10 Years of PARADOX HOTEL (Flower Kings)

In just two days, one of my all-time favorite albums will turn 10-years old.  Happy birthday, PARADOX HOTEL (Insideout Music, 2006).

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Insideout, 2006.

I still remember well the day it arrived from amazon.com.  I had thought the previous album, ADAM AND EVE, outstanding, but I was looking for something a bit more expansive in terms of music as well as lyrical scope.  Given that this new album would be a return to a two-disk format, I’d assumed that Roine and Co. would not disappoint.

Not only did the band NOT disappoint, but they soared.

If forced to rank this cd within the Flower Kings’ discography, PARADOX HOTEL would sit very comfortably in the second best position, just below their best album, SPACE REVOLVER.

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Expansive.

Interestingly enough, when PARADOX HOTEL came out, Stolt expressed some concern.  Usually, a band hypes its latest album as its best (well, “hype” it too strong, as bands earnestly believe this to be true, as they should), but Stolt argued that he had thought the music of ADAM AND EVE more interesting and complex.  Yet, the fans had not responded to ADAM AND EVE as the band had hoped, so they had returned to a poppier sound with PARADOX HOTEL.

As is always the case with The Flower Kings, the band alternates between incredibly complicated and tight jazz-fusion-esque music to more loose and open progressive-pop and rock.  If ADAM AND EVE tended toward the former, PARADOX HOTEL certainly embraces the latter.

And, yet, while the complexity might not exist track by track, it does overall.  It contains some of the darkest music the band has ever written, such as track seven on the first disk, “Bavarian Skies,” but it also reveals the most expansive and joyous the band has ever been with tracks such as “End on a High Note.”

This is a fascinating album in terms of its flow and its story.  Though I do not know exactly what the album is about, I have interpreted it—from my first listen to it a decade ago—as a rather Dantesque examination of some form of purgatory.  The Paradox Hotel is not quite the Mansion with Many Rooms of Heaven, but it is certainly a way station between this world and the next.  After all, immediately upon checking in we meet monsters, men, U2 (I think, in “Hit Me With a Hit”), aviators, the young, Nazis, moms, the jealous, the violent, and the egotistical avaricious.  Yet, through all of this, hope remains.  Dreams and lights keep us centered on the end of the journey.

Disk two, by far the more experimental of the two disks, gives us even more glimpses of heaven, allowing us to touch, step toward, and dance in anticipation.  Further, we learn that life will kill us and come to the nearly penultimate doubts in asking the most theological existential question ever offered: what if God is alone?

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Definitely the most theologically existential song in the history of prog.

Finally, on track eight of disk two, we meet many of the dead who have moved through the hotel from time to time (or time to eternity, more likely), and we end with the glorious “Blue Planet,” seeing what voyages yet remain as we get caught in the revolving hotel doors.

It really could get no more C.S. Lewis and The Great Divorce or J.R.R. Tolkien and “Leaf by Niggle” than this.  Indeed, if the Inklings had made prog albums, they would’ve made PARADOX HOTEL.

Or, maybe it really is a Swedish meditation on Dante’s Purgatorio.
Truly, this is some of the most satisfying, thought-provoking, and comforting music I have encountered in my own 48 years in this world.  Yet one more reason to praise Stolt and Co. for the glories they see and reveal to all of us.

Forthcoming: The 10th Anniversary Review of PARADOX HOTEL

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Insideout Music, 2006.

On April 4, 2006, the Flower Kings released PARADOX HOTEL, not just a seminal album for the band, but a seminal album for third-wave prog.

At the time of its release, Roine Stolt expressed some reluctance with the album, noting that it had not been as complicated, complex, or nuanced as the previous release, ADAM AND EVE (2004).  PARADOX HOTEL, he sighed (or, so I’ve interpreted the interview he gave to/with DPRP.net), was just another release of a prog album, but not as progressive as the 2004 album.

