Seal’s debut album, featuring the hit “Crazy”, was released on May 24, 1991. I first heard it in early September 1991, having just moved to Portland, Oregon. I was living with my cousin and his wife, who had the CD, probably because of “Crazy”. I still recall seeing it and, being curious and alone in the house, turning it on and turning it up (they had a nice stereo system). The funky groove of “The Beginning” was compelling out of the gate, but it That Voice—that’s what got my attention immediately. “Who the heck is this guy?” I thought. I was hooked. Turns out the album was produced by Trevor Horn (who I knew from my interest in Yes), who also produced “Seal” (1994) and “Human Being” (1998). Those three albums, for me, are about as perfect of a popular music trio as one will find. (Seal’s 1991 debut, for the record, has sold over 5 million copies.)
While Seal remains in very fine singing form (and has some fun moment’s as a coach on Australia’s “The Voice”), his material since 2000 has not, in my opinion, lived up to the heights set by those three first releases; there have certainly been strong moments, but a lack of consistency.
All of which is a preface to one of my favorite releases of 2022: the 45-song Seal Deluxe 1991. I wanted to splurge on the 4 CD, 2 vinyl set, but I instead opted for the less expensive digital download. There is much here for the devoted and casual fan. First, the album is immaculately produced and recorded; it is an aural treasure, with a really stunning mixture of electronic and acoustic sound. Secondly, That Voice. Seal is one of the finest pop vocalists of the past 30 years, able to navigate rock, funk, dance, soul, R&B, jazz, folk, and just about everything else. (He is also a great songwriter, as Rick Beato explains in detail here.) Third, the album is remixed (disc 1), there are acoustic versions and remasters of premixes of the album (disc 2), a wide range of remastered special remixes (disc 3), and a fascinating early live set from late 1991, in Dublin (disc 4).
The latter has excellent sound, catching Seal in a bit more raw form than his later (and also exceptional) 2005 live set from Paris and showing his willingness to experiment with different approaches. (I’m not sure of the personnel, but the drummer is on fire.) My wife and I saw Seal in concert on November 30, 1994, at the Schnitzer in Portland, and it was one of the finest live shows I’ve seen. The only complaint was that he played only uptempo tunes, foregoing crowd favorites such as “Violet”, which is a stunning piece of jazz-pop-folk. But when it comes to this exceptional set, I have no complaints at all. Is it possible that a similar compilation is in the works for “Seal” (1994)? One can dream (in metaphors or otherwise).
I know that I’d heard of o.R.k. in recent years, but I also know that “Screamnasium” is the first album I’ve heard by the band. Which is surprising, because this is the fourth release by the supergroup, which is fronted by Italian singer/all-around-creative-force LEF (short for Lorenzo Esposito Fornasari), the legendary Pat Mastelotto (King Crimson, Mr. Mister) on drums, Colin Edwin (Porcupine Tree) on bass, and Carmelo Pipitone (Marta sui Tubi) on guitar. This is not prog, although there are plenty of weird notes and chords and song structures. Imagine a crazy but cohesive love child of Soundgarden, Jeff Buckley, King Crimson, Muse, and … other stuff. The playing, singing, and writing is dynamic, powerful, and melodic. Like Soundgarden, the songs are both dark and oddly upbeat (the band insists the album is a work of optimism, which comes through more like flashes of light rather than via upbeat tunes). Pipitone lays down both wonderful, angular riffs and broad atmospherics, and the Edwin/Mastelotto rhythm section is supple, strong, and never simple. And the vocal performances by LEF are, at times, startling in their power, precision, clarity, and range. This is a keeper.
Speaking of Porcupine Tree, HeWhoPlaysAndWritesAndProducesEverything Steven Wilson regrouped with keyboardist Richard Barbieri and drummer Gavin Harrison for a somewhat surprising and completely stellar outing titled Closure/Continuation. It’s all there: the surging guitars, electronic swells, dynamic changes, warm production, distinctive vocals, perfect drumming. “Dignity” is a personal favorite, but every song here is above average. I’ve long appreciated Wilson’s special brand of genre-blurring genius, but this recent interview with Rick Beato took it to another level; it’s a must view for anyone with interest in music and creativity.
