Tag Archives: prog rock

Searching in Vain by Candlelight: Procol Harum’s Shine On Brightly

Today, I want to talk to you guys about Procol Harum. But first, here’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale”:

This song actually isn’t on the album that I want to talk about, but it sort of sets up everything that runs through their second album, Shine On Brightly, and is the song that the band managed to smash into the long-term memory of popular culture. The dominance of the organ, Gary Brooker’s conversational vocals and the psuedo-intellectualism inherent (the chord progression and melody is lifted from Bach, and the lyrics reference Chaucer among other things) in the song perfectly set the stage for their more confident second album (though the actually recorded “A Whiter Shade of Pale” before even their first album came out, so it took them two, in my opinion, to catch up to their debut single).

Shine On Brightly was my first real experience of the band and it strikes me as curious now as to why I didn’t pick their debut first, as most versions have “Pale” tacked onto it, which is the logical one to go for – also because I like to start listening to an artist I plan to spend multiple albums with with their first one, but not here it would seem. Oh yeah, I remember why now. More on that later.

With a good balance of classical aspirations and psychedelia, the album has the band in an incredibly potent state, with the organ leading every step of the way – providing the simple intro and core for “Quite Rightly So”, and burbling up through the noise in the title track with that shows Matthew Fisher’s tastefully light touch while deftly handling a solo in the middle without going nuts proving virtuosity. “Shine On Brightly” to me is the key track here, as it shows off every great facet of the band in a 3-minute and 30-second window. While the aforementioned organ keeping things moving, B.J. Wilson is adding some electric ‘hot space’ with his stop start introduction to the verses, while Gary Brooker talks about his ‘befuddled brain’ and creates some grand chords on the piano. This all lays foundation of the best one-note riff I’ve ever heard as Robin Trower peels his guitar off with a most exquisite tone that serves as the platonic of the 60s British psychedelic sound.

The music really seems to bounce along in the piano-led “Skip Softly (My Moonbeams)” whole Trower is barely keeping his guitar under control underneath the verses before we come to a frilly piano interlude that underpins their classic leanings while the rest of the band exercises their right to launch into freak-out before someone shouts “HEY!” and the whole group fades out on a super-quick version of the Russian Sword Dance. While the songs don’t really go madly off in all directions (one song excepted), there’s a lot of creativity to be found within what seem to be straightforward tracks, as Sgt. Pepper’s had come out the year before and band’s were just going bonkers. The fact alone that the prior song bumps up against a good ol’ blues stomp in “Wish Me Well”, with a shouted twin lead vocal, gives you the impression that there are a lot of facets at play here, and the journey is not going to as simple as it seems.

And indeed the most-faceted are yet to come. The discovery of this album, to me, came in that summer where I dove headlong into progressive rock and tried to get right down into it, as much as possible. I was ultimately unimpressed with the message boards I’d been inhabiting that got me there, but a lot of the good stuff stayed with me. This album, of course, is regarded as the first to feature a 20-minute long multi-part suite of a song, with distinct sections and a hell of a delusion of grandeur. In the prog world, length seems to be king, as it aligns the music with that classical, that most legitimate of musics, as demonstration that serious art is happening and this ain’t just a three-minute pop song (which, honestly, by this time was already becoming an art in itself). The fact that I ended up liking the whole thing was a bonus.

“In Held ‘Twas In I” (the first lyric taken from each of the five sections forms the title) starts off with sitar and a spoken story about a monk going to visit the Dalai Lama to discover the meaning of life, and just goes up from there, expounding on the curiosities and intricacies of life with further spoken word sections of downtrodden spirits wondering about their place in the world. “‘Twas Teatime at the Circus” with shouting from the whole band and appropriately goofy music talks about the act of saving face despite confusion and “In the Autumn of My Madness” muses on the encroaching problem of age as the fear sets in that they will not remain as they are for much longer (very much in the vein of Pink Floyd’s “Time”), with a wistful guitar in the background peaking just as Matthew Fisher’s high vocals do (“Bring all my friends unto me/And I’ll strangle them with words”). This, of course, required a klaxon going off in the middle of it for reasons that are perfectly apparent. For all the pop-philosophy and metaphors upon metaphors, however, it really is the band’s finest hour, as the gravity of the piece is upon them and the required songwriting sophistication is on full display here (as well as Brooker’s crowning vocal moment, in “Look to Your Soul”), managing the transitions well and stepping outside of any of the blues-rock trappings they’d displayed earlier.

