Nick’s Best of 2013 (Part 1)

In this, the first part of my round-up of 2013’s best releases, I highlight eleven superb albums that all made it onto my shortlist and managed to remain there – no mean feat given the incredible quality of the new music that appeared this year. Each of these has made a huge impression on me and yet, amazingly, none of them feature in my Top Ten. (We’d best not dwell on the excellent releases from Days Between Stations, Lifesigns, Spock’s Beard and others that eventually got pushed off the bottom of this shortlist, but what can you do when progressive music is enjoying a fecundity not seen since the early 70s?)

I won’t even attempt to rank this selection, but will instead list the albums by artist, alphabetically. Think of them all as being in a notional 11th place in my Best of 2013 list!

A word on criteria: I have considered only studio albums and I have ignored remasters, remixes and rereleases (whole or partial) of pre-2013 material. (In one case, this has had a significant impact on my choices.)

Ready? Off we go…

amplifierAmplifier – Echo Street

The masters of the heavy groove take a step back from the sprawling madness of 2011’s splendid The Octopus. The result is more reflective and refined but no less compelling. Echo Street is subtle rather than subdued, rich in atmosphere (‘matmosphere’?) and dreamy soundscapes but still with enough big riffs to get the blood pumping. The highlight is probably Where The River Goes, an epic that starts in delicate fashion with 12-string acoustic guitar before building to a thunderous conclusion.

ee2Big Big Train – English Electric, Part 2

Part 1 was my Album of 2012, but don’t be fooled by the follow-up’s apparent lowly position this year, as the difference in quality really isn’t that huge. Like its predecessor, Part 2 is a paean to the landscapes, history and fading industrial heritage of England. There are excellent songs to be found here – Worked Out, The Permanent Way and Keeper Of Abbeys are probably the highlights for me – but the album doesn’t flow as smoothly as Part 1 (a minor defect that combined album English Electric: Full Power has since rectified though a reordering of tracks and the introduction of new material).

????????Glide – Assemblage One & Two

Who knew that Echo & The Bunnymen guitarist Will Sergeant was such a fan of 70s electronica pioneers like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream? Or that he could pay homage in such a respectful and skillful manner? Assemblage is wonderfully evocative of that classic era of electronic music without being derivative. Strongly recommended if you are a fan of TD or other artists of that ilk. Its hypnotic rhythms will transport you to other realms…

guapoGuapo – History Of The Visitation

‘Guapo’ means ‘handsome’ in Spanish, but I’m not sure that’s an entirely appropriate term for the music that Dave Smith, Kavus Torabi, James Sedwards & Emmett Elvin have produced here. Visitation, Guapo’s first recorded output for five years, is a satisfyingly dense and complex slab of instrumental art rock, full of dark tones and edgy riffs. Intense 26-minute opener The Pilman Radiant dominates, providing all the shifting moods and time signatures that a prog fan craves, while Complex #7 provides a richly atmospheric interlude in which to catch the breath before the mayhem resumes with up-tempo closing number Tremors From The Future. Highly recommended.

lunarossaLuna Rossa – Sleeping Pills & Lullabies

The glorious voice of Anne-Marie Helder continues to delight, this time in partnership with fellow Panic Room member Jonathan Edwards. Panic Room’s Skin was one of last year’s surprise hits for me, a powerful demonstration of the growing sophistication and maturity of their sound. Much of that improvement carries over to the efforts of this acoustic double-act (unsurprisingly, given they are the principal songwriters for the band). Sleeping Pills is a delicate and beautiful album, beguiling in its simplicity.

midlakeMidlake – Antiphon

Imagine what it must feel like to be stalled in the midst of a lengthy and difficult recording process for your fourth album, when suddenly you lose your vocalist and principal songwriter! Midlake certainly demonstrated the ‘courage of others’ in scrapping two years of work and starting again from scratch. Given these circumstances, new album Antiphon, written and recorded in only six months, is a triumph. Stand-out tracks from these champions of American prog folk are probably The Old And The Young and Ages, although the whole piece is immensely enjoyable, albeit without quite the same degree of melancholic elegance as its predecessor.

sandSand – Sand

A magnificent solo effort from North Atlantic Oscillation’s Sam Healy. Sam has suggested that Sand serves as a ‘musical palette cleanser’ before work begins on new NAO material, and he has spoken of this album’s different feel – but in truth, Sand could easily be mistaken for a new NAO album. The characteristic NAO ingredients are all here – drum machines, samples, layered electronics and dreamy vocal harmonies – but Sand manages to eclipse 2012’s Fog Electric, feeling somewhat gentler and more refined. Stand-out tracks for me are Clay, Destroyer and Astray.

shinebackShineback – Rise Up Forgotten, Return Destroyed

A bold statement from Tinyfish frontman Simon Godfrey, ably assisted by lyricist Rob Ramsay. With its strong pop, dance music and electronica influences it certainly won’t be to every proghead’s taste, but adventurousness such as this is surely necessary to evolve and reinvigorate the genre. Highlights are probably Passengers, the languid Faultlines – the “A paper doll in Scissorland” lyric is particularly memorable – and the ten-minute title track. The vocals are at times a little too thin and tend to get overwhelmed by the more forceful passages of music, else this might have made my Top Ten.

solsticeSolstice – Prophecy

I’ve always had a soft spot for Solstice. I saw them live many times during the mid 80s and the feel-good hippy vibe of their performances never failed to put a smile on the face. It was gratifying to see them return in 2010 with Spirit and even more gratifying to see them take further strides forward this year with Prophecy. The focal point, as ever, is the superb guitar playing of Andy Glass, but everyone plays their part and Jenny Newman’s violin playing contributes greatly to the overall feel of the album. Forget the new age lyrics if that kind of thing bothers you and just revel in the gloriously uplifting sounds that this band can produce. A most welcome bonus is a trio of Steven Wilson remixes of tracks from the band’s 1984 debut Silent Dance that greatly improve on the originals.

Sound-of-Contact-Dimensionaut-Cover-300x300Sound Of Contact – Dimensionaut

The debut release from the new project of Simon Collins and Dave Kerzner is another of 2013’s unexpected pleasures. The underlying concept doesn’t really fire the imagination, to be honest, but the music most certainly does! Ironically, the album’s prog epic – the 19-minute Möbius Slip – is probably the weakest track, but that’s mainly because the rest of it is so melodic and catchy as hell. It is difficult to pick out highlights, but the five-track sequence from Pale Blue Dot through to Beyond Illumination is near-perfect. Simon Collins is excellent on vocals, with just the slightest hint of father Phil prompting a shiver of recognition here and there.

