Thursday, September 27, 2012

Top Albums of the Year 2002, Part 1: The Masterpieces

My Favorite Albums of 2002
(In some semblance of order)

***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.  

In my opinion, 2002 produced a rather weak collective of new studio music in the Progressive Rock world. In fact, I have been able to find one (1) full masterpiece and six (6) near masterpieces from this year. If you know of any albums that you think I have missed or overlooked (taking into consideration what you perceive my tastes to be) please share these with me.

The Rankings
(My Favorites)

1. PÄATOS Timeloss
2. DOVES The Last Broadcast 
3. THE FLAMING LIPS Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
4. SIGUR RÓS ( )
5. AGALLOCH The Mantle
6. PAT METHENY Speaking of Now
8. GRAND STAND Tricks of Time
9. TÉMPANO The Agony and the Ecstacy
10. LA MASCHERA DI CERA La Maschera di Cera

Honorable Mentions:
IZZ I Move
35007 Liquid
QUIDAM The Time Beneath the Sky
KENSO Fabulis Scripturus
TAAL Skymind
ULVER Lyckantropen Themes
PARALLEL OR 90 DEGREES More Exotic Ways To Die

The Reviews

***** 5 star Masterpieces:

***** Album of the Year for 2002! *****

1. PÄATOS Timeloss

Päatos is a Swedish band formed in the early 21st Century by two former members of Landberk and Morte Macabre, bassist Stefan Dimle and guitarist Reine Fiske, and two relative newcomers in husband and wife Ricard "Huxflux" Nettermalm, the drummer, and cellist/vocalist Petronella Nettermalm, respectively. Timeloss is their debut album and, unfortunately, the only album in their catalogue to include axeman extraordinaire Fiske.
Päatos is another band I've been fortunate to stumble in the past year. After listening to streams, samples and making a few experimental MP3 purchases, I decided to buy the band's first album, Timeloss. Not a bad song on the disc, though the two ultra mellow ones, "Hypnotique" and "Happiness," do not get the same frequent play as the others. What really sold me on this band, aside from the dreamy voice of Petronella Nettelmans, were the drums. "Teá," "Sensor" and "Quits" have some absolutely stunning speed and subtlety--reminding me of STEVE GADD with a little more power (when he wants to). Drummer Richard "Nuxflux" Nettelmans (Petronella's husband) shows amazing restraint and never seems to be trying to steal the limelight from the others--though his every flourish and syncopation surprises and almost defies belief. Such confidence, free-form creativity, and facility!

1. "Sensor" (5:15) begins like a soft 70's jazz piece, but at 48 seconds in it kicks into high gear rock and roll. (Listen to those drums!!) Though perhaps Petronella's weakest vocal performance (she's strangely mixed into the background with the overall effect as if she's singing from inside an isolation tank!) At the 2:57 mark the tempo slows into a Yes/Genesis moment as the mellotron surges forward (Did I mention Päatos uses mellotron?) followed by a guitar solo which then carries the music back into it's fast tempo as the band jams to the song's sudden conclusion. (10/10) 

2. "Hypnotique" (8:36) accomplishes just what the title declares. It is a long, very soft piece in which Petronella's voice, combined with her husband's soft jazz drumming, lulls one into submission. But, not unlike Pure Reason Revolution's Dark Third, this CD really shines with its layers of very interesting and rewarding subtleties. For example, at the 2:40 mark the music just cuts out, leaving the listener with a rather nice piano and flute interlude. When 55 seconds have passed, Nuxflux sneaks his way back in with a little flourish on his Zildjian before reestablishing the song's original jazzy rhythm, thereby cueing the start of the guitarist's very pleasant and somewhat "raw" guitar solo. Eventually, after the mellotron has snuck into the background, at about the 5:40 mark, the flute reappears to take over the guitar solo's melody line. Then, just as suddenly, the music stops for a brief cello solo before giving way to a brief return of Petronella--this time with a bit more of a forceful presence--until the song finally devolves into another all-out band jam to it's conclusion. A song that has grown in my esteem tremendously over time. (9/10)

3. I absolutely love "Teá" (5:50) because of its native language vocals. Swedish has never sounded so beautiful! But, again, pay attention to the subtleties in this song: piano and DRUMS! The guy is amazing! (10/10)

4. "They Are Beautiful" (7:48) begins very Genesis "Entangled"-like before a double bass and tympanic percussion rhythm set the tone for another of Petronella's mind-massages. Hypnotic guitar and mellotron and with the surprise appearances of several sneaky, snaky reed instruments alternating with an electric guitar's note- and volume-play make for a very interesting and unusual song.  Again: Headphones are highly recommended. This is another song that has grown tremendously on me over the years. (9/10)

