NAO4 Teaser Trailer

Our last glimpse of real beauty–NAO’s compilation album.

Sam Healy–while complying with Big Euro Brother laws, regulations, and microintrusions–offered a wonderful teaser/trailer for the forthcoming North Atlantic Oscillation album, coming sometime this year.

Granted, it’s only a full-eighteen seconds worth, but it’s eighteen more seconds then we had before. . .


NAO, THE THIRD DAY (Kscope/Snapper, 2014).  Tracks: Great Plains II; Elsewhere; August; A Nice Little Place; Penrose; Do Something Useful; Wires; Pines of Eden; Dust; When to Stop.

NAO TTD cover art
Not sure if The Third Day is related to Genesis, but it is epic.

And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good. Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so.  The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.  And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day.–GENESIS, Chapter 1

Though NAO’s Sam Healy is not religious in the least, there might be something culturally reflective here.  I have no idea, frankly.  But, I’m sure I’m not the only who imagined the Jewish creation story when reading the title of NAO’s third album.

Whatever the origin of the title, I was actually prompted to re-reveiw the album because of listening to the NAO compilation, LIBRARY STRIKES THE LIBRARY TWICE.  Listening to  the three tracks on that “best of,” taken from THE THIRD DAY, and listening to them out of context gave me an entirely new perspective on the 2014 album.

Continue reading “NAO’s THE THIRD DAY”

Massive SAND/Sam Healy Sale

Sadly, not everyone is born a handsome Irish man.  Then, again, some are.  Sam Healy.

One of my all-time favorite musicians, Sam Healy (North Atlantic Oscillation), has his second SAND album, the extraordinary A SLEEPER, JUST AWAKE on sale for $9 (cd and download) or $6 (download).

Definitely worth taking advantage of.  SAND’s A SLEEPER, JUST AWAKE was certainly one of my top three albums of 2016.  Healy understands sound as well as anyone in the scene today (or yesterday).

The Best Prog of 2016, Part I

The best album of 2016: Glass Hammer’s VALKYRIE

What a year.  I would guess that when historians look back to 2016, they will see it as a year of extreme violence and angry populism.  Sadly, both the violence and the politics revealed themselves from time to time in the prog world, but not detrimentally so.

Life, dignity, and art remain, however, no matter what the politicians scream.  And, praise the Lord we have good music to heal so many hurts of this broken world.

Glass Hammer, VALKYRIE.  Not just the best GH album, but one of the greatest rock albums ever made.  Susie has never sounded better, and GH has gone well beyond their comfort level to explore a full-blown novel in this terribly moving story.  This album strikes that perfect—and all too elusive—via media, balancing beauty and innovation.  VALKYRIE is, undoubtedly, my favorite album of the year.

In the next several spots, I have to wrestle with myself.  Frankly, any ranking after VALKYRIE, would change day by day and, perhaps, even hour by hour.  So, I offer the following loves.

Continue reading “The Best Prog of 2016, Part I”

Some Random Prog Thoughts

Press play.  Repeat.  Thank you, Glass Hammer.

My apologies for being so quiet for a bit now.  After the great visit by the Reverend John Simms and his beautiful bride, Jude, I’ve been working on tons of things not directly related to music or to progarchy.  Mostly classes and lecturing, but quite a bit of traveling as well.

Yet, at the back of everything, prog keeps reminding me what matters most in the world–hearth, home, kids, my students, beauty, truth, and goodness.

I’ve been rather obsessed with a few albums through the first third of this academic semester: Glass Hammer’s VALKYRIE; Marillion’s FEAR; and SAND’s SLEEPER.  If you’ve not gotten these yet, please do so.  They have  been in constant rotation.

Continue reading “Some Random Prog Thoughts”

SAND No. 2: The Unadulterated Excellence of Sam Healy

A review of SAND (Sam Healy), A SLEEPER, JUST AWAKE (forthcoming, September 30, 2016).  9 tracks.

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SAND, A SLEEPER JUST AWAKE (forthcoming, September 30, 2016)

As much as I’d like to start with something artsy (the album deserves it), I’ll just be really, utterly, completely, and totally blunt.  This album is extraordinary.  After a summer of horrors and violence (not personally, but around the world), this album seems like the necessary art to calm the savage soul.  I think this is, quite possibly, Healy’s best.

