Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Top Albums of the Year 2013: The Masterpieces


My Favorite Albums of 2013
(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 20 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.  

2013 offered some amazingly fresh music from many artists, most of whom were relatively new. What I noticed in 2012, the increase in the number of quality new studio releases in Prog World--is diverging into a phenomenon of new bands appearing on the scene--and a whole new generation of young artists entering the fray. 2013 was a very good year for progressive rock music--one of the best ever! I have on My Favorites List six (6) full masterpieces, ten (10) "minor" masterpieces, and 16 near-masterpieces. This upswell of new prog rockers and wonderful new music is very exciting!


The Rankings
(My "Favorites")

1. HOMUNCULUS RES Limiti all'eguaglianza della Parte con il Tutto
2. FIVE-STOREY ENSEMBLE Not This City
3. THE GABRIEL CONSTRUCT Interior City
4. VOTUM Harvest Moon
5. EDISON'S CHILDREN The Final Breath Before November
6. MIDAS FALL Wilderness
7. MIDLAKE Antiphon 
8. SETNA Guérison
9. TIRILL Um Himinjǫður
10. AIRBAG The Greatest Show on Earth

11. SOLSTICE Prophecy
12. FLICKER How Much Are You Willing to Forget?
13. EMPTY DAYS Empty Days
14. KARNIVOOL Asymmetry
15. STELLARDRONE Light Years
16. LIFESIGNS Lifesigns
17. CORDE OBLIQUE Per le strade ripetute
18. KOSMOS Salattu Maailma
19. NOT A GOOD SIGN Not A Good Sign
20. THIEVES' KITCHEN One for Sorrow, Two for Joy

21. ULVER Messe I.X-VI.X
22. BROTHER APE Force Majeure
23. MIDDAY VEIL The Current
24. THE GATHERING Afterwords
25. INNER EAR BRIGADE Rainbro
26. SCARLET STORIES Scarlet Stories
27. BEYOND-O-MATIC Relations in the Border Between
28. LIZARD Master & M
29. INGRANAGGI DELLA VALLE In hoc signo
30. THE PSYCHEDELIC ENSEMBLE The Tale of The Golden King

Honorable Mentions:
31. UNREAL CITY La crudelta di Aprile 
32. DAYS BETWEEN STATIONS In Extremis
33. VIENNA CIRCLE Silhouette
34. THE WORM OUROBOROS Of Things That Never Were
35. MOTORPSYCHO Still Life with Eggplant
36. STEVEN WILSON The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories)
37. HAKEN The Mountain
38. LA COSCIENZA DI ZENO Sensitivà



The Reviews


5 star Masterpieces
(Ratings of 100 to 93.34)



 ***** Album of the Year for 2013! *****



1. HOMUNCULUS RES Limiti all'eguaglianza della Parte con il Tutto

A band from Italy in the AltrOck Productions stable whose debut album, 2013's Limiti all'equalianza della parte con il tutto, offers wild and humorous musical stylings that definitely evoke that light, airy Canterbury feeling. All songs (but one) are short (less than four minutes) and quirky in the SOFT MACHINE/Matching Mole style. Great keyboard and synthesizer work, drumming, and rhythm section as each and every song incorporates amazing and unexpected whole-band syncopation and tempo and key shifts throughout. The laid-back vocals of composer and Casiotone virtuoso Dario ALESSANDRO are awesomely soothing. The Di Giovanni brothers, Daniele and David on drums and keyboards, respectively, flutist Dario Lo Cicero and not one, not two, but three keyboard players (including AltrOck ubiquity, Paolo "SKE" BOTTA), serve Dario's songs amazingly well. 

Imperfect songs: 5. "Sintagma" (1:09) (8/10); 8. "Rifondazione unghie" (3:18) (9/10); 14. "Centoquarantaduemilaottocentocinquantasette" (2:06) (9/10), and; "Puk 10" (2:25) (9/10).  

Perfect songs:  All of the others! (14 of them!!)

This is the best Canterbury album of the 21st Century and perhaps the best of all-time!!

97.22 on the Fish scales = 5 star album; a masterpiece of progressive rock music.




2. SETNA Guérison

Line-up / Musicians:
- Yannick Duchene / vocals, mixing & mastering
- Florent Gac / organ
- Benoît Bugeïa / Fender Rhodes, piano
- Christophe Blondel / bass
- Nicolas Candé / drums, 12-string guitar, keyboards
With:
- Samuel Philippot / guitar
- Nicolas Wurtz / guitar
- Tony Quedeville / lapsteel guitar
- Nicolas Goulay / keyboards
- Benoit Widemann / Minimoog
- Julien Molko / bass clarinet
- David Fourdrinoy / vibes

1. "Cycle II" (9:52) (19.75/20)
2. "Triptyque" (26:16) (49/50):
- a) Part I (8'27)
- b) Part II (9'45)
- c) Part III (8'04)
3. "Guérison" (14:58) just keeps getting better the further it goes (27.5/30) :
    (a) (4:13) (8.875/10)
    (b) (4:49) (9.33/10)
    (c) (2:30) (4.75/5)
    (d) (3:26) (9.125/10)

Total time 56:55

Imagine the most hypnotic Zeuhl grooves that MAGMA has ever given us, blend it with the accumulated best Canterbury instrumentation that any of Dave Stewart's bands ever gave us, arrange it all with the most positive, uplifting chord progressions and gorgeous male and female vocal melodies imaginable, then use the best technological advantages that 2013 gives us and you get a glimpse into what France's SETNA's second album, Guérison, has to offer. It is beautiful, sublime, hypnotic, and so spiritually uplifting! Each of the five songs is sub-divided, but, in effect, the album has a straight-through flow not unlike many Magma albums.
     Every song and, in fact, each sub-song has idiosyncrasies worthy of high praise and long discussions (as well as repeated listens), but "Cycle II (c)," "Tryptique I (c)," "Tryptique II (a)," and "Tryptique III (b)" and "(c)" stand out particularly strong for me--should you want to listen to a few pieces in order to get a feel for the album, these might be just the ones cuz they display quite a broad spectrum of the sounds, feels and styles offered here.
     The "Guérison" suite (link to YouTube extract) feels separate, a bit more atmospheric, more displaying of rhythms and percussion, and, until the interesting Part "(c)," a slight step down from the previous two suites (four songs, eleven sub-songs). Still, this is one of the best releases I've heard from 2013, one of the best Zeuhl or Canterbury albums I've ever heard, and an album that will likely grow in my esteem as it occupies my turntable for the upcoming months. Click here for access to YouTube video of a live performance of "Tryptique Part I."

97.25 on the Fish scales = 5 Stars; an unquestioned masterpiece of progressive rock music.





3. AIRBAG The Greatest Show on Earth

O, frabjous day! Calloo, callay! They've finally done it, folks! The heirs-apparent to PINK FLOYD have finally fulfilled the enormous promise of their 2009 debut album, Identity; they have pushed past the imitative phase of their 2011 PF-clone/imitation album, All Rights Removed. Now that they have mastered the sounds and stylings of their ancestors, they have moved into new territory, creating fresh, new music. Yes, this is still close to the songs familiar to us all from the original Floyd, but AIRBAG have gotten their courage and confidence built up enough to, in effect, create new Pink Floyd music. That is, if the individuals and collective members of Pink Floyd had been able to retain the creative and explorative fires of their prime years (68-80), this is the five star music they would have been producing. All songs are incredible! All performances, all constructions, all sound and engineering choices are impeccably crafted. Check out these songs on YouTube: "Redemption"; "Call Me Back", and "The Greatest Show on Earth".

1. "Surveillance (Pt. 1)" (2:27) (5/5)

2. "Redemption" (7:00) (14.25/15)

3. "Silence Grows" (5:44) gorgeous little ballad in the vein of their first album and some of Steven Wilson's work. Stunning set up and support for the great lead guitar work in the second half. (10/10)

4. "Call Me Back" (11:14) great pacing, great slow-build to guitar solo as well as within the solo--and it's a long and great solo! (19.5/20)

5. "The Greatest Show on Earth" (6:59) powerful music for the most upbeat, hard-driving, and self-defining song on the album. Again, I hear more similarities to the Steven Wilson/Porcupine Tree sound than to Pink Floyd. (13.5/15)

6. "Surveillance, Pts. 2-3" (16:42) starts somewhat slow and understatedly for the place that it ends. Things really begin to get interesting in the fifth minute with the second chorus and the powerful instrumental section that follows. A prolonged interlude of spacey soundscape then follows before the unleashing of full on PT prog heaviness at the 7:40 mark. (28/30)

95.0 on the fish scales = five stars; a masterpiece of progressive rock music. Again, take the beautiful melodies and masterful instrumental weaves of Identity and the Pink Floyd sounds and forms of All Rights Removed and you get this 2013 release, The Greatest Show on Earth.

Mega kudos, Asle, Bjørn, Henrik, Jørgen, and Anders: You have achieved what I thought possible for you: A masterpiece of progressive rock music! This one is for the ages, boys!





4. EDISON'S CHILDREN The Final Breath Before November

A late release in 2013, it’s taken me this long to get to listen to this album and now that I know it intimately I write my review and prepare to adjust all of my year-end rankings to make room for this masterpiece of prog ear candy. 

