Sunday, November 13, 2022

Top Albums of the Year 2008, Part 2: The Near-Masterpieces

 Somewhere beneath the level of timeless masterpiece status lies a group of albums whose quality and merit deserve categorization of something like "near-masterpiece." These are albums that have either achieved a Fishermetric score of between 90.0 and 87.0 or whose high points or quality level make it remarkable enough to remain affixed in my memory.

From the Year 2008, you will find below 6 albums releases deserving, in my opinion, of the "near-masterpiece" designation.  



4.5 Stars; The Near-Masterpieces
(ratings of 89.99 to 86.67)



9. THIEVES' KITCHEN The Water Road

Back when Amy Darby and Phil Mercy were growing their vision for musical expression, they must have known that they had very high standards they were seeking, otherwise how and why would they attract the likes of not one, not two, but three ex-Änglagård members?  Obviously Thomas Johnson, Anna Holmgren, and Mattias Olsson liked Phil and Amy's vision enough to invest so much of themselves in this band--for over 12 years! (and they may still be linked to one another though it's been since 2019 since we saw any new material from them!)

In my opinion, The Water Road announces the arrival of a real force of complex, skilled prog rock--one that is fronted by the operatic voice of one Amy Darby--one of the most unique and uncompromising singers in modern prog. Successive releases have shown, however, that the band was still fleshing out its collective vision, still a bit unsure of how to realize the tremendous potential laying within the band. 

1. "The Long Fianchetto" (21:01) gentle and rolling music (especially for its sub-genre) with quite a lot of 'tron, gentle vocals and keys, folk-pastoral instrumentation and motifs, as well as a number of sudden exposures and turns into heavier areas. When I first heard this in 2008 I was mesmerized but somehow left cold and empty. Now I quite enjoy the precision mathematical construct and execution. Amy's penchant (and talent) for pioneering her own melodies within the chordal presentations of her band mates is at first frustrating (because it is so unpredictable) and yet, once familiar, marvellous--a sheer delight. (36/40) 

2. "Returglas" (4:12) piano and woodwinds open this before the rest of the band joins in setting up a very slow, gentle pastoral soundscape. I love that the flute and oboe are allowed to play, to soar--before the Middle Eastern themed dance theme takes over. Back and forth we are taken between gentle pastoral and frenzied, almost roiling drunken shanty song--with choral vocalise but no lead vocals! Interesting! Definitely ecclectic! (8.75/10)

3. "Chameleon" (9:00) Mellotron, drums, jazzy bass, and plugged-in acoustic guitar strumming gentle open this JONI MITCHELL-sounding opening. Even the chorus and its instrumental codas between verses have a jazzy-Joni sound and feel. Even Amy's melody is following some Joni-like patterns, singing through key changes as if she's the lead creator of the music. Fender Rhodes and horns continue to add to the illusion. (P.S. I LOVED Joni's jazz phase in the 1970s--Don Juan's Reckless Daughter being one of my Top 10 Albums of All-Time.)  I wish the speed and direction would shift a bit more--and that the guitar solo in the eighth minute were better. (17.5/20)

4. "Om Tare" (7:44) contrary to what the title might lead one to expect, this is a fast-paced showy piece similar to something Steve Howe might love from the YES lexicon. Amy tries to sing over the high speed chase in the third minute in another language (I'm assuming Hindi or Sanskrit). It's like sining over "Sound Chaser". There are some similarities to CYNIC's Focus before the guitar slows himself down (man the bass player is cruising--a little Jeff Berlin inspiration, perhaps?) Interesting but at times incongruously layered. (13/15)

5. "Tacenda for You" (9:34)Amy, flutes, and Fender Rhodes from the opening, joined by bass and drums at 0:40, sustained guitar notes and Hammond arpeggi moving us into something old from the KING CRIMSON cataloque--perhaps "Book of Saturdays". The following return to flute, Fender Rhodes, cymbals and voice is lacking lyrics and vocal melodies to chomp into. The next guitar solo is nice--over the "Book of Saturdays" motif. This then moves into some heavy Mellotron sections over odd time signature drumming, the guitar noodling away his plaintive plea. The next sparsely supported vocal section is quite lovely, Amy's voice stretching out to the bottoms of her range, the lyrics hitting home. Rock guitar takes the lead back over Hammond and 'tron, singing quite emotionally. This is good prog! At 7:46 we're suddenly taken away by a jazzy hammond while the lead guitar tries to maintain his own pace and melody lines. Quite unusual--almost conflicting! Brought to resolution at 8:48 as melody and harmony are restored nicely. Finishes with some Fender play and a line from Amy. Okay! (17.5/20)

