It never fails – I post a “Best of 20_ _” list, and then up pops a masterpiece that I missed. That is the case with 2019 and Pendragon’s wonderful album, Love Over Fear. Ah well, better late than never, right?
Pendragon is a British prog band whose illustrious history stretches all the way back to 1978, when punk was all the rage, and prog was definitely not in vogue. Yet, despite wild swings in musical fashion, Pendragon has remained true to their vision, and they are all the more respected for it.
Nick Barrett (guitars, vocal, keyboards) is the one constant through the decades, and he writes all the songs on Love Over Fear. He is assisted by long-time bandmates Clive Nolan (keyboards) and Peter Gee (bass), as well as Jan Vincent Velazco (drums and percussion). A review copy of the album was in my DropBox, and I decided to give it a listen.
After five straight repeat listens, I ordered a hard copy. You won’t find them on Spotify, so if you want to hear this exceptionally fine album, support the band and order a copy for yourself at pendragon.mu.
What sets Love Over Fear apart from the embarrassment of riches that 2019 blessed prog fans with? First, the music. The first track, Everything, bursts forth from your speakers with all the exuberance of a Riding The Scree. Starfish and the Moon is a pensive piano-based ballad featuring a timeless melody and an airy guitar solo. Truth And Lies is a slow building, majestic song whose overdubbed acoustic guitars lulls the listener into a sense of languor until a wicked electric guitar solo takes over. 360 Degrees is the poppiest of the lot, with a hook (played on violin by Zoe Devenish) that lodges itself in your brain and won’t leave. If it had been released in 1982 (the year of C’mon Eileen), it would be a massive international hit single. Eternal Light is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard. It sends the listener up to the heights of heaven. Who Really Are We? is a viciously rocking track with a Kashmir-worthy guitar riff that crushes everything in its path. Heck, I could go on in a similar vein for every song on Love Over Fear. Every single track is exceptionally fine – I had a hard time getting through the album, because I kept hitting repeat.
Second, the words. After I had the actual CD in my hands, and I was able to peruse Barrett’s lyrics, I was blown away with his courage and vision. Love Over Fear is a cri de coeur against the current “cancel culture” that is having a reign of terror on social media, and a plea to learn from the wisdom previous generations accumulated through hard experience and suffering. Take these lines from Everything:
The spectrum is a lie
Love is the new hate
Hate is the new love
We’ve all been roundly deceived
And swallowed all the bait
Or how about these from Truth and Lies:
Farewell my trusted friends
These books they burn transcend
The hunger we have for the knowledge
For wisdom and the wise
Deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole
Deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole
The lie told often enough as sooth becomes the truth
And these from the centerpiece, Eternal Light:
Turn off that TV set and read a book instead
Read about the world and the universe
Don’t fill your snowflake head
With how beautiful I am
And, finally, from Who Really Are We?, a warning of the soft totalitarianism taking over the West:
The books of Solzhenitsyn
The wisdom of kings
Censored plays and words
And all that can bring
It seeks to divide us
While pretending to unite us
And neither they repented of their murders
And I see their gulag faces
Frozen to the floor
Love’s become the new hate’s become the new love
And therein lies the biggest deception of all
You can’t fight it
It’s the law
Nick Barrett is a 21st century prophet – proclaiming uncomfortable truths about our current culture. He is begging us to return to those thinkers who built civilization, and turn away from those who seek to tear it down. It doesn’t hurt that his jeremiad is wrapped in such appealing musical accompaniment. Love Over Fear isn’t one of the best albums of 2019; it is one of the best of the last decade. May love triumph over fear.
Neal Morse is giving away a collection of songs called Hope And A Future.
Here’s his letter explaining his motivation:
From Neal Morse:
“As we all crowd around our televisions and read our news feeds concerning the ever-changing nature of the coronavirus, I am sensing a wave of hopelessness, fear and uncertainty unlike anything I can remember.
“Many times there have been extreme difficulties in regions or nations, but this is a trial for all humanity…and, as in any time of testing, many will fall into the depths of hopelessness. When hope disappears, all seems lost.
“But it’s not.