1. “Final Breath” (4:04) opens with some ominous incidental noises and sustained notes before an old player piano and synth exchange supporting melody lines. Pulsing synth bass and other instruments slowly gather around until drums declare the song to be in the style of Pink Floyd, not a cinematic soundtrack. (8/10)

2. “Light Years” (7:33) opens with a strumming 12-string not unlike George Harrison’s infamous “My Sweet Lord” before a somewhat cheesy upper register electric guitar melody line joins in—introducing and, later, mirroring the vocal melody line. Drawn out over minutes it becomes a little tedious. The second solo guitar line added at 3:25 is no better. The vocal could very well come from Fish—especially his more rock oriented solo stuff-even his album of the very same year, A Feast of Consequences. Nothing very special here, though the unusual ‘second song’ that begins at the 6:20 mark is a bit more original and a notch more interesting. (10.5/15)

3. “Silhouette” is an epic masterpiece. Thirteen to nineteen song threads woven together into one long story have an atmospheric quality that captivates the listener even through the heavier sections. The opening two sections (“i. Silence Can Be Deafening, Part 1” [6:47] and it’s companion, “ii. Welcome to Your Nightmare” [3:16]) are so hypnotic, so comfortingly, beautifully engaging, as to lay the groundwork for the totality of the 67 minutes. 
     “iii. Where Were You?” (12:01) has such awesome, pleading and floating vocals over Floydian rhythm tracks with Dave Gilmour/Mirek Gil-like lead guitar play. Could anyone sing “It’s in my head” with any more feeling and vulnerable power than Pete Trewavas? Awesome lead guitar play in “iv. The Loging [7:48].
     “v. The Morphlux” [3:12] is interesting for it’s departure from the flow and synth domination of the previous 30-minutes. Oud, acoustic guitar and hand drums lay down the base for the theatrical whispering Genesis-like Gabriel vocal. Once the rock instruments bash their way in the song rollicks along with a relentlessness that is just awesome! All-out vocals and Hackett-like guitar leads carry this song to prog heaven! 
     The sudden and complete switching of gears at the transition into “vi. I Am Haunted” [2:51] is interesting if a bit off-setting. Then, just as suddenly, we enter into a reprise of the opening themes with “vii. What Do You Want?” [2:04] only this one amped up with two channels of prog-heavenly lead guitars, which, then transitions rather (too) quickly into the atmospheric four-part “viii. The Seventh Sign [7:01], a very Pink Floyd Wall-era sounding song, complete with a Gilmour-rivaling solo.
     Suddenly we find ourselves back in the Morphlux theme with the disturbing effect of multiple vocals vying for our attention (“ix. The Second Coming of The Morphlux” [3:08]) before fading/floating us back into the awesomeness of the soundscape of Silence Can Be Deafening (Part 2) [5:13]—though a decidedly more echo-y and atmospheric version. This, however, allows the drum play to stand out much more—and awesome is that drum play as it builds and plays with Pete Trewavas’ excellently layered synthesizer extravaganza and Eric’s beautiful Mirek Gil-like guitar leads. 
     By the time we flow into the exquisite nine-minute instrumental “Music for The End Credits of an Existence” we are wondering how much longer these guys can maintain this high level of inspiration, creativity, and emotional output. Incredible! The final 100 seconds of “The Clock Strikes November” teases us with a little ditty from The Morphlux themes in order to try to bring some closure to this amazing sonic journey. Perfect! 

I cannot imagine someone not enjoying this song! Even my wife keeps chiming in to ask who’s singing, who is this playing, what are they singing so beautifully about? I have even found myself pushing replay while working with this song in the background—and been curious enough to follow the lyrics through an entire listening. Is it a ghost story or a story about a lost part of life, an older identity, a past life, a look back into the past at an older version of one’s self or another? It’s no matter. It’s gorgeous, composed, performed and sung with heartfelt emotion and excellent, excellent engineering and mixing. Kudos, Pete, Eric and helpers. Thank you for keeping beautiful progressive rock alive—ney, giving it a great booster shot of fresh life! I am ever so grateful!!


95.0 on the Fish scales = Five stars. A masterpiece of atmospheric, melodic spacey progressive rock.




5. FIVE-STOREY ENSEMBLE Not That City

Out of the ashes of RATIONAL DIET rises this phoenix of incredible power and beauty--in my humble opinion, an album ten times better than the very well crafted albums of its predecessor. Yes, Five-Storey Ensemble is the spawn of RATIONAL DIET. RATIONAL DIET founding member and reed player, Vitaly Appow, and keyboard/vocalist Olga Podgaiskaja, of the final two RATIONAL DIET albums, At Work and On Phenomenon and Existences, are principle composers here, while violinist, Cyrill Christya, and bass guitarist, Dmitry Maslovsky participate on several songs.
     While I thoroughly enjoyed the Avant/RIO/Modern Chamber musings of RD, I was quick to zoom in on Not That City once it was posted on progstreaming.com. Bam! Was I broadsided! This album blew me away from the opener through to the last song. It’s music is reminiscent of RATIONAL DIET but, like ARANIS, it is much more melodic. Plus, vocals play a much more important role in defining their sound. The vocals here are used more operatically—and really only used in the forefront of four different songs. Whenever the male tenor and female soprano voices perform I find myself reminded of Goreki’s Third Symphony. Even though vocalists Sergey Dolgushev and composer and keyboard player, Olga Podgaiskaja, respectively, employ operatic approaches stylistically, their vocals are often used almost more as additional instruments—which has the tremendous effect of deepening the conveyance of emotions within each song. And each singer makes such a distinct and different contribution to the songs with their voices—often at the same time--that it has the effect of bringing two very different, almost divergent threads into the emotional weave.   

1. The Harbinger” (5:51) opens the album with some long, sustained note playing from accordion player, Alexander But’ko. He is then gradually joined by violinist, Anastasia Popova, and oboist, Natalja Malashova, all weaving their magical notes together, slowly, deliciously. At the 2:20 mark pianist Olga Podgaiskaja, bassoonist Vitaly Appow, and double bass player Vyacheslav Plesko join in, taking the music into more staccato, rapido mode for several measures before fading back to let the original weave evolve. This cycle of piano- and bass-infused tempo upgrade recurs twice more, before the third occasion, in the third minute, ion which a prolonged, sustained dark theme more suited to PRESENT or UNIVERS ZERO is presented and built upon. This continues until 4:15 when an additional thread of color is provided by male vocalist, Sergey Dolgushev. We then see the song devolve into a final weave coming from Sergey’s plaintive voice and Alexander’s emotional accordion.
     Awesome song—though it does get drawn out a bit in places. I’ve heard this song in three different formats now, album version and two different live performances with two very different instrumental lineups (one more expanded, like the album version). (The YouTube link I provided is to a video recording of the song being performed by the band in front of a live audience.) Each has its strengths and charms. (10/10)  

2. “Bondman’s Wings” (2:24) is a short, beautiful and powerful 'folk' instrumental using accordion, bassoon, oboe, and stringed instruments (with some military-like percussion) to tell its tale. Charming! (10/10)

3. “The Incommunication” (5:22) uses alternating female and male vocals as if in conversation. It sounds so romantic yet spiritual, almost religious. Sparse instrumentation of long sustained chords accompany the vocal until the two minute mark when a kind of Renaissance courtly music dances us into another dimension. Incredible constructions of seemingly independent instrumental voices all woven into a spacious yet multi-layered tapestry of exquisite beauty! The voices return for the final two minutes, this time woven within the multi-layered tapestry (a bit too much going on here for these ears). (10/10)

4. “To Ringfly” (3:11) begins as a rondo between accordion, bassoon and percussion and plays out very much in that format with the occasional instrument added here or there. One of my favorite instrumentals, very much in the vein of the best of AFTER CRYING. (10/10)

5. “A Disappearing Road" (4:42) To pulsing bassoon, and drum are soon woven in with accordion and other woodwinds. The first third is very Baroque/Renaissance processional feeling, but then structure shifts at about the two minute mark, taking on a more squared, constant feel, and then again at the 3:20 mark in which cacophonous strings play wildly over a woodwind section that holds long, long notes in strange discordant harmonies. Interesting and unusual. (9/10)

6.     “The Unpainted” (7:57) is a haunting, even disturbing song beginning with simple piano arpeggio, double bass, and intermittent injections of string or woodwind instruments. Just after the one minute mark, the discordant tones of a female vocalist enters in low registers, then slowly climbs, octave by octave, until a minute later she is singing her dirge in her highest soprano register. Piano, strings, and woodwinds work themselves into until at 3:35 drums join in to accentuate the drama. A few seconds later and all has calmed down to 'solo' piano attended very sparsely by injections of winds, strings, percussives and, in the sixth minute, an electric guitar(!)--all painting a picture of the most ominous and despondent tones. The most UNIVERS ZERO-sounding song yet! (12/15)

7.     Yesterday Dormant” (5:40) is a classical sounding discourse between male and female vocalists. Very powerful. I love music like this (no matter that it's being sung in a language I neither know nor understand.) It kind of reminds me of a more classical sophisticated version of Jon Anderson's "Chagall Duet," a conversational duet he did with Sandrine Piau from 1994's Change We Must. Beautiful music! Very powerful in the way that Sergey’s tenor is so strong, staccato, and positive while Olga’s soprano is so delicate, melodic and pleading. (10/10)

