Sunday, October 21, 2012

Top Albums for the Year 2009, Part 1: The Masterpieces


My Favorite Albums of 2009
(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.  

     2009 offered some absolutely breathtaking new music from artists practicing quite a wide variety of styles. My Favorites List has albums representing no less than nine sub-genres. An excellent year in terms of quantity and quality, I have on my List seven (7) masterpieces and eight (8) near-masterpieces of progressive rock music. 


The Rankings
(My Favorites)

1. PROGHMA-C Bar-do Travel 
2. MAUDLIN OF THE WELL Part the Second
3. GA'AN - Ga'an
4. CORDE OBLIQUE The Stones of Naples
5. THE BOX D’après le horla de Montpassant
6. MAD CRAYON Preda
7. TOE For Long Tomorrow
8. AIRBAG Identity
9. AISLES In Sudden Walks
10. THE APPLESEED CAST Sagarmatha


Honorable Mentions: 
BIG BIG TRAIN The Underfall Yard
MAGMA Ëmëhntëhtt-Ré
THE NERVE INSTITUE Fictions
ANUBIS 230503
WOBBLER Afterglow
GÖSTA BERLINGS SAGA Detta Har Hänt
KARNIVOOL Sound Awake
CIRRUS BAY A Step into Elsewhere
IZZ The Darkened Room
RISHLOO Feathergun
DELIRIUM Il nome de vento




The Reviews

***** 5 star Masterpieces:


***** Album of the Year for 2009! *****


1. PROGHMA-C Bar-do Travel

In this 2009 release from Polish band, PROGHMA-C, self-proclaimed “musical evolutionists, I have found my favorite metal album of all time. Most songs feel as though I’m hearing the rhythm section of TOOL with lead guitar work akin to U2’ s THE EDGE Evans, keyboard work reminiscent of VANGELIS in his 70s, 80s, and ambient/New Age soundtrack era, and some of the most diverse vocal stylings I’ve ever heard on an album—coming from lone vocalist extraordinaire, Piotr 'BOB' Gibner. Gibner’s screaming/growling is actually fitting, melodic, and easy to decipher; his narration on “FO” is awesome, and his versatile singing voice crosses between that of MAYNARD JAMES KEENAN, MR. BUNGLE/FAITH NO MORE’s MIKE PATTON, and DEPECHE MODE’s DAVID GAHAN.

1. “Kana” (9:05)
opens with some odd electro/world sounds before an awesome mix-meter rhythm section settles in. The treated vocal has a very cool TED NUGENT feel to it until the growling begins. Around 1:30 the music switches to muted guitar/bass rhythm with ‘BOB’ Gibner’s vocals taking on quite a Maynard James style and feel. But it’s such an awesome combination! The “chorus” is really a full-frontal return to the opening themes. Then in one of the band’s trademark surprise twists, the lead guitar stars doing some Edge/Adrian Belew like playing. With the return to the B section I notice for the first time the David Gahan timbre in BOB’s voice. Such an awesome voice! At 4:22 another unexpected turn occurs with an almost POLOICE “Synchronicity” section—definitely a jazzed up, ANDY SUMMERs-like lead section. 5:05 we return to the original rhythm but broken down to such sparse sound with snare, hi-hat and guitar doing their syncopated odd metered rhythm. Then at 6:03 enter the eerily echoing and slow decaying slow guitar arpeggios—like something from an Eno Ambient album—and yet the metal rhythm section continues! This is simply incredible music! These guys truly are innovators and “musical evolutionists.”  I urge all of you to at least listen to this first song—it’s available on YouTube (as are all of the album’s songs as well as the album as a whole). (10/10)

2. “FO” (6:40)
opens with some awesome Edge-like guitar play before Gibner’s slightly treated voice begins reading/reciting a narrative in English. At 1:28, the music breaks, some odd percussives fill the space, then we return to the odd-metered syncopation and vocal narration for a little while longer, until at 2:08 the growl-screams take over. Then, surprise!—at 2:42 a soft, beautifully sensitive voice similar to that of MARIUZ DUDA takes over the singing. But this guy is better! He has such amazing control and the ability to do some shockingly subtle things with his vocal instrument! At the four minute mark we are treated to a bare-bones breakdown of the rhythm while a BLADE RUNNER-like horn-synthesizer slowly shifts its pitches while at the same time At 5:14 all but the drums disappear while a series of slowly strummed chords fill the center while odd spacey synth noises float around behind and around. Incredible song! Incredible ending! Another song I URGE you to listen to! (10/10)

3. “Spiralling To Another” (9:31)
opens with some very spacey, etheric guitar play before the familiar syncopated, mixed-metered rhythm section establishes itself. Gibner’s voice enters with his Mariuz Duda sound—yet so much more sensitive and emotional. At 2:52 it gets heavy and the growling crashes into the field—but it never detracts or overwhelms the incredible music going on and lyrically can still be understood. Guitar chords strummed singly Then the music seems to ‘get stuck’ as guitar notes, bass line, cymbol play and choppy vocal play. A return to rapid rhythm sets up for guitarist Parweł 'SMAGA' Smakulski to do his awesome EDGE EVANS stylings. At 7:22 the full-force barrage of rhythms and growl/screams returns while SMAGA continues his trance-like guitar strumming. At 8:20 the music turns full metal, feeling like a TOOL song playing into infinity—then it stops! Another awesome song. While not quite as good as the first two, it too deserves a (10/10) in my opinion. (The other two should be turned up to eleven.)
4. “Spitted Out” (1) (3:20)
establishes itself with another heavy complicated rhythm—this one sounding/feeling quite like a FAITH NO MORE song. At 1:30 the vocalist enters with his growl/screams. 20 seconds later he switches to more normal screaming, again, not unlike the rap-styling of FAITH NO MORE’s MIKE PATTON, before returning to growls. (8/10)
5. “Spitted Out (Out)” (3:57)
is the album’s second (part? or version?) with this title. It starts out with a completely different sound—establishing a kind of KING CRIMSON “Discipline” weave amongst its musicians. Slowing down, breaking it down, speeding it up--the band toys around with the riffs and beat before letting the SMAGA break out with a proper metal electric guitar lead (the album’s first!) Though nothing earth-shattering, the guitarist’s confidence with bending the song’s key to his chormatically shifting scales is noteworthy and admirable. (9/10)
6. “So Be-live” (5:48)
opens with a fade in with electric (Fender Rhodes?) piano and jazzy bass and drums and finger icked electric guitar parts weaving into a slow and methodic tapestry. The whispery voice used by BOB is quite perfect for the litl and fluidity of the music. At 2:04 the music shifts toward the now more familiar TOOL-like rhythm structures. BOB’s “Duda voice” gives this section a very RIVERSIDE-like feel. But then--surprise!--the distinct shift to the DAVID GAHAN voice occurs as synth playing portamento in the background toys with the song’s mood in a VANGELIS-kind of way. Then—wow!--growl/screams take over and add an amazing intensity to this incredible song! (10/10)
7. “I Can't Illuminate with You” (2:29) 
opens with what sounds like a sustained note being bowed on the lowest ranges of a stand-up double bass. As the intro plays out it becomes evident—with the help of all the other BLADE RUNNER_llike “future”/space sounds—that the note is coming from a Vangelis-like synthesizer. The song, it turns out, is actually an intro to the next song, as it seamlessly bleeds into and becomes…

