60 Years, Twelve Albums, One Man’s Favorites

(us.fotolia.com | Zarya Maxim)
(us.fotolia.com | Zarya Maxim)

I began writing this post several months ago, in January, carried along on the brief rush of excitement that comes with a new year. “2015! How about noting a bunch of anniversaries of great albums?” And, in fact, one of the great strengths of Progarchy.com is the sense of music history and the awareness of anniversaries: “Forty year ago….thirty years ago….twenty-five years ago…twenty years ago…”, as opposed to the dominant model out there, which is “Forty minutes ago…thirty seconds ago…twenty tweets ago…” But then life overwhelmed me and the burst of focused energy dissipated for a while. Now it’s back. Best strike while the vinyl is hot—or something along those lines.

The idea here is very simple: I listen to hundreds of new albums every year, along with hundreds of older albums that I come back to for various reasons; but how much of that music has real staying power? And what, in the end, makes a person return repeatedly to This Album rather than That Album? Sure, of course it is because of impeccable taste and a rare instinct for timeless music. (Duh.) But there is a wonderful mystery to it all, for so much of what resonates in a particular album comes from accidental things: the time, the place, the event, the moment. Certain songs bring back great memories; certain songs make you want to jump off a cliff (yes, I’m looking at you, Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical”).

But it isn’t simply a matter of nostalgia, which can only go so far; it is, I hope, more often a matter of discovery, of hearing something new—or, in some cases, hearing something old and suddenly hearing it. Really hearing it.

My criteria is this: what albums from 60, 50, 40, 30, 25, 20, and 10 years ago do I still listen to now on a regular basis? And never tire of hearing? And why? With that, here goes!

sinatra_torme1955: In the Wee Small Hours by Frank Sinatra and It’s a Blue World by Mel Tormé. I was not raised on Sinatra’s music; quite the contrary—I was raised on decent hymns and mediocre to rotten “Christian” music; I hardly paid attention to Top 40 pop and rock until I was in junior high. And I didn’t really listen to Sinatra or Tormé until a dozen years ago. Prior to that, I simply didn’t “get it”. Then I did. Why? I’m not sure. But since then, I’ve collected some 1300 Sinatra songs. The Chairman of the Board produced many classic albums, but this one is my personal favorite: dark, lush, aching, beautiful, gut-wrenching, perfect. I sometimes fall to sleep listening to it, especially when it’s 2:00 in the morning and I’m wide awake. Sinatra had the rare gift of making you, the listener, believe The Voice was singing only to and for you. It’s impossible to describe; it simply has to be heard and experienced. And don’t forget: Sinatra is the God Father of Prog. Really. Sinatra, by the way, was born a hundred years ago this year.

Tormé did not have the edge or darkness of Sinatra, nor did he ever plumb the depths of emotional despair as did  the legend ten years his senior. But Tormé had range, talent, and genius to burn, not just as one of the greatest vocalists of the 20th century, but also as an accomplished songsmith (he penned 250 songs or so), fabulous arranger, top-notch drummer (and decent pianist), novelist, biographer, author, actor, screen writer, consummate showman, and collector (guns, cars, movies, etc.). It’s a Blue World is a lush, impeccable set of songs, likely influenced by Sinatra’s Wee Small Hours. While Sinatra packs an emotional punch, Tormé thrills with pure beauty and dazzling musicality, all delivered with an effortless ease that reminds me of watching Roger Federer play tennis at Wimbledon. Bing Crosby, asked late in life to name his favorite musicians, named only one vocalist–Tormé–saying, “Any singer that goes to hear this guy sing has got to go and cut his throat.” For a taste, check out Tormé singing Duke Ellington’s “I’ve Got It Bad, And That Ain’t Good”. Continue reading “60 Years, Twelve Albums, One Man’s Favorites”

The Highlands are Alive with the Sound of NAO

North-Atlantic-Oscillation

A review of North Atlantic Oscillation, The Third Day (Kscope; October 2014).

Tracks: Great Plains II; Elsewhere; August; A Nice Little Place; Penrose; Do Something Useful; Wires; Pines of Eden; Dust; and When to Stop.

NAO: Sam Healy (lead vocals, guitar, and keyboards; Ben Martin (drums); and Chris Howard (bass).  The Third Day mixed by Sam Healy.  Artwork by Ross Macrae and Brendan McCarthy.