Spooky-Action-CD-Cover-FinishedOverThe Fierce & The Dead – Spooky Action

Matt Stevens & Co move from strength to strength with this, their second album. As before, it’s an unfailingly energetic and heady mix of King Crimson, math rock, punk and other influences – difficult to categorise adequately, but that is surely part of the attraction. This is the sound of a band charting new ground and growing in confidence as they do so. I can’t wait to hear what they come up with next.

Dimensionaut (Best of 2013 — Part 7)

Coming in the #7 slot (in alphabetical order) on my Best of 2013 list is the incredible debut from:

Sound of Contact

I have written earlier about this amazing release at these links:

The Spiritual Vision of Dimensionaut

Return of the Giant Progweed

The Sound of Sound of Contact

Let’s bring the prog back!

2013 – The Pax Progorama

 Image

While “pax” literally translates as peace, people generally use the term “Pax Romana” to refer to a golden age of Imperial Rome.  Well, if that’s the case, then the year 2013 has left no doubt that we are in another golden age for progressive rock.

Now, you will have excuse me a bit for the “Progorama” thing in the title, but that’s the closest thing to alliteration that came to mind.  “Pax Progtopia” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as well.  There were a few other ideas I had, and none of them were very good … “Pax Progorama” worked the best, ok?  Hyphens added upon request.

The other question is this – do I have the best, most appropriate historical metaphor?  Could the current era be just as well described as a prog renaissance?  Probably.  We could liken the 1970’s as the original Pax Prog-O-Rama … the punk rockers as the barbarians who finally toppled a weakening empire … the 1980’s and early 1990’s as the Dark Ages (with of course, the neo-proggers being the Monks/Byzantines that preserved the flame of Western Civilization) … the rise of the Internet being equivalent to the Gutenberg printing press … and the late-1990’s and beyond representing the Renaissance and the spreading of new ideas, knowledge, and in our case here – art.  Maybe I should go back and rewrite the beginning of this post.  Then again, as Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber says …. naaaaahh (start at the point about where 1:00 minute remains …).

No matter what metaphor you choose, the resulting conclusion is still the same: Anno Domini 2013 was an incredible year for progressive rock, quite possibly the best ever.  I don’t say that lightly.  This year also gives weight to the opinion (mine, anyway) that our current Golden Age of prog has surpassed the previous one – and I don’t say that lightly, either.  The past few years, and 2013 in particular, have been nothing short of an embarrassment of riches for prog lovers.  Just how good was 2013?  Let’s take a look. Continue reading “2013 – The Pax Progorama”

The Best of 2013 (IMHO)

What a bountiful year 2013 has been for good music. All the albums on my Best Of list are destined to become classics, I’m sure!  So, let’s count them down, all the way to Number 1:

TesseracT11. TesseracT: Altered State. I’ll kick the list off with the most unabashedly heavy album, but one that has grown on me over the past few months. Ashe O’Hara is a terrific vocalist, and the band lays down a multilayered bed of crunching guitars, drums, and bass for him to soar over. The songs are divided into four groups, “Of Matter”, “Of Mind”, “Of Reality”, and “Of Energy”.  These guys know their mathematics, as well! One of the songs is “Calabi-Yau”, and the artwork includes the E8 Root System, a hypercube, and an Apollonian sphere. Best track: “Nocturne” (Check out the moment of transcendence at 3:14) –

RiversideSONGS10. Riverside: Shrine of New Generation Slaves. Mariusz Duda’s side project, Lunatic Soul, has had a pronounced effect on Riverside’s music, and that’s all to the good, in my opinion. SoNGS is more melodic and varied than anything they’ve produced so far, and even though it came out early in 2013, it still stays close to my sound system. Go for the two-disc set, which adds two extended tracks that flirt with ambient jazz. Best track: “Feel Like Falling” –

Raven That Refused to Sing9. Steven Wilson: The Raven That Refused To Sing. Very few artists push themselves as hard as Steven Wilson, and TRTRTS is another leap forward for him. I’m thinking at this point he’s left the world of prog, and he is his own genre. Not everything works – “Luminol” is too much Yes-jams-with-Herbie-Hancock for my taste, but when he clicks, no one comes close. Best track: the achingly beautiful “The Raven That Refused To Sing” –

Full POwer8. Big Big Train: English Electric: Full Power. Much has been written on this site about the sheer wonderfulness of this collection. The care that went into the accompanying booklet is a joy to behold. The resequencing of songs works well, and the new opener “Come On Make Some Noise” is as fun as a classic Badfinger single from the 70’s. I’m a Tennessee boy, but I could easily spend the rest of my days in the pastoral Albion depicted in BBT’s Full Power. Best Track: “Uncle Jack” –

Cosmograf TMLIS7. Cosmograf: The Man Left In Space. A sci-fi concept album about the dangers of all-consuming ambition and the isolation that results, this is a very satisfying album both musically and lyrically. One of the most-played discs of the year in my household. Best track: “Aspire Achieve” –

Ayreon TTOE6. Ayreon: The Theory Of Everything. A recent release, so I haven’t had a chance to fully absorb this sprawling work. Arjen Lucassen is the Verdi of progressive rock, composing magnificent operas that explore what it means to be human in today’s dehumanizing times. For TTOE, Lucassen gathered the most talented roster of musicians and vocalists yet – including John Wetton, Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson, Jordan Rudess, and Steve Hackett. The story itself leaves behind the sci-fi thread that previous Ayreon albums followed to chronicle the travails of a small group of family and colleagues torn apart by autism, deception, envy, academic ambition, and pride. Throw in a dash of the supernatural, and this is a very thought-provoking work. Best track: “Magnetism” –

And now it’s time for the Top Five!