While everything the Flower Kings does is excellent, it’s hard not to rate PARADOX HOTEL as extraordinary, even for an extraordinary band.  In hindsight, PARADOX HOTEL is probably regarded as a much stronger album than ADAM AND EVE.

Regardless, we’ll be giving PARADOX HOTEL close scrutiny as we celebrate its tenth birthday.

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The Tangent’s PYRAMIDS AND STARS, 10 Years On

There are few bands that perform as well live as they do in the studio.  And, of course, there are some for which the opposite is true.

One band that only gets that much more interesting live is Andy Tillison’s ever-evolving The Tangent.  This year, amazingly enough, is the tenth anniversary of the first live The Tangent release, PYRAMIDS AND STARS.  Looking at the line up for that tour, one has to wonder if one is caught in some kind of heavenly time-loop or fantasy prog game.  Andy Tillison, Roine Stolt, Jonas Reingold, Sam Baines, and Zoltan Csorsz.  The lineup could be for a Flower Kings album or, perhaps, a Steven Wilson album.

2005.  Very rare.
2005. Very rare.

The ever, endlessly talented Ed Unitsky painted the cover, and, of course, it’s gorgeous.

Only six songs make up this 77-minute feast: The World That We Drive Through; The Canterbury Sequence; The Winning Game; The Music That Died Alone; In Darkest Dreams; and the only song under six minutes in length, a cover version of (ELP) Lucky Man.

The songs—all of which come from the first two The Tangent albums—sound as gorgeous as Unitsky’s cover art would suggest.  This is The Tangent, but it’s The Tangent fully alive.  What happened in the studio is merely prologue.  That the embryo, this the fine young man come of age.

Andy and Roine are especially playful and open to the spirit of the muses.  Their love of this music is palatable.

Sadly, this live album is extremely hard to find, and I made it a point several years ago to dig deeply across and through the internet to find a copy.  It was well worth the hunt, for I treasure this album like no other.  It’s a precious thing to behold.

Transatlantic: SMPTe. 15 Years Later.

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Maybe it’s the professional historian in me, but I love dates, and I love anniversaries.

This year is the fifteenth anniversary of Transatlantic’s first album, the rather stunning and never aging SMPTe.

I’d not heard of the project until one of my students handed me a copy of the CD in the fall of 2000, about six months or so after its release.  I knew Morse (I’d been one of the first–if not the first–persons in Bloomington, Indiana, to purchase THE LIGHT from Spock’s Beard), I knew Trewavas (having been a Marillion fan since BRAVE), and I knew Mike Portnoy, having purchased every Dream Theater release since 1992’s IMAGES AND WORDS.  Roine Stolt?  Didn’t have a clue at that point, though I’d heard of The Flower Kings.

My first reaction upon seeing the CD cover was one of elation.  This looked like a very modernized Yes cover.  And, of course, I loved the starship/blimp.  I thought the album title, SMPTe, was kind of weird, as I didn’t quite get why the names of the members were so important, but, then, it was a “supergroup.”

Looking at the credits, I thought, “Ok, this is a Morse project.  I wonder why he isn’t finding enough fulfillment in Spock’s Beard?”  Not that I knew much about anything going on in any of the bands represented in Transatlantic.  I knew the music, but I didn’t know any details about any of the bands.

In fact, the only real music news I kept up on at the time was for Rush, Yes, Tears for Fears, and Talk Talk.  Admittedly, I did a very good job of keeping up with these bands, but I was aided by some really good user groups and news groups (remember those?!!?).

When I put the Transatlantic cd on my stereo, I was completely floored.  The first minute of sound effects not only grabbed me, but all 31 minutes of the epic rooted me in place.  I was utterly blown away.  Yes had given us songs at 22-24 minutes, and Rush had come close, but 31 minutes?  Holy schnikees.  This was flat out amazing.  Then, “We All Need Some Light,” which I thought sounded much like a Spock’s Beard song.  Thus, I Iiked it.  And, it was the perfect breather after “All of the Above.”  I didn’t fall in love with this track, though, until I heard it live on LIVE IN AMERICA.

