Haken — Restoration (Best Prog Albums of 2014 — Part 4): ★★★★★

Haken — Restoration ★★★★★

Time Lord rating: 10/10 ♫♫♫♫♫

This album is designated as an “EP,” but its three tracks in fact amount to a decent-sized length (34 minutes) for a traditional LP. Therefore, I consider it a full-blown album.

Long story short, it is pretty much the prog metal album of the year. Son of Aurelius’ Under a Western Sun was my other prog metal playlist favorite, and the closest contender. In any event, I certainly must include Haken’s Restoration among my Top Ten Prog Albums of 2014.

“Darkest Night” (6:44) is riff-tastic and lyrically profound all at the same time. It’s a perfect mix of everything excellent about prog metal. These guys sure can rock! Here’s the indisputable proof.

“Earthlings” (7:52) expands upon the excellence by developing a spooky mood that is downright creepy and terrifying, as it sings about genocide and watching your friends bleed. Think of how Kate Bush ended “Breathing,” with an incomparable building of a musical mood. Well, here we actually have something comparable. It’s hair-raising and spine-tingling and absolutely astonishing in the way the musical drama is woven here with such stunning effectiveness.

“Crystallized” (19:22) is the impressive epic that seals the deal on this album as one for the record books. It naturally breaks down into four quarters, which I give titles in my own mind (since iTunes, where I bought my copy, provided no lyric booklet or further breakdown): [1] “Echoes” (which begins with various orchestral accents that set up and foreshadow the epic finale); [2] “Passages of Time” (where Haken shows off their total musical mastery of all things, including dazzling vocal harmonies); [3] “Crystallizing” (which gets full-on crazy with its wild prog virtuosity that veers into all sorts of insanely quirky and heavy rocking);  and [4] “Escaping the Past” (which provides an emotional catharsis as the epic orchestration returns and then a musical breakthrough suddenly occurs).

The glorious musical conclusion that is reached at the end of the epic “Crystallized” track is so amazing that I never fail to be astonished and moved by it each time I listen to it. The way that the lead guitar plays a line that is then echoed by the orchestra, the way that the brass then shines out heroically, the way that the luminous guitar scrambles up skyward with those flashy runs — it is beyond words, and simply breathtaking.

This is why we listen to music: to experience such magical musical experiences. And with this release, Haken has, incredibly, surpassed even what they did last year. EP? I think not! This is arguably the LP of the year, and not just the Prog Metal Album of the Year, but arguably the Album of the Year. It has everything, and it is crafted to sonic perfection.

Yet, there were so many good albums this year, it is so hard to pick just one to tag with the top designation. So, I won’t. I am content simply to compile a couple of Top Ten lists. Tomorrow, we continue with the upper-echelon prog magic of my Top Ten Prog Albums of 2014.

Son of Aurelius — Under a Western Sun (Best Prog Albums of 2014 — Part 3)

Continuing with my Top Ten Prog Albums of 2014, today I commend to you this year’s stunning prog metal release from Son of Aurelius.

Son of Aurelius was a technical death metal band that has now grown into an innovative and unique prog metal band. Actually, what they do defies genre categorization. They even engage in a critique of the entire notion of “prog” here in the lyrics to track six, “Attack on Prague” (a clever variant spelling of “Prog”):

Freedom from impulse
has never been required more
than it is in relation to the state we’re in,
and it will take so much more
than progressive metal can hope to achieve
With all of its intention and spacey themes.

The band’s first release, The Farthest Reaches (2010), stuck solely with the genre’s usual monochromatic death metal vocals over top of technically accomplished metal. Now on this sophomore release, they have evolved musically and exited from the sub-sub-genre ghetto of death metal but incorporated the best of those sub-sub-genre tropes into a much, much greater musical accomplishment. I am struck by the level of transformation here, and to use an analogy that Progarchy readers will understand, it seems to me something like the difference between Rush’s first album and their second album. Under a Western Sun (2014) appears to be Son of Aurelius’ Fly by Night. In case you miss my point: with this release, we are now in the presence of true musical greatness.