For an aspirational album with a touch of psychedelia, it’s hard to top Shine On Brightly. Every member of the band is working to create something new in the wide old world of 1968, when the onus of creativity much outweighed that of the playing, and the resulting content is much more accessible to anyone who’s curious to listen. The entire album contains the strength of what made “A Whiter Shade of Pale” such a big deal, only writ larger and with an incredible confidence at the centre of it.

“Shine On Brightly”:

“Skip Softly (My Moonbeams)”:

“In the Autumn of My Madness/Look to Your Soul/Grand Finale”:

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Toxic Prog Rock Syndrome: Gentle Giant’s Wreck

Gentle Giant is known as the prog band’s prog band. They’re doing stuff that gobsmacked the more well-known bands of the time with their polyphony, weird signatures, instruments and staggeringly intricate vocals.Not only drawing on classical music and jazz but also on renaissance and chamber music figures as well, they took their esotericity very seriously. They occupied a second tier of progressive rock that was arguably more experimental and extreme than their more popular cousins (Genesis, Yes, etc), but never quite reached the same fame due to their inaccessibility (the audience was never a chief concern in prog circles). Unsurprisingly, they didn’t handle prog’s transition to pop in the late 70s/early 80s that well – they called it quits after 1980’s Civilian and have not reunited since.

That’s not to say, however, that the band is completely unassailable. They still aspired to achieving the perfect fusion of mature and pop music, and their songs were always tightly written – seldom in Gentle Giant are there 10+ minute songs or wandering instrumental solos. Everything was packed into the main body of the song, it was just the structures themselves that were operating on a number of different levels.

My favourite track by the band has always been “Wreck”, as it’s actually kind of a catchy tune and represents the band in the position of just trying to craft a good old fashioned rocking stomp that will get people into the song. The problem was that, despite this, they were still Gentle Giant, so you get the impression of these guys writing a rock song but not really getting a grasp of the ‘less is more’ approach. The opening riff starts out well, but starts to wander almost immediately as it feels a couple bars too long and begins to wander around the notes, which actually creates much more expressive riff than you’d usually hear. This leads into the bulk of the song with a simplified version of the opening riff in 4/4 which the vocals overtop follow and end every line with a chorus chanting a very friendly “hey/ yeah-e-yeah/hold on”. This part rocks pretty well and you bob your head as you hear this tale  of an awful shipwreck and the sailors going down in it.

This is maintained for a bit as people get into the groove, until this part, in the middle of the song is interrupted by a violin and harpsichord interview and light vocal flitting around notes almost at random. They last like two minutes before they have to let loose with harmonically complex ditties with fancier instruments (at a later point they fade out the rock part of the song to bring you another interlude with a flute at the centre) in the middle. They knew they had to make it rock and make it complex but couldn’t decide on the synthesis and so just broke them up.

I’m not saying it doesn’t work, however. The main part of the song represents the rage of the sea that swallowed the ship, while the more serene part is a distinct reflection on the cruelty of the sea being where they made their living and is now the thing that leads to their destruction. Thematically, they made it work, but it is such a jarring juxtaposition and a good representation in the attitude of the time that the music they’re making should be utterly unlike anything that was out there at the time. The album “Wreck” is included on, 1971’s Acquiring the Taste, even bears this statement from the band:

“…It is our goal to expand the frontiers of contemporary popular music at the risk of being very unpopular. We have recorded each composition with the one thought – that it should be unique, adventurous and fascinating. It has taken every shred of our combined musical and technical knowledge to achieve this. From the outset we have abandoned all preconceived thoughts of blatant commercialism. Instead we hope to give you something far more substantial and fulfilling. All you need to do is sit back, and acquire the taste.”

Pretty pretentious stuff to be throwing around, but I think the statement was more for the band themselves than the listener – sort of their manifesto in that they did not want to rely on previous musical tropes to build their music off of. Nevertheless, this is a song I always go back to. It’s unlike anything I’ve heard, and I really appreciate that the complexity inherent in the song is woven into its own tapestry, rather than being saved for some extended section, but at the same time I still get to yell stuff like “HEY! Yeah-e-yeah, hold on!”