Highest recommendation.

***

What do you do with a problem like Sam Healy? Queue image of an Irishman-turned-Scotsman dancing around a high mountain top. Oh, and did I mention, he’s really, really smart? That is, really, really smart. Or, did I mention this already?

Of the many joys of editing progarchy for the past two years, one of the greatest has been getting to know a whole slew of truly creative, interesting, serious, perfectionist artists. Of those who reside at the very top of the top—at least in this editor’s not so humble opinion—sits Healy, dressed as an Austrian nun or not. His correspondence reveals that Sam always has that twinkle, that spark in his eye and soul. Though, he doesn’t believe in the latter, it’s there in abundance.

When I received a review copy of The Third Day, North Atlantic Oscillation’s latest aural ecstasy, I scratched my head, a little confused. This isn’t the first time I’ve been a bit perplexed by NAO’s music. When I first received a copy of the band’s second album, Fog Electric, I set it aside for a while as I just didn’t understand what it was trying to accomplish. When I picked it up again, months after its release, I realized how brilliant it was. It hit me over the head, truly a Eureka! moment. For some reason, it just took some time and several listens “to get it.” Now that “I get it,” I regard it as one of the finest albums I’ve heard in my almost four decades of listening to rock music.

This wasn’t the case, for whatever reason, when I first listened to NAO’s Grappling Hooks. That first album by the band grabbed me from the opening moments. I found it as enticing as possibly imaginable. What attracted me most to Grappling Hooks was the way in which Healy’s voice matched the music—and the music, Healy’s voice—so perfectly. The vocals sound like some of the best of early rock—the rock of my mom’s generation, the late 1950s—but mixed with the complicated and layered sonic delights made possible only by the most modern production and engineering. And, certainly, the unique quality of Sam’s ear. Well, the two of them.

Of course, there’s always the flow of the music as well. This matters for any band and any album, but none more so than for NAO. The secret to each of the band’s albums is figuring out the flow of the thing. Why did the band place this song next to this song? Or that song next to that song? Sometimes—in fact, quite often—NAO loves throwing in a curve ball, especially when the music pretends to change tracks. When you look at the chronometer, though, you quickly realize what you thought to be a track change was merely (and, by merely, I mean with genius) a shift in time signature or in the mood of a single piece. How often has it happened that I’ve looked down to see what the “new track” is called only to see the track information indicating there is still two or three minutes left of the piece you had thought had already flown by.

As evidence for the deep mystery and flow of each NAO album, simply check out the album cover of the forthcoming The Third Day.

NAO, The Third Day (Kscope, 2014).
NAO, The Third Day (Kscope, 2014).

What’s going on here? Pagan, zodiac, Plotinian, and Christian symbols intermixed (intermixing?) on some kind of biotechnology. Layers, of course, but with the infinite loop pointing us toward . . . well, whatever is beyond infinity. Only Buzz Lightyear and William Shatner really know. Under the DaVinci-esque biotech sundial doobob is a flat, Jonathan Ive type computer chip. Add in Hugh Syme-like characters and fonts from the previous two Rush albums, and you might—just maybe—start to understand the convoluted riddle that is a NAO album. I’m getting a bit dizzy just looking at the image.

Steady, Birzer, steady.

Well, I must admit, I was even more perplexed by The Third Day than by Fog Electric. I wanted so badly to like it when the review copy landed in my inbox. After all, I really like NAO and Sam. But, my reaction was somewhat muted. What was going on? It all sounded a bit “samey” to me (I’m having a hard time writing this now, as I’m laughing that it ever sounded “samey”; and, by the way is “samey” even a word?). As with Fog Electric, The Third Day took about a month and a number of listens for me to absorb. Now, though, I think I “get it.” In fact, it’s mind-bogglingly good.

Far from the neoterist “samey” the album is complex, musically as well as lyrically. It is brilliant, stunning, and glowing. While I like the entire album, tracks 6 through 10 are especially good. Far more than on the first two albums, NAO wears its influences a bit more openly on this album and especially with these last five songs. Elements of Radiohead and the Beatles emerge without trepidation. Whereas I thought Anathema almost mimicked Radiohead on their latest release, NAO honors them on The Third Day. If anything, the homage paid to Radiohead and the Beatles only increases my respect for the complete honesty of Healy and co.