8. “The Protector” (3:22) uses oboe and piano over rapid hand drumming--all of which makes me feel very at home, as if I were at a Renaissance Faire. The slowed down piano chord hits with cello and percussion section that begins around the 2:20 mark is quite devastatingly sad, a mood that is then quickly dispelled with a return to the opening section. But the song then concludes with a half-a-minute of some very ambiguous chords and feel. (9/10)

9. “Fear-Dream” (3:47) piano, strings and bassoon dominate this one, though accordion, oboe and a little percussion are also involved. It's very powerful and emotional. Electric guitar even joins in for some soloing a couple of times--especially during the last minute. This one reminds me of the music of one of my favorite modern groups, KOTEBEL. (9/10)

10. “Amid the Smoke and Different Question” (6:31) starts out sounding like a Broadway/operetta, even Moulin Rouge-ish. A male vocalist sings over the simple support of long, sustained accordian chords, and later is accompanied by an almost-separate woodwind dance, then another separate, discordant thread comes from strings, and then yet another seemingly unrelated theme arises from the deeper woodwinds. It's as if several small troubadour groups are parading through a town center, criss-crossing at the center, each playing its own little diddy as it passes by where the tenor continues, unphased, singing his plaintive dirge. Brilliant and gutsy! (9/10)

11. “Not That City” (6:57) (YouTube link is to a video recording of the song being performed by the band live [before a "dead audience"!]) The recording of the band performing begins as a rondo between oboe, chor anglais, and bowed double bass and then accordion. Then harpsichord takes over! The other instruments join in in a frolicking folksie tune with the accordion and chor anglais kind of dominating the twin melody lines. The at 2:15 all stops and piano enters to take over lead melody and rhythm making while all other instruments slow down in long languorous sustained notes in gorgeous harmonies. At 3:32 it happens again, everything stops and adjusts to a section in which strings lead the basic rhythm while all else pulse and dance around them (even the double bass and viola). Another shift allows the song to play out its final minute in a very dreamy, mysterious but beautiful way. Incredible song! My favorite on the album. Were I a music theorist I might appreciate and enjoy this even more—it seems so bold and daring.  (15/15)

Without a doubt Not That City is one of my favorite album of the albums I've heard from 2013. It's music excites and mesmerizes me, its constructs surprise and delight--they raise my hopes for the possibilities of music and for the possibilities of humanity.

94.5 on the Fish scales = 5 Stars, unquestioned; six if it were allowed (occasionally). I've not been this excited about a new album since MAUDLIN OF THE WELL's Part The Second blew me away back in '09. Stunningly creative and fresh.




6. MIDLAKE Antiphon (2013) is Midlake's first album after the departure of front man and chief songwriter Tim Smith. Tim Smith's talents are considerable but Antiphon shows us just how talented Smith's band mates are--and how their founder's talents may, in fact, have overshadowed and suppressed the full display of Midlake's true potential. This is an amazing album. And truly a Prog Folk album. One of my favorite Prog Folk albums of all-time--and preferable to Van Occupanther.

I am in total bliss as I listen to songs 5 through 10, "Vale" (4:31), "Aurora Gone" (4:38), "Ages" (4:39), "This Weight" (3:34), "Corruption" (5:18), "Provider Reprise" (5:01) are all, each and everyone, masterpieces of Prog Folk.

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



The "Minor" Masterpieces
(Ratings of 93.3 to 90.0)



7. TIRILL Um Himinjǫður

This is the most recent solo release from this true master of the folk-centric Prog Folk sub genre, Tirill Mohn. Her work with the original WHITE WILLOW lineup on 1995's Ignis Fatuus and her other more recent collaborative project, AUTUMN WHISPERS, are well, well worth checking out as well. During my listening of this album I found myself remarking for the first time at how similar Tirill's voice has evolved to sound like that of enigmatic American singer-songwriter,  JEWEL.

Album highlights for me include: the heart-wrenching harmonized singing and melodies of "Serpent" (4:40) (10/10); the multi-layered choral approach to "Fagrar enn Sol" (2:56) (10/10); the awesome male-female duet, "Muzzled" (4:56) (10/10); the gentle "Voluspa" (3:08) (10/10) which is sung in Tirill's native language; the mellotron-drenched "Moira" (4:46) (9/10); "The Poet" (5:04) (9/10); the medieval folk song, "Quiet Night" (3:07) (9/10), and; the album's most proggish and 'mini-epic,' "In Their Eyes" (9:25) (17.5/20). 

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




8. THE GABRIEL CONSTRUCT Interior City

I’m not sure if composer/multi-instrumentalist Gabriel Riccio intended for this amazing Eclectic/Post Rock album to be a flow-through concept album, but that has been the only way that I’ve been able to hear it. Something in this music and album concept is reminiscent of DEVIN TOWNSEND’s Ziltoid The Omniscient. The humour, the vocals, the high dynamic musical parts, and even the theme of cultural brainwashing, conformity, oppression, fear and isolation (though Devin addresses it more through implication and is more tongue-in-cheek humorous) are quite Ziltoid. While I consider Ziltoid a masterpiece, this is better.
     MUCH better.
     The music influences and styles chosen for Interior City are so much diverse—more diverse than any album I’ve heard in the new modern age of Prog Rock. Gabriel’s influences range from 20th century classical composers Olivier Messiaen and Ligeti to 70s proggers Yes and King Crimson (old and new) to jazz maestro Charles Mingus, to rockers DEFTONES, NINE INCH NAILS and current master Devin The Magnificat--and these influences can be heard in every song, though I am excited to shout out that this young man has a sound and style quite new and refreshing—one that is all his own. Plus, he has surrounded himself with some stellar talent—especially in drummer extraordinaire, TRAVIS ORBIN, bassist, THOMAS MURPHY, and violinist, SOPHIA UDDIN, saxophonist, Sornen LARSEN, and guitarist DAVID STIVELMAN--all of whom, sadly, will probably not be appearing with Gabriel in his live touring band or on future albums due to his recent relocation from the East Coast (Philly & Maryland) to Chicago.
     Anyway, this is an album that I want everyone to hear—and I mean everyone! It is so accessible yet so fresh and creative, so powerful yet witty (just look at the song titles), and it’s filled with such virtuosic instrumental performances (listen to Gabe’s command of the piano instrument!). Plus, this album is incredibly well engineered and produced. (Did I mention how amazingly well engineered and produced this album is? Mega Kudos Engineer Garrett Davis and Mix-Master/Producer Taylor Larson!)

1.     Arrival in A Distant Land” (6:52) opens the album with what at first sounds like a strum across the strings of a zither—until one realizes that Gabriel is playing the strings of a piano from inside, “under the hood,” so-to-speak. This familiarity and facility with the piano instrument is displayed to great—no, to amazing—effect throughout the album.  The chord sequence played in the bass clef climbs to the middle ranges at the 2:20 mark while the notes popped in the upper registers are still flying along in seemingly random and discordant patterns and time. At 3:13 Gabriel’s gentle, almost frightened sounding voice enters with a gorgeous melody and chord foundation. I believe he is here setting up the contract one’s soul makes when a commitment to Earthly incarnation is made. “I can’t get out” is the plaintive scream powerfully expressed—assumedly at the moment of realization that this commitment to human life is real and ‘permanent.’ “Welcome home. This is your home now,” he sings before resuming the unusual and seemingly random ‘interior’ piano play till the song’s end.  (15/15)

2. “Ranting Prophet” (4:51) opens with the same piano and gentle voice until at 0:48 a burst of multiple track harmonized voices and full rock ensemble enters. Violin mirrors the anxious vocal of the protagonist and his slave-driving ‘over-soul/unconscious—a voice that takes turns trading barbs with that of the protagonist for a minute before a cohesive chorus seems to insist that he’s condemned to being addicted to pretending that your someone.(!) Crazy violin solo exacerbates the insanity of this news—the idiocy of this internment.  (9/10)

3. “Fear of Humanity” (8:02) opens with some great piano chords and screechy violin scratches flitting about all over the soundscape. A deep-voiced baritone lead vocal enters to announce that “I’m afraid of humans” and, later, “I’m afraid of tumors.” This low-register male voice is so unexpected, so unusual and disarming that it is utterly refreshing and genius. At 3:30 the song shifts into high gear with drums, support instruments and ‘scatting’ vocal choir racing along with police sirens, industrial noise and growls. The “entities” chasing and pursuing the 5:39 adds a nice electric guitar riff which turns into a kind of group solo. The drummer’s sense of timing throughout is breathtakingly fluid in its precision and confidence. At the seven minute mark there is another shift as the band congeals for a brief cool coda. Return to the entity chase—it seems that the musical accompaniment is growing more and more chaotic and overbearing when suddenly--!! (15/15)

4.  in the transition and intro to “My Alien Father” (4:46) a solo piano arpeggiates a gorgeous intro. A treated higher register male voice enters speaking of the alien chase and their X-men-like “shapeshifting” tactics. Brilliant vocal harmonies are used. “They’re out there.” ”They watch us.” “Please greet me,” pleads the protagonist. (Awesome fretless bass work here!) “Will you enslave my body and mind or will you bring me to life?” precedes an awesomely layered, multi-melodied and all-too-brief instrumental section reminding me of the absolute best of anything Sir Robert of Fripp has ever done. (10/10)