Kingbathmat OTM5. Kingbathmat: Overcoming the Monster. This band has been very prolific lately, releasing Truth Button and Overcoming the Monster in a matter of months. OTM is a fantastic set of songs about the different “monsters” we all encounter in our day to day lives. Most impressive of all, Kingbathmat have developed a truly unique sound that is accessible yet new. I can’t wait to hear the next iteration of it. Best track: “Kubrick Moon” –

Sound Of Contact4. Sound Of Contact: Dimensionaut. I’m sure SoC’s vocalist and drummer Simon Collins is tired of comparisons to Genesis (he’s Phil’s son), but that is what first strikes the hearer of this outstanding album. Fortunately, repeated listening reveals SoC’s extraordinary talent in their own right. The songs themselves are perfectly constructed gems, and the production is top-notch. The band moves effortlessly from straight pop (“Not Coming Down”) to the most complex prog epic (“Mobius Strip”). Best track: “Pale Blue Dot” –

days between stations3. Days Between Stations: In Extremis. I’ve already written a full review of this immensely rewarding album in an earlier Progarchy post. Suffice it to say that this is already a classic. And Sepand Samzadeh is one of the nicest guys in the prog world! Best track: “Eggshell Man” –

Sanguine Hum2. Sanguine Hum: The Weight of the World. If XTC and Jellyfish had a child, Sanguine Hum might be it (with Frank Zappa for a godfather). This album is simply a delight to listen to, from start to finish. It’s one that reveals new details, regardless of how many times you hear it. Their secret weapon is Andrew Booker on drums. Reminiscent of Stewart Copeland’s work with The Police, Booker has a light and inventive touch that often becomes the lead instrument. The entire band generates an organic sound that is seductive and playful. Best track: “The Weight of the World” –

Album of the Year 

Haken1. Haken: The Mountain. Until a couple of months ago, I had never heard a note by this band. Fast forward to now, and there hasn’t been a 48-hour period when I haven’t listened to this album, in its entirety, at least once. An extraordinary meditation on the importance of never giving up on overcoming obstacles, The Mountain is a deeply moving work. Musically, it is progressive metal in the same vein as Dream Theater, Devin Townsend, and even Rush. Every single song is indispensable, but if I had to pick one, it would be “Pareidolia” –

Well, reader, thanks for hanging in there to the bitter end. I hope I’ve affirmed some of your own opinions and perhaps piqued some interest in an artist or two you’re not aware of yet. Here’s hoping 2014 is as good as 2013!

Pure Pop for Prog People

Sometimes you have to put aside the extended epics and experience the simple pleasure of a nicely crafted pop song. With that in mind, here’s a playlist of recently released pop-like songs that prog-lovers can enjoy without guilt:

1. Sound Of Contact: “Not Coming Down”. Coming from their extraordinary album, Dimensionaut, this catchy tune has all the right ingredients: wall-of-sound production, rich vocal harmonies, an eminently hummable chorus, and they even sneak in a Beatlesque bridge. Take a listen, if you don’t believe me:

2. Days Between Stations: “The Man Who Died Two Times”. I’ve written about the wonderful album this track appears on in a previous post, and it features a delightful cameo by XTC’s Colin Moulding.  It has an irresistible beat married to an insistent synthesizer riff, with Moulding’s multitracked, wry vocals floating over the controlled chaos. Think classic Alan Parsons Project mashed with 10CC, and you get a glimmer of the genius of this song. Go ahead and spend a buck for the mp3 of it here. You won’t be disappointed.

3. Sanguine Hum: “The Weight of The World”. Okay, this one is almost 15 minutes long, which qualifies it as a genuine epic, but it is so effortlessly melodic and uplifting I have to include it. I’ve always thought Sanguine Hum’s secret influence was Jellyfish, and it’s hard to deny that here. If Jellyfish and “One Size Fits All”- era Mothers of Invention had a child, it would be this track. It lilts, it waltzes, it almost skitters out of control, but it never loses its pop appeal.  The first 37 seconds of their promo for the album are taken from this near-perfect song:

4. Big Big Train: “Uncle Jack”. I defy anyone to listen to this song and not end up grinning ear to ear. A jaunty tempo provides a fertile bed for lush vocals that sing the joy of taking a walk outdoors. And when the counter-melody hits at 2:40, you’re transported to paradise. Listen below (but buy the whole album, English Electric Part One):

5. Arjen Lucassen: “E-Police”. It can’t be an accident that Lucassen’s “E-Police” recalls the glories of late-70s Cheap Trick (“Dream Police”?). A big helping of glam rock that will leave you hitting Repeat on your player.

6. Gazpacho: “Mary Celeste”. A Norwegian band does Celtic music, and creates a pop masterpiece. A delicate intro on mandolin and piano blossoms into a full-blown production that includes accordion, guitars, violin, and masterful vocals. It doesn’t hurt that the melody compels you to get up and move.

So there you have it – a playlist that you can use to seduce your friends who are woefully ignorant of prog into the beauty of that genre, or one that you can use yourself when the occasion calls for some sing-at-the-top-of-your-lungs music. Enjoy.

Night of the Prog 2013

For those about to read, this is a summary of my visit to the Night of the Prog festival in Loreley, Germany on 13th and 14th July 2013. It’s quite long and is effectively in three parts…The Journey and Site; Day 1 and Day 2. I hope you enjoy it.

Introduction

Since I got back ‘into’ music about 10 years ago I’ve always had an urge to spread my wings, venture outside our ‘Green and Pleasant Land’ and travel to a European festival. The opportunity arose when I saw the initial line-up of Night of the Prog (8) and this was reinforced with the late addition of Amplifier (a personal favourite). The line-up announced was an unusual mix, with the classic Canterbury sound of Caravan sharing the stage with young post-rock upstarts Maybeshewill. The biggest name in Prog, Steve Wilson may have been headlining on Day 1 but we had Prog Death Metal giants Opeth from Sweden finishing proceedings on Day 2, preceded by metal specialist Devin Townsend. This interesting combination had, according to organiser Win, not helped with ticket sales. Certainly the festival was not replete with Classic Prog artists and for those who weren’t aware of the line-up, here it is:

Day 1                                                                                  Day 2

Sanguine Hum                                                                  Anima Mundi

Sound of Contact                                                             Maybeshewill

The Pineapple Thief                                                        Anglagard

Crippled Black Phoenix                                                  Amplifier

Magma                                                                              Caravan

Steve Wilson                                                                    The Devin Townsend Project

.                                                                                          Opeth

On day 1 we had the complex Prog sound of Sanguine Hum; the contemporary, slightly ‘commercial’ Sound of Contact; the power pop-prog of The Pineapple Thief; the ‘blended’ rock mix of CBP; Magma’s own unique ‘Zeul’ genre and the dark vision of Steve Wilson.

