The Giant Achievement of Days Between Stations

Giants cover

It’s been 7 long years since we have heard from Oscar Fuentes Bills (keyboards) and Sepand Samzadeh (guitar), the duo who go by the moniker Days Between Stations. They have a new album out, Giants, and it is a contender for best of 2020. I love this album. It is produced by Billy Sherwood of Yes fame, who also plays bass, drums, and handles lead vocals on most of the songs. Colin Moulding, who sang The Man Who Died Two Times on their last album, returns to sing on Goes By Gravity, while Durga McBroom, who sang on several Pink Floyd songs sings lead on Witness the End of the World.

While their second album, In Extremis, was very good, Giants is a huge step forward for DBS. Did I mention I love this album? It kicks off with a clanging guitar chord reverberating from one speaker to another, and before you know it,  we’re on a rollercoaster of an epic named Spark

Spark of life
Soul expansion
Coming in waves
Point of view
Taking chances
You’re an act of God

Even though Spark lasts nearly 17:00 and is nonstop high energy, it never seems too long or forced. Samzadeh unleashes some terrific guitar solos worthy of David Gilmour, while Bills answers with vigorous organ fills.

Things calm down a bit for Witness the End of the World. Over an acoustic piano, guitar, and violin, McBroom delivers a sensitive vocal performance. This is a beautiful and tender waltz that mourns the inevitable loss all humans suffer.

Everything we once knew
Winding down
Witness the end of the world

Another Day begins with a slow tempo that gradually adds layers of instruments and vocal harmonies until it is a juggernaut of sound. It features an incredibly catchy chorus that gets in your head and won’t leave.

Goes By Gravity, sung by Moulding with his trademark wry vocals, is the poppiest song on the album, and is another earworm.

The title track is another epic, clocking in at 13:00, and is Bills’ tribute to his deceased father, the “giant” of his childhood, and a man he deeply admires. This is a tremendous song, with lots of space for Sherwood, Samzadeh, and Bills to stretch out and play off each other. Sherwood’s massed vocals are spine-tingling as he sings, 

Shaking the sky
Holding on to the reins
The Great Divide
Between memories and 
What remains

After the emotional experience of Giant, we are treated to an instrumental interlude that begins with a Bill Evans-like jazz passage on piano, transitions to a Bach-like fugue on acoustic guitar, and ends up with a guitar/synthesizer duet that reminds me of classic Genesis. (Side note: the cover art is by Paul Whitehead, who painted several classic covers for Genesis.)

The album wraps up with the magnificent The Common Thread. This is, hands down, the best song I’ve heard this year. Full of tricky time changes but always staying accessible and engaging, it progresses upward inexorably, gaining power with every bar. By the time we get to the final minute and the triumphant conclusion, I feel like I’ve reached the top of a mountain. This song is as good as anything Yes recorded in their classic incarnation.

Days Between Stations have only released three albums, but I’ve never seen such growth in group like they’ve accomplished with Giant. Billy Sherwood definitely deserves a lot of the credit, with his production, bass and drum work, and vocals. Their debut was all instrumental, their second was about half instrumental, whereas Giants is a full-bore progrock vocal tour de force. Album of the year? There are some strong contenders from Glass Hammer, Bardic Depths, Pendragon, Katatonia, Pain of Salvation, and Pineapple Thief, but right now Days Between Stations’ Giants is at the top of my list.

I ordered a CD from their website for my collection, and they included some DBS pencils and guitar picks. How’s that for customer service!

DBS picks

The video below is a nice sampler of the album:

IN THE DROPBOX: aYREON, flOWER kINGS, AND sHORT-hAIRED dOMESTIC

This week, I feel like the DropBox is in a holding pattern (with one exception). We have two well-established prog artists with new albums, but neither one indicates much artistic growth. Both are solid efforts that will certainly please die-hard fans, but I don’t see them attracting many new ones.

ayreon-e28093-transitus-600x600-1

Arjen Lucassen, the king of prog operas, has released a new magnum opus, Transitus. This is the first of his operas that isn’t tied to his Ayreon world in some way (although there is a sly reference the “The Human Equation”). Transitus is a Victorian ghost story/morality play that tells the story of two doomed lovers – one a wealthy young man and the other a servant of his – and how they overcome the barrier of death to be together.