The third track, “Mystery Train,” really caught my attention as well, pulling me back into the depths of the album.  I loved the psychedelia of it, and I was especially taken with the Beatle-esque refrain.  This was an updated version of something off of the MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR–yet it was an homage not a mimicry.

If I’d been captivated by tracks 1 and 3, I was once again thrown into a tizzy as I listened to the sixteen minutes of “My New World.”  The references to the Doors and Jimi Hendrix sold me.  And, I’m a sucker for Stolt’s voice.  As soon as I heard this album, I immediately purchased all of The Flower Kings up to that point.

SPACE REVOLVER, by the way, became and remains one of my top ten favorite all-time albums.

As I looked back over the first four tracks of SMPTe, I came to realize how very different each song had been.  There was no distinctive “Transatlantic” song.  They each hit me in different ways.

Then, as though I deserved dessert (which I didn’t!), Transatlantic gave me a remake of one of the best Procol Harum songs ever written.  Granted, it wasn’t “Simple Sister” but it was the next best thing.

When Transatlantic played live over the internet, I listened.  When the live album of that recording, LIVE IN AMERICA, came out, I bought it–the day it came out.  And, I’ve done the same with every single live or studio CD since.  I will admit that I was horribly shocked by Portnoy’s language on the live releases.  At the time, I was only recently married.  My wife comes from a very conservative Texas family, and she knew nothing about prog.  As I was listening and Portnoy said inappropriate things, I cringed.  Astoundingly, my wife either didn’t hear Portnoy or chose not to hear.  She’s now as much a Morse/Portnoy fan as I am.  So, all’s well that ends well!

I will admit that it’s a bit hard for me to accept that I first heard SMPTe fifteen years ago.  At that point, I was newly married, and my oldest child was just a year old!  Now, he’s sixteen, and he has six siblings!  Sheesh.

And, my wife is now a prog fan.  Again, the times do change.

A huge thank you to Morse, Portnoy, Trewavas, and Stolt.  That one album from a decade and a half ago introduced me to the Flower Kings, and it made me realize that third-wave prog was and remains pure, unadulterated love and beauty.

Roine Stolt in the World of Adventures: The Birth of Third-Wave Prog

The Flower Kings, BACK IN THE WORLD OF ADVENTURES
1995 Foxtrot Music/Insideout Music

71 minutes; 10 tracks: Back in the World of Adventures; The Prince/Kaleidoscope; Go West Judas; Train to Nowhere; Oblivion Road; Theme for a Hero; Temple of the Snakes; My Comic Lover; The Wonder Wheel; Big Puzzle.

All lyrics and music by Roine Stolt (b. 1956).

The first official Flower Kings album.
The first official Flower Kings album.

In 1994, famed (justly so) Swedish guitarist, Roine Stolt, released a solo album under the title of the FLOWER KING. Less than a year later, he formed—around himself and the band he’d used for the FLOWER KING—the Flower Kings. It’s never quite clear who the FLOWER KING exactly is, but he seems be the embodiment of Jesus. Or, at the very least, a very peace loving Johannine hippie Jesus, and his betrayer is Judas Iscariot. In the opening song of the 1994 album, with the same name as the album, Stolt sings:

We believe in the light we believe in love, every precious little thing
We believe you can still surrender, you can serve the Flower King

And, in the grand song, “Humanizzimo,” Stolt becomes even more blatant:

Did someone pray for the long lost souls
or the tired ones who lost their goal
When the seventh angel rise his sword
Can you hear the one voice of the Lord
With the blood of Jesus on the nail
we turn the balance on a scale
In pain and fearless suffering
lies a message from the King of Kings

I don’t know if Stolt has any particular religious leanings, but he’s obviously very, very pro Jesus. At times I’ve wondered if he’s Roman Catholic, as he possesses a truly sacramental view of the world, but he might also—logically, given the Swedish background—be Lutheran. Again, I’m not sure labeling the song writer with any particular denomination totally matters. Stolt clearly loves what is humane, true, good, and beautiful, and his religious views are more poetic and mythic than “in your face.”