On day 2 Anima Mundi would kick things off with some symphonic prog; Maybeshewill would follow up with instrumental, guitar laden post-rock;  Anglagard would make a rare appearance to grace us with their angular but beautifully haunting sound. Amplifier would rock us out with their heavy, spacey vision; Caravan would share their classic, playful Canterbury sound. I’m sure the DTP would try to blow our eardrums with his wall of sound metal and Opeth would hopefully surprise us with a curious mix of death metal growling (the old stuff) and the newer, more standard prog vibe.

To me a perfect mix with something for everyone. And for those ‘one dimensionauts’ (?) an opportunity to broaden their listening habits and possibly ‘acquire the taste’ for other genres.

The ‘Trip’

We left early on Friday 12th knowing the 475 mile trip would take most of the day. With all our victuals safely onboard my German car we arrived without incident at Folkestone to catch ‘Le Shuttle’. Why we were singled out for a drug inspection is beyond me. We were on a road trip, no other type. No drugs detected we safely embarked on the train and proceeded without incident to France. Trusting in Ms Sat Nav we drove through the flatlands of northern France and Belgium, passing Dunkirk and the fields of Flanders, the scene of so much carnage in two World Wars.  Passing Brussels to the north and joining the A314, the Sat Nav perked up and said ‘Follow this road FOR A LONG WAY’. Yes indeed and we finally entered Germany. If I thought there was one country with a hassle free road system it would be this country famed for its efficiency. Unfortunately due to incessant road works and traffic jams we crawled into Koblenz. My co-driver was literally ‘Sleeping in Traffic’ as I listened to my favourite 35 minute track!

Everything in Germany appears big, large-scale. From the monstrous power stations we passed to the sheer scale of the river and other valleys spanned by hugely impressive engineering feats of construction. The countryside in this part of Germany is detritus fee and all the cars seem clean and new. There’s a sense of opulence. I lost count of how many large, black Mercedes passed us by effortlessly.

As we approached Koblenz the Sat Nav came into its own as we traversed a myriad of A and B roads until we found ourselves on the East bank of the Rhine (and that’s very important to get right travelling to Loreley). We climbed up the heights enveloping the river before the road bent down towards the river bank.  A ten mile drive along the winding Rhine, resplendent in sunshine, we passed numerous charming villages at each bend.

Arriving at St Goarshausen, the village below the Loreley heights, we abruptly stopped and were ensnared in the ‘Muse’ traffic. The world-famous band was playing the venue that very night.  There is only one way up to Loreley and we snaked our way up the steep road in a file of traffic and finally arrived at the world famous site at around 1900 hours. A long journey completed we were in definite need of succour.

The Campsite

The fact that we were only aware of Muse’s presence shortly before the event meant we didn’t have tickets and this was a major bummer. Muse gets a lot of bad press from Prog fans but I have a great admiration for them both as musicians and for their somewhat bombastic rock.

By the time we had erected our tent and had a bite to eat (a very late full English breakfast) the site had exploded into the shuddering power of Muse’s stadium rock.

English breakfast - publish

The campsite was only about 300 metres from the Amphitheatre and the acoustics are such that you almost feel you are sat watching with the paying fans. So we heard Muse perform a greatest hits collection, with a fantastic cover version of Man with a Harmonica from Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West as an intro to Knights of Cydonia. Listening to this immense soundtrack to this classic Spaghetti Western is recommended.

Campsite 3 - publish

Muse finished around 2300 hours and this was followed by chaotic scenes as cars, vans and tour buses tried to leave through the one narrow exit. Although I was tired, sleep was impossible so I texted Nic Dewulf, a fellow Big Big Train fan from Belgium, and we met up on the campsite. We had a good Prog chinwag with Nic and his friends. Nic is keeping the flag flying amongst the youth of today (he’s only 23…a prog babe in arms!).

The returning Muse fans were a little ‘wired’ and this coupled with Prog fans excited with the prospect of a superb weekend in glorious weather, led to a barmy late evening. However, somehow I managed to dose off only to be woken up to what seemed to be Symphonic Prog to the left of me and a Metalfest to the right of me. I have to say that in a masochistic way I enjoyed the surprisingly melodious power of a  German baritone accompanied by two tenors singing an unrepeatable (i.e. very rude) chorus from a metal song I knew but just couldn’t place. Glorious stuff!

I eventually returned to slumber, awoke early at 0645 and had an early shower and shave. Generally I found the facilities pretty good at the campsite but there did seem to be a lack of toilet paper (always a camping essential) and there’s little room for modesty as the main shower block was unisex! A nice English cup of tea was imbibed followed by another as I seem to need a couple to get me going in the morning nowadays. This restored me to a semblance of health and my invigorated body felt capable of enjoying the Day 1 festivities.

The Loreley site

It was a beautiful morning and with proceedings not commencing until 1400 hours we decided to enjoy the world famous views. Loreley is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site situated on the east bank of the Rhine at a sharp bend in the river. The natural cliff face is approximately 120 metres high and the sheer drop has little protection with only a few nominated viewpoints having railings.  The campsite is literally on the edge of the cliff face.

The vista is stunning, clearly displaying the natural beauty of this part of the Rhine, which is a walkers’ paradise. Roads run along the edge of both sides of the river as the Rhine cuts through the natural gorge in the countryside. To the north there are beautiful views of picture postcard towns, villages and castles flanking the river. The river traffic is frequent with many huge long barges carrying various trade cargoes and sightseeing boats traversing their course. The river is fairly narrow at this point and navigation is difficult. I have attached some pictures but they cannot do justice to the impressive beauty of this area of the Rhine.

View to the South 1 - publish

View to the North 3 - publish

DAY 1 – The Bands

The venue itself was built in the 1930s as a Nazi ‘Thingplatze’ to host cultural events and can hold a maximum of 18,000 with 5,000 seats. Over the next two days the number of attendees was slightly disappointing with perhaps 3000-4000 people enjoying the music.  From the back the Amphitheatre slopes quite steeply with the grassy banks offering shade for the weary festival goer. There were the usual official merchandise tents together with CD and vinyl stalls offering the best of European Prog music. Beer and even a cocktail tent provided refreshment. Food stalls mainly provided local cuisine with varieties of ‘Wurst’ on offer.

