A View from the Top of the World

It’s Dream Theater, so by default it has to be rich in melody and progressions. But, A View from the Top of the World is riveting too. Mike Mangini-John Myung duo crafts a razor sharp bass-drum framework – more than adequate to accommodate their typical musical complexity. And often tailored to precisely slice and frame this perpetual train of John Petrucci-Jordan Rudess orchestra. This balance in musicianship is striking — omnipresent melody, James LaBrie’s signature wails, and complementing bass-lines all live in systematic harmony. Resulting compositions are meticulously high grade.

Album revives and reinforces quintessential Dream Theater qualities, sometimes illustrating them in seemingly novel ways. For better or for worse Mike Portnoy was a captive of Neil Peart school of drumming. But Mike Mangini’s style allows them to evolve, beyond those ornate confines of Rush-metal blueprint. Clearly enabling that exhibition of seemingly novel influences from symphonic prog, and atypical passages often seen in their own side projects. Or at least we can now prominently hear those influences, which were merely latent in earlier works.

Image Attribution : Darko Boehringer https://dreamtheater.net/photos/images-words-beyond-tour-2017/

Aphrodite’s Child: A Retrospective

What could be described as an under appreciated psychedelic rock band from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Aphrodite’s Child, created several phenomenal songs worth hearing. They were a band comprised of three, main members: Evangelos Papathanassiou (Vangelis), Demis Roussos, and Loukas Sideras. With the combination of Vangelis’s extraordinary composing, Demis’s unique voice, and Loukas’s skillful drum work, this is a solid band worth coming back to.

From left to right: Demis Roussos, Vangelis, and Lucas Sideras.

The first song I heard by the group was “End of the World”. It was actually recommended to me by fellow Progarchist Connor Mullin. However, it was not until I heard the song “It’s Five O’Clock” that my eyes opened to how special the band was. The ending of that song dazzled me with its auditory brilliance. When the ending piano instrumentals gently floated into my ears, I was so shocked. The last 30 seconds consist of pure, psychedelic ecstasy. You can expect to be shocked by this band’s work throughout the course of their 3 albums. The short but oh so sweet musical endeavors of Aphrodite’s Child deserve to be discussed again and again. I’ve put together some of what I believe to be their best songs—enjoy!

“End of the World”—is one of my personal favorites because I find it so unique. It is the perfect teenage love song: full of doom and gloom (hence the name) and a feeling of being unwanted. It captures the romanticism of running away with someone you love and forgetting about everything else. But, it also deals with the unfaceable truth of rejection. Vangelis does such a wonderful job at setting the tone of when love feels apocalyptic, thanks to not only his awesome piano skills, but all of the other ominous sounds in the song. There is a great live version of this song on Youtube worth checking out. Every time I watch it I wish I could jump through the screen and be there; everyone’s outfits are superb. In addition, Demis’ opening vocals on the track are haunting in the best way possible. After hearing them, I was ready to drop everything and go to the end of the world with him! No questions asked.

“Good Time So Fine”—is my absolute favorite! This song made me fall in love with Demis Roussos. I have such a respect for his voice and musicianship. I adore this song’s playful tune. The pitch changes of Demis’ voice makes this song so much fun! It’s amazing that he is singing both parts of the song—I would have never known. The lyrics are sweet and feel like a breath of fresh air; it’s a song you’d happily be singing along to in the sunshine. The chorus makes you feel the freedom and joy that is love. This song feels like it belongs in a musical, which makes it easy to dance and sing along to. I watched a live recording of Aphrodite’s Child performing this song and it was so impressive to see Demis sing, play bass, and play the trumpet, all in the span of a three minute song. This song was made for Demis Roussos.

“Rain and Tears”—this song is an adaptation of Pachelbel’s Canon and is the band’s most commercially successful song. The most notable part of the song is its bridge. It transitions from a mediocre love song to a heart wrenching melody. The song could have remained in somewhat basic state, but it goes a step further. This is thanks to the masterful vocals of Demis Roussos. The song goes to such an ethereal level when Demis croons those beginning lyrics of the bridge. It’s no wonder this was such a hit.

“Marie Jolie”—can be described as one of the best love songs I’ve ever heard. Again, Roussos vocals transport the listener to a celestial level. It seems like his heart and soul were put into every word he sings, which makes the lyrics so intense. Roussos’s vocals add a profundity to the otherwise simple lyrics. My favorite lyric from the song is ‘Love is everywhere you are’ because Demis presents it so powerfully. Every time I hear this song it gives me chills and I find myself swaying to the soft combination of Demis’ voice and the graceful percussion provided by Lucas Sideras.

