Best of 2015: Symphony X — Underworld

The Man of Much Metal has a really great review articulating why Symphony X’s Underworld deserves to be among his top ten for 2015.

I couldn’t agree more! The MMM totally nails down so many of the reasons why I included it on my own list of the top albums for 2015.

But the MMM’s review does seem a bit rushed. Certainly, I agree with him about the epic stature of “To Hell and Back” (which is the track that really grabbed my attention for this album, because up until I heard it I wasn’t warming up to the odd numbered tracks on the album — namely: 1, 3, and 5 — but when “To Hell and Back” came up as #7, I was immediately captivated and willing to re-listen to the entire album again and again until it grew on me in its totality, odd numbers and all). But I do think the MMM missed his golden chance to mention how it is really the last three tracks of the album that take things to a whole new level.

To my ears, tracks 7 through 11 (the last half of the album) are the absolute best. After the epic-length “To Hell and Back” (9:23), we get a bit of a breather with “In My Darkest Hour” (4:22), since it is shorter than the final three tracks which follow it. But then the unexpected fun really begins.

“Run With the Devil” has a killer riff that sounds like one that The Winery Dogs would toss off when operating at their finest. When I have time to listen to only one track from this album, this is the one I pick. It is mind-blowing in its virtuosity.

“Swan Song” fooled me, with its title, into thinking it was the album’s final track. Its epic length (7:29) and epic vocals and epic sense of conclusion and finality had me thinking that nothing could top such an amazingly operatic song as an album closer. But then Symphony X pulls out an even more epic album closer…

“Legend” never fails to instantly excite me, and it’s because the way it starts off totally sounds like Rush. In fact, the last time Rush sounded this good, it was the 80s! So, it’s even Rushier than Rush.

Yes, I like how “Legend” starts and ends in that classic Rushy vein. But even better, everything in-between is totally awesome as well, as Symphony X shows off also how they are truly their own band. Yet, in my mind, I take the song as a secret tribute to Rush, because of the pinnacle lyric: “The legend never dies.”

Symphony X, in their finest hour. The legend never dies, indeed!

Hot Streak: Best of 2015 @TheWineryDogs

This is an album that I struggled with at first, but in the end it became one of my Top 22 favorites of the entire year.

The biggest problem for me was the track order. I didn’t like the original sequencing at all, so it wasn’t until I came up with my own playlist order of the album that I was able to fully enjoy it.

The first three tracks simply failed to grab me in the beginning. “Oblivion” (track 1)  shows off the musicians’ chops, but I don’t think it is anywhere near one of the best songs on the album. Instead, “The Lamb”(track 13) is both an excellently written song and it also has a wicked display of chops. I would have thought it should be right at the beginning, or at least somewhere in the first half of the album. It is arguably the album’s greatest achievement.

“Captain Love” (track 2) is fun, but again, it is not one of the strongest songs. The whole “pet name” theme driving it was boring for me; it felt like a “novelty” song. I would rather have a track like this come after all the best songs, when I am craving more, and thus am more open to the silliness and fun of this kind of lyrical fluff.

“Hot Streak” (track 3) is funky and fierce, but again, it simply did not grab me. It was not until “How Long” (track 4) and “Empire” (track 5) that I really sat up and took notice. Those two songs are absolutely superb and are completely stunning displays of both songwriting and instrumental mastery.

Other tracks that didn’t offer me maximum enjoyment in the original running order are: “Fire,” “Ghost Town,” “Spiral,” and “Think It Over.” For me, each interrupted the flow of the album. But the other tracks really excited and thrilled me.

So, I took drastic measures and rewrote the track order for the album. I found that with the following playlist, the album became one of my favorites of the year; the trick for me was to hook myself on my favorite six songs first, and then continue to feed the craving they instilled with the rest of the songs coming after, when I was properly disposed to fully enjoy them:

8. “The Bridge”
9. “War Machine”
11. “Devil You Know”
13. “The Lamb”
4. “How Long”
5. “Empire”
1. “Oblivion”
2. “Captain Love”
3. “Hot Streak”
6. “Fire”
7. “Ghost Town”
10. “Spiral”
12. “Think It Over”

I find that this song order never fails to hook me and thrill me. My six favorite songs now come first: these are the ones that, just when I was ready to give up on this album as second-tier, would pop up in the original running order and blow me completely away. I am glad to have the playlist option of re-creating the album. I do think part of a classic album is its proper sequencing.

