Tag Archives: prog rock

Space Rock

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Way back in 2013 I posted a couple short missives/teasers (here and here) regarding Simon (son of Phil) Collins’ Sound Of Contact project with multi-instrumentalist/producer Dave Kerzner, and mysteriously failed to follow it up with an album review. Shame on me, then, for whilst Dimensionaut was initially a slow grower, it’s proved to be record deserving of repeated spins over the last year and a half. ‘Nu Prog’ is perhaps rightly derided for borrowing the musical template of the pioneering ’70s acts – long songs, instrumental showboating, conceptual contrivances – without really adding much in terms of originality or imagination. Certainly there are bands guilty on these counts – Riverside, early The Tangent and DeeExpus spring to mind – though for me the cardinal sin committed by such bands is their inability to oftentimes muster a memorable tune. Sound of Contact are not such a band, and whilst I enjoyed Dimensionaut from first listen, it was from repeated spins that I learned to really love it. Another recently-purchased album that falls loosely into the aforementioned ‘genre’ is Please Come Home by John Mitchell, aka Lonely Robot. The two artists (and albums) have, on the face of it much in common: overarching sci-fi themes; driving-force musical presences with a reluctance to commit their names to the project; a preponderance for hummable melody over musical excess (not always the case with ‘prog’ type acts).

Mitchell, and to a lesser extent, Collins are both well established ‘names’, at least on a cult-following level. As a long time Marillion fan I discovered the former thru his previous band Kino, featuring Pete Trewavas on bass guitar. He is also a key member of Jem Godfrey‘s Frost* project (third album, anytime soon?) whose Milliontown album remains a high watermark of Nu Prog. (Ironically, if casual listeners are familiar with Godfrey at all, it’s more likely to be thru his work with pure pop fodder such as Blue, Shayne Ward and Atomic Kitten). PCH could be an album by either of those artists, though, despite some input from Godfrey, it more closely resembles Kino. There is a certain ubiquity of melody and style which is distinctly Mitchell, albeit one which chimes rather well with Godfrey‘s and with the broader Nu Prog aesthetic. You can hear such an aesthetic in the work of bands as disparate as Fair To Midland, Doves, Everything Everything and Mystery Jets; one of making music that perfectly combines the demands of pop immediacy with complexity and depth. It’s not a million miles from the ’70s Art Rock blueprint mapped out by the likes of 10cc, Supertramp, or even Talking Heads. As early as the late ’90s, early ’00s, the idea that ‘Prog is no longer a 4-letter word’ had begun to creep back in. Albums such as Mansun‘s Six, Mercury Rev‘s All Is Dream, Pure Reason Revolution‘s The Dark Third and Secret Machines’ Now Here Is Nowhere attracted much critical acclaim. Radiohead perhaps deserve much of the credit for re-establishing the idea that musical ambition is a worthy pursuit, their own flowering spectacularly – in parallel with popularity and critical acclaim – on OK Computer and the Kid Amnesiac double-whammy. Dimensionaut and Please Come Home wear their cleverness more lightly than those albums: in spite of the sci-fi concept angle, both are perfectly enjoyable as pop pieces, for their well-written songs. Both, as is so true of the best of Nu Prog, hark back to ’80s/’90s pop/rock. I’m not a huge fan of Phil Collins‘ solo output at the best of times (as much as I love so much of his work with Genesis) but I’m not oblivious to the fact that he was incredibly popular; and that doesn’t happen without good reason. His son has clearly imbibed much of what was great about his writing: it’s almost a perfect balance of pop Phil/prog Phil. Lonely Robot tips unselfconciously its hat to ’80s singer-songwriting talent too, in the form of cameos from Go West‘s Peter Cox and Nik Kershaw. Both have, what I like to affectionately call their Porcupine Tree (and there’s another band that certainly belongs amongst the list in the previous paragraph) moments; where metallic riffing rudely, albeit appropriately intrudes into procedings in trademark Nu Prog counterpoint.