“So I have been thinking…what can I do? How can I help? I shared that feeling with the Radiant team and we came up with this idea: a free collection of Neal Morse songs titled “Hope and a Future”.
“I’ve tried to interject elements of hope in my music for as far back as I can remember, so we have made a special album of songs from my entire catalogue, accenting the uplifting and affirming, to help you navigate these unchartered waters with peace and blessed assurance.
“Effective immediately, you can download this collection of songs free of charge from the Radiant website by clicking the button below.
“My deepest desire is that you will find something in these songs — a word, a phrase, a concept — that you can latch onto and will help you and your family through this season.
“Your download will also contain a document that we put together containing some great quotes regarding hope.
“In closing, let me encourage you with this. No matter the circumstances or how things appear, let “the love that never dies” fill your heart today and be the “wind at your back” that brings you to a “peaceful harbor” in the days ahead.”
With much love,
You can download the album (which comes with a very nice PDF booklet) here.
The Neal Morse Band has just released its document of last year’s Great Adventour, the tour in support of their The Great Adventure album. As usual, it is a generous package consisting of 2 CDs and 2 Blu-ray discs.
The Great Adventure is, in my opinion, the NMB’s best album so far, so I was eager to see the show they put on to showcase it. Live In Brno does not disappoint. They play the entire 2-CD album, and close with a spectacular Great Medley.
The show in Brno took place April 7, 2019, midway through their European tour, which followed a North American tour. There are signs of wear and tear on Neal’s voice, but he more than makes up for it with passion and emotion. It is interesting that as the NMB evolves, Neal has become somewhat less of a focal point in their live show, giving up many lead vocal spots to the incredibly talented Eric Gillette, as well as Bill Hubauer. That is fine with me, since Gillette has one of the finest voices in rock today. That said, this is definitely Neal’s production, as evidenced by his energetic moving about the stage, and his creative costume changes throughout the set. At various times he appears as a hooded mystery man, a ragged wanderer, a mad hatter, and other personae.
I’ve rarely seen a group of individuals lock together and perform as one coordinated unit the way Neal (keyboards, guitars, vocals), Randy George (bass), Bill Hubauer (keyboards, vocals), Eric Gillette (guitar, vocals), and the mighty Mike Portnoy (drums, vocals) do during this show. It really is amazing how tight and powerful they are on every single song.
And that is what makes The Great Adventure such an excellent album – the variety and high quality of every song. There is prog, metal, power pop, and balladry contained in this set, and the band successfully tackles these various styles with ease. The highlights are To The River, Hey Ho Let’s Go, Vanity Fair, The Great Despair, and A Love That Never Dies.
A Love That Never Dies is the final song, and as the audience joins with the band to sing the chorus it is a truly ecstatic moment. It’s no wonder Morse is visibly overcome with emotion.
The encore is a 25-minute medley of selections from every one of Neal’s albums beginning with Testimony and continuing through Similitude Of A Dream. What is clear is how consistently excellent Neal’s output has been since he began his solo career. He really hasn’t had a single clunker in his entire discography.
The Blu-ray video of the show is well-shot with lots of different perspectives of the stage. My only quibble is that the mix is a 2.0 stereo one. If an artist goes to the trouble of releasing something on Blu-ray, he should mix it to 5.1 channels.
The second Blu-ray has two almost hour-length videos documenting the North American and European tours with lots of behind-the-scenes footage. Interesting and fun, but not essential. It also includes the official music videos for I Got To Run, The Great Adventure, Welcome To The World, and The Great Despair.
Neal has released visual documents of practically every tour he has done, and The Great Adventour – Live In Brno 2019 is one of the best. Highly recommended for both the devoted fan and the curious.
The bard – singer, poet, truth teller. The one who expressed a community’s hopes, fears, and values in a form that everyone could immediately grasp and be inspired by. Every tribe needs someone who can remind them of their virtues and warn them of dangers. The prog tribe has a new bard, The Bardic Depths, comprised of Dave Bandana (music) and Brad Birzer (lyrics), with an all-star supporting cast of musicians.
