Distorted Harmony: Calling Blackjack on 2014


Why do I love all those “best of” lists at the end of the year?

Because I get to learn about so much great music that I somehow missed.

Then, I get to spend most of January catching up!

For this reason, I really love January. It’s always full of excellent discoveries!

Last year I gave my Top 20 of 2014, but now, after spending the first half of January listening to excellent discs that I missed, but learned about from others, I am calling “blackjack” on 2014.

Yes, that’s right: 21.

One of the very greatest albums of 2014 was Chain Reaction by Distorted Harmony.

I am officially adding it to my Top 21 list.

This January (2015), I find myself returning to Chain Reaction again and again.

I have playlists full of stuff to listen to, but then suddenly, at the last minute, I will push it all aside, because I want to hear Chain Reaction again!

I will post a review soon, but in the meantime, I recommend you check out this fine disc that deserves a place in the upper echelon of 2014’s very best prog metal.

If you’re a friend of liberty, and an enemy of ideology, perhaps you will find your way into this album through the quite excellent track “Children of Red.”

Prog on!

children-of-red

Dave Kerzner — New World (Best Prog Albums of 2014 — Part 10): ★★★★★ @DaveKerzner

With Dave Kerzner’s sonic marvel, New World, I today finish sharing with you my Top Ten Prog Albums of 2014. It’s been an incredible year for music, as the best of 2014 began with the release of the new Transatlantic, and then ended with this prog masterpiece from Dave Kerzner.

Tracks 1 and 11 on their own (“Stranded” [Parts 1-5: “Isolation,” “Delirium,” “March of the Machines,” “Source Sublime,” and “The Darkness”] and “Redemption” [“Stranded” Parts 6-10: “The Oasis,” “Resilience,” “High on the Dunes,” “Mirage of the Machines,” and “To the Light”]) would have been enough to make this a two-song Top Ten album, as together they comprise a 28-minute, ten-movement top-flight prog journey. But instead the two tracks are epic bookends to a concept album that tells a story with nine other amazing tracks between the bookends.

There are a number of great influences that can be heard on this album. It’s like Dave asked himself, “What could I do to make a prog lover smile from ear to ear?” and then went ahead and did it, with detail after detail. Dave is his own man, and transcends all his great influences, while simultaneously paying homage to them. You will begin listening to this album and be amazed that it sounds like a side three of Dark Side of the Moon, where in an alternate universe Genesis showed up and combined with Pink Floyd to rock further into the beyond. And no wonder: Steve Hackett actually shows up to provide wonderful guitar work on Parts 3, 9, and 10 of the epic “Stranded” bookend tracks.

Dave himself is able to sound somewhat like David Gilmour and his vocals on this album establish him as major force in prog. But even above and beyond his vocal charisma is the fact that he is now the Keyboard King of Prog, which he shows on this album with its incredible array of keyboard colors and textures. One of my favorite moments (on an album chock full of them) occurs in the song “The Lie” where, after Fernando Perdomo dazzles us with a virtuoso guitar solo, Dave comes in unexpectedly with a cool 80s synth sound and makes us smile from ear to ear. If I collected keyboards like Dave, I am sure I could identify the synth model that generates this distinctive retro sound, but the important thing is that it shows you what kind of guy Dave is and what he is up to on this album. Namely, every moment is obviously him saying to himself, “What would be awesome here…?” and “Hey, let’s try this… oh yeah!! That’s it!!! Hahaha!!!!” It is uncanny how Dave has a magic ability to surprise and excite us with his new sonic soundscapes and yet at the same time reference what is familiar to us from the history of prog. It is this “genius blend,” of the familiar old, blended with the articulation of the visionary new, that distinguishes this album. How many albums can you think of that pull this off, where they sound completely and astonishingly new, and yet feel familiar and comfortable, like an old friend? Dave does it!