On first inspection, they could almost have been produced by the same crew, despite Mitchell’s and Collins’ distinct vocal styles (the latter’s eerily similar to his dad’s, as is his drumming): both exhibit the ubiquity of the new prog era as much as its accomplishment. The jarring, unsettling aspects that say, Robert Fripp, Peters Hammill or Hackett brought to the party back in the day (or latterly Radiohead and Secret Machines) are notable for their absence. Where Crimson, Van Der Graaf and early Genesis could sometimes be fuzzy and disorienting, Nu Prog is smooth prog. I’m conscious that I still haven’t provided a proper review of either album; but if you’re a fan of things proggy I hope I’ve maybe progressed a few yards in whetting your appetite. If you’ve made it this far, check out a couple soundclips now: these are not albums that you want to be missing.

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What’s in a name…

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What indeed?

In the case of prog-pop supergroup, Flying Colors, one might argue the case for a moniker that promises more than it can reasonably hope to deliver. Factor in the title of sophomore release, Second Nature and the musical nostrils detect an air of, what? Complacency? Pretencious indulgence? If the latter is the former, less so.

In point of fact, the (album) title has been hanging around on the substitute bench for quite some time. Aficianados of the neo-prog revival will doubtless be aware that two members of FC have previous together: Mike Portnoy and Neal Morse have collaborated extensively over the last decade and a half; as the American half of Transatlantic; on most of Morse’s solo records and also in tribute acts such as Yellow Matter Custard, paying homage to their shared love of The Beatles. Second Nature was a working title for what eventually emerged as Transatlantic in 2001 (S.M.P.T.e) and was also mooted as a name for that band’s second (and best) album, Bridge Across Forever. It’s perhaps not coincidental that that two-words cliché has finally come to rest on the sleeve of a record that, at times, bears more than a passing resemblance to the project on which Mssrs Morse and Portnoy first joined forces.

Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda.

Open Up Your Eyes also opens the album, and there’s no denying a more than passing similarity to TA and solo- Morse material. It’s a 12-minute ‘epic’ that wouldn’t have been out of place on a TA album and more than justifies its running time: full of melody, harmony and hard-rockin’ hookiness…

The album also finishes with a long-form piece, albeit one quite unlike any previous. Cosmic Symphony is an, er, symphony in three parts; the first of which comes closest thusfar in living up to Portnoy‘s boast that FC dip their toes into the nu-prog/indie-art-rock waters occupied by Muse/Radiohead. Casey McPherson‘s vocal and the timbre of the song bear an uncanny resemblance to Muse circa The Resistance. As a piece, the languid mood reminds me particularly of Montréal, the narrative-based centrepiece of Marillion‘s Sounds That Can’t Be Made.

In-between, the album ploughs, for the most part, the same hooky, hard-rock groove as FC‘s eponymous debut. McPherson is a stronger, rockier singer than (Neal) Morse; Dave LaRue a less melodic, less conspicuous low-end presence than Pete Trewavas and (Steve) Morse : in short, FC adhere closer to rock convention than TA, which is no bad thing following the – relative – disappointment of Kaleidoscope, which generally found (Neal) Morse‘s superior melodic gifts sidelined in favour of fancy, less-memorable arrangements.

Bombs Away irritates me, featuring a melody that feels familiar yet I can’t place.

Points are lost – lyrically – for The Fury Of My Love: it’s the kind of misogynistic, ‘Cruel To Be Kind’ crap that one hoped rock might have deserted decades ago. On the plus side – melodically – it echoes vintage Tears For Fears. But in the main, Second Nature rescues victory from the jaws of a defeat that seems pre-ordained in the title of both album and band. It’s an album that manages to balance – like the aforementioned TFF – virtuosity and accessibility very well indeed. Lead single Mask Machine perfectly exemplifies this, whoaoahwhoahwohoah: singer McPherson achieving the kind of leg-up Ray Wilson ought to have been granted when he briefly fronted Genesis in the late ’90s.