Well, I’ve gone on long enough. My summary—buy the album as soon as you possibly can. NAO is, unquestionably, one of the most important and most interesting bands on the current scene. Sam Healy and co. are the future of our beloved genre.

The beautiful, subtle flight of One Thousand Wings

Making my way through the November 2013 issue of Prog (#40) a couple of weeks ago—it takes a while for it to swim across the Pond and trudge through the heartlands to the West Coast—I came upon a short review of the album, “White Moth Black Butterfly” (WMBB henceforth), from the group One Thousand Wings. I noted that the group was headed by ex-Tesseract vocalist Dan Tompkins, whose talents I discovered last year (Tesseract’s 2012 EP, “Perspective”), and then read that the reviewer believed WMBB to be “an absolutely essential work” and, in sum: “Experimental, accessible and quite brilliant, this ranks high among this year’s progressive releases.”onethousandwings_wmbb

Having now listened to WMBB a dozen times, I’d say the reviewer, if anything, undersells the brilliance of Tompkins’ album. And it is, really, Tompkin’s album, as he wrote nearly all the material, played most of the instruments, sang most of the vocals, and co-produced/mixed/edited as well. The One Thousand Wings Band Camp site tags WMBB with descriptives including ambient, cinematic, electronic, and experimental, and they indicate that while the album is “prog,” it is not guitar-driven, features nothing that resembles a solo, and is not really “rock” in any obvious way. While we tend to avoid needless labels here on Progarchy.com, I would suggest “ambient/folk electronica prog.” That aside, simply listen to the album on the Band Camp site.

Listening to WMBB, three other artists come to mind, the first two perhaps expected; the third likely not. Although Tompkins does not sound like Jeff Buckley, I would recommend to this album to Buckley fans, as Tompkins, first, has a tremendous and distinctive voice—clear, piercing, soothing, aching, lovely, strong, subtle, powerful—and, secondly, creates a distinct world, something Buckley did as well on “Grace” (one of my favorite albums, regardless of genre). I should note that the aforementioned  “Perspective” EP includes an impressive cover of Buckley’s “Dream Brother,” which can be viewed/heard on YouTube.

Secondly, there is a fleeting whisper of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke in the mix, specifically, his 2006 solo album, “The Eraser”. That album was far more abrupt and percussive and obviously electronica-ish than WmBB, but there are echoes (even if only in my head). But while “The Eraser” has a more overtly bristling and edgy quality, WMBB is guarded, like a candle fighting against an inevitable night. If Yorke is angry and sometimes snarling, Hopkins is wounded and searching; many of the songs might simply be described as “laments”. Finally—and this is strange—I’m reminded of George Michael. Much of that is due to vocals on songs such as “Equinox”, where Hopkins sounds just like Michael—at least a younger version (not the “Symphonica” version, from what I’ve heard). Take it for what it is!

Instrumentally, WMBB is a beautiful mixture of electronica and acoustic, with deep swells, rich textures, and subtle touches and details, usually in the form of tasteful acoustic guitar or ringing piano. As for lyrics, which is something I’m always interested in, it’s hard to tell as many of them are hard to make out. But the song titles—”Ties of Grace”, “Midnight Rivers”, “Certainty”, “Omen”, “Faith”, Paradise”—suggest some heavy duty rumination, perhaps just as much metaphysical as relational. Again, highly recommended!

Jazz phenom Eldar Djangirov performs Radiohead’s “Morning Bell”

The young pianist Eldar Djangirov (website) has already released several exceptional albums, featuring a wealth of stunning virtuosity and musicality. Dave Brubeck, who knew a thing or two about jazz piano, called him a “genius”, which gives you a sense of his talents. His early albums were sometimes criticized (and fairly so) for being heavy on flash and flair and light on interpretive depth and emotional resonance. But his work has matured with each release and I think his new album, “Breakthrough”, is his finest work yet. And I was pleasantly surprised to see that he took a page from the great Brad Mehldau and performs a Radiohead tune, the lovely “Morning Bell”. Here it is:

NME: 20 Facts about Radiohead’s Ok, Computer

ok-computerCan it really be 15 years? A whole 15 years since Hanson’s ‘Mmmbop’ was No.1? June 1997 was quite the month for seismic rock masterpieces chronicling our millennial woes and sticky fears, and Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’ was right there in the claustrophobic thick of it. To toast its birthday (16 June), here are 20 things you might not know about it.

