Sunday, February 17, 2013

Top Albums of the Year 2012: the Masterpieces

My Favorite Albums of 2012
(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 30 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.  

2012 offered some amazingly fresh music from artists new and old as well as some highly polished examples of old favorite styles. A very good year in terms of quantity and quality, I have on My Favorites List two (2) full masterpieces, 13 "minor" masterpieces, and 11 near-masterpieces of progressive rock music. What is becoming evident is that since 2008 there has been a significant increase in both the quantity and quality of new progressive rock studio releases.

The Rankings
(My Favorites)

3. MYSTERY The World Is a Game
4. ALIO DIE Deconsecrated and Pure
5. MOULETTES The Bear's Revenge
6. MOTORPSYCHO The Death Defying Unicorn
7. L'ESTATE DI SAN MARTINO Talsette di Marsantino
8. BIG BIG TRAIN English Electric, Part 1
9. ÄNGLAGÅRD Viljans Ôga
10. KOTEBEL Concerto for Piano and Electric Ensemble

11. BATTLESTATIONS In a Cold Embrace
12. SYLVAN Sceneries
13. I AND THOU Speak 
14. NINE STONES CLOSE One Eye on the Sunrise
15. GRAVENHURST The Ghost in Daylight
16. JENSEN CODE The True Colors of Mars 2
17. DEAD CAN DANCE Anastasia
18. SWANS The Seer
19. MAGMA Felicité Thosz
20. THE TEA CLUB Quickly, Quickly, Quickly 

21. THE GATHERING Disclosure
22. DAAL Dodecahedron
23. VAURA Selenelion
24. METHEXIS The Fall of Bliss
25. THINKING PLAGUE Decline and Fall
26. ARANIS Made in Belgium
27. ANATHEMA Weather Systems
28. 3RDEGREE The Long Division
29. DEAN WATSON Imposing Elements

Honorable Mentions:

The Reviews

5 star Masterpieces
(ratings of 100 to 93.34)

 ***** Album of the Year for 2012! *****

1. KOTEBEL Concerto for Piano and Electric Ensemble

I fell in love with Kotebel with 2006's Omphalos (one of my Top Ten favorite albums of the Naughties). At that time the band had, IMHO, the finest female vocalist in modern prog music (Carolina Prieto) and arguably the greatest flutest ever in prog history (Omar Acosta). By 2009, with the recording and release of Ouroboros they both had left the band (or, perhaps, they were not asked back). Thus my expectations for Ouroboros were quite low. (As it turns out the album is very good--showcasing some jaw-dropping work from bass player Jaime Pascual. The music just took a lot longer to draw me in.) 

      Now for 2012's Concerto for Piano and Electric Ensemble I was willing to give them another chance; I figured that six years is long enough for such creative and virtuosic artists to compose something fresh and mature. And how right I was! This is an amazing album of melodic jazz-rock constructed within classical symphonic structures. The pianist, Adriana, daughter of band founder Carlos Plaza Vega, while no Hiromi, stands quite strongly with the rest of the band and within the setting of the four-movement 43-minute "Concerto" (86.5/90) does quite well both leading the ensemble as well as supporting it in an orchestral way. In song after song drums, bass, electronic keyboards, saxes, and a great variety of guitars (pleasantly, a lot of wonderful acoustic guitar playing) together weave the fabric of wonderful music. At times I find myself reminded of ELP, King Crimson, Return to Forever, Weather Report, SBB, Nil, and After Crying.

5. "The Flight of the Hippogriff, Part 1" (4:53) takes off at suburban speed while establishing its melodic "hooks" but eventually ramps up to overdrive. Some great solo work from bass, sax, and electric guitar. (8/10)

6. "The Dance of Shiva" (6:58) carry one into more tranquil, visual sonic soundscapes using lots of synths and space to tell their story. Very pretty melodies (I hear echoes of Carolina Prieto!) and fun Latin percussives. I like hearing this patient, subdued side of Kotebel. (13.5/15)

7. "The Flight of the Hippogriff, Part 2" (4:35) is the slowed down, more melodic groove version of song 5. Quite beautiful--and beautifully conceived. (10/10)

8. The finale, "The Infant" (7:12) establishes itself kind of slowly with a piano sound/melody/feel similar to early TOTO. The rhythm section eventually informs the listener that this is no TOTO (fine group that they were) but a much more classically-oriented band. But, wait! The jazzy sax seems to draw us back into a more cinematic place. A personal favorite. (15/15) 

Crossing genres so seemlessly, so effortlessly is what makes this album, IMO, a sure fire masterpiece of progressive rock music. Well done Kotebel! This will be a tough album to beat for 2012 Album of the Year! I hope enough people really give this album a chance because it really is some wonderful music--and progressive in the truest sense of the word.  

95.0 on the Fish scales = A/five stars; a masterpiece of progressive rock music. 

2. BIG BIG TRAIN English Electric, Part One

Without a doubt Dave Longdon is the new shining star of modern progressive rock; his vocal, composition, and flute contributions to Big Big Train have taken this band to a whole new level, a level that may imprint BBT into the Prog Hall of Fame--one of the few modern bands to achieve a standing right among the masters of the 1970s. Also, while I was not convinced of Dave Gregory's 'fitting in' based upon his previous BBT contributions, on this album everything, everybody, is clicking. Amazing song compositions with fresh and diverse stylistic presentations topped by the amazing--did I say "amazing"? I meant, "incomparable"- -vocals of Dave Longdon. And this time the lyrics and vocal passion fit with the music. I LOVE these lyrics. Every component of every song seems woven into a magical tapestry worthy of adorning the walls of kings! With The Underfall Yard we saw a lot of glimpses, but not everything with the "newcomers" (D'Virgilio, Gregory, and Longdon) had gelled yet.

1. "The First Rebreather" (8:32) (Linked sample is an excerpt) is an amazing opener which reminds me of the way "Dance on a Volcano" or "A Musical Box" opened their respective albums, the former for Nick D'Virgilio's display of Phil Collins-like drumming (Phil at his absolute best) and the latter for the changing dynamics and essential individual contributions to the whole-group masterpiece. Amazing story, lyrics and singing! Wonderful weaving of al the instrumentalists AND the vocal arrangements. A perfect song! (though the nod to GENESIS is quite obvious.) (19.5/20)

2. "Uncle Jack" (3:43) Off-beat like a STEVE HACKETT song (or, a little bit like "I Know What I Like [In Your Wardrobe]"), this is, to me, refreshing for its celebration of an average Joe (again like "I Know What I Like"). I bit like a carry over from The Underfall Yard, but still a mature, masterful blend of everyone's talents. Plus, banjo! (9/10)

3. "Winchester from St. Giles' Hill" (7:17) was my instant favorite. Now I can't decide between it and all of the other 10s! A beautiful song from it's opening notes and accompaniment. Incredible vocal melodies and vocal arrangements. I love Dave Gregory's jazzy (almost PAUL WELLER-like) guitar. Amazing chorus. WOW! What power and feeling! Then to soften with those guitar strums and mellotron. The bass playing just kills me. This is a funky jazzed up prog MASTERPIECE! And then the MICHEL LE GRAND/JEAN-PIERRE RAMPAL almost- classical section in the middle! Followed by an awesome guitar solo which brings us back first to the funk rhythm and then to the AMAZING story, vocal, vocal arrangement. I'm undone! TOO beautiful for words . . . (16/15)

***** Each year I give a 11 out of 10 rating and this, ladies and gentlemen, is that song:  the one song that transcends my expectations for the potential for human creativity.

