Happy Halloween to all prog lovers out there!
Happy Halloween to all prog lovers out there!
I’m guessing that Americans and non-Americans have rather different views on this issue, but it’s fascinating, regardless.
Please forgive my late entry, for I did not listen to as many new albums as I should have in 2016; I suppose I still have an affinity for the “classics.” Anyway, here is my all too brief list (in no particular order) of the best albums of 2016:
A Moon Shaped Pool (Radiohead): This was my first exposure to Radiohead, and I was impressed. The atmospheric, almost hypnotic vocals of Thom Yorke, supported by Jonny Greenwood’s haunting string arrangements, make this a work of eerie beauty. Burn the Witch and Daydreaming are the two stand out pieces, but the album overall is excellent.
Say So (Bent Knee): Not as well-known as the other two, but a gem nonetheless. This innovative band from Boston features the incredible vocals of Courtney Swain, whose range will impress prog and non-prog lovers alike. You can check out my review of their first album here.
Your Wilderness (The Pineapple Thief): I must admit that I enjoy just about anything created by Bruce Soord. The man is quite the talent – as a songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist. His latest effort is no exception; it is filled with well-crafted and accessible songs. Overall, it is a great followup to 2014’s Magnolia.
Making my way through the November 2013 issue of Prog (#40) a couple of weeks ago—it takes a while for it to swim across the Pond and trudge through the heartlands to the West Coast—I came upon a short review of the album, “White Moth Black Butterfly” (WMBB henceforth), from the group One Thousand Wings. I noted that the group was headed by ex-Tesseract vocalist Dan Tompkins, whose talents I discovered last year (Tesseract’s 2012 EP, “Perspective”), and then read that the reviewer believed WMBB to be “an absolutely essential work” and, in sum: “Experimental, accessible and quite brilliant, this ranks high among this year’s progressive releases.”
Having now listened to WMBB a dozen times, I’d say the reviewer, if anything, undersells the brilliance of Tompkins’ album. And it is, really, Tompkin’s album, as he wrote nearly all the material, played most of the instruments, sang most of the vocals, and co-produced/mixed/edited as well. The One Thousand Wings Band Camp site tags WMBB with descriptives including ambient, cinematic, electronic, and experimental, and they indicate that while the album is “prog,” it is not guitar-driven, features nothing that resembles a solo, and is not really “rock” in any obvious way. While we tend to avoid needless labels here on Progarchy.com, I would suggest “ambient/folk electronica prog.” That aside, simply listen to the album on the Band Camp site.
Listening to WMBB, three other artists come to mind, the first two perhaps expected; the third likely not. Although Tompkins does not sound like Jeff Buckley, I would recommend to this album to Buckley fans, as Tompkins, first, has a tremendous and distinctive voice—clear, piercing, soothing, aching, lovely, strong, subtle, powerful—and, secondly, creates a distinct world, something Buckley did as well on “Grace” (one of my favorite albums, regardless of genre). I should note that the aforementioned “Perspective” EP includes an impressive cover of Buckley’s “Dream Brother,” which can be viewed/heard on YouTube.
Secondly, there is a fleeting whisper of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke in the mix, specifically, his 2006 solo album, “The Eraser”. That album was far more abrupt and percussive and obviously electronica-ish than WmBB, but there are echoes (even if only in my head). But while “The Eraser” has a more overtly bristling and edgy quality, WMBB is guarded, like a candle fighting against an inevitable night. If Yorke is angry and sometimes snarling, Hopkins is wounded and searching; many of the songs might simply be described as “laments”. Finally—and this is strange—I’m reminded of George Michael. Much of that is due to vocals on songs such as “Equinox”, where Hopkins sounds just like Michael—at least a younger version (not the “Symphonica” version, from what I’ve heard). Take it for what it is!
Instrumentally, WMBB is a beautiful mixture of electronica and acoustic, with deep swells, rich textures, and subtle touches and details, usually in the form of tasteful acoustic guitar or ringing piano. As for lyrics, which is something I’m always interested in, it’s hard to tell as many of them are hard to make out. But the song titles—”Ties of Grace”, “Midnight Rivers”, “Certainty”, “Omen”, “Faith”, Paradise”—suggest some heavy duty rumination, perhaps just as much metaphysical as relational. Again, highly recommended!
Radiohead, Kid A (2000). While I don’t worship at the altar of Radiohead or Thom Yorke, I very much appreciate them. While Ok, Computer did a wonderful job of bringing a 1990s feel to 70s Alan Parsons and other proggish-bands of the mid 1970s, Kid A offered something radically new and mesmerizing in the world of music. Intense lyrics about the problems of post modernity and scientism only add to the haunted and haunting quality of the album. Though Ok, Computer has better moments, punctuating the imitative proginess of two decades earlier, Kid A has no flaws as it explores a fascinating new realm of bleak soundscapes. The lyrics of Kid A, however, remain unimportant, ultimately, as Thom Yorke’s voice serves as another instrument on the album. The producer, Nigel Godrich, deserves credit for being an equal member of the band. The opening track, “Everything in its right place,” sums up the production, the album, and its place in history. A masterpiece.