8. “Naan” (8:57)
opens with another syncopated mixed-meter rhythm but this time the VANGELIS-like keyboards and playful JAN AKKERMAN-like rhythm work of the lead guitar pronounce something new and fresh. At the one minute mark all instrumentation merge into a 30-second single chord. Awesome. Then BOB’s sensitive Duda Voice enters to break the spell. The ensuing music scape is TOOL-like yet flittering about are the EDGE-like guitar effects. The vocals which follow are unmistakably DEPECH MODE-like. What an amazing vocal talent!! And an amazing lyric! So powerful! Not Duda, Gahan, Keenan, or Patton could hold a candle to the light of this singer! At 6:28 there is a shift into a discordant chord sequence with a whispered voice and syncopated snare and bass section. At 7:25 the music has evolved inot full band paly again, with BOB’s “Maynard voice” taking over. Echoed growls belnding into the cymbol play are the last vocals to be heard in this one. Awesome! Again! (10/10)
9. “Army Of Me” (Björk Cover) (6:33)
opens with waxing and waning synth note—(sounds like a Prophet 5)
before the standard Proghma-C/Tool rhythm track establishes itself. Then the vocal is introduces—understated and delicate—before an absolutely stunning multi-tracked vocal chorus is unleashed on us. Alternating back and forth from controlled single voice to , passing through empty spaces and synth-solo-dominated sections, we are treated to a song whose original version is both lost to me and immaterial. This is an awesome song no matter who wrote it! (10/10)

I don’t think I’ve ever given out so many 10/10s in a review before, but that's how highly I think of each song—and is a reflection of how much I enjoy listening to this entire album. Probably my favorite driving CD during the past four months. I do want to mention how incredible I think the mesmerizing and yet tight is the work of drummer Łukasz 'KUMAN' Kumański and his cohort on bass, Michał 'VASKI' Górecki; they carry out the complicated, sometimes breathtaking rhythms flawlessly. Mega kudos, boys.

96.67 on the Fish scales = a five star masterpiece. This is one of those times that I wish I could post a rating of 6 stars—to indicate something incredibly special. The band claim that their music is intended to contribute to “Enhancing the palette of our musical universe.” I for one think that they are succeeding in this capacity. This is fresh stuff!  HIGHLY RECOMMENDED to ALL progheads!




2. CORDE OBLIQUE The Stones of Naples

This is the third of RICCARDO PRENCIPE's neo-medieval folk fashioned music presentations. This album sees a definite step forward in the compositions' leanings toward folk and medieval music and away from straightforward neoclassical music. For me, this pays off with The Stones of Naples feeling like the most accessible and most enjoyable Corde Oblique album yet. Plus, The Stones of Naples enjoys the benefit of vocal contributions of no less than six woman, each of outstanding voice, including: Caterina Pontrandolfo (familiar to us from the previous album, Volontrà d'arte) on songs 1, 6 and 10; Floriana Cangiano on songs 2 and 9; Claudia Sorvillo on songs 4 and 11, Monica Pinto, Geraldine Le Cocq and Alessandra Santovito on songs 7, 5, and 3, respectively.
     Because of this last fact, I will add that more than either of Riccardo's previous two Corde Oblique albums, this one is much more song/ballad oriented. You have to travel eight songs into the album before you get to an instrumental, and, again, unlike the previous albums, this one has much more of a medieval folk feel to it. This album contains songs of such consistently high standards that are all so enjoyable that I prefer to not single out any songs that I like more than any others (though, between you and me, I find myself swooning with absolute bliss during this string of five songs: "Flower Bud," "Flying," "Like an Ancient Black and White Movie," "La città dagli occhi neri," and "Nostalgica avanguardia"). Let's just say from the album's opening notes and song to its last you are in for a real treat.

1. "La quinta ricerca" (3:13) opens the album with Riccardo's lute serving notice that this is going to be music that feels like it comes from five hundred years ago. When sublime singer Caterina Pontrandolfo joins in with the accompaniment some other medieval instrumental accompanying her the ancient resolve is affirmed. An orchestral finale is unexpected but wonderful. (10/10)

2. "Venti di sale" (5:29) is opened with solo grand piano for the first minute--laying down some gorgeous introductory work--before vocalist Floriana Cangiano and a full force folk ensemble rush into the void with some quite dynamically diverse music--both acoustic guitars, violin, and hand percussion, and modern (fretless bass and drums). Lacking a memorable melodic hook to make this total ear candy. (9/10) 

3. "Flower Bud" (5:46) a stunningly gorgeous song with just the music but then you add the incredibly sensitive vocal of Alessandra Santovito (in English!) and you get bliss, utter bliss. The start of that string of five songs of Olympian perfection. (10/10)
  