4. "Judas Unrepentant" (7:18) unfortunately begins with a bit of a Genesis "Illegal Alien" feel to it. Luckily the chorus and bridges diverge quite a bit. The mellow, almost classical section beginning at the 3:30 mark is a welcome, even masterful, diversion. When the main song theme returns it with a wonderful symphonic crescendo of sound. Nice little organ solo to cover the return to the original "Alien" beat/sound. An light, upbeat, fast-paced yet somehow heavy and complex song. Fascinating! (12/15)

5. "Summoned by Bells" (9:19) begins with a pretty Tony Banks/Anthony Phillips piano arpeggio before establishing itself as something else, quite, with cello, doo-wap b-vox, recorders, and even the kitchen sink thrown in. (Just kidding!) Have I mentioned how noticeable and creative--even melodic--is the bass work on this album? Wonderful. And replete with so many unexpected flourishes and techniques. And Nick D'Virgilio really makes his mastery known without going over the top or without having to be mixed too forward in the production mix. This song provides a perfect example of how Dave Gregory's guitar work fits perfectly whereas on previous albums it may not have worked, may even have stood out a bit too much. On this one every strum, arpeggio and strum fits perfectly. Absolutely stunned and LOVE the delicate, emotional outro with its gorgeous horns and heart-wrenching Fripp-like guitar solo. (19/20)

6. "Upton Hill" (5:40) reminds me of a perfect PREFAB SPROUT or DREAM ACADEMY song-- quirky yet drop-dead gorgeous. Prominently featured flute, cello, accordian, female b-vox and banjo help provide this one with its own unique feel. (8/10)

7. The first 1:36 of "A Boy in Darkness" (8:03) has a very KATE BUSH and TEARS FOR FEARS feel to it. Until the very TEARS FOR FEARS breakout at 1:36. Later, the almost jazzy top-speed instrumental section in the middle is filled with great drumming, great guitar, flute, strings, percussives, and organ is one of the highlights of the album. Breathtaking. And then the segue back into the vocal sections is so masterful. Absolutely brilliant! Fripp guitar soloing beneath Longdon's powerful singing. The final minute is a crescendo of power and emotion with Gregory and D'Virgilio leading the way. Love the oscillating organ to-fade. (13.5/15)

8. "Hedgerow" (8:32) has an amazing XTC/BYRDS/ANT PHILLIPS/BEATLES feel, musically (thanks, Dave Gregory!), topped with some jaw-droppingly astounding vocal arrangements. Slow guitar arpeggios over which a solo viola/violin dirges propels the song into emotional depths of amazing proportions. Top this off with Nick D'Virgilio's stupendous drumming and you have the best crossover prog song of the year. The lyrics are the coup de grace--they bring me to my knees! I am not worthy! Especially the repeating flower names sung by the background singers! What an end to an amazing album--an album of a quality and consistency that I thought I'd never hear! Move aside Echolyn, Marillion, Astra, TFK, and even Änglagård. (20/20)

93.60 on the Fish scales = five stars; a masterpiece of progressive rock music. BBT hit the pinnacle of their growth and creativity! Hail! to the new kings of the hill!

Congratulations Andy and Greg: Your passion, vision, and perseverance has paid off! This is the great music: one of the best albums I've heard from 2012. So many, many times as I listen to this album am I just astounded at the instrumental, compositional, incidental and lead sound, and textural shifts that occur--and frequently--within each song--not to mention the unparalleled vocal arrangements. (I beg of you: Has ANY album EVER put forth such astounding vocal arrangements??) These five gentlemen are truly master music craftsmen. No: Master music artisans. This album is, to me, akin to a Sistine Chapel, a Taj Mahal, a Monet, a Beethoven's 9th.

The "Minor" Masterpieces
(Ratings of 93.33 to 90.0)

3. ÄNGLAGÅRD Viljans Ôga

I want to make this clear:  This is by no means a perfect album; I do not consider this to be one of the guiding lights by which progressive rock music should be compared or to which artists should aspire. This is partly because, IMHO, it lacks the commitment and courage of using lyrics and vocals. It is, however, an incredible gathering of talented artists who have made a complete effort to create intricate compositions fully displaying their top-notch instrumental wizardry. And, for once, Änglagård has mastered tying into its complicated compositions both melody and emotion. (Something I have criticized them of in the past.) I believe it is through their maturity that they have been able to discipline such an amazing collaboration. And, yes, I agree, that the stronger prominence of both acoustic guitars and woodwinds have helped bring this album to this level of not only masterful performance and presentation but to universal accessibility and acceptance.

     While I appreciated the technical and instrumental mastery that it took to create Hybris, I found it repellingly cold and cerebral. While I found Epilog more engaging and melodic, not so pretentious, I still felt no long-term love for it. After intense and frequent revisits (even now) I still find little to no attraction to either of those albums. Viljans Ôga, however, has entered my heart. I play it often. It has the pastoral, spacious, melodic sections--and lots of them!--that my soul seems to require in order for me to want to come back to music--my favorite music. I especially enjoy the slow-to-develop structures of these songs, and really love the prominent place the flutes and mellotron and keyboards are allowed to have. And "Snardom" has an absolutely irresistable hook around which the entire song is built. It easily my favorite song from Änglagård.

1. "Ur Vilande" (15:47) is probably the biggest surprise because, as the opening song, I am continually surprised at its patient, slow, rather soft acoustic development--with flute, cellos and tuned percussion, piano and acoustic guitar dominating the pastoral scenery for fully the first minutes two minutes. And then continuing with a kind of STEVE HACKETT Voyage of the Acolyte/KING CRIMSON In the Court of the Crimson King sound for another exquisitely delicate two minutes. Is this really Änglagård or is it Spain's KOTEBEL? There are even moments reminiscent of GENTLE GIANT (whole band syncopation at the 8 minute mark) and SANTANA (guitar at the 9 minute mark). (27/30)

2. I like the beginning (and ending) folk melodies and cinematic layering that "Sorgmantel" (12:06)  is built upon. In fact, it's not until 2:20 that it even begins to sound like Ånglagård. Still, there are plenty of surprising (folk) elements mixed into this often-angular (though surprisingly smooth) song--at least until 6:15 when the heavy abrasive stuff begins.  (23/25)

3. "Snardom" (16:15) again reminds me a lot of YES and KOTEBEL. It is also blessed with the album's most catchy, melodic riff--around which the entire song is built. The interesting thing is the broadly dynamic way in which this little riff is explored. Again, I can't help but point out that this is quite the way Carlos Plaza Vega and KOTEBEL construct 90% of their songs. Very dramatic, very classical/symphonic. All it needs now is a vocal (and boy does it scream for GENESIS' Peter Gabriel!)(28.5/30).

4. "Langtans Klocka" (13:22) The first 4:45 presents us with a gorgeous pastoral-classical opening (I find myself reminded of both Gabriel Fauré and Ralph Vaughan Williams--though also Québec Prog Folk band CONVENTUM). After the 4:45 mark, a YES-like, almost-avant/borderline chaos is instituted, which twists and turns as it wends its way through a forest of wild growth trees and underbrush. After a little lull at the 9:00 mark there is a reprise and recapitulation of the main melody and theme from the opening section, only with all the YES heaviness. And then at the 10:50 mark, I find it quite entertaining and amusing how every thing goes totally circus/Rock-in-Opposition: kind of like listening to UNEXPECT, THINKING PLAGUE, or even ZAPPA playing oompah-pah. Despite its oddities (or, perhaps, because of them), I like this suite very much! (28/30)

     Whether Viljans Ôgo will make my All-time Top 100 is doubtful. Whether music listeners will want to rank this up there in the PA all-time Top 10 is not for me to say, but then, I do not consider Thick as a BrickGodbluff, or Wish You Were Here, among the ten best examples / influential standard bearers of progressive rock music. I like the construction and flow of the first and last songs on Viljans Ôga, and the other two songs are good but, IMO, a little more disjointed. What I do find odd is how similar the music of Viljans Ôga is to that of Kotebel--how often I hear Kotebel while listening to Änglagård. And yet, nobody seems to give Kotebel the attention and praise that one would think it deserves--especially in relation to how much Änglagård receives.

92.61 on the Fish scales = A/five stars; a masterpiece of progressive rock music.

4. METHEXIS The Fall of Bliss

I am excited to see new music--especially progressive rock--coming out of Greece. I've long loved APHRODITE'S CHILD's 666 and 2010's A Child in the Mirror by CICCADA. Until now, I've not heard of much else coming from this small, historically rich country.