If you’re an Ayreon fan, musically this fits in with everything Lucassen has done previously. There’s not a lot of new ground broken, but it’s hard to fault an artist for being so consistently good. Tommy Karevik (Kamelot) sings the lead role of Daniel, and Cammie Gilbert (Oceans of Slumber) takes the role of Abby. 

islands

The Flower Kings are never ones to stint their fans when it comes to providing music, and Islands is no exception. It is a big 2 CD album that features Roine Stolt’s trademark guitar work and laconic vocals. On this outing, I actually prefer the songs bandmate Hasse Froberg sings – he is a little grittier. According to Stolt, all of the songs revolve around the theme of isolation, hence the title. There are some beautiful moments in this sprawling set, particularly All I Need Is Love. Fans of the Flower Kings and Transatlantic will not be disappointed with this one.

short-haired-domestic-album-cover

This album is the most interesting one of this week’s batch. Short-Haired Domestic is Tim and Lee Friese-Greene, and their offering is not exactly prog, but it is some of the most delightfully quirky artpop I’ve heard in a long time. Every song is sung in a different language – Japanese, Bulgarian, Italian, German, Hindi, even Latin. It is funky, catchy as hell, and just plain fun. Tim is best known for his extraordinary production of Talk Talk’s last few groundbreaking albums, and Short-Haired Domestic makes clear he still has a few tricks to share with us.

Here’s the first single, A Song In Latin About The Importance Of Comfortable Shoes (yes, that’s the actual title):

Latest E-Book: A Biography of Miami Chief J-B Richardville

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Spirit of Cecilia Books is pleased to announce its latest ebook, Entangling Empires, Fracturing Frontiers: Jean-Baptiste Richardville, 1760-1841, the life and times of a Franco-Miami Indian Chief.


Reigning in the western Great Lakes, Richardville controlled what is now known as Fort Wayne, and he navigated the Miami Indians through the hazards of the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and forced removal to western lands.


If you’re interested in a review copy (to review at amazon or elsewhere), just let us know.


https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08KSDNFRC/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&qid=1602015670&refinements=p_27%3ABradley+Birzer&s=digital-text&sr=1-1&text=Bradley+Birzer

A Double Take on Neal Morse’s Solo Gratia

Solo Gratia

 

Progrock artist Neal Morse has just released his latest solo album, Solo Gratia, and it has elicited varying reactions from your Spirit of Cecilia editors. Here is a friendly dialogue about Morse’s new opus between SoC’s Editor-In-Chief Brad Birzer, and Arts Editor Tad Wert

 

Tad: Brad, you know what a big fan I am of Neal Morse’s work, and I was excited to listen to the new album of his last week. One thing you can say about him: he’s never boring or predictable! When I first heard he was working on a new album to be called Solo Gratia, I immediately wondered if it was going to be a sequel to his 2007 Solo Scriptura. It turns out the answer is, “Yes and no”. 

 

Musically, it begins with a reference to a theme from Scriptura, and there are several other musical references throughout (“In the name of God, you must die”, etc.). However, instead of continuing to chronicle Martin Luther and the Reformation, in Gratia Morse decided to go back to the very beginning of the church: the conversion of St. Paul! That was a big surprise for me, and a welcome one.

 

Brad: Thank you so much, Tad.  I always love talking with you.  One of the finest evenings of my life was when you, Dedra, and I attended Morsefest together.  Morse is exceptional at every level, and no one performs live better than he does.  I’m a huge fan of Morse’s work, and I’m pretty sure I have everything (even the fan releases) that the man has released.

