Every album on this Top Twenty list is a standout. They are all worthy of your purchase (in hard-copy, not just streaming service). The discs in the bottom half of the TOP 20 are not any less worthy than # # 10 through 1, rather, they just did not move me with as much excitement and passion as the ones I will be posting later. Many of these albums were at one time in my TOP TEN but gradually slipped to this lower tier as the year wore on and as I continued to listen and pour over these works of art. Enough blather. Here are my TOP TWENTY bottom half (in descending order):
20) MONARCH TRAIL/Sand
This is the second effort under the moniker “Monarch Trail” for Canadian keys wizard and composer Ken Baird. As much as I enjoyed 2014’s “Skye” this second album surpasses it on all counts. This has a pleasant “British pastoral sound” that hearkens back, for me, to the joys of first hearing Barclay James Harvest (with Woolly on the keys). This is beautiful and relaxing without being twee or saccharine. My favorite tracks are ‘Back to the Start’ and the 25 minute closer–the self-titled ‘Sand.’
I’m not privy as to the reasons why this happened, of course, but it makes me terribly sad.
It doesn’t get much better than Wilson-fronted Threshold in this world of sorrows.
Threshold’s last three albums (2 studio and 1 live) have been some of the best in rock history, frankly.
DEPARTURE FROM THRESHOLD
Damian Wilson’s statement regarding the departure from Threshold:
Unfortunately this is not a mutual decision, but I respect it. After I had recorded the album and committed to the tour I was informed that Threshold were going to continue on without me. They have every right to make this choice, although it is difficult to part ways with a group of people you’ve shared so many experiences with.
I really enjoyed the past decade recording and touring with Threshold and wish them all the best for the future, with the hope we might work again on projects somewhere down the line.
The label Nuclear Blast are amazing, and with the wonderful support of the fan base the whole journey of being the frontman for Threshold has been fantastic.
Review of [headspace], ALL THAT YOU FEAR IS GONE (Insideout Music, 2016).
Tracks: Road to Supremacy; Your Life Will Change; Polluted Alcohol; Kill You With Kindness; The Element; The Science Within Us; Semaphore; The Death Bell; The Day You Return; All That You Fear is Gone; Borders and Days; and Secular Souls
Bread and Circuses rule the day, or so it seems.
On their second album, ALL THAT YOU FEAR IS GONE, prog metal act and somewhat supergroup [headspace] delve into some rather deep social and cultural problems. Specifically, the band asks, just 1) what is it that The-Powers-That-Be be do to distract us, and, perhaps more importantly, 2) why do we let them?
Lyrically, this album follows the first album rather closely. That is, the themes follow logically from before. If I’m interpreting the lyrics properly on the second [headspace] album, Wilson is even more writing a sequel to Threshold’s excellent MARCH OF PROGRESS (2012). All three albums, though, radiate a form of individualist libertarianism and anarchy.
Throughout its illustrious and long history, prog rock rarely fails to engage such problems and pose such questions, though it often does so through employment of symbolism, metaphor, and allegory. On ALL THAT YOU FEAR IS GONE, some symbolism exists, but the lyrics seem rather straight forward: the moral and virtuous individual, though rare, must resist the tyranny of the mass mind, whether that mass mind is found in schools, bureaucracies, corporations, governments, or neighborhoods.
From what little I’ve been able to glean from the internet, Wilson had little to do with the lyrics on MARCH OF PROGRESS, but he wrote nearly all of them for ALL THAT YOU FEAR IS GONE.
Regardless, there’s a lot of young Neil Peart hovering over this album.
And yet, not completely, especially when it comes to matters of religion. I’ll get to this in a bit.
Musically, the album is glorious prog metal, more driving than Dream Theater but not as much so as Threshold. And, where Haken might be playful, [headspace] is intense. Indeed, intense is the most proper and best way to think of the band’s music. And yet, within such prog metal intensity, there is to be found much variation. The opening track, “Road to Supremacy,” begins with a heavy Philip Glass minimalism before Wilson’s soaring vocals force us to look to the heavens. Tracks 2 through 11 mix everything from melodic ballads to folkish auras to classical guitar runs, but always with—here’s that word again—intensity.
What perplexes me and interests me most is the final song of the album, “Secular Souls.” First, musically, this is an extraordinary song. Not only does it reveal the wide range and power of Wilson’s voice, but every one of the musicians in [headspace] is in top form. No hyperbole here. The best of the best comes out here. Though there’s not a dud on this album, this is the best song of the album, and it is the perfect conclusion to what the album has built and earned over the previous eleven songs.
I’ve not mentioned the members of the band yet–but it really is a supergroup (a term, I dislike, generally, but it applies here). In addition to Wilson on vocals–Adam Wakeman on keys; Lee Pomeroy on bass (if you want to be blown away, watch Pomeroy on the Genesis II Revisited DVDs); Pete Rinaldi on guitars; and Adam Falkner on drums. Sheesh.
Second, the lyrics deal with the mystery of the Catholic Mass. “What!?!?!,” I thought when I first heard this, scratching my head and furrowing my brow. Is Wilson mocking the Mass? Though Catholic myself, I will be the first to admit, I’m a pretty bad Catholic when it comes to actual practice. Culturally and intellectually, though, I’m pretty much in full agreement with the Church. Whatever my beliefs about the next world, in this world, I have more respect for the Church—despite its rather blatant and often terrible failings—than for any other institution in existence. I write all of this not to convince you, the reader, of anything other than this: I take this stuff seriously.