If you didn’t think The Winery Dogs released one of the year’s best albums, think again. This track ordering totally works for me and seals the deal. Hot Streak is one of the year’s finest.

If you doubt me, I dare you to download the first six songs in my new running order. They are completely amazing. If you listen to just these six, you will become a champion this year of the stunning musical achievement by The Winery Dogs:

8. “The Bridge”
9. “War Machine”
11. “Devil You Know”
13. “The Lamb”
4. “How Long”
5. “Empire”

Bryan’s Best of 2015

2015 turned out to be another fantastic year for prog, as well as metal. Last year, I made a top 10 list, but this year, there has been far too much great music in prog, metal, and rock to narrow it down to 10 albums. Apart from my top 4, there will be no particular order for the rest of my picks. Most of this will be prog, but there is some straight up metal here as well.

The Neal Morse Band – The Grand Experiment

grandexperimentNeal Morse and company have made another outstanding album. “Alive Again” might be one of the top 10 best long progressive songs ever made. It is remarkably beautiful. Mike Portnoy’s drumming is exceptional, as always, and, like last year, this isn’t the last we shall hear of him on this list.

 

 

Spock’s Beard – The Oblivion Particle

cd_top1The Oblivion Particle is my first introduction to Spock’s Beard, and I am heartily impressed. Ted Leonard’s vocals really round out the band. “Bennett Built a Time Machine” is my personal favorite from the record.

 

 

Stryper – Fallen

stryperfallenart1-602x536I’m brand new to Stryper, and after listening to their last two albums, I’m flabbergasted. Their new music is better than their original stuff from the 80s. The drummer has grown incredibly, and Michael Sweet’s vocals soar to the heavens. The best thing – Stryper hasn’t given up on their values. They blast metal to honor God.

 

Lonely Robot – Please Come Home

71R0HHLaiqL._SY355_I was pleasantly surprised by this album. The music has just the right amount of complexity, with a few pop hooks here and there for good measure. The song “Lonely Robot” should be a radio staple, but rock radio sucks.

 

 

LEAH – Kings and Queens

a1021213633_16The reigning queen of prog metal released a masterpiece this year. A long masterpiece. Her combination of metal with celtic influences works amazingly well. She creates a wonderful sound that no one else really tries to duplicate. Originality abounds.

 

 

Dave Kerzner – New World (Deluxe Edition)

david-kerzner-new-world-deluxeThe deluxe edition came out this year, so it counts as 2015. Plus, I overlooked the album last year since it came out in December, and for that I sincerely apologize to Dave. This album brilliantly revives classic elements of Pink Floyd, and Kerzner’s voice is eerily reminiscent of David Gilmour’s. This is an album meant to last.

 

 

The Winery Dogs – Hot Streak

81SPiEsz2HL._SX425_Wow! AC/DC meets Mike Portnoy! Richie Kotzen’s voice has grown on me, as has the “Dog’s” music. From the virtuosity of the first track, “Oblivion,” to the hard rock bombast of “Captain Love,” Hot Streak is a fantastic album. Billy Sheehan’s bass balances Portnoy’s drums and Kotzen’s guitars beautifully. The quiet piece, “Fire,” is a nice change up, as well.

 

Next to None – A Light in the Dark

3655066_origI saw these guys live in concert with Haken this spring, and I was impressed. For teenagers, these guys have serious chops. Max Portnoy stands out though, as he has clearly inherited his father’s raw talent. Check out my review of the album and interview with Max – https://progarchy.com/2015/07/20/metal-mondays-interview-with-max-portnoy-of-next-to-none/

 

Metal Allegiance – Metal Allegiance

safe_image.phpYou could call this a supergroup for thrash, although it seems anything with Mike Portnoy in it could be called a supergroup. His double bass thrash drumming is a nice change for him. The abundant guest performances from bands such as Testament, Anthrax, and many other groups really round out their sound. Normally I don’t like thrash because of the lyrics, but the lyrics here are great. The combination of guests makes this album one of the greatest thrash albums ever made.