As I’ve written a number of times before when writing about Healy (solo) and about North Atlantic Oscillation, he does three things with unadulterated excellence.

Continue reading “SAND No. 2: The Unadulterated Excellence of Sam Healy”

The Highlands are Alive with the Sound of NAO


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.

Suspicious Architecture: SAND

The cover of the new Sam Healy solo album, SAND.
The cover of the new Sam Healy solo album, SAND.

From the opening notes to the final ones, the first solo album by Sam Healy, SAND, is a stunning, immersive ride.  Mysteriously, SAND is at once glorious, introspective, resignated, and triumphal.  

Throughout SAND, Healy layers tensions.  Indeed, tensions lurk and hover every where in and throughout this album.  In the end, all find resolution, and this is much of what makes SAND so utterly brilliant and compelling.  There are walls of sound, there are depths of sound, and there are tidal waves of sound.

There are also silences, many of which are deafening.  Some silences allow the listener to pause, but Healy uses most of his silences to create a playful anxiety.  Tellingly, some of the silences within the tracks are longer than those between the tracks.

In the last half century of rock, one might readily compare SAND to Talk Talk, to the Beach Boys, to Mew, to ELO, to Catherine Wheel, and to Pink Floyd.  But, without a doubt (and I’ve had the joy of corresponding a bit with Healy), Sam Healy is very much his own man and artist.  He’s as dedicated to his music as he is intelligent and witty.  Yet another perfectionist.

Defining SAND, (though, there’s nothing about SAND that one could not call “particular” or merely representative) Healy juxtaposes minimalist rhythms with swirling eddies and currents of dense sounds, samples, strings, and always interesting lyrical insights.

The WordSmith

I would never want this last part of what I just wrote to be lost, somehow, in this review.  Healy possesses the gifts of the poet.  Words find their places, rather perfectly.  As T.S. Eliot wrote in “Little Gidding,”

And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious.

If I have one frustration with the reviewers of the current manifestation of progressive and post-progressive rock (overall, not at any one particular outlet) it’s that too few critics look at  the words.  Yet, if one looks carefully at the lyrics being produced by Spawton and Longdon, Tillyson, Kilminster, or Healy, she or he will see the poetic insights equivalent to the best of the 19th-century English romantics.  (And, of course, I’m not even including the non-Brits.  Add the Scandinavians and North Americans in, and we’re experiencing a brilliant moment of poetic revival.  But, this isn’t the purpose of this post. . . . For now, trust me that Healy is a master of words, a smith of words, if you will.)

Not only does he master his musical material, but he knows which word to use to emphasize the music, and which music to employ to emphasize the word.  Without getting religious here, it would be fair to state that something sacramental or incarnational appears when Healy puts words to notes and notes to words.

My favorite line of SAND:

Suspicious architecture rises on the plains of our doubt.

This is not the only gem.  Healy’s words drop mischievously like bombs at times, and always to the delight of the listener.

Without your triage and telegraph

I’m a rudderless antique oil-powered destroyer


While the reason slips away beneath the everyday

White picket fences circumscribe the lies that started out

Innocent as not complaining when you feel slighted

Sam Healy, an Irishman turned Scot.
Sam Healy, an Irishman turned Scot, dedicated and purposeful artist and perfectionist.

An Original

In the material promoting SAND, Healy said that he needed a “palate cleanser” after writing and recording his first two albums as North Atlantic Oscillation (also on Kscope).  And, as it turns out, Healy recorded all of this on his own, with only the most minimal help from others.  He wrote, produced, mixed, and engineered the entirety of SAND.  Would it be fair, then, to call SAND something akin to NAO 2.5?  Not in the least.  This is its own album and own project with its own purpose, meaning, and direction.  Anyone who loves NAO will additionally throw her or his love to SAND.  But, SAND is something different and original.

As the opening line of the album states, “There’s weather enough for us all.”  Whether Healy meant this to have a double meaning or not, it comes with one for the listener.  Healy’s certainly not distancing himself from NAO, he’s just noting there’s much to do, much to discover, and much to create.