1. "Eradicated Will" (8:57) is excellent. Kind of like 2011's A Shattered Accord by DISCIPLINE, yet quite unlike other bands. It is, to me, amazing that, other than drums, METHEXIS is the work of only one person, NIKITAS KISSONAS. That is extraordinary! What a talent! The engineering/production team is outstanding! (Leonidas Petropoulus??!!) (19/20)

2. "Poetic Mirrors Wound Heroes" (4:52) has some wonderful melodies and vocal harmonies. I like the syncopated instrument play and instrumental clarity. The guitar sound and stylings remind me of PAUL WELLER. Not sure what the lyrics are trying to convey, but that's okay: I am NOT a lyrics man. To my ears, the voice is mostly another instrument in the music. (9/10)

3. "Those Howling Wolves" (8:07) has an eerie yet jazzy feel to it--musically reminds me of ANITA BAKER (not sure why). I like the programmed drums and many incidental keyboard sounds and samples. The Rhodes piano chords are quite effective--leaving lots of space for the listener's emotions to build. Nicely done! Again, I feel that with your singing you are often trying to be as theatric/dramatic as MATTHEW PARMENTER, yet you have a more beautiful singing voice than MP--one that kind of reminds me of two of my favorite current vocalists, DAN and PATRICK MCGOWAN from THE TEA CLUB. Thus, the chorus sections are my favorites, vocally. Incredible guitar/instrumental solo section! To drop out for the bare keyboard and your voice--great stuff! (13.5/15)

4. "Lines on a Bust" (3:42) is jazzy like GINO VANELLI and, later (in the chorus) MARCO GLÜMANN (SYLVAN) singing over an ERIC SATIE classic. Gorgeous song, Nikitas! (10/10)

5. "Track the Saviours" (4:13) reminds me of a mix of BILL NELSON (BE-BOP DELUXE) and DAVID BOWIE. I guess a little GENTLE GIANT and PETER HAMMILL, too. Definitely Bill Nelson. Cool song, though the heavier parts, even the the first electric guitar solo sounded and felt a little tongue-in-cheek (à la This Is Spinal Tap). Interesting high energy song! (9/10)

6. "The Aftermath" (4:14) is straight out of early PETER HAMMILL. Again, your singing parts are much more beautiful, polished than Peter's (or Matthew Parmenter's), but the simplicity of your supporting musical paly is, in my opinion, a true strength of these songs. Love the acoustic guitar fadeout at 2:27 which turns into a crackling 'old fashioned record' album recording of an old mellotron(?) then ending with the return of the acoustic guitar. Cool song! (9/10)

7. "The Fall of Bliss--Intro" (1:41) must be an ANTHONY PHILLIPS piece! It's gorgeous guitar play! (4.5/5)

8. "The Fall of Bliss--Part 1" (8:22) starts like a STEVE HACKETT piece, then goes TOBY DRIVER wild on us! Awesome! The GEORGE BENSON-like acoustic guitar soloing is cool! While not going quite as deeply jarring or abrasive as Toby Driver, the song does, in fact, remain quite similar to a Bath/Leaving Your Body Map-era MAUDLIN OF THE WELL song (with Pete Parmenter/Matt Hammill singing in parts). Love the organ and whispering voices section. Kind of creepy like Harry Potter or something. (CHRIS SQUIRE singing?!) Very cool section with the carnival-weird organ solo. Awesome bass playing! (19/20)

9. "The Fall of Bliss--Interlude" (4:22) is an awesome instrumental reminding me of DARGAARD, DARK SANCTUARY, NOX ARCANA and many, many great Goth rockers. (9/10)

10. "The Fall of Bliss--Part II" (6:32) is a heavy rocker with some absolutely astounding shifts, effects, and guitar playing. The "we're the whole/join hands/minds/hearts" vocal section is awesome--especially knowing what Greece, the EU, and the Occupy Now and Arab Spring movements have all been doing, but that extended guitar solo that fills the whole second half of the song is simply breathtaking. Like ROBERT FRIPP in his prime, only, filled with a raw, open emotion. 3:40 and on! What an amazing end to an astounding--yes, breathtaking listening experience. This one tops even TOBY DRIVER! (9/10)

It's difficult for me to imagine anyone not being blown away by this album. What a talent! What a gifted artist! Thank you Nikitas Kissonas for sharing your amazing album with me.

I love this excellent album. It reminds me so much of Discipline's To Shatter All Accord--only, in my opinion, better! (I rated TSAA four stars.) The Fall of Bliss earns 4.5 from this reviewer-- rounded UP because of freshness, innovation, creativity, great production, and amazing variety (no two songs sound the same and yet all sound and feel like METHEXIS!)!!

92.50 on the Fish scales = A-/five stars; a minor masterpiece of progressive rock music. Listen to this one, prog lovers! You won't be sorry!

5. THE TEA CLUB Quickly, Quickly, Quickly

     Some of you may know this already about me: I love music that uses space and subtlety; I love the power that is conveyed through pause, sustain, minimal input. That is why I've been so attracted to groups like PG-era GENESIS, ANT PHILLIPS, DAVID SYLVIAN, BARK PSYCHOSIS, BJÖRK, KARDA ESTRA, AISLES, MAD CRAYON, NOSOSUND, BIG BIG TRAIN, BROTHER APE, FREQUENCY DRIFT and some of STEVEN WILSON's work, to name a few. Well, let me tell you, people: There is another kid on the block--an American group--that is knocking on the door, making a claim to be included in this group, and that band is THE TEA CLUB.

     I only picked up on THE TEA CLUB in 2010 with Rabbit--which I loved and remains a regular on my playing rotations to this day. Now we have a 43-minute release of four songs under the title Quickly, Quickly, Quickly. (Check out the amazing album cover: It's like Japanese animator extraordinaire Hayao Miyazaki painted Carl Jung's favorite book, The Tibetan Book of the Dead!) This masterpiece of diverse prog music draws from many, many that have gone before yet is synthesized into a sound all their own. One area that this mature group has especially mastered is the ability to convey their message with their music--by this I mean, the moods that their instrumental compositions set forth seem to always fit perfectly with the lyrical message they are trying to convey. This is a rare and special talent.

1. "Firebears" (17:52) has an awesomely dynamic and original intro with great drumming and bass supporting cool guitar and keyboard interplay to introduce the song's main themes. At the two minute mark begins the vocal section of the song. The first vocal section has a very XTC Skylarking-era feel and sound to it--especially the harmonies, pacing, and guitars. A STYLE COUNCIL-like organ play helps bridge to the "If you can't sleep at night?" speaking part. The next vocal section has quite the WHO/TOBY DRIVER/STYX combination feel to it. (You have to hear it to understand what I mean.) At 6:40 everything quiets down for an absolutely gorgeous, dreamy, four minute NEKTAR/MARC ALMOND/ MAUDLIN OF THE WELL-like section. The vocal dexterities on this song are amazing! GEORGE WINSTON-like piano play brings us out of this delicate section, helped by guitar, a great bass line, and sensitive drum play. At 13:35 a strumming electric guitar starts the emergence into a reprise of the first XTC-like section--this time with some awesomely powerful, emotional vocals, keyboards and beautiful chord and key changes. The wordlessly intoned vocal passages are especially catchy and emotive. Great work on the batterie throughout! An incredible journey--a wonderful song that reminds me of the epics on one of my all- time favorite albums, BIG BIG TRAIN's The Difference Machine except with all the idiosyn- chronous things belonging exclusively to The Tea Club. A prog epic for the ages! (39/40)

2. "The Eternal German Infant" (8:11) begins with a great OCEANSIZE-like intro--great drum sounds (I love how TEA CLUB record their drums--especially their cymbols). The ensuing vocals are more like what I'm used to hearing from THE TEA CLUB. Raw bass--very early prog sounding. 2:00 slow down with vocal "meows" and ROBERT FRIPP guitar (which then turns to STEVE HOWE) sounding. At 2:40, as vocal continues to recite his alphabet associations, the music starts with quiet background then builds, first with glockenspiel-like instrument, then the full band rejoins, gradually adding layer upon layer of background voocals (hi and lo). At the 3:50 mark, (after a cool single fast piano arpeggio) the song starts into a more OCEANSIZE-like bass, guitar and drum pounding, building. Then, at 4:40 a solo synth "flute" sound carries the song forward into a delicate GENESIS Trespass-like pastoral section. Again, it builds with layer upon layer and increasingly complex, frenetic drumming, keyboard support and vocal arrangements. Guitar & keyboard soli start at 7:30, leading into frenzied kind of classical (Beethoven?) chord progression to close. Great song. (12.375/15)