There are fifteen tracks on this entirely independently-produced release. The old death metal screams and growls are incorporated here only as a smaller part of the full palette of an astonishingly dynamic range of vocals. Rather than death metal vocals for the sake of death metal vocals, Riley McShane’s screaming here is intelligently deployed simply as part of the emotional variation within the songs. The impact is incredibly effective and gives the sonic experience a unique range and power.

I think of the album’s fifteen tracks in three groups of five. First, there are five lengthy, mind-blowingly epic prog metal tracks:
2. Chorus of the Earth (7:11)
3. The Weary Wheel (6:46)
6. Attack on Prague (6:03)
13. Long Ago (6:53)
14. Under a Western Sun (7:15)
The technical virtuosity is amazing on every one of these tracks. If you want to have an experience similar to being a teenager listening to Neil Peart for the first time, listen to what Spencer Edwards does with his drumming: you will be astonished to discover that a human being is capable of making sounds like this on a drum kit. It is hard to pick a favorite track, because everything here is truly superb. Cary Geare on guitar and Max Zigman on bass will blow your mind with their unbridled excellence. There are even acoustic guitars and keyboards here and there, which showcases the musical intelligence and compositional skill of the band as they create prog soundscapes on an epic scale.

If I had to single out a favorite moment and a favorite track, it would be track 13, “Long Ago,” where Riley McShane at 4:09 holds the last syllable of the last word he sings in the chorus in an extended rock and roll yell over top of the blistering guitar power chords and the enfilading fire of the drum kit. It’s a truly transcendent moment, because it takes a few seconds for you to realize that Riley is not letting go of that note… and then he just keeps on going and going, for a whole twenty seconds! Unlike Roger Daltrey’s famous yell in “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” which telegraphs what it is about to do, this yell sneaks up on you instead. But it too delivers a truly great rock and roll moment that is no less classic.

Every one of these five lengthier tracks is a mini-masterpiece, and together they actually add up to the length of a regular vinyl album of five-star rank. But the band is kind enough to share more music with us, and so we get a CD that is 72:15 in total length. Let me tell you about the rest of it, which is like having ten bonus tracks added on to an already five-star classic prog metal album.

The second group of five tracks includes four instrumentals, and one more track, “The Prison Walls,” which, unlike the other vocal tracks on this release, is nothing but growling death metal vocals, and hence it harkens back to the old style of their first album:
1. Return to Arms (2:42)
7. Flailing Saints (1:19)
11. The Prison Walls (5:55)
12. Submerge & Surface (3:03)
15. Strange Aeons (2:29)
Personally, I find these exclusively growling death metal vocals completely boring and I can barely stand listening to track eleven. I feel my I.Q. dropping as the dumb growls plod on and on — although the demented riffing on the track does make for some great crazy metal music. There is an excellent instrumental break at about the three-minute mark, and so usually I just fast-forward to that, if I don’t skip the song entirely. I guess this track is a sop to the fans who loved their first album, but I just think it is time to grow and move on and leave this sort of thing behind. It works when it is deployed in very small doses as part of an escalating dynamic range, as within the five epic prog-length tracks, but on its own it is musically very dull.

“Flailing Saints” and “Strange Aeons” are brief fade-in and fade-out instrumental outtakes, but “Return to Arms” and “Submerge & Surface” are fully coherent instrumental wholes that are very, very impressive. If you want a quick sample of the band’s virtuosity, try out those two tracks. I especially love the bass solo on “Submerge & Surface,” because it explodes into an unexpected burst of feedback at the end. The instrumentation and arrangement is top-notch on these purely musical tracks. They work well in bringing variation and interest to an already stellar album.

