Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Top Albums of the Year 2003, Part 1: The Masterpieces

My Favorite Albums of 2003
(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.  

2003 offered some stunning new music from artists KAYO DOT, THE MARS VOLTA, NIL, and OCEANSIZE--all four newcomers to the prog scene. My Favorites List has albums representing quite a broad spectrum of the progressive rock sub-genres though it seems a fairly weak year in terms of quantity and quality, as I have but one (1) masterpiece and six (6) near-masterpieces of progressive rock music at the top of my List. 

The Rankings
(My Favorites)

1. MASSIVE ATTACK 100th Window
2. ANTIQUE SEEKING NUNS Mild Profundities
3. KARDA ESTRA Constellations
4. Colossus/Musea Records presents: Kalevala: A Finnish Progressive Rock Epic
5. FAUN Licht
6. KAYO DOT Choirs of the Eye
7. THE MARS VOLTA De-loused in the Comatorium
8. MEW Frengers 
9. FROGG CAFÉ Creatures 
10. SATELLITE A Street Between Sunrise and Sunset

Honorable Mentions:
EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place
NIL Quarante jours sur le Sinaï 
MOONGARDEN Round Midnight
OCEANSIZE Effloresce
BLUR Think Tank 
TAAL Skymind
RIVERSIDE Out of Myself
IL GRANDE LABIRINTO La maschera di Cera
MAR DE ROBLES Mar de Robles

The Reviews

***** 5 stars masterpieces:

***** Album of the Year for 2003! *****

1. KAYO DOT Choirs of the Eye

Kayo Dot is another monster project coming from the genius well-spring of creativity that is American Toby Driver. Kayo Dot is what has risen out of the 'ashes' of maudlin of The Well as it includes most of the former moTW members. It may, in fact, be more accurate to call Kayo Dot a natural progression of what started as maudlin of The Well.

I've just come to Choirs of the Eye after maudlin of the Well's Part the Second, after Kayo Dot's Blue Lambency, after Coyote, after Bath and Leaving Your Bodymap and I am STILL BLOWN AWAY!! Amazing music! Amazing vision and creativity! Amazing virtuosity! "Like nothing else you've ever heard"!
     Like other reviewers, "Manifold Curiosity" (10/10) is one of the most amazing songs I've ever heard by any band! Ever! This seals it for me: Toby Driver IS the future of 'progressive' music. He is pushing the envelope, finding beauty in places, sounds, and structures that no one--no one--has done before. Even from depression and suicide (Coyote).

1. "Marathon" (10:14) begins with such elusive, disparate soundings as to disarm the listener from being able to categorize it. Is this rock, is this metal, is this radio, is this jazz, is this classical? For the first two and a half minutes, all of it seems possible. Then, all of a sudden, the cemetery awakens: the coffins burst open and the voices of the dead begin shouting, playing their message, informing us of their pain, the enslavement of their addictions. Then at 4:40 the cacophony dissipates, the abrasive voices fade away and we are allowed to pass on, beyond, into a place of beautiful calm. we are, perhaps, transported into perhaps the Light, the Source, the safe and all-loving Space Between lives. Familiar, secure, yet unremembered and new. Toward the end, our guide, a former human himself, spews forth his perspective, his understanding of it all. We turn and find out that he is us; that I am he! (10/10)

2. "A Pitcher of Summer" (5:51) begins very much as Bath and Leaving Your Bodymap left off. Acoustic guitar and soft, floating voice, great use of space. At 2:40 the first notes of harsh distorted electric guitar strums seem to drive home the singer's point, after which the listener is left floating, in limbo, as if to try to process the message/information. 30 seconds to ruminate. Then guitars, dissonance, melody and harmony return all at once, all together, making the infinite emotional possibilities of major seventh chords seem small and limited! Amazing song! Awesome, powerful beauty! (10/10)

3. "The Manifold Curiosity" (14:30) opens uses pacing, electric guitar strumming and woodwinds to great, unusual effect. Gradually all fall away until we are left with the simple strumming of a single chord on an acoustic guitar. A rustle of paper introduces the reader to the writer's manifesto, "The Manifold Curiosity" which is then whisper sung in a very high register from a seemingly shy distance, until just after the five minute mark the reader takes a break and the orchestra enters to usher in its musical interpretation--avant rock-jazz-classical, yet quite poised and structured. At the seven minute mark an electric guitar is left to guide us, accompany the re-emergent reader(s), with its PAT METHENY-like arpeggios. Join in a (some?) upper register strings players, and the song becomes a serenade, a bed-time story, and, eventually (around 10:30), a cacophonous wake up call--no: a persistent nagging itch; the neighbor whose stereo is playing too loud, the rush hour traffic noise that you can't quite block out, the sudden but no longer avoidable realization that something has gone terribly wrong with the world, with our out-of-control society; the cancer that is eating away at your insides. It's out there. (11/10)

