Rick’s Quick Takes for March

Lots of great music has crossed the metaphorical Progarchy transom this month! Purchasing links are embedded in each artist/title listing; album playlists or samples follow each review.

The Flower Kings, By Royal Decree: Fun fact: this is the third double album in a row from king of Kings Roine Stolt and his merry band. And like 2019’s Waiting for Miracles (which started the streak) it’s compulsively listenable from start to finish. Fresh out of lockdown, Stolt, singer Hasse Fröberg, keyboardist Zach Kamins, drummer Mirko deMaio and alternating bassists Jonas Reingold & Michael Stolt laid down 18 songs in the studio, negotiating the twists and turns of wildly varied material (some of which dates back to the early 1990s) with energy, precision and evident delight. Not a trace of metal here, and I hear much more psychedelia, fusion and Eurofunk in the mix than stereotypical “prog” — but to my ears, that’s what makes goodies like the unpredictable opener “The Great Pretender”, the ravishing ballads “A Million Stars” and “Silent Ways”, and the off-kilter eccentricity “Letter” so fresh and fun. There are plenty of serious lyrical moments too, as in “The Soldier” and “Revolution”; but, by and large, By Royal Decree is the sound of Stolt and company refreshed and revisiting their optimistic roots, soaring on the wings of one marvelous melody after another. It’s as much a joy to hear as it must have been to create.

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Neal Morse on Transatlantic’s The Absolute Universe: The Progarchy Interview

As we (and everybody else in the prog rock world) announced back in November, Transatlantic’s fifth album The Absolute Universe will be unleashed on February 5. This album will arrive not just in multiple formats, but also in multiple versions: the 60-minute, 14-track The Breath of Life (Abridged Version), the 90-minute, 18-track Forevermore (Extended Version) and The Ultimate Edition box set (both versions on LP and CD, plus a 19-track 5.1 version on BluRay).

Having had the privilege of hearing the abridged and extended versions, I’ll testify that The Absolute Universe thoroughly satisfies my craving for that special Transatlantic blend of prog past, present and future. Everything that I love about the band is there, to (and sometimes beyond) the point of gluttony; I’ve come away from each listen delighted, thrilled and moved. So it was another real treat when, the week before Christmas, I got to chat with Neal Morse about this new music. (Neal also talked to Bryan Morey about his latest solo album, Sola Gratia, a few months back.) In this interview, Neal tells us how The Absolute Universe came together, why a double album wasn’t enough, and more.

So first, thanks for talking to me!  I have been a Transatlantic fan for a long time back.  SMPT:e was actually the first thing I ever heard with you involved in it, and that got me back into prog after some time away from it.   

Right!  Good!

And then I saw you guys in 2010 in Chicago, and that was a great, great, great show!  I enjoyed that so much. 

That would have been The Whirlwind?

Yes, exactly right.

Was that at Park West?  Yeah, that was a great night!

Yeah, it was Mike’s birthday.

Right!  And they got us Giordano’s [“Chicago’s Famous Stuffed Deep Dish Pizza”] for after-show food!  [Chuckles] I remember the really good pizza!  It was a good night.

Yes, it was a great show.  I missed you the last time through [touring the Kaleidoscope album].  But now you’ve got this new album coming through the pipeline, The Absolute Universe.  And I guess my first question is: how does a new Transatlantic album happen?  Was there a certain person or a certain thing that kickstarted the process?  How did it come about?

Well, let’s see.  I think it started with me! I think I emailed everybody, if memory serves,  but that was a long time ago.  It would have been near the end of 2018 or the beginning of 2019, I think.  I started the conversation, and then we started talking about schedules.  At first, it’s like “hey, do you wanna do it?” and everybody was like, “yeah, we’d like to, but …”  We had to find the right time when everybody had time for it, which wound up being the end of September 2019 in Sweden.

I remember starting to write some demos for Transatlantic in March, I think, of 2019.  And I think we went round and round about where to record and when to record for many months, till finally it was like, “OK, if we’re gonna do this, it needs to be in this window of time.”  And so, we all convened in Sweden and worked on it for about two weeks – wrote and recorded what I would call the template.  Not the keeper track, but the template for what became the long version of the album, Forevermore. 

We left there in early October, and then Mike came here into Nashville to do his keeper drums.  He would have done them in Sweden, but we ran out of time.  In fact, we were still changing the album and writing it right up on the last day, when we had to go to the airport.  And everything kind of fell into place right at the end; it was pretty amazing.

Anyway, Mike came here, did his drums in November.  Then I did my parts in December and January, and then I left to go to Australia to play some shows and take a vacation in New Zealand.  And that’s where I got away from the album, and I started working on my solo album Sola Gratia.