5. “Retreat Underground” (2:38) takes off running with drums, piano, and bass playing at seering speeds while the Devin Townsend-like vocals (solo and multi-layered/beautifully harmonized) sing over the top. (9/10)

6. “Subway Dwellers” (5:32) bleeds from the preceding song while shifting tempo and style to a little more of a pop-jazz structure (though using the same instrumentation). The use of many cacophonous background voices/samples truly lends to the “subway dwellers” effect. Creepy and eerie. If I have a complaint with one part of this album it is with the part of the album that begins with this song: the music becomes a bit repetitive and monotonous as the lyrics become more important to listen to (something I am not particularly well-suited to). The song is good, the structure good, just too much the same—until the Tears For Fears section in the last 30 seconds of the song.  (8/10)

7. “Defense Highway” (10:49) opens slowly, as if having trouble developing into a groove, but then, thanks to the direction of the violin, structure coagulates and the song gets up and goes. Another Devin-like racer with great screeching and voice-warbling to illustrate the protagonist's fragile grip on reality and self-control. A delicate, quiet part in the fifth minute seems to  Amazing drum work throughout this song. An incredible section beginning at the 5:38 mark with “Walking…” is so familiar yet so brilliant—alternating fast and slow, running and collapsing, running and hiding, running and giving up, letting go. This song is all over the place but so incredibly powerful in its representation of yin-yang duality, the human rollercoaster, the madhouse and house of mirrors that we all walk through every day. The chaos at 8:35 is again won over by the gentle piano play and angelic vocal choir. At 9:38 Gabriel once again whips out an incredibly moving chord progression and beautiful vocal section—which then quickly morphs into an out-of-control race of fuzzy freneticism. Even the winning piano and ensuing saxophone triumphant are a bit out of control. Am I listening to the modern-day version of Rael and Brother John’s trip through The Ravine? Will they come out with IT—with the realization that all is one, all is illusory, all is part of the game to which we all contracted our irreversible participation? (19/20)

8. “Inner Sanctum” (7:34) is very reminiscent of many of the heavier song parts and grungier styles from TOBY DRIVER’s Kayo Dot and maudlin of The Well projects—and this one, too, gets a little overwhelming with its barrage of cacophony coming at me from so many depths and directions. Still, I understand the point being made here: it is only through incredible strength and perseverance that one can fend off the incredibly distracting and overwhelming cacophony of external noise in order to find, strengthen and maintain the Inner Voice. The electric guitar and violin clattering for front-and-center attention at the  three minute mark seem to feel triumphant and hopeful. This then is followed by a very TD-feeling nightmare-dream-feeling section of purposely plodding, monotonous heavy discordant music while the droning, slowly drawn out treated vocal seems to descend into the murkiness. As if sucked into the tar, “Goodbye,” he repeats, as he gives in—and before the crazed cacophony of wildly random bashing and crashing of all instruments closes the song. (14/15)

9. “Languishing in Lower Chakras” (11:09) finds the listener hearing the stillness, peace, and near-calm of the protagonist after the chaos of internal battle, after the psychic meltdown. Musically, Gabriel uses the gentle yet randomly flitting and floating piano play of the opening song to create this place of calm retreat.  Gradually these notes become . . . organized—are joined by supportive elements—electric keyboard, clapping, sounds of feet running, PA voices, television voices, angelic humming and gathering of energy—all swirling gently but with an increasing element of organization and insistence, of wakefulness and strength. Are these the distractions trying to lure this catotonic creature back into the world of action and reaction? Is he returning to consciousness? Or is he dying but hearing his last voices and noises from Earth Plane?
    The choir of oddly treated and fading in and out ‘heavenly’ voices leads me to believe further that this is a dying or at least near-death experience conveyed through music: Reversed notes and chords from the introductory ‘birth’ sequence enters with the protagonist’s floating background voice repeating his initial plea, “I can’t …”  followed by the insistent repetition of a spoken voice, “Get me out of here!"
     This is an odd song yet I find it very effective in the context of this incredible storytelling. My take on this one is that Gabriel’s protagonist is struggling with a solution to the problem of how to cope with the incredibly taxing, insistent and ultimately depressing amount of information bombarding us from this ‘civilized’ world. The protagonist is either choosing to attempt to learn--or learning out of absolute necessity--the ‘art’ of detachment, here passively observing the dross and cacophony of the external world from a place of inward peace and calm.  This exercise is not easy as one is constantly being lured out of one’s ‘center’—that sanctuary of internal peace--by the distractions of the ‘noise’ coming from ‘outside.’
      Or I could be way off base and the character is merely going through a bardo-type experience—a post-human life or near-death experience in which he is the unwitting passive observer of petty events occurring around his unresponsive corporeal body.  Or maybe sleep has become his only refuge. (17/20)

10. “Curing Somatization” (10:26) Heavy and discordant cacophony opens this song (reentry and bombardment of stimuli?) before a quiet, calm (return to safety of the inner sanctuary?), within which can be heard an aimless, almost child-like voice sing-songing to itself. Then at 2:05 is a return to the barrage of noise but it seems to be more organized, more structured, more controlled or ‘managed.’ But the chaos always seems to be pressing in from around, creeping closer and closer. Paranoia. Delusion. “I’ve only been running from myself,” screams one voice. “I built this city to hide,” comes later. The musical shift at the beginning of the sixth minute coincides with lyrics like, “I try to create something, (but) I destroy what‘s beautiful. I try to save and I kill instead.” "I’m trying to love but I’m in hate’s grasp,” and “Fear is my one form of wealth," and “Why do I torture myself.” Then a strong, clear male voice sings beautifully, incredibly emotionally, “Erosion of confusion, I forgive you for all you have done. Corrosion of illusion, I forgive myself for choosing hell” (the realization that these constructs, the interior city, is hell—that that is what the human experience is).
     “This city can’t control all that I see. This city has no power over me. It’s taken on a life of its own. AND I CAN LET IT GO!” is the protagonist’s awakening moment—his moment of true detachment. Then he turns to his new reality, the beauty of his new Truth, with the beautiful piano chords, now fully formed, fully supportive, full of profound beauty, familiar from the opening song (The pre-birth blissful state of ignorance and spiritual wholeness?):
“Welcome home! This is your home now. Step OUTSIDE! You’re not alone,” ends the album and we’ve come full circle, back to the Eden of the beginning. (18/20)

It is so refreshing to hear an album—from a younger person—which tries to tackle an incredibly important and meaningful topic:  the struggle to find purpose and meaning in this human life experience. Interior City is, I believe, an allegory for our time—for Mr. Riccio’s generation—which attempts to give meaning to life—to offer a way to cope with ‘this mortal coil’ while incarnated during this particularly difficult challenging time on planet Earth. Gabriel accepts that, yes, we have made the choice to commit to human life form but that it is also quite a struggle to find reason and justification for this choice. Detached Self-centeredness may be the best solution to surviving the overwhelmingly confusing experience with some semblance of sanity.
     The ability Mr. Riccio has shown in being able to express his ideas through music is masterful. With the diverse talents and interests he has shown in his brief yet diverse and experimental past, I do not reckon that “Prog Metal” will be the resting place of this master’s musical expression. Don’t be surprise if we hear some classical or world musically-influenced music coming from The Gabriel Construct in the not-too-distant future. I know, I, for one, will be there to receive and relish any recordings offered by this new and bright, bright light of music and art.

92.41 on the Fish scales = A-/five stars; a minor masterpiece of music; Interior City is one of the most profoundly moving artistic oeuvres I’ve encountered in my lifetime.

P.S. All of the links I've created lead to YouTube videos of songs played in real time as tracks were being added to individual songs (two with Gabriel playing his piano parts and one with Travis Orbin adding his drumming part (to "Fear of Humanity"). Enjoy! They're amazing to watch!




9. CORDE OBLIQUE Per le strade ripetute

Riccardo takes a step back to his mostly acoustic and antique roots. Whereas A Hail of Bitter Almonds saw his musical palette increasing its infiltration of electronic instruments, here we see CO returning almost exclusively to an all-acoustic selection. As a mater of fact, Riccardo even advertises it: "No samplers, no synths, no keyboards"! With even more flawless vocal performances than usual, this album may be Riccardo's masterpiece.  

