***Author's note: Below you will find two different rankings for this year's albums. The first is merely a list consisting of a Top Ten with a following list of "Honorable Mentions." These are my favorite albums of the year, that is, the albums to which I have formed the greatest emotional attachments. The ensuing Reviews are ordered according to my personal, more objective judgment as to their quality, that is, the "best" albums of the year. Here I have tried to order the albums reviewed according to my personal determination as to what are the "best" albums of the year from a more critical, qualitative viewpoint, that is, without as much emotional attachment as "My Favorite" albums.
Karda Estra is a British Gothic chamber music group, brainchild of composer and guitarist Richard Wileman. Through out the 15 years of publishing their own music, Karda Estra have released 10 studio albums, throughout which many of Richard's co-performers have remained constant, including vocalist Ileesha Bailey, pianist and tuba player, Jemima Palfreyman, Rachel Larkins (viola, violin), Zoe King (flute, alto saxophone and oboe) and Caron Hansford (oboe, cor anglais and bassoon).
1. "An Ordinary Mortal" (4:34) Part ANTHONY PHILLIPS, part GENESIS, until Ileesha's vocals enter then it's all Karda Estra. (9/10)
2. "Andraiad" (8:28) Were it not for the gorgeous woodwinds and strings speckled intermittently throughout, this song would fit as a brilliant, eerie STEVE HACKETT song: the guitars all sound just like Steve's style and sounds. Again, Ileesha's vocalizations give KE their own category. Awesome guitar work, Richard! (9/10)
3. "The Pale Ray" (3:29) begins with piano and flute playing staccato notes together, before Ileesha's voice and Caron's oboe introduce other themes. Flute, piano, oboe, and voice take turns playing variations of melodies off of each other. Truly a classical composition of some accomplishment. (8/10)
4. "Super Electrical" (4:41) is another piano-based tune but this time using clarinet, electric guitar and French horn to bring on the melody harmonically. Until an explosion of percussives and Ileesha change the tone for a bit. Electric guitar with volume pedal trades melody with flute and clarinet for a bit before the Ileesha-tympani charge bursts in again. Electric bass and distorted fuzz guitar take a turn before the clarinet, voice and piano chord progression takes over. (9/10)
5. "Eve" (7:37) is a kind of waltz (with snare drum!) this one has an unusual almost MAGMA-like balance of electric and acoustic/orchestral instruments playing side-by-side--and with absolutely beautiful melodies being exchanged as if in conversation. Tremolo electric guitar is another nice effect. At 2:40 Ileesha's stunning, haunting Siren vocals take over and dupe the listener into her power. A beautiful orchestrated ANTHONY PHILLIPS section then ensues, with cymbols and the return of the tremolo electric guitar, beneath a flute and strings lead. Solo piano takes over for a bit before organ, bass and MIKE OLDFIELD-like guitar join in. Then flute with "Entangled"-like guitar before giving way to a variation on a previous section and its theme using voice, strings and flute. A brief encounter with a strings chamber section prepares one for the vocalized outro. (10/10)
6. "Sparks that Flash and Fall..." (10:24) is easily the eeriest song on the album--reminding me a lot of some of the odd nature songs on BRIAN ENO's Ambient 4: On Land. Then organ and volume-pedaled electric guitar take over before treated piano and acoustic guitar sneak up from beneath to take turns in the lead roles. Very ANT PHILLIPS-like section of odd guitar chords being played in arpeggio. A bridge of loud percussives, piano, and Illesha lead into a section that has a kind of Middle Eastern feel to it. All the while the song's eeriness remains quite edgy. At the 5:00 mark there is a complete pause in the music before organ and electric guitars start to bring the main melody back. Orchestral strings and oboe bring light(ness) to the feel, even while playing the song's main melody! Brilliant! Violin plays over piano until bassoon and creepy synth and acoustic nylon string guitar take us back into mystery. What compositional vision! What a collaborative performance! The last two minutes fill the listener with hope and lightness--despite the very odd, eerie piano & orchestra outro. (Shades of the possible return of the evil within?) (9/10)
7. "Thoughts and Silences" (3:24) is a beautiful acoustic dance of guitar, piano, and woodwinds. Stunning melodies throughout. Perfect ending to this amazing album! Oboe, clarinet, and bassoon all take a turn to say goodbye. (10/10)