The last group of five tracks consists of carefully-crafted songs that are shorter in length, but still packed with the musical virtuosity that is the hallmark of Son of Aurelius:
4. Coloring the Soul (3:56)
5. The Stoic Speaks (4:46)
8. A Great Liberation (5:27)
9. Clouded Panes (4:28)
10. Blinding Light (4:15)
“Coloring the Soul” and “The Stoic Speaks” give us lyrics sung from the perspective of a Marcus Aurelius character who seems to be standing outside of time. “Coloring the Soul” even sings at the end a quote from the Emperor’s actual Meditations:

The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.

The band gets its name from the successor Emperor, Commodus, who on their first release was changed by the lyrics into a fictional, super-powered lunatic. But on this release, the “son” of Marcus Aurelius could be anyone listening to the album who is spiritually attuned to what the lyrics are singing about — a “spiritual son” of Marcus Aurelius, in other words. Perhaps something of that vision even informs the lyrics to the epic track “Long Ago,” which could be giving voice to the album’s Marcus Aurelius character, standing outside of time, viewing the trajectory of the Roman Empire, and lamenting the way the world has gone.

Tracks eight, nine, and ten are all very different, but yet each one finishes up with a highly creative outro. Each outro is very satisfying and unexpected and impressive. “A Great Liberation” has screaming death metal vocals throughout, but while the growling ones on track eleven, “The Prison Walls,” are boring, these screaming ones at least have an interesting expressive dimension, and they actually work very well with the incredible music that comprises “A Great Liberation.”

The track “Clouded Panes” is a good short introduction if you can only play one short song for someone to show the truly amazing range of which Son of Aurelius is musically capable. Again, it’s hard to pick any favorites, but one of mine is “Blinding Light,” which for the first few minutes sounds exactly like it could be a Big Big Train song! But then, at the transition into the outro, power chords come ripping in unexpectedly, and Big Big Train turns into… Son of Aurelius! It’s an awesome moment. The vocals by Riley McShane are really great here, especially his quiet clean vocals which then erupt into rock singing. This is the stuff of greatness.

Son of Aurelius are the real deal. Don’t miss this album. It’s a special accomplishment and is arguably the Prog Metal Album of the Year. But tomorrow I will share another neck-and-neck contender for that title.

Son of Aurelius — Under a Western Sun

Max Zigman – Bass
Spencer Edwards – Drums
Cary Geare – Lead Guitar
Riley McShane – Vocals

Cynic — Kindly Bent to Free Us (Best Prog Albums of 2014 — Part 2)


Continuing with my Top Ten Prog Albums of 2014, today I commend to you this year’s stunning prog rock release from Cynic.

Cynic is famous for their infrequent but innovative and influential contributions to the prog cause: Focus (1993) and Traced in Air (2008), plus the EPs Re-Traced (2010) and Carbon-Based Anatomy (2011). On this new release, they have entirely eliminated any trace of death-metal vocals and taken a new direction to boot. The style not so much metal as it is groovy, jazz fusion-ey rock.

It sounds totally classic to me. I love the retro vibe on this album. It is kind of like discovering a hidden gem from the 70s in a time capsule. The disc is 42 minutes long and is thus reminiscent of a vinyl-length listening experience. And the album even divides nicely into a “Side A” and a “Side B”, with four tracks on each side.

“True Hallucination Speak” (6:03) is the first track and it locks us in with a solid groove. When the guitar solo comes, it transports us to amazingly ecstatic musical heights. But then, suddenly, just when we expect it to escalate further into an even wilder guitar freak-out, the rug is pulled out from under us as, after a moment of silence, we experience a calm and mellow meditation, which is all the more effective because of where it is inserted. And then we get to groove again.

“The Lion’s Roar” (4:35) is track two and it is a real beauty of a song. The songwriting and instrumental virtuosity fit together perfectly as the musical journey unfolds wonderfully. Here we have a model of what a chorus can be and of what makes a great song a great song. The title phrase hits us with such exquisite fittingness every time it is uttered, we don’t want this chorus to ever end. But when it does eventually come to an end, the song surprises us then in a very satisfying way. Listening to the conclusion, you would not want this to end any other way. It is just right.