4. "Flying" (5:44) is a gorgeous remake of an ANATHEMA song (from 2003's A Natural Disaster), with the crystalline pipes of Claudia Sorvillo delivering the vocal--though she is later beautifully doubled (by another vocalist?). The rock drumming and piccolo-like arpeggio notes from the classical guitar in the final minute and a half are sublime! (10/10)


5. "Like An Ancient Black & White Movie" (2:10) opens with delicate piano, strings and Riccardo's classical guitar setting up a dreamy mood for yet another stunning vocal (the third one in a row in English!) this time by the ethereal KATE BUSH-like voice of Geraldine Le Cocq. (10/10) 


6. "La Città Dagli Occhi Neri" (5:44). Caterina Pontrandolfo, voice of the opener, returns to sing this one in Italian, accompanied by Riccardo's lute and bass. Though it feels like she is singing in a relaxed, even lazy fashion, her slight rasp and gently trilling vibrato are sheer perfection here. Drums and rock instruments join in for the final 1:10 as Caterina sings some non-lexical vocables with the violin. (10/10) 


7. "Nostalgica Avanguardia" (5:14) a gentle, almost religious-feeling song as sung by Monica Pinto in Italian. The music becomes almost Gypsy fast while Monica continues to sing with what feels like respect and reverence. (9/10) 


8. "The Quality Of Silence" (1:48) is a nice little instrumental duet between Riccardo and pianist Luigi Rubino. (8/10)


9. "Barrio Gotico" (7:16) sees the return of Floriana Cangiano to the vocal mic as Riccardo and a simple Spanish folk ensemble supports. Riccardo on guitar, hand percussionist Michele Maione also on board. Well performed but a little long-winded and monotonous--though the final two minutes sounds like primo soundtrack music to a classic Italian Spaghetti Western. (8/10)

10. "Dal Castello Di Avella" (3:58) Caterina Pontrandolfo retirns to the vocal helm for the third and final time with a song brimming with feelings of love and nostalgia. This woman could sing anyone into peace, calm, and, dare I say it, love. The spiritual intentions behind her singing remind me of American spiritual singer, SHAINA NOLL. An eminently simple song--just Caterina and Riccardo--but one that comes across as utter perfection! (10/10)


11. "La Gente Che Resta" (3:24) opens with solo clarinet before a fully-scored folk troupe gather behind him in support of another Claudia Sorvillo vocal effort. The clarinet interplay behind and with the vocal is quite magical but the song lacks any memorable melodies. (8/10) 


12. "Piscina Mirabilis" (2:56) is a nice little solo classical guitar piece from Riccardo to close out the album. Nice. (9/10) 


92.50 on the Fishscales = a five star masterpiece of progressive rock (folk) music.




3. MAUDLIN OF THE WELL Part the Second

Up to hearing this album I had never heard of maudlin of the Well. Nor had I ever heard any Kayo Dot. But the hype for Part the Second (a free-off-of-the-Internet album) lured me in--for an amazing journey. That music--NEW music, like this--can be conceptualized, played, and performed at such a high level of mastery, (especially Mia Matsumiya's virtuosic violin playing), is, for me, so uplifting and hopeful. I was beginning to think that music would never get out of the ABACAB paradigm and never allow the mix of classic "orchestral" and "rock" instruments. But here we are. Thank you Toby Driver (and the donor/fans who pushed for this music).

Let me start by saying that "Excerpt from 6,000,000,000,000 Miles Before the First, or, theRevisitation of the Blue Ghost" (10:56) (10/10) and "Laboratories of the Invisible World (Rollerskating the Cosmic Palmistric Postborder)" (11:50) (10/10) (the album's first and last songs) are two of the most amazing songs I've ever heard in my life. Even after fifty listenings I find myself awed by these two creations, picking up new and defferent nuances and phrases. The three songs in-between ("Another Excerpt: Keep Light Near You, Even When Dying" [5:59] [9/10], "Rose Quartz Turning to Glass" [7:30] [9/10], and " Clover Garland Island" [8:18] [8/10]) seem to belong together, kind of like a suite, tied together by the strong presence of violin and cello--which are breathtaking in both beauty and virtuosity.

I cannot but help agree with those who have christened this LP as new classic, a true masterpiece. It is difficult for me to imagine even the possibility of a "better" album coming out this year.

92.0 on the Fish scales = five stars; a masterpiece, a classic, one of the greatest "progressive" rock albums ever made.



4. MAGMA Ëmëhntëhtt-Ré

It has only been one year since my initiation into the world of Kobaia and Zeuhl. CHRISTIAN VANDER's world astounds me. His attention to detail and heart-felt all-out effort is nothing short of amazing. Some of the words that come to mind when trying to convey the spell of MAGMA's music include "otherworldly," "operatic," "ecstatic," and "ritualistic." While many reviewers write praise of Magma's disciplined and virtuosic instrumentalists, I am ever blown away by the vocal performances and choir arrangements. This is especially the case throughout "Ëmëhntëhtt-RéII" (22:24) (9/10)--one of the best--if not the best--example of Vander's genius I've had the good fortune of hearing. I'm having trouble assigning this album an overall rating because, as some other reviewers have said, it doesn't seem to have enough "new" music or show enough of the group's "progress." It does, however, amply display the steadfastness, sharpness, and enthusiasm of Vander and crew in their commitment to this musical vision. In terms of "Best Album of the Year" and boldly going where no music has gone before, Vander and Toby Driver will have to duke it out for a while to see who really comes out on top.

10/15/2010 edit: The MAGMA album I keep turning to when I want to hear them (their best) is MDK. It seems still so fresh, raw, and seemless. Ëmëhntëhtt-Ré, while so polished and amazing because it's a 21st century composition with revitalized and revamped cast, has faded some with time. Even the awesome and amazing "Ëmëhntëhtt-Ré II" has lost some of its initial luster. When I want to dance and scream, its MDK for me, thank you very much.

4/23/2016 edit:  Ëmëhntëhtt-Ré has regained some of its lustre--especially for the middle three pieces, II, III and the glorious IV. Definitely a masterpiece of Zeuhl, of Magma, of progressive rock music.

92.0 on the Fish scales = a five star masterpiece of progressive rock music.




