2019 Prog (Plus) Preview 2!

More new music, live albums, reissues (regular, deluxe & super-deluxe) and even books about music heading our way between now and Christmas?  Yep.  Following up on my previous post, it’s another exhaustive sampling of promised progressive goodies — along with other personal priorities — below.  Click on the titles for pre-order links — whenever possible, you’ll wind up at the online store that gets as much money as possible directly to the creators.

Out now:

Andrew Keeling, Musical Guide to In the Court of the Crimson King, 10/50 Edition: composer/musicologist/online diarist Keeling’s revision of his 2009 book (the first of a series acclaimed by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp).

Marillion with Friends from the Orchestra: 9 Marillion classics re-recorded by the full band, the string quartet In Praise of Folly, flautist Emma Halnan and French horn player Sam Morris.  Available on CD.

A Prog Rock Christmas: Billy Sherwood produces 11 holiday-themed tracks from the typical all-star cast (members of Yes, Utopia, Flying Colors, Renaissance, District 97, Curved Air and more).  Download and CD available now; LP available November 1.


October 25:

King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King (50th Anniversary Edition): featuring brand new stereo and surround mixes in 24/96 resolution by Steven Wilson.  Available in 3 CD + BluRay or  2 LP versions.  (Note that the new mixes will also be included in the Complete 1969  CD/DVD/BluRay box set, which has been delayed until 2020.)

Van Morrison, Three Chords and the Truth: 14 new songs from Van the Man, available in digital, CD or LP versions.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Colorado: the first Young/Horse collaboration since the 2012 albums Americana and Psychedelic Pill, available in CD or 2LP versions.

Continue reading “2019 Prog (Plus) Preview 2!”

soundstreamsunday: “Ballerina” by Van Morrison

van-morrison-sqThe art gallery of rock and roll is a rich and welcoming place, with room upon room spinning off into many-directioned distances.  There is no entrance fee or warnings to stand back, please, from the piece.  And, like at all great museums, any pretense to surface comportment is, if meaningful at all, only a nod of respect to the spark of human creativity.  A sign that we don’t stand in willful ignorance.  Before the work, within the work, we are all children.  It is in rock’s nature to empower its listeners to create, and within this space there is no genre, no boogie no punk no progressive no pop no indie no folk, just an honoring of the empty canvas and the unrestrained fire banked down in humanity.  It’s what I love about rock, and it’s what made Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks happen.

Drummer Connie Kay and guitarist Jay Berliner both famously recounted that Morrison told his musicians — and these weren’t just any musicians, but some of the finest jazz players New York could provide in the late 1960s, led by the inimitable bassist Richard Davis — to “play what you want” and then left them alone to back and guide him on a set of eight songs whose precedents were slim and bore little relation to the rock-pop classics he recorded with his band Them (“Gloria,” “Here Comes the Night”) or on his first solo album (“Brown Eyed Girl”).  Astral Weeks (1968) is an echo of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (1959), where an extraordinarily talented group of jazz musicians received a similar lack of instruction, and Love’s Forever Changes (1967), where the pop songwriter deliberately challenged the very notion and direction of his craft.  Morrison’s artistic success on Astral Weeks was, and remains, startling.  The album’s embrace of acoustic jazz as a way forward had a profound impact on the burgeoning “singer songwriter” movement, and for better or worse has become instant point of comparison with subsequent work by musicians such as Joni Mitchell or Tim Buckley or Nick Drake.

“Ballerina” captures the essence of an album that is about nothing as much as ecstatic love, the joyous and at times Joyce-ean observations of a 23-year-old ancient who had spent the previous year turning his voice into a bebop trumpet.  While Morrison got and kept his fame on the back of “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Moondance” and the slew of equally wonderful R&B radio-ready hits that would come his way, it’s here that his artistic street cred was established, as he honored the canvas and invited Davis, Kay, and Berliner to follow their hearts along with him.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section above.