To keep reading, click here.  Full article at NME by Matthew Horton.

Like Radiohead? Like jazz?

Then you don’t want to miss what I think is the best jazz album of Radiohead songs to be had: “Tribute to Radiohead” (2010) by Amnesiac Quartet. Don’t let the pedestrian title fool you: this is not muzak or some sort of cash-in project. Led by pianist Sebastien Paindestre, the French quartet also includes soprano saxophonist Fabrice Theuillon, bassist Joachim Florent, and drummer Antoine Paganotti. There are just five songs—”Everything in its Right Place”, “Morning Bell”, “A Wolf at the Door”, “Sail to the Moon”, “I Might Be Wrong”—but each is, I think, a perfect interpretation of the original tune, equally languid and intense.

Three things stand out. First, the use of soprano saxophone is inspired, as it has a yearning tone, occasionally agitated rhythm, and acrobatic runs that are very Thom Yorke-like (I don’t know that a tenor sax would have been nearly as effective). Secondly, the attention to detail is wonderful: the drums and bass present a whirling complexity and propulsive energy that constantly move and coil and dash around behind Theuillon’s wonderful lines, and the electric piano brings a welcome warmth to the proceedings. Finally, this is very much a band effort, focused on the songs, not simply using them as vehicles for solos. It succeeds fabulously. As John Barron notes in his AllAboutJazz.com review, “With a tight ensemble sound and exceptional soloing, Amnesiac Quartet maintains the inherent beauty heard in the music of Radiohead while tapping into seemingly unlimited potential for future improvisers interested in unique source material.” Here is the band in 2007, playing “I Might Be Wrong”:

Mini-review: Radiohead, “Kid A”

ImageRadiohead, Kid A (2000).  While I don’t worship at the altar of Radiohead or Thom Yorke, I very much appreciate them.  While Ok, Computer did a wonderful job of bringing a 1990s feel to 70s Alan Parsons and other proggish-bands of the mid 1970s, Kid A offered something radically new and mesmerizing in the world of music.  Intense lyrics about the problems of post modernity and scientism only add to the haunted and haunting quality of the album.  Though Ok, Computer has better moments, punctuating the imitative proginess of two decades earlier, Kid A has no flaws as it explores a fascinating new realm of bleak soundscapes.  The lyrics of Kid A, however, remain unimportant, ultimately, as Thom Yorke’s voice serves as another instrument on the album.  The producer, Nigel Godrich, deserves credit for being an equal member of the band.  The opening track, “Everything in its right place,” sums up the production, the album, and its place in history.  A masterpiece.

A Pilgrim’s Prog-ress

I balked for a few moments at the temptation of writing an indulgent, long, complex, and idiosyncratic post about my journey to and into prog, and then realized: hey, this is Progarchy.com! If I cannot string together tenuously-related, semi-mystical concepts and conceits imbued with mythical overtones, quasi-autobiographical meta-narratives, and intertwining (and purposely confusing) philosophical musings here, then what’s the point of this wonderful blog? (No need to answer that, as I’m already soloing  on my inner Moog without regard for the boring 4/4 time signature others might wish to force upon me.) Actually, much of what follows was already presented in a long-ish comment I left on a previous post below. But Brad, as he often does, inspired me to do more, even at the risk of embarrassing the shy and retiring Olson clan. So here goes.

