Category Archives: Music

Another Miracle: The Flower Kings at 25

Interior art, Flower Kings, WAITING FOR MIRACLES (Sony/Inside Out, 2019).

Looking death straight in the eye

You will never feel that much alive

—Roine Stolt

For anyone in the prog world, Roine Stolt is a grand and solid name, a trusted master of the craft and a man as honest about his opinions as anyone ever has been in the rock world. From The Flower Kings to Transatlantic to Anderson-Stolt to Steve Hackett’s band, Stolt is anywhere and everywhere excellence is. 

Simply put, when I think of Stolt, I imagine that other master of amazing things, Tom Bombadil. And, yes, that means Goldberry is nearby. “He is.”

The new Flower Kings, WAITING FOR MIRACLES, is a thing of beauty, delicate yet everlasting.  Sounding a bit like FLOWER POWER and SPACE REVOLVER, the new album has everything a fan loves: mystery, lingering, soaring, contemplating, undulation.

This is glorious and mighty prog.

The album opens with the fragile and compelling “House of Cards,” moving immediately into the Tennyson-esque rage against fate, “Black Flag.” Followed by ten-minute “Miracles for America,” a plea for the future of the free world, and then another ten-minute track, “Vertigo,” disk one is nothing if not dizzying.  If there’s a rock anthem on the album, it’s track no. five, “The Bridge,” which might very well have topped the rock charts in 1983, with its reminder of the theme of the album, “waiting for miracles.” “Ascending to the Stars,” track six of disk one, gives us a mysterious and dark Flower King, an instrumental and orchestra joy somewhat reminiscent of Kansas in its heyday. Despite its name, “Wicked Old Symphony” is the poppiest of the tracks on disk one, a track that hints at the Beatles as well as early 1970’s America. “The Rebel Circus,” track eight, is another wildly wacky and infectious instrumental, followed by the intense and aptly-named, “Sleeping with the Enemy.” The final track of disk one, “The Crowning of Greed,” is a poem, at once reflective in theme, and progressive in tone.

Disk two is much shorter than disk one, and I have no idea if it’s meant to be a “bonus disk” or a continuation of the album. That track one of disk two is a reprise of track one of disk one does nothing to answer my confusion about all of this. Track two, “Spirals,” is a feast of electronica and reminds us once again of the theme of the album: “Call on miracles—For America.” “Steampunk,” the third track of disk two, seems to take us back into the world of adventures. If “Black Flag” followed the voyages of Ulysses, “Steampunk” has us follow Aeneas. The final full track of the album, “We Were Always Here,” is a rather beautiful rock song, reminding us of life and its unending beauties. “It’s so simple in its purities/All that genius—life energies/like forgotten springs of melody.” Disk two ends with the 52-second long bluesy circus piece, “Busking at Brobank.”

Overall, WAITING FOR MIRACLES, is a joy.  It’s not just a joy as a Flower Kings album, it’s a joy as a rock album. Anyone serious about his or her rock music should add this to the collection. One final note—while I’m not wild about the cover art (too political for my tastes), I absolutely love the interior art, making a physical purchase of WAITING a must.

P.S. I proudly bought my copy from my favorite store, Burning Shed.

In Praise of Compact Discs

Compact Disc edit

Now that sales of physical music product have cratered, and streaming is the default delivery mode for the majority of music fans, I want to raise a glass to the lowly compact disc. The decision by Tool to release their long-awaited Fear Inoculum only via streaming and digital download is probably the final nail in the CD’s coffin.

It’s hard to convey what a magical technological leap forward the compact disc was for serious consumers of music in the early 1980’s. I came of age in the ’70s, when the only choice was vinyl or cassette tape (8-track was so horrible, I never gave it a thought). I bought hundreds of LPs, and every time I opened a new one, I prayed that it wouldn’t have a scratch or skip. By the late ’70s, record companies were pressing records on such thin vinyl that you were all but guaranteed to have a warped album to deal with. To this day, whenever I listen to Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, I expect to hear a skip at the 2:34 mark, because that is where my LP had a scratch.