Not without problematic aspects, FC have managed to deliver one of the most interesting. listenbable rock albums of 2014.

 

Shine on you lazy diamonds (part one…)

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If the very words ‘Progressive rock supergroup’ are enough to make your blood run cold – or indeed, boil – then, to paraphrase Obi Wan Kenobi, this is not the post you are looking for…

…If you’re still reading, then; there’s every chance you’re also as excited as I am at the prospect of an 80-minutes-long record, featuring just five ‘songs’; enrobed in psychedelic, sci-fi splendor and dreamed up by the cream of neo-prog talent. Transatlantic, for the uninitiated, is the collaborate efforts since 2001 of Mr Mike Portnoy (then Archduke/drummer of Dream Theater); Roine Stolt (guitarist-singer-songwriter for The Flower Kings/Kaipa); Mr Peter Trewavas (Marillion/Kino/Edison’s Children); and God-bothering prog polymath from Mars (ex-Spock’s Beard) Mr Neal Morse. In the decade-or-so since, they’ve recorded and toured three fantastic albums and the pre-order for their forth, entitled Kaleidoscope is about to open. Shine is the first ‘single’/album trailer, debuted yesterday on the Prog mag website:

Despite the ‘prog supergroup’ tag, Shine couldn’t be much further from the convoluted instrumental showboating of ELP or Mahavishnu. It’s actually a straightforward rock ballad which, if you’re a fan of other Neal Morse projects from Spock’s Beard to Flying Colors will doubtless have a familiar feel. If you’re detecting a whiff of criticism in that last, then you’re at least half right: Morse‘s skill as a writer and singer of ballads – and his melodic sensibility in general – forms a crucial part of Transatlantic‘s appeal for me. Whilst the band is a veritable heavyweight in the musical muscle-stakes, and not afraid of treating itself and fans to extended, demanding workouts – in common with their first two releases, Kaleidoscope is book-ended by two half-hour-long symphonic pieces – each album has included songs that show facility for more economical, pop-rock-oriented writing. We All Need Some Light (from SMPTe, 2001) and Rose Colored Glasses (The Whirlwind, 2009) are fine examples of this kind of vibe and both were highlights of their last tour (on which the band was complemented by ‘all-round utility guy’ Daniel Gildenlöw of Pain Of Salvation fame, upping the ‘super’ stakes). Shine is a song in a similar vein, but, frankly, not in the same league. Where those songs soared and took flight, it merely plods along, struggling for breath. Even Roine Stolt‘s second solo at 4.20 – my favourite thing about the song – sounds a little uninspired by his standards; derivative somewhat of David Gilmour (Comfortably Numb in the wrong key?) and also Trewavas‘ band-mate Steve Rothery, albeit as thrilling as neither.

The country twang that makes itself felt around the two minute mark is a slight departure for the band, though curiously-apposite given that the recordings were begun in Morse‘s adopted home of Nashville; whilst the brief interlude into Floyd-ey psychedelia at 3.47 – predictably, voiced by Portnoy – is sweetly-trippy, yet slightly out of place there. The effects processor conveniently disguises his shortcomings as a vocalist – he and Trewavas provide solid backups and harmonies, but truthfully neither cuts it on lead, Portnoy least of all – but it’s something of a mystery why the band chose to split up the vocal duties at all. The song sounds very Morse and he’s much the strongest singer, even if Stolt‘s more idiosyncratic tone remains more distinctive. And can I mention the video clip? It looks cheap – as much as I love the musty, tumbledown grandeur of the chapel – and is unlikely to either impress their select, if devoted legion of fans or win them any new ones. Maybe a fanclub competition along the lines of Marillion‘s Whatever Is Wrong With You marketing wheeze would have been the way to go. The spark of creativity therein went a long way towards mitigating the nonexistent budget.