The stone, semi-circular seating provided both an excellent view and sore bottoms, with various innovative ways being used to provide a comfortable perch.

Sanguine Hum

First up were Sanguine Hum who have been receiving critical acclaim for their last two albums Diving Bell and The Weight of the World, the latter being played in its entirety (I think). This was the second time I have seen them and I would like to report I really like them but I’m still undecided! Their music is full of complex time signatures and lacks the sort of fluidity I like. Joff Winks’ vocals are light and a touch fragile at times. Technically demanding to play with intricate arrangements, it’s clever, inventive music that the band delivers with aplomb but whilst it’s interesting contemporary progressive music, it doesn’t press enough of my musical buttons…at the moment. I need to spend a little more time listening to their recordings, methinks.

Sanguine Hum - publish

In terms of the set, it’s always difficult being the first band and I felt they were slightly in awe of the surroundings.  I think Joff Winks, who is obviously a modest chap, seemed  almost apologetic to be on stage and could try to engage a bit more with the audience.

Sound of Contact

The brainchild of David Kerzner and Simon Collins (yes Phil is his dad!), Sound of Contact have been kicking up a bit of a storm with their new concept album, Dimensionaut. Once again, my second live listen, the band commenced  with a short instrumental number and followed up with three tracks that I would consider almost ‘commercial’ in sound and structure (God forbid!).  Simon Collins sounds very similar to his father, with similar looks and mannerisms to boot. A little AOR for my taste, particularly Pale Blue Dot, but nonetheless engaging. They finished with Mobius Slip, a classic long ‘proggy’ track with the middle section reminding me of Porcupine Tree in their heavier period. They are newcomers and I’m sure their sound will develop (and become more progressive?). They performed confidently live and were better than when I saw them at the Garage in London recently supporting Spocks Beard. Good luck to them on their extensive European and North American tour.

Sound of Contact - publish

The Pineapple Thief

Third up was Bruce Soord’s vehicle, The Pineapple Thief, who were determined to add some more energy into proceedings. The crowd were, like me, beginning to flag in the heat. Bruce Soord has been around a long time and is beginning to receive the acclaim he deserves. I was interested to see how they would perform in a venue that for them was seriously large. I saw them last year at the tiny Barfly club in Camden and you could hardly swing a cat in there.

The latest output Someone Here is Missing and All the Wars is Prog-pop with simple repetitive riffs and this provided the bulk of the set. The band displayed a lot of energy on stage and the crowd responded with chorus singing, clapping in 6/8 time and some dodgy ‘swaying’ at times (or were these people hallucinating as the heat radiated off the stone seating!). I’m a great fan of TPTs output over the years and they delivered an invigorating set that revitalised me. A well deserved standing ovation and the first encore.

TPT 7 - publish

Crippled Black Phoenix

A sort of UK supergroup, CPB released their first album in 2006 and has gone through numerous line-up changes over the years. Their sound combines elements of heavy/blues based rock, post-rock and at times a ‘stoner’ sound and they mix instrumental only with standard verse, chorus tracks. I thought they were a little slow to get going at first but when they did they totally commanded the stage and produced a killer set. I particularly liked their cover of ‘Of a Lifetime’ by Journey but that was on the ‘softer’ side of things. I own a couple of their albums, one of which is quite mellow, but live, with the luxury of 7 members and notably 3 guitarists, they produced a much heavier, very powerful, almost ‘wall of sound’. It was slow, head-banging stuff to me. They finished incredibly strongly and literally rocked the amphitheatre down, receiving a prolonged standing ovation as they brought the set to a dramatic, stunning conclusion with the anthemic ‘Burnt Reynolds’. Definitely a band I would see again and one I recommend as a live act. I was so impressed I went to the ‘merch’ desk and bought one of their albums on vinyl.

Crippled Black Phoenix 1 - publish

Magma

Magma are the vision of Christian Vander and have been granted their own musical genre called ‘Zeuhl’ and sing in their own made-up language ‘Kobaian’.  Heralding from the classic era of Prog in the 70s they sound absolutely nothing like their contemporaries. Magma deliver a truly unique musical sound, with a classical music structure, dominated by repetitive chanting. I was really looking forward to hearing them after  being left intrigued by their classic ‘Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh’ (MDK) on vinyl recently (essential preparation I was told!). This album is part 1 of their cult sci-fi trilogy.

Let’s be honest here, the music is bizarre and you have to be a little bit weird, perhaps even insane to like this stuff. However as I can stomach, and at times like, acts such as Captain Beefhart, Zappa , Mr Bungle and The Residents I am probably ‘certified’ myself.

The set commenced with a track from a new but as yet unreleased album which was driven along nicely with a single pulse-like bass line and was even a little funky at times. Was Mr Vander going a bit soft in his old age? Certainly not, as the set took us into increasingly darker and bizarre territory, exposing us to tribal themes and culminated in the whole of MDK itself. The chanting, both unrelenting and severe, was delivered by three accomplished singers (one man, two women). It’s somewhat like Carmina Burana on drugs. The language itself sounds very Germanic and quite harsh to my ear. The music is multi-layered with a strong drum (at times tribal) and bass line throughout. Everything is quite repetitive, particularly the vocal chanting that as it increases in intensity has a hypnotic, even trance-like quality. At times I felt like a drug-induced disciple of Dionysus being whipped into a frenzied state of heightened self-awareness (it was NOT sexual ecstasy!) And, before you ask, I hadn’t imbibed in anything more than a few weak German beers.

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One has to admire Mr Vander for maintaining his vision and there is no doubt that all the musicians are talented but it’s a difficult listen and comes over as quite awkward, even uncomfortable at times. If you haven’t heard Magma then I think it’s fair to say you will not have heard anything like it before…well I haven’t that’s for sure.

However, in a strangely masochistic way I actually enjoyed
it.  I’ve always been intrigued by challenging music that break boundaries. It speaks volumes for Magma’s reputation that a lot of the other musicians (notably Steven Wilson and Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt) watched the set alongside the audience.