The album is nicely paced between tracks that are bridges in the storytelling and that reward repeated listens because they reveal their subtle charms more slowly, and those tracks that arrest your attention immediately with their prima facie brilliance. I call these latter tracks the “event songs,” because their arrival instantly declares an undeniable excellence that is immediately convincing and appealing to even the general listener. For me, these “event songs” are all the odd numbered tracks, since they immediately show themselves to be instant classics accessible to all: i.e., in addition to the opening and closing bookends, we have “The Lie,” “Crossing of Fates,” “Ocean of Stars,” and “Nothing” that are undeniably rare events in the history of rock: unforgettably great songs channelled by perfect musicianship. The only exception to my “odd numbered track” rule is “My Old Friend,” which is obviously also an “event song,” (don’t believe me? I defy you not to think of Pink Floyd as Dave sings, “Hello…”); but that’s okay, it gets to be a special exception because it is the central track in the sequence, as 6 comes in the middle of 1 and 11, and it is obviously a totally epic prog guy move to have three “event tracks” positioned in the centre of your album: “Crossing of Fates,” “My Old Friend,” and “Ocean of Stars.”

Perhaps you might wish to quibble with my favorite tracks on this album; my favorites may be all the odd-numbered ones (because during the even-numbered ones I am always anticipating what is coming next), but no doubt you might have your own particular favorites. After all, who can deny the greatness of a track like “Into the Sun,” especially at the spine-tingling moment where Dave sings, “Brace yourself for impact”? This is a brilliant album and surely we can all agree to call it an “event album” — in its entirety.

With its arrival this year, we have witnessed what it is like to be present at the creation and dissemination of a seminal moment in prog. Don’t miss downloading this album this year and getting in early on what is destined to become a classic album for the ages. Nick D’Virgilio on drums is perfectly teamed up with Dave and Fernando, and I hope we will hear much more from this astonishing trio (and their parade of prog guest stars — be sure to read the jaw-dropping album credits!) in 2015. I can already predict that the Deluxe Edition of New World will be a highlight of next year.

Prog on, old friends!

Ascending Dawn — Coalesce (Best Prog Albums of 2014 — Part 9): ★★★★★ @AscendingDawn

Coalesce, the stellar debut album from Ascending Dawn, quickly ascended into my Top Ten Prog Albums of 2014.

I love this album and I think it is totally brilliant. It’s a rare thing for me to want to return again and again to listening to an album out of pure passionate craving. Usually, programming my playlists is more of a daily routine and chore: today I will listen to…. etc., etc. But lately, I had the happy experience where the first thing I wanted to listen to every day was Coalesce! And then, later in the day, I wanted to hear it again! I tell you, it has been awhile since I have so thoroughly enjoyed and craved an album with such intensity.

I know my desire comes from the intense musical intelligence that is built in to every song. This album has so many nice little touches and details to enjoy. The first track to instantly appeal to me was “Integral,” no doubt because it has a tastefully virtuoso guitar solo. But that track only came fourth on the album; it took me longer to appreciate the genius of the first three tracks because there was no flashy guitar solo to immediately leap out at me. Instead, there is a careful layering of sonic elements that appears quite dense in its ambient tone at first, but then slowly unfolds its beautiful structures with repeated listens. The band describes their ambient prog metal sound thus:

Pummeling riffs and soaring ambient lines are complemented by clean melodies and harmonic backings, defining our signature sound.

All in Now” (4:10) kicks off the album and it is really quite an interesting song. As here, the vocals on the whole album seem deliberately mixed lower in volume in order to make the vocals an integral part of the total band sound, rather than to place the vocalist up front and to relegate the other musicians to “back up” status. Yet Marlain Angelides is such a powerful singer that the listener’s first reaction is to want to hear her a bit more up front in the mix. For example, at 1:37 into the first track she belts out a dazzling melisma that makes you want to hear her highlighted more up front as the superstar vocalist that she obviously is. But, over time, a more profound appreciation for the band’s intricate craft grows, as you begin to understand how she is carefully woven into the musical panorama of the band’s signature sound for greater purposes. The “All in Now” track deceptively seems to end at 2:25, but it then mounts a comeback with some very satisfying musical surprises. It builds and builds with fabulous riffing and killer drums and siren-like vocals to announce as its implied conclusion: Watch out, world! Ascending Dawn has arrived!