And then I listened to the Transatlantic album again in March, I think it was.  And I kinda had the feeling like – and this is really unusual for me, cause a lot of times I want to make things longer!  But I felt like maybe this album would benefit from some editing!   So, I started editing some things out.  I thought maybe some of the guys might like it as well, because when we were writing it in Sweden, several of the guys were wanting it to be a single disc, and they really didn’t want it to be a double.

Anyway, I sent off this edit with, I think, the subject line that read, “Am I Crazy?”  I thought they might just dismiss the whole concept right away.  But not everybody did.  Some of them were like, “maybe this is a good way to go.”  So then, we went round and round about that for a couple of months, trying to decide what was the best thing to do.

We were still trying to figure that out when Mike had the idea of releasing both!  And then once we agreed to release both, then the idea was to make the versions as different as possible.

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Bryan’s Best of 2020

Looking back at 2020, it’s hard to believe that we lost Neil Peart at the beginning of the year. That loss hit me pretty hard, since Rush’s music has been central to my life from an early age. I talk more about that in my tribute to Peart: https://progarchy.com/2020/01/12/neil-peart-a-misfits-hero/. I start off my year-end review list with a reminder of the loss of Neil because it seems like a fitting way to remember 2020. Peart’s loss represents what so many people have lost this year, whether it be family members and friends due to the virus or jobs lost due to draconian forced business closures that haven’t actually accomplished anything in slowing the viral spread. Not to mention the emotional distress that physical separation is causing many people.

Another thing we lost this year was live music from our favorite bands. Big Big Train had their first North American tour planned for late spring this year. Canceled. Devin Townsend was in the middle of a glorious North American tour with Haken when everything blew up. Canceled. Obviously this list could be expanded to every band that tours. Losing live music makes it even more difficult for bands in a niche genre to spread their music to more people.

But enough lamenting. We still got a lot of great music this year. The following list is in no particular order apart from my number one album at the end. I include both new albums and live records.

Haken – Virus
I was a little surprised that I was the only person over at the Dutch Progressive Rock Page to include this one in my top ten list for their annual list. Maybe people were really sensitive about the name of the album, but it was clear that the album was written and completed before the novel coronavirus was a known entity. The music is fantastic. It’s probably their heaviest album to date, but it still has some of their calmer moments. It’s Haken through-and-through, and it makes a wonderful companion to 2018’s Vector. We also get to hear some more about our old nemesis, the cockroach king. It’s pretty cool how they worked in some of those themes. Fantastic album that should’ve received more attention than it did. Check out my review: https://progarchy.com/2020/07/23/haken-goes-viral-virus-album-review-haken_official/

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The Flower Kings – Islands – Album Review

The Flower Kings – Islands – Inside Out Music, October 30, 2020
Tracks: 
CD 1 – 1. Racing With Blinders On (4:24), 2. From The Ground (4:02), 3. Black Swan (5:53), 4. Morning News (4:01) 5. Broken (6:38) 6. Goodbye Outrage (2:19), 7. Journeyman (1:43), 8. Tangerine (3:51), 9. Solaris (9:10), 10.  Heart Of The Valley (4:18), 11. Man In A Two Peace Suit (3:21)
CD 2 – 1. All I Need Is Love (5:48), 2. A New Species (5:45), 3. Northern Lights (5:43), 4. Hidden Angles (0:50), 5. Serpentine (3:52), 6. Looking For Answers (4:30), 7. Telescope (4:41), 8. Fool’s Gold (3:11), 9. Between Hope & Fear (4:29), 10. Islands (4:12) 

In an effort to find some sort of silver lining in this ridiculously crappy year, I’ll point out that there have been a lot of great releases in the progressive rock world in 2020. The Flower Kings’ upcoming album, Islands, probably wouldn’t have been released this year if the year had unfolded as normal. With many countries in lockdown and bands unable to tour, numerous musicians have found themselves with, as Styx once put it, too much time on their hands.

Multinational band The Flower Kings chose to make the best of their extra free time and use the Internet to their advantage, recording their new album from homes in Sweden, Austria, California, Denmark, and Italy. Fittingly, the album emphasizes the many forms of isolation we experience in 2020 – beyond just the physical. Thus the title Islands

I’m not an expert on The Flower Kings’ discography, but I generally like their music and appreciate the profound impact they have had on the rebirth of classic progressive rock starting in the 1990s. I didn’t particularly enjoy last year’s Waiting for Miracles. It was a little too political for my taste. The artwork alone was a bit obnoxious – an elephant standing on a house of cards while being hypnotized and surrounded by a bunch of oranges… that’s about as subtle as a political cartoon.

Roger Dean’s artwork for Islands, on the other hand, is fantastic. It’s too bad he hasn’t been doing their artwork all along, because it really fits their music. The lyrics “Upside down between earth and sky” from the track “Between Hope & Fear” are particularly reflected in the album art. Islands in particular has a lot of nods to Yes, which has probably always been in their music. Jonas Reingold’s bass stands out to me as being particularly Yes-like on this record. 