Line-up / Musicians:
- Riccardo Prencipe / Classical & acoustic guitars, e-bow, backing vocals (3), arranger 
With:
- Floriana Cangiano / vocals (1,5,10)
- Caterina Pontrandolfo / vocals (2,6)
- Annalisa Madonna / vocals (3)
- Evi Stergiou / vocals (6)
- Lisa Starnini / vocals (7)
- Edo Notarloberti / violin, cello (11)
- Manuela Albano / cello (3)
- Umberto Lepore / bass, double bass
- Alessio Sica / drums
- Salvio Vassallo / drums (6,10)
- Francesco Manna / percussion (6,10)
- Spyros Giasafakis / recitation & cymbal (6)

1. "Averno" (6:03) fast-picked with electrified acoustic guitar adding notes and the voice of Floriana Cangiano guiding us into Averno with her words. In the second minute, the band launches into full gear with strumming, etc., while Floriana begins to sing. The addition of bass and strings accents at 3:25 is so powerful! What a start! (9.5/10)

2. "Il Viaggio Di Saramago" (3:22) Caterina Pontandolfo, my favorite, returns for another song about some historic landmark. I swear, Caterina could sing, talk, cajole, or vibrate me into doing whatever she wanted of me! What a singer! (10/10) 

3. "My Pure Amethyst" (5:05) Analisa Madonna gets a turn at the lead vocal (with Riccardo offering some background support with the title words in the choruses). Guitars, cello, drums, bass. Very nice. (8.5/10)

4. "In The Temple Of Echo" (1:55) solo guitar at its classical finest. (4.5/5)

5. "Bambina D'oro" (6:18) Riccardo and Floriano open alone before being joined in the chorus by drums, double bass, and violin. Another wonderful vocal performance. After 90 seconds, the full band really kicks in, and the music becomes very proggy in the instrumental passage following the second chorus of "oh-ho"s. At 3:10, then we settle back down with a return to the opening format--plus a few more instruments ready to add their flourishes and embellishments. Floriana hits some notes! Then things quiet way down at 4:30 for an amazingly delicate vocal and guitar duet. The band slowly starts to rejoin at 5:25 but never to the levels of that third minute--never spoiling the perfect intimacy that Riccardo and Floriana have established. (10/10)

6. "Heraion" (3:15) Caterina returns for some ghost-like vocalise behind the folk hand drums and theatric whispering narration of Spyros Giasafakis. Eva Steriou assists Caterina in the second half. Cool. (8.5/10)

7. "Due Melodie" (5:45) it's time for newcomer Lisa Starnini to have a turn at lead vocal. To be honest, she sounds pretty much like a clone of Caterina or Floriana. The music behind her is more throughly textured with lots of instruments offering chords and multi-note contributions. Until the lively instrumental passage at the end of the fourth minute, the song is rather dull and "typical" for Riccardo/Corde Oblique. Still: Welcome Lisa! (8.5/10)

8. "Le Fontane Di Caserta" (4:10) a gentle instrumental that almost sounds as if it could be a lullaby with steel-string guitar strummed and arpeggiated while violin solos in the lowest registers. After 90 seconds, Edo climbs out of the sonorous bass notes and approaches upper octave domains. Riccardo's playing is surprisingly simple and subdued--even when he's soloing. Again, "lullaby" is all I can think of for a rationale. Still, there is an undeniable simbiosis between the two that is charming, endearing--makes you want to get up and hug them when they're done. (8.75/10) 

9. "Requiem For A Dream" (2:26) an instrumental demonstrating an absolutely stunning display of virtuosity from multiple instruments--and it's beautiful and emotional! (10/10)

10. "Ali Bianche" (6:47) Floriana sings her heart out with this unlikely and challenging structure and instrumental grouping. Unbelievable vocal--one that provides the glue to make everything work. I will go so far as to even assert that I don't think the music would have worked alone. (14/15)  

11. "Uroboro (8:01) whoever Edo Notarloberti is, he is incredible! After four minutes of violin solo (with some suppport from bowed double bass), there is a significant gap before we get a solo guitar piece with outdoor garden noises--as if an improvised piece was being captured live, as it developed. (A continuation of or variation of song #4 "In the Temple of Echo"?) What a guitarist! We are so fortunate to have his music! (14/15)

Total time 53:07

It's so difficult to assess Riccardo's music since it's always of such superior quality, always a demonstration of a virtuoso at the peak of his playing, compositional, and delegating powers. I LOVE this album and its timeless music. I LOVE the "modernized"-thinking of A Hail of Bitter Almonds.

92.39 on the Fishscales = A-/five stars; a minor masterpiece of timeless Prog Folk and truly a treasure for any music lover--prog or no. 





10. STELLARDRONE Light Years 

Stellardrone is the name that Lithuanian artist Edgaras Žakevičius has been using to release self-published music over the past ten years. While Edgaras' output has been at a fairly pleasing level from the start, it feels to me that until this album, Light Years, each of the Stellardrone albums has provided me with a bit of a rollercoaster ride--a lot of great songs pitted with the valleys of some weaker ones--songs that feel underdeveloped or 'cheesy' in their simplicity or in the choice of computer synthesized sounds chosen therein. Light Years is the first Stellardrone album that I absolutely love start to finish. There is no song-skipping here, no weak songs, only shifts in dynamics and speed, provocations of dreaminess or movement and adventure.

Five star songs: 1. "Red Giant" (3:15) (9/10); 2. "Airglow" (5:16) (10/10); 3. "Eternity" (6:21) (10/10); 4. "Light Years" (6:04) (10/10); "Comet Halley" (3:42) (9/10); 8. "Ultra Deep Field" (5:44) (10/10), and; 9. "Eternity (Reprise)" (3:33) (10/10).

Four star songs: 5. "In Time" (3:47) (8/10);  6. "Cepheid" (4:32) (8/10), and; 10. "Messier 45" (2:26) (8/10).

92.0 on the Fishscales = A-/five stars; truly a masterpiece of modern electronica; a minor masterpiece for the world of progressive rock music.




11. BROTHER APE Force Majeure

It's hard to imagine a more catchy song than "Doing Just Fine" (5:15) (10/10). Though the album has much more of a pop-orientation--and it's un-prog-like upbeat--it is still a wonderful collection of music proving that the BA boys are riding high on the crest of their creative super wave.

One of the poppiest records of the year from a "prog" artist, I find the upbeat joie de vivre spirit on this album, within these artists quite engaging and refreshing. Though I would not place it in the same hallowed ground as their previous effort, A Rare Moment of Insight--which I not only rated a five star masterpiece but continue to declare as my favorite album of 2010--(and of which I am still the only PA reviewer !!!!)--this is still an outstandingly well- crafted musical journey. And, though the overwhelming sentiment expressed in this music is one of unbound joy (you can tell that these guys love their music--that they love playing music!), there are moments of complex emotion and complex music. Take the multiple layers of instrumental play in the instrumental title song: there are ambiguities, tensions and ambivalences being expressed throughout this song--in different sections and by individual instruments mixed into the overall weave. And though "The Mirror" (6:01) (10/10) has the same upbeat, fast pace as the light and happy "Doing Just Fine" there is a tension and underlying seriousness that makes one feel pulled both ways. They must be using major seventh chords--those magical four-plus-notes combinations which incorporate both a major chord and a minor chord into one--that is, those sublime chords that express the fullness of the human experience, the joy and the sorrow all in one. Think of Satie, America, Vangelis, Serrie, and Karda Estra and you know major seventh chords. I do agree with my esteemed prog reviewer Dr'mmarenAdrian that this group belongs in a sub-genre other than "jazz rock/fusion." As a matter of fact, I do not know why PA cannot accommodate a "by-album" categorization process instead of a one-time-and-forever pidgeon-holing of a band. Think of how eclectic, experimental, and ever-growing bands like Ulver ("Post Rock/Math Rock"), Big Big Train ("Crossover"), The Gathering ("Experimental/Post Metal"), Steve Hackett ("Eclectic"), Mike Oldfield ("Crossover"), Porcupine Tree ("Heavy"), Steven Wilson ("Crossover"), Airbag ("Neo-prog"), Motorpsycho ("Eclectic"), Anekdtoen ("Heavy"), Genesis ("Symphonic"--even their post 70s stuff!)) and so many others are forever biased in the eyes of newcomers because of their categoric assignation despite having produced albums from numerous sub-genres other than the one to which they were assigned. Anyway, sorry to go off on that little rant. Back to Brother Ape. Every song on this album has a maturity and high-level production value that the band may not have consistently achieved in the past. Also, the confidence displayed in these compositions is almost awe- inspiring: they have a sound all their own and are not afraid to stick to it. And they keep evolving, which is something I really admire in this business, in this day and age of formulaic comfort zone composition and performance. 

This is, I admit, a bit too poppy to be considered as a masterpiece of "progressive rock music." Still, it is a record that I highly recommend--if only as a refreshing alternative to the current retro/neo trends in prog music. There is only one song on this album that I do not consider a five star, nine- or ten-out-of-ten piece of high quality music. Quite a beautiful journey, this. Give it a try. Click here to hear the title song (5:43) (10/10), or a collage of samples from the album, or watch the video for "After Rain" (4:51) Then treat yourself to 2010's A Rare Moment of Insight.

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




12. MIDDAY VEIL The Current

A modern psychedelia-extraordinaire group carrying forward the Krautrock traditions of CAN and BRAINTICKET, this album is at times a bit crippled by the fact that their music is really meant to be accompanied by their multi-media stage show and therefore at time gets a little repetitive and drawn out. The album, however, has an utterly awesome, engaging, multi-layered fullness that is different from its ancestors, especially in the first two and last songs, "The Current" (6:56) (15/15), "Choreia" (6:02) (10/10), and "Great Cold of The Night" (11:16) (20/20) ("Official Video" here). The album's first three songs are more akin to a cross between the spiritual trance music of JONATHAN GOLDMAN and the pop of modern psych-poppers WEST INDIAN GIRL. Definitely trippy trance music on the upbeat, happy side. Even the first four minutes of the dream-like "Remember Child" (7:18) (12/15) has some gorgeous organ play, vocal chanting, and Blade Runner-like drum and keyboard "explosions" all playing over an oscillating, R-L channel-surfing keyboard loop, it's the final two minutes that get a little tedious. All songs bleed one into the next, carrying forward some themes and sounds while gradually morphing into new songs. It is with the finale, "Great Cold of The Night," however, that the band steps up to show its strengths: including an incredibly dominant vocal from Emily Pothast, great driving, crashing drumming from Garrett Moore, and searing lead guitar from  Timm Mason. Quite an amazing song.