3. "Mister Freeze" (6:49) opens with a bare electric bass followed by a plaintive wail from a sustained electric guitar--not unlike that from THE MARS VOLTA's "Televators". The vocal that follows sounds to me almost like a sedated IAN ANDERSON or CAT STEVENS--or even PHIL COLLINS on "Ripples." I love the spaciousness of the instrumentation throughout these first three minutes. Love the 'surprise' chord change at 1:30. Bass, Acoustic & electric guitars and synths, and now b vox. At 2:55 enters kind of KING CRIMSON/TONY LEVIN rhythm. At 3:38 a spooky synth ushers in a very intimate, softened, pastoral acoustic section similar to very early GENESIS/ANT PHILLIPS. The volume-controlled electric guitar in background is wonderful. Beginning at the 4:46 mark is a delicate "scat" vocal similar to PETER GABRIEL's in "Mother of Violence"--and organ joins in! At 5:24 arrives an awesome multi-layered vocal harmony "your labor that filled my mind, body, soul" section. Cool organ! Nice bass, too. This section plays out to the end. Awesome song with a very Trespass/HARMONIUM sound, yet with a mature sensitivity and feel to it. Tons of subtleties making this one of those songs that you hear differently each and every time you hear it. (14.25/15)

4. "I Shall Consume Everything" (9:26) begins with a couple of strangely odd guitar chords being played rapid arpeggio. The harmonized vocals at 1:10 sound like FLEET FOXES. Then, at 1:30, there is a lull of guitar arpeggios and tremolos. Just before the two minute mark we are teased with a very brief dynamic shift before everything calms down again and harp(?) arpeggios carry us forward. At 3:00 the song climbs fully into realm of electric "rock". The lead vocal surprises me by staying in a low register. It's very effective! The vocal builds in emotional intensity until a scream opens up into a brief guitar solo. This is soon followed by a very powerful "More, give me, more, give me" vocal/music section. I love the crazy- lunatic-sounding "circus carousel" instrument sounding in background, as well as the haunting repetitive bass and electric guitar lines. The feel gets creepier and weirder crossing the six minute mark before electric guitar chords and drums usher in the powerful "only some will live forever" vocal section. The last two minutes of the song repeat this dirge with increasing strength and dynamic effects. Nice FRIPP-like solo beginning from the eight minute mark. The last thirty seconds sound as if the human machine is fading, failing, losing strength. This one I get without having to try very hard. I find it amazing how the group's vocals, bass, guitar parts, frenetic drumming and keys parts all convey so masterfully the tense lunatic-crazy feeling of our culture as we frenetically, freakishly follow our addictions like slaves. It's as if the eery, ludicrousness of our rampant rush to self-destruction is constantly conveyed by at least one instrument throughout--guitar, bass, 'circus carousel' keyboard sound, drumming, and, of course, the diverse vocals, solo and harmonized. What a sad world we've created--and how brilliantly THE TEA CLUB have captured it in their art. (17.5/20)

Mega kudos, Dan and gang. Mega Kudos, Tea Club! With Quickly, Quickly, Quickly you have not only proven yourself, you have risen to the top of the heap.

"More, give me more, give me more, give me more"!

92.36 on the Fish scales = A/five stars; a masterpiece.


A prog album with a sound and style very familiar to 1970s Rock Progressivo Italiano--especially to that of LE ORME--it also has quite a Canterbury feel to it--like KHAN, STEVE HILLAGE or CAMEL. Despite the pleasant, easy timbre and style of the vocalist, it is the instrumental sections of all the songs that really stand out. The keyboard play is outstanding and the wonderful electric guitar sound and style is kind of a cross between that of ROYE ALBRIGHTON and STEVE HILLAGE. And the melodies are the kind that haunt you and stay with you for days, pulling you back again and again to listen to see if it was real or if you were just imagining it.

The opening nine-minute 'epic,' "Formas-Pensamento" (8:54) (19/20) is repeated in a longer English version as the album's last track, "New from Heaven" [9:26] ([18/20]). It has a very familiar, laid-back vocal (uncanny likeness to that of LE ORME's Aldo Tagliapietra), and is a fairly simple song and instrumental construct with a relatively slow pace to it. Where it differs and excels is in the individual instrumental sounds and performances: synthesizer, guitar, and organ soli are all OUTSTANDING. 

Other song favorites include: the refined, bluesy STEVE HILLAGE, CAMEL, and even SANTANA-like "Ondas leves" (7:38) (Sample link is from a live performance.) (14/15); the amazing Latin-riffed SANTANA-like "Solsticio" (6:30) (Sample link is also from a live performance. Sorry for the poor quality.) (10/10); "Montanhas da mente" (5:14) (nice keyboard work all around; love the jazzy CAMEL/NEKTAR-like instrumental sections) (10/10); the upbeat, fast-paced CAMEL and PINK FAIRIES-like "Claro escuro" (5:06) (8/10); the simple and very poppy, "Algum lugar" (4:14) (9/10); and the LE ORME throwback, "Anos-luz" (4:47) (9/10).

I gotta admit: There's no one out there doing music like this. It grooves, it's smooth, it's emotional, it's evocative, it's instrumental solos are so different than the rest of current prog. Here melody and feeling reign supreme. This is the modern equivalent to KHAN's classic (and my all-time favorite Canterbury classic) Space Shanty. The drumming, keyboard work, and guitar playing are all so mature and proficient--perfectly timed, packed with incredible emotion, and skilled as true virtuosos: they make it sound so easy. Espectro is also an album that keeps growing on me--inviting me back again and again instead of getting old and stale. Highly, highly recommended, folks! Especially if you like mostly steady-paced, highly melodic music with a lot of excellent, excellent soloing.

92.22 on the Fish scales = A-/five stars; a minor masterpiece of progressive rock music. This album deserves to be heard. A lot! 


~ is a refreshing stream of beautiful crossover/chamber rock/folk rock songs often interlinked by interludes/etudes called "~[intermissions]" (there are six not intcluding the two long breaks of silence amid the final 11m42sec 'song' "i.b.too" [8/10]). The often-piano-based songs showcase the wonderful, smooth, controlled, breathy voice of Marjana Syomkina--often on multiple tracks. The music most often reminds me of TORI AMOS when it is stripped down to just piano and voice (e.g. on "circles") and IONA when a full chamber rock band is accompanying Marjana (e.g. on "burn"). The voice most often sounds like IONA's JOANNA HOGG, though it does take on the classic TORI AMOS and even, sometimes, JANE SIBERRY/KATE BUSH-like stylings (e.g. on "weather changing," "~[intermission III]," and "would this be"). The full band interplay is exquisite--especially since there is invariably a stringed instrument or two or three in the mix--right up my alley for perfect prog (though I love woodwinds and accordians, too)! And keyboard payer Gleb Kolyadin's touch on the piano/keyboards reminds me tremendously of RENAISSANCE's master ivory tickler, JOHN TOUT.

Favorite songs: 1. "~[intermission I]" (2:48) (9/10); "inside" (4:16) (9/10); 3. "burn" (4:40) (10/10); 4. "circles" (3:19) (8/10); 5. "~[intermission II]" (0:52) (9/10); 6. "weather changing" (3:05) (9/10); 7. "~[intermission]" (0:49) (10/10); 8. "scotland" (3:53) (8/10); 9. "touching II" (4:04) (10/10); 11. "monsters" (3:59) (9/10); 12. "serenade" (2:28) (10/10); 13. "~ [intermission V]" (0:55) (9/10); 14. "would this be" (4:21) (10/10); 15. "~[intermission VI]" (1:46) (9/10), and; the musical parts of 16. "i.b.too" (8/10) especially the sublime final three minutes.

For lovers of clean, clear, crisp, dynamic folk/chamber music in the tradition of IONA, TORI AMOS, KATE BUSH, JANE SIBERRY, RENAISSANCE or ANNEKE VAN GIERSBERGEN.

91.875 on the Fish scales = A-/five stars; a minor masterpiece of progressive rock music. Amazingly consistent high quality in composition, performance and production. The only "flaw," IMHO--and this should fuel them for the future--is that the band might have stretched themselves even further. I hope they will be around for a long time for I, for one, will be an avid follower.

8. BATTLESTATIONS In a Cold Embrace

Thus far I have found 2012 to be a less-than-stellar year for new music. With In a Cold Embrace, BATTLESTATIONS has synthesized a true masterpiece of progressive rock music, only the third of the year, according to my reckoning (Anglagarde and Kotebel being the other two).
     Very cinematic, a bit trip-hoppy à la MASSIVE ATTACK, with a little COCTEAU TWINS shoegaziness thrown in, and then, of course, follow Post Rock/Math Rock formats, and you have the formula for the majority of In a Cold Embrace. I think what I like most about this music is that if I were still creating music, this is exactly the kind of music I would want to be creating.