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Modern Concepts: The Dear Hunter’s Act I: The Lake South, The River North

There’s no way I wasn’t going to like The Dear Hunter from the get-go. Look no further than the title of the first album: “Act 1”. If that doesn’t bode well for a concept album-loving nut like me, I don’t know what will! In fact, the reason that I looked this band up in the first place is that, much like Coheed and Cambria, all of of their output (at the time) was devoted towards following a single narrative over multiple albums. This was all I needed to hear – and I was not disappointed.

“Battesimo del Fuoco” has the honour of being the third-most listened-to song in my iTunes (it has stiff composition), and opens the album, in my opinion, perfectly. A majestic modern Greek chorus announces the protagonist, born into the world amidst serious strife, as we will find out in two songs or so as the story opens. An interlocking chorale with no instruments to be found, each vocal line interlocking with the array of harmony vocals behind it as we are told “the flame is gone/the fire remains.” This, combined with the somewhat gentle instrumental that follows (“The Lake South”), both about two minute introductory pieces, would not nearly prepare me for the onslaught of the rest of the album, as I thought I might be getting some standard orchestral prog flare to this tale, so I sat back with my cocoa and prepared to soak it in. I was not ready for “City Escape.”

A rhythm section barrage starts off the proceedings as a guitar comes needling in, and then sets the rhythm, barely able to keep itself under a breakneck pace, clenching its fists as more harmony vocals come in, masking the assault of the chorus that is about to come. Casey Crescenzo screams the song’s refrain, both aggressive and verbose – “plagued by practical/and a mercenary lust/they tear at her skin” – while the bass rumbles and the drumsticks are finally let loose to wander as they please. The song the weaves back and forth, switching from piano, to electronic effects, to more choral vocals to slow the tempo down before unleashing the chorus once again, showing off an impressive arsenal of instruments for what is essentially a solo project. We even hear some animated trumpet lines in “The Pimp and the Priest”, which has a vague New Orleans feeling about it, with the brass, jaunty piano and shuffling 3/4 time.

As the story is detailed of the protagonist’s mother raising her son in a whorehouse, we move through a number of almost uniformly muscular six-minute songs. Each has its own little facets and tempo changes and a killer hook; out of the chaos of just about every song on here, comes a melodic phrase that’ll lodge itself in your head for days at a time. For me, Crescenzo’s voice was the initial stumbling block. Far from your classic prog singer, his voice has a timbre heard in a lot of punk bands, and “City Escape” had me worried that there was going to be a significant amount out and out screaming vocals on the album, which is one of the few things that will get me to turn an album off immediately. Luckily, he remains just on the edge of it the entire time, which I actually find gives the album a little excitement – he has incredible restraint, but gives the illusion of none.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure of the scope of the story just yet, for a few reasons: a) only half of the albums in the story cycle are out as of right now b) Acts II and III are Leviathans compared to the scant 40-minute running time of this album (I initially heard it described as an EP, which I goggled at, but made more sense once I saw the length of the other albums) and c) I can’t stop listening to this one. Top to bottom, there’s not a duff track here, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Always one of my go-to albums. Not that Casey Crescenzo is making it easy to pick one.

Since releasing the first three acts, The Dear Hunter has taken a break from the narrative and has produced both a standalone, non-concept studio album (Migrant), and a set of nine EPs based on the colour spectrum called The Color Spectrum, each EP carrying with it its own distinct style of music, but all thoroughly enjoyable. I’m eagerly anticipating his next release, but will be listening to this pretty constantly  until that arrives.

“Battesimo del Fuoco”:

“City Escape”:

“The Pimp and the Priest”:

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A “Supergroup” Belies Its Contents: Blackfield’s IV

The main new sound that I’ve had in my ears this week has been an album I’ve been looking askance at in the store for awhile, but only recently purchased: Blackfield’s Blackfield IV. The main reason I had such an interest in it was that it was being promoted in-store (insofar as it was available to listen to at one of the listening stations), yet the line-up, as advertised on the front, seemed to be made up entirely of modern prog rock musicians (including the prog world’s Jack White, Steven Wilson). The juxtaposition had me curious, so I wanted to investigate.