“Miscommunication” (4:11) is the second track and it has a supercool riff with sharp contrasts of alternating timbre that is very unusual and extraordinarily fascinating. The whole track unfolds with Ascending Dawn’s characteristic tastefulness for building musical drama and interest. Particularly notable on this entire album is the way that drums and guitars are so tightly synchronized in ways you do not usually hear with other bands. Chalk that up to the fact that the band’s main composer, drummer Mark Weatherley, also plays guitars on the album. Constanze Hart on bass and Owen Rees on guitars also contribute to the solid arrangement of it all, and their musical talent is manifest in the unusually and impressively tight band sound of the coherent whole. Marlain Angelides co-writes all the songs with lyrics, and I suspect she must be thus responsible for the poetic side of musical images. These are some really great songs! What a band. They work together perfectly on this album.

“Cannonball” (4:40) regularly lays down an impressive enfilading fire of drum fills, yet the whole track is further proof of the band’s dedication of individual virtuosity to a greater group sound in service of the whole song. It’s the putative single off the album, but any of the first four tracks could serve that role, since they are each individual, self-contained wholes that introduce the band’s unique sound with carefully embedded musical touches that repay repeated listenings.

In fact, I would argue that the fourth track, “Integral” (4:40), is the more natural single off the album, since its instantly accessible guitar solo performs the invaluable service of getting prog metal heads like me interested in the band and willing to give them further listens, to unlock further access to deeper levels of musical virtuosity. “Integral” has some of my favorite lyrics on the album, and I really love it as the band rocks out at the end and Marlain’s soaring vocals exhort the listener to “become a truth addict.”

Beginning with track 5, “Opposites” (4:09), we have next a four-song sequence that is cross-faded together, so that unless you are paying attention you almost won’t be able to tell when one song turns into another. Thus, the album opens up into my favorite territory: a nineteen-minute prog epic that is comprised of “Opposites” (4:09), “Simplify” (4:11), “Inside the Silence” (6:19), and finally the dazzling ambient instrumental, “Opaque” (3:57). It is this coherent musical epic that had me returning again and again to listen to this brilliant album.

In fact, in my mind I consider album track 4, “Integral”, to be a kind of prelude to the whole sequence of the album tracks 5, 6, 7, and 8, and then I further consider track 9, “Indiscretion” (5:21), to be the epic coda to it that ties it all together. So, in effect, Ascending Dawn serves up a prog epic in six movements: tracks 4 through 9 — an epic 29 minutes in total.

I love the way the album pacing is constructed: tracks 1 through 3 get you warmed up, and then the epic goods are delivered for the remainder of the album. The instrumental track “Opaque” lets you experience the band in its full-on musical intensity of ambient intelligence, and then the whole experience concludes with Marlain’s epic wailing over the pummeling guitars that conclude “Indiscretion” (track 9). There is an uplifting and transcendent feel to the album’s conclusion that lives up to the band’s name. In the end, we ascend with Ascending Dawn.

Don’t miss this album. On it, you will discover all your own favorite moments with nice little touches, such as the musical burst at 2:47 in “Simplify” that is so perfectly timed you can never fail to revel in its satisfying sonic seductions. If you’re like me, you can’t get enough of top-quality music like this! This album rightly occupies its prominent place in my Top Ten Prog Albums of 2014.

Voyager — V (Best Prog Albums of 2014 — Part 8)

Before I devoted a lot of listening time to Voyager’s V, I was warned that the back half of it wasn’t as good as the front. But the odd thing is that as I got to know the album better, it was actually the back half of it that I liked the best! The songs that made the best early impression on me began with “Embrace the Limitless” (track 6) and went on to the end (“Seasons of Age”, track 13).