Their eponymous debut album, The Bardic Depths, explores how vital true friendship is for people to survive in a fallen and dangerous world. It focuses on The Inklings, a group of 20th century British writers/philosophers/professors: J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Owen Barfield. They were survivors of The Great War – that cataclysmic conflict that signaled the end of liberal western civilization.
Our journey begins with the song “The Trenches” and a spoken excerpt from the memoir of a veteran (C. S. Lewis, maybe?) of The Great War. As Birzer reads the soldier’s account of the appalling conditions in the trenches, Bandana lays down a bed of ominous synthesizers. At the point where the soldier remembers the first time he heard a bullet whistle past his head, we are treated to a beautiful guitar solo by Kevin McCormick as various voices call out, “This is war!”
The ancient Greek poet Homer is the primal bard of western civilization, and Birzer’s lyrics make the connection to him explicit, as Bandana sings, “So this is what Odysseus felt/So this is what Leonidas felt…” and ending with “So, this is what Ronald [Tolkien] felt/This is what Jack [Lewis] felt/This is what Owen [Barfield] felt”.
In the second track, “Biting Coals”, we gather in a cozy pub with Tolkien, Lewis, and Barfield to “meet, smoke, and drink”, and wonder “Where is fair Albion/What has happened to the West?” This track evokes the best moments of classic Floyd, with strummed acoustic guitars, Bandana’s warm and intimate vocals, and majestic washes of synths. This is a wonderful song that never rushes the moment, allowing the listener to contemplate along with The Inklings if there is a way forward for civilized men when everything that was once certain and established is no longer.
Next up are the three central “Depths” songs: “Depths of Time”, “Depths of Imagination”, and “Depths of Soul”. “Depths of Time” is the longest track on the album at 12:35, and it is a standout. The first four and a half minutes feature a languid sax (Peter Jones, Camel/Tiger Moth Tales) gracefully soloing over some Vangelis-sounding synths. Once again, nothing is rushed – the music is allowed to develop at its own pace which increases the listener’s anticipation. That anticipation is well satisfied with the middle section, “The Flicker”, featuring a compulsively catchy and disco-y melody and beat. An edit of this section is the album’s first single, and it’s a great choice, rivaling the radio-friendly Alan Parsons Project at their ‘70s-era best.
“Depths of Imagination” celebrates the Inklings’ literary gifts, and how they bounced ideas off of each other to improve their art. “In brotherhood, we share and shape/In brotherhood, we hone and create.” Musically, this is a straightforward rocker, with a propulsive guitar riff and wicked synthesizer solo that captures the excitement of artists creating and collaborating.
“Depths of Soul” is a simple, almost creedal recitation of the Inklings’ faith in beauty, truth, and the excellent, and their efforts to bring them to light through their art: “There is a glass through which we see darkly/There is the spotless mirror/There is the Light/There is the reflection/Here is the shadow/But there is no nothingness/All moves with grace/Or it moves not at all.” Peter Jones returns with another excellent performance on sax, trading licks with Gareth Cole’s guitar. The melody is leavened with a little Floyd influence, especially in the final bars. Very tasty, indeed!
Which brings us to the final two tracks, “The End” and “Legacies”. “The End” chronicles the splintering of the Inklings’ brotherhood, and their recognition that human frailty is inescapable. “To the world we sang/To the world we spoke/To the world we enchanted/Yet, there is always frailty.” Bandana’s music perfectly complements the sentiments of the lyrics – he creates a hushed, delicate atmosphere through piano, cello, and flute. Of course, all good things on this earth must end, and the Inklings’ friendship was no exception. As Bandanna sings of the Inklings’ dissolution, there is palpable sadness and regret.
If The Bardic Depths closed with “The End”, it would leave the listener without any catharsis. Fortunately, we have “Legacies”, a celebration of the incredible literary legacies of Lewis and Tolkien. It’s hard to imagine a world without Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and Space Trilogy, let alone Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Even though their fiction was set in fantasy worlds, they used them to hold up a mirror to our own world and remind countless readers of eternal truths that must never be forgotten. In the dark ages of the 20th century, Lewis, Tolkien, and Barfield nurtured the flame of Christendom. The music is appropriately joyous, featuring lush vocal harmonies worthy of Big Big Train. Gareth Cole and Robin Armstrong (Cosmograf) both contribute stellar guitar work on this standout track.