When compact disc players’ price dropped below $400, I jumped at the chance to buy one. The first CD I bought? Roxy Music’s Avalon. I still have it. What a relief to not have to get up every 20 minutes to turn the record over! What a relief to know that I could listen to an entire album without a skip, pop, or wiggle! CDs took up much less space than LPs, and those plastic jewel boxes were so cool.

Suddenly, albums that were 2-disc sets in vinyl were now single-disc CDs. It’s almost as if Bob Dylan knew that one day there would be the right medium for Blonde on Blonde. I’m currently working my way through Keith Jarrett’s monumental Sun Bear Concerts. When it was released in 1978, it was a ten LP set, and his brilliant long-form improvisations were interrupted by the time limitations of an LP’s side. On CD, it is five discs (plus an encore one), and every performance is complete. I get to immerse myself in the flow of Jarrett’s genius without the rude interruption of the needle hitting the end of the grooves.

Yes, I know that analog vinyl sounds “warmer” than digital CDs. However, with a nice amp and speakers, CDs sound incredible: beautiful stereo separation, and amazing dynamic range. (If you can find a copy, check out the jazz group Flim and the BBs’ Tricycle on DMP from 1983. You will jump out of your chair when the full group kicks in on the first track.) I will trade an uninterrupted Beethoven’s Ninth for some subjective “warmth” any day.

NME recently reported that vinyl sales are outperforming CD sales for the first time since 1986. My 2017 Mazda 3 came with Bluetooth and USB ports, but no CD player. At my local used books/music/movies store the “bargain” bins for CDS are overflowing with 25 cent copies of stuff from the ’80s and ’90s. Heck, it looks like even Blu-Rays are on the path to extinction, now that Samsung is not manufacturing players for them any more.

My only question is this: what if someone at Spotify, or Google, or Amazon, or Apple decides that that album or movie you really like is not acceptable in polite circles any more? When you only own a license to stream something, it can be taken away very easily, and there isn’t a blessed thing you can do about it.

Laughing Stock’s Sunrise: No Laughing Matter

You have to admire a group that name themselves after one of the most legendary albums in prog history, and Norway’s Laughing Stock live up to their namesake.  Jan Mikael Sørensen, Håvard Enge, and Jan Erik Kirkevold Nilsen have released a very fine album that leaves me wanting more.

They certainly reference all the right artists, calling to mind Pink Floyd one moment, King Crimson another, Porcupine Tree, Close to the Edge-era Yes, and of course, Talk Talk (literally singing in the song Echoes, “I still believe in you”). What is so  appealing about Laughing Stock is their ability to absorb and honor those influences while forging a distinctive sound of their own. Not quite pop, not quite prog, not quite folk, but a wonderful combination of them all.

The album begins with a clanging alarm bell on Sunrise, which is followed by a television playing in the background, a la Wish You Were Here. Somber vocals – accompanied by acoustic guitar – chant, “Stay awake, take me to daybreak – sunrise.” Drums, mellotron, bass, and guitar are gradually added to the mix to great effect.

The album is a song cycle chronicling daylight hours, Sunset, Fading Light, a Darkest Hour, and finally, Another Sunrise. The third track, Afraid, is a great song, where they sing “I’m afraid, afraid of the morning/When dreams are fading away/I’m afraid, afraid of the light/Rising daylight, come out to play/What the hell is wrong?” A loping guitar riff pushes the song along as bits of sitar weave in and out of the background. It’s slightly unsettling, yet very attractive.

In Sunset, they sing, “I am falling for you” over a gorgeous acoustic guitar, drums, and bass melody. Beach Boys -like harmonies abound, and everything seems to be at peace. It’s a beautiful track. As a matter of fact the entire album is a beautiful piece of work – primarily acoustic, featuring slower tempos with deliberate pacing. Not until Darkest Hour do we hear some serious rock, and it is excellent. Imagine King Crimson and Porcupine Tree getting together for a slow jam session, and that gives you an idea of its atmosphere.

Sunrise is being released on Apollon records. It’s the perfect thing to listen to at the end of a long day when you want to relax and unwind. However, it’s definitely not background music, as their sophisticated lyrics conjure grown-up themes. Highly recommended!

