Category Archives: Music

Porcupine Tree’s Delerium Years: The Best Boxset You Don’t Own

Image borrowed from the Burning Shed website.

Few bands in the prog world have done as much to shape the last quarter century of the genre as has Porcupine Tree.  In many ways, they defined what is often called “third-wave prog,” giving it a certain psychedelic and hard edge. 

The glorious Delerium Years, 1991-1997, boxset captures the earliest part of the band’s history in a rich way.  Indeed, I would go so far as to say it’s the nicest boxset I now own, and I’m comparing it against/to boxsets/earbooks from Rush, Big Big Train, Spock’s Beard, Yes, Chris Squire, Ayreon, Dave Brubeck, Steven Wilson (solo), and others. 

The Delerium Years comes with the latest mixes of the five major releases from the band: On the Sunday of Life; Up the Downstair; The Sky Moves Sideways; Signify; and the live Coma Divine.  Each CD is individually packaged within the larger box set, though absent the individual booklets with lyrics and liner notes.  One can find all the liner notes and lyrics in the book that comes with the set—more on this below.  The Delerium Years also—rather wonderfully—includes the more experimental Voyage 34; Staircase Infinities; Insignificance; and Metanoia. Best of all, at least in terms of CDs is the inclusion of Transmission IV, a wild 40-minute improvisational rock epic, “Moonloop,” and a disk of previously unreleased tracks, The Sound of No One Listening. Though I love all the music, I’m most taken with “Moonloop.”

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A Deluge Of Music From Transatlantic

Prog supergroup Transatlantic (Mike Portnoy, Neal Morse, Pete Trewavas, and Roine Stolt) are releasing their fifth album next month, and it is an unprecedented project. Fans have a choice of not one, but TWO versions of the new album, entitled The Absolute Universe – a two-disc edition and a single-disc one, or a huge 5-LP, 3-CD, Blu-Ray boxset that includes both. In case you’re assuming the single-disc album is merely an edited, shorter version of the two-disc one, let me set you straight: these are two different albums that share some of the same musical themes and a few songs.

Let’s start with the single-disc version, The Breath of Life. The most obvious comparison is to Transatlantic’s third album, The Whirlwind, because TBOL is also one long song divided into sections. I think it is superior to The Whirlwind due to a greater variety of melodies and musical styles. The band has never sounded tighter, either. Portnoy’s drum work is phenomenal, particularly on the King Crimsonesque Owl Howl. All the members take lead vocals for various sections, and they all contribute music compositions. Trewavas’ Solitude is an especially nice passage, while Morse adds his unerring musical magic throughout the album.

Something I find fascinating is Morse’s statement in the liner notes that “everyone writes their own lyrics to their sections and we don’t usually discuss what it’s all about. Sometimes we’re writing about different things in different sections, but somehow it all works together in the end.” That four different personalities can combine to create as cohesive a work as The Absolute Universe is nothing short of miraculous.

Portnoy has stated that The Absolute Universe is a concept album, and that it touches on the events of 2020. For example, Morse’s lyrics

Where were you when everyone/Crashed and burned and fell/Into the silence of the sun/With nothing to be done

refers to his sense of God abandoning the world at the height of the pandemic.

Likewise, the lines

Where were all the seats preferred/And all the wise men winding up/The wisest of all words/And God’s love like dinner served/But now we wonder at the warning

is about lockdowns prohibiting gatherings and other social interaction.

TBOL ends on a high note with the exhilarating The Greatest Story Never Ends which segues into the spectacular finale of Love Made A Way, which is an acknowledgment that God actually has been present throughout all the tribulations of 2020. Musically, this song is one of the finest Transatlantic has ever recorded.

After listening several times to The Breath Of Life, I turned my attention to the double-disc Forevermore expecting to hear longer versions of the songs. Nope! This is a separate album from TBOL that happens to share a few musical sections. As good as TBOL is, Forevermore is even better. I can’t put my finger on exactly why I prefer it, except that it strikes me as more energetic and the songs that are unique to it are simply wonderful.

For example, if I only had TBOL, I would miss hearing Heart Like A Whirlwind, The Darkness In The Light, the delightfully poppy Rainbow Sky, and Stolt’s magnificent The World We Used To Know. Those are all essential Transatlantic songs now, and I would be much poorer for not having heard them.