The Mars Volta is a group that has been rather maddening to me: some of their songs resonate immediately and deeply (“The Widow” for example, from Frances The Mute), but I’ve struggled with entire albums. There was something about frenetic approach that exhausted me, even while I was always impressed by the remarkable playing and singing. They won me over with “The Mars Volta”, which I suspect has polarized hardcore fans, as it is (gasp) very much a pop album. But, of course, a most distinctive one, as one would expect from guitarist/producer Omar Rodríguez-López and vocalist/lyricist Cedric Bixler-Zavala (vocals, lyrics). The songs are short and mostly “normal” in structure; there aren’t any wild guitar out bursts or dissonance. Instead, there is a restrained, focused artistry at work, with subtle (but often complex) rhythms, lovely soundscapes, a wealth of textures, and a distinct thread of Latin beats and sounds (and lyrics, from the multi-lingual Bixler-Zavala). “Vigil” is a personal favorite: it seems rather slight at first, but builds a gorgeous melody that is then punctuated by short bursts of guitar and a simple but very effective bridge. A remarkable example of a band achieving greater emotional power by focusing on the basics.
The last time King’s X put out an album, I was in my thirties and singer/bassist dUg Pinnock was in his late fifties (he’s now 72); that was 14 years ago. I’ve been a big fan of the band since I first heard “Gretchen Goes to Nebraska” in 1989. Their 1990 release “faith hope love” remains one of my favorite rock albums; it is, arguably, the creative high point for the band. But there have been plenty of highlights, even if Pinnock, guitarist Ty Tabor and drummer Jerry Gaskill have never received the recognition they deserved. “Three Sides of One” sounds both fresh and distinctly King’s X—the vocals and harmonies are fully intact and right up front; Tabor’s riffs and solos are strong and crisp, and the bottom end is as funky and robust as ever. There are a couple of so-so moments song-wise, but there are also very strong, peak moments, notably “Give It Up” and “All God’s Children”. Definitely one of the best musical surprises of 2022.
“Will of the People”, Muse’s 2022 follow-up to 2018’s “Simulation Theory” still has plenty of electronic “stuff” going on, but it feels decidedly warmer and more human than its predecessor, which veered into self-parody territory. Part of the warmth and immediacy is due to two simple but gripping ballads, “Ghosts (How Can I Move On?)” and “Verona”. (The official video for the latter is worth watching.) Of course, there are the big anthems—”Will of the People” and “Won’t Stand Down”—but they are also more immediate, with classic Muse riffs that morph into heavy metal and industrial sounds to great effect. Matt Bellamy’s vocals continue to amaze; yes, the range and power, but also the vulnerable ache and pull. The 2006 album “Black Holes and Revelations” remains my personal favorite, but this is a very solid album with several exceptional moments.
The Norwegian rock quintet Maraton somehow came onto my radar this year with “Unseen Color,” which has elements of Leprous and Gazpacho. Whereas Muse has, I think, struggled at times to use electronic beats and sounds in an organic fashion, Maraton uses them to powerful effect, blending guitar and heavy electronic soundscapes with near perfection. The songs are uniformly strong and often unusual, with lyrics touching on existential literature (Kafka!) and mathematics, carried by the exceptional vocals of Fredrik Bergersen Klemp. While the parallel is not immediately obvious, the production and melding of vocals and electronica reminds me of trip hop/drum and bass duo Lamb. Worth checking out!
Alter Bridge, which rose out (in part) of the ashes of Creed, is one of finest hard rock bands around, featuring the A-list vocals (and backing guitar) of Myles Kennedy, whose resume includes fusion jazz, singing lead for a guy named Slash, and a couple of great solo albums. Pawns & Kings is another notable release; in fact, it might be the band’s best, a perfect example of a band at the height of powers, confident in their identity and letting it fly. I think this is their most eclectic release, with the 8:22 cut “Fable of the Silent Son” demonstrating the full range of the band’s sonic mastery. Mark Tremonti, having released the best Sinatra tribute album in recent memory (more on that in my “favorite jazz of 2022” post, coming soon), shows that his guitar skills have not wavered and that his commitment to heaviness is, if anything, stronger than ever. As Rich Hobson of Classic Rock rightly sums it up: “Make no mistake about it – this is the Rolls-Royce of Alter Bridge records, and a high-water mark to which all rock hopefuls should aspire.”