Whilst I wouldn’t go as far as to say I don’t like the song, it’s by far the least immediately-impressive tune released by the band thusfar: not since Asia‘s 1982 debut has the ‘super’ been so conspicuous for its absence in a group so deserving, talent-wise, of the appellation. The collective talent in Transatlantic is indeed an embarrassment, yet had this been my introduction to the collaboration I can’t say I’d have been won over, especially given the £40 (+ P&P) price tag on the collectors’ edition hardback set. As it happens, my Trans-virginity (fnarr, fnarr) was taken by Mystery Train (see below) which is better indicative of the band’s general sound and compositional skill, whilst remaining melodic and accessible. I will be buying said product, mind: on the strength of their previous three excellent albums I’m convinced I won’t be disappointed. On The Whirlwind in particular, they did themselves proud, making a record that harked back to the heyday of symphonic prog whilst remaining fresh and accessible. I hope this single doesn’t – ironically – prove to be an indicator that the shine is beginning to wear off.

The Prog article can be read in full here and includes the full tracklisting for the album including a bonus CD of cover versions which showcases some of the band’s diverse roster of influences:

CD1
01. Into The Blue (25:13)
02. Shine (7:28)
03. Black As the Sky (6:45)
04. Beyond The Sun (4:31)
05. Kaleidoscope (31:53)

CD2
01. And You And I (Yes cover) (10:45)
02. Can’t Get It Out Of My Head (ELO cover) (4:46)
03. Conquistador (Procol Harum cover) (4:13)
04. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (Elton John) (3:20)
05. Tin Soldier (Small Faces cover) (3:22)
06. Sylvia (Focus cover) (3:49)
07. Indiscipline (King Crimson cover) (4:45)
08. Nights In White Satin (The Moody Blues cover) (6:13)

Opus Eponymous

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Via Roadrunner site, tantalizing early news regarding Dream Theater‘s upcoming, self-titled new album. Has it really been 2 years since the Long Island quintet released their last, aptly-titled, A Dramatic Turn of Events? Where did that time go?

ADToE was apt for two reasons: as long-time followers were aware at the time, it marked the band’s first studio release and tour without founding-member and ‘back seat’ driving-force, drummer Mike Portnoy. Although Portnoy was never a principal songwriter, his immersion in DT‘s career trajectory in every other way – de facto spokesperson, fan club manager, (co) producer (with guitarist, John Petrucci) oftentimes lyricist, backing vocalist and over-arching musical director –  gave him enormous influence within the DT organisation.

Happily, ADToE turned out to be DT‘s strongest album since 2005’s Octavarium; dialing back a little on the rock virtuoso showboating to concentrate on more focused songwriting and memorable melodies. Said music was already written by the time the band selected Mike Mangini as a permanent replacement for the departed Portnoy, and his playing, competent and powerful as it is, reflects that. Portnoy, a devotee of the Keith Moon school, demonstrated a propensity for elevating percussion to almost lead-instrument position. Intricate fills vied for attention with Petrucci‘s guitar pyrotechnics or doubled Jordan Rudess‘ synth lines; cymbal splashes and double-bass figures provided signature, omnipresent punctuation. In playing around existing, almost-finished compositions, Mangini created parts that were sympathetic whilst taken down a notch: DT‘s signature sound very much present and correct yet subtly-different. This time around he‘s been involved from the off, so it’ll be interesting to see how that affects the dynamic of the music. Will his parts sit so unobtrusively – albeit tightly – within the compositions as before or will the confidence gained from two years touring allow his percussive personality to take the fore and pull the band in new directions?

