Category Archives: Music

Pendragon’s Love Over Fear – The One That Almost Got Away

The Stunning Artwork for Love Over Fear, by Liz Saddington

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.

The Neal Morse Band – Live In Brno 2019

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 Bardic Depths: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in Dark Times

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.

You can purchase The Bardic Depths here.

Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time

I remember something the philosopher Gerald Heard told me.  The first thing a man is aware of, he said, is the steady rhythm of his mother’s heartbeat and the last thing he hears before he dies is his own.  Rhythm is the common bond of all humanity: it is also the most pronounced and readily misunderstood ingredient of jazz.

— Dave Brubeck

We’ve waited way too long for a serious biography of Dave Brubeck — but at last we’ve got it, and it’s a good one.  British music journalist Philip Clark’s Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time rises to the challenge of portraying the pianist/composer in his fullness — his days, his works, his friendships, and his ideals.

Fittingly, Clark plays with time to unlock the rich pageant of Brubeck’s 92 years.  Pivoting off a extended interview conducted on a 2003 British tour, the narrative unpacks Brubeck’s career in progress, building from West Coast beginnings through growing popularity coupled with critical puzzlement on the jazz scene to the mass culture break-out of Brubeck’s classic quartet (with Paul Desmond on sax, Eugene Wright on bass and Joe Morello on drums) via 1959’s “Take Five” and the Time Out album.  It’s only the strangely muted reception of Brubeck’s ambitious 1962 cantata The Real Ambassadors (a sly satire expressly written for Louis Armstrong) that sends Clark doubling back again — to Brubeck’s upbringing in rural California and the influences that forged him as musician and man.

Continue reading Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time

The Passengers' Club by Big Big Train

While most of the western world celebrated Friday, February 14, as the secularized Feast of St. Valentine, preparing for a Cinema Show of epic proportions and armed with chocolate surprises, I celebrated it as International Big Big Train Day. 

Granted, by international, I mean several counties in Michigan, but still. . .

On Friday, February 14, Big Big Train launched its much anticipated web-based fan service, The Passengers’ Club. Let me state immediately: this is, by far, the best such service I have seen.  While I belong—rather proudly—to Marillion’s fan service, I have never been totally satisfied with it.  As much as I adore Marillion, I think the service is a tease.  More than anything else, I feel like my subscription subsidizes their advertisements to sell me more stuff.  Granted, I buy it, but I am less than completely satisfied with the service as a whole. Most frustrating by far, though, is Neal Morse’s fan service. I belonged to it for years—happily receiving several cds and dvds a year. Then, suddenly, it all just stopped, switching all of the great releases to mere downloads. Honestly, I feel as though I was totally ripped off. As such, I finally quit my membership about six months ago. I subscribed for a year too long. Trust me, don’t go near Morse’s service. Admittedly, I still love Morse’s music and his integrity, but he needs a serious reexamination of his attitude toward his followers.

BBT’s, however, is extraordinary. The service offers three levels of subscription: one year; two years; and lifetime. Though I am alone to blame, I initially only saw the first two subscription options, and I went for the two year.  Had I been thinking properly and had I been observing what should’ve been observed, I would’ve signed up for the lifetime subscription (Patron). If you’ve yet to subscribe, don’t overlook the Patron option. 

Through the service, BBT is offering music, videos, essays, and photos. Admittedly, the photos did not do that much for me (though, they’re fine photos), but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the other three sections (“platforms” in the presentation). 

The brightest highlight of The Passengers’ Club, though, is the music platform. Indeed, the two songs released thus far are worth the entire subscription price.  The first two songs are the 17-minute “Merchants of Light” and the (almost) three-minute long demo, “Capitoline Venus.” BBT promises new music and new content every two weeks for the next year and claims that we’ll be receiving four full CDs worth of music over the next two years. Though I’m only speculating, I’m assuming this is the equivalent (perhaps, a 1:1 perfect correspondence) of the long-discussed Station Master’s release.  

The second brightest highlight (close to the second brightest star, it turns out) is Greg’s writeup about the songs.  Stunning stuff, to be certain.  Not surprisingly, Greg is a master of the word—whether in essays or in lyrics.  I’d share some of what he’s written with you, but I agreed not to when I signed up for The Passengers’ Club, and, believe me, this is a trust I hold sacred.

Here’s hoping I’ll see you at the Concourse.

Go here to subscribe: https://thepassengersclub.com

Brad Birzer Discusses Rush on Political Beats Podcast

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.

Click here to play the episode.

 

 

New I Am The Manic Whale Coming Soon

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

Release:     24/04/2020

Formats:     CD, vinyl, download

Labels:     Independent (CD/download)
Plane Groovy (vinyl)
Run time:     65 minutes

Track listing

  1. Billionaire                        7:30

  2. The Deplorable Word     7:56

  3. Into The Blue                  6:28

  4. Celebrity                       19:01

  5. Smile                              4:24

  6. Build It Up Again            7:03

  7. Halcyon Day                  5:28

  8. 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.”

For more information visit the band’s bandcamp page from Monday
iamthemanicwhale.bandcamp.com