Listening to the final song, one could arguably claim it is as anti-Catholic as it is pro-Catholic. Given the deep sensitivity with which Wilson sings the words of consecration (the part of the Mass in which Catholics (Anglo- and Roman-) believe the bread and wine become flesh and blood) and the placement of the song as the final song, it seems to me that Wilson is serious. And, at many levels, this works with the other criticisms of the album leveled in the previous songs. After all, from the first song on, this album praises in no uncertain terms the righteous individual.
If so, that righteousness ultimately stems from grace, not will. That grace comes through the rigors of faith. Just as Rome’s “bread and circuses” failed, so too will our modern equivalents. The only hope for Rome (or, really, the West) was the rise of an obscure sect from out of the catacombs, a sect preaching loving and sacrifice. These truths do not change, whether in 312AD or 2016AD.
You as well as Damian Wilson might be reading this and, legitimately, thinking: what the hell is Birzer talking about? If so, I apologize. But, until I hear otherwise, I’m going to assume that [headspace] embraces both libertarianism and Catholicism.
Wishful thinking on my part, perhaps.
Regardless, this is an excellent album. How many hours of enjoyment has it given to me already in the first ¼ of 2016? I couldn’t even count the hours. I can state this with certainty: I’m listening to [headspace], and I will be for many, many, many years to come.
In a world of true justice, Flying Colors would be blaring from every car stereo tuned to album rock radio across North America. Not only does SECOND NATURE have the single best album cover of the year, but the album is absolutely riveting. It’s not quite prog, though, as with the best of AOR, it contains great prog elements. Everything fits perfectly here. The lyrics are solid, the vocals are superior. The final two songs—Peaceful Harbor and Cosmic Symphony (sort of a gospel prog)—alone are worth the entire album. But, the entire album is, thankfully, worth the entire album. For me, every time I listen to this album, I’m transported back to 1985. This would have sounded great next to Power Windows. And, unquestionably, Peaceful Harbor would easily outdo almost any contemporary worship song should churches look for some good new music.
Largely unsung in the press, Mike Kershaw offers a rare noir beauty, a kind of moody deepness rare in almost all popular art, on 2014’s major release, ICE AGE. Kershaw’s music reminds me quite a bit of another profound prog act, Fractal Mirror. Each looks to the Bauhaus of the early 80s, progging it up, making it relevant in the modern age. Kershaw offers us a rather dark Narnia.
One of America’s greatest gems is Cailyn Lloyd, though too few Americans know of her. In every way, Cailyn is a wonder. She arranges and writes her own music, plays all of her own instruments, and records and engineers her albums. Her specialty—bringing classical music and blues (think Stevie Ray Vaughn)—to the rock world. Reading this, you might first think of ELP. And, there’s a connection. But, whereas ELP was always “over the top,” Cailyn is as tasteful as tasteful can be. Her latest release, VOYAGER, is a must own for any lover of music, whatever the genre.
America’s newest and coolest immigrant, Simon Godfrey, has taken up residence in the City of Brotherly Love. For whatever reason, though, Philadelphia seems to have made him even more English, especially in his unrelenting wit. Godfrey’s latest, MOTHERLAND, is more in the “singer-songwriter” camp than prog, but it matters not. His voice drips with conviction, and this very warm album will enliven the soul of any listener. The best song of a great album is “The Inaccurate Man.”
America is doing quite well in 2014. Everyone’s favorite Kerry Kompost (FB name) is back with Heliopolis and the new album, CITY OF THE SUN, a stunning work of art that has taken several years to make. And, the time was well worth it. Of all prog releases this year, this is one of the two or three most unapologetically prog in the traditional sense. Quite heavy and eccentric, it builds and builds throughout the album, taking the listener on a psychedelic ride. Mix Black Sabbath, The Doors, and King Crimson, and you start to get a sense of what Heliopolis is. Whether Heliopolis takes its name—band and/or album title—from the famous Renaissance poem of the same name or not, I’m not sure. But, I do know that these guys have delivered something well worth adoring.
Nothing Matt Stevens does is unimportant in our world. His vocal-less music carries more voice and speaks more humanely than almost anything else in the music world. The man loves his guitar, and he love beauty, and he loves harmony. LUCID takes Matt’s voice a step further. He’s also had a King Crimson/Leo Kottke strain to him, but this album is even more Matt than Matt. It’s so incredible that no words I could employ right now could do justice to it. And, speaking of justice, Matt has received some huge accolades. But, he deserves so many more.
Who would have thought an EP would make it into a best of list? Well, Galahad already has. Now, it’s Haken’s turn. Unlike Galahad, though, Haken gives us three brand new songs with RESTORATION. I have to thank my great Facebook friend, Richard Thresh, for first introducing me to Haken. Chris Morrissey has already reviewed the EP here at progarchy, and I agree with every word. So, no need for me to blather more.
Finally, for part III of my best of, the band that Richard and I were discussing when he brought up Haken: Threshold. I really, really like these guys, though I’m generally not quite as metal as all of what’s to be found on their latest album, FOR THE JOURNEY. It’s as dark in its metal as MARCH OF PROGRESS was driving. There’s a lot in common between the two albums, especially thematically. Each deals with the fragility of life and social stability. The two albums seem to me to be two sides of the same thing, much in the way that it’s rather natural to listen to HEMISPHERES after listening to FAREWELL TO KINGS. If you like prog metal, it doesn’t get better than Threshold or Haken.