“The Four Horsemen”—is the perfect song to get in the Halloween spirit. With an electrifying guitar solo and haunting vocals and lyrics, this is one cool and timeless song. The song —and the entire album—refers to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death—referenced in the Book of Revelation. The lyrics are quoting from the scripture itself, adding to the eeriness of the song. You’ll feel like your in the end times listening to this song, but in the grooviest way possible.

Aphrodite’s Child has so much to offer and I am so happy to have been shown their music. A huge thank you to all the talented people that worked on any of their albums. Aphrodite’s Child’ will live on forever and ever.

A special thank you to Vangelismovements.com for providing such detailed information about the band.

Lucid Planet to Issue Their Second Album on Vinyl

Lucid Planet - IIYou may remember way back in January when we reviewed Australian band Lucid Planet’s sophomore album. It’s a great album, and now it will be coming to vinyl on November 5. Pre-orders are open now. With beautifully detailed album artwork, the large record sleeve will look great. A real eye-catcher. 

The band also has some promotions going as part of the pre-order campaign. Check those out at their newsletter: https://mailchi.mp/097491d28ead/october-2021-update-lucid-planet-ii-is-coming-to-vinyl?e=aaaffa1bc4. You can sign up for their newsletter at the bottom of the home page on their website: https://lucidplanet.net

You can order the vinyl from their store: https://lucidplanet.net/shop/itemdisplay/41.

Sunday Jazz – Benjamin Croft’s “Far and Distant Things”

Benjamin Croft Far and Distant ThingsBenjamin Croft, Far and Distant Things, Ubuntu Music, 2021
Tracks: Overture (1:13), Far and Distant Things (6:13), Brock (4:47), S.A.D. (Spatial Awareness Disease) (6:21). Tudor Job Agency (6:25), S&R Video (5:07), The War Against Loudness (6:17), How Not To Win The Nobel Peace Prize (6:17), Than You, That’s What I Wanted To Know… (5:35), St Gandalf’s (1:55), The Cashectomy (6:25)

I don’t listen to as much jazz as I should, probably because it is such a diverse genre that I barely know where to begin. I’ve always enjoyed jazz music in live settings. I think the genre excels when played live because it is a highly experimental genre, allowing room for improvisation. When I was in college I loved attending the concerts put on by the faculty jazz band. They were always so much fun. I think I enjoy jazz for some of the same reasons I enjoy progressive rock, which obviously is heavily influenced by jazz. At its most basic, the technical musicality in jazz keeps me interested. 

UK musician Benjamin Croft’s Far and Distant Things has been such an enjoyable CD to listen to over the past month and a half. Croft wrote and arranged all the tracks on the album, and he also played all of the keyboards. In addition to Steinway and Yamaha grand pianos, Croft plays a whole list of various synthesizers and keyboards, thus bringing in a bit of a prog texture to his jazz record. Perhaps those elements are why he sent us his CD for review, but regardless of why, this is an excellent album. At any rate, the artwork is certainly prog, featuring cover art (and other artwork on the CD and in the packaging) by Hugh Syme. 

Beyond Croft on keyboards, the songs have a revolving cast of characters, with Tristan Mailliot or Laurie Lowe playing drums on most of the tracks, except for “St. Gandalf’s,” which features Chad Wackerman. Flo Moore and Henry Thomas share bass guitar duties on the record. Guitars and on the album are played by a few guests, as are the wind instruments. Garthe Lockrane’s flutes on “Overture” and “Brock” are really quite something. It brings in that element of classic progressive rock as well as a fresh classical texture.

As is typical in jazz, there’s a lot of soloing on each track – keyboards, guitar, bass, trumpets, flute. Not each one of those on every track, but you get my meaning. The playing is smooth and easy to absorb. Some jazz can be overpowering, but Far and Distant Things sets you right at ease. The drumming and bass create a smooth yet complex rhythm throughout the entire album. The interplay between piano, keyboards, and the various wind instruments is quite pleasant. 

“How Not To Win The Nobel Peace Prize” is an interesting piece in the way it shifts over the course of the track. It starts off as a more typical jazz song before speeding up and morphing at the end of the song into more experimental territory before fading out. It’s a shame it fades out, because I wanted to hear where they were going. The title of the track, along with others on the album, hints at a bit of sarcasm, which I can always appreciate. 