Progressive bands ought to progress after all. Whether or not you cared for all the resulting music, there’s no doubt that changes of line-up and circumstance forced protagonists of the old-guard – Yes, Genesis, Crimson – to try out new ideas, instrumentation and styles. If DT have been guilty of one musical crime over the years, it’s pushing the limits of their virtuoso talents at times at the expense of their songwriting and lyrical development and the abandonment of strong melody in favour of dizzying speed and tricky rhythmic shifts. 2007’s Systematic Chaos was perhaps their nadir in this respect: In the Presence of Enemies part 1 was a storming opener, Forsaken a great power ballad and Atonement perhaps the most satisfying segment of the 12-Step suite since it began way back on 6DOIT (and I liked, and miss Portnoy‘s embrace of contrasting, death-influenced vocal stylings). But there was far too much instrumental wankery elsewhere, and Petrucci – a patchy lyricist at best – really let the side down on the lyric front with some cringeworthy Dungeons & Dragons cliches. Black Clouds & Silver Linings (2009) was a partial return, still struggling lyrically, albeit back in the real world but worth a punt for Petrucci‘s lovely power ballad, Wither, and epic album-bookends A Nightmare to Remember and The Count of Tuscany – the latter a career highlight up there with Blind Faith, Hell’s Kitchen/Lines in the Sand and the mighty Octavarium suite in my opinion. And by the time ADToE rolled out they really hit a new stride, songwise, with only Lost Not Forgotten and Outcry outstaying their welcome, and This Is the Life, Far From Heaven and Beneath the Surface demonstrating genuine, ‘tug-the-heartstrings’ mastery of emotional and melodic nuance. Build Me Up, Break Me Down had a pleasing, contemporary pop rock sensibility about it, too; and I for one would love to see DT develop this aspect of their oevre (mind you, I like Falling Into Infinity, which was made under commercial sufferance and is none the worse for it – not a popular opinion, mind) so I’d be curious to hear what they could come up with if they discovered their poppier sensibilities of their own volition, much as Marillion did with .com or Crimson circa Discipline).

Self-titling their 12th studio album could be read (as Petrucci implies, above) as a statement of intent; an attempt to record the definitive Dream Theater long-player. For many, that accolade belongs to their second album, 1992’s Images and Words, though the aforementioned Octavarium is also a critical and fan favourite. In truth, though, their fanbase well reflects the adage that you can’t please all of the people, all of the time; and the record is sure to divide the following once again. For me, they haven’t produced an album of wall-to-wall brilliance for a long time: Octavarium came damn close, but given the upward curve since Systematic Chaos I’m expecting good things.

In the meantime, here’s a few personal highlights from the band’s career to date:

Like father, like son (update)

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Further to Like Father, like son, soundclips from the forthcoming Dimensionaut album are now available via the Sound of Contact website.

Sound of Contact is the new project from Simon Collins (son of Phil) and is something of a nod to his dad’s work in the nascent prog scene of the ’70s, albeit with a ’00s twist. If you’re a fan of Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic, Frost*, Beardfish and DeeExpus this may well be your proverbial cup of musical tea.

It’s tricky to get a proper feel for the album from such short soundclips – album trailers, like movie trailers tend to be a compilation of all the exciting bits without the filler, and I felt kinda stung by the last generic, derivative DeeExpus record.

But if Collins has inherited a modicum of his dad’s talent along with the looks (spookily like Phil from his Genesis days) we should be in for a treat. Nick Davis (Genesis, Tony Banks, Marillion)behind the mixing desk and John Wesley (Porcupine Tree, Fish) on guitar also bode well for prog-fans. It’s a prog/space rock album with a sci-fi theme, if that helps…

Here’s the teaser:

Fresh from the vault (10)

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Liverpool aside, is there a city in the UK more crucial in the history of our rock scene than Manchester? The Hollies, 10cc, Buzzcocks, Joy Division/New Order, The Smiths, The Stone Roses, Oasis, The Happy Mondays/Black Grape… The now defunct Oceansize continued that tradition of making daring, against the then-fashionable, superlative guitar-based rock music. Their trio of EPs in the late ’90s/early ’00s garnered attention in the British indie press, and debut LP Effloresce earned them an instant cult-following with it’s post-rock soundscapes, driving riffs and compositional complexity. Thanks to the likes of The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, Mansun, Pure Reason Revolution and Porcupine Tree, musicality and ambition were back in, and prog was no longer the dirty word it had been back in the Britpop years.

