2021: My Favorite Albums, Six Months In

As life in these United States opens up, my life finally seems to be settling down — at least for the summer. Which means it’s time to make up for the backlog of excellent albums (new and old) that I’ve heard since January, but haven’t written about here! Links to listen (to complete albums or samples) are included whenever possible.

New Albums: The Art of Losing (The Anchoress’ rich meditation on endurance) and the multi-version adrenalin rush of Transatlantic’s The Absolute Universe notwithstanding, most of the new albums I’ve loved so far have migrated towards jazz and classical — frequently with pianists at their center. Vijay Iyer’s Uneasy, made with bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, is a state of the art piano trio effort; blues and abstraction suspended in perfect balance and caught in an intimate, tactile recording. Canadian Bach and Mozart specialist Angela Hewitt shows off her range with Love Songs, a gorgeous confection of orchestral and art song transcriptions assembled in lockdown and performed with undeniable panache. The same goes for Danny Driver’s phenomenal rendition of Gyorgy Ligeti’s hypermodern 18 Etudes — virtuoso pieces whose serene surfaces turn out to be rooted in super-knotty counterpoint and off-kilter rhythmic cells. My favorite new album of 2021 to date? Promises by electronica artist Floating Points, spiritual jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, and The London Symphony Orchestra, which manages to bring all of the above (well, except for the piano!) together in one glorious, 40-minute ambient epic.

Reissues: Big Big Train’s double-disc update of The Underfall Yard has definitely had its share of listening time, between Rob Aubrey’s rich remix/remaster and the welcome bonus disc (featuring fresh recordings of the title track and “Victorian Brickwork” by the full band and brass quintet). With My Bloody Valentine’s catalog back in print, their masterpiece Loveless sounds as incredible as ever; crushing distortion and lush romanticism collide to channel the sublime. And Pete Townshend has masterminded a comprehensive Super Deluxe edition of The Who Sell Out, the band’s pre-Tommy high point. But my favorite reissues thus far have been It Bites’ The Tall Ships (especially the title track — what a power ballad!) and Map of the Past (a favorite of mine since its original release). With the then-unknown John Mitchell taking over from Francis Dunnery, IB sailed into the 21st century with their 1980s pomp intact, killer hooks, head-spinning riffs and all.

Live Albums: Beyond the visceral thrills of Fanfare for the Uncommon Man: The Official Keith Emerson Tribute Concert, I’ve had a blast hearing krautrock legends Can conjure up spellbinding group improvisation on Live in Stuttgart 75, an initial dip into their voluminous concert archives. I’ve been giddy to hear Kansas, bolstered by keyboardist Tom Brislin, get their mojo working on Point of Know Return Live & Beyond. (They’ll be my first post-lockdown rock show next month.) And my journey back into soul music (see below) set me up nicely for the razor-sharp, precision funk of Tower of Power: 50 Years of Funk and Soul Live at the Fox Theater, a deliriously exciting reunion show recorded in 2018.

From the Catalog: All the good new stuff above aside, this is where some of my most fruitful listening has been happening this year — frequently inspired by other media. Watching the movie One Night in Miami led me back to Sam Cooke’s Portrait of a Legend: 1951-1964; the resulting dive into soul music ultimately brought me to Marvin Gaye’s classic concept album What’s Going On — 50 years old in 2021! Perusing various “best of 2020” lists turned me on to the avant-garde jazz of trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusere’s on the tender spot of every calloused moment and Maria McKee’s art-pop song cycle La Vita Nuova (inspired by Dante, no less). Jazz/fusion legend Chick Corea’s death prompted a deep dive into his catalog; new favorites included Return to Forever’s Where Have I Known You Before and the fabulous Five Peace Band Live, Corea’s long-delayed collaboration with guitarist John McLaughlin. And after long years of the album doing nothing for me, Radiohead’s The Bends finally clicked when I read Steven Hyden’s fine band biography This Isn’t Happening. (Curt Bianchi’s wonderful new book, Elegant People: A History of the Band Weather Report, is prompting a similar deep dive into that quintessential jazz/rock band’s catalog; I highly recommend their cutting edge debut album from 1971 and their 1976 masterpiece of groove, Black Market.)

Coming Soon: In addition to Big Big Train’s Common Ground (take it from me, it’s a humdinger), I highly recommend MoonJune Records’ latest release, Indonesian fusion guitarist Dewa Budjana’s incandescent Naurora. I’m also eagerly anticipating new music from the Neal Morse Band (oops, NMB now), Steve Hackett and Isildur’s Bane & Peter Hammill; reissues of BeBop Deluxe’s Live in the Air Age and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass; and comprehensive box sets from The Beach Boys and Van Der Graaf Generator. Plus live shows from Kansas, Emmylou Harris and Los Lobos, King Crimson with The Zappa Band, and opening night of Genesis’ USA tour.