Benjamin Croft – Far and Distant Things Music Video – YouTube

There are some rock moments on the record. “Far and Distant Things,” featuring Frank Gambale on electric guitar, is perhaps more rock than it is jazz, especially when you take the synths into account. “Tudor Job Agency” has its jazz moments, but the guitar, played by Barry Finnerty, has a Clapton-esque vibe to it. There is also a passage of some incredibly fast drum beats that add a rock element to the song.

Give Benjamin Croft’s Far and Distant Things a listen for a laid back Sunday afternoon or evening. Or for any day of the week. The music is exceptionally well-written and equally well-performed. It brings me back to simpler times when I could enjoy a live jazz show without worrying about… well all the things we seem to worry about these days. This instrumental album will take you a world away, if only for an hour. 

https://www.benjamincroftmusic.com
Spotify

Bantamweight – The Prog Metal Find of the Summer

Bantamweight_Sounds+HapticsBantamweight, Sounds + Haptics, June 19, 2021
Tracks: Contact (4:17), Apparition (1:15), Hellion (5:12), Phoenix (2:04), The Weight (5:39), Interim (4:22), Terminus (1:15), Fall Away (4:55)

Prepare to be blown away by the best half hour of progressive metal you’ll hear this year. Los Angeles-based duo Bantamweight released their sophomore record, Sounds + Haptics, back in June, and it absolutely slays. My apologies to the band for not reviewing it sooner – it’s been a busy summer with my vacation time from my regular job spent doing another job. 

I went back and checked out Bantamweight’s first release, 2019’s EP Fear, and it’s far more atmospheric. It’s still quite good, but it doesn’t have the progressive metal complexity, heaviness, and drive that Sounds + Haptics has. Nevertheless that first release has a lot of interesting synth elements and thick bass tones, which the duo have retained in the big step forward they’ve taken with their second release. With Sounds + Haptics, the band have firmly placed themselves in the halls of contemporary progressive metal. I hear elements of Haken, Pain of Salvation, Leprous, Caligula’s Horse, and the Devin Townsend “wall of sound” effect. With that said, Bantamweight make their own sound in a way that only a metal band made up of a drummer and bassist could. 

Yes, that’s right – only drums, bass, and the synths/keyboards both members play. Max Kelly plays drums and keyboards (at the same time!) and Keith Shacklett slays on bass, vocals, and keyboards. Watch one of their music videos or live videos (see below) and be amazed. When playing live, Kelly plays the drums with his right hand and feet while he plays complex keyboard riffs with his left hand. That’s absolutely insane, and he does it all with more skill than most drummers or keyboardists have. Shacklett has a huge gritty bass tone that more than makes up for the lack of electric guitar. His playing style can be compared to someone like Connor Green (Haken), but the role his bass plays in the music is more comparable to Mariusz Duda from Riverside. His voice is perfect for this kind of metal. It has the grit needed in distorted moments, but the mid-range cleans keep their music from becoming overly aggressive. 

“Hellion” – YouTube

On this short record, each of the longer, heavier songs is spaced out by shorter instrumental tracks that highlight their more atmospheric edge (except for “The Weight” and “Interim,” which are back to back). These tracks tie all of the songs together, helping it all to sound like one longer epic track. Those synth sounds, which also appear on their longer songs, give their music a fuller sound reminiscent of Riverside or Devin Townsend. But again, they sound like themselves. The syncopated drumming, complex bass riffing, and Shacklett’s distinct voice bring Bantamweight to impressive heights. 

“The Weight” is probably my favorite track on the record. I can’t help but headbang to that heavy drumming. With that wonderful mixture of synths, drums, bass, and vocals, I don’t miss the lack of lead guitars. I love the way the song goes from heavy to calm in parallel passages.

“Hellion” and “Fall Away” are two more standout tracks, with musical complexity and catchy choruses abounding. In a nice handwritten note Max Kelly sent me along with the CD the band sent me, he noted that “Fall Away” has over 400 layers in the mix. That’s a Devin Townsend-level of dedication, and also where DT gets his “wall of sound” effect. And much like Hevy Devy, these guys can also play all of that live through the use of multiple synthesizers and sample pads. Most impressive. 