The dopey repetition in the chorus of the first track (I instantly hated the repetition of the word “Hyperventilating”) and the almost-grating second track annoyed me in the beginning (“Breaking Down” seemed too slogan-ey as a chorus phrase to me: an undeveloped idea, not a full lyric). Only as I warmed to the whole album did I eventually come to enjoy the first five tracks maximally. It just took awhile. After all, the guitar solo break in “Hyperventilating” is awesome and the musicianship is stellar, as it is everywhere on this disc.

I came to think of the album in three sections: the first five tracks (which it took the longest for me to warm up to, due to their seemingly too-commercial sound); the middle three tracks; and the last five tracks.

“Embrace the Limitless” (track 6) is a refreshing burst of loopy synth metal energy. Where none of the first five tracks grabbed me, this one actually made me sit up and take notice. Then track 7 (“Orpheus”) gets all dark and cool and interesting with even a bit of guttural vocals to match its mythological underworld theme. And finally track 8 was able to get me totally enthused with its cool riffing action and intelligent lyrics (“The Domination Game”). For a while, I would just skip the first five tracks and begin listening at track 6 to the album — with the first five appended to my playlist at the end (to hear if I had time). Eventually, I came to love the whole album and I now just listen to it sequentially as released, with no more playlist shenanigans.

Despite the advance word on the album, for me the finest moments come in the last block of five songs. Track 8 (“Peacekeeper”) is borderline dopey with its almost too-cute lyrical conceit, but it actually maintains its perfect metal balance and never crosses the line for me. In fact, it became one of my early favorites (and remains so) because the music is so darn good. Okay, confession: I love the guitar work on this album. The guitar sounds are just so excellent and well produced. And this track is a prime example.

But the best is yet to come: Track 9 (“It’s a Wonder”) has a strong claim for totally favorite track, especially because of its out-of-left-field uber-cool outro, which I absolutely love; it makes me want to listen to the track on repeat, every time!

But then, instead of hitting the replay button, we get the treat of the epic-scale last three tracks. “The Morning Light” (track 11) is a glorious sonic marvel. It clocks in as the longest track (5:58) with metal riffs and keyboards taking us to the prog places we all want to go. Whew! What a ride! Can it get any better? Well, we actually get to catch our breath with track 12 (“Summer Always Comes Again”), a stunningly beautiful song that is completely unexpected as a ballad-ey break. It’s only 2:21 long, but we end up wishing the beauty could go on forever.

The album could have ended there, leaving us with a sweet sense of infinite beauty and infinite longing. Instead, we get total appetitive gratification with the amazing album-closer: Track 13, “Seasons of Age”. This song has a magical sound and it totally rocks its way out to a jaw-dropping, drum-whacking finale.

This is proggy metal at its most melodic and accessible. Don’t be a hater; embrace the excellence. Superb musicianship, luminous production, and superstar vocal stylings? Yes! This disc definitely makes the cut for my Top Ten Prog Albums of 2014.

One More Red Night — @District97 with John Wetton (Best Prog Albums of 2014 — Part 7)

Usually live albums don’t make it onto my Top Ten lists, but this one is so impressive that it cannot be denied its rightful place among the best of the year.

John Wetton is an incredible vocalist who is unbelievably still singing as amazingly as he ever has. And the musicianship of everybody else takes these Crim classics even beyond their original versions!