Second album, Everyone Into Position, though generally critically-acclaimed, lost marks in some quarters for attempting to be too diverse: to me that’s its strength. Over its 70-min duration, the mood is constantly shifting and evolving, both within individual songs and as a unified piece. It’s a cliche to talk of a ‘musical journey’, but totally apposite here, and it’s a journey at times as blissful and awe-inspiring as gently orbiting the Earth, at others more akin to an extended motorway pile-up; full of jarring impacts, life-before-my eyes slo-mo and time-stands-still moments. And on the subject of cliches, how many bands boast – exaggeratedly, in the main – of being musically hard to pin down? Oceansize were genuinely difficult to categorize, though: there are moments of metal intensity, sparse post-rock repetition and enough tricky time-sigs to please the prog-heads, with flashes of Manc rudeboy swagger. Deep, bowel-stirring riffage is interspersed with lush atmospheric passages, vocalist Mike Vennart employs similarly-diverse approaches from a darkly-seductive whisper to demented, unintellible screaming: he cites Cardiacs and Mr Bungle as his favourite rock artists, also slyly admitting to being a big Maiden fan in his youth – that’s an interesting mix of influences right there…

Imagine members of Tool, Deftones, King Crimson, The Beta Band, Radiohead and Gazpacho joining forces to form the ultimate art-rock supergroup: it’s that good.

Since the band’s demise following fourth long-player Self-Preserved While The Bodies Float Up, Vennart and guitarist/keyboardist Gambler have followed the more atmospheric thread with their British Theatre project, whilst guitarist Steve Durose has joined the ranks of fellow-Manc-based heavy space-rockers, Amplifier, following a stint as their touring guitarist. Both bands have created fine music, but for my money Oceansize combines the best of both: pummelling rock intensity and nuanced atmospheric beauty. Like Sweden’s Opeth, it’s the sheer contrast in musical mood from moment to moment, song to song that gives them their edge: the Home and Minor EP, like the latter band’s Damnation album, eschewed their more metallic leanings in favour of a more mellow vibe, and like Damnation, whilst undeniably beautiful it’s the band’s least interesting release. Everyone…, along with third album Frames is a record I come back to time and again and it never fails to blow me away.

Three Tools

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I’ve been concentrating on the political strand of my blog lately, to the detriment of my rock’n’roll persusions. I don’t apologise for that: media stories have been cropping up that have rightly grabbed my attention: I’ve been saddened and angered by by knee-jerk, bigoted responses to timely and perceptive social commentary by Suzanne Moore; and conversely felt psychically-restored by displays of public anger over the Jyoti Singh Pandey rape incident in Delhi: in a world where violence is normalized it’s good to be reminded that people (as Faith No More once sung) care a lot.

So today let there be rock… with a little bit of politics.

Tool were part of the ’90s alternative rock movement in the US – which included the likes of Nirvana, Hole, L7 and Rage Against The Machine – in Amerika. They attempted to kick back against the then-prevalent tide of cock-rock by embracing Feminism, and rejecting racism, homophobia and corporate politics along with the recognizable ‘rock star’ look.

Artistically, they embraced a range of diverse influences including Metal; Prog Rock (notably King Crimson); Punk; anti-capitalism; expressionist theatre and mysticism to create a brand which remains unique in the annals of US hard rock. Singer and lyricist, Maynard James Keenan is, in my mind, one of the all-time great rock vocalists; able to communicate pathos and anger; tenderness and disgust and often in the same song.

Despite Keenan having contributed to some worthy musical endeavors under the Puscifer and A Perfect Circle appelations, I’m personally itching for some new Tool (fnarr, fnarr) and persistent rumors suggest new material is on the way, albeit slowly…

The Pot and Hooker With a Penis are songs about hypocrisy; Wings for Marie/10,000 Days is both tribute and lament, inspired by Keenan‘s mother who died in 2003 after a prolonged illness. It’s one of my all time favourite songs by anyone: Keenan‘s puts in his best ever vocal performances and I choke up every time I hear it.

So enjoy…