4. "Wayfarer" (10:43) opens with soft, dissonance coming from guitar, violin, and, eventually, voice. As if the violin is the butterfly flitting around the garden, the guitar the waiting spider in his web, and the voice is the wind and sun working their insidious, impersonal magic. Nearly halfway through the song the music comes together, amps up (gets backed by an organ!) as the singer moves forward, perhaps ending the deadly day. 6:00 (sunset?) and the stars begin to come out. A whole different set of instruments and sounds emerge from the twilight silence. A night time walk through the garden ensues--at first beautiful, then awesomely terrifying, jarring and awakening as the quietest, coldest, creepiest moments of night occur just before: Morning, with its majesty, simplicity, sultriness, constancy and mundane. (9/10)

5. "The Antique" (14:41) begins with strum and picking of the bass strings of a distorted (oddly- or un[?]- tuned) electric guitar. Towards the end of the third minute, other de-tuned stringed instruments begin to join the guitar. Then pitch-variant wind-whistled apparatus and drum kit join. Avant garde, Rock in Opposition at its most challenging. Is this what Robert Fripp referred to as "Cognitive Dissonance"? Not a melody or chord here makes sense; only rhythm and --until 6:15 when everybody comes together to drown out the death-growl vocals and screams of the angry/desperate vocalist. Scathing multiple guitar and piano soli duel (in different dimensions? alternate realities?) At the end of the tenth minute everything falls away to allow a HAROLD BUDD-like piano accompanying brush-kit drum and trumpet set the stage for healing and rebirth. The indecipherable, muted (like a trumpet gets muted) vocal that joins in is upsetting for the message that is blurred and goes unconveyed, uncomprehended. (Though, even the Internet provided lyrics bring little comprehension to this listener.) Not my favorite song but I can appreciate and perhaps understand the purpose. (7/10)

Despite the last song, this remains a highly, highly recommended, multi-layered treasure of musical experience. Every listen is different, revealing, awesome, amazing.

94.0 on the Fish scales = five stars; a TRUE masterpiece of PROGRESSIVE music!

****+ 4.5 star Near Masterpieces:

2. KARDA ESTRA Constellations

Constellations is an album full, however brief that it may be (approx. 45 mins.), of absolute five-star instrumental gems (vocalist IIeesha's voice is here used as another instrument, never articulating words--as far as I can tell), including a cover of a Steve Hackett piece, "Twice Around the Sun." "Hydra" is my least favorite song, though I know it is only due to personal preferences: the composition and musicianship continue to sustain the group's exceedingly high standards. Another thing I love about Karda Estra is that they are behaving quite prolifically--pumping out an album a year for almost fifteen years now. Would that some of our other favorites would so favor us. 

1. "The Southern Cross" (5:09) starts the album with another dive back into the STEVE HACKETT/GENESIS era--until the arrival of the strings and unmistakable and beautiful voice of KE's Ileesa Bailey. Low key, soft, and actually pretty, not very eerie at all. (10/10)

2. "Hydra" (6:13) Distorted bass and electric guitar chords,  minor keys, and UNIVERS ZÉRO-like spacious chamber music make this a real dark sounding song. (7/10)

3. "Cassiopeia" (3:36) starts a bit plaintively (oboe melody) before the acoustic guitar picking and Ileesha harmonized vocals bring fresh air and sunshine into this gorgeous song. Love the stripped-down version of this one on YouTube, too. (10/10)

4. "Phoenix" (4:51) starts with odd progression of odd piano chords with 'cephiad variable' synth oscillating in the background. Electric guitar and flutes, bassoon, and, later, Ileesha vocals bring this one into the eery Goth world. (Could be a MEDIAEVAL BAEBES song.) I think it actually has words!? A bit abrasive with electric guitars and percussion near the end, but still a beautiful song. (9/10)

5. "Scorpio" (7:50) starts with ghost-eery 'saw' sounds with a lot of other heavily treated instruments adding intermittent sounds to this sparse, unstructured song--until, that is, the 1:40 mark when a kind of BUURT BACHARACH waltz feel takes over. Oboe melody is quite BURT-like. Beautiful section! Back and forth from eery/structureless to BB waltz until the final two minutes when a whole different feel and instrumental composition takes over. A bit too discombobulated for me. (8/10)

6. "Vela" (9:29) is another song that skirts between eery and gorgeous--with every measure, this time, as strings background strings and piano and incidentals often are at direct odds with the melody makers on the top! Brilliant and courageous songwriting! (9/10)

7. Steve Hackett's "Twice Around the Sun" (6:14) is not a song I was familiar with before KE's coverage here. With the woodwinds present here I am pretty sure Hackett's version probably did not sound like this one. A very pretty melody with beautiful support from the acoustic guitar. It could have been a duet (at least before the cor anglais joins in). The second half has such powerful Steve Hackett electric guitar presence. (9/10)

88.57 on the Fish scales = 4.5 stars for this, a near-masterpiece of progressive rock music. I so admire Richard Wileman's incredible compositional vision and production.

3. Colossus/Musea Records presents: Kalevala: A Finnish Progressive Rock Epic 

This is a 3 discs, 228 minutes of high quality progressive rock. for those of you who don't know, Finnish progressive rock magazine Colossus and France's prog record publishing company Musea Records have been challenging prog artists to submit contributions to theme albums for over a decade now with some brilliant results. The one thing they ask of their contributing artists is that they record all of their submissions using only instruments that were available in the 1970s. The result is vintage prog, indeed!

The Colossus/Musea Records theme albums are often quite good, always containing some absolute masterpieces. Of the Colossus/Musea records that I have heard so far, Kalevala ranks only behind 2005's Odyssey: The Greatest Tale. There are some 10/10s and 9/10s on this 3 disc telling Finland's own Kalevala myth. Italy's MAD CRAYON's gorgeous RPI classic "Il suono dei ricordi", France's CAFEINE's "Way Is Open", CLEARLIGHT's GABRIEL Era GENESIS-like "The Boat Builder (searching for the Lost World)", Finland's own SCARLET THREAD's cinematic instrumental, "Pimeästa Pohjolasta",  ORCHARD's eclectic folk-jazz fusion "3" and OVERHEAD's folk/eclectic "Wainamoinen and Youkahainen (The fate of Aino)" are all perfect 10s--masterpieces of progressive rock. IL CASTELLO DI ATLANTE's "Ilmarinen Forges the Sampo", HAIKARA's disciplined eclectic mostly-instrumental, "The Creation (The Sowing)", MAGENTA's "Lemminkainen's Lament", Italy's LEVIATHAN's "Filo de lama", Italy's folk jazzy MALIBRAN's "Strani colori", Sweden's SIMON SAYS' Genesis-like "Som Floden Flyter", THONK's ELP tribute, "Kapittu 45/46", the WHOBODIES's 70s-sounding jazz fusion instrumental, "Pine", and Finland's GROOVECTOR's smooth jazz instrumental, "Tuletta" are all 9s--near masterpieces. The other dozen songs are good to excellent contributions.

4.5 stars.

4. THE MARS VOLTA De-loused in the Comatorium

Rarely have I heard a post-1970s album that has taken me by such surprise and overwhelmed me as this one. The shear energy of the song-playing and reckless abandon of some of the performances is like listening to ADRIAN BELEW KING CRIMSON on amphetamines! Wow! "Cicatriz ESP" alone is a jaw-dropper every time I hear it. I've purposely avoided listening to other TMV or Omar songs for fear of blowing aside the mystical awe I hold for this raw and powerful album. Should I? Should I? I think not! I am not worthy! The Mars Volta have created one for the ages! A gargantuan and, IMHO, inimitable masterpiece. Favorite songs: "Inertiatic ESP" (8/10), "Televators" (9/10), "Eriatarka" (10/10), and, of course, "Cicatriz ESP" (10/10). 

Some "throw-away" songs devalue this album a bit, (enough that I rarely listen to it start to finish), but, still, it is full of such fresh, ground-breaking, energetic music that I cannot contain my recommendation for every music lover to give this one a listen. Decide for your self. A display of restrained free-for all, contained reckless-abandon!

4.5 stars, a near masterpiece!

5. FAUN Licht (2003) (Pagan Folk) is Germany's Prog Folk masters' second major release and quite a step forward from Zaubersprüche in that the band loosens up a bit and diverges and varies its path from straightforward Renaissance Faire music. The album shows the band putting their instrumental chops on full display from the get-go:  the first two songs are instrumentals with 2. "Andro" (3:45) using a metronomic stroke from its to really amp things up. This is a kick ass grooving, jam song. (10/10)

3. "Unda" uses some great lute, hand drums and hurry gurdy to support the recorder, voices, and bagpipes which alternate for the front and center melody holder. (9/10)

4. "Von den Elben" opens with harp and berimbao playing support for the lilting voice of first one and later, with the help of the lute and hand drums, a second female voice. Wonderful performance by the lead voice (Elisabeth?). (9/10)

5. "Ne Aludj El" has a bit of a Gypsy/Moorish sound to it despite using pretty much the same instruments as above. Upbeat and festive tune. (8/10)

6. "Deva" is just a -supported wordless vocal dirge.