“Kindly Bent to Free Us” (6:27) is track three and it is like the band has been saving up the most exceptional experience for third. We have already been won over by the ultra-groovy first two tracks. But now we get some super-awesome riffing and jazzy group dynamics that, unbelievably, take the album to even more exciting places not yet heard. I can understand why this is the title track. There’s something special about it. It’s an epic jazzy prog rock track that clocks in at six and a half minutes and so only track seven, “Holy Fallout” (6:36) is longer — by nine seconds. The band really shines when stretching out on this sort of scale. There’s a lot of tension and excitement built up by the trio’s energetic instrumental interactions. We’re dealing with absolutely upper-echelon prog here. I especially love the classic bass guitar sound.

“Infinite Shapes” (4:57) as track four feels like a bit of a chill-out after the steadily accelerating upwards trajectory of the first three tracks on “Side A”. The wall of sound is still heavily rocking out, but it feels more straightforward than the preceding tracks. So we can gather ourselves to do it all over again — because “Side B” follows the same escalating pattern of “Side A”.

“Moon Heart Sun Head” (5:21) as track five just might be my favorite track — it is so hard to pick — because just like track one on “Side A” we get an usually powerful and highly effective guitar solo that functions to transport us to spiritual heights. Here, the singing guitar solo blasts off after a spoken-word set-up from some kind of guru voice. If that sounds on paper like it could be gimmicky, rest assured that no, it works amazingly well. Prog rock theurgy doesn’t get better than this.

“Gitanjali” (3:59) as track six continues the devotional voyage. Apparently the title word can be translated as “a prayer offering of song”. As with “Side A”, we are ascending once again as the tracks progress sequentially. Some cool sonic layering here will impress you. And the pauses and pacing work amazing things, pulling you in to the inner thinking of the riffs.

“Holy Fallout” (6:36) as track seven is a mind-blowing experience. Even though it is the longest track, we wish it could go longer. There are so many moods and feelings that it runs through. It has nifty rock-out sections with nimble dances of virtuosity and yet also atmospheric washes of contemplation. The guitar work here is incredible and highly impressive. What a great sound. The trio dynamics are spectacular and the drumming is especially graceful and delicately fierce.

“Endlessly Bountiful” (3:56) is the chill-out for the “Side B” trajectory and it ends the album on a suitably meditative note. If Plotinus had had a prog rock band, I imagine this would have been one of his favorite contemplative jams. Here we have a unique sonic experience that unfolds in layers and draws us in to the heart of this band’s musical beauty. There’s a nice Sigur Ros-like vibe here but with a unique twist. The mellow guitar outro that ends the whole thing is beyond perfect. What a sweet way to end such a stunning album.

Transatlantic — Kaleidoscope (Best Prog Albums of 2014 — Part 1)

My Top Ten Prog Albums of 2014 began in January with Transatlantic’s Kaleidoscope. As I listened to it, I knew that this was instantly one of the best albums of this year — or of any other year. “Shine” and “Beyond the Sun” are for me the two lesser transition tracks, coming as they do between the prog epicness of “Into the Blue” and “Black as the Sky” and “Kaleidoscope.” But it’s all together a perfectly realized whole, and I cannot describe how much enjoyment I derived from listening to this album this year. It’s a spectacularly ecstatic prog experience with endless streams of happiness.

The band also blew our minds by adding an extra disc of cover tunes. My favorite on it became their cover of “And You and I,” which you think it would be impossible to cover, but hey — Transatlantic specializes in the musically impossible. They incarnate musical excellence at every turn, so give this extra disc a spin too and celebrate the prog renaissance year of 2014.

Stay tuned, dear Progarchists, as I complete my Top Ten Prog Albums of 2014 over the next nine days. This Kaleidoscope is just the first entry.

Then, when I am done, I will also reveal a bonus Top Ten list of Top Ten Rock Albums of 2014 — stuff that wasn’t proggy enough for my main list, but which is still exemplary and thereby ended up being listened to by me in heavy rotation nonetheless over the course of the year.