6. "When the Moon is in the River of Heaven" (7:46) 'tron supported blues guitar soloing over slow, plodding rhtyhm section. Amy enters over only spacious piano using the same melody line estblished by the guitar. She's quite an effective torch singer! Piano goes classical. Amy tries to match it. Enter Fender Rhodes as Amy continues. Rest of the band slowly, almost clandestinely join in. Beautiful instrumental passage at the end of the fourth minute. This builds and continues, as brushed drums, chunky bass, and multiple keyboards weave in and around each other. Lovely! A top three for me. (13.75/15)

7. "Plaint" (2:35) Amy's solo harp with thunderstorm sounds in the background open this. At the 1:00 mark Amy's voice enters over xylophone and cello. Nice. (4.5/5)

8."The Water Road" (11:13) a portentous classically-infused prog opening with slow paced rhythm section and Mellotron supporting oboe, flute, and cello. At 2:30 the foundational instruments become gently picked acoustic guitars, fretless bass, gently tickling Fender Rhodes, and 'tron while Amy sings once again in her lower registers, almost whispering. Organ joins in during the chorus, then disappears for the second verse. Though this song isn't really exciting or dynamic, it feels very well composed, as if everyone is on the same page, as everyone's hearts are fully into it. A nearly perfect vehicle for conveying Amy's talents. (18.5/20)

Total Time: 73:05 

A collection of wonderfully mature compositions by some stellar veterans of progressive rock music. A solid album through and through that I think the band builds upon with their next releases, 2013's One for Sorrow, Two for Joy, and 2015's Clockwork Universe.

89.31 on the Fishscales = B+/4.5 stars; an excellent addition to any prog lover's music collection. 




10. PENDRAGON Pure

I may have found a new favorite 21st Century Neo Prog Album! I really like this new heavier side of a formerly-syrupy neo-symphonic fan favorite. While I appreciated the skill and sound of the previous incarnation of Pendragon, I never loved anything of theirs. For some reason I love this album! I think it's the fact that the meaningful, literate lyrics are delivered in such a powerful and accessible fashion--with great choruses that you want to sing along with. Also, I think that Nick Barrett has matured into one of the masters of the emotionally charged electric guitar solo--especially in his gift for drawing them out and maintaining and even increasing that emotional provocation. 

Line-up / Musicians:
- Nick Barrett / vocals, guitars, keyboard programming, co-producer 
- Clive Nolan / keyboards, backing vocals 
- Peter Gee / bass guitar 
- Scott Higham / drums, backing vocals 
With: 
- Rod Crisp / harmonica (7)

1. "Indigo" (13:44) (29/30) 

2. "Eraserhead" (9:05) (16/20) 

3. "Comatose" (17:38) (30.375/35) 

 - I - View From The Seashore (7:41) (11.625/15) 

 - II - Space Cadet (4:02) (8.75/10) 

 - III - Home and Dry (5:55) (10/10) 

4. "The Freak Show" (4:26) (8.5/10) 

5. "It's Only Me" (8:16) (18/20) 

Total Time: 53:10 

While some members of the Pendragon fan club have lamented their beloved Neo Prog band's transition from their previous symphonic romanticism to this heavier, more protracted style, I am loving this more than the noodling nostalgia of their old pre-Believe stuff. Plus, their modern lyrics--which are wonderfully accessible--seem to have much more social relevance. 

88.59 on the Fishscales = B+/4.5 stars; a near-masterpiece of progressive rock music.




11. PINEAPPLE THIEF Tightly Unwound

I like this album a lot. Vocalist Bruce SOORD has definitely proved his value to ProgWorld even if his style is often reminiscent of Steven Wilson or Thom Yorke. HIs work is, however, the consistent standout on the album. Like the aforementioned artists, Tightly Unwound is more crossover than full-out prog, and, of course, often blatantly reminiscent of PORCUPINE TREE, the consistency and high level of listenable, likable songs collected here vault PTh, finally, out into their own. They can, IMHO, finally come out of the shadow of PT and be accepted as having contributed some very good, creative (if not innovative), and very engaging music. Yeah! I love so many songs: all of the first six are on my playlist of faves but the finale, "Too Much to Lose" is, again, IMHO, their first major contribution to the catalog of the all-time prog classics. Great Song! Great voice! Great harmonies! Great song collaborations. Great studio engineering tricks.