Disturbed – Immortalized

81FC381L9HL._SY355_This isn’t prog in any sense of the word, but Disturbed’s first album since 2010 is a return to form for the band. They didn’t want to make an album again unless it was really good, and they delivered on that desire. Immortalized is one of the best album’s they have made, with only one song that I don’t like. Their cover of “The Sound of Silence” is better than the original, in my opinion.

 

Flying Colors: Live at the Z7

CD_FC-2ndNatureLIVE_digi-03-625x567The live Blu-ray is one of the best live shows I have seen. The music is played flawlessly, and the production for sound is excellent. It was filmed in 4K and you can choose from two sound choices – front row or sound board. Well played, FC, well played. Oh ya, more Mike Portnoy, too.

 

Rush – R40 Live 

1035x1511-R40.Tour.Cover7.FNL-copyThis needs no explanation. Long live Rush.

 

 

 

 

Steve Hackett – Wolflight

wolflightFrontCoverAnother great solo effort from one of the greatest guitarists ever. I have such a great respect for Steve Hackett and his dedication to his craft and the genre. Of all the 70s prog giants, Hackett is probably the best ally to the newer prog artists and musicians.

 

 

4. Muse – Drones

MUSE-DRONESAnother fantastic album from Muse, and a dystopic concept album at that. I’m convinced that Matt Bellamy has the best voice in the business, plus he’s a god on the guitar. Chris Wolstenholme’s bass is underrated, as well. Check out my review: https://progarchy.com/2015/08/11/back-to-basics-muses-drones/

 

3. Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase.

A year ago, I couldn’t stand Steven Wilson. Now I’m a fan. Go figure. Hand. Cannot. Erase. is simply brilliant. The story telling is at an extremely high level, and this album, while rather depressing, is so addicting to listen to. Wilson is an incredibly important figure in progressive rock.

 

 

2. Vanden Plas – Chronicles of the Immortals: Netherworld Path 2

81ADonu6jjL._SX355_Combined with part 1, these two albums are a masterpiece. I’m still deciphering what the story is about, but I am thoroughly enjoying it. These guys have been going strong for a long time, and they have only gotten better with age. Check out my review: https://progarchy.com/2015/11/18/vanden-plas-another-stroke-of-genius/

 

1. The Tangent – A Spark in the Aether

tangent1Yeehaw, this is a great album! Holy crap, I don’t know how Andy Tillison does it! He is a master of cultural criticism, and while I don’t agree with him politically, I do respect him immensely. This album is well worth your time.

 

 


 

Like I said, a great year for rock of all kinds. As I promised, Mike Portnoy features prominently in my list, just like last year. He certainly deserves it since he is one of the hardest working men in the business. His “Hello Kitty” drum video for Loudwire was an instant classic.

Cultural RePercussions 2 (1)Best prog book of the year goes to Progarchy’s very own Brad Birzer for his excellent book on Neil Peart, a man of letters. Well worth your time.

Get it at Amazon here.

 

 

kansas_miraclesThe new Kansas documentary, Miracles out of Nowhere, is excellent. While it only goes through Point of Know Return, it is an excellent look at the band, from the band members themselves, as well as Brian May and Garth Brooks. It was great to see that the band members don’t hate each other. In fact, they genuinely seem to like each other. If at all possible, order it from the band because it comes with a bonus disc featuring the band reminiscing and a few other features – http://www.kansasmerch.toursync.com

Check out Carl Olson’s fantastic review of the documentary: https://progarchy.com/2015/08/19/miracles-and-music-out-of-kansas/

915g7JKrT-L._SX385_One final documentary/live concert that is worthy of any “best of” list is Roger Waters’ movie, The Wall. It combines a live concert from his recent tour with short scenes that examine the meaning of the album for him. The concert itself is outstanding – better than his 1990 The Wall concert in Berlin, performed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The music is basically indistinguishable from the album. A worthy look at one of the best and most important albums ever made.