“The Weight” – Youtube

I honestly can’t recommend Bantamweight highly enough. Sounds + Haptics is fantastic. It pulls far above its weight. The band name is fitting since there’s only two members of the band, yet they create a sound that larger bands have taken years to perfect. This is the prog metal album of the summer for me. Even though the band’s influences are clear, their sound ends up being totally unique because of the core drum and bass sounds. These guys could hold their own in a music festival featuring the top names in progressive metal. Record labels take note – Bantamweight could (and should) be the next best thing in prog metal. I can’t wait to hear what’s next. 


As a side note, the album is name your own price for a digital download on Bandcamp, so you’ve got no excuse to not check them out: https://bantamweightofficial.bandcamp.com/album/sounds-haptics. They also have CDs for sale on Bandcamp.

https://bantamweight.band

Sounds + Haptics Live – Full Album – Youtube

 

Take A Trip With Evership – “The Uncrowned King: Act 1”

Evership, The Uncrowned King: Act 1, 2021

  1. The Pilgrimage: I. Desert of Facts, II. The Temple of Truth, III. The Quiet Room (10:38)
  2. The Voice of the Waves (3:08)
  3. Crownshine/Allthetime (10:51)
  4. The Tower (9:48)
  5. The Voice of the Evening Wind (4:24)
  6. Yettocome/itmightbe (16:42)
  7. Wait (5:13)

Nashville-based prog outfit Evership is the brainchild of Shane Atkinson, a musician with a background in Contemporary Christian Music dating back to the 1980s. It’s too bad CCM today doesn’t sound more like Evership’s music, because this group combines some of the best elements of the various eras of progressive rock. Atkinson has also been active in music for films, commercials, and theater, but he left the music industry years ago for the more stable world of software development after the birth of his first child. In 2005 he quit that and began his own music production company, with the goal of funding future albums. That future is here, with three Evership albums since the first was released in 2016.

The latest Evership album, The Uncrowned King: Act 1, is based off the 1910 book of the same name by Harold Bell Wright, a bestselling American author in the early twentieth century. This album only tells part of the story, so be on the lookout for Act 2.

The music displays myriad influences, including 1970s prog, 80s synth rock, and the production values of today. The drums, which Shane plays himself, have a bit of the 80s sound, and some of the guitars, played by James Atkinson and John Rose, have an 80s Yes sound. The keyboards (played by Shane) often have a Rick Wakeman-esque flair, giving the album a strong Yes influence. The frequent use of piano reminds me of some of the better moments of CCM over the last thirty years, but I’ve spent my whole life going to churches that play CCM (of varying quality), so this may not mean much to most of our readers.

Beau West’s vocals elevate the story to the next level with a beautiful tone and range that befits the story. He really shines on “Yettocome/itmightbe,” which is a reflective song that focuses on the vocals with calm piano, synths, bass, and appropriate drumming.

The concept is rather compelling, with the whole musical and lyrical tapestry reminding me a bit of the Neal Morse Band. With three tracks over 10 minutes (one of them almost 17 minutes), you could say this is all rather epic. The length of the tracks gives the music and story room to breathe and develop. The musicianship itself is stellar. Ben Young’s bass provides a nice low end to what is a somewhat ethereal-sounding album. It’s definitely a rock album, but it’s more on the symphonic prog side of things. The guitar solos soar, and the drumming fits the mood at every moment. Simply put, the music helps tell the story.

There’s a touch of musical theater with tracks like “Wait,” again reminds me of the Neal Morse Band or even Ayreon. Vocal harmonies are used sparingly throughout to add extra depth to the music. These help provide that lovely prog aesthetic that’s becoming rather prominent with some bands in the genre. I hope Evership make even more use of it on Act 2.

All in all, The Uncrowned King: Act 1 is a wonderful album. It’s so nice to hear music like this being made by an American band. I wouldn’t be surprised if Evership will have a wider listening audience in Europe than here in America, but I certainly would enjoy hearing their music live.

http://evership.com/index.html
https://www.facebook.com/evershipband

The Neal Morse Band’s Randy George: The Progarchy Interview

The Neal Morse Band, Innocence & DangerInside Out Music, August 27, 2021
Tracks: 
CD 1: 1. Do It All Again (08:55) 2. Bird On A Wire (07:22) 3. Your Place In The Sun (04:12) 4. Another Story To Tell (04:50) 5. The Way It Had To Be (07:14) 6. Emergence (03:12) 7. Not Afraid Pt 1 (04:53) 8. Bridge Over Troubled Water (08:08)
CD2: 9. Not Afraid Pt 2 (19:32) 10.Beyond The Years (31:22)

Last week I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Randy George from the Neal Morse Band about their upcoming album, Innocence & Danger. What an album! After back-to-back double concept albums, the band decided to make an album of independent songs. It’s still a double album, but it’s very digestible.