50 years after Them, Van Morrison cuts one of Those “Duets” Albums

The number “50” is off—an 18-year-old Van the Man actually joined Them in April 1964 (thus, 51 years on)—but it’s fitting, as playing with time is something Morrison mastered early and continues to do very well, as singer, van-morrison_duetssongwriter, and player. In 1966, Morrison and Them performed a series of shows at the Whisky a Go Go; the opening band was The Doors, and the two Morrisons—Jim and Van—performed together. On his new release (his 35th studio album), Duets: Re-working the Catalogue, the Belfast Cowboy performs with several singers who were born after the Sixties: Joss Stone, Michael Bublé, Clare Teal, Gregory Porter, Morrison’s daughter, Shana. Many of the other guests have been there and done that, including Bobby Womack (who died last summer), Mavis Staples, George Benson, Steve Winwood, PJ Proby, Taj Mahal, Mick Hucknall, Natalie Cole, Georgie Fame, and Chris Farlowe.

Those sixteen duet partners encompass blues, jazz, blue-eyed soul, rock, R&B, gospel, and pop, all of which are genres that Morrison mastered long ago, in addition to Celtic, country, and skiffle. No, there’s not a lick of prog on this or any other Morrison album, but there is, I suggest, a certain spiritual connection with certain forms of progressive rock, especially in the mystical journeying of Astral Weeks, the joyful, ecstatic visions of Moondance, and the epic, spiritual wanderlust of Avalon Sunset and Hymns to the Silence. Part of the genius of Van Morrison is that he largely ignores prevailing musical trends, yet is able to connect to a wide range of listeners because of a certain timeless quality to his songs, which are consistently melodic and memorable. My first real initiation into Morrison’s music was in the summer of 1991, when a friend played Avalon Sunset for me; I was instantly hooked, and quickly began acquiring all of Morrison’s music. In my 2002 essay, “The Incarnational Art of Van Morrison,” I reflect on the various spiritual and mystical themes in Morrison’s music. Continue reading “50 years after Them, Van Morrison cuts one of Those “Duets” Albums”

The Incarnational Art of Van Morrison


Note: No one will mistake Van Morrison as a “prog” rocker, but everyone acknowledges he is one of the most important popular musicians of the past fifty years. He has long been one of my five or six favorite musicians, ever since I first heard his music back in the summer of 1991. I wrote the following article in 2002 for Saint Austin Review, and since it has never been available online, I’ve decided to foist it onto Progarchy readers. I’ve made a couple of minor corrections, but otherwise it is unchanged and so it is, of course, somewhat dated. — Carl E. Olson

Ask most people (at least here in America) if they’ve heard of Van Morrison, and they will likely mention “Brown Eyed Girl,” the late 60s hit with a catchy chorus of sha-la-la-la-la-la-la’s. Although it’s a fine pop song, there is, fortunately, far more to Van Morrison than “Brown Eye Girl.” Since 1968 and the release of his classic album Astral Weeks, Morrison has created an impressive body of popular music that defies categorization. Using elements of folk, rock, jazz, soul, R&B, traditional Irish music, and even country music, the Belfast Cowboy molds songs that are earthly, emotional, spiritual, and, at times, transcendent.

Legendary for his difficult personality and his dislike for the press, Morrison has often sent confusing signals about his religious affections. Yet his finest work can rightly be called incarnational. This is not to say it is strictly “Christian,” but that it is rooted in reality (uncommon in much pop and rock music) and seeks to incarnate spiritual truth and meaning in concrete forms, themes, images, and narratives. Morrison is not interested in proselytizing, creating propaganda, or lecturing, flaws common in “contemporary Christian music” (mostly evangelical Protestant) and in the music of rock artists attempting serious statements about ecology, politics, and social ills. Such ends irritate Morrison, who seems to appreciate the power and limits of popular music.  Once asked about fans looking to musicians for political guidance, he responded with irritation, “Why do people expect us to solve the world’s problems? It’s absurd. I mean, if politicians can’t do it, how . . . . can musicians?”

Although he has produced some mediocre albums and has occasionally alienated his fans and the press, Morrison has maintained a remarkably consistent artistic vision. His music is worth considering, I believe, for several reasons. As music, apart from message and lyrical themes, most of it is very good. Morrison’s mastery of styles and his ability to mesh seemingly divergent musical forms is impressive. The best of these stylistic marriages have a timeless quality, conveying a spiritual longing that is honest, vulnerable, and often moving. This mixture of earthy, cerebral, and spiritual is uniquely its own, providing Catholic musicians who work in popular music much to consider and appreciate.