So, yeah, it’s taken a while — but at least from my point of view, 2021 has already been a solid year for music — and the prospects for it getting even better are looking up!

— Rick Krueger

Neal Morse, Pete Trewavas, Mike Portnoy, Roine Stolt

Parallel Universes: Transatlantic’s Dueling Epics

This is probably the only time I’ll have a legitimate reason to use this cool new WordPress feature.

Transatlantic have reached the ripe old age of 21, and with that they’ve released a brand new album. Wait, that isn’t right. They’ve released two brand new albums. Well, no, they haven’t really done that either. What they have done is released two versions of one album: one at ~65 minutes and the other at ~91 minutes. The Absolute Universe: The Breath of Life is the short one, and The Absolute Universe: Forevermore is the long one. For the sake of clarity (both mine and yours), I’m going to refer to the albums as the extended version and the abridged version.

Now why on earth, you may ask, would a band want to release two different versions of an album? Excellent question. I was a bit miffed when Big Big Train did it with Folklore (the vinyl and Hi-Res audio version was longer with some tracks from the Wassail EP and a slightly altered track listing), and I’m a bit miffed that Transatlantic has done it. Apparently the band couldn’t come to an agreement on whether they should release a longer version of what they had written or a condensed version, so they decided to release both.

The abridged version is $9.99 on iTunes, while the extended edition is $16.99, so it’ll cost you just under $30 to buy the downloads. You may need to take out a loan to buy physical copies. And don’t think you can get away with buying just the extended version thinking you’ll just get the abridged version plus some extra tracks. Nope they’ve gone and changed things in the tracks that overlap, so in many ways they’re very different. There’s also a third version on Blu-Ray only that combines the two into a ~96 minute version. Good grief. I haven’t heard that version, nor do I intend to.

If you’re going to buy only one of them, I suggest you buy the extended version. It has a much better flow to it with smoother transitions than the abridged version. Even though it’s longer, it isn’t packed with filler. To my ear it sounds more like a Transatlantic album. There are more songs with Roine Stolt on lead vocals. Yes of course he sings on the abridged version, but he sings less in the second half of that album. That makes the abridged version seem to morph into a Neal Morse album as it comes to a close. “Lonesome Rebel” towards the end of extended version remedies that by restoring some balance. In addition to Roine’s stellar vocals, the mix of wonderful electric and acoustic guitars and vocal harmonies really makes this track stand out.

Continue reading “Parallel Universes: Transatlantic’s Dueling Epics”

Neal Morse on Transatlantic’s The Absolute Universe: The Progarchy Interview

As we (and everybody else in the prog rock world) announced back in November, Transatlantic’s fifth album The Absolute Universe will be unleashed on February 5. This album will arrive not just in multiple formats, but also in multiple versions: the 60-minute, 14-track The Breath of Life (Abridged Version), the 90-minute, 18-track Forevermore (Extended Version) and The Ultimate Edition box set (both versions on LP and CD, plus a 19-track 5.1 version on BluRay).

Having had the privilege of hearing the abridged and extended versions, I’ll testify that The Absolute Universe thoroughly satisfies my craving for that special Transatlantic blend of prog past, present and future. Everything that I love about the band is there, to (and sometimes beyond) the point of gluttony; I’ve come away from each listen delighted, thrilled and moved. So it was another real treat when, the week before Christmas, I got to chat with Neal Morse about this new music. (Neal also talked to Bryan Morey about his latest solo album, Sola Gratia, a few months back.) In this interview, Neal tells us how The Absolute Universe came together, why a double album wasn’t enough, and more.

So first, thanks for talking to me!  I have been a Transatlantic fan for a long time back.  SMPT:e was actually the first thing I ever heard with you involved in it, and that got me back into prog after some time away from it.   

Right!  Good!

And then I saw you guys in 2010 in Chicago, and that was a great, great, great show!  I enjoyed that so much. 

That would have been The Whirlwind?

Yes, exactly right.

Was that at Park West?  Yeah, that was a great night!

Yeah, it was Mike’s birthday.

Right!  And they got us Giordano’s [“Chicago’s Famous Stuffed Deep Dish Pizza”] for after-show food!  [Chuckles] I remember the really good pizza!  It was a good night.