What had happened is that I fell into the Asia trap. Asia is a band that could probably be considered a prog supergroup – Steve Howe from Yes on guitar, John Wetton from King Crimson on bass and vocals, Carl Palmer from ELP on drums and Geoff Downes from The Buggles and Yes on keyboards. There’s a lot of musical musculature there, and the assumption based on the line-up would be crazy ten-minute solos and key and time signature changes to make your head spin. But no. They made “Heat of the Moment”. Produced like crazy, harmonized arena rock fist-pumpers instead of seven-movement suites. And what’s wrong with that?

Looking at the pedigree in a supergroup, you can only understand what’s it’s going to be like in terms of each member’s previous bands sort of pasted together and shaken up. Really, though, the group could have been formed for any number of reasons, under any number of auspices. It may be an attempt for the members to go madly off in a different direction (see David Byrne & St. Vincent’s Love This Giant, which made ample use of horns for which neither musician was famous). By the 1980s, most of the prog rock bands were sick of the longwinded noodling they were famous for, and wanted to shorten things up to see if they could hang with the next generation of bands coming in. It could be that the members just interact musically in a way they hadn’t foreseen and they just decided to go with it (Elvis Costello and the Roots recently put out Wise Up, Ghost, which seemed to come out of almost nothing as Questlove approached Costello after he performed on Jimmy Fallon one night). It could just be that they wanted to play some less serious music and just have a blast in their comfort zone and gettin’ mad radio hits. There’s no way in hell that “Heat of the Moment” is not fun as hell to play (and, quite honestly, it ain’t a simple walk in the park to do so either – it’s just not at the apex of difficulty like prog was in the 70s, which was often to the detriment rather than benefit of the songs)!

With all this in mind, I feel sort of silly for looking down on Blackfield IV for not being the electrifying prog record I was hoping that it would be (at the same time, however, that was foolishly why I bought it). What it does sound like is orchestrated pop (none of which I’ve any problem with, mind you – Panic at the Disco’s Pretty. Odd. and The Dear Hunter’s Violet EP come to mind), with a lot of jangly guitar picking thrown in and some pensive vocals, though it’s the meticulous production that is mainly what makes it sound flat to me. Though it didn’t necessarily need any ‘showy’ bits, it sort of failed to capture my attention vs. my expectations. I should not have been surprised, however, as the whole prog rock ethos is based around the integration of more ‘grown-up’ genres into rock, with classical music being a big part of that (Yes, ELP), as well as keen studio tweaking.

Even so, I find that with repeated listens, such an album improves vastly, as you can kind of shake away what you thought the album might have been, and concentrate on what’s there. Sooner or later, you’ll find yourself humming something that you heard without knowing it, and you’re in.

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When the Beloved Bandmember Goes Solo

Lately, I’ve been re-listening to a lot of the Peter Hammill catalogue that I have, and the reason for this is two-fold. Firstly, the idea of being ‘really into’ a particular singer-songwriter with such a large body of work appeals to me greatly (as of 2014, Hammill has 35 solo albums to his name, and shows no signs of slowing down) – there’s quite a huge world to get lost in there, and enough to cover every mood and whim once I get a basic familiarity with it. The other reason, is that, quite, simply, I want more of the band that Hammill famously fronts, Van der Graaf Generator.

Van der Graaf has been my (co-)favourite band since I first heard them five or six years ago, and I have, quite simply, pretty much worn myself out on a large majority of their work. There is lots of stuff there for me to revisit whenever I feel the urge, but I’ve listened to it all many, many times. The particular albums I’ve been giving attention – Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night, The Silent Corner & The Empty Stage and In Camera – all stem from the 1972-1974 period where Van der Graaf was on hiatus, and so features a lot of actual collaboration with David Jackson (sax), Hugh Banton (organ) and Guy Evans (drums), each including one lengthy VDGG-style harrowing final track. Three new ten-minute tracks is a lot to gnaw on in terms of the band, so that itch has more or less been scratched. I do find myself, however, stricken by the same problem I had when entering Peter Gabriel’s solo oeuvre.