Truly an excellent addition to any prog-lover's album collection. Sample two of the best songs from the album, "Shoot First" and "My Debt to You" and the awesome PHIDEAUX/PINK FLOYD-like epic, 9. "Too Much to Lose".

Line-up / Musicians:
- Bruce Soord / vocals, guitar, string arrangements
- Steve Kitch / keyboards

- Jon Sykes / bass

- Keith Harrison / drums

1. "My Debt to You" (5:19) very pretty song with a great story (9/10)


2. "Shoot First" (4:12) (9/10)


3. "Sinners" (4:52) good song, unfortunately it's the most blatant PT ripoff on the album (8/10)


4. "The Sorry State" (4:11) starts out a bit too much like Song #1, but eventually claims its own identity. (8/10)


5. "Tightly Wound" (6:35) a refreshingly quirky song with adventurous electronics effects and heavily distorted guitar spurts. Great melodies--with attitude--and a nice symphonic finale. (9/10)


6. "My Bleeding Hand" (4:20) with its catchy electric guitar riffs it takes on quite a RADIOHEAD feel (9/10)


7. "Different World" (10:44) a great epic with quite a range of dynamic diversity (18/20)


8. "And So Say All Of You" (4:05) has quite a little LANDBERK/Reine FISKE feel to it. (9/10)

9. "Too Much To Loose" (15:12) (27/30)

Total Time: 59:30

88.33 on the Fish scales = B+/4.5 stars; a near-masterpiece of progressive rock music.






12. BERSARIN QUARTETT Bersarin Quartett

A string quartet with no strings?!!
     Thomas Bücker's "B3RSARiП QUAЯT3TT" is, contrary to the misleading title, a one man project of electronica. At times the strings sounds and arrangments are so clear and "authentic" sounding that one wonders if there isn't a classically-trained string quartet working with Thomas, but, no! It's all computer generated stuff! And wonderful it is! An example of prog electronic music that is truly taking the sub-genre into new dimensions.
     The computer-generated music of this album is gorgeous, half the time feeling as if it were the computer-tampered treatments of the recordings of a string quartet, the other half sounding as if Christian Fennesz or Alva Noto had been programming and treating the computer/synthesizer music. Gorgeous songs in the vein of Ryuichi Sakamoto and/or Alexandre Desplat or Mark Isham soundtrack music with lots of space and atmosphere and yet a very powerful rhythmic sense. I cannot recommend this album more highly as I feel in it a pushing of the envelope of the potentialities for the crossover/synthesis of electronica and post chamber musics.

Five star songs: 9. "Endlich Am Ziel" (4:38) (10/10); 1. "Oktober" (6:25) (9.5/10); 3. "Inversion" (5:40) (9.25/10); 6. "Die Dinge Sind Nie So Wie Sie Sind" (8:03) (13/15); 7. "Nachtblind" (4:02) (9/10), and; 10. "Mehr Als Alles Andere" (5:47) (9/10).

Four star songs:  2. "Geschichten Von Interesse" (4:55) (8.5/10); 4.  "St. Petersburg" (5:14) (8.6/10); 5. "Und Die Welt Steht Still" (8:51) (12.75/15); 8. "Es Kann Nicht Ewig Winter Sein" (4:27) (8.25/10)

88.04 on the Fishscales = B+/4.5 stars; a near-masterpiece of progressive rock music and a refreshing entry to the Post Rock/Chamber Rock subgenre.




13. FROM.UZ The Overlook

A collection of amazingly diverse songs/song parts. While no song seemlessly rises to perfection--IMHO--every song has several parts of sheer brilliance and bliss. Repeated listens helps take the edge off of some of the rather sudden and abrupt stops, twists, and turns--and familiarity helps to also reveal many of the melodic gems. Many smiles. There are also parts that, IMO, are wasteful and/or too obscure for explanation, but I'll give them an A+ for originality! Every song is a 7 or 8 out of ten, the album is worth four and a half stars--an excellent addition if you're willing to give it numerous listens--moves toward a masterpiece with familiarity. One demerit for the occasional cold, motionlessness other reviewers have mentioned. Sample this, "13th August" (11:55), live "Desert Circle" (15:18) and this live excerpt version of my favorite song from The Overlook, "Crashmind" (4:34) (9/10).

Line-up / Musicians:
- Vitaly Popeloff / guitars
- Albert Khalmurzayev / keyboards 
- Andrew Mara-Novik / bass 
- Vladimir Badirov / drums 

1. Stone Salad (15:17) (26/30)

2. Other Side Of The Water (14:09) (26/30)

3. Crashmind (10:51) (19/20)

4. 13th August (11:53) (22/25)

5. Return To W.I.T. (17:00) (30/35)

Total time: 69:12

87.86 on the Fish scales = just shy of near-masterpiece status; an excellent addition to any progressive rock music collection.