5. "Quits" (14:49) gets a lot of grief from reviewers--especially prog reviewers--but I think this song is brilliant--very reminiscent of Ben Watt of EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL's "Walking Wounded" phase. Drum machines and programs? What about all of the obviously live play Huxflux is doing? Man, the percussion work on this song alone make it a near masterpiece! And, no, I don't care if he's using synthesized or acoustic percussives. I love his guts and creativity! The synth work is also so interesting. Richard Barbieri meets Ben Watt meets Mr. Bill Bruford! And let me not forget to give this bass player his due: he does an awesome job tying husband and wife into the same cohesive piece. Awesome music. (And don't forget the horns! Amazing fun on the trumpets! Great devolution into Joni itchell/Weather Report/King Crimson-esque chaos! I love it!) (10/10)

Awesome band. Awesome album. Awesome jams at the end of each song. I forgot to mention that for PÄATOS' first album, they sported former LANDBERK and MORTE MACABRE genius guitarist REINE FISKE, one of my favorite two guitarists of the 21st Century. Sadly, Reine did not continue playing with Päatos. (But check him out on DUNGEN and THE AMAZING albums!)

96.0 on the Fish scales = five stars; a true prog masterpiece. Timeloss' only flaw is its length: a very old-fashioned 39 minutes! 

****+ 4.5 star Near Masterpieces:

2. PAT METHENY GROUP Speaking of Now

One of Pat & co.'s more pastoral jazz albums, this one does not take the listener into realms of avant or theoretical or chromatic or free jazz, nor does it take us back to bebop or Wes Montgomery, but it is more heavily reliant on acoustic instrumentation that most PMG albums. Even in the album's credits the acoustic instruments are given first citations for each of the individuals involved in the project. Still, you will hear Lyle's familiar/signature synths and Pat's familiar/signature "piccolo trumpet" electric guitar leads but all played over piano, acoustic guitar layers, the amazing Steve Rodby's double bass or cello along with newcomer Antonio Sanchez' drumming. (Shout out to the amazing Paul Wertico! You are the best!)
     Every song on the album is replete with multiple memorable melodies and gorgeous song structures, stunning solos from Lyle ("Proof"), Pat, all of the vocalists, and trumpeter Cuong Vu.

Great songs:  1. "As It Is" (7:48) which is probably my favorite song on the album (10/10); the more Wes Montgomery-styled, 2. "Proof" (10:09) (9/10); the far-away-romantic, next-the-fireside, 3. "Another Life" (7:08) with its odd almost Gregorian chant vocal interludes (9/10); the wonderfully bucolic, pastoral feeling 7. "A Place in the World" (9:52) a top three song for me (10/10); what sounds like a classic jazz standard--a piece of true ear candy--as if sung by Nat King Cole or Antônio Carlos Jobim but is sung by Cameroon's Richard Bona in a language I don't recognize (what should be French?) 8. "Afternoon" (4:45) (10/10), and; the album's closer, 9. "Wherever You Go" (8:03) a real gorgeous, melodic, low key tune in which all of the band members put on display their mastery of delicate jazz play. (10/10)

Very good songs:  4. "The Gathering Sky" (9:22) which sounds like a piece that Gene Kelley would have used as a film score to choreograph one of his unique dance numbers (8/10); 5. "You" (8:30) which is constructed much as the Brazilian pieces the band did in the 80s like Pedro Aznar's "Más allá (Beyond)" (8/10), and; the standard PMG Latin-tinged Wes Montgomery-sounding piece, 6. "On Her Way" (5:21) (8/10).

A solid, accessible release of jazz in the familiar vein of what Pat Metheny Group has been doing for over twenty-five years only oriented a bit more to the acoustic side of jazz instrumentation and the melodic side of jazz.

90.0 on the Fish scales = five stars; a masterpiece of jazz fusion rated up for the incomparable standards of technical and melodic virtuosity they uphold for their profession.

3. SIGUR RÓS ( ) 

A favorite among many prog reviewers for its darkness, I find it beautiful but overall a bit too dark and depressing. Still, there is without a doubt gorgeous music here in the same vein of Ágaetis Byrjun and Takk....

Favorite tracks:  3. "Untitled 3 (Samskeyti)" (6:34) (10/10); 8. "untitled #8 (Popplagið)" (11:45) (10/10); (I love the ENO/BUDD piano arpeggio and MIKE OLDFIELD-like screeching guitars in the background; one of my favorite Sigur Rós songs), 1. "Untitled 1 (Vaka)" (6:41) (9/10); the starkly gorgeous and painfully slow to develop and release, 5. "untitled #5 (Álafoss)" (9:57) (9/10)and; the awesomely ambiguous, simplistic and yet bombastic and gorgeous, 7. "untitled #7 (Dauðalagið)" (12:59) (9/10).