States of Being.
States of Being.

It would be hard to exaggerate the importance of the album to what we love as our current and overwhelming deluge of progressive rock. In 1990, prog looked pretty much dead as a genre. Sure, there were plenty of rock, pop, and so-called alternative bands—Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews, Phish, and Smashing Pumpkins were the most obvious–employing aspects of prog, but almost no one admitted to the label.

Then, 1994 hit.

Marillion’s BRAVE and Roine Stolt’s THE FLOWER KING emerged as though from the gods themselves. How could these albums not be prog? They were as prog as prog could be. Unapologetically, blatantly, and deliriously prog. As our beloved progarchist friend, Andy Tillison, would later explain, this was the beginning of third-wave prog, a wave that has lasted for at least 19, maybe 20, years.

In many ways, though, 1994 would prove a trial run, a glimpse, merely, of what was coming. It was 1995 that witnessed the full arrival and onslaught of third-wave prog. Consider the releases: THE LIGHT by Spock’s Beard; AFRAID OF SUNLIGHT by Marillion; and THE SKY MOVES SIDEWAYS by Porcupine Tree.

And, of course, there was the first official Flower Kings’ album, BACK IN THE WORLD OF ADVENTURES. The title couldn’t be more perfect, and we might as well refer to it as the opening statement of third-wave prog. Stolt, indeed, was joyously leading us back to the adventure that had seemed to have fallen so undramatically in 1980 or so.

The first Flower Kings’ album begins with the title song, an upbeat psychedelic excursion. “Welcome back. . . welcome back to the world.” One of the nicest things about Stolt’s writing is his uncanny and ingenious ability to mix taste and class with exploration. Though his writings fits so nicely in the genre of rock, its playfulness has much in common with jazz fusion. And, Stolt is eminently smart and inquisitive.

Soaring vocal harmonies (rather complex at times), jazz-like runs, and humane and gorgeous lyrics help define almost all of Stolt’s music. In recent years, he’s revealed a darker, more critical side in and with his lyrics, but this has been well earned. On Desolation Rose, the latest album by the Flower Kings, Stolt’s observations are wise and sad rather than bitter and distraught.

Interesting sound effects and atmospherics emerge unexpectedly around every corner of the first album. Whistles, trains, dings, scratches, bells, Latin rhythms, woodwinds, references to Hitchcock movies, and a general state of contentment pervade the entire work. Some songs don’t even reach the two-minute mark, while the opening and final tracks exceed 13 minutes each.

Roine Stolt.  The Pale Rider.
Roine Stolt. The Pale Rider and a Flower King.

Interestingly enough, BACK TO THE WORLD OF ADVENTURES is roughly divided between instrumental numbers and vocal numbers—but the album is merely a shadow of what is and was to come. Mystery had beckoned and Stolt consented. Don’t get me wrong. BACK is an outstanding album in every way, but it really is only a beginning of a majestic journey that continues to this day. Reviewers and admirers almost always point out how “prolific” Stolt is. What an understatement. Not only would 11 more studio albums from the band follow—with Stolt leading all—but there were still solo albums, the Tangent albums, Transatlantic albums, Kaipa albums, Agents of Mercy albums, and . . . the list continues. Looking at Stolt’s complete discography is simply mind boggling. Never a moment of dullness in the Swede’s life. I envy his biographer.

Twenty years old. Happy birthday, Flower Kings. Sadly, I didn’t meet you until your fifth birthday. Still, it’s been a brilliant decade and a half ride with you.

Reflections on Transatlantic’s “KaLIVEascope”

TA4liveA kaleidoscope takes a mishmash of glass bits, pieces of plastic and paper, and combines them into symmetric images. Random elements are jumbled together and reflected into scenes of beautiful harmony and balance. Just like the kaleidoscope’s mirrors create beauty from seemingly incompatible pieces of broken glass, Transatlantic takes four exceedingly talented and strong personalities and combines them in ways that generate some of the most beautiful and powerful music today.