5. THE NERVE INSTITUTE Fictions

Originally released in 2009 and then re-released with a slightly changed format by AltrOck Productions in 2015, Kansas City's uber-talented multi-instrumentalist, Mike Judge has created a fine collection songs that he virtually created tout seul save for a little assistance from WHITE WILLOW's Jacob Holm LUPO (on songs 2 and 8). This album is so incredibly rich, diverse, and layered that it has taken me months to get to know it, get familiar with it, and even begin to contemplate organizing my thoughts and feelings into a review. Even now, with my umptieth listen, I am still uncovering gems of sound and style within each and every song. There are so many styles woven into this album--into each song--that it's very difficult to describe. This might be considered a Canterbury style album in its melodic, almost poppy jazz rock sounds and arrangements and biting, clever lyrics, but . . . it's not really. For a one-man band I have to say the the bass play, drumming, keys, vocals, lyrics, and, especially, guitar play are all top notch. And the sound production and mixing is superlative.

Five star songs:  the GONG/Canterbury-like 7. "With Joy We Espy the Sarcophagus" (6:22) (10/10); 4. "Whistling Wire" (4:39) (10/10); 1. "The Confidence-Man" (6:13) (9.5/10); 6. "Rayuela" (4:43) (9.5/10); 8. "Grimoire" (3:34) (9.5/10); 3. "Knives of Winter - Coronation Day" (7:23) (9/10); 

Four star songs:  2. "City of Narrows" (6:24) (8.5/10); 5. "Knives of Summer" (10:20) (8.5/10), and; 9. "Abrazo y Caminando" (4:11) (8/10). 

91.67 on the Fishscales = a five star masterpiece of progressive rock music.

Check out it's wonderfully complex and mature songs, like "The Confidence Man," "Whistling Wire," and "With Joy We Espy the Sarcophagus."



6. GA'AN Ga'an

 I've been listening to this album for months now at first with utter amazement and now with total respect and admiration. That a group of young musicians from Chicago would latch on to the Zeuhl sound to such a degree as to create this amazing and refreshing album of upbeat, beautiful music is astounding but that they could actually add something quite significant to the Zeuhl lexicon is even more astounding. This is a collection of songs that, like the MAGMA discography, has a flow and continuity which makes it feel cohesive, comprehensive and conceptual. And, as I said, with their unique use of keyboards (including lots of mellotron!), excellent drumming, and wonderful operatic vocals from Dominique Ga'an has added something new, fresh, upbeat and positive to the world of Kobaia. In fact, that may be what makes this album so listenable, so entrancing, and so addicting is its lighter, upbeat, 'optimistic' feel and sound. Though in reality I would have trouble telling one song from another--this is because I have never listened to them in isolation from one another; I always listen to the album start to finish--it just flows that way and once you start you just want to keep going till it's over! So, as I said, it's hard to distinguish one song from the next, I know that each song has its unique individuality. For example,

1. "Chasmaeon" (7:01) has its awesome mellotron "Gregorian Chant" opening before TANGERINE DREAM keyboards join in. From 2:15 to 3:00 the full complement of instrumental structure is gradually put on display: keys, drums, guitar arpeggi, and Lindsay Powell's incredibly gorgeous voice. Then, beginning at 4:10 the pace is awesomely doubled, slowed down, doubled again, back and forth throughout the rest of the song in this amazing play on the listener's emotions. The bass, drums, mellotron Gregorian chant, and Linday Powell lead chant is rising and falling, twisting and turning, taking us on this rollercoaster of Zeuhl heaven. This must be Nebëhr Gudahtt's life after death place! (10/10)

On 2. "Living Tribunal" (8:12) the mellotron voices are turned into the upper "female" octaves while the more vibrated, slow picked bass and militarized dance drumming take over three minutes to prep us for Lindsay's plaintive call--and mesmerizing is her summons! She is my siren! I will willingly do your bidding, Zeuhl Princess! Enter electric guitar to mirror and amplify Lindsay's hypnotic call all the while drums, bass, and keys maintain a constant thrum of insistent support. This is prog heaven, to be sure! Chicago! These are 'kids'--a new generation of prog devotees! Hallelujah! Towards the end the drums and especially the bass begin to embellish their play. Awesome! (10/10)

3. "I Of Infinite Forms Pt. 1" (5:00) opens, again, with keyboard chord hits most familiar to us from the 1970s work of TANGERINE DREAM before very quickly being joined by the bass and drumming so familiar to us from the Zuehl world. High octave keys and wildly motive bass play are the highlights to the first half of this song as Lindsay's gorgeous mid-octave chanting stays mostly in the background. (8/10)

4. "I Of Infinite Forms Pt. 2" (6:06) flowing continuously from the previous song, there is a noticeable shift in style and tempo, but it is really only a bridge before the song builds back into a more tightly woven version of the tapestry of the Part 1. Where the difference really begins to show is with the addition of tubular bells (!) and Lindsay's more frenetic insistent chanting. Mid song the rhythm section virtually drops out for a bridge in which Lindsay and the tubular bells take center stage. By 3:40 a new rhythm and sound has been established that is more keyboard centered and keyboard dominant while LIndsay and the rhythm section pretty much maintain their style and melodies if slightly slowed down. Amazing drumming in the last minute! (9/10)

5. "Servant Eye" (6:31) opens as if on a continuous thread from previous songs--kind of a melding of the opening song with the previous one. A brief bridge of "Gregorian Chant" mellotron chords at 0:45 allows for a complete transition into a new vocal chant pattern and a new keyboard arpeggio foundation. Then at 2:00 occurs another shift--establishing whole new pace and rhythm pattern from the rhythm section while also introducing a more "angelic" voice mellotron chord sequence pattern while Lindsay's vocal almost disappears for a while. In the final two minutes the bass and lead female chant step forward to take the lead while the pace behind quickens to a rhapsodic frenzy! Awesome! (9/10)

6. "Vultures Of The Horn" (7:16) is perhaps the most maturely structured, least frenzied and tempermental song on the album which makes it seem more sedate and less emotional yet the keyboard, drum and vocal work are incredible for their display of subtle mastery. (9/10)

I honestly cannot say that there is another Zeuhl album I've ever felt this kind of affinty and attachment to since I first heard MDK. Eskaton, Xing Sa, and Universal Totem Orchestra are the only others that come to mind as having the kind of fresh beauty that I feel from Ga'an. As raw as it is for its being a debut record, this is without a doubt one of the premier Zeuhl albums I've ever heard. And from a group of young musicians from Chicago!! Bravo! I am so excited to see a new generation of artists latching onto and carrying forward the Zeuhl torch!