14. THOM BRENNAN Stories from the Forest

An artist who should be better known, this 2008 album puts on display his mastery of "above and below" tension and interplay.

1. "Stories from the Forest - Part 1" (8/10)

2. "Stories from the Forest - Part 2" (4:41) (8.25/10)

3. "Stories from the Forest - Part 3" (6:44) starts slowly, innocuously, but then builds to quite a hypnotic jewel. A top three song for me. (9/10)

4. "Stories from the Forest - Part 4" (9:29) a great bouncy, almost-Berlin School ride. Great synth guitar play at the end. (17.5/20)

5. "Stories from the Forest - Part 5" (6:46) wonderful tension between the gorgeous fairy-spirit foundation at the bottom and the highly-charged electronic guitar-bursts and fairy tweets in the air above. (13.25/15)

6. "Stories from the Forest - Part 6" (8:11) a little more brooding and ominous at the beginning, even the fairy synth work leaves one on an ambiguous edge. (12.5/15)

7. "Stories from the Forest - Part 7" (6:59) opens with FRIPP/ENO-like synth loops before treated piano joins in to take us on a meandering lead. Synth guitar  joins in and takes over the lead in the second minute before nature sounds seem to "wash" clean the forest. Piano returns for the fourth and fifth minute, leading the walk again, before giving way to the guitar as before. Piano and then "washing" insects take us out on a slow fade. (13.25/15)

8. "Stories from the Forest - Part 8" (6:30) a kind of slowed down, prettied up version of "Part 3." (8.75/10)

9. "Stories from the Forest - Part 9" (4:49) opens with some creepy background noises that slowly move forward before some Berlin School synths and piano play take the fore and establish the pace and mood. Great shift at 1:25 with addition of low end sounds/instruments. Another top three song for me. (9.5/10)

10. "Stories from the Forest - Part 10" (5:36) a slow, synthetic start with distant "bird'-like sounds in the lead for the first half of the song. The second half is more nature-filled--as if we are stepping out of the forest, the forest sounds are receding. (8.75/10)

11. "Stories from the Forest - Part 11" (8:49) slow, French soundtrack-like Berlin School soundscape with lots of electrically-treated zither/dulcimer sounding instruments slowly bouncing around for the first 90 seconds. Then the signature Brennan synth-guitar rolls in and takes the lead--though this time within--or even behind--the mix. In the fifth minute deep bass drum and drum kit sounds enter and make a huge impression. Seems to pull together many of the album's essential ingredients; a perfect song to exit with. My final top three song. (18/20)

87.42 on the Fishscales = B/four stars; an excellent addition to any prog lover's music collection--especially if you're into melodic and atmospheric prog electronica.




The Rankings for 2008


1. UNIVERSAL TOTEM ORCHESTRA Magus
2. NOSOUND LightDark
3. DIAGONAL Diagonal
4. JANNICK TOP Infernal Machina
5. PANDORA Dramma di un Poeta Ubriaco
6. FARMERS MARKET Surfin' USSR
7. DUNGEN 4
8. MAGENTA Metamorphosis
9. THIEVES' KITCHEN The Water Road
10. PENDRAGON Pure

11. 
MOON SAFARI Blomljud
12. PINEAPPLE THIEF Tightly Unwound
13. BERSARIN QUARTETT Bersarin Quartett
14. FROM.UZ The Overlook
15. THOM BRENNAN Stories from the Forest
16. MILLENIUM Exist
17. VON HERTZEN BROTHERS Love Remains The Same
18. THE QUIET EARTH ORCHESTRA The Quiet Earth Orchestra
19. DATURAH Reverie
20. WILLOWGLASS Book of Hours

Honorable Mentions: 
RATIONAL DIET At Work
JELLY FICHE Tout ce que j’ai rêvé 
VOTUM Time Must Have a Stop
SOMA PLANET Bholenath
SYRINX Qualia
CYNIC Traced in Air
DARK SHOT One Shot
BELIEVE Yesterday Is a Friend
JEAVESTONE Spices, Species and Poetry Patrol
PANZERBALLETT Starke Stücke
FROST* Experiments in Mass Appeal 
LUNATIC SOUL Lunatic Soul 
IL BACIO DELLA MEDUSA Discesa agl'inferi d'un giovane amante

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