Transatlantic has just released a mammoth live set from their European tour in support of their recent album, Kaleidoscope, and it’s a scorcher. There are several different editions, and the smallest consists of 3 CDs/1 DVD (which is a steal at 23 USD). The CDs document their more than 3-hour-long show at Tilburg, The Netherlands, while the DVD covers their Cologne, Germany concert. The Tilburg show is really something special – Transatlantic and Neal Morse (as a solo artist) have performed there many times, and an obvious bond exists between the band and the audience. The DVD is very nice, because throughout the concert here is a huge screen behind the band with continually evolving kaleidoscopic/fractal patterns that enhance the viewing experience.

Transatlantic have grown tremendously as a group. For the uninitiated, it is a “super-group”, with members coming from some of the most successful prog acts ever: Neal Morse (Spock’s Beard, Flying Colors, solo), Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater, Winery Dogs, Adrenaline Mob, Flying Colors, etc., etc.), Roine Stolt (The Flower Kings), and Pete Trewavas (Marillion). Their first couple of albums, SMPTe and Bridge Across Forever were great, but one got the sense that the various members brought their own songs to the projects, and not a lot of collaboration happened. The musical interaction on their third album, The Whirlwind, was excellent, but the music had a sense of familiarity that was getting worrisome.

Fortunately, on Kaleidoscope, Transatlantic have truly come into their own as a group. It’s hard to tell where one member’s influence ends and another’s begins; they have established their own unique sound, and when all the parts lock together and take off, there isn’t another band that can touch them. The DVD documenting the making of Kaleidoscope confirms the collaborative nature of the songs – I had assumed that Neal Morse was the primary creative force, but surprisingly, Mike Portnoy comes across as the main driver of the composing and arranging.

For KaLIVEascope, the boys are supported by multi-instrumentalist Ted Leonard, which frees up Roine to concentrate on his gorgeous lead guitar lines. Mike Portnoy has to be the hardest-working drummer in show business – he is indefatigable through hours and hours of incredibly complex and lengthy songs. Neal Morse is the primary lead vocalist, and in both the Tilburg and Cologne shows he again demonstrates his uncanny ability to reach out and connect with the audience. Finally, both the CD and DVD mixes give bassist Pete Trewavas the prominence he deserves. I’m a sucker for energetic and melodic basslines, and Pete does not disappoint.

Both shows open with “Into the Blue”, off Kaleidoscope. Then comes “My New World” from their debut. Their performance of this song is a revelation, as Roine sounds like a fire’s been lit under him. It’s now one of my favorite songs from their extensive catalog. “Shine” follows, which is one of their most straightforward “pop” songs. There’s a 30 – minute “Whirlwind” medley, then Neal sings a brief “Beyond The Sun” alone. They immediately segue into the epic “Kaleidoscope” which is performed exceptionally well on the Cologne DVD. A highlight is a jazzy section where Neal and Roine bring to mind the classic live work of Jan Hammer and Jeff Beck.

At this point, most bands would call it a night and leave the stage utterly spent, but there’s much more music in store. Neal and Roine perform a beautiful duet on acoustic and electric guitars. Next is the perennial crowd singalong, “We All Need Some Light”, and then the show proper concludes with an electrifying performance of “Black As The Sky”. I’ve seen all of Transatalantic’s live DVDs, and on this song they are at the absolute top of their game. (Video is below)

For encores, the Tilburg and Cologne setlists diverge: Tilburg includes “Nights in White Satin”, and Focus’ “Sylvia/Hocus Pocus”, featuring Thys van Leer himself(!). The evening finally concludes with a rousing medley of “All Of The Above/Stranger In Your Soul”. The Cologne show skips the covers, and goes straight to the medley.

Transatlantic is not a super-group; they are a cohesive unit. They are far greater than the sum of their parts, and it shows in these performances. Even earlier material sounds new; they’ve achieved that mysterious ability of gifted musicians to anticipate each others’ next move, and push themselves to higher and higher levels.