1. "Prologue: Nature Morte/You're Not Welcome Here" (13:17) is my favorite song on the album. This song sounds as if it could have been taken straight off of an old LOBOTOMY BROTHERS CD, probably their first one, Live! But Just Barely or their second, the out-takes EP, Partial Lobotomy. "Prologue" begins like a wonderful Spaghetti-Western soundtrack. At the 4:25 mark the song shifts with the introduction of a repeating sequence of two 'orchestra hit' chords from the synthesizer around which the other instruments (rolling Cocteau Twins- like bass, treated acoustic and electric guitars, programmed drums, and percussives) dance. At 7:15 things change again. A baribou-sounding instrument sets the pace of the new equally slow rhythm and is accompanied by fast-oscillating flanged guitar strums, voice samples, slow-picked guitar melody, and, later, drums (they sound live but could also be programmed) and background synth sounds. This is cinematic, meditative, background music heaven. (29/30)

2. "Comrade/The Way We Grieve" (9:59) could be another very effective cinematic theme song. Military march drumming lays the groundwork over which guitars and synths are added, layered, throbbing, buzzing, and zinging their melodies. At 5:10 every thing slows down, fades away to allow the establishment of a new lineup of instruments playing in a new key, watched by a whale-sounding guitar, before a melody-supporting chord sequence is formed, over which a delayed guitar plays a very beautiful, very emotional melody. Synths and additional guitars join in after the eight minute mark to fade. Stunningly gorgeous. (20/20)

3. "Interlude: Time Stands Still"(2:37), at two-and-a-half minutes in length is the album's shortest piece, but it is a beautiful one, with heavily effected guitar crooning out another slow but emotional melody. Once again, it sounds like it came right off the 1988 Partial Lobotomy CD. (4.5/5)

4. "Breaking Bad News/The Faces We Remember" (6:55) is a very spacey, airy song sounding almost like an ambient Fripp/Eno or Eno/Budd experiment with the interplay of various effects and delays--until the 3:40 mark when a synth wash chord progression and electronic drum track enter and establish some drama. At 5:15 a full drum and bass rhythm section join in sounding very much like a COCTEAU TWINS instrumental. Awesome. Ends with the same sparse ambient themes and instruments of the beginning. (13.5/15)

5. "The Semblance of Fate/Citizen Creep/The End" (11:48) begins with some piano (treated à la HAROLD BUDD et al.) in yet another cinematic theme. At 2:30 piano stops leaving some atmospheric synths to float around in the background while what sounds like the treated (reversed?) voice of a female London Underground PA speaker voice makes some (to me) unintelligible announcements. Once she stops, a new theme with new instruments is developed, coming to full force with a fast-paced drum program (I think) livening things up quite a bit. At the seven minute mark, the music stops leaving a repeating piano arpeggio to bridge into the next section which does, in fact, sound like the band--or film--is trying to say good-bye (except this is the second section, "Citizen Creep"). Beautiful, like a French romance. The final two and a half minutes are very much like each instrument is going to sleep--or trying to put you to sleep. (20/25)

Each of the past five years has revealed a stunningly beautiful album from the Post Rock/Math Rock sub-genre which gives me faith that the sub-genre has not been 'played out' that, in fact, fresh ideas and creative variations are being made to keep the Post Rock/Math Rock sub-genre alive and moving forward. In 2008 Hamburg's DATURAH gave us Reverie, in 2009 came APPLESEED CAST's Sagarmantha, in 2010 we had not one but three brilliant Post Rock/Math Rock releases: COLLAPSE UNDER THE EMPIRE's The Sirens Sound, MY EDUCATION's soundtrack tribute to F.W. Murnau's 1927 silent movie, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, and GIFTS FROM ENOLA's Gifts from Enola, and last year, 2011, we had Australia's SLEEPMAKESWAVES' ...and so we destroyed everything. I am so thankful for these beautiful albums--and for the Post Rock/Math Rock sub-genre.

91.58 on the Fish scales = A/five stars; a masterpiece of progressive rock music.

9. L'ESTATE DI SAN MARTINO Talsete di Marsantino

As I listened to this disc the first time I couldn't help be feeling repeatedly astounded at the freshness of the music I was listening to. I am also a witness to the extraordinary contributions to the whole by prog legends Steve Hackett, Francesco di Giacomo, and Bernardo Lanzetti. This music could be called neo-prog, but really it's neo-RPI, but with all new ideas--new melodies, new combinations, new emotions, new, 21st Century energy. As other reviewers have pointed out, I, too, am reminded at times of GENESIS, ANT PHILLIPS, ROBIN GUTHRIE/COCTEAU TWINS, and even Norway's AIRBAG (because of the tremendous keyboard support work) and Poland's COLLAGE. But, for the most part, this is all Italiano--or, rather, in this case, L'Estate di San Martino. Congratulations.
     This one goes down in the history books as a modern classic, a masterpiece for the ages! Thank you for achieving something so rare in this modern era of very good (and very alive) progressive rock music: creating a modern masterpiece that fills the listener with blissful nostalgia for the prog classics of the 70s. Something so many groups (especially in The Netherlands [Trion, Flamborough Head, Knight Area, etc., etc.]) seem so desperate to do. In my humble opinion, none have done it better than this one.

Favorite songs: I LOVE THEM ALL (except #13, the radio/television talk vehicle bonus track, "Res Gestae" Wish I could find a translation for this obviously important radio play)!!! Try these samples: "Hallucigenia" (5:37) (10/10); "S.E.N.O." (7:23) (10/10); "Long Now Clock" (5:03) (9/10); "Il cielo per San Lorenzo" (4:40) (9/10); "Otto" (2:24) (9/10)

So why isn't this album rated or ranked higher on my year-end list? I think it's because the songs sometimes lack the complex structures and varying time signatures that I look for in progressive rock--that I value in seeing prog "progress." Or else it's because unlike Violeta di Outono, I don't leave a listening session with any of the album's songs or melodies haunting me or replaying inside my head. 

90.83 on the Fish scales = A-/five stars; a minor masterpiece of progressive rock music.

10. MOULETTES The Bear's Revenge

The sophomore release from this band of folk masters/virtuosi. 

Line-up / Musicians:
- Hannah Miller / cello, guitar, banjo, dulcimer, glockenspiel, percussion, vocals
- Ruth Skipper / bassoon, autoharp, kazoo, vocals
- Georgina Leach / violin, viola, whistling, vocals
- Jim Mortimore / bass, mandolin, guitar, banjo
- Oliver Austin / drums, guitar, banjo, bass, percussion, vocals
- Rob Arcari / pandeiro, washboard, bass drum, vocals
- Faye Houston / vocals
- Laura Hockenhull / vocals 
- Ted Dwane / double bass, vocals
- Matt Menefee / banjo (2,12)
- Ben Startup / double bass & sounds (4,11)
- Ríoghnach Connolly / flute & vocals (4,10,12)
- Ellis Davies / guitar (5)
- Esther Miller / nyckelharpa (11)
- Fred Kinbom / lap steel guitar (12)
- Liz Green / vocals (12)
- The Queens Park Rogues / ? (12)

1. "Sing Unto Me" (4:53) immediately noticeable is the expanded lineup--as well as the far more prominent and continuous presence of multiple male voices within the vocal weave. (8.75/10) 

2. "Country Joy" (3:33) a guitar-based song with delicate and precise female vocals for the verses, bull band chorale representation in the choruses. Great performances from the guitar, mandolin, banjo and female vocalists. (9/10)

3. "Uca's Dance" (4:21) amazing violin performance on an amazing song (string quartet with drums and many voices). (10/10)

4. "Some Who You Love" (7:25) tick-tock of a grandfather clock is soon joined by plucked muted cello and violin and then lead and background harmonized vocals. Gorgeous sound. Once again I am reminded of MEDIÆVAL BÆBES--especially their 2012-13 incarnation. An absolutely beautifully paced, constructed, and engineered song. Another stellar display of violin play. Can Prog Folk get any better than this? (14.5/15) 

5. "Revenge Of The Bear" (1:58) strings, bassoon and flutes building up to a frenzy before settling into a little "classical"-like control. (4.5/5) 

6. "Songbird" (4:11) guitar and female alto vocal opens in a very old-fashioned 1970s-like folk fashion. Background female vocals join in at 0:40 for the chorus, violin in the second. A Vaughan-Williams-like lark-like violin soars in instrumental passage before third verse. What a beautiful vocal weave. Pure folk perfection. (9.25/10)