91.67 on the Fish scales = five stars; essential as a masterpiece of progressive rock music.




7. WOBBLER Afterglow 

A short (at 37 minutes it is actually quite average for 1970s standards) collection of great modern melodic medieval prog rock in the tradition of FOCUS, JETHRO TULL, FRUUPP, GRYPHON, GENTLE GIANT, and ANGLAGARD ("The Haywain" [0:54] [9/10], "Interlude"[2:35] [9/10], and "Armory" [3:00] [9/10]) and great keyboard-based symphonic prog in the vein of ELP, LE ORME, BANCO delle MUTUO SOCCORSO, PREMIATA FORNERIA MARCONI and NEXUS ("Imperial Winter White" [15:01] [9/10] and "In Taberna" [13:09] [9/10]). The musicianship is outstanding--worthy of superlatives throughout--and the medieval-based songs are certainly like a breath of fresh air. Definitely a band to follow!

90.0 on the Fish scales = five stars; a masterpiece of excellent prog compositions and performances.





****+ 4.5 star Near Masterpieces:



8. MAD CRAYON Preda

RPI and prog lovers in general: You're missing some GREAT music if you haven't heard Predo! These guys can play. Discovered through the HIGHLY RECOMMENDED Colossus Project "Kalevala: A Finnish Progressive Rock Epic" I have been blown away by the freshness and clarity of this music. Recorded so cleanly, using so many sounds in such unusual combinations, and constructed with such nuance and unpredictability it is a true listening adventure. (Put on the headphones!) Lots of piano and acoustic guitars, crisp drumming, and bass playing that is so alluring as to constantly draw my attention from the rest of the ensemblature. One very noticeable element of Predo's recording is the wonderful and brilliant use of space within the music; they don't fill every second for the sake of filling space; they let the sounds, chords, and melodies seep, percolate and fill your soul. And the singing is in Italian!

1. “Re Schiavo--Part 1" (6:21) is, at times, somewhat on the rock edge, kind of  like SAGA, yet other times the bass and piano inerplay reminds one of a jazz CHICK COREA jazz concert. The drum playing is very solid, if mixed a bit in the background. (9/10)

2. "Preda--Part 1" (6:49) starts with a TONY LEVIN-esque funk bass line before turning into an intermittently hard rocking, sometimes 'lounge' feeling, sometimes JEFF BECK-feeling piece. Also has a SYLVAN "Force of Gravity" feel to it. Definitely defies eras and music styles. Love the bass playing (PINO PALLADINO-ish?) (7/10)

3. "Preda--Part 2" (6:07) begins with some heavy guitar riffing and steamy organ soloing playing over the same jazzy bass playing and solid drumwork from "Part 1" before segueing into some soli from some pretty unusual synth and guitar sounds. The three minute mark reintroduces a kind of 'light metal' theme over BRUFORD-esqu snare, then suddenly a lounge jazz piano shows up to solo over this driving theme. A brief, strange and unpredictable lull with some treated vocals appears just before the song exits with its original driving pace. Interesting song, to say the least! (8/10)

4. "Gabriel" (7:10) enters with a softer feel, piano lead, and moves quickly into a complicated and tempo-rolling vocal section. Here is where this group's compositional use of space, pause, and sustain really show itself. Brilliant. To my mind, this shows great courage, confidence and maturity. My favorite instrument of this group, Daniele Vitalone's fretless bass gets a very cool fusion solo (EBERHARD WEBER?) at the 3:50 minute mark before the song surprises with a brief foray into high energy guitar chords and solo. The song decays beautifully with synth and piano outro. Wonderful song-writing filled with many catchy, though often all-too brief melodies. Like a train ride in the mountains: alternating lulls and breathtaking views. (9/10)

5. "Xaonon" (8:30) is the song that really got me hooked on this group. A real Neo-Prog bordering on eclectic classic. The only thing missing are the English vocals (I keep expecting the song to evolve into a MOONGARDEN classic like "Round Midnight"). Begins with one and a half minutes of very fresh electronica before the rhythm section joins in. Kind of like OZRIC TENTACLES plays TANGERINE DREAM. Then the 3:00 minute mark introduces some 'light  metal' themes, sounding a lot like RIVERSIDE, before backing down to a kind of ARGENT-sounding organ-with-guitar and rhythm section. The changes in this song are so frequent, so unpredictable, and so delightful. These are some very disciplined musicians! (9/10)

6. "Isola di Sara"  (8:20) is another gem/highlight beginning with a surprising 'Buddha Lounge' like feel before spiking off into various unusual and unpredictable sound and tempo directions. Very difficult to describe; you simply must discover it for yourself. The 2:05 marks notes the all-too-brief introduction of the song's immensely engaging and melodic 'chorus.' The band is so tight, the vocals so moving! 4:00 4:20 an entirely Latin flavored acoustic guitar-led section 5:15 a segue into a more rocking variation on the chorus theme before bridging back to the true chorus--which then evolves into a brief and beautiful piano solo before down-shifting into a kind of lounge end which is not the end at all but merely a transition to some HACKETT-esque volume pedal notes fading out over the bass's ad libbing. Wow! What a beautiful ride! (10/10)

7. "Sovrano Dell'illusione--Part 1" (6:27) begins with some ELP/PFM-ish piano before stopping to make space for the second beginning--a very GENESIS-like mellotron-washed section. But this section too yields, ends, to allow the introduction of a very PFM-like acoustically accompanied vocal section. Absolutely gorgeous music, melody, and singing! The EMERSON-piano returns at the 3:35 mark to provide the base for the return of the vocals. Stunning songwriting! As good as any PFM high points that I've ever heard. 5:05 marks the emergence of a  beautiful synth sound soloing briefly before the music settles back to the vocal with piano/ acoustic guitar outro. (10/10)