The Current is a wonderfully engaging, entrancing album that makes me only want more to experience Midday Veil's show live. Plus, I am so glad and appreciative of the gorgeous female voice that reminds me so much of those of BRAINTICKET's trio of charismatic singers, Dawn Muir, Carole Muriel and Jane Free.

91.67 on the Fish scales = a 5 star effort--one that I think deserves a listen from everybody. A minor masterpiece of psychedelic rock.




13. SOLSTICE Prophecy

Andy Glass' Prog Folk project started in the 1980s finds new heights in this, his 21st Century incarnation of the band.

Line-up / Musicians:
- Emma Brown / vocals (1-5)
- Andy Glass / guitars, vocals
- Steve McDaniel / keyboards & vocals (1-5)
- Jenny Newman / fiddle (1-5)
- Robin Phillips / bass (1-5)
- Pete Hemsley / drums (1-5)
With
- Johnny McGuire / addit. vocals (1-5)
- Sandy Leigh / vocals (6-8)
- Marc Elton / fiddle & vocals (6-8)
- Mark Hawkins / bass (6-8)
- Martin Wright / drums (6-8)

1. "Eyes Of Fire" (8:52) beautiful atmospheric keys with distant aboriginal chants open this before acoustic guitar plays arpeggi to get us ready for the gorgeous voice of lead singer Emma Brown. The vocal weave that slowly builds around Emma's lead is even more gorgeous. At 6:00 electric guitar begins a loud, slow solo which kind disrupts the Eden-like mood previously established. What is the band (Andy Glass) trying to say with this? Rock drums and bass join in as Andy wails plaintively, effectively emotional. Piano gets the next solo to finish gently. Beautiful. (19/20)

2. "Keepers of the Truth" (8:14) organ and strummed guitar are joined by "fiddle" and female vocals in a folk rock sound palette. Kind of a standard, dated song style, melody and sound. I do appreciate the less-is-more treatment of the tracks--everything is recorded in a kind of analog-sounding way rather digitally "perfected." Another surprisingly forward electric guitar solo begins at the three-minute mark and continues for 90 seconds before giving way to Herbie Hancock-like synth. Nothing very new or refreshing here--unless you're nostalgic for a 1970s hippie fest--like something from MANTRA VEGA or MOSTLY AUTUMN. (13/15)
  
3. "Warriors" (17:33) interesting polyphonic weave is slowly established before full prog rock walls of sound and Native American-sounding ulullating chants take over. Settling down into a more spacious weave Emma Brown enters singing in a kind of prayerful way with long, drawn out syllables, all. An instrumental section ensues with some nice soli from fiddle and electric guitar while rhythm section maintains its rather simple and straightforward (kind of boring--especially the bass) foundation. A bit of an Allman Brothers feel in the jam during the twelfth minute before everything stops and switches direction, establishing a slower, more folk spiritual style (that sounds a lot like some of the whole-troup chorus vocals from the musical Godspell or else from the ensemble cast of Polyphonic Spree or some other Southern white gospel choir). Multiple tracks are devoted to Andy's wailing electric guitars as they solo above, beneath, and within the choral vocals. Despite all the prolonged themes of the three sections filling these seventeen minutes, the song ends faster than expected. (30.5/35)

4. "West Wind" (11:05) soloing steel-string acoustic guitar over gently wafting synth washes and, later, beautiful Fender Rhodes play open this song for the first 2:15 before Emma enters singing in a gentle, soothing voice. Lovely and hypnotic. The lyrics seem to convey a naturistic message that is more associated with Celtic Prog musical traditions--which is, interestingly, fully borne out when Celtic instruments, organ, and then, heavy guitar and violin riffing join in. The vocals turn choral as the tension in the music builds. Now we're definitely in the Folk Rock territory pioneered by bands like Curved Air, Iona, Jethro Tull, and even the Strawbs. The power of the instrumentalists is matched and mixed quite perfectly with that of the choir. Andy Glass' searing guitar is supported quite nicely by the work of fiddler Jenny Newman and keyboardist Steve McDaniel. At 9:30 the tension is broken and we return to the dreamy Fender Rhodes-supported vocal section as in the opening. Great song! (18.5/20)

5. "Blackwater" (10:52) low electric guitar arpeggi establish a portentous, even ominous mood before joined by fiddle and drums. The drums are quite showy for the first 90 seconds before the rest of the band is welcomed into the mix. A somewhat Middle Eastern melodic theme is introduced--which then morphs into a kind of Hendrix-familiar motif by Andy's wailing electric guitar, but then he quickly gives it up for a kind of weave like a Celtic reel. The Hendrix motif returns in the fifth minute before giving way to a piano-based motif over which Emma eventually sings in a powerful, aggressive almost Annie Wilson way. Powerful. This is not what I was expecting from Solstice, but it really works! I am truly impressed with the versatility of Ms. Brown. At 7:05 the tempo slows as Emma switches to the long-drawn syllable approach to her delivery (as in the first part of "Warriors"). Man is she effective with this approach! And the band's weave in support is absolutely perfect! So powerful! And emotional! The smooth jazzy piano in the tenth minute is just icing on the cake as Emma soothes and comforts us with some soft background words repeated within the weave of electric guitar chords and fiddle play. Piano carries forward Emma's final melody line to the finish. Wow! I am moved! My final top three song on an album of very powerful music. (19.25/20)

- Bonus tracks (Steven Wilson re-masters):
6. Find Yourself (6:15)
7. Return of Spring (7:24)
8. Earthsong (6:32)

Total time 77:18

91.14 on the Fishscales = A-/five stars; a minor masterpiece of progressive rock music--and a real treat for any lover of Prog Folk music.




14. THE PSYCHEDELIC ENSEMBLE The Tale of The Golden King

He’s done it again, folks! TPE has created another masterpiece of progressive rock—this time a “prog rock drama” telling an original story synthesized from medieval sleeping hero and mountain king legends, The Tale of The Golden King. A benevolent, Arthurian-like king is rewarded by the gods by being turned into a gold statue with the attached promise to his sad reverent subjects: When the time comes your king will return. The Great King’s disappearance results, of course, in the invasion of a greedy and oppressive lot,  “The Henchmen.” Fear and despair fall upon the citizens until finally a revolt is planned—with the ensuing battle, victory and celebration. The “return” of The Great King, however, is not as one would expect, which is the clever twist in this allegory for a new age.
     Musically, TPE has surpassed all previous work by not only expanding upon his multi-layered, multi-instrumental wizardry but also by exploring a broader variety of musical genres than previously—using more medieval and theatrical jazz instrumentation and themes. Also, TPE has expanded his horizons by incorporating orchestration in the form of The Psychedelic Ensemble Orchestra and guest vocalists, including the crystalline voice of Ann Caren for female leads and background vocals. And, as usual, the artwork of TPE’s CD and booklet are breathtaking. 

1. “Overture – Our Great Kingdom” (7:22) Opening with a Gong, a background note held by some Gregorian monks, and a wooden flute, and oboe, you just know this is going to be epic. Next, the acoustic guitar and lone synth present some themes that you’ll hear a lot—followed by electric guitar with another theme. Shortly the whole band is in sync, multiple synths, electric guitar, and calmer-than-usual drums, the themes weaving together, “Hail, Great Kingdom” repeats the vocals in self-proclaimed glory.  The classic TPE layers of multi-instrumental melody weaves, with numerous individual instruments taking turns to step into the spotlight to solo, even if ever-so briefly, is well-established by song’s end. I’ve never heard any artist or band so clever and masterful at this multi-multi-instrument solo-weaving. The themes here, unfortunately, seem a bit too familiar—as if I’ve heard them in other TPE songs. (12/15)

2. “The Prophecy of The Seer – The Transformation of The King” (6:04) begins with a kind of midnight lull, a gentler, calmer feel to the music—as a messenger is presented to The King. At the one minute mark a RICHIE HAVENS-like voice enters as The Seer—and awesome and majestic is that voice! This whole section is quite magical and sophisticated. I have to admit that, for me, the sound and presence of even more guest vocalists would be a welcome addition to the TPE sound. The break-neck speed and awesome guitar and synth soloing of the fourth minute are big highlights of this one. It’s a very ELP-sounding section. Awesome! At 4:40 an eerie church organ provides background to the proclamation of The Gods as, all the while, the band of subjects tries to intersperse with some of its themes as if to convey a sense of normalcy, while actually expressing denial and an unwillingness to hear the prophecy and “curse.” Great theater. Awesome song! (10/10)