7. "Muse Has Wings" (3:42) banjo and Hannah in the lead with smooth, more traditional choral background vocals. Other instruments (like violin, hand percussions, clapping) join in at various points during the song. The vocal weave does begin to unfold so that the final third sounds very much like an old-time ANDREWS SISTERS performance. (9/10) 

8. "Unlock The Doors" (4:56) much more aggressive, proggy soundscape and emotion open this song through the instrumental first minute. Voices and clapping enter, totally arranged like an Andrews Sisters style. Male voices join in during the chorus. Violin and bassoon stand out during the instrumental bridges. Great musicianship and composition; not my favorite melody or form. (8.75/10)

9. "Half-Remembered Song" (4:54) a bluesy 1940s Haarlem feel to this one. I'd almost expect Billie Holliday to be standing at the microphone in a smoke-filled jazz hall singing this one. I absolutely love the sudden switch in the back ground weave at 3:50--tossing an almost-Russian element into the song. (8.75/10) 

10. "Grumpelstiltskin's Jig" (3:31) cello warms up before launching the band into a traditional sounding contra dance. Violin and flutes trade the lead through the first half, but then it gets dark and dreary in the middle "intermission." Again I feel as if I'm being immersed into some very dark Eastern European musical traditions. Luckily, it returns to the upbeat jig for the final minute. (8.5/10)

11. "Circle Song" (5:05) sounding much more like a Moulettes song--like the shantie styles of their first album: the presentation and arrangements are just more theatric than the more "traditional" forms, the lyrics more intellectual and multi-dimensional. (9/10)

12. "Blood And Thunder" (8:01) opening with some mood-setting effects and sounds, the musical palette is almost bluegrass before the vocals enter. Effects used on the vocals reveal an attempt to tell a kind of detective mystery. Again, this is The Moulettes at their finest. Banjo and squealing violin are quite prominent trhougout as the vocals and effects give this quite a familiar MEDIÆVAL BÆBES feel. (13.5/15) 

Total time 56:30

The sound engineering on this album is so phenomenal that it just feels like such a treat to be allowed to be present among these musicians (for that is truly the feeling of the headphones experience). While many of the songs represented here are absolutely stunning creations, I feel that the album is a bit too scattered in its sounds and styles. On their debut, The Moulettes established a kind of forma and style that now feels like their truest style, the sound that is their destiny, but here the band tries to "branch out" into other, often simpler styles--which, to my mind, is almost demeaning to the potentialities of this creative crew. I like it much better when The Moulettes are The Moulettes for there is now one else out there like them, no music so fascinating and impressive. While mega kudos are again in order for Hannah and the gang's creative arrangements and precision performances, I'd like to add a special shout out to violinist/violist Georgina Leach for her meteoric rise in confidence and virtuosity.  

90.80 on the Fishscales = A-/five stars; a masterpiece of Prog Folk music and a highly recommended addition to any prog lover's music collection. This band may be the finest Prog Folk band I've ever heard. 

11. SYLVAN Sceneries

The amazing things a piano and voice can accomplish--especially when assisted by the orchestra-like contributions of an electrified band like Sylvan has. (Musing rhapsodically:  I wonder what this album would sound like stripped down to ONLY piano and voice?!)

Line-up / Musicians:
- Marco Glühmann / vocals
- Jan Petersen / guitars
- Volker Söhl / keyboards
- Sebastian Harnack / bass
- Matthias Harder / drums
- Isgaard / backing vocals (4)

1. "Chapter 1: 'The Fountain of Glow'" (14:50) opening with piano and voice, the first movement of the song explores the delicate, almost symphonic side of Sylvan. Awesome guitar solo in the third and fourth minutes! Weird stylistic shift at 4:00. (Get used to it!) A song that really puts on FULL display the versatility and skills of the band members (and that voice!) Another stunning guitar solo in the ninth minute leads to another shift, this one much more smooth and engaging. Probably the best song on the album despite containing the weakest crescendo movement near the end. (28/30)

2. "Chapter 2: 'Share the World with Me'" (15:05) every minute is filled with something new and exciting that you don't want to miss--and all leading to an amazing finish. (27.25/30)

3. "Chapter 3: 'The Words You Hide'" (20:10) The heavy side of Sylvan! Glorious! Odd shift at 6:50 into upbeat acoustic guitar passage. I'm happy when they get back to brooding at 10:42 and 12:53. GORGEOUS and emotional final section (final three minutes). Had they left out that weird section from 6:50 to 10:42 this would be one of my all-time favorite Sylvan songs. (37/40)

4. "Chapter 4: 'The Waters I Traveled'" (20:00) A perfect display of Sylvan, flawless Sylvan, in all of its flowing, connected Heavy and Symphonic Prog glory. Great song start to finish (especially the first 15 minutes). (36/40)

5. "Chapter 5: 'Farewell to Old Friends'" (20:33) appropriate to open a storytelling with an acoustic guitar strumming away. It goes dark and ominous by the second minute--but then another odd mood/stylistic shift at 5:30--and another at 7:00. So many (too many) styles for my little brain! The second half of the song is much more to my liking as it gets heavy and emotional and stays so for a long time--till its end. Weird, disjointed first half, GREAT second half. (35/40)

Total Time 90:38

90.69 on the Fishscales = A-/five stars; a minor masterpiece of progressive rock and a superb contribution to the Neo Prog lexicon.

Good power ballads with great performances on this double CD release. A little too up and down, and heavy when up, for me. Blessed with amazing sound production, great lyrics with music matching the emotions being expressed, and Progressive Rock music's premier male vocalist, and you have one heck of a gift of music to immerse yourself into. My suggestion:  Put on the 'phones, kick back in your most comfy Lazy-Boy, and let go of a couple hours. You won't regret it.

12. NINE STONES CLOSE One Eye on the Sunrise

Nine Stones Close vocalist Marc Atkinson has a voice and style that, IMO, nearly duplicates the great voice of one of rock’n’roll’s all-time greatest vocalists, rocker JON BON JOVI. That alone give this album some amazing weight. Now put that controlled, emotional voice together with some gorgeous, never-overdone neo prog music and you have the makings of a truly addictive listening experience. Lush beauty reigns supreme throughout this album and yet it retains—no, revels, in—its rock’n’roll roots and a neo-proggish sound palette.

1.  Faceless Angel” (2:55) is a pretty space-age instrumental that uses multiple keyboards in three or four layers to set up the ‘surprise’ entrance of a wailing lead guitar as the song kicks into third gear at the 1:25 mark. Very emotional gtr play over the perfect setting of beautiful keyboards. (10/10)

2. "A Secret” (5:33) is a simple yet gorgeous vocal ballad in which keys and strummed and picked acoustic guitars wailing electric guitar solo perform all of the accompanist duties until almost the three minute mark. Has a bit of a “My Guitar Gently Weeps” feel and sound to the music and guitar play. Not a complicated song but very hypnotic and well performed. (9/10)

3. “Janus” (5:46) is an instrumental that begins with modern keyboard play a la CHROMA KEY before keys fade to background synth washes while multiple lead guitar tracks wail away at the same single, awesomely bent note, repeated over and over over the revolving chord progression beneath. AT 2:30 this all stop and a piano practices shifting arpeggio chords for while before the rest of the band, bass, drums, synths, and strummed acoustic and soloing electric guitars play along. Even the acoustic guitar gets a little soloing in “Spanish style” in the last couple of minutes. Again, not a very complicated song, but gorgeously composed and executed.  (9/10)

4. “…And Dream of Sheep” (1:52) begins with some acoustic guitar play—two guitar tracks playing with and off of one another—almost sounding like a WINDHAM HILL piece. Piano joins the two guitars at 0:54, then background synth strings. (4.5/5)

5. “One Eye on the Sunrise (12:06) begins with acoustic guitars and what sounds like a cello. Not far different in mood or feel from the previous song except that the vocalist soon enters with a cool, controlled performance—that is until 2:55 when all hell breaks out with a very BON JOVI “Wanted Dead Or Alive”-like explosion.  For a minute we are lulled back into the intro themes—but his time by electrified instruments, not acoustic. Then, at 4:50 the full powered rock versioin of this song takes over. The vocal and guitars’ strummed chord progressions are, admittedly, not very engaging at this point—too clichéd and stale sounding. Then at 6:30 everything stops. Electric guitars begin picking arpeggios again, treated cello floats in and around, Atkinson sings “Hey-ah” over and over. It’s pretty. It might go on a bit too long. Finally, at 9:18 a new section begins, with Atkinson’s dramatic vocal. He’s so good! The emotions on display here are masterful! I just wish that the music was better. Incredible JOHN BONHAM-like drumming here—at 10:55 it kicks into a new (and totally unexpected) world of LED ZEPELLIN-like heights. Brillliant finale! (20/25)