8. "Sovrano Dell'illusione--Part 2" (10:45) uses electric piano and echoing bass to provide its initial ominous jazzy feel. Again images of EBERHARD WEBER's works are conjured until the 2:40 marks the introduction of some skillful EDDIE VAN HALEN-sounding guitar chord playing bursts onto the scene. It disappears for a gap of a few seconds during which a few strange sentences are uttered, then comes back with a vengeance as synths and guitar soli emote themselves. 6:20 change: Mellotron and bass pedals! Then another odd shift into distorted electric guitar arpeggios over which the very strange vocals re-emerge until the music and vocals suddenly shift, mid-stream, to a very dreamy, melodic feel, back to guitar arpeggios which literally fadeout as a SATIE-like solo piano takes over. What an amazing rollercoaster ride! Mellotron! Weird background noises! The end! Wow! (9/10)

9. The final song, "Re Schiavo--Part 2" (4:52) begins with a piano reiteration of now-familiar themes--again very SATIE--esque. New themes are introduced at 1:00, 1:10, and 1:15 as the vocals commence. Multi-voiced chorus harmonies precede a beautiful section in which a TONY BANKS-like synth solo performs over acoustic guitars, fretless bass, and quiet batterie--leading to the final, brief vocal recitation and piano fadeout. Beautiful. (9/10)


88.89 on the Fish scales = 4.5 stars; a near-masterpiece of progressive rock music. Seriously, folks: Check out this album! They need to be discovered and promoted. I bet their concerts would be amazing: Musically, kind of like the early Gabriel-era GENESIS shows without the theatrics. 




9. TOE For Long Tomorrow

This is an interesting and enjoyable album that has a lot of the King Crimson Discipline sound and stylings that I love, especially songs 2, 3, 12, and 13. Though categorized Post Rock/Math Rock, it is far more that that, for in it I hear snippets that remind me of ALGERNON, IVY, KOOP, PAUL SIMON, JONI MITCHELL and many others. But most of all I hear DRUMS! AMAZING drumming!


The first song is a brief 39-second sonic introduction that bleeds directly into the brief "Shoushitsu tenyo fue" (2:40) (9/10) which is, in effect, an introduction and set-up for the album's third song (and, IMO, crown jewel). Arpeggio

3. "After Image" (3:59) featuring female vocalist Harada Ikuko reminds me of an awesome upbeat song from IVY or FIONA APPLE. (10/10)

4. "Esoteric" (4:15) is the album's first song to fully fall under the familiar/more usual Post Rock/Math Rock formats--and it is an excellent one! Sitar, arpeggiated acoustic and electric guitars, and amazing drumming! This is like MASERATI at its best! (10/10)

5. "Say It Ain't So", with the vocals of Dry River String's Hoshikawa Yuzuru (3:42), sounds like it wants to be pop and maybe even rappy. It's laid back, very repetitive and uses multiple tracks for its vocals. (8/10)

6. "Two Moons" (4:11) begins rather delicately, involving a synth, glockenspiel an acoustic and an electric guitar interweaving polyrhythmic melody lines. Until the bass and drums arrive at the 1:49 mark. Then we have a full-out jam! Kind of reminds me of ALGERNON. (8/10)

7. "Mosikiiton wa mou kikoenai #1" (2:32) (9/10) is a very cool piano over tuned and electronic percussion intro/variation for the next song,

8. "Mosikiiton wa mou kikoenai #2" (2:20) in which drums, bass and acoustic guitars play a more prominent role. Together the two variations rate a pleasant KOOP-like (8/10)--lacking enough development and change to make me reach for the replay button. This one is the drummer's song!

9. "Last Night (Album Version)" (4:56). By this time into the album I am looking for a little more variety. The one-note-at-a-time Kool-and-the-Gang synth is starting to get on my nerves, the interwoven tuned-percussion and acoustic guitar leads are getting a little old, the bass and drumming are the only things still keeping it interesting. (9/10)

10. "Goodbye (Album Version) featuring Toki Asako" (7:06) establishes another IVY-like groove using acoustic guitars and rolling COCTEAU TWINS-like bass before the vocalist and drummer get engaged. Again, the drummer is stealing the show! At the four minute mark ends a peak and things settling into a bit of a mellow, more simply and controlled section-- though the drummer apparently has difficulty with this mode, as he seems to always sneak in, or bulldoze his way into . . . taking over! I think the rest of the band shows admirable restraint in the face of his "lead" though I also believe the drumming is what makes this music work on such a high level. (10/10)

11. "You Go" (3:35) begins like one of DAVID BYRNE's Brazilian-influenced or PAUL SIMON's South African-inflluenced songs of years ago. The drummer is held a bit farther back in the mix on this one--and shows more than his usual restraint, though even in quiet restrained mode he continues to shine and attract the attention of the listener. (8/10)

12. "Our Next Movement" (4:48) begins with a very blatant folk drum style--large African hand drums and other hand percussives. Saxes play around in the background--as if I'm reminded of JONI MITCHELL's "Dreamland" from Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. The random sax play, bass play, and replacement of hand drums by drum kit reign this jazzier tune in a bit. Horns come together in a bank format as guitars pick in their arpeggiated KING CRIMSON way. I like the looseness of this one. (8/10)

13. "Long Tomorrow" (5:18) displays the same controlled "Discipline"-like weave of electric guitars, drums, and bass as the album began with. I like the bass being a bit more forward in this one. Static-screeching synth enters around mid-point. Finishes in a much more PostRock/Math Rock way. I can't explain why I like this time of "controlled chaos" so much-- that KC "Discipline" weave--but I do. (9/10)

Though this album often threatens to slide into background music, it is definitely one of the best Math/Post Rock albums I've ever heard--one that I will play again and again. I look forward to the growth and maturation of this great little combo.

88.46 on the Fish scales = 4.5 stars: An excellent addition to any prog lover's music collection.