Yes, it was a great show.  I missed you the last time through [touring the Kaleidoscope album].  But now you’ve got this new album coming through the pipeline, The Absolute Universe.  And I guess my first question is: how does a new Transatlantic album happen?  Was there a certain person or a certain thing that kickstarted the process?  How did it come about?

Well, let’s see.  I think it started with me! I think I emailed everybody, if memory serves,  but that was a long time ago.  It would have been near the end of 2018 or the beginning of 2019, I think.  I started the conversation, and then we started talking about schedules.  At first, it’s like “hey, do you wanna do it?” and everybody was like, “yeah, we’d like to, but …”  We had to find the right time when everybody had time for it, which wound up being the end of September 2019 in Sweden.

I remember starting to write some demos for Transatlantic in March, I think, of 2019.  And I think we went round and round about where to record and when to record for many months, till finally it was like, “OK, if we’re gonna do this, it needs to be in this window of time.”  And so, we all convened in Sweden and worked on it for about two weeks – wrote and recorded what I would call the template.  Not the keeper track, but the template for what became the long version of the album, Forevermore. 

We left there in early October, and then Mike came here into Nashville to do his keeper drums.  He would have done them in Sweden, but we ran out of time.  In fact, we were still changing the album and writing it right up on the last day, when we had to go to the airport.  And everything kind of fell into place right at the end; it was pretty amazing.

Anyway, Mike came here, did his drums in November.  Then I did my parts in December and January, and then I left to go to Australia to play some shows and take a vacation in New Zealand.  And that’s where I got away from the album, and I started working on my solo album Sola Gratia.

And then I listened to the Transatlantic album again in March, I think it was.  And I kinda had the feeling like – and this is really unusual for me, cause a lot of times I want to make things longer!  But I felt like maybe this album would benefit from some editing!   So, I started editing some things out.  I thought maybe some of the guys might like it as well, because when we were writing it in Sweden, several of the guys were wanting it to be a single disc, and they really didn’t want it to be a double.

Anyway, I sent off this edit with, I think, the subject line that read, “Am I Crazy?”  I thought they might just dismiss the whole concept right away.  But not everybody did.  Some of them were like, “maybe this is a good way to go.”  So then, we went round and round about that for a couple of months, trying to decide what was the best thing to do.

We were still trying to figure that out when Mike had the idea of releasing both!  And then once we agreed to release both, then the idea was to make the versions as different as possible.

Continue reading “Neal Morse on Transatlantic’s The Absolute Universe: The Progarchy Interview”
Neal Morse

By Grace Alone: A Conversation With Neal Morse

Scary man with scythe is the winter snow.

Neal Morse, Sola Gratia, September 11, 2020, Inside Out Music

Tracks: 1. Preface (01:28), 2. Overture (05:59), 3. In The Name Of The Lord (04:27), 4. Ballyhoo (The Chosen Ones) (02:43), 5. March Of The Pharisees (01:40), 6. Building A Wall (05:01), 7. Sola Intermezzo (02:10), 8. Overflow (06:27), 9. Warmer Than The Sunshine (03:22), 10. Never Change (07:52), 11. Seemingly Sincere (09:34), 12. The Light On The Road To Damascus (03:26), 13. The Glory Of The Lord (06:17), 14. Now I Can See/The Great Commission (05:17)

Last Saturday, August 29, 2020, I had the great opportunity to talk to the magnificent Neal Morse about his new solo album, Sola Gratia. Morse is perhaps the most ubiquitous artist of “third wave” progressive rock. You’d be hard pressed to find contemporary progressive rock artists that aren’t influenced by him in some way. His latest solo effort proves why. The lyrical and musical songwriting is in peak form.

As a sequel to 2007’s Sola Scriptura, this album finds Morse exploring the story of the Apostle Paul’s conversion from a persecutor of Christians to the faith’s most ardent missionary. It is a profound story of God’s grace. Morse explores the drama of this story as Paul (then called Saul) wrestles with the newly founded Christian church and the sincerity of its followers. While Paul is on his way to Damascus to persecute more Christians, Jesus appears to him. Paul then converts and repents. The album ends with Paul converting and glorifying God, leaving us on a cliffhanger of sorts for a possible part 2 in the future.

The album pulls a few lyrical and musical highlights from Sola Scriptura, but, as Morse says in the interview below, they are merely sprinklings. It is enough to be familiar without sounding like a retread. The music gives room for the listener to breathe and think about the lyrics, which makes this an enjoyable album to return to. At just over an hour long it isn’t a chore to return to as a double album might be. The music has its expected complexity with the usual suspects playing on the album – primarily Mike Portnoy and Randy George – but the lyrics are the highlight here. There are a lot of calm moments that allow you to reflect. I found that quite appealing about the album, and it has quickly become one of my favorite Neal Morse solo albums.