Steven Wilson

So we came to the headline act, the Prog God himself, Mr Steven Wilson, who was the main attraction to all the attendees I had spoken to. I had already seen the show in London earlier in the year and I know of no-one who wasn’t blown away by that evening, even some of the SW sceptics. The Raven That Refused To Sing is SW’s latest solo offering and he had assembled an array of amazing talent to support him (I won’t repeat them here). The new album shows that SW is quite willing to tinker with his previous winning formula as TRTRTS has a much more jazzy edge to it. I’m a great admirer of most of SW’s work from the early ‘psychedelic’ phase of Porcupine Tree through the ‘heavier’ years to the darker social commentary of his later work. I’m presuming most people at Loreley had not seen the show before. I was hoping for a little variation from the London set but there were only marginal changes. Basically he played the whole of TRTRTS and finished with the old Porcupine Tree favourite Radioactive Toy.

So how good was it? Technically it was almost flawless, like listening to CD quality on a high-spec  hi-fi system. The show is a stunning audio and visual experience.  The videos are superb, although rather unsettling, but that’s not surprising considering the album’s supernatural themes. But I was slightly disappointed with the lack of interaction with the crowd. The man himself delivered a few quips and witticisms but there was little ‘on-stage’ involvement from the rest of the band who just seemed to ‘get on with it’. There is no doubt in my mind that SW is a real ‘mover and shaker’ in the Prog world and his latest offering is a ‘tour de force’ (especially live). But for me the second offering was a little bit flat compared to my first experience.  I like the uncertainties surrounding a live setting with the possibility of hearing a slightly different interpretation of songs but it seemed all very calculated to me. Having said this, the crowd absolutely loved it and they were right to do so.

A great finish to Day 1 with events closing at 1245 in the morning.

Day 2

Oh dear, that pork burger and spicy fries backfired on me the next morning. Even a quick walk, a caffeine fix and shower wouldn’t do the trick so I lay on my carry mat feeling a tad sorry for myself until gone 11am. With events commencing at midday on Sunday, 7 bands performing and a 2300 hours curfew, I shook myself out of my self-induced stupor and arrived shortly after Anima Mundi had started the festivities on day 2.

Anima Mundi

Now these guys (and gals) hail from Cuba and have being trawling a lonely furrow in their home country since for over ten years. I had purchased their latest CD titled ‘The Way’ following a taster on ‘The Prog Dog’ show, hosted by the incorrigible Geoff Banks and Jon Patrick. Anima Mundi means ‘spirit of the world’ and hailing from Cuba they evidenced the growing cosmopolitan reach of progressive music. A five piece with extra percussion and clarinet at times, they deliver a neo symphonic rock full of swathing synth and melody. They clearly loved having the opportunity to expose their craft to a wider audience and played with a refreshing passion and energy. I only recognised the last track, ‘Cosmic Man’ from ‘The Way’ but thoroughly enjoyed the whole set which was significantly heavier and rockier than I had heard on cd. A great start to the day.

Maybeshewill

I think a few eyebrows were raised when MSW were announced as an act as they are a young band delivering purely instrumental post-rock with some limited vocal sampling. Certainly their youthful looks and general attire appeared slightly out of place in the surroundings and, occasionally, they looked slightly uncomfortable.  Their sound is quite straightforward with two guitars pounding out short, punchy power riffs and these dominate at the expense of the keyboards, although there were a few nice soft, usually ‘intro’, keyboard passages. Many of the riffs were very catchy, if a bit ‘samey’ and I found myself foot-tapping along. I’m a great post-rock fan with one of my favourite bands in any genre being Mogwai and I also get absorbed into the darker themes produced by Godspeed You! Black Emperor and This Will Destroy You.

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I felt that the crowd reaction, who did their best to warm to these youngsters put before them, was not helped by the polite but very taciturn nature of the lead singer. I know it’s the ‘done thing’ for youngsters to be a lit bit distant from the older generation (believe me – I have kids of 18 and 20) but music should, and indeed does, help to break down age barriers. So a piece of advice to the band, if I may be so bold… us old-timers are an accommodating, tolerant bunch and more engagement would help your performance and enhance our enjoyment. Overall , I’m glad they were invited as variety in festivals is important.

Anglagard

I think there was a huge expectation surrounding Anglagard’s appearance.  Legendary in prog-circles, particularly in Scandinavia, a cult band who released two acclaimed albums in the early ‘90s before breaking up. A hugely long hiatus was broken with one of my favourite albums of last year, Viljans Oga.

Anglagard produce beautifully constructed pastoral yet angular music with an eerie, mystical feel, redolent of the deep, dark forests of their native Sweden, full of the supernatural.

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The band took a long time setting up and this was understandable considering the scarcity of their live performances. They opened with a specially arranged piece, typical of their canon. What a stark contrast between the complexity of Anglagard and the simplicity of Maybeshewill (and that’s not a criticism of ‘simple’).

The live performance lost none of the immense beauty of their haunting music. Truly sublime with excellent performances by all members of the band. The mesmeric flute playing was a highlight for me.

Amplifier

The creation of Sel Balamir, Amplifier are another band who have been around for a fair while and are now getting deserved attention. Their latest offering, the mellower ‘Echo Street’ has been nominated as Album of the Year in the Classic Prog Awards. The band came to my notice after they released (through their own endeavours after four years of hard toil) the two hour concept album, The Octopus, in 2011. The Octopus literally takes you on a trip ‘to another dimension’.

This was my fourth live gig in less than two years, so yes I like them! Amplifier gig extensively throughout Europe and are definitely more popular here than in the UK.

Sel Balamir in full flow
Sel Balamir in full flow

Amplifier deliver Space Rock full of heavy effects-laden guitar riffs and solos. What I’ve always liked about Amplifier’s sound is the heavy driving bass and rhythm guitar coupled with some intricate, subtle lead guitar. This combination produces a huge soundscape that fills my head in a spectacular way.  However this is a difficult combination to crack when the volume of all instruments is set at LOUD. I’ve yet to hear them actually nail it totally in a live setting and a combination of sound problems, coupled with the introduction of a third guitar player and a bass on LOUD PLUS, totally drowned out all the subtlety. I’m not a fan of the third guitar and I’ve heard them better with only two. But who am I to judge.