 

 

 

lush simple minds: street fighting years

Thirty years ago, Simple Minds released a gem, Street Fighting Years. It sounded almost nothing like the previous albums–the bombastic Once Upon a Time; the fay New Gold Dream; or the mesmerizing Sons and Fascination. Far more Peter Gabriel in restrained rage than Ultravox or U2, Street Fighting Years lived up to its title: a lush, nuanced, and political affair, all managed by the incomparable Trevor Horn.

Sadly, it was the last album on which keyboardist Michael MacNeil played a central role, giving the band a much needed depth.

At times Celtic, at times Norse, and at times just Simple Minds, Street Fighting Years was a last cry before the wilderness of grunge and techno swamped us all.

The Elegant Art-Pop of Manuel Schmid und Marek Arnold

One of the most delightful aspects of prog music is the convoluted networks of artists that can lead one to discover surprising hidden treasures. My latest vein of musical gold is an album by German artists Manuel Schmid and Marek Arnold. Their album, Zeiten, is my favorite of 2019 so far. (It was released in December 2018, and I wasn’t aware of it until March of this year, so I’m counting it as a 2019 release.)

How did an American fan of prog rock find this relatively obscure album that is sung entirely in German? Even Schmid’s official website is in German, so it’s incomprehensible to me. Well, I am a big admirer of the Australian group, Southern Empire. Sean Timms is their keyboardist and main songwriter. He is also a member of another excellent prog group, Damanek. Damanek includes multi-instrumentalist Marek Arnold. I noticed that Arnold’s newest project was Zeiten, and, voila!, I found this gem of an album

Zeiten is entirely sung in German, but that hasn’t detracted from my enjoyment of it one bit. I wish I could tell you what the songs are about, but based on the official video for Kleines Glück, I would say they are about relationships. Zeiten itself means “times” or an era in one’s life. All I know is that every song is perfectly crafted jewel.

Schmid and Arnold’s melodies are beautiful and delicate, catchy without being cloying, and deceptively complex. The instrumentation is primarily keyboards based, and mostly acoustic. There are very tasteful synth flourishes and electric guitar solos, but none of them overwhelm the beauty of the underlying melodies. Stiller Schrei features Schmid singing with a string quartet, and it is comparable to a work by Schubert.

Schmid has a wonderful voice – warm, clear, and strong without any histrionics. Arnold supplies sympathetic accompaniment with keyboards, synths, and sax. Their talents combine to create some of the most seductive music I’ve ever heard.

Here is the video for Kleines Glückwhich I assume is a bittersweet meditation on memories of childhood:

 

1980s Synthpop Redux

Early ’80s synthpop, an often maligned style of music, is having a resurgence in popularity. Maybe it’s the nostalgia generated by Netflix hits like Stranger Things, but there is a new appreciation for music that was first produced in the early 1980s by artists like Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, Howard Jones, Gary Numan, Ultravox, Camouflage, early Tears For Fears, and Depeche Mode. If you’re like me, and you’ve always had a soft spot in your heart for those groups, then today’s new synth wizards are a lot of fun to listen to.

Gunship,  from the UK, has two albums out, and they are both excellent. Their latest, Dark All Day, is very melodic with prominent rhythm.  The video for the title track has over 3 million views, so there is definitely an audience for their style of music.

The Fixt label curates a synthwave playlist on Spotify called Neon that features their stable of artists. You can hear the latest tracks from Soul Extract, The Bad Dreamers, 3Force, and many others there.

Two of my favorite synthwave artists are also on Fixt: The Anix and Scandroid. Scandroid is a project of Fixt label founder Klayton, and he is an unabashed lover of classic synthpop new wave. He even included a fine cover of Tears For Fears’ “Shout” on his first album.

The Anix is darker and more modern sounding.  Their excellent album, Shadow Movement, is set in a dystopian future, and it features catchy melodies linked to relentless beats.

Finally, LA-based I Will Never Be The Same is the brainchild of Josh Atchley. His music combines Nine Inch Nails industrial style with the melodicism of Depeche Mode and The Cure. Add a dash of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, and you have an irresistible mix. Take a listen to “Last Goodbye”:

These recommendations barely scratch the surface of the fun and interesting music that synthwavers are releasing now. Check them out, and let us know your current guilty pleasures in the comments below!