1. "Hidden Place" (5:28) (10/10)
2. "Cocoon" (4:28) Besides all the clicks and pops going on in the background, this song is an incredibly sensuous vocal/voice on display--breathing and all! (8/10)
3. "It's Not Up to You" (5:09) is blessed with a chorus section that just sucks you in and leaves you begging for more. Wonderful effect of harp, strings, glockenspiel, woodwinds and female choral b-vox. (10/10)
4. "Undo" (5:39) is my personal favorite from this album. Brilliant use of voice, effects and space; percussion and keys, and, later, orchestration and female chorale. (9/10)
5. "Pagan Poetry" (5:15) is another absolutely unforgettable Björk song. All instruments seem to be used percussively yet weave into a flowing tapestry like water--thanks to lead and background vocals. Such an emotional delivery from the divine Miss B. (10/10)
6. "Frosti" (1:42) is an absolutely gorgeous, mature 'music box' solo. Wow! Who'd have thunk it possible? (10/10)
7. "Aurora"(4:39) begins as if a badly scratched record is playing. Björk and the 'music box' join in before bass and programmed drums join. Beautiful harp work accompanies Miss B throughout most of the middle of the song--even getting some solo attention around the 2:25 mark. High praise for this motion-felt song. (9/10)
8. "An Echo a Stain" (4:04) is a spacey, futuristic-sounding free-flowing piece that barely ever goes anyplace, just keeps you floating in limbo, like a Stanley Kubrick film. (7/10)
9. "Sun in My Mouth" (2:40) brings back the 'music box' and computer bass--and, later, harp and orchestra--to accompany the singer on a beautiful journey through the here and now--so much sensual imagery in the lyrics! (9/10)
10. "Heirloom" (5:12) opens with an upbeat computerized drum/percussion sequence. (I'm reminded of ANNETTE PEACOCK's Sky Skating.) Synths join in before bass and Björk enter. The lighter mood is refreshing. (8/10)
11. "Harm of Will" (4:37) begins with tear-jerkingly beautiful orchestration, over which Miss B's exquisite vocalizations join. It is, however, the continuous play of the orchestra strings that keeps me glued to this song. VAUGHAN WILLIAMS would love this! (10/10)
12. "Unison" (6:47) starts rather starkly before some rather upbeat, child-ish, (I'm reminded of JACQUES BREL) instruments and melodies join the singer. Once the drum and bass beat are established--and the background choir--the song becomes quite charming. Matter of fact, on this one it is the choir work--and orchestral strings--that steal the show. Great vocal performance during the second half from Miss B. (9/10)
One of the things I love about Björk is she, her music, her voice, her lyrics, are unlike anyone else. There really aren't many artists like this. Fellow Iceland-born Sigur Rós, Argentina's Factor Burzaco and maybe Karda Estra, Magma, The Mars Volta, and Toby Driver are a few of the others that come to mind who also fit this "unlike anyone else" category. Kudos, Miss Björk.
90.83 on the Fish scales = A five star masterpiece of unique and innovative music. A musical ride you better strap yourself in for. Also, worth checking out are any of Björk's concert DVDs. Breath-taking!
Maudlin of the Well is one of U.S.A.'s Toby Driver's early projects.
They have been called an "avant-garde metal band," and are c
onsidered "Experimental Post Rock" on ProgArchives, as their music does contain its share of rather raw, abrasive vocal growls and sustained power chord elements akin to the Death Metal sub-genres. However, I find that their music rather defies easy categorization.The soundscapes explored by moTW use such a broad palette. Listen and you will hear elements of doom metal, indie rock, jazz, progressive rock, psychedelic rock, post rock, progressive metal, death metal, and gothic metal, as well as folk, chamber, neo-classical, ambient and New Age--sometimes within the confines of a single song!
5. NEXUS Metanoia
Argentina's top-tier prog-rockers put their cops on display with powerful singer, Mariela Gonzalez at the forefront. Though it took me a little time to get used to the tone, timbre, and style of Ms. Gonzalez's voice, it took only seconds to know that keyboard player Lalo Huber is a genius. I'm always surprised to read slams on his organ-dominated keyboard stylings cuz I have not heard a better keyboard-organist in the 21st Century. I am by no means an expert, but I know the organ as I grew up at the foot of my grandfather who had cathedral-type pipe organs in the homes in which he lived. I've heard "great" organ players in European cathedrals and American concert halls as well is in recorded music.