So what’s my recommendation? Fans of Transatlantic will want to get both albums. True fanatics will splurge for the box set, which includes both versions on CD and vinyl, as well as a BluRay documentary of the making of The Absolute Universe. If I had to choose just one, I would pick Forevermore without hesitation. The good news is, you can’t really go wrong – it’s ALL great music, no matter what you go for. 

You can pre-order The Absolute Universe at nealmorse.com.

Update: I neglected to mention that the BluRay also has a 5.1 mix of the album, and you can purchase it separately. For those fans with surround sound systems, that is probably the best deal!

Tolkien, Wagner, Nationalism, and Modernity

“Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases”–J.R.R. Tolkien

[Originally delivered at an ISI Conference, “Modernists and Mist Dwellers,” on Friday, August 3, 2001.]

     When the Swedish translation of The Lord of the Rings appeared in 1961, its author was appalled.  Fluent in Swedish, J.R.R. Tolkien found no problems with the translation.  Indeed, Tolkien often considered the various Scandinavian languages as better mediums for his Middle-earth stories than English, as the medieval Norse and Icelandic myths had strongly influenced them.  His disgust, instead, came from the presumption found within the introduction to the Swedish edition.  The crime: translator Åke Ohlmark had compared Tolkien’s ring to Wagner’s ring.  “The Ring is in a certain way ‘der Niebelungen Ring,’” Ohlmark had written. Indignant, Tolkien complained to his publisher: “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases.”  The translator’s commentary was simply “rubbish,” according to Tolkien.[i]

     Ohlmark was not the only critic to make the comparison.  A Canadian English professor, William Blissett, reviewing The Lord of the Rings for the prestigious South Atlantic Quarterly, found several parallels between the two legends but was unwilling to preclude “any direct Wagnerian influence.”[ii]  By the early 1960s, the comparison was becoming common.  In his last interview before his death, Tolkien’s closest friend C.S. Lewis claimed to have wanted to write a new prose version of Wagner’s Ring Opera.  Lewis feared, though, that “at the mention of the word Ring a lot of people might think it was something to do with Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings.’”[iii]  Since the first comparisons in the 1950s, many critics have used Wagner’s Ring against Tolkien.  One famous English poet referred to The Lord of the Rings as “A combination of Wagner and Winnie-the-Pooh.”[iv]

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Remembering 1990 in Music

A few days ago, I felt absolutely snarky and thought, “why not write down exactly what I think of music from the 1980s.”  In some ways, I feel I have the right to do this in a manner I could never for any other decade. 

I was in seventh grade when a very disturbed fanboy tried to kill the fortieth president, and I was a first-semester senior in college when the Berlin Wall came down. 

Yes, I’m very much a man of the 1980s.  Reagan, Rush, Blade Runner. . . how I remember the 1980s.  I came of age in that rather incredible decade.

Life continued after 1989, however, though I wasn’t so sure at the time that it would.

1990 proved to be one of the most interesting years in my personal life when it came to career choices as well as to music. 

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The (accidental) Christian Humanism of Steven Wilson

The Meaning of a Life: Steven Wilson’s Hand.Cannot.Erase.

An Incarnational Whole

One of the greatest things in this whirligig of a world—however fraught with a string of perilous and gut-wrenching disasters—is the mystery of the human person.  And, until God so decides to end this existence, every person is a new reflection of the Infinite.  From the Catholic Humanist perspective, every human is an unrepeatable center of dignity and freedom.  Each person, born in a particular place and time, comes only once, a life to burn as brightly or not, for one’s self or for another, in the time allotted to each of us.  “Dark and inscrutable are the ways in which we come into the world,” the grand Anglo-Irish statesman and philosopher, Edmund Burke, understood.  Fewer truths have ever been spoken in such perfect formation of the English language. 

Yet, speaking on the mystery of the person and personhood, Pope John Paul II put it even more beautifully in the penultimate month of 1996.

The mystery of the Incarnation has given a tremendous impetus to man’s thought and artistic genius. Precisely by reflecting on the union of the two natures, human and divine, in the person of the Incarnate Word, Christian thinkers have come to explain the concept of person as the unique and unrepeatable centre of freedom and responsibility, whose inalienable dignity must be recognized. This concept of the person has proved to be the cornerstone of any genuinely human civilization.

As someone who has had the privilege of teaching history and writing biography the entirety of his professional career, I hope and pray that John Paul II’s words and ideas each across everything I teach, think, and write.  As such, I am always looking at and for new ways to understand the dignity of each individual person, however tragically flawed.