Innocence & Danger has quickly risen to one of my favorite albums of the year, and Randy George’s brilliant bass playing has a lot to do with that. His bass is more prominent in the mix, and it really shines opposite Mike Portnoy’s drums in the rhythm section. I think Neal Morse’s vocals also deserve a mention as they are the best they have sounded in years. Maybe that’s due to a lack of touring over the past year+, but he (and everyone else) sound great. The vocal harmonies are turned up to the max, and the prog is in full force. But don’t be surprised if you hear a few other surprise elements in the music – something we talk a bit about in the interview below. Oh, and “Beyond the Years,” the album’s 31-minute epic, may be the best long song I’ve heard from Neal Morse and company.

This interview was conducted on July 21, 2021 via Zoom. There was quite a bit of scratchiness in the Zoom audio, so I’ve decided to spare you that and just give you the transcript, which was edited lightly for readability. The interview is pretty wide ranging. We start with an update on the last year and a half for Randy before we go into a deep dive of the album. Then we discuss some of Randy’s influences as a musician before we talk a bit about the history of prog, it’s place in the music world, and how the future will look back on their music. 

NealMorseBand_2

Bryan: Thanks for joining me here for Progarchy. I really appreciate you taking the time.

Randy: Yeah! Happy to do it.

Bryan: It’s been tough career-wise for musicians without being able to tour. How’ve you been in that regard?

Randy: Well, you know, I guess we’re all feeling it to some degree. I guess as a function of where I live it hasn’t really been that bad. We had done that Cover to Cover 3 CD, and it was wrapped and delivered to the label before the pandemic hit. There were some videos that needed to be [made]. We wanted to do videos, so there were a few videos, and I did a couple of those. And then Neal [Morse] did Sola Gratia. I recorded that and then we did videos for that. Then we did Morsefest in September, and my wife and I have been playing locally since September, pretty much twice a month or three times a month ever since last September.

In a lot of ways, yeah we had to wear masks a little more during the time, but for the most part we kept busy. We felt it most right at the beginning. Everybody was sort of freaked out, got shut down March through July or whatever. Then people started to open up a bit. So initially everyone was a little bit like, wow, there’s nowhere to go. But we both work from home. We really didn’t travel outside very much. We’re here on our own little plot. Plenty to keep us busy here. But yeah I watched it from a distance. I’m sure for some people it was really hard, and it sucks that it had to happen like that. I look forward to the end.

Bryan: Yeah I think everybody does. Morsefest was one of the first – definitely one of the biggest in the prog world of concerts that came back in person. That was kind of exciting because it was a glimmer of hope after so many months of nothing at all live-wise.

Randy: People will always find a way.

Bryan: Yeah exactly. I’ve had a chance to listen to Innocence and Danger a little bit over the last couple of days. It’s a fantastic album. It feels like a little bit of a different direction, especially after the last two concept albums. Can you tell me about how the album came together?

Randy: Well, the whole thing – we were going to start working on Innocence & Danger way back in the beginning of 2020. We initially signed a record deal with Inside Out. Then the pandemic hit. Mike [Portnoy] was really busy with Sons of Apollo, and we didn’t really have any clear cut date in mind that we could get together and do this. So quite honestly between signing the deal and getting in the studio to do this, it was more than a year. We did in January come together at Neal’s house and wrote the whole thing in about twelve days and tracked the drums and took it home and developed it over the next couple months, and Rich [Mouser] mixed it.

We went into it not having a lot of pre-written material. Neal didn’t have anything. Bill [Hubauer] and I both brought recorded ideas that were predominantly raw ideas that could be developed rather than finished demos that already had a lot of development to them. The Neal Morse Band tends to – no matter what you bring in, they want to redo it. So we kind of, it’s easier to bring in ideas that they can all sort of get their head into and write with. Some of it is much easier to do that, between Bill and I and Eric [Gillette], we have plenty of musical stuff. Neal, of course, he may not have come in with anything, but he gets up early in the morning and he’ll start writing and work on ideas then we end up working on them the same day or the next day. So Neal does actually write a fair amount of stuff. He just doesn’t always go into the session with all of it prepared, unless it’s a concept thing were he has an idea. We knew this wasn’t going to be another concept album. We just wanted to do an album of songs. We felt it was the right time for that.