6.  Eos” (2:39) has a very PINK FLOYD feel to it, start to finish. Starts like “Hey, You” until the amazing voice of Marc Atkinson graces the aural waves—on two levels! Guitar strums and guitar leads all feel so Gilmour-esque! This is most obviously a PINK FLOYD tribute song all the way—and probably the best I’ve ever heard, if I do say so myself. (9/10)

7. “The Weight” (9:51) has almost an 80s classic rock sound and feel to it—like one of those gorgeous emotional ballads by WHITESNAKE, BON JOVI, POISON, DEF LEPPARD, or even a 70s classic from JOURNEY. The song does suffer a tiny bit from several unusually long pauses—almost gaps—which make one wonder how many small parts might have been spliced together to make this ten minute beauty. (18/20)

8. “The Distance” (4:54) is another masterful vocal performance drawing from the same softer, ballad side of the classic rock masters of the 1980s. Not as proggy but a beauty anyway. (8/10)

9. “Frozen Moment” (13:34) starts like a great DEF LEPPARD song before the more modern drum (kick) style diverges. The electric guitar strum sound, however, is very old—PAYOLAS or even PSYCHEDELIC FURS old. The first minutes of the song feel so 80s, even the background mix of the lead vocal is different from the previous songs. The coda at the four minute mark gives segue into another 80s-ish section—this one sounding even more like a cross between PAYOLAS “You’ve Got the Eyes of a Stranger” and Def LEPPARD’s “Hysteria.” The kick back into heavier gear in the seventh minute is more modern—with great sustained lead guitar and strummed acoustic guitars. I wonder if the “Frozen Moment” theme is being mimicked by the instrument sound choices.
     At 8:44 a heavier section with echoed background vocals kicks in to prep us for an awesome section with very cool lead guitar and drum interplay—very fresh and adrenaline pumping. Organ tries to get involved, and background mellotron, but all ears are still on the electric guitar and drums. Simply awesome! Three minutes into it and Adrian Jones is trying to go FRIPP-crazy! Same section plays out to the end! (30/30)

10. “Sunset” (1:28) is a pretty little outro-bookend, piano and violin. (4/5)

I’m really not much of a fan of either classic rock or Neo prog but the incredible levels of compositional and instrumental mastery coupled with one of the best voices I have ever heard make for quite a listening experience—one that I have been drawn back to over and over during the past few weeks. Album of the Year? Perhaps not for composition but for aural pleasure . . . ? Skies the limit for this group. You can be sure that I will be keeping my Eye on the Sunrise.

90.38 on the Fish scales = A-/five stars; a minor masterpiece of progressive rock music.

13. SWANS The Seer

This is one of those very rare albums that comes along once in a great while--maybe every two or three years--that catches me by surprise--that is so unexpected, contains music that is so far beyond my experience or imagination as to absolutely blow me away! This album has also, once and for all, confirmed for me that I have a very serious attraction to/affinity for trance-inducing music. This music drives and thrums and sucks you into its maelstrom of controlled chaos. It induces entrainment--an experience I value perhaps more than any other in this lifetime.
      For those of you who don't know about, or who might have never heard of 'entrainment,' it is a word used to describe the event of the 'synchronization' of a multiplicity of persons (or beings) into a singular rhythm. For a musician or music listener this is a supra- or meta-physical event in which time and space seem to disappear due to the deep connection one is experiencing with the music, the rhythms, the experience of feeling as if one is within/a part of the music. Their is forged an amazing interconnection to all others in--a veritable disappearance of ego and I-ness, which is replaced with an unhuman feeling of being so connected to the music, to the (other) musicians, that one could swear that the 'perfect' and 'magical' music is being  channeled through the collective--as if it is effortlessly coming through oneself as if seeking to take its place among and with the notes, rhythms and sounds of the others. It is understood that on a very deep, unconscious level humans are drawn to the lake- and sea-shores because the rhythm of waves rolling up onto the beaches is one with which the human Cranial Rhythmic Impulse (the brain's rhythmic pumping action of cerebral spinal fluid) entrains--creating a very steady, healthy, and healing physiological event within the human host. Entrainment is when feelings of connectivity and unity supercede all illusions of separation and disconnection.

The music of The Seer is music to entrain to.

Five star songs: "Mother of The World" (9:59) (19/20); "The Seer" (32:13) (52/60); "The Avatar" (8:51) (20/20); "A Piece of the Sky" (19:10) (35/40); "The Apostate" (23:00) (45/50); and, "Lunacy (6:10) (9/10).

90.0 on the Fish scales = A-/five stars; a minor masterpiece of progressive rock music. This is one of the best albums I've heard from 2012.

14. MAGMA Felicité Thosz

Beginning like an ANDREW LLOYD-WEBER musical doesn't hurt this piece by Zeuhlmeisters, MAGMA. As 'dark' or heavy as it tries to be, the whole piece comes across more as a Dickensian Christmas play written by STEPHEN SCHWARTZ and/or BURT BACHARACH. Awesome bass play, as usual, very melodic piano and perfect drumming from founder CHRISTIAN VANDER help carry this operetta, but it is the wonderful, delicately woven vocal performances that the listener has a chance to really tune into. The lack of hard driving, mega-pulsing music and power vocals is, as a matter of fact, quite unexpected. Yes, the album is brief (by modern standards), but 37 minutes is right in line with a typical vinyl album (unless you are Todd Rundgren). Though the album is really meant to be played straight through--and I love all of the songs here--I must admit to really enjoying putting "Teha" (5:15) (10/10) on repeat ad infinitum. As a matter of fact, the first five songs all flow together seamlessly, flawlessly, beautifully. The most 'Broadway' of all, however, is "Ohst" (4:53) (10/10) with the bouncy piano and the voice of the Maestro, himself; CHRISTIAN VANDER is brilliant, astounding! I mean, how old is this guy? Playing off of HERVÉ AKNIN, it is quite a song. Even the end is very Broadway-like--like the ending to a song from Fiddler on the Roof or something.
I have to admit that hearing an upbeat, positive sounding album from such masters of melodrama is quite an unexpected experience, but it is an entirely enjoyable one.

90.0 on the Fish scales = A-/five stars. Another masterpiece? I can't see this little beauty as anything less.

15. MOTORPSYCHO The Death Defying Unicorn

The Death Defying Unicorn reminds me somehow of THE WHO’s Quadrophenia but, musically, it reminds me most of MAUDLIN OF THE WELL’s 2001 Bath/Leaving Your Body Map release(s). There is about an equal mix of delicate, often orchestral (jazz and string) parts that use vocals and/or acoustic (orchestral) instruments layered and mixed into/and with long, repetitive, plodding heavy parts. The effort is ambitious and laudable I’m just not sure the outcome and effect are as praiseworthy as my fellow reviewers are extolling.