They started with Spaceman from their recent Sunriders EP, followed by the brilliantly riffy, if slightly repetitive and overlong, The Wheel, from Echo Street. They continued with numerous fans’ favourites such as Interglacial Spell, The Wave and Interstellar (what a track that is!), all from The Octopus. As the festival was running behind schedule they had to foreshorten their appearance and finished with the anthemic Airborne from their eponymous first album. Amplifier always give it their all and are dedicated to all that is The Octopus (why always the black shirts and special logo ties?). I’m a stickler for sound so overall I was a bit disappointed but I recommend them live if you like your music at the heavier, spacey end of the prog spectrum.

Caravan

No sound problems for these old warriors of the Canterbury scene. It was pure plug and play. A greatest hits was delivered with classic tracks from For Girls who Grow Plump in the Night (Memory Lain, Hugh/Headloss, The Dog The Dog He’s At It Again) and from In The Land Of Grey and Pink we had Golf Girl and the classic Nine Feet Underground.

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Consummate professionals, they know how to work an audience with plenty of witty banter and the entertainment included skilful playing of spoons and washboard! Always playful but with some clever social comment, I’m never sure whether to take them seriously and how can one with some of the most politically incorrect album and song titles ever put to paper. Ten out of ten; superb entertainment and the crowd loved them.

Devin Townsend Project

I know little or nothing about Mr Townsend and I missed part of the set to ’freshen up’ after another eight hours of hot sun, beer and loud music. When I returned I noticed the following:

  1. The band produced a huge sound for a three piece
  2. There was a cardboard cut-out of a band member on stage
  3. As a lead guitarist and vocalist, Devin Townsend didn’t seem to take himself too seriously and worked the crowd well.

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The sound was hard rock and metal; unfortunately the band were missing a guitarist (or was it a keyboard player?) and  a huge amount of backing tapes were being used to the extent I didn’t know what was live and what was pre-recorded. Good fun but not really my cup of tea.

Opeth

To conclude proceedings we had Opeth. Now I like heavy rock but i’m not a death metal fan. I had been recommended the band’s last offering ‘Heritage’ which is a big departure for Opeth, leading them into more mainstream Prog territory (and apparently took a lot of their diehard fans well outside their comfort zone). Band leader Mikael Akerfeldt, on guitar and lead vocals was quick to point out that he understood that there were fans from both ‘camps’ and therefore the set would be a mix of old and new. So we could expect some death metal growling but no apologies would be offered.  Mr Akerfeldt introduced each track with wit and intelligence and this was appreciated by all concerned.

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Starting with ‘The Devil’s Orchard’ from Heritage, an excellent track with a jazz fusion vibe but a dark edge, the tone was immediately changed as the band hammered out a classic death metal track from Ghost Reveries titled Ghost of Perdition. As the set continued I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of light and subtle with abrupt changes to intensely heavy within each death metal track. And it worked very well to my ears.

I was truly impressed with the quality of musicianship and the eclectic mix of death metal, prog rock, psychedelic and even folk music. Opeth delivered tracks with Oriental influences and Spanish guitar. And Mikael Akerfeldt has a tremendously versatile voice.

Opeth have obviously experimented throughout their career that spans over 20 years and 10 albums and the variety put together for this set was both inspirational and a triumph. I’m certain to re-visit some of their older stuff and would love a DVD of their performance to close Night of the Prog.

Final thoughts

So we came to the end of proceedings at 2300 hours on Sunday evening. Night of the Prog 8 had been a superb event, providing me with a perfect mix of old and new; heavy and light; simple and complex.

Highlights for me were numerous. Crippled Black Phoenix seemed infinitely better live than on cd. It was a privilege to see rare appearances from Magma and Anglagard. Witnessing the simplicity of Caravan in a world full of complex sound effects and large show pyrotechnics was refreshing. And finally the surprisingly enjoyable Opeth.

A huge thanks to Win for continuing to organise it. I doubt if any music festival is situated in such beautiful surroundings and the weather was perfect. Thanks also to Nigel Barham for being subtlety cajoled into accepting my invitation. And it was great to actually meet up with some Facebook friends in person.

Roll-on next year.  If Win is reading this my request would be Big Big Train, Echolyn, Beardfish, Motorpsycho, Kraan and a re-formed Oceansize!

Here’s hoping 🙂

Oh, and finally a few tips if you are planning to go:-

Bring a cushion as those stone seats don’t half give one a sore a*se.

Take time out to view the stunning landscape

Ignore the rules about bringing food and drink into the event…food selection is limited and you need plenty of water AND ‘security’ seemed happy to allow stuff through.

Let’s bring the prog back!

Dimo-Eye-Planet

“Let’s bring the prog back!”

That’s the rallying cry at the end of the new Sound of Contact email newsletter.

If you sign up for their mailing list, you will get a link to a free download of the instrumental version of “All Worlds, All Times.”

Here’s the close of the newsletter, with the rallying cry:

We’ve been promising you something good for free and now it’s here. The first of many cool things you’ll be able to hear about and receive just by being part of SOC’s mailing list. Previously unreleased, this instrumental version of part 4 of the song Mobius Slip is more like its original state when it was improvised in the studio and recorded in just a few takes. The band was jamming on the part 2 and 3 sections of the song when they just kept going and part 4 “All Worlds All Times” was created spontaneously. Dave Kerzner’s 2 minute+ keyboard solo at the end was also done in one take. This is SOC “in the zone” exploding with raw emotion and their progressive rock influences shining through. You can hear the intricate interplay between the guitar, keys and Simon’s distinct drumming. Lyrics were later written to this section to wrap up the story of the album. But the instrumental version has a life all its own. This is a gift to Sound of Contact fans and a big thank you for your support!
Note: Please don’t share the song with others or upload it to YouTube or anywhere on line. We ask you to simply tell anyone you know who might like it to sign up for our newsletter and they will be able to receive this song and more in the future. A big thanks from the band! Let’s bring the prog back!

The Sound of Sound of Contact

Simon Collins (SC) and Dave Kerzner (DK) explain the sound of Sound of Contact in their latest interview:

How would you describe your music to those that are yet to hear your work?

SC: We create mental atmospheres spanning a wide spectrum of sonic territory from ambient sci-fi infused Space Rock to vintage Classic and modern Progressive Rock. That said we all have a pop sensibility that really shows in our songwriting. Most importantly when all is said and done, the song is king. There’s a variety of moods and mental atmospheres here that we wish we could find more of these days, but there seems to be a void in music today. In a way, we’ve sub-consciously ended up creating the kind of music we would want to buy and love to listen to ourselves.