The Bardic Depths is set for release on March 20, 2020, on Robin Armstrong’s new label, Gravity Dream. Dave Bandana is the primary musician/vocalist/composer, and it features an impressive lineup of artists from the world of prog rock including the aforementioned Kevin McCormick and Peter Jones, as well as Tim Gehrt on drums (Streets/Steve Walsh), Gareth Cole on guitar (Tom Slatter/Fractal Mirror), and the marvelous Paolo Limoli on various keyboards. Mr. Armstrong himself contributes keyboards, guitars and vocals. It’s a very impressive debut, full of atmospheric musical passages and inspiring lyrics. This is an album to savor slowly and with appreciation, like a sip of single-malt scotch. And just as with a fine scotch, it has all kinds of hints and complexities that reward repeated hearings. Fans of classic Pink Floyd, Alan Parsons Project, and Cosmograf should definitely snap this one up. Even though 2020 is just getting underway, The Bardic Depths is a contender for one of the best albums of the year.
Our own Dr. Brad Birzer joins hosts Scott Bertram and Jeff Blehar for an in-depth discussion of Rush on their Political Beats podcast. The more than 2 1/2 hour conversation begins with Rush’s debut album and continues all the way through Clockwork Angels. It’s a lot of fun to listen to, even if you aren’t a Rush fanatic. Jeff Blehar had never heard a single Rush song before he listened to their entire discography in preparation for this episode, and his takes on their various albums are refreshingly honest and fair.
One of the highlights of 2017 was I Am The Manic Whale’s second album, Gathering the Waters.
Here’s their press release for the upcoming third album, Things Unseen:
Things Unseen by I Am The Manic Whale
Formats: CD, vinyl, download
Labels: Independent (CD/download)
Plane Groovy (vinyl)
Run time: 65 minutes
The Deplorable Word 7:56
Into The Blue 6:28
Build It Up Again 7:03
Halcyon Day 5:28
Valenta Scream 7:19
Following the success of 2017s Gathering The Waters, Michael, David, John and Ben have been working hard writing, recording and producing 8 more songs of intelligent, energetic, beautiful, whimsical, thought provoking and inspiring progressive rock for your listening pleasure.
The boys have again chosen to work with the mighty Rob “mix wizard” Aubrey at Aubitt studios and the result, Things Unseen, will be released on the 24th of April on CD through the band’s bandcamp page and as a download in all the usual places. There will also be a vinyl release courtesy of the magnificent Chris Topham and Plane Groovy, including a limited run on coloured vinyl.
So what are the songs about? Michael Whiteman (bass/vocals) explains; “Expect the unexpected. These songs aren’t about what you might at first think. They are inspired by urban myth, fantasy literature, ecology, celebrity culture, a baby’s smile, a summer afternoon at Grey’s Court, interlocking block construction toys and a British engineering marvel. What more could you want?”
“We are delighted to be working with Plane Groovy again,” said John Murphy (keyboard/vocals). “We’re very proud of this album and knowing that it’ll be available in such a great quality 180 gram double vinyl version is incredibly exciting. Vinyl is so visceral, so tactile and above all, so large that we’re even able to include some bonus music on the fourth side; a live recording of Derelict, our 20 minute epic song about an abandoned swimming pool, which we recorded one night at a theatre in Reading last year. The night of that show, I heard that Reading even has a swimming pool somewhere, which made playing the song feel even more poignant.”
David Addis (guitar/vocals) had this to say; “Things Unseen has been a labour of love for three years, and the conception reaches back to some musical ideas that have been in incubation for over a decade. We hope everyone will have something to relate to on the album and that it conjures up some tangible and fantastical images. Also, the metal parts kick ass.”
Ben Hartley (drums/vocals) said this; “I am thrilled that Things Unseen is coming out soon. Pre-orders will be available on our bandcamp page for CDs and Burning Shed for the vinyl from Monday 10th of February. We’re also setting up some crowdfunding options through bandcamp, so people can help us finish the album. These include booking us for a house concert, purchasing sheet music and sticks I used during the recording process, or buying a cover song of your choice, which we will lovingly make for you.”