But enough of that. The interview covers the background of the album, how it was written, and its connections to Sola Scriptura. We talked a bit about Paul, and Transatlantic and Flying Colors came up a few times as well.

Neal Morse at keyboards

Neal: Hello.

Bryan: Hi, this is Bryan from Progarchy.

Neal: Hey how you doing man?

Bryan: Good how are you?

Neal: Good! Good good.

Bryan: Thanks so much for your time this morning. I really appreciate it. I know you’re a busy man.

Neal: Well, you know, got a couple things going on. That’s alright. I’m sure you do too.

Bryan: Well I don’t have an album coming out every month. [laughs]

Neal: [Laughs] Yeah.

Bryan: So tell me about the background for your upcoming album, Sola Gratia. I’ve had a chance to listen to it several times, and it’s fantastic.

Neal: Oh thanks man. Thanks, I’m glad you like it. Well I mean I started getting these ideas while I was on vacation – sort of half vacation half work actually. We did some gigs down in Australia, and then we took a trip to New Zealand and I was just getting a flood of ideas.

Continue reading “By Grace Alone: A Conversation With Neal Morse”

Prog More, Spend Less: Radiant Records 3-Day Sale

radiant recordsRadiant Records–the company founded and owned by Neal Morse–is having a three-day sale, with the wonderful tagline, “Prog more, spend less.”

The sales are on cds/DVDs/ and/or blu-rays of MORSEFEST2015, SNOW LIVE, SIMILITUDE OF A DREAM, ALIVE AGAIN, KaLIVEoscope, TESTIMONY 2, MOMENTUM, GOD WON’T GIVE UP, and SO MANY ROADS.

Frankly, all specular releases.

To go to the sale (which ends this Friday), go here: http://www.radiantrecords.com/category/191735-bargain-bin.aspx

Radiant Records Announces Live Morsefest 2015 Set

Radiant Records has announced a live release of Morsefest 2015, featuring two concerts covering Sola Scriptura, ?, and selections from the catalogs of Transatlantic and Spock’s Beard. One of the concerts even finds Mike Portnoy and Nick D’Virgilio on the same stage together.

You can pre-order the set now over at Radiant’s website. My only beef with the variety of sets on offer (besides the high price) is the fact that they aren’t offering a 2 Blu-Ray/4CD set. All they have is the 2DVD/4CD set or the 2 Blu-Ray set. Why they aren’t offering a DVD/Blu-Ray/CD set (much like the excellent Transatlantic KaLiveoscope box set from a couple years ago) is anyone’s guess.

Check out the trailer:

Freakishly Huge Sale at RADIANT

STARTING NOW: Radiant’s Pre-Labor Day 3-Day Sale through Wednesday, 8/31!

 

BIG savings on:

Transatlantic – Kaleidoscope

Neal Morse – Songs from November

Neal Morse – Momentum

Neal Morse – LIVE Momentum

Transatlantic – Whirld Tour 2010

Transatlantic – More Never is Enough

Spock’s Beard – Don’t Try This at Home

Order within the next three days for your chance to win a surprise gift! 

(Recipients of surprise gifts will be chosen at random. If you are picked, the gift will be included with your order.)

PLUS: All orders over $60 receive a 15% discount! 

(Discount automatically deducted at checkout – no code required.)

https://www.radiantrecords.com/default.aspx

Happy Easter

Happy Easter, Progarchy. Today is the day when Christians all over the world commemorate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, conquering sin and death so that we might have eternal life, if we believe.

Check out this great video of Marillion and Dream Theater performing the song, “Easter,” way back in ’95. Enjoy.

Transatlantic’s “We All Need Some Light” is also fitting. Here’s a video from their KaLIVEoscope 2014 show. The song starts around the 4:00 minute mark, after a duet with Morse and Stolt.

Transatlantic: SMPTe. 15 Years Later.

IMG

Maybe it’s the professional historian in me, but I love dates, and I love anniversaries.

This year is the fifteenth anniversary of Transatlantic’s first album, the rather stunning and never aging SMPTe.

I’d not heard of the project until one of my students handed me a copy of the CD in the fall of 2000, about six months or so after its release.  I knew Morse (I’d been one of the first–if not the first–persons in Bloomington, Indiana, to purchase THE LIGHT from Spock’s Beard), I knew Trewavas (having been a Marillion fan since BRAVE), and I knew Mike Portnoy, having purchased every Dream Theater release since 1992’s IMAGES AND WORDS.  Roine Stolt?  Didn’t have a clue at that point, though I’d heard of The Flower Kings.