The Childlike Vision

Born in Belfast in 1945, Morrison had an ordinary boyhood, with the notable exception of his father’s passion for American jazz, R&B, and early rock and roll. He spent hours listening to the records of legendary artists such as Jelly Roll Morton, Little Richard, and various blues singers. By the age of fifteen he was playing full-time in a skiffle band, eventually putting together the group Them in the early 60s. After releasing the hits “Here Comes the Night” and “Gloria,” Morrison went solo and eventually landed in New York City. Although “Brown Eyed Girl” was soon a hit, Morrison was miserable. Feeling trapped in his recording contract and misunderstood by everyone around him, he still managed to record Astral Weeks in two days – this despite not knowing the session musicians and (according to those musicians) not communicating with them.

Although it produced no hits and didn’t sell well, Astral Weeks soon became legendary within musical circles. The twenty-two year old Morrison had created a song cycle that was timeless, poignant, and spiritual, combining folk, rock, and jazz in open-ended compositions. Multi-layered and elusive, the lyrics describe people and places in Belfast, impressionistic sketches imbued with a mystical longing free of nostalgia and sentimentality. The songs are loosely structured around Morrison’s emotive vocals, the singer wrapping his voice around keenly detailed lyrics. In “Beside You”, he describes the approaching evening with minimalist precision, “Just before the Sunday six-bells chime, six-bells chime/And all the dogs are barkin’.” He then follows a mysterious woman as she moves down the roads and “way across the country”:

Past the brazen footsteps of the silence easy
You breathe in you breathe out you breathe in you breathe out . .  .
And you’re high on your high-flyin’ cloud
Wrapped up in your magic shroud as ecstasy surrounds you

“Sweet Thing,” a more obvious love song, is also filled with images of walking the countryside, seeking and experiencing a timeless wonder: Continue reading “The Incarnational Art of Van Morrison”

Succinct Reviews of Seven Sterling (Non-Prog) CDs

I live with several people and many things: my wife, our three children, a dog, two cats, five chickens, numerous fish, a dated wardrobe, and countless delusions. Among those delusions is an unwarranted—irrational!—belief that I will write long, detailed reviews of every album I deem worthy of such. Reality smirks at such excessive dreams, but I continue to harbor them. Still, I sometimes relent to reality, with gritted teeth and a fleeting snarl. So, what follows are short reviews of seven recently released albums (mostly downloads, actually) that share two qualities: they are not prog, and they are excellent. I should note that although the main focus of Progarchy.com  (which I conceived and Brad birthed—ooh, that sounds a bit, uh, strange) is obviously prog, it is open to all forms of good music. Genre is of far lesser importance than quality. That said, let’s push “Play”.

• “Until The Quiet Comes” by Flying Lotus. This is my sort of electronica: richly detailed, sumptuous, quirky, edged with darkness, possessing a jazzy flair, and endlessly inventive. The jazzy element has a genealogy, as Steven Ellison (who is Flying Lotus) is the great-nephew of Alice Coltrane, wife of the late, legendary ‘Trane. Includes a track, “Electric Candyman”, with a certain Thom Yorke. A near perfect late night album, this rewards repeated listens.

• “3 Pears” by Dwight Yoakam. His music has always been lean and his lyrics dry, but the new twist is subtle: a warmth in both content and sound. An example of the first is “Waterfall”, which is playful, with a wry and wistful sense of joy. The second comes through in Yoakam’s superb vocals, set in arrangements that are fat-free and feature just the right amount of twang and reverb, with tasty touches of organ and piano. The man is a superior songwriter and this set is further proof that country music can be twangy and contemporary without being shallow and trendy.

• “Long Wave” by Jeff Lynne. A part of me was prepared to dislike this because it is a covers album and is quite short (barely 28 minutes). Yes, this is a rather nostalgic homage to songs Lynne grew up on (standouts include “She” and “Beyond the Sea”), but the wizard of ELO brings such an obvious love to the project, I was won over. It doesn’t hurt that it is impeccably sung, played and produced, with lush Lynne-harmonies and ELO-like arrangements that are all about the songs. Besides, if there is one thing Lynne’s music has always had, it was a sense of nostalgic melancholy and romantic regret. Short, bittersweet, and stellar.