The opening two songs on this album of almost 73 minutes of music are brief instrumentals which set up the first real song, "Metambo" (5:43) a hard-driving rocker that introduces Mariela's powerful voice. (9/10) This is followed by an instrumental very much in the more bombastic Genesis style "Planeta Herido" (3:02) (9/10). Then we have the first of the album's three suites, the fast-paced three-parted "Despertar Dentro De Un Sueño (Metanoia Nivel 1)" (9:23) (9/10) which is then followed by the awesome NIL/King Crimson-like, "Hacia del luz" (5:04) (10/10). The next two songs come in at over seven minutes each, the first, the hard-rocking instrumental "Metanoia (Metanoia Nivel 2)" (7:47) rocks big time, featuring more of the instrumental and compositional prowess of all the band members (though Lalo's keyboard wizardry certainly shines bright) (9/10). The second, "La Tentación Del Mundo" (7:27) (9/10) is a more slowly paced ballad that features a very emotional vocal from Mariela and some great guitar and organ playing. But these two strong pieces are overshadowed by the album's crown jewel: its second suite, "En las manos de Dios" (15:45) a sixteen minute epic that comes at you in five parts (10/10). This one is set up so majesterially, so maturely and methodically that one cannot help but recognize its masterpiece status--an achievement of the highest ranks of progressive rock. Not overly bombastic, paced so delicately as to fully display the wonderful subtleties and shifts, emotional nuances and instrumental flourishes. At least until the very ELP-influenced second section. This starts out very bombastically (you know how Keith was) but then reins itself into some disciplined structuring to support the solid soling of talented (but oft over-shadowed) guitarist Carlos Lucena. As a matter of fact, you might say that this is a song/suite that helps the listener to better appreciate each of the band members' individual instrumental talents--especially the multi-dimensional Lucena and Gonzalez. I love the lead guitar melody that is repeated over the church organ in the fourth section. The final section is as beautiful (in a Genesis kind of way) as it is its title seems to imply it should be ("Las manos de Dios"). The next full song is okay but a bit of a letdown after the great suite before it. (8/10) And the album's final suite, "Tan Cerca Del Fuego (Metanoia Nivel 3)" (7:17) continues the display of dynamic symphonic style with nice vocals from Mariela (9/10), while the last song on the album, "Eterna Recurrencia Cero" (3:07), is more of a gentle, almost out-of-place dream-scape. (8/10)
90.0 on the Fish scales = a five star masterpiece of progressive rock music.
****+ 4.5 star Near Masterpieces:
6. OPETH Blackwater Park
At this stage of their career, Mikael Åkerfeldt and company were a little heavier, a little harsher, a little more ensconced in the world, sounds, and stylings of metal music. As a matter of fact, much of the music is not so very far removed from the metal of the 1980s. Some of the differences include: the influence of moving bass string chords or "djent" guitar sounds and playing styles; the different lead guitar sounds used here--they are a little more evolved from those used in the 80s; Mikael's use of death metal growls; the way the drums are recorded, and; the greater presence of the machine gun bass drum play. Also Opeth shows a tendency to the use of longer song forms with multiple style formats incorporated within each--as is put on display right from the start on 1. "The Leper Affinity" (10:21) (8/10).
2. "Bleak" (9:16) is well described through its title. Actually this is quite a boring, monotonous song that never seems to go anywhere memorable or worthwhile. (7/10)
The two best songs are by far and away 3. "Harvest" (6:02) (10/10) and 4. "Drapery Falls" (10:55) with its wonderfully memorable multi-instrument-played melody carried through to the end (10/10). The title song (12:08) is also quite a nice composition--it's performances quite powerful. (9/10)
5. "Dirge for November" (7:54) starts out quite masterfully--with many delicate nuances to feed the soul--but then at the 2:30 mark a heavier but still melodic and fairly straightforward chord progression leaps out and yet does not push away. Fairly simple and innocuous--until, a minute more in, Mikael's growls infiltrate and darken the overall timbre. The song regains points for returning to a beautiful end section filled with delicate nuances of beautiful guitar work. (9/10)
6. "The Funeral Portrait" (8:44) is fully steeped in harsh metal stylings--especially with Mikael's demonic growls entering from nearly the beginning--even though the rhythm patterns established from the start remain pretty straightforward and consistent. An interesting THIN LIZZY-like guitar section takes over the very middle of the song before Mikael tries to take back center stage with his disturbing vocalizations. Not a bad song. (8/10)
As everyone recognizes, I will here reiterate: Mr. Åkerfeldt has quite a lovely voice when he's singing in his normal voice. I am glad that he eventually moved away from this aggressive, abrasive style of music--though I recognize the talent and skill involved in creating music such as is present here.