This is an album that I liked from the start, every song was listenable and diverse. Now, after the twenty-somethingth listen, I can say that I know and like this album very much. A near masterpiece, with lots of theatric vocals, very competent playing from all of the musicians, and some sound songwriting. The album's weakness is two-fold: 1) it relies on old hooks from classic soli or chord progressions (mostly from PINK FLOYD and GENESIS, some YES)--and not just as "hats off" tributes to those bands, and; 2) many sections of songs are rather simply constructed (i.e. do not really take virtuosic competence in order to perform them--not unlike MUSE, THE DEAR HUNTER or AIRBAG). However, the longer songs have a very nice diversity of sounds, tempos and moods in them and are the highlights of the album. A great album, excellent for any prog lover's collection. Not a masterpiece, though. Not sophisticated or emotional enough. Close, though. Definitely an album that deserves more listens--more attention.

Album highlights: 2. "Leaving Here Tonight" (4:42) (10/10); 6. "The Bond of Mutual Distrust" (9:36) (10/10); 8. "Flying/Falling" (2:54) (10/10), "The Collapse' (12:10) (9/10); 4. "The Waterfall" (5:26) (9/10), and; "Disinfected and Abused" (17:38) (8/10). (The sample provided is a medley "preview" released to promote the album.)

 88.0 on the Fish scales = 4.5 stars; a near-masterpiece of progressive rock music (and, IMHO, much better than 2011's A Tower of Silence).




11. AIRBAG Identity

What a nice surprise! While some reviewers are displeased at the sameness of this collection of songs, I am pleased by this consistency. The engaging quality of these songs is of a very high and consistent level. IMHO, there are three pieces that I would nominate for that pantheon of greatness known as 'classics' in "3. Safe Like You" (7:58) (10/10), "6. Colours" (8:07) (9/10), and "5. Feeling Less" (5:05) (9/10). Plus, for DAVID GILMOUR lovers, you have two amazing 'Gilmour' soli in "Steal My Soul" (8:02) (8/10) and "Sounds That I Hear" (7:26) (8/10). The atmospheric 7. "How I Wanna Be" (7:04) (8/10) and the emotional, PINEAPPLE THIEF-like, 2. "No Escape" (5:45) (8/10)are pretty decent, as well.

Overall I agree with other reviewers:  There are no "new" innovations or complicated structures or time signatures on Identity; instead, what you have is a collection of very pleasant, very listenable, and memorable neo-prog songs in the same melodic vein as classic PINK FLOYD.
     I would like to point out, however, that the supporting keyboard work by Jørgen Hagen is perhaps the finest I have ever heard on any album. It's subtle. It is never flashy--never draws attention to itself--yet I doubt whether the other artists' contributions--or the album as a whole--would have come off half as good as it did without his work. Amazing. What Ricard "Nuflux" Nettermalm is to 21st century drumming Jørgen Hagen is to the keyboard.

87.5 on the Fish scales = 4.5 stars; an excellent and enjoyable addition to any prog lover's music collection. Definitely one of my favorites of the year 2009!




12. THE APPLESEED CAST Sagarmatha 

A seasoned Post Rock/Math Rock band from Lawrence, Kansas, THE APPLESEED CAST creates, for the most part, melodic, engaging music of the highest realm of the Post Rock--including one of the exceptional groups that uses effectively lyrics and vocals. One of my favorite Post Rock/Math Rock albums.

Album highlights: 1. "As the Little Things Go" (8:15) (9/10); 3. "The Road West" (8:08) (10/10); 6. "Raise the Sails" (6:27) (9/10), and; 9. "An Army of Fireflies" (4:28) (9/10)


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




13. BIG BIG TRAIN The Underfall Yard

As a big fan of BBT I was looking forward to this release as a step up even from The Difference Machine (which I rated a five star masterpiece). But, alas, despite amazing sound and engineering, David Langdon's astounding vocal arrangements and performances, the wonderful presence of XTC's Dave Gregory on guitar and sitar, Langdon's impressive and beautiful flute playing, the exciting and valuable contributions of cello, low brass (coronet, trombone, French horn, and tuba!) and mandolin, awesome solo appearances by Francis Dunnery and Jem Godfrey, and frequent GENESIS/ ANTHONY PHILLIPS- and YES-like moments, there is just something missing. I'm going to say it's the story line(s) and the way the lyrics cryptically or vaguely convey them. The lyricist (BBT founder/core member Greg Spawton) is apparently trying to wax nostalgic about the glory days of some important but nearly forgotten or obscured heroes from Britain's Industrial Age: engineers, architects, laborers, and the like. The problem is that the lyrics do not tell the story very clearly. Were it not for the artwork (wonderful paintings by Jim Trainer!), I would drown in the murky lyrics. What makes this worse is that the lyrical ambiguity transfers into the listener's inability to comprehend and fully feel the choice of musical delivery:  tempos, volumes, codas, bridges, and solos are all lost as to their significance in relation to the message trying to be delivered. Also, the music--as wonderfully performed, recorded, and constructed as it is (all deserving only superlatives)--is missing those emotional passages, key changes, and catchy melodies that hook the listener--as they did so well on The Difference Machine. The closest they come is with David Langdon's wonderful harmony vocal arrangements, his remarkable flute contributions, the ANT PHILLIPS/GENESIS-like acoustic guitar work throughout, and an absolutely stunning final two-and-a-half minutes to "Last Train" (6:28) (8/10) followed by the beautiful two-and-a-half minute intro to "Winchester Diver" (7:31) (9/10)

All the songs are very good, worthy of repeated listenings and many hours of enjoyment, but I continue to find myself asking "Why? Why use these musical constructs, Why these vocal harmonies, Why these dynamic solos--for the expression of these stories?"

Album highlights: "Evening Star" (4:53) (9/10) (What vocal arrangements! What a way to open an album!), "Master St. James of St. George" (6:19) (9/10) (my favorite song on the album), "The Underfall Yard" (22:54) (9/10) (a classic prog epic), and "Victorian Brickwork" (12:33) (8/10).

86.67 on the Fish scales = 4.5 stars; not a prog masterpiece, IMO, but very highly recommended. 21st century prog has few albums as accomplished and consistent as this.

A post note: This is one of the best sound engineered albums I've ever heard. Ever.