 

That said, I’m never quite sure how to take some of Morse’s more explicitly religious albums.  Of course, in one sense, everything since Snow has been religious.  The distinction for Morse’s work is not which is religious and which isn’t, but, rather, which is blatantly religious, and which is only merely religious.  Sola Gratia, of course, is blatantly religious.  Overall, I like the album, but I was struck by two things.  

 

First–and, of course, this isn’t my album, so Morse has every right to make the album he wants to make–I wanted an album about St. Paul.  That is, I thought what are the last three songs of Sola Gratia would make up the content of the album as a whole.  I’m not really that interested in following Saul through his sordid exploits when he was persecuting Christians.  The album, in this way, reminds me of a Stephen Lawhead novel, Patrick.  I wanted a novel about St. Patrick, instead, the first 95% of the novel was about what a wretch the guy was before his conversion.

 

Second, I find Sola Gratia–even for Morse–way too heavy.  I have nothing against heavy when it comes to music, and much prog demands a certain amount of heaviness.  But, Sola Gratia’s heaviness seems, to me, to just be some unmitigated anger.  Again, I suppose the anger fits when it comes to Saul, but I really don’t want an album about Saul.

 

I do, however, hunger for an album about St. Paul.  Can you imagine!  A double CD about the teachings of Paul, to Corinth and beyond!

 

Tad: Brad, I hear you! I think my favorite Morse albums are One (solo) and The Grand Experiment (Neal Morse Band), neither of which are “blatantly religious”. After a few listens of Solo Gratia, I think Sola Scriptura is heavier overall, but In The Name Of The Lord and Building A Wall are pretty crushing. In his notes to the album, he mentions how getting a Telecaster guitar really had an effect on the sound.

 

I also hear the anger, and I suppose that is Neal putting himself into the shoes of Saul the persecutor of Christians. I think he balances Saul’s anger nicely with St. Stephen’s faith and martyrdom. Seemingly Sincere, Saul’s ruminations on Stephen’s unwavering faith and love, is one of my favorite tracks. Now I Can See/The Great Commission is the other. That said, there really aren’t any melodies in this set that immediately grab me like Neal’s compositions usually do. It may take some more listens to sink in.

 

To your point about wanting the album to begin with the last three songs, I think conversion stories are very important to Neal. He’s put out two albums that deal with just his own conversion! By spending so much time on the anger and hatred of Saul towards the early Church, he is emphasizing how miraculous his transformation into St. Paul was. 

 

This was recorded during the lockdown, and I wonder how it would have turned out if Mike Portnoy and Randy George could have been with him in his studio while they were bouncing ideas off of each other.

Here’s my takeaway: Solo Gratia is not Neal’s finest album, but it’s not his worst, not by a long shot. It’s a solid effort that I hope sets the stage for more concept albums based on St. Paul and other founders of the Church.

In The DropBox: Flying Colors, Nick Mason, Djabe with Steve Hackett, and Gazpacho

The DropBox overfloweth this week: two live sets, an interesting prog/jazz offering, and the new Gazpacho album.

First up, Flying Colors’ third live album, Third Stage: Live In London, recorded during the tour in support of 2019’s excellent Third Degree. The prog supergroup of Mike Portnoy, Steve Morse, Dave LaRue, Casey McPherson, and Neal Morse just gets better and better. This is a two-disc set featuring the cream of their crop of arena-rock style prog. The rhythm section of Portnoy and LaRue is insane, especially LaRue’s funky bass. If you aren’t familiar with Flying Colors, this is the perfect introduction. If you’re a fan, it’s the best document of their scorching live prowess yet recorded.

Next up is Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets. This is a real treat: Nick Mason, original drummer for Pink Floyd, put together a talented group of musicians to play a relaxed set of pre-Dark Side Of The Moon classics at the Roundhouse. If all you know about the Floyd is DSOTM and later, these songs (with the exception of the Meddle ones) will surprise you. They are playful and psychedelic in a very charming way. Gary Kemp, of Spandau Ballet fame, handles vocals, and he is terrific. It’s obvious both the band and the audience are having a great time, and Nick Mason has not lost his chops one bit.