3. “The Golden King” (9:24) opens with a return to orchestral presentation while TPE instruments singly interject themes and voices. As the song takes full form around 2:15, an absolutely gorgeous and infectious melody and vocal presentation is opened and developed—all occurring with a full and very intricate weave of endlessly soloing multi-instruments dancing and sparring in the background. Awesome bass lines throughout this one, too. Incredible guitar solo initiated at the five minute mark, which is then masterfully tied into the main themes before decaying into a gorgeous piano-based section before returning to the main vocal theme. At 7:45 the ‘rock’ sounds and themes of the song stop, making way for a gorgeous orchestral section, led by a beautiful flute solo. Gradually the orchestra builds around the flute’s melody, crescendoing as an electric guitar caps off the celebration of this theme. This song is definitely the high point, musically, of the album for me. (20/20)

4. “Captive Days” (4:12) is an instrumental that begins with a wonderful almost-pensive medieval sound and feel. It evolves by the second minute into what sounds like a kind of Broadway jazz dance scene—Bob Fosse would’ve had some awesome choreography to this piece. Pianos, brushed drums, big orchestral accents. The congas and fretless bass rising to the forefront in the third minute are a nice touch. (9/10)

5. “The Queen of Sorrow” (8:22) opens with a solo lute before piano, acoustic guitar, distant drums and some orchestral background break our to support the crystalline and angelic if –melancholy voice of the Queen of Sorrow, the wonderful Ann Caren. The syncopated background piano chord play is a highlight for me in this song. At 3:45 there is a shift in the music to a kind of clandestine, hidden and very eerie section in which odd Arabian horn-like instruments flit and float around behind The Queen’s almost-whispered, fear-filled vocal. The ensuing instrumental solo section is very Keith Emerson/ELP–like. Cool! At the six minute mark the piano play, Queen’s vocal and background vocal mix is extraordinary. Devolving with support of cello into the final 100 seconds of orchestral supported medieval sounds while The Queen once more states her case. (18/20)

6. “Save Yourself” (6:10) opens with some mood-setting sound eerie sounds—like we’re in the catacombs beneath Paris. The music enters with some jazzy popping, fretless bass and jazz-styled drumming. Great vocal melody is supported by some synths, organ, and twangy electric guitar. Great section! Great organ sound and solo at the two minute mark. This is so fun! The follow-up guitar solo is also vintage early 70s jazz fusion guitar—like Steve Khan or Larry Coryell. The bass solo shortly after the four-minute mark once again reminds me of what a bass virtuoso is TPE. Electric piano and fuzzy guitar finish the soloing as we get back to the story with this excellent vocal and haunting melody. (10/10)

7. “Make A Plan—Golden Swords” (7:10) opens with a bluesy feel: electric guitar filling a large-room sound and a kind of blues-styled vocal intro. Soon the usual cast of synth characters noodle their way in, though organ, bluesy piano, and fuzz guitar seem to be the constant sounds threading this weave. The drums are, thankfully somewhat muted and mixed in the background for in the third and fourth minutes their rapid fire gattling gun sound gets a little overwhelming and distracting form me. The vocal performance of the wise elder, The Court Blacksmith, could have used, in my opinion, a different voice or style—if only to help convey that wisdom that has supposedly earned the respect—and ears--of the rest of the kingdom. (10.5/15)

8. “The Battle” (4:16) is an instrumental that uses some interesting sound and rhythmical constructs to convey the march into and conflict—there is a definite sense of confidence and insistence conveyed through this music. And with many underlying and tangential sounds strings moving around, behind and from within the main music, it has the very cool effect of evoking the minor skirmishes that invariably occur within and at the edges of a battle. The ghost-like synth floating background is also an ingenious tool which serves to convey the fog-like precariousness of the conflict and the tide-like ebb and flow of the potential outcome.  (10/10)

9. “This Great Day” (7:35) opens with some relaxing pastoral acoustic guitar play—joined shortly by a strumming 12-string and a flute-synth. The Queen’s voice enters with a melody that harkens back to Jon Anderson’s classic solo “Your Move” section near the beginning of “I’ve Seen All Good People.” As a matter of fact, the entire first two minutes is quite strong in its evocation of YES: “Your Move,” “Wond’rous Stories,” Wakeman. Then a very cool electric guitar solo takes over, bridging out way to music with a kind of celebratory mood. Here some multi-level, rondo-like vocal harmonies are used to great effect—as is the continued use to the kind of country twang-and-delayed electric guitar. Synths, piano, and guitars go into a kind of collective game of hot potato—each taking turns to burst forth a brief solo. The song finishes with a brief return to the opening YES theme with a collective harmonized chorus, “Yesterday is gone, it’s through, The past has flown away. All you thought and all you knew, Have turned the other way. This Great Day!” (13.5/15)

10. “Finale – Arise! – Great Kingdom” (11:39) opens with “celebrate the dawn”-like music as presented by The Psychedelic Ensemble Orchestra. Beautiful recapitulating weave of the album’s themes. With the third minute comes a modified reprise of the “Great Day” mixed with the medieval instrumentation of “Captive Days.” The singing is quite celebratory—apparently the prophecy has been fulfilled-not in the expected form of the King arising from the dead/gold-preserved form, but, rather, the Kingdom has arisen—using the very gold of the statue of the Great King to forge their weapons of rebellion and victory. This song is replete with layers of recapitulated themes and instrumental ejaculates all morphing in a seemingly constant and unending mobius strip weave. Cool if perhaps a bit drawn out.  (18/20)

If I’ve ever had any complaints with TPE’s music it would be in the drum sound (particularly one tom-tom that is often used over-exuberantly à la Keith Moon), the drumming style (snares and toms used to mirror exactly the flash-speeded keyboard and guitar soloists) and the vocals. With The Tale of The Golden King both have been improved wonderfully. The drumming employs a greater variety of drumming sounds (and is mixed further back into the middle of the soundscapes) and nice mix of styles (brushes and jazz styles, to be exact), and less frenetic tom-tomming. The vocals have been improved with the use of other vocalists (particularly the wonderful voices of the Richie Havens-like “C. Francis” and The Queen of Sorrow, Ann Caren) and through the use of much more intricately layered and dispersed background and harmony vocals. I am also quite pleased to hear a broader spectrum of musical influences and sound styles:  the increased use of piano and the jazzier rhythm sections are employed quite nicely, and, of course, the presence of The Psychedelic Ensemble Orchestra is a wonderful and quite welcome addition. (More, please!)

The story of The Golden King—supposedly “a true story invented by The Psychedelic Ensemble” and “based on medieval sleeping hero and mountain king legends”—is a bit simple and somewhat predictable, but these are the kind of mythological tales that are popular in the mainstream (witness:  The Lord of the Rings/Hobbbit, Game of Thrones, and Hunger Games movies).  While I love an allegorical concept album, this one, in my humble opinion, falls a bit short. Lyrically there is a bit too much repetition and something too cliché in many of the phrases used. Plus, the word choice is just missing something . . . something from the realms of dark mystery and poetic creativity.

I really enjoyed experiencing the greater variety of musical styles and vocal and instrumental choices (including those of the wonderful Ann Caren and of TPE orchestra) used in this album. It’s always quite ambitious to undertake A) a concept album and B) one which tries to tell an epic or mythological tale—especially if this tale is trying to convey a social-political message. I wonder if the Great King is a metaphor for American Democracy or one of The United States’ iconic Presidents (Washington? Lincoln? Kennedy? The hyped- and hoped-for Barack Obama?). Is the tale presenting the theory of possibilities for a society’s potential to realize its release and freedom from bondage and darkness through taking the power of democracy back into our own hands and fighting as a people, tooth and nail, with the golden essence of that democratic ideal—that we might realize that the true power of our democratic ideal was not in the idolized word and fear-inducing and disempowering form our government but in the action of our own hearts and hands? I wonder.

TPE’s unique multi-layered multi-instrumental sonic weave and sophisticated composition skill always make for a listening experience that I HIGHLY recommend for all music and prog lovers. The music TPE creates is fascinating, creative, and intricately worked—and masterfully performed. Check it out!

91.03 on the Fish scales = A-/five stars; another masterpiece of music that is difficult to compare and categorize and yet awe-some to behold.




15. LIZARD Master and M

Probably the coolest album I’ve heard from 2013 and definitely the one I’m most hooked on. Not since MAD CRAYON’s 2009 release, Preda, have I heard an album with so many diverse influences so well melded together. There’s KING CRIMSON—lots of King Crimson—but the band has somehow enmeshed within it sounds and styles from 80s techno pop (I hear THE BLOW MONKEYS, KAJAGOOGOO, ABC, ICEHOUSE, GENE LOVES JEZEBEL, and, especially, MINIMAL COMPACT), 70s metal (the reminder of BLUE OYSTER CULT—especially in Buck Dharma-like lead guitar soli—is strong), 80s pop metal (DEF LEPPARD and WHITESNAKE immediately come to mind) and even late-70s jazz fusion (e.g., EARL KLUGH, BOB JAMES, FREDDY HUBBARD, NARADA MICHAEL WALDEN), all covered with amazingly gorgeous and powerful vocals—all sung in Polish! Infinitely melodious yet interestingly constructed and, amazingly well mixed/engineered and produced.  
     Amazingly, I have to give five star ratings to all of the songs (all given the simple designation of “Chapter,” I through V) with four of near-perfect marks. If the album has a weakness it would be in the fairly straightforward drumming and predominance of straight rock time signatures. The singing of founding member, Damian Bydliński, the bass playing of the only other member from the original band, Janusz Tanistra, the keyboard work of newcomer Pawel Fabrowicz, and the electric guitar work of Daniel Kurtyka are all extraordinary—top notch—each a real joy to tune into.