• “Manu Katché” by Manu Katché. Who hasn’t this phenomenal drummer played with? Notable names include Peter Gabriel, Sting, Jeff Beck, Tears for Fears, Tori Amos, and about a billion others. This is Katché’s fourth disc for ECM, and each has been fabulous; this newest release is notable for its propulsive approach. As one reviewer noted (I’ve lost the link), this is perhaps the funkiest ECM album ever, the sort of playful, soulful jazz album that gives an assured nod to modern sounds (read: synths and loops), but is rooted in acoustic bliss, with plenty of warm horns and shimmering organ. Recommended for anyone who loves great jazz and anyone who needs an entry point for modern jazz that is equally brainy and passionate.

• “Albatross” by Big Wreck. I was oblivious to this fine group (a “neo-prog hard-rock outfit” according to AllMusic.com) until I stumbled upon this new release on emusic.com. Singer Ian Thornley brings Chris Cornell to mind with his powerful, expressive vocals, but is hardly a clone, nor does he try to be. Three successive songs—”Wolves”, “Albatross”, and “Glass Room”—are worth the price of admission. “Wolves” (see YouTube video), especially, is a dynamite track, a perfect four-minute modern rock song, with top-notch playing and subtle melody. One of my favorite releases of 2012.

• “Born to Sing: No Plan B” by Van Morrison. No need for a Plan B for the Belfast Cowboy because he is the supreme Celtic synthesist, so soaked in jazz, blues, roots, and early rock, he can sing about grass growing and it is magical (and, in that regard, reminds me of G.K. Chesterton). This jazz-oriented album, on the Blue Note label, is arguably his best in a decade; he sounds refreshed, focused, and even happy. The horn arrangements are special and the songs are leisurely without ever wandering, mellow without ever dragging. The real revelation here are Morrison’s horn-like vocals, which are strong, elastic, and restless. Great album by one of my favorite musicians.

• “Now Here This” by John McLaughlin and The 4th Dimension. Some fans of McLaughlin’s legendary projects from the 1960s and ’70s aren’t too taken with his recent albums, which often feature guitar-synth and other modern devices. But while this album is occasionally frenetic and has a very modern (and crisp) sound, the adjective that keeps coming to mind is “soulful.” This comes through more obviously when things slow down, as on the lovely “Wonderfall”. The guitar solos are technically brilliant of course, but also have passionate, hungry logic that cannot be denied. This is music for the mind and the soul, which is about the highest praise I can give it. Fantastic effort from the legendary axe man.

A Pilgrim’s Prog-ress

I balked for a few moments at the temptation of writing an indulgent, long, complex, and idiosyncratic post about my journey to and into prog, and then realized: hey, this is Progarchy.com! If I cannot string together tenuously-related, semi-mystical concepts and conceits imbued with mythical overtones, quasi-autobiographical meta-narratives, and intertwining (and purposely confusing) philosophical musings here, then what’s the point of this wonderful blog? (No need to answer that, as I’m already soloing  on my inner Moog without regard for the boring 4/4 time signature others might wish to force upon me.) Actually, much of what follows was already presented in a long-ish comment I left on a previous post below. But Brad, as he often does, inspired me to do more, even at the risk of embarrassing the shy and retiring Olson clan. So here goes.

I was oddly oblivious to most music until my early teens. This was due in part to being raised in a Fundamentalist home and church, both of which largely frowned on rock music as the rhythmic spawn of the devil, meant to corrupt good morals and encourage bad haircuts. Yes, the stereotypes do hold, at least to some degree.  I heard a lot of church music (classic Protestant hymns, some of them very good) and mostly bland to bad contemporary Christian music. Then, around the age of fourteen or so, I started listening to the radio (one station, weak signal) and began to slowly accumulate a few tapes. My road to prog went through AOR acts such as Journey, REO Speedwagon, Loverboy, Foreigner, and Styx, with a helping of popular mid-80s albums by ELO, Elton John, Toto, and Queen. I found the standard rock of the day (including some of the stuff above) to be rather dull; I was fascinated by the more extended songs of Elton (the early 1970s albums especially), Queen, Asia, and the Moody Blues. I’m happy to say I was hooked on “Bohemian Rhapsody” long before “Wayne’s World” re-presented it to my generation. Also, I thought the usual popular, party music about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll was mostly shallow, even if occasionally diverting. Which is another way of saying I secretly listened to my share of Van Halen while playing some laughable air guitar (oh, wait, all air guitar is laughable). I did not, however, ever party. Seriously.