Yet, this is clearly a Healy project.  There are just two things that Healy will never be able to escape, though I also very much hope he never tries.  First, Healy has one of the most distinctive voices in the rock world.  It has the depth of everything David Longdon brings to Big Big Train and the lush beauty (yes, I’m calling a man’s voice beautiful, as it is) of Leah McHenry or Sarah McLachlan.  It carries the urgency of Catherine Wheel but also offers the varied tones (sorry, I’m not a musician, so I might not be using the proper terminology) of what Andy Partridge was capable of with the best of XTC, such as what he did on The Big Express.  Healy’s voice is the music, to a large extent, and the other instruments really serve to augment what he’s capable of, vocally.


An Artist Colony

Kscope, the home of Healy’s music, seems a small but mighty paradise to me, the equivalent, from a century ago, of the artist colonies of Ditchling in England or Taos in the United States.  In the morning, you work in the fields, in the afternoon, you learn to blacksmith, and in the evening, you write and tell stories around the hearth, all of it in good company.

I also imagine Kscope, in much more modern terms, as the English equivalent of Pixar, a place of toys, machines, spaces, treats, delights all available for human ingenuity and creativity to flow.  Maybe a Steve Jobs (RIP) or a John Lassiter pops his head into your office every once in a while, giving you the thumbs up and the encouraging smile.

These, of course, are just the passing fancies of a middle-aged American lover of fine music, sitting in his office, recovering from grading 65 final papers.

Still, what I hear in SAND is not a part of my fancy at all, though it certainly tickles it.  No, this is reality.  And, a beautiful one at that.  Even the cover of the album reveals much about Healy’s overall project.  SAND, printed in a minimalist font across the front, hovers over a black hole and a swirling galaxy, itself rotating around the abyss.  A star, powerful in and of itself and the single brightest element of the cover, keeps its distance from that which would devour it.  Yet, more tensions.

I must admit, I hope that Healy does two things in the future, though with no rush.

First, I hope he puts his rather considerable writing skills to creating a concept album.  I’m sensing a coherency of ideas running throughout SAND, but it would be wonderful for Healy to be explicit.

Second, I hope he rents an organic space and employs several string and woodwind players, and produces one of the most gorgeous albums imagined.  Healy is a natural director and composer, but he does almost everything on SAND via various machines.  And, what he does with those machines makes my heart flutter.  But, I have to wonder what he would do with a string and woodwind ensemble, recording in an intimate setting.  Imagining this, my heart goes beyond the flutters and begins to pound!


A Must Own

So, Progarchists, let me apologize.  Had I heard this album prior to December 1, it would have made it—unquestionably—into my top of 2013.  Why apologize—because,  you need to buy this album.  Yes, you need to spend more money.  This is a must-own, an aural delight, a real piece of art for the headphones.  We need to support the likes of Sam Healy as much as we can.  He has earned it, and we owe it to the very ideal of beauty itself.

As a Catholic, I can state that my new year began on the first day of Advent.  So, I’m declaring SAND the first truly great work of 2014.  Yes, I know I’m cheating.  But, I’m cheating for the best of reasons.  Maybe, I’m just a Jesuit.

Now, please excuse me.  Some suspicious architecture is calling me. . . .

SAND debuts Today

The cover of the new Sam Healy solo album, SAND.
The cover of the new Sam Healy solo album, SAND.

While my copy hasn’t arrived yet (I’m eagerly awaiting it), Sam Healy’s first solo project, SAND, came out today from Kscope.  iTunes and both have music samples, and I’ve been enjoying them quite a bit.

Healy is the lead singer and main songwriter for the Celtic (Irish and Scottish, I’ve recently discovered) prog group, North Atlantic Oscillation.  I’ve had a chance to correspond a bit with Healy over the past week, and I’ve found him to be as intriguing and intelligent as one would imagine from this deeply talented song writer.  He’s also quite witty.  After I mentioned to him that I was heading to class (western civilization), he reminded me that all would be explained when I came to realize that “Soylent Green is people.”

Thank you, Sam.

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