14. GAZPACHO Tick Tock  


While a pleasant listen, this album needs careful, attentive listening to be truly appreciated--which, then, becomes its downfall: When not listened to carefully, this album can become very boring, the lead singer's voice can become very tedious and whiney. So: if you have the time, sit down, put on the headphones and enjoy a very well put together album; If you aren't going to be able to concentrate and give it your fullest attention, better to avoid it and wait for time when you can. All songs are good, though the "Tick Tock" trilogy (22:24) (10/10) is my favorite (if you can listen to it in its entirety) and 7. "Winter Is Never" (4:55) (9/10) is nice. Nice subtle effects and shifts in sound and mood, even if the vocals get a little monotonous. 

85.71 on the Fish Scales = very solid four stars; an excellent addition to any prog music collection. Not the highs of Night, but not the lows either. 




What a magnificent album to sneak out of Québec! Too bad it's taken 18 months to climb into ProgArchives' ranks and garner a little of its much deserved attention.

1. "The Overture" (6:15) is everything a prog song should be: using unusual folk instruments, shifting back and forth from delicate to power, changing tempos, complicated vocal harmonies, awesomely clear lead vocals (in their own native language!) (10/10)

2. "Incubus" (9:14) sucks you into its web with the first strands of its foundational alternating guitar arpeggios and deep, full-front bass notes. What a simple but captivating and fluid lead! Then you're hit upside the head with the spoken voice of the amazing Jean-Marc Pisapia. He's got one of those voices that commands attention--no, worship! The journey this song takes one into--like a ride through the countryside in an opened-up convertible sports car--only we're driving behind the old Iron Curtain, say, in 1969 in Czechoslovakia. Joy ride, open air but ever on edge, ever hypervigilent. An amazing song with absolutely refreshing music and vocals, tempo and mood shifts, outstanding composition and musicianship. Prog music does not get better than this! EVER! Arabian musical influences sneak in at the 5:45 mark. (10/10)

3. "L'eau, le lait, le vin . . . " (6:30) Lacks a little melody hook-line (perhaps the French lyrics are intended to be the true focus of this part of the song) before a sudden shift from light, whispery to heavy LED ZEPPELIN "In Through the Out Door" drumming at the 3:15 mark takes one by surprise--followed by a Canterbury sounding organ (Wurlitzer?) at the 4:30 mark. Fades out with street accordian. (7/10)

4. "Mont St. Michel" (10:57) has a church feel to it--organ and chant-like harmonized vocals--before briefly shifting attention to piano. 4:30 sees a shift to a more acoustic prog orientation like MOON SAFARI, THE MOODY BLUES, BEACH BOYS, and early PETER GABRIEL. GENESIS-like heaviness beginning at the 7:10 mark brings a real mood shift to the song--especially with a great electric guitar solo with support passage. An interesting, entertaining song that would probably be rendered higher marks were I in on the lyrical content. (Future project: brush up on my old French.) Winds down with full PINK FLOYD sound à la "Eclipse." (8/10)

5. "Le chat noir" (2:12) is a little ditty that starts and ends with SATIE-esque slow, jazzy, emotional solo piano. Nearly as interesting and unpredictable as the original works of the young master. (9/10)

6. "Un unpénétrable mystère" (6:49) seems to feed off of the momentum of the previous song, beginning with treated piano chords and playful cymbol play before the poetic sing-speaking voice of M. Pisapia begins a upbeat monotone 'rap' over a rather jazzy, almost STYLE COUNCIL-like music. But watch out: these guys don't let you get bored or hypnotized; at 3:10 organ and true Gregorian chant-like choir takes over the singing of the lyrics. Then the sound drops out at 5:00 mark for a brief uncertainty before picking up the previous melodies on bass, background vocals, and background upper register male voice. Then it stops, only to fade the last 30 seconds in a very trip hop way. (8/10)

7. "À Bougival" (5:07) begins (and ends) with (what turns out to be) a constantly repeating four-note guitar arpeggios, two pairs of alternating piano chords and male voice before a kind of support soft-jazz combo joins in. This formula continues to cycle back and forth several times with the occasional rise and disappearance of near-Buddhist nasal voice intonations and a fully jazz-oriented section at about the 3:30 mark. Fascinating, unpredictable, and fresh! (10/10)

8. "Sous hypnose" (7:01) introduces from the opening notes a harder, heavier side of THE BOX--again with a very LED ZEPPELIN foundation to it. Enter a harmonized lead vocal followed by a bridge of an (intentionally?) 'cheezy' organ solo, repeat formula, provide a different bridge to the electric (doubled, shadowed, or midied?) guitar solo, and you have a pretty standard rock constructed song. Until a C part begins at the 4:39 mark when you have wavering keyboard, jazz electric guitar solo and vocal "ha's" accompanying the eternally playful drummer's cymbol play. Return to beginning-style heaviness for outro. (7/10)

9. "J'ai vu" (8:47) begins right where "sous hypnos" did: with another familiar-feeling LED ZEPPELIN "When the Levee Breaks"-like riff until it settles down to make way for repeating guitar arpeggios and harmonized 'spoken-sung' lead vocals. Heavy bass notes enter the play at the 3:00 minute mark as the piano gives us a little one-time jazz riff. Re-eneter the L ZEP riff at 5:00, this time with harmonized vocals accompanying/singing over to great effect--which only gets better as the song builds and progresses. The last 1:40 of the song play out in the sown-tempo 'B' mode. (7/10)

10. "Super 61" (3:54) begins with female chorus reciting the title while a kind of BURT BACHARACH bassa nova back beat establishes itself. French-style vocal scatting familiar to all who heard Francis Lai's theme to  the 1966 classic, "Un homme et une femme." In the Francis Lai tradition, this is a pretty upbeat, light song with some catchy melodies (and perhaps lyrics!?). (9/10)
   
Overall a delightful listening experience--one that is so different, so interesting and yet melodic and of superior construction, that I will come back many times to hear many more of the subtle shifts, instrument uses, and other nuances to be found herein.

85.0 on the Fish scales = 4.5 stars; an excellent addition to any prog lovers music collection. Really!


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