There have been quite a few CD/DVD/Blu-Ray combos released in the prog world recently, so here’s a rundown of the best of the bunch.
An outstanding performance by the boys from Norway. Even through tricky time signatures that require lockstep coordination of playing, Gazpacho delivers an emotional and beautiful show. Jan Henrik Ohme’s vocals are spellbinding – delicate and tremulous one minute, powerful and commanding the next. While he’s caressing the microphone, his bandmates play their hearts out. Songs I thought I knew take on new meaning and accessibility. This set is a perfect introduction to someone curious about this somewhat enigmatic and definitely magical group.
As light as Gazpacho is dark, Glass Hammer has been riding a high for the past few years – Ode To Echo and The Breaking Of The World are both instant classics. Double Live features the best cuts from those albums, as well as a terrific rendition of the epic “The Knight Of The North”. Steve Babb and Fred Schendel have been together so long they are telepathic onstage. Aaron Raulston is excellent on drums while Kamran Alan Shikoh has matured into an astonishingly inventive guitarist. Carl Groves is the best male vocalist GH has ever had, and Susie Bogdanowicz steals the show with her performance. No fancy camera work here – the music and performance are strong enough to speak for themselves.
Spock’s Beard: The First Twenty Years
This is a fine collection of Spock’s Beard tracks. The first disc features the best of the “Neal Morse Years”, while disc two has six tracks from Beard versions 2 and 3 (featuring Nick D’Virgilio and Ted Leonard) and a new epic featuring a big reunion of everyone. You might think that losing your lead vocalist and sole songwriter would mean the end of a band, but the Beard is nothing if not resilient. The songs from the post-Morse era certainly hold their own against anything from the first six albums. I wish they had included “The Great Nothing”, but there’s only so much space on a compact disc! Of course, long-time Beard fans want to know how the new epic, “Falling Forever” stacks up. To my ears, it’s a pleasant listen, but not particularly memorable. It’s clear that Neal’s path has diverged from the Beard’s, and each camp has its own strengths that don’t necessarily mesh into a powerful whole anymore. The DVD features performances from 1997’s Progfest interspersed with contemporary interviews of the band. It’s illuminating for the hardcore fan, but not essential.
Flying Colors: Second Flight: Live at The Z7
Phenomenal growth from this band. As mentioned in the interviews included in the Blu-ray, the first album had the members somewhat tentative about critiquing each other, while during the recording of Second Flight they were much more collaborative. This is set is a terrific performance that showcases the talents of each member. Casey McPherson is a very confident frontman, and an amazing vocalist. Steve Morse’s guitar work is jaw-dropping good, and Dave LaRue almost steals the show with his bass solos. Mike Portnoy is, as usual, controlled chaos on the drums. Neal Morse plays more of a supporting role in this group, keeping in the background for the most part. “Cosmic Symphony” and “Mask Machine” are highlights, while the segue from “Colder Months” into “Peaceful Harbor” is one of the most beautiful musical moments I’ve ever heard. The quality of the Blu-ray is top-notch, both in sound and video. An excellent choice for the prog fan who enjoys the likes of Boston, or even classic Journey.
Which brings us to the big release of the year: Rush’s R40 Live. I have every live DVD Rush has released, and this isn’t the best performance. But there is something so special about this show that it will probably be the one I return to most often. There were times I caught myself thinking, “Gosh. they are looking old!”, but then I had to remind myself they’ve given of themselves so generously for 40 years. 40 years! How many bands have kept the same lineup for that long, and are still talking to each other? ZZ Top is the only one that comes to mind. The fact that this show is from Toronto makes it even more moving.
This is a top of the line production, with every possible camera angle a fan could ask for. The sound on the Blu-ray edition is outstanding; there are two surround mixes to choose from: front of stage or center of hall. The show itself is masterful – it is a trip back in time from Clockwork Angels all the way to “Working Man”.
The animated intro is hilarious – I had to go through it practically frame-by-frame to catch all of the visual puns. Every album and tour is name-checked somewhere in it. The initial stage set is very elaborate, but as the band goes back into their history, you can see workers slowly dismantle it. At the start of the second set, Alex is front of a huge stack of Marshall amps, and we’re transported to the 1970’s. By the time of the encores, Alex and Geddy are down to single amps on chairs in a high school auditorium.
My only quibbles are selfish – I wish there was at least one track from Power Windows/Hold Your Fire, and I don’t know why the bonus tracks at the end couldn’t have been inserted into their proper places in the concert video. Other than that, it’s a very good setlist.
What comes through most clearly as the concert progresses is the love and respect Alex, Geddy, and Neil have for each other. They look like they’re having the time of their lives, and they’re so glad to have several thousand fans along with them. Thanks for the ride, boys. It’s been a great one.