I was oddly oblivious to most music until my early teens. This was due in part to being raised in a Fundamentalist home and church, both of which largely frowned on rock music as the rhythmic spawn of the devil, meant to corrupt good morals and encourage bad haircuts. Yes, the stereotypes do hold, at least to some degree.  I heard a lot of church music (classic Protestant hymns, some of them very good) and mostly bland to bad contemporary Christian music. Then, around the age of fourteen or so, I started listening to the radio (one station, weak signal) and began to slowly accumulate a few tapes. My road to prog went through AOR acts such as Journey, REO Speedwagon, Loverboy, Foreigner, and Styx, with a helping of popular mid-80s albums by ELO, Elton John, Toto, and Queen. I found the standard rock of the day (including some of the stuff above) to be rather dull; I was fascinated by the more extended songs of Elton (the early 1970s albums especially), Queen, Asia, and the Moody Blues. I’m happy to say I was hooked on “Bohemian Rhapsody” long before “Wayne’s World” re-presented it to my generation. Also, I thought the usual popular, party music about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll was mostly shallow, even if occasionally diverting. Which is another way of saying I secretly listened to my share of Van Halen while playing some laughable air guitar (oh, wait, all air guitar is laughable). I did not, however, ever party. Seriously.

Around 1985 or so, I bought a copy of “The Best of Kansas”. That opened the door to prog. There was something about the mixture of Livgren’s lead guitar, Steinhardt’s violin, and Steve Walsh’s amazing voice, along with lyrics soaked in spiritual longing and Americana, that grabbed me by the scrawny neck. Over the next three or four years, I ended up collecting everything by Kansas, Kerry Livgren (solo and with AD), and Steve Morse (solo, Dixie Dregs, etc.). My favorite Kansas albums are “Song for America” and “In the Spirit of Things”, although they weren’t the chart-toppers that “Point of Know Return” and “Leftoverture” were. I also went on a serious Moody Blues binge, focusing on the early stuff, prior to their more pop-oriented work of the mid-’80s. Then I really got into Yes (both Rabin-era and the early classic albums with Howe), Rush, and Pink Floyd; in fact, while in Bible college (1989-91), I freaked out some of my more staid classmates with my obsessive interest in Pink Floyd, Queen, Queenrÿche, and King’s X (and, yes, I also listened to Petra, David Meece, White Heart, White Cross, Russ Taff, and Margaret Becker). King’s X was a major revelation, especially the brilliant, crunching, melodic beauty of “faith hope love”, which was a masterful blend of hard rock, metal, prog, blues, and Beatle-esque harmonies. And I recall very clearly driving across the Montana plains to school in Saskatchewan, blaring “Fly By Night” and other brilliant Rush tunes. Ah, to be young again.

A quick aside here, in the spirit of musical indulgence: while in high school, I also developed a semi-secret soft spot for country artists such as Johnny Cash, Johnny Horton, and Jim Reeves. And two composers: Mozart and Brahms. I tried to get into opera (our family doctor, who owned a massive classical collection, gave it his best shot), but couldn’t get there. I would try again in the late 1990s, failing again. And at one point I must have listened to Eric Clapton’s 1989 comeback album, “Journeyman”, about a thousand times. Go figure, as it’s the only Clapton album I’ve ever fixated on. Okay, back to prog.

In my early-to-mid twenties (1989-1995), I launched into Van Morrison, Seal, Jeff Buckley, Radiohead, and jazz, five of my big musical loves ever since (I’ll eventually write some disturbingly long posts about each, I hope). My interest in prog advanced in fits and starts. Yes was a constant, as I worked through most of the band’s catalog, with excursions into solo projects by Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman, Bill Bruford, and Steve Howe. The next big breakthrough was Dream Theater in the late 1990s, followed by Spock’s Beard, then Porcupine Tree and a bunch of others. Then, around 2004, I “discovered” Frank Sinatra, which led to the purchase of about 1,000 Sinatra tunes (favorite album: “In the Wee Small Hours”). I mention Sinatra because I have the semi-crazy idea of writing a blog titled, “Sinatra: Grandfather of Prog?”, that will either get me ejected from Progarchy, or enshrined in the Progarchy Hall of Fame.

I fully agree with Brad: we are living in a new, golden age of prog. There is such a stunning array of prog and prog-ish music to be had, I’ve long given up hope of keeping abreast of it all. Current favorites, in addition to the already mentioned acts, include Pain of Salvation, Threshold, Riverside, Muse, Animals As Leaders, Big Big Train, Anathema, Devin Townsend, Three, Astra, Blackfield, The Pineapple Thief, King Crimson, Headspace, and Mars Volta. But there are still huge holes in my prog knowledge and experience. I’m making prog-ress, but the road continues to rise and wind ahead. Which is exciting, as it means there is more to discover and hear.