Nearly six years ago, such a statement and manifestation of dignity arrived in the most unusual of ways: in the form of a rock concept album by the rather devoutly atheistic, seemingly always grumpy, and unbelievably talented English musician, Steven Wilson.  His album, a sixty-seven minute story about a lost soul, came out on February 27, 2015.  In terms of lyrics and music, Wilson’s work is extraordinary by the standards of any genre.  What should intrigue us most, however, is the subject matter and how Wilson fills it out.  The subject matter is the uniqueness of each human person, and he focuses on the life of one lost soul.

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My favorite 40 (20+20) albums of 2020: Jazz

Moment of Clarity – Paul Shaw Quintet | Summit Records

It’s safe to say that I am the “jazz guy” here as I listen to jazz in some form or another on a daily basis, especially while working (along with some favorite classical works).

And so my first 20 favorites of 2020 are jazz. 

(The next 20, to be posted separately, are “everything else”, which includes prog, singer-songwriter, instrumental rock, and a bit of country.)

• “Moment of Clarity” by Paul Shaw Quintet: This beautiful album was my most played jazz release of 2020, a near perfect combo of interplay, melodic playing, and crisp production.

• “From This Place” by Pat Metheny: This epic album, which has a soundtrack quality to it, is one of my favorites of 2020 regardless of genre, with astounding playing at the service of deeply engaging songs. A masterpiece, in my opinion.

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Best Prog of 2020, Part II

A few days ago, I attempted to create a “best of 2020” purely from memory.  My oldest daughter was driving the Honda, and I was enjoying the thrill of the quickly-moving Illinois landscape out the passenger’s window.  Honestly, at age 53, I should know better than to rely only on my memory, though, as a historian, I actually still have a pretty good one.  But, no longer great.  Just pretty good.  Even as I was typing the list in the car, I knew I’d forget all kinds of great albums, but I tried it anyway.  Pride and ego are funny things. 

Anyway. 

That list still stands (a few posts back), but I want to add some brilliant albums that I inadvertently failed to remember at the moment of writing.

Two albums this year get the spiritual successor to Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock award.  First up is Tim Bowness’s extraordinary nuanced (so glorious), Late Night Laments, an album full of meaningful lyrics and sonic soundscapes that boggle the imagination. Bowness, unfortunately, gets overshadowed by his sometime writing partner, Steven Wilson, but, frankly, the two artists are equally extraordinary. 

Following Bowness’s lead was the more recently-released Loma album, Don’t Shy Away.  Again, incredible textures mixed with intriguing lyrics.  Clearly, the band has spent a lot of good quality time listening to Talk Talk. Regardless, I owe Stephen Humphries (of the Christian Science Monitor) a huge thanks for introducing the band to me.

Nick D’Virgilio’s Invisible in an album full of surprises and full of soul.  There’s conviction behind every word and every note. I wasn’t sure what to expect before the album arrived, but I fell in love with it on the first listen. D’Virgilio is also rock’s greatest living drummer, so I was especially pleased to be reminded that the guy is just incredibly talented in all kinds of ways.

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My Conflicted Relationship with Progressive Music (Prog)

By Mark Sullivan

My earliest memory is standing on my tiptoes putting Let it Be by The Beatles on my parent’s stereo. I must have been only four or five years old, and I don’t know why my parents let their pre-schooler touch their records. I wouldn’t have.

“I dig a pygmy, by Charles Hawtry on the deaf-aids. Phase one, in which Doris gets her oats.” Then the acoustic guitar, the bass drum, John and Paul singing in unison, and I’m in my happy place – laying on the floor listening to music. Looking up at the ceiling and lost in my imagination. Not much has changed in 45 years. 

Besides The Beatles, my parent’s record collection consisted of 1970s staples such as Linda Rondstadt, Neil Diamond (laugh if you’d like), Emmy Lou Harris, Glen Campbell, Loretta Lynn, Bob Dylan, Charlie Parker, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Wes Montgomery, Herbie Mann, and The Moody Blues. I listened to all of those albums except Every Good Boy Deserves Favor by The Moody Blues. The cover freaked me out and planted the seeds of suspicion about Progressive Music (Prog).

Probably as a teenager I tried to listen to it. I imagine that I picked up the needle at “Desolation, creation.” It still sounds stupid, but if I would have stayed with it and listened to “The Story in Your Eyes,” things may have been different. 

