemed to have run its course. Could Asia really claim to be the successor of Yes? Or, could Genesis without Peter Gabriel or Steve Hackett really be Genesis? We answered with a resounding “no.” That left us with New Wave.
After all, in 1990, we still had a few years before Dream Theater and Spock’s Beard re-introduced—in the states—a new wave of Progressive Rock.
A quarter of a century later, I realize that music took on religious significance for me and my friends. Those who embraced disco, pop, or top 40 music were heretics, and we supporters of progressive rock were the orthodox.
A year or so ago, some former students asked me to write about my listening tastes in the 1980s. Here’s what I wrote for them:
High School was a long time ago for me, but I still remember it well. During the summers, I had one of the best jobs in the world–I was a DJ at our local AM-station, KWHK. Not only did I DJ, but I also got to write and produce commercials, and I served as a liaison between the sheriff’s department and the National Weather Service. I grew up in central Kansas, so we had tornados and tornado warnings quite frequently. Great job. I’ve also been into collecting music (mostly progressive and alternative rock, some jazz, and a bit of classical) since second grade. I started young, and, for better or worse, I’ve never stopped. My kids (13 and under) can name bassists, singers, and drummers of the major progressive bands. And, yes, I’m proud of them.
Freshman year of high school, 1982-1983. It was freshman year that I really discovered New Wave. I had been listening, almost exclusively, to progressive rock and what’s now called classic rock during the 1970s and earliest part of the 1980s. The father of a friend of mine owned a record store, and we were introduced to all kinds of music through the store in 9th grade. In particular, I listened to Thomas Dolby’s Golden Age of Wireless (favorite song: One of Our Submarines is Missing). I had this on one side of a tape and ABC’s The Lexicon of Love (favorite song: 4 Ever 2 Gether). Also lots of U2’s War (favorite song: Sunday Bloody Sunday). Progressive Rock was never far from my heart, and I listened to Rush’s Signals (favorite song: Subdivisions) pretty much non-stop, Peter Gabriel’s IV (favorite song: Lay Your Hands on Me), and Roxy Music’s Avalon (favorite song: Take a Chance with Me).
Sophomore year of high school, 1983-1984. This was a huge year for music. Genesis released their self-titled album (favorite song: Home by the Sea, Parts I and II); the Police released Synchronicity (favorite song: Synchronicity II); and Yes released 90125 (favorite song: Cinema).
Junior year, 1984-1985. Rush’s Grace under Pressure (favorite song: Between the Wheels) dominated every other album that year. Frankly, this was THE album. If I had to name a favorite album of high school, this would be it. My sophomore year in college, I wrote a paper using only the lyrics from the album. I even got an A. I also listened a lot to The Smiths’ Hatful of Hollow (favorite song: Please, Please, Please), Oingo Boingo’s Dead Man’s Party (favorite song: same as title), and Thomas Dolby’s second album, The Flat Earth (Favorite song: same as title).
Senior year, 1985-1986. Another great year for music, but mostly for former proggers going pop. Albums that year included, at the top of the list: Sting, Dream of the Blue Turtles (favorite song: Fortress Around Your Heart), Peter Gabriel, So (favorite song: In Yours Eyes), Tears for Fears, Songs from the Big Chair (favorite song: Broken), and XTC, Skylarking (favorite song: The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul). The other album I played constantly was the soundtrack to To Live and Die in LA (a pop band, Wang Chung, playing a very proggy style). Lots of Kate Bush, Hounds of Love, too (favorite song: Hello Earth).
It wasn’t until my freshman year (1986-1987) of college that I really got into Talk Talk, the Cure, and Echo and the Bunnymen. I also really liked Blancmange (kind of a really smart Talking Heads) and New Model Army and a few others. That year, U2 released “The Joshua Tree.” I’ll never forget sitting in the car with a friend, being about 1/2 through the album and just breaking down (not something I did very often) because of the beautiful intensity of the album. Crazy. At the time, I was horrified by RATTLE AND HUM. Now, I think The Joshua Tree as a whole is really good, not brilliant. Side two, maybe, is brilliant. Side one has a brilliant moment–bullet the blue sky. And, RATTLE AND HUM seems better than it did to me then.
In high school, I also remember listening to some A-ha, B-Movie, b-52s, Erasure, Depeche Mode, and Communards. I don’t think I would’ve chosen to listen to these groups, but they would’ve been pretty hard to escape then. I would’ve always preferred something prog–unless we were dancing. Had an all night party at my house once my senior year when my mom was out of town. Late, late into the evening, a group of us were trying to analyze a 1977 Genesis concert we’d taped off of PBS! I’ll never forget that night. Lots of analyzing Pink Floyd, too.