The Peter Gabriel era of Genesis is what got me into progressive rock in the first place, and I very much had the same pattern. I listened to the albums they put out during that time incessantly, but the point eventually came where I needed to find something else. Considering my main anchor for that stretch of albums was Gabriel’s voice, I decided the next place to turn was his solo stuff. If he’s the same guy, and he’s following on from this kind of pedigree, it must be similar, right? Wrong. Gabriel’s first album is a tour of styles, including the jangly “Solsbury Hill” and very much has Gabriel trying to write much more melodic and varied stuff, which baffled this dude hoping that the supply of ten-minute organ based epics was not ever going to run out.

Up and down the discography I went, always hitting the same block with “but this isn’t Genesis” rattling in my head. I would listen to it occasionally, but never quite got the same pleasure out of it that I would hope for. It wasn’t until coming back much later, having shaken the pure-prog yoke that I could approach this stuff with a new perspective and appreciation for what he was doing, rather than what he wasn’t. Even with that being said, I find Gabriel’s stuff takes a few listens to get into, but knowing that going in, it’s easier to reap the rich rewards for doing so (especially on the superb Us).

How then, do I get used to Hammill’s solo acoustic guitar songs, when he’s tearing the house down in a mad organ-drenched frenzy two songs later? It’s not that that composed a majority of his work either – he seems to relish the chance to use most instrumentals at his disposal with equal fervour – it’s just that hearing Hammill with only acoustic guitar as accompaniment still sounds oddly jarring to me, like it’s weirdly displaced after getting to know him as the eye of the storm of VDGG. I want to reach a place where I am not just trying to suck the Van der Graaf out of it, and am actually appreciating it for what it is, but that may take some time or just some listens. Such is the quandry of the solo artist post- or outside of the band they are more famous for. It’s a shadow that looms across the solo career of many (not necessarily for the negative, but often pigeonholing), but the jump fans make from band to artist can just as easily open their ears up given the one thing they are familiar with in a new context. Either way, it’s going to be a helluva ride. Despite some of the strangeness or strange-in-its-normality tunes that Hammill provides on his albums, I have yet to find one that’s been boring.

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A meme made long.

I’ve been dragging my heels on this meme (conferred on me by the incomparible Alex Gunning), so I thought I’d make up for it by elaborating on it in blog form.

The 12 albums that have stuck with me:

(All images from wikipedia.org)

The Who – Quadrophenia

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A key part in the 1970s wave of double albums with black and white covers, Quadrophenia has been, for quite some time. The recurring musical themes established in the title track and their reprises with key phrases lend that grandiose and classical feeling to the proceedings, yelling the story of the mod named Jimmy. The quartet have never been better technically as they were on here, at a confluence with just the right amount of songwriting prowess and self indulgence in Pete Townshend’s head. They popularized the rock opera with Tommy, but perfected it here.

Tracks to check out: “The Real Me”, “The Punk and the Godfather”, “Love, Reign O’er Me”

They Might Be Giants – Lincoln

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Back in ’88, fewer people were enjoying the indie rock sound, but when they did, they often would turn to two guys named John from Brooklyn to get their fill. Lincoln runs the gamut from power pop on “Ana Ng” to the weird jazzy bellow of “You’ll Miss Me” to the martial beat of “Pencil Rain” and demonstrates TMBG’s knack on only their sophomore effort for writing catchy tunes with bizarre wordplay. Spread across 19 short songs, Lincoln is a lesson in accessible eclecticism and is just loads of fun to listen to.

Tracks to check out: “Ana Ng”, “Cage & Aquarium”, “They’ll Need A Crane”, “Kiss Me, Son of God”

Egg – Egg

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Deep in the mists of prog can be found a short-lived project with only three albums to its name and three members to its roster – Egg. Having seen the infancy of prog begin, they immediaty dove headfirst into baffling time signatures, symphonic aspirations sonic experimentalism with their organ-bass-drum trio and exploded onto the scene with their self-titled debut. Barely organized chaos is the order of the day as bassist Mont Campbell attempts to bring some sort of order with his airy vocals. The album is rough n ready and has a sort of urgency and live feel to it that gives you a pretty good idea of what it was like to see them live and feel as if you were part of something new happening.