Four star tracks:  2. "untitled #2 (Fyrsta)" (7:33) (8/10); 6. "untitled #6 (E-Bow)" (8:48) (8/10), and; track 4. "Untitled #4 (Njósnavélin)" (7:32) (8/10) (love the organ).

This is definitely an album that has grown on me over the years and is rated up for the start-to-finish quality and listenability.

88.75 on the Fish scales = 4.5 stars; a near-masterpiece of progressive rock music.

4. LA MASCHERA DI CERA La Maschera di Cera

A side project of Fabio Zuffanti, in my opinion, La Maschera di Cera has produced the best music Zuffanti has made. The songs are lushly created with lots of classically-influenced forms and structures using the sounds and instruments the electronic age has given us. Keyboard artist Agostino Macor is a true master of his trade, incorporating piano, Mellotron, organ, Moog, harpsicord, VCS 3, and "prepared piano" like a junior Wakeman or Banks. Vocalists Alessandro Corvaglia and Nadia Girardi do a wonderful job while not being mixed too far forward so as to dominate the music. Most of the time there is so much going on, so many layers in the songs' tapestries, that repeated listens reveal many, many nuances that are difficult to pick up upon first or cursory listens. This is good: the weaves are all beautifully orchestrated; I am never put off or overwhelmed by them. If there are weaknesses to the album they are 1) in the odd mix of individually-recorded sounds (a problem I find common with other Zuffanti projects) and 2) in the bass play: it's either cheezie pseudo-jazzy or over-the-top loud, distorted, and chunky.

1. "La maschera di Cera" (19:21) is a six-part suite introducing the band and its old-instrument symphonic approach to prog. Italian, retro/neo, but really classic RPI. At 1:30 a gentle piano and acoustic guitar section supports Alessandro's gentle, passionate vocal. At the four minute mark a chunky bass and organ-led upbeat psychedelic section ensues (kind of like a STEPPENWOLF/ BLOOD, SWEAT & Tears sound) over which synthesizer and flute trade solos. Alessandro and piano get into the mix in the seventh minute. At 7:12 we fall into a little musical 'waiting room' in which the world seems at a standstill. At 8:16 strummed guitar and organ lead us back into a forward direction. Synthesizer and piano mirror their pretty playing while Alessandro begins a new section, new theme of his story. Flutes and synth posit some nice soli in this section. Then, at the 12 minute mark, things slow and soften again before Alessandro's big voice leads us into a heavier, more dynamic section--which becomes taken over by the repetition of a plodding distorted bass riff. Then at 13:54 another STEPPENWOLF kind of section with organ and flute screaming away takes us away. The shifts toward softer, gentler melody at the end is predictable and a little anti-climactic.
     The song is good, polished and straightforward, but nothing very extraordinary. (8/10)

2. "Del mio mondo che crolla" (6:00) opens with some very ehavy, distorted bass and clear, precise drumming before flutes and keys join in. The first keyboard soli are from "older" keyboard sounds (Casiotone?). The instrumentalists each sound like they are in their own recording studio, in their own worlds. Finally at the two minute mark things gel before a pause after which Alessio and Hammond organ take over. The slight shift back at 4:40 brings the music into solo-support mode--in which several brief soli take their turns. If I have one serious complaint with this song it's with the way the drums were recorded and mixed so that they feel totally 'isolated' from the rest of the song. They feel compressed or digitized while the rest feel 70s analog. Weird. Otherwise it's a cool little song. (9/10)

3. "Del mio abisso e del vuoto" (9:41) opens with some flute being supported by some drums and cheezy bass playing. Piano and guitar join in to continue the soft jazzy flow. Once Alessandro's voice joins in it is melodic but a little too gritty-scratchy-gravelly to add beauty to this beautiful music. Nadia Girardi's layers of floating, soaring wordless vocals in the seventh minute are an awesome touch. Kind of a cross between Clare Torey's "Great Gig in the Sky" and Irene Pappas' contributions to APHRODITE'S CHILD's 666. The final two minutes have some great Mellotron, flute, bass and vocal cohesion--maybe the best on the album--before chaos and cacophony become the ending of choice. Cool song. (9/10)

4. "Del mio volo" (7:07) opens as a gentle ballad with flute playing counterpoint to Alessandro's vocal. In the second minute a synth gets a chance to solo before the second verse takes over. The Mellotron play really hits some great chords at the beginning of the fourth minute and proceeds to play nicely beneath the ensuing longer synth solo. At 4:15 all instruments save for a gently picked acoustic guitar drop out while Alessandro slowly sings an emotional passage. Then an organ-led full band passage jumps into the fore, playing out a Dylan-esque dirge to the end. Nice song. (9/10)

The music and instrumentation are actually rather simple but effective--no wasted notes or noises and plenty of great melodies and chord progressions.