Continue reading “The Neal Morse Band’s Randy George: The Progarchy Interview”

Big Big Train’s “Common Ground” – Album of the Year?

big big train common groundBig Big Train, Common Ground, July 30, 2021
Tracks: The Strangest Times (5:08), All The Love We Can Give (8:06), Black With Ink (7:23), Dandelion Clock (4:14), Headwaters (2:27), Apollo (7:50), Common Ground (4:54), Atlantic Cable (15:06), Endnotes (6:59)

I love writing about Big Big Train. In fact, they’re one of the reasons I was drawn into reviewing progressive rock on a more regular basis. They are also one of the reasons this website was founded back in 2012. Our founders understood that Big Big Train wasn’t your ordinary rock band, and the band deserved a more intellectual approach to reviews. I don’t know if I’ve been able to live up to the standard Dr. Brad Birzer set for us, but I try my best. Big Big Train makes it easier by providing such solid material to write about. Common Ground is no different. In fact it may be the best album they have released since I began writing for Progarchy. It is certainly the best record released thus far in 2021.

Common Ground gets off to a rousing start in the best way possible. I’ve never enjoyed the opening of a Big Big Train album this much. While I don’t dislike Big Big Train’s more mainstream pop-like tracks (“Make Some Noise,” “Folklore,” “Wassail”), they aren’t my favorite in the band’s catalog. While “The Strangest Times” might fall into that aspect of the band’s repertoire, I absolutely love this. The piano at the beginning is so bright and upbeat, reminding me a bit of some of the more popular artists the band site as influences on this record. However I think it reminds me more of the band’s work back in the days of English Electric. The guitar work is phenomenal, proving right away that even though brilliant guitarist Dave Gregory may have left the group, the group haven’t abandoned the unique sound he brought to the table. I imagine lots of credit should go to Rikard Sjöblom for maintaining that tone. 

https://youtu.be/i35_HcKjR18

Nick D’Virgilio absolutely hits a home run with his lead vocal sections on “All the Love We Can Give.” I was hoping we would get to hear more of his vocals on this record, and we do. Of course there is also his brilliant drumming throughout the album, which we probably take for granted at this point. This song has some blistering instrumental passages with heavy guitars and some face melting Hammond keyboards. We also get to hear a different side to David Longdon’s glorious voice, featuring the lower end of his register. The vocal harmonies at points in the song remind me of Gentle Giant and the Neal Morse Band, although this is nothing new for Big Big Train. They seem to have utilized it a bit more though throughout Common Ground than they have in the past.

As a matter of fact, the next track, “Black With Ink,” allows that to shine. We get a lead vocal from Rikard, Nick, and Carly Bryant, who joined the band for live shows, providing backing (and apparently lead) vocals, keyboards, and guitars. It’s a nice touch that the band included her on the recording, as well as Dave Foster (guitars on two tracks) and Aidan O’Rourke on violin throughout the record. 

Lyrically “Black With Ink” is somewhat close to my heart, since Greg Spawton was influenced by a trip to a museum (I work in the collections department of a history museum). After a BBT show in Birmingham, England, in 2019, Greg visited the local art museum and saw a label about the history of the collection, which suffered from a bombing raid during World War II. Spawton talks more about that song at the official Big Big Train blog for the album, but in summary it grew out of a frustration with the destruction of knowledge (book burning, destroying art, etc.). The song specifically looks at the destruction (many centuries and millennia ago) of texts at libraries in Alexandria and Baghdad. 

On the other side of the lyrical spectrum, Longdon keeps the band grounded in the present. “The Strangest Times” and “Common Ground” are influenced by the insanity the world has been going through over the last year and a half. In a recent interview, Longdon admitted to Progarchy’s Rick Krueger recently that he cannot wait for these lyrics to no longer be relevant, since we are all sick of quarantines, lockdowns, and other assorted nonsense. 