I freely admit that I am an Anglophile. When I was 13, my father took a one-semester sabbatical from Vanderbilt University – where he was a materials science professor – to do research at Cambridge University. He loved to tell me how he worked in the same lab where J. J. Thomson discovered electrons. Our family lived in a house in Cambridge, and I went to school at Comberton Village College. The few months we were there were some of the happiest of my life.
I don’t know how we first learned about brass rubbing, but we quickly adopted it as our family hobby while we lived in England. Brasses are engraved plates of brass that were placed over tombs in English churches. They were popular from the 1200’s until Victorian times, and they were often quite ornate representations of the person they commemorated. Many are over six feet long and portray knight crusaders. Others are more modest in size, and they might represent prosperous merchants or accomplished academics.
Brass rubbing is the same as putting a penny under a piece of paper and rubbing it with a crayon. As you rub, all the details of the penny emerge onto the paper. With a medieval brass, it’s same principle, just on a much larger scale.
My family had a book that catalogued all of the brasses in Europe and Great Britain. Every week, we would locate a promising brass somewhere within driving distance and spend a Saturday afternoon making rubbings of it. Some small country churches had many beautiful examples, hidden under old rugs in the aisles, or atop sarcophagi in side chapels.
I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but our family hobby ended up being a marvelous way of visiting out-of-the-way villages all over East Anglia. We even got fairly proficient at spotting churches that were likely to contain hidden brass treasures. While we worked, the local vicar would often stop by to chat with us and share the history of the church and the person under the brass. To my 13-year-old eyes and ears, these impossibly old churches and the persons buried in them came to life, and I grew to love British culture and history.
Which is a convoluted way of explaining why I also love Big Big Train, possibly the most “British” group working today. In song after song, they sing of forgotten heroes and heroines, everyday Britons who labored without complaint to make their communities safe and prosperous. As an American, I don’t understand all of the references in their lyrics, but, God bless ‘em, their albums contain enough notes for me to get the gist of what they are trying to convey.
One of Big Big Train’s albums that is most grounded in English life is English Electric Part One. (Even the title is a reference that is easily missed by a non-Britisher. English Electric manufactured diesel engines for trains.) It is also one of the strongest set of songs they ever recorded.
Released in September of 2012, it came two years after BBT’s Far Skies, Deep Time EP, and three years after The Underfall Yard. So BBT fans were eager to hear new music from them, and English Electric did not disappoint. From the energetic opener The First Rebreather to the immensely satisfying closer Hedgerow, there is not a weak track on this perfectly sequenced album. Even the cover art, featuring Matt Sefton’s close up photos of rusted and worn metal surfaces, contributes to the sense of past glories and forgotten men and women.
The Underfall Yard was the first album that featured vocalist/flutist David Longdon, and with English Electric Part One, he is a fully integrated member of the group. Drummer Nick D’Virgilio is also officially on board, so the original core trio of Greg Spawton, Dave Gregory, and Andy Poole is now a quintet.
The First Rebreather is a tale of diver Alexander Lambert, who, in 1880, used an experimental “rebreather” (like today’s scuba equipment) to rescue some workmen who were trapped in an underground tunnel. While they were digging the tunnel, they struck a spring which quickly flooded their exit. Lambert used the rebreather to swim 1000 feet in total darkness to reach the trapped workers. Greg Spawton brilliantly imagines Lambert as a “mummer” (a British folk actor who brings dead characters to life). The guitar-driven melody features a beautiful string interlude composed by Dave Gregory. The musical tension builds inexorably until it is blessedly released with the spring water bursting out to the words “Here she comes/the sleeper wakes/ten thousand years/she lay in wait for this.”
After the intense drama of The First Rebreather, we need a little relief, and Longdon’s Uncle Jack is the perfect song for that. It starts with a down-home banjo riff that is soon augmented with fiddle, keyboards, double bass, and melodica. It features one of the most infectious melodies BBT has ever recorded, particularly when Lily and Violet Adams chime in on background vocals to sing, “Rose Hips/Haw Berries/Hedgerow/Dry Stone/Dog Rose/Honeysuckle/Blackbirds/Red Wing” – all inconspicuous and mundane sights of an outdoor stroll, but to Longdon’s coal miner Uncle Jack they are magical elements that cannot be taken for granted. Spending hours toiling underground makes any time in the sun outdoors infinitely precious.