87.5 on the Fish scales = 4/5 stars; a near masterpiece of progressive rock music.
I am a sucker for Stereolab's music. (1997's Dots and Loops sits at #3 on my list of All-time Favorite Albums.) Sound-Dust is my second favorite from the group. The addition of horns is great but the more sectioned up songs doesn't always work for me as some parts are gorgeous and hook the listener in while the next part might be totally off-the-wall weird.
1. "Black Ants in Sound-Dust" (1:58) (7/10)
2. "Space Moth" (7:35) with it's 1:40 woodwind- and horn-laced intro, the song finally kicks into gear but doesn't really hook the listener until its fifth minute--and later when the horns finally return (8/10)
3. "Captain Easychord" (5:33) the piano-based song has many tracks weaving in and out including horns, steel guitar, and, of course, multiple vocal lines but it rarely feels as if all cylinders are firing (7.5/10)
4. "Baby Lulu" (5:13) (10/10)
5. "The Black Arts" (5:13) a gorgeous, hypnotic, emotional song (9.5/10)
6. "Hallucinex" (3:56) opens quite nicely, one of Stereolab's non-intro song that hooks you in right from the start, and the horns and acoustic guitars and tuned percussions are excellent, but it never reaches the heights of some of the others (8.5/10)
7. "Double Rocker" (5:33) for its first 2:27 this song moves along like a slow time-piece: hypnotic and soporific, then it kicks into third gear with a great sound and weave (9/10)
8. "Gus the Mynah Bird" (6:10) great, slow fade-in intro, then awesome body with gorgeous vocals; even the ambient mid-song shift and second half is pretty cool (9/10)
9. "Naught More Terrific Than Man" (4:10) one of the prettiest and best Stereolab songs ever. (10/10)
10. "Nothing to Do with Me" (3:38) is made so special by the 'dialogue' of vocals between Lætitia and Mary. (9.5/10)
11. "Suggestion Diabolique" (7:53) starts out sounding like the rare sinister-sounding S'lab song but then shifts in the second minute into the hypnotic, beautiful, PSYCHEDLELC FURS-like "jouer" section. The song springboards back and forth from positive to negative, yin and yang. (8.5/10)
12. "Les bon bon des raisons" (6:44) really showcases the vocal symbiosis of these two amazing vocalists with it's Beatles-esue opening half melodies but then morphs into a kind of space-satire piece for the second half. (8.5/10)
87.5 on the Fish scales = 4.5 stars, B+; an excellent addition to any prog lover's music collection.
Companion release to Leaving Your Bodymap, I find it quite difficult to articulate why it is that I am more attracted to the former than to Bath. They both certainly have songs and sections that are totally mind- and soul-blowing. Bath may actually have sections that are more beautiful than those of Bodymap but I think Bath's lows are just lower.
1. "The Blue Ghost, Shedding Qliphoth" (7:57) starts the album off quite mellowly, very delicate acoustic guitar play, when drums finally come in, during the fifth minute, they are played with brushes. Saxes play gently. Beautiful guitar melodies. Quite a deceptive intro for what is to come at the 6:42 mark (and later--in the next song). A powerful song even though it is a bit drawn out. (10/10)
2. "They Aren't All Beautiful" (5:37) is pure doom metal, growl singing, screams, machine gun bass drum play, and loud metal guitar power chords. Still, the song is filled with many bizarre and very fleeting twists--acoustic, ambient pauses, and jazzy chord twangs. Not my favorite TD song. (6/10)
3. "Heaven and Weak" (7:43) begins mellowly, almost acoustic jazz-like, with a bass, acoustic guitar and jazz-style drum kit. MICHAEL FRANKS-like beautiful male voice enters at the 1:30 mark. Song gets amped up into heavy rock at the three minute mark and soon begins to sound a little FRANK ZAPPA-ish--even DEVIN TOWNSEND-like. Amazing guitar riffs at 4:30 introduce full-blown metal dance. Treated voice takes the lead at 5:34, song comes a little down, then a bridge/interlude of harmonics and snare and bass drum beating before everything escalates into full-blown space shredding. Cue DEVIN to close. (8/10)
4. "(Interlude 1)" (1:38) is a slighlty jazzy instrumental of two acoustic guitars with delicate wah-pedaled electric guitar lead taking the melody over the top. Nice song! (9/10)