“Apollo” is an almost eight-minute-long instrumental track, and it is glorious. The song was contributed by Nick, and it grew out of material he had created at his day job at Sweetwater, a music gear retailer and production studio in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He describes this track as Big Big Train’s “Los Endos,” which I believe they achieved. It’s a beautiful song, and I can see them either closing a first set or closing a live show with it before an encore. The inclusion of Longdon’s flute was a really nice touch, which will most definitely be a hit live. It’s pure BBT, brass band and all. 

https://youtu.be/88HHhbD1vFE

“Atlantic Cable” has all the grandiosity of “East Coast Racer.” I don’t think I have enjoyed a Big Big Train song this much since ECR. Spawton’s booming bass is at Squire-esque levels of brilliance. The interplay of the guitars, violin when it is used, the myriad voices, the long instrumental passages – this is Big Big Train’s “sound” at its absolute finest. I hope when they play it live, they extend that guitar solo as it peaks toward the end.

Lyrically the track tells the story of laying the first telegraph cable across the Atlantic, formally linking the old world with the new. This song is much grander than that story, though. The story serves as a metaphor representing the commonality we all share, which supports the overall theme of the album. The track has calmer passages, but it still has the hard rocking sections that feature on the rest of the record and also hearken back to The Underfall Yard and English Electric

A song about laying a steel cable across the ocean floor was never going to be a pastoral piece of music. It needed some stormy moments, some grandeur. And it needed to be long enough to tell an epic tale. 
Greg Spawton

The video the band shared for this song in the blog for the album is hilarious. It’s a video of Nick trying to figure out how to play the complicated time signatures. It was only a matter of time before the expletives were directed at Greg (all in good humor, of course), but it’s quite entertaining. It also goes to show how technically complicated this music is and how good these musicians are that they can (eventually) play it.

The Dave Desmond brass band shines bright as ever on “Endnotes,” the final track. The hint of violin reminds us of where the band has been, but in a more subdued light.

The pastoral elements and folk elements in the band’s arsenal are pulled back throughout Common Ground in favor of a heavier rock sound, but it’s undeniably Big Big Train. It’s exactly what I wanted from the band moving forward. I never complained about the pastoral direction the band moved into because I enjoyed it, but I’ll admit that I was beginning to miss certain elements that were more prevalent on The Underfall Yard and English Electric. I don’t think any of us wanted them to start copying themselves, though. Instead they have progressed into slightly different waters, pulling together all of those elements into a truly astounding whole. The hard rock, the atmosphere added by the violin and Longdon’s flute, and those stunning vocal harmonies create a pure sound. 

Existing fans will almost assuredly love Common Ground. If you are new to Big Big Train, then this is as good a place to start as any. The album displays everything the band does so well.

Thanks Big Big Train. You’ve made a crappy year a little brighter. 

https://www.bigbigtrain.com
https://www.bigbigtrain.com/common-ground/
Album out July 30, 2021.

https://youtu.be/wIQnhCcI4gA

 

Album Review – The Catch – Excuses For Kings

The Catch Excuses For KingsThe Catch, Excuses For Kings, 2021
Tracks:
Daedalus And The Angel (3:14), Circus (3:19), Riches To Rags (6:03), Real Love In The Modern World (2:55), What In The World (3:59), Leviathan (7:49), Find Another Way (5:10), Excuses For Kings (8:05), Last One To Leave (2:01)

First off, I’ve been sitting on the debut album from UK band The Catch for too long, so my sincere apologies to the band, who graciously sent me their CD Excuses For Kings for review quite a while ago. I have been listening to and enjoying it ever since I received it. It has an aesthetic that reminds me of some of the music on the Bad Elephant Music label or music from Cosmograf (Robin Armstrong) and his new label, Gravity Dream Music. The vocals even remind me of Progarchy’s very own Dave Bandana. 

The music might best be described as a combination of the dominant progressive sounds of both the 1970s and the 1980s. There are synth overtones, but the electric guitar plays a primary role along with upbeat drums playing a steady rock rhythm. The band is a two person group made up of singer-songwriter Robert Williams and guitarist Donovan Baine.

Williams provides vocals, guitars, bass, and programming – presumably synths and drums. If the drums really are all programmed, then they are some of the better sounding programmed drums I’ve heard in a while. I’m not usually a big fan of programmed drums, but these didn’t stick out to me at all. They have a natural sound. With that said, I’ll always encourage a band to find a real drummer if at all possible. 

The combination of prog technicality with excellent songwriting make this an enjoyable record on repeated listens. The lyrics are dense, telling a stories that reflect on our crumbling society. Williams packs a lot into each song, and he often (but not always) sings rather rapidly, so there will always be more to uncover on repeated listens. Perusing the lyrics in the booklet will help in that regard. 