Spawton’s Winchester From St. Giles’ Hill is a beautiful ode to the historic town of Winchester. Its heritage goes back to ancient times of chalkhills and Alfred. Danny Manners’ piano and Longdon’s flute combine for an exquisite duet on this celebration of a quintessentially British town.
Judas Unrepentent is a tribute to Tom Keating, a frustrated artist who turned to painting forgeries of masters’ works to undermine the art establishment. He left clues in all his works, and he was eventually found out. He has since passed away, but he has the last laugh, as his art now fetches high prices. “So now we can all buy/Real genuine fakes/That’s posthumous fame/It’s always the same”. Another Longdon composition, this track features an insistent rhythmic base supporting an irresistible melodic hook and cascading vocal harmonies. It is one of the most enjoyable songs in BBT’s entire catalog.
Summoned By Bells is a gentle celebration of Spawton’s mother’s hometown of Leicester. Spawton’s lyrics describe the nostalgia and disorientation one feels when returning to a place of one’s childhood after it has changed and evolved: “A stone’s throw from the line/some of the old places survive/ a golden thread in time.” Once again, Danny Manners’ piano playing is masterful, and a musical theme emerges that will be heard again in the finale, Hedgerow.
Upton Heath is a Spawton/Longdon collaboration, and it draws on the strengths of both songwriters. The melody conveys a yearning that cannot be put into words, yet the lyrics complement it perfectly. Ethereal voices sing, “And all that we are/And all that we shall be/Walk with me/Up on Upton Heath” and transform the simple activity of strolling through the countryside into a sacramental act. The instrumentation is all acoustic – this is timeless folk music, and like the best folk music, it manages to evoke contradictory emotions. Listening to it makes me melancholy and joyful at the same time. It is a masterpiece, plain and simple.
From the heavenly heights of Upton Heath, we are brought down to earth with a crash by the harrowing A Boy In Darkness. This song begins with a clear-eyed depiction of the horrors of child labor in 19th century British coal mines and fast forwards to the suffering of abused children in our supposedly more enlightened times. It is a fearless and unflinching song, performed with sensitivity. It doesn’t preach; it just makes its case. You have to have a heart of stone to not say a prayer for the young innocents who suffer after hearing this song.
English Electric Part One finishes with another masterpiece, the Longdon/Poole/Spawton composed Hedgerow. An ebullient guitar riff kicks it off, and before you know it, we’re off on another jaunt outdoors with Uncle Jack. Musical and lyrical motifs from Uncle Jack, Summoned By Bells, and Upton Heath pop up, tying together the entire album into a satisfying whole. It is the perfect conclusion to a song cycle that celebrates all that is good (and weeps for some that is bad) in England.
I titled this reflection on English Electric Part One The Overshadowed Child Of Big Big Train, because one year later they released English Electric Part Two, and a few months after that they combined both (with a few extra tracks) into English Electric: Full Power. Full Power is a gorgeous two-disc package with a huge full-color booklet featuring explanatory notes on every song, brief bios of all the contributors, and beautiful photos. It makes sense to plunk down the money for the two-disc set, right?
Well, yes, but I also want to make the case for English Electric Part One as a major work that deserves its own place in the BBT pantheon. As I stated at the beginning of this essay, it is a perfectly sequenced album, moving effortlessly from peak to musical peak. Spawton and Longdon both subsume their individual songwriting styles to serve the needs of the group, and as a result come up with some of their finest efforts ever. There is quite a large supporting cast of musicians (including future official members Danny Manners and Rachel Hall), but every song sounds intimate, like someone tapping you on the shoulder and asking, “Can I share with you a story about this place you might find interesting?”
In these times of streaming music, you can create endless playlists of your favorite songs of your favorite artists, but back in 2012, Big Big Train released an album that they obviously lavished great care on. Do them a favor and listen to it as they originally intended. Uncle Jack would appreciate it.