The Magic Stag, by Hungarian group Djabe, is hard to categorize. The first few songs sound like some sort of raga/smooth jazz hybrid, as if Bob James found himself in Bollywood. Okay, I exaggerate, but there’s definitely an Indian feel to “Power of Wings” courtesy of a sitar jamming with trumpet. Steve Hackett lends his always tasteful guitar to seven of the eleven songs, and he and his wife wrote the lyrics to the title track.

The sixth track, “Unseen Sense” is the highlight, with some outstanding acoustic guitar work supporting a beautiful melody. This is a song worthy of stellar fusion artists such as Oregon, Weather Report, or Mark Isham. The rest of the album maintains the high standard set by this track. If you are looking for a nice album to play on a lazy Sunday morning, Djabe’s The Magic Stag is a perfect choice.

Anything new from Gazpacho is big news, and it’s been two years since we heard from them. Fireworker is their latest, and it is somewhat of a departure from previous efforts. I, for one, am glad to see them stretch out a little. The past few albums were starting to sound a little interchangeable. This one kicks off with the 20-minute epic “Space Cowboy”, which features a huge choir. It’s as if Carl Orff took his Carmina Burana and scored it for a prog rock group. That sounds ambitious, but Gazpacho pulls it off with aplomb.

This song cycle, like most of Gazpacho’s, has a unifying concept. In the words of keyboardist Thomas Andersen,

“There’s an instinctual part of you that lives inside your mind, separate from your consciousness. I call it the ‘Fireworker’ or the ‘Lizard’ or the ‘Space Cowboy.’ It’s an eternal and unbroken lifeforce that’s survived every generation, with a new version in each of us. It’s evolved alongside our consciousness, and it can override us and control all of our actions.” In order to get us to do what it wants, he clarifies, the “Fireworker” will silence the parts of our mind that feel disgust or remorse so that we’re unable to stop it. The conscious part of our mind, Andersen notes, will actually “rationalize and legitimize” those thoughts and actions so that we never discover the beast behind-the-scenes. No matter how we feel about ourselves in terms of identity, accomplishments, and value, we’re all just vessels—or “Sapiens”—that the creature uses until it no longer needs us. “If you play along,” Andersen explains, “It’ll reward you like a puppy and let you feel fantastic; if you don’t, it’ll punish you severely.”

From arena prog, through psychedelic pop, to jazz prog, and finally Norwegian choral prog (for want of a better term!), this is the most eclectic batch of music we’ve ever pulled from the DropBox. I’ll leave you with a little Djabe and Steve Hackett:

 

Tolkien Begins the Sequel to “The Hobbit” ~ The Imaginative Conservative

Yet, as much as Tolkien kept the story a Hobbit story, unanticipated persons and scenes and moments inserted themselves into the story, as did Tolkien’s larger legendarium. “The sequel to The Hobbit has now progressed as far as the end of the third chapter,” the author informed Stanley Unwin, however, “stories tend to get out of hand, and this has taken an unpremeditated turn.”[4] Tolkien repeated this news to various letter recipients over the next several months, recognizing that his own children—for whom The Hobbit had been originally written—had aged, and thus too had the storytelling. Somehow the sequel was growing in dark and perplexing ways. The whole story, he feared by October 1938, “was becoming more terrifying than the Hobbit.” Most worrisome, “it may prove quite unsuitable” as it becomes more and more “adult.” Clearly, Tolkien admitted, though never allegorical, the story of the sequel—and its depth and intensity—reflected the “darkness of the present days.”[5] In particular, the Necromancer (that is, Sauron) was playing a much bigger role in the sequel, and he, by his very nature, “is not child’s play.”[6]
— Read on theimaginativeconservative.org/2020/09/tolkien-begins-sequel-hobbit-bradley-birzer.html