Real love in the modern world
Freedom from the cursed career of Albion
To live in the mortal realm
To feel the air and bless the ground we walk upon

An on, moving into the sun, seekers of the permanent one

 – “Real Love In The Modern World”

https://youtu.be/lWBenn7ECDY

The highly poetic lyrics are not only well-written, but they are also rather profound. There is a lot of religious, historical, and mythological imagery. We’re forced to consider how we think we’ve come so far, when in reality we’ve fallen from great heights:

Once we ferried stone
From Memphis to Cairo
Now we sit in traffic instead
Moving by stars and trash spewed from cars
Strewn up and down this highway tonight

– “Excuses For Kings”

This is just a taste of what you can expect in the musical and lyrical journey in Excuses For Kings. The fast-paced music whisks the listener away on this voyage, with upbeat rhythms and smooth guitars keeping your interest along the way. It’s a enjoyable listen from start to finish, and I highly recommend you check it out. 

The best place to buy the record is from their website, where you can buy a CD-quality download or pick up the CD. The CD comes in a nice digipack with a bit of a mystical album cover showing ancient or medieval ruins morphing into the horrid-looking high-rise condos that desecrate modern cities. The disc also comes with a booklet featuring all the lyrics.

https://the-catch-music.com/home
https://www.facebook.com/TheCatchProg/

https://youtu.be/KpXWYlw82Xc

Album Review – The Rebel Wheel’s “Simple Machines”

The Rebel Wheel - Simple MachinesThe Rebel Wheel, Simple Machines, November 11, 2020
Tracks: 
Pulley (4:06), Hammer (5:21), Inclined Plane (4:48), Screw (5:40), Fulcrum (4:36), Switch (5:19), Wheelsuitewheel (11:37)

I’ve been sitting on the promo CD for Ottawa, Ontario band The Rebel Wheel’s latest album, Simple Machines, for a while, although I’ve been listening to it a fair amount. The album has been a pleasant surprise for me. I’ve enjoyed it every time I’ve listened to it. The Canadian three-piece is comprised of Andrew Burns (bass, keyboards, vocals, producer), David Campbell (guitars, keyboards, vocals), and Alex Wickham (drums, keyboards, vocals).

While The Rebel Wheel have several albums and several decades under their belt, Simple Machines finds them making a few changes, with every band member contributing to the writing and a different band member producing it compared to past records. Their overall sound is hard to pin down, as it is rather varied. I think Primus must be a major influence for Andrew Burns, who produced the record. Skimming through their discography on Bandcamp, I definitely recognize some similar musical ideas, but a Primus influence sounds much more prominent on Simple Machines. I hear this in some of the vocals, particularly on “Inclined Plane” and “Wheelsuitewheel,” as well as in the funk-influenced brand of metal on the album. That influence is present in the music and vocals, but not in the lyrics, which are rather simple in their construction, yet still deep with meaning. Not surprisingly I also hear a Discipline-era King Crimson influence in the guitars and bass.

With those two prominent influences there is still plenty of room for innovation. Some of the music almost approaches metal, if we’re going to call what Primus does a kind of metal. But it’s probably more accurate to call The Rebel Wheel progressive rock with heavy a jazz influence. The drums are distinctly jazzy. The bass drives the songs with guitars adding the flourishes and the keyboards filling the soundscape. There are experimental moments too, such as on the eleven and a half minute-long final track.

Even though I’ve made the connections to both Primus and King Crimson, the resulting record sounds quite unique and fresh. A King Crimson influence might be common enough in the prog world (I mean, who hasn’t been influenced by them to at least some degree), but Primus not so much. With the more progressive synth sounds, the record takes on its own life. The vocal harmonies add a nice touch. There’s even some blisteringly heavy guitar at points that remind me of Rush, but I’ll leave that to you to find those moments in the album.

I highly recommend The Rebel Wheel and their latest album. It’s a welcome departure from the Neo-prog territory common amongst most straightforward “prog” bands today. It’s got a crunch and a pleasant quirkiness that doesn’t blend into a symphonic backdrop. It grabs your attention. You won’t find too many other bands making music that sounds quite like this.

https://www.facebook.com/TheRebelWheel/
https://therebelwheel.bandcamp.com/album/simple-machines