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The Big Prog (Plus) Preview for Fall 2020!

As always seems to be the case, there’s tons of great music coming out between now and Black Friday, November 27. Below, the merest sampling of upcoming releases in prog and other genres below, with purchase links to Progarchy’s favorite online store Burning Shed unless otherwise noted.

Out now:

Simon Collins, Becoming Human: after 3 solo albums and Sound of Contact’s acclaimed Dimensionaut, Phil Collins’ oldest son returns on vocals. keys and drums; his new effort encompasses rock, pop, prog, electronica and industrial genres. Plus an existential inquiry into the meaning of life! Available on CD from Frontiers Records.

John Petrucci, Terminal Velocity: the Dream Theater guitarist reunites with Mike Portnoy on drums for his second solo set of instrumentals. Plus Dave LaRue of the Dixie Dregs and Flying Colors on bass. Expect lotsa notes! Available on CD or 2 LP from Sound Mind Records/The Orchard.

The Pineapple Thief, Versions of the Truth: Hot on the heels of their first US tour, Bruce Soord and Gavin Harrison helm TPT’s latest collection of brooding, stylized alt/art rock, honing in on the post-truth society’s impact on people and relationships. Available on CD, BluRay (with bonus track plus alternate, hi-res and surround mixes), LP or boxset (2 CDs/DVD/BluRay) – plus there’s a t-shirt!

Rikard Sjöblom’s Gungfly, Alone Together: Sjöblom spearheads a thoroughly groovy collection on vocals, guitar and organ, with Petter and Rasmus Diamant jumping in on drums and bass. Heartfelt portraits of daily life and love that yield extended, organic instrumental jams and exude optimism in the midst of ongoing isolation. Available on CD and LP (black or deep blood red vinyl).

[Upcoming releases follow the jump …]

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kruekutt’s 2019 Favorites: New Music

Here are the albums of new music from 2019 that grabbed me on first listen, then compelled repeated plays. I’m not gonna rank them except for my Top Favorite status, which I’ll save for the very end. The others are listed alphabetically by artist. (Old school style, that is — last names first where necessary!) Links to previous reviews or purchase sites are embedded in the album titles.  But first, a graphic tease …

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The Truth Will Set You Free: Flower Kings, A KINGDOM OF COLOURS

The Flower Kings: THE KINGDOM OF COLOURS boxset (InsideOut, 2017).

Music: A

Physical Packaging: C/C+

Thanks to the great folks at LaserCD, my copy–no. 215 out 3000–of A KINGDOM OF COLOURS by the majestic FLOWER KINGS–arrived just this afternoon in the mail.

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No. 215 of 3000.

Strangely enough, despite a 20-year love of the band, I didn’t realize this boxset had even come out until I received the advertisement for the second boxset, KINGDOM OF COLOURS 2.

The box is constructed well and quite attractive.  Inside, one finds the numbered certificate, a booklet, the first seven Flower King studio albums (no, The Flower King (1994), however), and an InsideOut advertisement.  Each of the studio albums, it should be noted, is packed in a very thin cardboard sleeve.

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STARDUST 20 Years Later: The Flower Kings

The Flower Kings, STARDUST WE ARE (Insideout Music, 1997).  Two disks, 20 tracks.

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Every once in a while, I see some progger comment on the internet, “I don’t get The Flower Kings,” to which I always want to yell: “What’s not to get?  Hippie prog love and lots and lots of it.”

Admittedly, I’m a huge fanboy when it comes to Roine Stolt and The Flower Kings.  I’ve listened to them so much over the past two decades that there’s no way I could ever be objective when analyzing the band or its music.  To me, every album by The Flower Kings is a small but mighty celebration of the goodness in the world.  Each album represents a mood, a state of mind, a sense of being.

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Scando-Anglo Hippiedom: A Karmakanic Album in Six Parts

Really, who doesn’t admire wild Scandinavian hippies?  One can only imagine those Viking lovers of peace returning in their long boats to establish a loving order upon all the conquered, asking for forgiveness!  Even the clever name of the band, Karmakanic reveals much about the very intentions of ever-amusing Jonas Reingold (The Flower Kings, The Tangent).  The band’s outstanding 2008 album, WHO’S THE BOSS OF THE FACTORY, especially exemplified the best ideals of the late 1960s.

IN A PERFECT WORLD (2011) did as well, but despite the opening track, “1969,” the album didn’t cohere as well as the previous one.

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Karmakanic’s best, DOT.

Whatever the case might have been, Reingold has just released the best of the Karmakanic albums, DOT (officially out from Insideout on July 22, 2016).   It is an extraordinary release in every single and imaginable way.  Not only its structure and flow, but its lyrics, especially, are quite moving.

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