87.5 on the Fish scales = a near-masterpiece of progressive rock music.

5. THE FLAMING LIPS Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots 

This album has such an awesome sci-fi story paired with some really great psychedelia sound- and vocal-scapes that it immediately sucks the listener in. That whiney plaintive singing voice of Wayne Coyne is so unique and endearing--like Don McLean's proverbial "voice that came from you and me" (though heavily doused in reverb). The simple though catchy rhythms and drum and bass sounds are also masterful at seducing the listener into an undeniable full-body sway and groove. Plus, the story is so emotional, so considerate of the feelings of all life, all intelligence. Here artificial intelligence--robots--are given emotions--a whole can of worms both ethically, morally and metaphysically, but here the topic is treated with great respect and sensitivity--even compassion and empathy. It's such a sad and yet beautiful story conveyed equally beautifully and emotionally through this exquisitely crafted music and libretto. The music is so wacky and yet founded in such engaging melodies. No wonder it won Grammy Awards and was made into a Broadway musical!

1. "Fight Test" (4:14) (7/10)

2. "One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21" (4:59) (10/10)

3. "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1" (4:45) (9/10)

4. "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 2" (2:57) (7/10)

5. "In the Morning of the Magicians" (6:18) (10/10)

6. "Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell" (4:34) (8/10)

7. "Are You a Hypnotist?" (4:44) (8/10)

8. "It's Summertime" (4:20) (8/10)

9. "Do You Realize?" (3:32) (9/10)

10. "All We Have Is Now" (3:53) (10/10)

11. "Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon (Utopia Planitia)" (3:09) (10/10)

87.27 on the Fish scales = 4.5 stars; a near-masterpiece of progressive rock music.

6. DOVES The Last Broadcast 

Doves' second album came with a second EP bonus disc which, for me, vaults this 'album' into my All-time Favorite Album's list (#23). "Intro"/"Words" (9/10), "Where We're Calling From"/"N.Y." (11/10), and "Caught By the River" (10/10) are amazing songs that are almost able to offset the disappointing ones, but "Far From Grace" (10/10), "Northenden" (10/10), and "Willow Song" (10/10) make this an album that I come back to quite regularly--even if I do skip around a lot. "Far From Grace" and "N.Y." are both among my all-time favorite songs. It is, however, on this album that doves' weak spot starts to glare: the drumming is so one dimensional. Many people like other songs on The Last Broadcast that I don't particularly care for. To each his own. These 'sub-par' songs keep me from giving this album 5 stars. (A 'masterpiece' shouldn't sport six songs that are mediocre at best.) Still, the good ones are so far better than anything else offered during 2002 that I have to give it

86.67 on the Fish scales = 4.5 stars; a near-masterpiece.

7. AGALLOCH The Mantle

An album I've owned for quite a while that at first I disliked because I thought it's songs long and boring--as well as due to the fact that this was my very first acquisition that contained growls for some of its vocals. I was put off by this, especially. Now, four or five years later, I've grown accustomed to growling in prog music and The Mantle has become one of those albums whose songs always interest, surprise, and, yes, I have to admit, excite me when they come onto my iPod shuffle's random play.
     The acoustic guitar-based music has always been attractive to me, I just resisted its magic because of the vocals. Now as I listen to these songs I am always surprised to check later and be reminded that these great songs so full of subtleties were from AGALLOCH!

Favorite songs: "...And The Great Cold Death Of The Earth" (7:14) (10/10) "The Hawthorne Passage" (11:19) (9/10); 3. "Odal" (7:40) (9/10), "In The Shadow Of Our Pale Companion" (14:45) (9/10), 6. "You Were But a Ghost in My Arms" (9:18) (8/10), 1. "A Celebration for the Death of Man" (2:25) (9/10); 9. "A Desolation Song" (5:09) (8/10), and; 5. "The Lodge" (4:40) (8/10)

A solid album--one of the best from a . . .  well, a pretty poor year, in my humble opinion.

A solid 4 star effort whose esteem has raised in my mind over the years. I now find myself truly enjoying and tuning in to the songs from The Mantle when they come across my playlist.

85.55 on the Fish scales = 4.5 stars; a near-masterpiece of progressive rock music.

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