Tracklisting:
1. One More Red Nightmare (4:41)
2. The Great Deceiver (3:38)
3. Lament (4:19)
4. The Night Watch (5:31)
5. Fallen Angel (5:47)
6. Book Of Saturday (3:07)
7. 21st Century Schizoid Man (5:25)
8. Starless (4:47)
9. Easy Money (5:27)

Produced by Jonathan Schang

Recorded live on October 17, 2013 at Reggie’s Music Joint, Chicago, IL

John Wetton — Lead Vocal
Leslie Hunt — Lead and Backing Vocals
Jim Tashjian — Guitar, Backing Vocals
Rob Clearfield — Keyboards, Additional Guitar
Patrick Mulcahy — Bass
Jonathan Schang — Drums

Robert Fripp never had Leslie Hunt singing backup, did he? Well, it was Crimson’s loss! She may humbly take the back seat here, but her superstar harmonizing vocals, and the occasional dazzling lead on a verse here and there, indelibly inject another entire dimension into these brilliant songs.

I can’t get enough of listening to this album. Furthermore, it even spurred me on to listen to Crimson’s entire back catalogue this year. That’s because Leslie and the boys here forcefully reminded me what the upper echelon of prog is really all about.

District 97 has assumed the mantle, and I can’t wait to hear their new studio album set for release next year.

This stunning album gets five stars and makes my Top Ten Prog Albums of 2014. I would love to see this band live someday. This album is proof that they are an absolutely killer live act.

Seven Impale — City of the Sun (Best Prog Albums of 2014 — Part 6)

Continuing with my Top Ten Prog Albums of 2014, let me say that Seven Impale came out of nowhere and blew me away this year with an incredible record. Jazz saxophones meets prog metal? Sounds like a psychotic recipe! But it works so well here. Listening to this record is like sitting in on one of the wildest jam sessions you will ever hear. City of the Sun is bursting with energy and passion and virtuosity. With this amazing album, Seven Impale have ascended into the upper echelon of prog achievement. Don’t miss it! A true delight.

By the way, here’s my Top Ten list so far:

Vanden Plas — Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld (Best Prog Albums of 2014 — Part 5)

Continuing with my Top Ten Prog Albums of 2014: behold the new Vanden Plas. Allow me to add my track-by-track impressions.

Track one (3:52) starts off with a spoken-word introduction that together with the background music and a bit of singing builds a sense of anticipation. Then track two “The Black Knight” (8:29) lets us know we are unquestionably in excellently epic prog-metal territory. By the time track three “Godmaker” (5:24) kicks in, any doubts about whether or not the listener is in the presence of something extraordinary will have been removed. Clearly, this is an organically coherent compositional tour-de-force.

Track four (1:39) is a bit of a prelude that lets us catch our breath. But then track five “A Ghost’s Requiem” (3:56) is a completely surprising and unexpected transmogrification of sacred music tropes. This brilliant track cements the disc’s five-star status and forms a musical launch pad for the mind-blowing tracks that follow. Track six “New Vampyre” (6:16) and track seven “The King and the Children of Lost World” (7:52) continue to elevate the disc to new heights, which is quite astonishing, because standard practice is to lead an album with your finest material but here we have an unfolding organic whole and its accelerating excellence becomes more and more manifest.

Track eight “Misery Affection” (5:08) mellows out a bit and displays another side of the band’s remarkable skills. But just when we have been soothed by the stunning beauty of that brief pause in the intense metallic action, we are overwhelmed by track nine “Soul Alliance” (6:39), which together with its successor, track ten “Inside” (6:42), are my favorite parts the album, because their instrumentation and composition is sheer perfection. Together they tie together the entire album and bring things to conclusion in a brilliant way.

The final track, in fact, is absolutely the most satisfying conclusion to an epic concept album whole that I have heard in a long time. Really, I can’t recall feeling such excitement, other than with the similar way it feels to listen to the end of “2112” by Rush. The last two minutes of Chronicles Of The Immortals are pure dopamine-infused prog bliss. As those gigantic concluding waves of chords wash over us in the last two minutes, I am even reminded of some Rush tropes from the first half of the eighties.

Thanks, Vanden Plas. You have given us one of the greatest, most essential prog albums I have ever heard. What an amazing gift you have shared with us.

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)

CYNIC

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.