1. “Out of the Woods” (2:41) starts the album off with an intro filled with a lot of dissonance and tension being carried out among orchestra and large horn section (the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra). (4.5/5)

2. “The Hollow Lands” (7:37) begins quite powerfully with some multi-layered, busy music feeling quite a bit like THE WHO’s Quadrophenia and SYLVAN’s Posthumous Silence. It goes on for what seems like a long time.  Too long. When it quiets down and the singing/story begins there is a nice MOODY BLUES feel to it—melody, vocals and all. The bass, drum and guitar interlude at 3:45 is awesome—turning very psychedelic after the electric guitar starts to solo (and still surprisingly MOODY BLUES-like!). An all-instrument build and crescendo opens up for a return to the singing/melody part. The orchestration almost clutters/muddies it, though. Ends with orchestral segue into the next song. (13.5/15)

3. “Through the Veil” (16:03) begins with some percussives à la BLUE MAN GROUP and Ståle Storløkken’s SUPERSILENT. The percussive groove is quickly augmented and taken over by a very full horn section.  Just before the two minute mark, a powerful heavy rock groove takes over sounding like a cross between CLAPTON and HENDRIX. The vocals enter giving it a very ALICE IN CHAINS sings CROSBY, STILLS, NASH & YOUNG feel to it. The next section, beginning around the 3:40 mark, takes one on a journey as if ARANIS were playing WINGS’ “Live and Let Die.” THE WHO takes over with a kind of Quadrophenia ride from 6:50 to 10:20. Nice work from the horn section. Then a HENDRIX-like guitar riff reintroduces and accompanies the re-entry of the vocal part. At 11:33 the heavy rock parade switches gear, to a kind of STEPPENWOLF/IRON BUTTERFLY jam. But then things quiet down at 12:25, get bluesy until a psychedelic guitar riff, and distorted vocals take over for a bit with “I can never go back, never go back there” BYRDS/CSN&Y section. Awesome bass sound and lines.
     SYD BARRETT would love this music! (Maybe he’s there: playing the guitars!)
     African-like drumming with electronic psychedelia guitar sounds play out till it ends with an organ leading into the next song. (24/30)

4. “Doldrums” (3:07) is kind of a modern orchestral interlude. Quiet. Like doldrums. (7/10)

5. “Into the Gyre” (10:23) (“whirlpool”?) begins with a chamber orchestra intro, wobbling (on purpose) as electronic instruments join in and take over. Very SUPERSILENT-like.
     Layered vocal sections takes over, sounding like it’s telling a BEATLES-esque children’s story. At 4:32 the song finally kicks out of park and into gear—though taking a while to establish exactly what gear that will be. I guess ‘cruise.’ At 6:10 the boys must hit the autobahn cuz it suddenly races into overdrive—on a busy road, at that, cuz the soloing guitar, bass, drums, horns, and keys are all racing—as if against each other:  the cohesion seems a bit lost, more like reckless abandon and chaotic unpredictability. Then it stops. (A crash?) This quiet section again makes me wonder if there isn’t supposed to be a visual element running along with this, so mysterious is this rather eery, almost ambient section. To end. Not my favorite song. (Nor would it be my favorite rollercoaster ride.) (14/20)

6. “Flotsam” (1:33) is almost like a solo cello’s tuning session. What is going on?? Floating debris after the shipwreck? (3/5)

7. “Oh Proteus – A Prayer” (7:35) begins with a gorgeous little string trio. Vocals and synths join at 0:45 in a very TOBY DRIVER way: chromatic singing over dissonant chords. This goes on and on, builds, Toby is joined by his usual thick guitars and bass, plodding on, trying to pretend to invite the listener in with samples of ‘pretty’ melody, while the music is warning you to be cautious—be very cautious! Interesting song. (12/15)

8. “Sculls in Limbo” (2:21) offers another “Silent Sorrows”/”Welcome to the Machine” intro-type moment. Space. Must be floating. Still. (3/5)

9. “La Lethe” (7:53) begins with a kind of jazzy pulsation, again TOBY DRIVER- or even ULVER-like, eventually establishing a more ULVERish Post Rock feel to it, down to the plodding, pulsing pace, wild horns playing in the background, and odd male voices ‘groaning’ around in the fore and background. I guess this is a very good musical representation of Hades’ River Lethe. Glad I don’t live or work there! Does this mean the protagonist is close to death?
     Great MEL COLLINS-like sax solo in the six and seventh minutes. A suspenseful pause ensues at the 6:20 mark before an AFTER CRYING-like orchestral crescendo enters and builds. Violins lead into the next song. (20/20)

10. “Oh Proteus – A Lament (1:05) is a multi-layered vocal in which the protagonist muses about his surroundings/fate.

11. “Sharks” (7:56) is such a murky, mysterious, yet ultimately pretty TOBY DRIVER/ RADIOHEAD/RAVEL’s “Bolero”-like song. It just goes on way too long. (about the same length as “Bolero”! More than a coincidence?) I especially enjoy the entrance of the brief appearance of horns at 3:15. The ensuing lyric is sung almost tongue-in-cheek, comically. Intentional irony? The sharks thrashing in the final two minutes is pretty good. (16/20)

12. “Mutiny!” (8:33) transitions from the tension of shark-infested waters into theme music from a high-octane James Bond rescue mission—or a great song left off of motW’s Part the Second album. Perhaps the only song on the album with a fairly straightforward, familiar melody. Definitely a great prog/classic rock feel. An early-KING CRIMSON-like instrumental section mid-song continues to make this one feel like a keeper for the all-time playlist. (20/20)

13. “Into the Mystic” (7:05) is an amazing song with all kinds of wild voice samples and a feel and sounds that remind me of some of the harder-driving music of THE MOODY BLUES and THE HOLLIES with a hint of RICK WAKEMAN. 
     Although it segues straight out of “Mutiny!” it starts off with an awesome violin solo from Ola Kvernberg. The WHO/MOODY BLUES-like vocal melody and JETHRO TULL acoustic guitar-part from song 2, “The Hollow Lands,” returns in full force, in its awesome glory—and is later rejoined by great violin, synth, and, of course, the ubiquitous heavy bass and drums. (15/15)

The final lyrics leave me a bit befuddled: I didn’t really sense this dude’s struggle with other men—or even much within himself—but more of the random travesties of nature (both Mother and human). Eh?

A masterpiece, IMHO, is something that either offers something new mentally, sonically/aurally, or compositionally—something that could have an impact on other musicians and perhaps on the course of music history (of which, of course, only time can be the judge) OR it is music that offers the listener a package that is so enthralling, so emotionally engaging, that it keeps drawing you back again and again over time.  Though I’ve owned Death Defying Unicorn for a while now I have had trouble A) listening to the entirety in a single sitting and B) feeling drawn in enough to want sit through the whole thing—especially the epics “Through the Veil” and “Into the Gyre.” The songs seem to go on longer than I can stay connected. Even the ‘shorter’ songs, “Hollow Lands” (7:37), “Oh, Proteus—A Prayer” (7:35), “La Lethe” (7:53), and “Sharks” (7:56) seem to drag on longer than they ‘need’ to. (Only “Mutiny!” (8:33) and “Into the Mystic” (7:05) hit on all cylinders, IMO.) Why are they so long? Why are they so tunnel driven bordering on monotonous? What is the purpose and/or value of this story (I mean, does it have valuable lessons or archetypical significance to the universal listener, or is it a myopic tale from someone’s personal dream or altered state of consciousness)? Is this piece of music intended to accompany a visual display (film, slide, art gallery, ballet, or stage play)? Is this really meant to be a theatrical soundtrack? If so, it may, in fact, need to be heard in association with that other medium in order to be fully appreciated.

I have to say, however, that as a purely musical adventure it has trouble standing on its own as a “masterpiece.” It is interesting and has many excellent parts and amazing compositional ideas (blending orchestra, jazz group and rock quintet to tell a 90 minute story), but it is not a piece in which the listener finds himself easily drawn into or compelled to stay within the magical spell of the music—not like Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Brahms’ 2nd or 3rd, YES’s “Close to the Edge”, GENESIS’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway or “Supper’s Ready,” MIKE OLDFIELD’s Incantations, many of the master-jams from the realms of Krautrock, Space/Psychedelia or Electronica or any of the Colossus/Musea Records epics from Odyssey: The Greatest Tale. Only one song stands out as “amazing” in a way that makes me want to push repeat over and over (well, actually two: the last two—which are pretty much one song), and neither the story nor the music is so compelling as to keep me engrossed for the full length of the “play.”

As adventurous as this project is, as admirable is the vision and intent, I do not find it a success at creating a timeless masterpiece of musical entrainment. I like it, I will revisit it, and I will recommend it to the hardcore prog lovers out there. On that note, I rate this with 3.5 stars: it is IMHO, less than “excellent addition to any prog rock music collection” (italics added) but significantly better than “good.” More like a 3.88. It is not essential to every prog listener’s music collection. I would recommend it to any and all prog lovers who are drawn to explore musics that push the envelope—that offer something different and out-of-the ordinary. I truly appreciate the mastery displayed in the attempt to render this ambitious project—and that the artists themselves might feel quite satisfied and successful in their result. I question how well their “success” will translate into sales, referrals and a place in the history books.

Now, weeks later, I find myself haunted by Unicorn--so much so, in fact, that I have returned to it more often than I thought I would. While I still go away feeling that the album's music and story conveyance are 'missing' something, the album's contribution to prog/music progression is higher than I originally esteemed.

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

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