Around 1985 or so, I bought a copy of “The Best of Kansas”. That opened the door to prog. There was something about the mixture of Livgren’s lead guitar, Steinhardt’s violin, and Steve Walsh’s amazing voice, along with lyrics soaked in spiritual longing and Americana, that grabbed me by the scrawny neck. Over the next three or four years, I ended up collecting everything by Kansas, Kerry Livgren (solo and with AD), and Steve Morse (solo, Dixie Dregs, etc.). My favorite Kansas albums are “Song for America” and “In the Spirit of Things”, although they weren’t the chart-toppers that “Point of Know Return” and “Leftoverture” were. I also went on a serious Moody Blues binge, focusing on the early stuff, prior to their more pop-oriented work of the mid-’80s. Then I really got into Yes (both Rabin-era and the early classic albums with Howe), Rush, and Pink Floyd; in fact, while in Bible college (1989-91), I freaked out some of my more staid classmates with my obsessive interest in Pink Floyd, Queen, Queenrÿche, and King’s X (and, yes, I also listened to Petra, David Meece, White Heart, White Cross, Russ Taff, and Margaret Becker). King’s X was a major revelation, especially the brilliant, crunching, melodic beauty of “faith hope love”, which was a masterful blend of hard rock, metal, prog, blues, and Beatle-esque harmonies. And I recall very clearly driving across the Montana plains to school in Saskatchewan, blaring “Fly By Night” and other brilliant Rush tunes. Ah, to be young again.

A quick aside here, in the spirit of musical indulgence: while in high school, I also developed a semi-secret soft spot for country artists such as Johnny Cash, Johnny Horton, and Jim Reeves. And two composers: Mozart and Brahms. I tried to get into opera (our family doctor, who owned a massive classical collection, gave it his best shot), but couldn’t get there. I would try again in the late 1990s, failing again. And at one point I must have listened to Eric Clapton’s 1989 comeback album, “Journeyman”, about a thousand times. Go figure, as it’s the only Clapton album I’ve ever fixated on. Okay, back to prog.

In my early-to-mid twenties (1989-1995), I launched into Van Morrison, Seal, Jeff Buckley, Radiohead, and jazz, five of my big musical loves ever since (I’ll eventually write some disturbingly long posts about each, I hope). My interest in prog advanced in fits and starts. Yes was a constant, as I worked through most of the band’s catalog, with excursions into solo projects by Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman, Bill Bruford, and Steve Howe. The next big breakthrough was Dream Theater in the late 1990s, followed by Spock’s Beard, then Porcupine Tree and a bunch of others. Then, around 2004, I “discovered” Frank Sinatra, which led to the purchase of about 1,000 Sinatra tunes (favorite album: “In the Wee Small Hours”). I mention Sinatra because I have the semi-crazy idea of writing a blog titled, “Sinatra: Grandfather of Prog?”, that will either get me ejected from Progarchy, or enshrined in the Progarchy Hall of Fame.

I fully agree with Brad: we are living in a new, golden age of prog. There is such a stunning array of prog and prog-ish music to be had, I’ve long given up hope of keeping abreast of it all. Current favorites, in addition to the already mentioned acts, include Pain of Salvation, Threshold, Riverside, Muse, Animals As Leaders, Big Big Train, Anathema, Devin Townsend, Three, Astra, Blackfield, The Pineapple Thief, King Crimson, Headspace, and Mars Volta. But there are still huge holes in my prog knowledge and experience. I’m making prog-ress, but the road continues to rise and wind ahead. Which is exciting, as it means there is more to discover and hear.

Mini Review: Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks

ImageVan Morrison, Astral Weeks.  1968.  This album is an insightful and penetrating introspection without ever falling into pure naval gazing.  And, nobody writes better about the beginnings of love than Van Morrison.  Possibly there exists something profound in the Celtic soul.  Chesterton argued that the Irish were those the Gods made mad.  Perhaps, this explains something.  Or not.  As I understand it, the album was done in only three sessions with the jazz musicians–who had never met one another–being given the music when they entered the studio.  Happily, it possesses of the overproduced pop sound of its predecessor, Brown Eyed Girl.  Astral Weeks is perfect for an autumn day.  Or, really, for any day.