Tracks to check out: “Fugue in D Minor”, “The Song of McGillicudie the Pusillanimous”

Genesis – Genesis Live

Genesis_-_Live

I was waffling back and forth on which Genesis album to put on this list, as my interest in early Genesis got me not only into prog, but also a good portion of the music I listen to today. Problem is, I find each of their early albums to have their hits and misses. Except for this one. All killer, no filler, Genesis Live is the only live album released during Peter Gabriel’s tenure with the band and features their best tracks from the previous three albums (save one omission), with the players just on fire on all counts. Gabriel’s stage banter is brief but witty, and these live renditions of the longer songs in their oeuvre have a great deal more energy to them than their studio counterparts – not to mention guitarist Steve Hackett and drummer Phil Collins getting to put their own stamp on the thunderous closer, “The Knife”, which was released before they joined the band.

Tracks to check out: “The Return of the Giant Hogweed”, “The Knife”

Elvis Costello and the Attractions – This Year’s Model

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Costello’s acerbic wit combined with his snotty snarl and his backing band at the height of their punky game makes his sophomore album one of the best I’ve ever heard. While Punk’s poet laureate offers a treatise on the nature of love and celebrity worship (with lyrical barbs like “You want her broken with her mouth wide open/’cause she’s this year’s girl” and “Sometimes love is just a tumor/You got to cut it out”), the Attractions are busy laying the frenetic groundwork on top of which it all sits (I swear, the rhythm section took out every rest they had on “Lipstick Vogue”), while creating enough earworms to have you bopping long after you’re done listening. To be honest, I stopped for the most part with Costello after this album, because he got it perfect with this one.

Tracks to check out: “This Year’s Girl”, “Pump It Up”, “Lipstick Vogue”

The Decemberists – Picaresque

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Strangely enough, all of my top favourite Decemberists tracks are on other albums, but none of them are quite as consistent as Picaresque, which shows them in all their jaunty glory. You get bombast on “The Infanta”, an epic sea shanty on “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”, a quieter lovelorn paean on “The Engine Driver” and some sort-non-specific old-timey stomp on “The Sporting Life”. Every song takes place in its own enjoyable world, rich with little words and sonic details that evoke that particular atmosphere, as well as an undoubtedly catchy melody and a few terms you’ll have to look up after the fact.

Tracks to check out: “The Infanta”, “16 Military Wives”, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”

Van der Graaf Generator – Godbluff

Godbluff

2 sides, 4 songs, roughly 10 minutes each. This symmetrical layout provides the framework for my favourite of the many Van der Graaf albums that I love. Though they always employed a somewhat unusual instrumentation, this album features the usual organ-drums-sax trio with the addition of singer Peter Hammill on clavichord, which provides plenty of rich menacing counterpoint. The album documents the horrors of war over top of wailing sax riffs, gnarled organ and the bellowing and caterwauling of Hammill stretching his voice in any direction it will go, each song having plenty of time to establish its own particular haunting narrative, lyrically and sonically.

Track to check out: “Scorched Earth”

Neil Young – Live at Massey Hall 1971

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One man, an acoustic guitar and a piano onstage at Toronto’s Massey Hall is all it took to make this one of my favourite live albums. With no back-up and a single instrument to sing along to, Young’s songwriting is on full display from the word go, as he runs through his early catalogue and (then) new songs that would appear on his blockbuster Heart of Gold. His self-effacing stage banter is effortlessly Canadian and charming, and every performance beautiful in its simplicity and allowance for the melodies to shine through.

Tracks to check out: “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”, “The Needle and the Damage Done”

Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid

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A fine showpiece of modern songcraft. Each song is quintessentially British and has many little studio touches that catapult them from good to fantastic. Guy Garvey’s husky croon touches on love of all kinds on this album: past, present, future, unrequited and platonic; all of this is backed by the appropriate somber piano melody or orchestral bombast that evolves as the song’s story goes on and on. One of the most consistent track-to-track albums I’ve ever heard that tackles as many different moods as this one does.

Tracks to check out: “The Bones of You”, “Grounds For Divorce”, “One Day Like This”

Muse – Absolution

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From the introduction consisting solely of military stomping and incoherent orders being yelled, I knew that I was listened to something that was going to be right in my wheelhouse. A concept album based around the theme of different people’s experiences of the end of the world with some of the craziest and most piercing riffs I’d ever heard in my life, with a falsetto to put Raine Maida’s to shame? Hell yes.