 

Sorry if I have bored you with my list, but I am nothing if not thorough. I’m just amazed by the quality of music that has been released the last few years, and I eagerly look forward to what the coming year has in store. New Dream Theater coming in January. And who knows what Mike Portnoy will release. Such excitement. Merry Christmas everybody, and prog on into 2016.

Top Ten… or Top Thirteen?

For my personal Best of 2013 list, I have just posted (over the last few days) an alphabetical listing of my Top Ten:

Big Big Train: English Electric Part Two

Deep Purple: NOW What?!

Dream Theater: Dream Theater

Haken: The Mountain

Holy Grail: Ride the Void

Kingbathmat: Overcoming the Monster

Sound of Contact: Dimensionaut

Spock’s Beard: Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep

Steven Wilson: The Raven That Refused to Sing and other stories

The Winery Dogs: The Winery Dogs

But, as promised, I am now going to add three more to the list, as three bonus additions, and thus make this a Top Thirteen list.

Why? Well, because this is the year 2013, and also because Black Sabbath released 13 this year (which also happened to be one of Mike Portnoy‘s favorites).

So, stay tuned for #11 on my Top Thirteen of 2013…

The Winery Dogs (Best of 2013 — Part 10)

Coming in the #10 slot (in alphabetical order) on my Best of 2013 list is this supergroup’s eponymous bolt of lightning:

The Winery Dogs

Wow. This album blew me away.

One of my all-time favorite prog drummers, Mike Portnoy, teamed up with Richie Kotzen and Billy Sheehan this year, and they demonstrate to us all the unbeatable power of the power trio when it is done right.

The thrill of listening to these catchy songs, and to the virtuoso musical chops on display in them, evoked a lot of happy musical memories of musical “first encounters” for me.

First, there is the rush of listening to Rush. Like I say, there is nothing quite as exciting as the hard rock power of the power trio when it is done right. The Winery Dogs evoke for me the musical joy I experienced when first listening to Rush in high school. Of course, the greatness of Rush is still there to be savored with every listen. But there is nothing quite like the first ten times that you listen to a truly great album. With this release from The Winery Dogs, we get to experience that kind of magic again, as for the first time.

Second, there is the sonic adrenaline that I love to tap into by listening to Chris Cornell and Audioslave. Therefore I am dedicating my Winery Dogs nomination here for the Best of 2013 to Carl, my fellow Soundgarden aficionado in the republic of Progarchy, in case he has not heard it yet. It’s remarkably satisfying, for those of us who can’t get enough of such upper-echelon vocal stylings, how well Richie Kotzen can recreate the thrill of listening to Chris Cornell.

Third, there is the undefinable excitement that skilled musicianship can bring to enhance and elevate any genre’s tropes. Suddenly, as you round what seems to be a familiar musical corner, you are blindsided and pleasantly surprised by an unexpected display of virtuosity that showers you with musical grace. When Billy Sheehan works his otherworldly magic here on bass guitar, or when Richie Kotzen transports us into ordinarily inaccessible dimensions of guitarcraft, or when Mike Portnoy muscles his way out of the speakers and right into the room next to you, I am reminded of those magical younger days when my friends and I first began listening to all those great, lesser-known albums by “musicians’ musicians.” Those discs opened up musical pathways that most of our schoolmates were missing out on. For some reason, when listening to The Winery Dogs, memories of listening to The Steve Morse Band come to mind for me. But each of you will find that your own personal memories of your first listens to “the greats” will be evoked by this album’s dazzling display of virtuosity.

Best of all, this album is a perfect cure for the dragon sickness of any nascent prog tendency to become a tribal, self-enclosed musical world. It makes the joy of music available to anyone with the ears to listen.

This disc is a perfect illustration of how musical men with prog chops can quite simply put their musical skills in the noble service of simply rocking out. Anyone with a heart can relate to this cause. I invite you to happily endorse it with the simplest of gestures, like a fist pump or an air guitar solo.

Rock on, gentlemen.