DK: Yeah, if you were to think of classic rock bands from the 70’s and bring forward some of the styles of songwriting such as dramatic chord changes, wide dynamic range and picturesque soundscapes fused in with a modern alt rock or even somewhat futuristic film score type sound you’d get an idea of what to expect from Sound of Contact.

You can also listen to Dave having a chat over at Epic Prog: [Part 1] [Part 2]

Dave really knows his prog. Watch him in action below on keys (and with Nick D’Virgilio on drums) at Progfest ’94:
 

Return of the Giant Progweed

Audioholics has an awesome interview with the band members of Sound of Contact, both collectively and individually.

Simon Collins says there: “The band I used to dream about when I was a kid has now arrived and I’m bloody excited about it!”

Oh yes. We are too, Simon!

Check out what Simon (SC) and Dave Kerzner (DK) say when they are asked about why they are doing prog:

SC: This band is exploring new sonic ground but also playing homage to some of our favorite music.  We don’t really look at it as just prog-rock.  There is pop sensibility in the band and it’s on the album, so we don’t look at it that way.

DK: I don’t have a problem being associated with the “prog-rock” label because that’s ultimately a good thing. We’d love nothing more than to do our part in helping to bring that adventurous, experimental and eclectic style back into the fold. I personally miss the excitement of new albums coming out with rich atmosphere, story, dynamics, mood and thought-provoking lyrics. I hope we see more and more of it to be honest. It’s fuel. Fortunately there are some classic albums of this genre to listen to and discover for people who are new to it. But it’s nice to offer new music of that nature to the world. To me it’s a form of giving back. This is what motivated me to want to make music in the first place. The art and beauty of it.

Dave Kerzner also gives the details there on his insanely great keyboard and synth collection:

  • Yamaha CP70
  • Kawai EP-308
  • Hammond C3 Organ with Leslie 122
  • Hammond L100 with Leslie 145
  • RMI Electra Piano
  • Arp Quadra, Solina and Arp 2600
  • EMS Synthi AKS
  • Oberheim 8 Voice SEMs and OBXa
  • EML 200 Modular
  • Serge Modular
  • Roland System 100
  • Sequential Circuits Prophet 10, Prophet 5 Rev 2 and Prophet T8
  • Wurlitzer 200A, 270, 140B
  • Hohner Electra Piano, Pianet N, Clavinet D6, Cembalet
  • Baldwin Electric Harpsichord
  • Vox Continental and Farfisa organs
  • Roland VP330 Vocoder
  • Yamaha EX-1, CS60
  • Rhodes Mk1, Mk2, Mk5 and Suitcase 88
  • Minimoog Model D
  • Moog Taurus I
  • Univox MiniKorg
  • Arp ProSoloist
  • Mellotron M400
  • Eigenharp Alpha
  • Haken Continuum Fingerboard
  • Yamaha Motif XF7
  • Nord Stage 2 73 and 88
  • Nord Wave
  • Prorphet VS rack
  • Yamaha FS1r
  • Kawai K5000r
  • Kurzweil K2600
  • Roland V-Synth rack and 5080
  • Korg EX 8000
  • Oberheim Matrix 1000
  • Arturia Origin

Whoa! Built for prog, I must say.

And don’t miss the cool interview over at Gigs and Festivals, where the guys reveal their favorite tracks on the Dimensionaut album:

SC: I really love ‘Cosmic Distance Ladder‘ as it is one of few tracks on the album that came out of pure jamming and chemistry. It captures the sound of our band in the sense it really highlights all of our musicianship and our ability as a band to create a mental atmosphere.

DK: It’s hard to pick one but if I had to then maybe ‘Omega Point’ would be my choice because it was done in only one take and the music just came out of thin air it seemed. We wrote the words around this jam in the studio and that has a raw energy to it that I really like. Plus the lyrics are a mind trip.

As for me, my favorite Prog Song of 2012 was Flying Colors’ “Infinite Fire.”

But for 2013, the track seemingly destined to take the title is “Möbius Slip“!

What more needs to be said? “Salvation found!”

The Spiritual Vision of Dimensionaut

Sound of Contact LIVE at Z7 in Switzerland—Photo by Andy Wright

I have been contemplating the spiritual riches of Dimensionaut, the truly awesome prog masterpiece from Sound of Contact.

For me, the album does what prog does best, with that characteristically proggy ability to immerse the listener in a cosmic philosophical meditation.

To give another example: One of my absolutely favorite tracks from Big Big Train, “The Wide Open Sea,” does this sort of musical meditation stunningly well.

So, to encounter in Dimensionaut an album-length, equally successful exercise in that kind of philosophical and spiritual meditation, is a real thrill. And it’s an even more remarkable achievement if we consider that Dimensionaut is the equivalent of a vinyl double album.

Here is how I would slice it up for a deluxe vinyl gatefold edition:

SIDE 1:
01. Sound Of Contact (02:05)
02. Cosmic Distance Ladder (04:43)
03. Pale Blue Dot (04:44)
04. I Am Dimensionaut (06:25)

SIDE 2:
05. Not Coming Down (06:01)
06. Remote View (03:54)
07. Beyond Illumination (05:53)
[featuring Hannah Stobart]

SIDE 3:
08. Only Breathing Out (05:57)
09. Realm Of In-Organic Beings (02:52)
10. Closer To You (05:05)
11. Omega Point (06:30)

SIDE 4:
12. Möbius Slip (19:36)
I – In The Difference Engine
II – Perihelion Continuum
III – Salvation Found
IV – All Worlds All Times

If people approach Dimensionaut with an open mind, they will have to admit that this double album is an incredible achievement. Amazingly, it is prog that is accessible to everyone, and yet it does not shatter its integrity with any compromises.

All the negative reviews that I have read, and any reservations that I have heard expressed, stem simply from invidious comparisons, which are completely unfair.

Rather, if you clear your headspace of all preconceptions and genealogical obsessions, and just enter into the spirit of the music, the musical conclusion is inescapable:

With Dimensionaut, the Spirit ever lingers… undemanding contact in your happy solitude!

(I append below an interesting video in which Simon Collins and Dave Kerzner talk about the album’s story concept. They affirm that the musical journey explores not just dimensions of science fiction and romance, but most especially a serious spiritual dimension.)