Tracks to check out: “Stockholm Syndrome”, “Hysteria”, “Butterflies & Hurricanes”

Radiohead – Kid A

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This one my first Radiohead album proper, but I actually skirted around Radiohead for sometime, using Thom Yorke’s solo electronic effort, The Eraser to kind of get in through the back door. When I was done with that, I wanted more Yorke and more electronic stuff, so what better way to turn? Radiohead’s cryptic masterpiece is unrivaled in the intense and paranoid atmosphere it creates with some beats, some synths, a studio and virtually no guitars. One of those albums that teleports you completely to another world.

Tracks to check out: “Everything In Its Right Place”, “The National Anthem”, “Idioteque”

Our Lady Peace – Naveed

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Probably the album on this list that’s been with me the longest and still one of my favourite rock albums ever. from the dizzying insanity of “The Birdman” to the intro to “Neon Crossing” which, at 15, was the craziest thing I’d ever heard up ’till that point, Naveed is a wonderful piece of alternative rock that always seems to zig when you think it’s gonna zag. Guitarist Mike Turner’s riffs seem to emanate from a different planet, Raine Maida caterwauls and bemoans the human condition while Jeremy Taggart fills in every conceivable space with unreal drum fills (especially impressive considering he was only 18 at the time).

Tracks to check out: “The Birdman”, “Starseed”, “Denied”

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#13: Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories)

(Kscope, 2013)

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(Image from Artswrap)

I don’t know Steven Wilson all that well. I have listened to a Porcupine Tree album or two (I remember distinctly enjoying “The Sleep of No Dreaming”), but never got very in-depth with what is considered to be one of the cornerstones of modern prog. As a prog fan, I’m beginning my penance by listening to Steven Wilson’s 2013 offering, which grabbed me with its name as much as anything else. Who doesn’t love a good story?

Right off the bat, “Luminol” seemed to confirm my worst fears. It’s the longest track on the album, at 12 minute and 10 seconds (doesn’t mean it’s bad, but modern prog musicians seem to have a ridiculous obsession with song length, which I frankly don’t share), and is an inconsistent mishmash of aggressive drumming with a jazz-like structure of each instrument taking a solo in turn. The only vocals that appear in the first half are leaning far forward, seemingly as if they can’t wait to get out of there and back to more instrumental passages. The mood changes several times throughout the song, and none of them seem to match that of the lyrics describing a young boy learning the licks of his guitar idols. The track wasn’t horrible, but just struck me as “typical” modern prog, where the emphasis is on musicianship and noise rather than any melodic content – the guitar solo in it is quite nimble, however. It’s not the histrionics that I mind – indeed, they’re peppered throughout the album to great effect (in particular, the sax stylings of Theo Travis on “The Holy Drinker” and “The Pin Drop”). It’s the virtuosic and rapid playing that comes in at the expense of the mood of the piece.

Luckily for me, “Luminol” is the exception. The rest of the album creates great moods/soundscapes, thanks in no small part to Wilson’s piano playing. The subtle runs create a great foundation on which to pile bass, guitars, flutes, saxes, mellotrons, drums and the rest of the considerable arsenal at his disposal. The best part of “Luminol” occurs when the intro to the song returns and is underpinned with a simple, deft piano line that provides a nice soft counter to the earlier assault. On the rest of the album, these lines lead the mood with frequent restraint, the freakout sections being doled out in short bursts between. The guitar work is where the leash is let out, but the skeleton provided by the piano playing left a much bigger impact on me.

The mellotron used here is almost used as an instrument secondarily. There’s no doubt that that those sweeping four-and-five-finger chords lend an air of grandeur to the proceedings, but the use of the instrument seems to work chiefly as a reference/homage to the prog classics of old (chiefly, In the Court of the Crimson King) – it’s a quick way of adding that sort of ‘classic’ flavour, though much of the texture here, songwriting-wise, seems to be influenced by conjuring that era specifically. Many of the intricate guitarpicking waves that occur throughout evoke that sort of ponderous, thoughtful bedrock that underpinned many of the classic late 60/early 70s records.

This is not a cohesive album in terms of sound. There are general themes and styles that occur multiple times across the different tracks, but, as the title suggests, the albums is a collection of stories, each of which exists in its own world and soundscape, and Wilson is very good at employing a different, thoughtful style for each one. For a look at what prog still has to offer in this day and age, The Raven That Refused to Sing is a great glimpse into what one of the big names can produce with a considered but flexible band and at his disposal.

8/10

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