5. "The Ferryman" (7:51) opens with some dramatic and ominous solo organ play. This gives way in the second minute to some very subtly played drums which are then joined around the 1:30 mark by some equally delicate guitars, strummed and soloed. Then at 2:40 the wall of metal comes crashing in--with three different metal voices: a growler, a screamer, and a couple of melancholy disembodied ghosts. The fourth voice, a female, is actually quite lovely if a bit pitchy. The reappearance of the organ--over/under the metal thrashing--is quite cool, and supports the ghostly feel of the voices quite nicely--and actuallly takes the metal edge off of the guitar play, bringing them down to almost "rock" level. The Harry Potter-like death voices in the watery cave in the final minute are a bit bizarre, but, I guess, very effective in perpetuating and completing that Charon/River Styx theme here. (8/10)
6. "Marid's Gift of Art" (3:42) sounds of water splashes and drips (carrying over from Charon's pole-work of the previous song) opens the song before a pleasant, laid back picked/strummed acoustic guitar and background electric fade in. The vocal (to a child?) begins around 1:20. The vocal mirrors the guitar work throughout. Nice trumpet and cello integration in the last half of the song. (8/10)
7. "Girl with A Watering Can" (8:45) opens with some beautiful folkish solo from a read instrument (bassoon?) before an equally beautiful band sets up a full, delicate foundation for the beautiful female voice (the "Girl"?) to join in around the 1:30 mark. The tempo seems to be being played with a bit as the girl sings her tale, yet the constant bass rhythm betrays the truth. Very interesting. A coda and bridge into a new section is accomplished with the use of a sequence of heavy guitar chords. The new stand on which the female singer pours forth her public voice is still quite lovely. At 5:30 a soft male voice takes over vocal lead, as if to tell his perspective of the Girl. At 6:20 a metal guitar and synth solo section are played out to great effect and emotional display. The final minute maintains that open pace while the soft-spoken male returns to sing about the girl's flower garden and his missing her. Great song! One of my three favorites on the album. (10/10)
8. "Birth Pains of Astral Projection" (10:35) opens with a guitar, bass and drum foundation which has a bit of an Old West flavor to it. Very soothing as if played next to the fire under the midnight stars. Gentle saxophone joins for a bit just before the two minute mark at the same time a single sustained and wavering note from an electric guitar screeches menacingly in the background. By 3:30 the song shifts into heavy metal mode (though ever retain some calmer, less frenetic quality to it) as the doom growl voices emerge. At 6:40 Toby and the beautiful music side comes back. Great guitar work (lead and rhythm) in the ninth minute. One of my other favorites. (10/10)
9. "(Interlude 2)" (2:13) uses the splashing in a bathtub for its rhythm track with acoustic guitar and horns. Nothing special and a little gimicky but okay. (8/10)
10. "Geography" (4:26) is acoustic guitar based with a straightforward Toby vocal and some Frippertronics-like electric guitar sliding around in the more dynamic parts. Nothing too extraordinary. (8/10)
A very good album with some great TD/moTW highlights, just not as mind-blowing as its sister album.
85.0 on the Fish scales = a 4.5 star album; rated down for its inconsistencies (one really bad song).
SIGNIFICANT CONTRIBUTION TO MUSIC FROM A SOURCE OUTSIDE OF PROGRESSIVE ROCK MUSIC:
DIANA KRALL The Look of Love
Once in a great while the musical world in general is so enhanced by a musical contribution as to make it bigger, better and more impactful than it would be without it. Such was the effect on me from Diana Krall's 2001 album release, The Look of Love. The orchestral arrangements of Claus Ogerman and the London Symphony Orchestra are a large part of the impact of this album. The other is the influx of Latin/bassa nova Burt Bacharach-style song choices and musical arrangements Krall used with this album. The final is Diana's own inimitable way of delivering a vocal. Having seen her live in concert I know that each performance of the same song can be totally different than any other previous (or future) rendering of that song as Diana has a gift of being able to be so extremely present in The Here and Now that she extracts each and every note in her delivery from another dimension, as if it has never been written, never been performed, is totally her own new creation. It is one of the most amazing concert experiences I have ever had: watching her extract each and every note from the ether, knowing that the infinite possibilities that were available to her might just as easily have been her choice, and might be in the future.