However, I wasn’t aware of Prog as a thing or deliberately avoiding it until I encountered the anti-Prog bible, The Worst Rock n’ Roll Records of All Time: A Fan’s Guide to the Stuff You Love to Hate by Jimmy Guterman and Owen O’Donnell in a used bookstore sometime in my early 20s. That book was everything a young music snob like me could want, take downs of stupid lyrics and bloated Prog bands on every page. I learned that you could always be cool by ripping on Prog.

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The Best Albums of 2020

The first two months of 2020 seem like a decade ago. It was certainly a different world than the one we live in now. As I look over my listening habits during 2020, it is clear that all of the chaos of the year had me seeking somewhat calmer music than I normally listen to. That said, there was an abundance of excellent music to choose from. Artists who were prevented from touring channeled their energy into recording new albums, and we are the beneficiaries of that.

Number 11: Katatonia’s City Burials

Katatonia improved on 2017’s amazing Fall of Hearts with City of Burials. Jonas Renkse’s vocals are some of the finest in rock, and the rest of the band are worthy accompanists. While there are still some crunchingly hard tracks, the standout ones – like “Lacquer” – are full of stillness and hushed tones.

Number 10: Lunatic Soul’s Through Shaded Woods

There are all kinds of primal rhythms and timeless melodies happening here, and the result is Mariusz Duda’s finest release as Lunatic Soul . You can read more of our thoughts on it here

Number 9: Kevin Keller’s The Front Porch Of Heaven

Keller is one of the finest composers of classical music today. This song cycle was composed and recorded after he underwent open heart surgery. It is an extraordinary work that is life-affirming and encouraging. It is rare for instrumental pieces to communicate such feeling and reassurance.

Number 8: The Bardic Depths

Spirit of Cecilia’s own Brad Birzer and Dave Bandana joined forces for this tribute to J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Owen Barfield. The music runs the gamut from elegant spaciness to funky prog. It is a blast to listen to, and I hope Robin Armstrong’s Gravity Dream label plans to release more from them. You can read my full review here.

Number 7: Pineapple Thief’s Versions of the Truth

Bruce Soord has really come into his own with the past few PT albums. Having drummer Gavin Harrison on board has injected a huge dose of energy into their music, making Versions of the Truth their best album ever.

Number 6: Loma’s Don’t Shy Away

The most interesting sounding album in this list. Loma is an American trio who take loose jams and breathy vocals to create an utterly beautiful sound that is compulsively listenable.

Number 5: Glass Hammer’s Dreaming City

Has Glass Hammer ever released a mediocre album? Not that I’m aware of, and I have 29 in my music collection. Dreaming City is one of the hardest-edged albums of their career, conjuring up memories of classic Rush, but maintaining that unique Glass Hammer sound. You can read my full review here.

Number 4: Gazpacho’s Fireworker

A new direction for Gazpacho, as they incorporate choirs and orchestra into their sound. The “Fireworker” of the title is the primal presence in every human that we have to control if we are to be civilized. You can read more of our thoughts on this album here.

Number 3: Kyros’ Celexa Dreams

What do you get when you mash up the best of ’80s pop/rock with a contemporary prog sensibility? This fantastic album that has logged dozens of listens on my stereo. I can’t say enough good things about it, and I hope Kyros doesn’t take another four years to record a followup.

Number 2: Sanguine Hum’s A Trace of Memory

Recorded during UK’s lockdown, this sounds like all the members of Sanguine Hum were in telepathic communication instead of Zoom. A tremendously satisfying set of songs that reward repeated listens. You can read more of our thoughts on this album here.

Number 1: Days Between Stations’ Giants

In my earlier review, I suggested this might be the album of the year, and you know what? I was right! Billy Sherwood, Colin Moulding, and Durga McBroom all join forces with Oscar Fuentes Bills (keyboards) and Sepand Samzadeh (guitar) to create a wonderfully fun and thoughtful work that is comparable to the best albums of the, well, giants of prog rock. This album is destined to be a classic that will be cited years from now.

So, those are my ten favorite albums of 2020. Honorable mentions go to Lonely Robot, Kansas, Pain Of Salvation, and Neal Morse. Meanwhile, I hope you have a Merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year.

Update: Mr. Bandana of Bardic Depths pointed out that I listed eleven albums (two number 7’s), so I’ve corrected that mistake. In my defense, I blame 2020.