My first reaction upon seeing the CD cover was one of elation.  This looked like a very modernized Yes cover.  And, of course, I loved the starship/blimp.  I thought the album title, SMPTe, was kind of weird, as I didn’t quite get why the names of the members were so important, but, then, it was a “supergroup.”

Looking at the credits, I thought, “Ok, this is a Morse project.  I wonder why he isn’t finding enough fulfillment in Spock’s Beard?”  Not that I knew much about anything going on in any of the bands represented in Transatlantic.  I knew the music, but I didn’t know any details about any of the bands.

In fact, the only real music news I kept up on at the time was for Rush, Yes, Tears for Fears, and Talk Talk.  Admittedly, I did a very good job of keeping up with these bands, but I was aided by some really good user groups and news groups (remember those?!!?).

When I put the Transatlantic cd on my stereo, I was completely floored.  The first minute of sound effects not only grabbed me, but all 31 minutes of the epic rooted me in place.  I was utterly blown away.  Yes had given us songs at 22-24 minutes, and Rush had come close, but 31 minutes?  Holy schnikees.  This was flat out amazing.  Then, “We All Need Some Light,” which I thought sounded much like a Spock’s Beard song.  Thus, I Iiked it.  And, it was the perfect breather after “All of the Above.”  I didn’t fall in love with this track, though, until I heard it live on LIVE IN AMERICA.

The third track, “Mystery Train,” really caught my attention as well, pulling me back into the depths of the album.  I loved the psychedelia of it, and I was especially taken with the Beatle-esque refrain.  This was an updated version of something off of the MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR–yet it was an homage not a mimicry.

If I’d been captivated by tracks 1 and 3, I was once again thrown into a tizzy as I listened to the sixteen minutes of “My New World.”  The references to the Doors and Jimi Hendrix sold me.  And, I’m a sucker for Stolt’s voice.  As soon as I heard this album, I immediately purchased all of The Flower Kings up to that point.

SPACE REVOLVER, by the way, became and remains one of my top ten favorite all-time albums.

As I looked back over the first four tracks of SMPTe, I came to realize how very different each song had been.  There was no distinctive “Transatlantic” song.  They each hit me in different ways.

Then, as though I deserved dessert (which I didn’t!), Transatlantic gave me a remake of one of the best Procol Harum songs ever written.  Granted, it wasn’t “Simple Sister” but it was the next best thing.

When Transatlantic played live over the internet, I listened.  When the live album of that recording, LIVE IN AMERICA, came out, I bought it–the day it came out.  And, I’ve done the same with every single live or studio CD since.  I will admit that I was horribly shocked by Portnoy’s language on the live releases.  At the time, I was only recently married.  My wife comes from a very conservative Texas family, and she knew nothing about prog.  As I was listening and Portnoy said inappropriate things, I cringed.  Astoundingly, my wife either didn’t hear Portnoy or chose not to hear.  She’s now as much a Morse/Portnoy fan as I am.  So, all’s well that ends well!

I will admit that it’s a bit hard for me to accept that I first heard SMPTe fifteen years ago.  At that point, I was newly married, and my oldest child was just a year old!  Now, he’s sixteen, and he has six siblings!  Sheesh.

And, my wife is now a prog fan.  Again, the times do change.

A huge thank you to Morse, Portnoy, Trewavas, and Stolt.  That one album from a decade and a half ago introduced me to the Flower Kings, and it made me realize that third-wave prog was and remains pure, unadulterated love and beauty.

Radiant Records News

Radiant Records

Greetings from the Radiant Team!

It’s time for our Weekly Featured Product! This week, our featured item, is Songs From November, the latest solo album from Neal Morse! This week ONLY, you can get Songs From November for just $9.99 (regular price – $13.99).  As one reviewer put it, “Songs From November may be [Neal’s] bravest outing to date. Musically, creatively, and production-wise, it’s like nothing he’s ever done. The final 11 songs are among the best that Neal has ever composed.”  Get it today for only $9.99!

Neal Morse

Songs From November

 $9.99 this week only!

Other Items We’re Loving Right Now

 
March ’15 Inner Circle Release,
More Songs From November, 
Neal Morse
FREE to IC members
Transatlantic
Kaleidoscope
3 Disc SE Digipak
$27.99

Stay tuned for more Featured Products coming every Monday!