A Wealth-and-Welfare Reading of Hesiod’s Works and Days

“A conventional economic analysis of the text—that is, one concerned primarily with wealth and welfare—focuses on the many lines devoted to labor, mercantile activity, law, and prudence.  Wealth-and-welfare economists will be drawn to these subjects because they most clearly embody conventional economic concerns with production and distribution, as well as the rules governing these processes.”

https://egnatiavia.blogspot.com/2020/09/a-wealth-and-welfare-reading-of-hesiods.html

In The DropBox: Arcade Messiah, Katatonia, and Pineapple Thief

John Bassett was very active in the mid 2010s with his KingBathMat, solo, and Arcade Messiah projects. KingBathMat was a quirky prog group that released five excellent albums of melodic metal, while Arcade Messiah began as an instrumental outfit. AM has released a few EPs since 2016’s III, but Bassett is back with a vengeance in 2020, and it sounds like he never left. In fact, he has taken the best elements of KingBathMat and Arcade Messiah and melded them into a sleek prog-metal machine. He’s now working exclusively under the Arcade Messiah moniker, and their latest effort is The Host. It features his trademark gift for a memorable melody delivered with crunching guitars. If you like your prog rock on the heavy side while remaining hummable, then your can’t go wrong with Arcade Messiah’s latest.

Katatonia’s City Burials is their followup to 2017’s magnificent The Fall of Hearts. This is a set of songs that explore the sadness and sense of loss one gets as one realizes that the past is buried forever. “Behind The Blood” is a ferocious rocker in the tradition of past Katatonia, but the majority of tracks are more hushed and tender. Jonas Renkse’s vocals have never been more warmer and more expressive as they are here. “Vanishers” features a beautiful duet between Renkse and Anni Bernhard that is a highlight. Katatonia’s evolution from extremely dark metal to melodic prog has been fascinating, and City Burials is their strongest effort yet.

Speaking of evolutions, The Pineapple Thief has fully emerged from their Radiohead/minimalist origins, and with Versions Of The Truth they are now one of the finest prog/pop groups active today. In the early 1980s, The Police were one of the biggest groups in the world. Their secret power was letting Stewart Copeland’s drums take the lead, and having Andy Summers’ guitar provide the rhythm.

With Gavin Harrison, The Pineapple Thief have a percussionist as gifted as Copeland, and his drums are way up in the mix, propelling the entire project. Every song is credited to both Harrison and Bruce Soord, and these are the finest set PT has ever recorded. Gone are the 20+ minutes-long meandering explorations, to be replaced by perfectly crafted pop miniatures. Even the longest one – “Our Mire” at 7:26 – is a masterpiece of concision. Stylistically they range from the laconic “Driving Like Maniacs” to the pulverizing “Break It All”, and there isn’t a clunker in the lot.

Three albums, three winners. 2020 isn’t a total disaster!

Tocqueville and a New Science of Politics ~ The Imaginative Conservative

When we fail to understand the choice that God has given us with democracy—that is, a science to guide, attenuate, and hone democracy—the baser instincts will rise to the fore. “So democracy has been abandoned to its wild instincts; it has grown up like those children, deprived of paternal care, who raise themselves in the streets of our cities, and who know society only by its vices and miseries. We still seemed unaware of its existence, when it took hold of power without warning.”

As such, democracy, thus far, has grown wild and licentious, on the verge of untamable. Though this process is stoppable and alterable, it will take some doing to make it work. As of the 1830s, Tocqueville fears, the material changes of democracy had far outpaced any of the spiritual restraints, customs, traditions, norms, and mores that make a thing good and acceptable, especially when dealing with a way of life. Many critics, understandably, thus see only the ills that democracy brings, failing to note its higher qualities. Habits, especially, have shown throughout history, the propensity to limit the ills of a thing, to make it acceptable to a population and to the stability of society.
— Read on theimaginativeconservative.org/2020/09/tocqueville-new-science-politics-bradley-birzer.html

Music, Books, Poetry, Film

%d bloggers like this: