Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Top Albums of the Year 2004, Part 1: The Masterpieces

My Favorite Albums of 2004
(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.  

2004 produced some wonderful new music from artists practicing quite a wide variety of styles. A fair year in terms of quantity and quality, I have on my List four (3) masterpieces and one (2) near-masterpiece of progressive rock music. 

The Rankings
(My Favorites)

1. BARK PSYCHOSIS Code Name: DustSucker
2. MAGENTA Seven
3. AMAROK Quentadharken
5. PAATOS Killocain
6. STEREOLAB Margerine Eclipse
7. DUNGEN Ta Det Lugnt
8. DAVE BAINBRIDGE Veil of Gossamer
9. KNIGHT AREA The Sun Also Rises
10. ORPHANED LAND Mabool--The Story of the Three Sons of Seven7. 

Honorable Mention
GUAPO Five Suns

The Reviews

***** 5 star Masterpieces:

***** Album of the Year for 2004! *****

1. MAGENTA Seven

Wow! This album moves me to the core with each and every listen. It's taken me four years to finally find a copy of it and I am so happy I did! I don't care if it's considered "Neo-prog" or that Magenta is considered a "Yes clone": IMO, there is no better 'neo' or 'clone' album out there. Okay, "Gluttony" (9/10) sounds like it came from Drama or The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, and, yes, "Lust" (8/10) sounds like it came from 90120, but Magenta still manages to make new, fresh music from the stylings and sounds of the much revered gods of the 70s.

The band as a whole stands very well, with all performers adding significantly to a collaboratively beautiful album, but their stellar achievement here rests on the talents of two extraordinary lead soloists: singer Christina Booth and lead guitarist Chris Fry.

Many people like to compare Christina to the incomparable ANNIE HASLEM, but I see more similarities to KATE BUSH. The crystal clarity of Annie with the emotion and diversity of Kate (though, IMHO, not quite as good as either.)

Then there is the astoundingly talented, enigmatic and creative 'chameleon' guitarist, Chris Fry. He is Steve Howe, he is Steve Hackett, he is Steve Hillage, he is Steve Rothery, he is John Mitchell, he is Paul Buchanan, he is Chet Atkins, he is Jamie West--Oram (THE FIXX), he is Stuart Adamson and Bruce Watson (BIG COUNTRY), he is B.B. KING, he is Corrado Rustici, he is Jeff Beck--he is so many guitarists all wrapped into one. No two solos throughout this album sound anything like any of the others. Superlatives, people, only superlatives!

1. "Gluttony" (12:07) begins with a very familiar YES Relayer sound to it but, in fact, this is the song where the band break out from under the grips of neo-clonehood and offer something uniquely their own, something fresh (despite the occasional Steve Howe-like leads, Rick Wakeman-like organ and Chris Squire-like bass stylings.) The vocal harmonies and lead vocals are gorgeous and the use of 'harp' and The Vienna Symphony Strings is absolutely brilliant, integral, beautiful. And the diverse guitar and keyboard sounds and soli make it much more than just another Yes clone. (8/10)

2. "Envy" (10:10) is a fairly straightforward and easily accessible GENESIS-like song (And Then There Were Three era)--guitars, keys, bass pedals, Collins-like tom rolls--except for one small detail: THE INCREDIBLE VOICE OF CHRISTINA BOOTH! At 3:20 the song shifts to sound exactly like the background set up for Tony Banks' mellotron solo (the greatest mellotron solo in the history of music) from the second half of "Entangled" when--surprise, surprise!? Rick Wakeman's organ solo from the lull part of "Awaken" enters. Brilliant!! As hauntingly effective as the two source-originals! (10/10)

3. "Lust" (12:29) begins with the movie theme-song-like Vienna Strings intro before the band joins in for  a couple of minutes of jamming in a YES/STYX sound and feel. At the 2:30 mark vocals are introduced in harmonic chords before the song settles into a straightforward rock backbeat with Christina singing and STYX-STARCASTLE-llike keyboards playing around. The guitar solo sections accompanying the vocal "Ahh" harmonies are wonderful. At 4:45 everything switches to an astoundingly beautiful blues setting with Chris Fry playing one of the best ROY BUCHANAN solos I've ever heard. Wish it would go on forever! By 5:50 we're into a new "confess" section with repeating bouncy piano chords and regular breaks for Chris Fry soli. The use of orchestra in the next, instrumental, section beginning at 7:30 is wonderful. Guitar solo hear conjures up pure CARLOS SANTANA before giving way to a Moogy Klingman-like keyboard solo. Very exciting section! 9:40 begins a "take my soul/give me new life" section with recorders, tubular bells and piano, before giving way to orchestral support for a blistering guitar solo. Great emotion from Christina Booth's vocals leading into the outro! Wow! What a ride! (9/10)

4. " Greed" (13:55) starts off so beautifully, with harmonized vocal "Ahhs" striking an arpeggiated variety notes/chords, and, despite the joining of some Yes-like instruments (keys and guitars), the song really takes on a sound and feel quite unlike the prog Masters, though perhaps at times with some ANNIE HASLEM -like (post Renaissance) vocal similarities. In the mid-sections there are actually some similarities to THE CARPENTERS (in a good way), followed by some Yes Drama-era sounds and riffs, switching around the eight minute mark to total RENAISSANCE (piano & vocal). Genius Chris Fry then takes over for a flash or two over the continued Sheherezade-like music. With two minutes to go there is a switch: it sounds as if they're about to break into "Squonk" when instead a light BURT BACHARACH-like section ensues to end. Beautiful. (10/10) 

5. "Anger" (5:13) is an amazing little semi-pop song. A heart-wrenching vocal song over 'harp' (?) and The Vienna Symphony Orchestra strings. Does anyone hear know "A Perfect Day" by the infinitely talented Miriam Stockley (ADIEMUS)? It was used as the theme song for the 1992 BBC animated series of the Beatrix Potter "Peter Rabbit" stories. "Anger" has some of the pastoral and emotional majesty Ms. Stockely's beautiful little song. (10/10)

6. "Pride" (12:31) sees a return to a very Yes-sounding song--sounding more from the Close to the Edge to Going for the One era. This is, IMO, the song on which the band is most clearly imitative of pure YES, and, except for the incredible instrumental section from 7:56 to 9:40 (Chris Fry is an absolute genius!!), the weakest song on the album. "There Must Be Some Misunderstanding"!! (Do you hear it??!!) (7/10)

7. "Sloth" (10:08) has a very theatric, RENAISSANCE sound and style. Even the topic ("Gitchee Manitou" or pre-European conquest America) is similar to the xenophilic fascinations of  RENAISSANCE (or was it lyricist Betty Thatcher's?). Absotlutely amazing vocals throughout but the CLAIRE TOREY ("Great Gig in the Sky" from Dark Side of the Moon) finale is almost as powerful as Miss Torey's original! (10/10)

91.43 on the Fish scales = five stars. IMHO, this is indisputably a masterpiece of absolutely beautiful music with stunning performances and brilliant compositions. Neo-clones: Top this one!

2. BARK PSYCHOSIS Code Name: DustSucker

Out of nowhere comes an album and group I've never heard of producing amazing music! I'm hearing Stereolab, Ben Watt, David Sylvian, Lunatic Soul, Ulver, Massive Attack, No-Man, Tortoise, XTC, Bill Evans, Koop, The Jazzmasters, Robert Fripp, Ryuichi Sakamoto, The Beta Band, Adam Plack, Alain Eskinazi all mixed into one in a way in which the sum of all these parts is breathtaking! If this is Post/Math Rock, then this is my new favorite album from the sub-genre. And such diverse sounding songs! Though all the offerings could almost be considered low-key lounge music, there are so many subtle, interesting, brave, and virtuosic things going on within each song as to be totally engaging--no: engulfing! And it's so beautiful! And just listen to the wonderful drum work! And the power of the growly (à la Ulver's "Garm" and David Sylvian) male and breathy female vocals. All five star songs but two. Another modern masterpiece.

1. "Lazarus" (6:31) is a drummer's/drum fan's wet dream. I love when drums are recorded/treated with special effects (flange, wah, volume, chorus, pan, reverb, chorus, echo--NOT gated). This is just an amazing, enervating, and beautiful drum showcase. (10/10)

2. "Reserve Shot - Gunman" (5:46) is actually from 1994's EP Street Scene but somehow finds itself on my copy of Codename: Dust Sucker.  Kind of a continuation of the drum-as-lead showcase of "Lazarus" yet very different. (9/10)

3. "Miss Abuse" (6:18) is pure DAVID SYLVIAN from start to finish. As a matter of fact, were I hto have heard this song alone, without the Bark Psychosis name and reference, I would have assumed it was an obscure Sylvian song that I had never heard. The second half, when the synth melody starts to fly, and the background synths carry you away in another direction, is my favorite. I love all the incidental samples in the last minute. (9/10)

4. "400 Winters" (5:47) is the most blatantly poppy but also my favorite song on the album--one that leaves me singing, humming, haunted by the b-vox for hours after. A song that displays the amazing diversity of song-writing and performance abilities of leader Graham Sutton. Amazing lead and background vocals (Anja Buechele) and love, love, love the combo of acoustic guitars, JANSEN-like drum rhythm, and vibes! Great song! (10/10)

5. "Dr. Inocuous/Retarded" (1:04) really a piano intro/flow through to the next song. (9/10)

6. "Burning the City" (6:12) Miss Buechele's presence is again hypnotic and appreciated, but, alas! only counting numbers in the beginning. The male Sylvian-like vocal sings a fascinating song about a girl obsessed with flying (suicide?). (8/10)

7. "Inqb8tr" (7:10) is another STEVE JANSEN/DAVID SYLVIAN-like piece, this time right down to the whisper/sung male vocals. (But also incredibly similar to Mariuz Duda's LUNATIC SOUL sound.) What an dreamy mood-setter. (9/10)

8. "Shapeshifting" (6:02) again has that kind of DAVID SYLVIAN/MONO/DIDO feel with the amazingly sultry vocals of Rachel Dryer, the Fripp-like wild cacophonic guitar solo, and the very odd Prophet 5-like sound/effects throughout. (9/10)

9. "Rose" (5:50) begins with a solo oriental (perhaps Chinese or Japanese) stringed instrument playing. After over a minute it is replaced by synth wash, electric piano, and incidental samples (including a woman repeating a single German-sounding word intermittently throughout the song.) (8/10)

(Not on the version of Codename: Dustsucker that I own, but amazing as well, coming in in the #1 and #2 slots in the place of "Lazarus" and "Reserve Shot Gunman" are "From What I Said to When It's Read" [5:28] [10/10] and "Black Meat" [6:57] [9/10]. The former has a kind of 70s soul vibe mixed with a spacey DAVID SYLVIAN, CSN&Y, COCTEAU TWINS feel going on while the latter, with its presence of a jazzy trumpet throughout, is more pop-jazzy, though still with a COCTEAU TWINS-like feel and sound to it.)

90.0 on the Fish scales = five stars. Either version that you end up getting is without question a 5 star masterpiece, beyond belief. Highly recommended as essential for any prog rock lover's music collection!


A very polished, mature MAGMA, with some new sounds (vocally), some great sound recording, some missing sounds (horns), and one of the best Zeuhl 'songs' I've yet heard (I'm still very new to this sub-genre, but I LOVE ZEUHL!! I think this is the music I've been missing--that I've been waiting for--since 1989 [when I gave up on rock/pop/prog music].): part three, "K.A. III"--and part two, "K.A. II" is right up there, too.

While I am rating this 5 stars--for it is a masterpiece of progressive rock music--I do not hold it as dear as MDK or even Wurdah Ïtah; there is something magical about the energy and spirit of those 1970s records--perhaps it is youthful idealism (Did Christian Vander believe he could create a personally- and even socially-transformative mythology back then? Does he still?) Still, I admire he and his crew of Kobaians who have stood steadfastly within this music and its message over the past 40 years.

Zeuhl presented in its most polished, perfected, mature form. Highly recommended.

90.0 on the Fish scales = five stars; a masterpiece of progressive rock music.

****+ 4.5 stars Near Masterpieces:

4. DAVE BAINBRIDGE Veil of Gossamer

An album of virtuosic composition, performances and production--Dave Bainbridge knows how to write, collaborate, play guitar (and many other instruments as well!), edit, engineer, produce, and Plus he's a GREAT interview--so humble about his music and so enthusiastic and thankful for the contributions of all of his collaborators! With this album I think he may have surpassed the achievements of his parent group, IONA. Such gorgeous textures and layers--and interesting and unexpected contributions--like layering the voices of three prima voce females; singers singing in Gaelic and Urdu; using acoustic and electric instruments to perfection; conveying a story (of the lives and contributions to faith and history of Sts. Aidan [of Lindisfarne] and Cuthbert) through the ebb and flow of this album. Breathtaking! Without a doubt, an absolute masterpiece of progressive rock. If you never listen to an Iona album (which would be a sad, sad thing--you'd be missing some of humankind's most beautiful contributions to aural upliftment), please, please, listen to this one. You won't regret it.

 Favorite Selections: The the four part "Star-filled Skies" suite (10/10), the amazingly diverse five-part suite, "Everlasting Hills" (10/10), "Chanting Waves" (2:27) (10/10), up-tempo prog rocker, "The Homeward Race" (9/10),  and the Celtic Windham Hill-like jazzy title song, "Veil of Gossamer" (4:56) (10/10).

90.0 on the Fish scales = a five star masterpiece; unsurpassed blends of styles and techniques, sounds and effects, acoustic and electric.

5. AMAROK Quentadharkën

Quentadharkën is a well-crafted folk-jazz album by Spanish musicians. The recording sounds a bit as if it were recorded live in a small club--especially the thin-tinny drums. This is, however, the album's weak point:  It doesn't really feel like a studio album. Still, the performances are wonderful; the group definitely has a polished, well-rehearsed sound to  it--a sound that is at times 1960/70s jazz (think early FERMATA and SANTANA), at others Middle Ages troubadour music (even Gypsy or Arabic), sometimes even Celtic. Sometimes Amarok's music is sax driven, others piano, others guitar, others saxophone, often organ, and still others driven by synthesizer or its sultry female vocalist. Variety and diversity are never lacking here! The music crosses and blends so many time periods, so many cultural lines, as to be often breathtaking, and always unusual and unexpected. All of the music could survive without the presence of the vocals and be just fine.

Album highlights:  the work of the bass and woodwind players; the guitar and keyboard work; the interesting symphonic and deeply layered song constructs. Favorite songs:  the 'medieval jazz'y "Encantamiento" (2:56) (9/10) and "Hsieh" (7:31) (9/10); the KING CRIMSON-plays-French-MIKE OLDFIELD-like epic, "Tierra Boreal" (9:02) (9/10); the gorgeous vocal on the GENESIS 'medieval Arabic,' "La Espiral" (7:54) (9/10); the moving little LE GRAND/LA GOYA/RAMPAL-like "Alumbrado" (1:38) (10/10); the acoustic-based, jazzified, GENESIS Selling England by the Pound-like "Los Origenes" (5:04) (8/10); the STEVE HILLAGE-meets-STEELY DAN-like "Los Hechos" (3:08) (9/10); the KOTEBEL-like "La Batalla" (4:18) (8/10); the delicate ALAN STIVELL-meets-SPIROGYRA-like "Final" (4:42) (8/10); the wonderful woodwind-dominated folk song, "Coda" (4:06) (10/10), and; the funked-up YUGEN-like, "Laberintos de Piedra" (5:22) (8/10).   

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

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