7. "Punagra" (4:41) opens with some group chanting of the title before some wonderful upper register penny whistle work takes over the show. Later a balalaika solo takes center stage. Awesome percussion support on this one. Interesting key change with a little over a minute left--which, along with the chalumeaux (reeded recorder that is the predecessor to the clarinet) gives the music a bit of a Middle eastern flavor. (9/10)

 8. "Wind & Geige" (5:05) is a fairly simple, repetitive foundation for "geige" (violin) and whistle solos to be showcased between fairly brief lyric sections sung by the two women in harmony. (8/10)

9. "Isis" (5:40) opens with a male voice reciting some spell or invocation before the same balalaika chord progression from the last song fades in to support the singing of a quite extraordinarily beautiful male voice (which kind of reminds me of Mariuz Duda's gentle upper register). Giege and harp slowly join in support of this singer. If my German were better, this lovely song might not seem so long and soporific. (9/10)

10. "Cernunnos" (5:02) is the odd duck on this album for its long narration from a male voice (Christian von Aster). Again, not knowing enough German, the significance is lost on me. Plus the musical support consists of only drums. Probably a fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm. (7/10)

11. "Egil Saga" (5:10) opens with some kind of synthesized percussives in support of a single female voice. I swear these sounds goes straight back to 1980s New Wave--of which the German scene was quite advanced. (Think Bauhaus, Schilling, Nena, and Yello.) A little weird--especially for a folk song! (7/10)

12. "Fort" (3:54) is a beautiful folk song in the "Scarborough Faire" tradition with some awesome Celtic harp playing and nice three part vocal harmonies throughout. A nice high note to end the album. (9/10)

I have reconsidered my rating of this album due to it's rather narrow instrumental variation and its two rather weak songs ("Cernunnos" and "Egil saga"). Yes, wind & violin player Fiona Rüggeberg is wonderful, as are percussionist Rüduger Maul and strings player Oliver Sa Tyr. And, while this is a step forward for the band, there are great things to come!

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

6. MEW Frengers 

Though ostensibly Denmark's MEW is a indie-pop band on the level with MUSE, RADIOHEAD, and COLDPLAY, Frengers contains and displays so much odd, idiosyncratic, and "progressive" sound and song choices that it has earned itself almost universal inclusion into progworld. Reminds me of a cross between IVY and THE CLASH, or PREFAB SPROUT and RADIOHEAD, or THE BUGGLES and very early U2, or THOMAS DOLBY and SIMPLE MINDS.

Favorite songs: "Am I Wry? No" (9/10), "156" (4:55) (9/10), "Snow Brigade" (8/10), "She Spider" (8/10), the prog-length (nine minutes) Post/Math-sounding "Comforting Sounds" (8/10), and, best of all, the gorgeous, emotional "Symmetry" (5:18) (10/10).

Overall quite an enjoyable start-to-finish album of diverse, quirky, surprise-filled songs.

4.5 stars, a near masterpiece.

7. FROGG CAFÉ Creatures 

Having gone back in time into Frogg Café's back catalogue since the acquisition of 2010's wonderful Bateless Edge, I have become quite fond of their epynomously titled debut and this one, Creatures. The songs on this album have a bit more consistency and cohesiveness--unlike the chameleon-like changing of styles with each song on Bateless Edge.  I can hear the influence of both Frank Zappa and jazz fusion--even some ECHOLYN.

Highlights; "All This Time" (9/10) (great melodies and tight, not-too flashy song structure and soli) and the RIO/avant-UNIVERS ZERO/UNIVERSAL TOTEM ORCHESTRA-like "Gagutz" (11:18) (9/10) (love the JEAN-LUC PONTY-like violin solo!) are my favorites,  though "Creatures" (8/10) and the 21-minute epic "Waterfall Carnival" (8/10) also stand up very well--the latter a prog epic that really works, doesn't try to over-impress, as so many Neo-prog bands (Spock's Beard, Transatlantic, The Flower Kings, The Tangent) try to.

4.5 stars, a near masterpiece of progressive rock music.



HANS ZIMMER The Last Samurai

Once in a great while a film is so enhanced by its musical soundtrack as to make it bigger, better and more impactful than it would be without it. Such was the case with Hans Zimmer's amazing soundtrack to the film The Last Samurai. So many scenes were emotionally and even visually enhanced by the incredible presence of Zimmer's masterful musical contributions.

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