"Chapter I" (13:55) (27.25/30)

"Chapter II" (/10:37) (19/20)

"Chapter III" (7:00) (12.5/15)

"Chapter IV" (7:08) (14/15)

"Chapter V" (13:26) (27.75/30)

Man! Poland and Italy are where it’s at in ProgWorld these days! 

90.83 on the Fish scales = 5 stars; a masterpiece of progressive rock music. Great creative originality.

P.S. Check out their awesome website! as well as these YouTube links:  "Chapter II" (10:37) (/20); "Chapter V" (13:26) (28/30), and; "Chapter I (Single Edit)" (9:19).




16. VOTUM Harvest Moon

Another heavy prog band from Poland. There sure is some great music coming out of Eastern Europe! And this one clocks in at no less than 69 mintues!

Harvest Moon kicks off with a real gem--a piece that betrays very little of the heavier, more metal-oriented stuff to come. 

1. "Vicious Circle" [8:13] takes the listener on such a nice ride through quite a diverse range of soundscapes. It starts off with a slow picking acoustic guitar that is backed by a cool organ sound. When drums and bass finally join in a great electric guitar solo completes the intro section. Settling into a very steady slow pace, the vocalist enters with a very strong, soulful presence. As things amp up at the chorus everything is working so well: no over play or show-boating. Then there is an ominous lull, which fulfills all expectations when a heavier section kicks in (with some great lead guitar arpeggios and bass and drums). At 4:45 we are back to lull. A very delicate 'distant' el guitar and organ play a little before the beginning section is recreated (with a bit more play from the organist). This time, however, the solo section is much expanded and displays much more energy and technical instrument play--especially from the drums, bass, and lead guitar. Vocals rejoin to complete the song but the ride plays out with a minute of very eery space noise. Gorgeous song. [15/15]

2. "Cobwebs" [5:01] sounds quite a bit like it could have come off of PEARL JAM's Ten despite the presence of some growl/screams and engineering effects. Luckily, the music is not detracted by the screams. A great song for the Octane Radio listeners. [8/10]   

3. "First Felt Pain" (6:52) starts out with a very heavy modern metal sound (stereotypically signalled by the machine gun riffs from the kick drum). But that's just the first minute. At 1:05 a pause is filled with a fast strumming acoustic guitar before the heavy rhythms rejoin in a flow that supports the vocals (which are surprisingly melodic). The instrumental solo sections are still steeped in modern heavy metal. At 3:45 an emotional acoustic section ensues that feels so powerful and heartfelt--including the guitar solo and engineering effects (panning b-vox). At the six-minute mark, all sound drops away leaving some layers of very eery industrial noises which play out to the end. Very effective! Incredibly unpredictable song. (15/15)

4. "New Made Man" (5:27) has a very familiar classic rock feel to it, a simpler, more straightforward song structure, but, when put into the context of this whole album, it holds a very stunning presence. It sounds very much, to my ears, like a cross between early DAVID BOWIE and the Aussie glam rockers, ICEHOUSE--or THE RE-FLEX. At 3:10 the song breaks down to arpeggiated acoustic guitar and some random sounding tickling of the piano ivories. Very pretty! Quite a melodic gem! (10/10)

5. "Numb" (5:01) is a gentler, almost LUNATIC SOUL song with layered vocal harmonies sung over a very simply picked acoustic guitar and some hand percussives. The final minute and fifteen seconds plays out with some "windy"-sounding synth washes.
     Overall, "Numb" sounds a lot like a Southern Rock classic from the likes of THE ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND or THE MARSHALL TUCKER BAND or even KANSAS or BLIND FAITH, TRAFFIC, or THE ATLANTA RHYTHM SECTION. Again, another surprise in terms of this band's musical dexterity. An excellent song. (9/10)

6. "Ember Night" (6:58) "slows" things down to a very standard heavy metal pace. Unfortunately, for the first 3:35, the song does very little musically to make it stand out from the rest of the metal scene--and certainly does little to help it hold up to the album's previous stellar five songs. The jazzy lull from 3:34 to 5:15 does nothing new or exciting. A return to the harmony vocals and the first sections of music add nothing--continue to bore me. It just never engages or does anything special. (9/15)

7. "Bruises" (7:43) begins with some acoustic guitar play over some synthesizer washes. The vocal and rhythm section kick in to establish a slow, almost piano jazz song. Then the music begins to build--first the more insistent rhythm from the bass and drums, then the lead guitar starts to warm up--but then everything drops out to leave just a soft piano and the vocalist--who, though heart-felt, seems weak of voice. Staccato acoustic guitar strumming restarts the song--ushering in the full-scale heaviness of the band. Now the vocal fits better! But, then, the soft piano (and, this time, drum) supported emotional vocal section returns--this time to much better effect. At 5:28 when the full power of the song is finally released it is working: great drumming, great chord sequences, great vocal performances (including b-vox) and great melodies. The final 45 seconds allows the piano, delicate drum play, and whispered voice to bring the song to decay. Beautiful, emotional song. (15/15)

8. "Steps in the Gloom" (7:51) begins with synth wash and reverb-electric guitar notes, soon joined by delicate piano play and soft-jazz kind of drum and bass play. When electric guitar starts to play in the second minute the electronic keyboards are doing some very interesting things. The vocalist enters around 1:45 sounding quite relaxed and laid back. His emotions are soon amped up as the band kicks into a section of driving sound. Back to softer, and even ambient section reminiscent of some of the things DAVID SYLVIAN, RYUICHI SAKAMOTO and TREVOR HORN were doing in the 80s.
Awesome strumming and soloing from electric guitars around the five-minute mark. And the bass play! This guy is getting off, too! Best instrumental section of the album! The final 90 seconds is a kind of SEAL/"Crazy" return to the song's main vocal followed by an ambient outro. Odd song that defies categorization. One of the album's best. (15/15)

9. "Dead Ringer" (6:52) begins with a rolling bass line and steady, strong drum pace to back what sounds like a DAVID BOWIE-like vocal performance. The heavier chorus section betrays a different path (though Bowie had his metal-like moments--and may have used this stylistic approach were he peaking in the post-90s Prog Metal era.) Cool guitar work at the 3:10 mark followed by hollowed out section with rock-steady drum, muted bass, and slow, muted vocals. Excellent! It then rebuilds to full-scale onslaught on our senses. I love the powerful, firm-but-understated drum-work throughout this song! The song 'ends' at the six-minute mark while another cinematic display of ambient synth play carries the song out to its end 52 seconds later. My favorite song of the album. (15/15)

10. "Coda" (6:32) begins like a cross between PEARL JAM and TOOL before shifting into a brief delicate section. AT 1:45 the synths and electric guitars enter with some really new, fresh sounds, the song's feel and rhythm and tempo shifts, the industrial synth takes over for a bit, then it all comes racing back into a full-out metal bang. For 30 seconds. A 30-second spacey section is talked over in a BONO-like voice before the band climbs back into banging mode--with some nice (though stereotypic) support vocal harmonies. This could be a ARJEN LUCASSEN song! Were I one to key in on lyrics, the story here might prove to be quite interesting. Yet another eery space wash synth journey plays out the final minute of this song. (8/10)

11. "Numb - A Reprise" (2:35) ends the album with a return to the acoustic side of this band of talented and creative songwriters and rock solid performers. (8/10)

This album is a real shocker to me in that I find myself liking it far more than this year's new release from fellow prog countrymates, RIVERSIDE. There is much more dynamic energy here--as if VOTUM really cares about every note of their music, as if they are really into their music--into engaging and at the same time hyping up their audience. As much as I appreciate the creativity and leadership of MARIUZ DUDA and RIVERSIDE, I have to say that with Harvest Moon, a new band has usurped the crown of Poland's prog scene. That band is named VOTUM.

Hail to the new king! Long live the king!

90.71 on the Fish scales = A-/five stars; a pretty darn near a perfect album and definitely a minor masterpiece of creative, energetic progressive rock music.





Special Mention


JAMES BLAKE Overgrown

The main inspiration for my wife's collection of "Cello Fellows and Other Men Who Sound Like Whales," this young man exhibits such paradigm-breaking genius that he has virtually created an entire subgenre of music all by himself--and this album is the ground-breaking, mold-shattering collection of songs that has done more to earn this accolade than any other. 

Five Star Songs: 5. "Retrograde" (3:44) (11/10); 7. "Digital Lion" (4:47) (10/10); 1. "Overgrown" (5:01) (10/10); 9. "To The Last" (4:19) (9.5/10); 8. "Voyeur" (4:18) (9/10), and; 2. "I Am Sold" (4:04) (9/10).

Four star songs:  10. "Our Love Comes Back" (3:39) (8.5/10); 4. "Take a Fall For Me" (feat. RZA) (3:34) (8/10); 3. "Life Round Here" (3:37) (8/10), and; 6. "Dim" (2:26) (8/10).

91.0 on the Fishscales = A-/five stars; a masterpiece of innovative electro-pop; almost progressive rock. 

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