Being a fundamentally HUGE (yes, it’s that large!) fan of Big Big Train, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Nick D’Virgilio’s solo album, Invisible. I proudly own his first album, Karma, his first EP, Pieces, every Spock’s Beard album, and Rewiring Genesis. To be sure, I presumed I would like Invisible, as I consider NDV our greatest living drummer, armed not only with rhythm (Holy Moses–that drum kit!) but with vocal prowess as well. And, from what I can tell from social media, he seems like a truly good and genuine person.
All of this adds up to high expectations for Invisible.
Well, it is even better than I expected. And, I expected a lot.
If you asked me to sum it up in a few words or even analyze it track by track, I couldn’t do it. This is a whole work of art—something to be digested in one sitting. Relentlessly captivating, it mixes progressive rock with classical with (ok, I was surprised by this one) with 1960’s style R&B with some mid-1970’s Styx with some punk-tinted Rush with broadway musicals with electronica with funk with straightforward rock and pop. Frankly, Invisible has it all. In this sense, it fits Andy Tillison’s definition of progressive—basically, “whatever I damn well want to throw in, I throw in” (my words, not Andy’s).
What most captures my imagination with the album, though, is NDV’s lyrics—so utterly earnest and so uplifting. In every song, NDV calls us to be our best. That NDV loves life is a certainty as certain that the sun will rise tomorrow, and his joy comes through every song.
If you’re looking for a new BBT or Spock’s Beard album, this isn’t it. And, that’s perfectly fine. Frankly, it doesn’t even really seem like a simple evolution from NDV’s previous solo efforts.
Invisible is . . . beyond all of this in ways that are very difficult to put into words.
But, if you’re looking for something gorgeous, something meaningful, something real, something inspiring. . . look no further. If anything, NDV has proven that real life is quite the opposite of being invisible. Rather, NDV calls us to be our best, to be tangible, and, frankly, to be the incarnate souls we’re meant to be.
Nothing Big Big Train does is unimportant in the world of music or in the larger world of art. As such, its most recent release, Summer’s Lease, is an important cultural marker, a signal act of beauty in a terribly—at least at the moment—ugly world. It’s as though Spawton, Longdon, and Co. are stating: hold on just a bit longer. . . we’ll all make it.
The album begins with the enchanting and pastoral instrumental, “Expecting Snow,” followed by a majestic—and reworked—version of “Kingmaker,” one of the oldest songs in the BBT canon, but a song that never tires and never grows old or out of style. The song is approaching, quickly, its thirtieth anniversary. Again, though, it only gets more interesting with age.
From here, BBT jumps forward two years, to 1995, and offers us a glorious reworking of the very first track to appear on CD, “Wind Distorted Pioneers.” Danny’s delicate-turned-jazz piano work and Rachel’s lush strings (as opposed to heavy guitar) make this a track to behold and celebrate. Truly, this track is a thing of wonder.
The band then gives us an in-studio live version of Swan Hunter’s rather sensuous and pondering “Summer’s Lease” and a subtly reworked version of track two of The Underfall Yard, “Master James of St. George.”
To conclude disk one, BBT offers a slightly shorter version of “London Song.” What was once barely over 34 minutes is now, with a bit of pruning and reworking, just barely under 34 minutes. Each version though—whether the original download or this CD version—is simply outstanding, a manifest demonstration of BBT’s compositional skills and dedication to excellence.
Disk two is, for the most part, much more straight forward with few surprises: “Victorian Brickwork”; “Judas Unrepentant”; “East Coast Racer”; “Curator of Butterflies”; “Swan Hunter”; “Transit of Venus Across the Sun”; Nick’s latest song; and “Brave Captain”.
On disk two, the only real surprise is the just-mentioned Nick D’Virgilio’s latest song, the undeniably mesmerizing “Don’t Forget the Telescope,” a track of seemingly endless possibilities, a tangle of love intertwined in a spirit of exploration. The song feels live, and it feels as though we’re listening to it an Irish baptism or wake (you know, the kind wake that celebrates life) being held on the south side of Chicago in the 1920s. Glorious.
Finally, I must write something about the packaging. BBT understands well that its fan base likes tangible things, and this package does not disappoint. Each of the two CDs come in nice cloth sleeves, the booklet is long (though, in Japanese!), and Sarah Ewing’s artwork is. . . well, just perfect and fantastic. Indeed, this is now my favorite BBT album cover. I would love to own a print of it.
No matter how bleak the world looks at the moment, Big Big Train wields the light, encouraging us to keep going, no matter the cost and no matter the doubt.
Well, it’s that time. That glorious time. Two weeks later, and Friday. This means that Big Big Train has updated, once again, its Passenger’s Club membership-only fan service. And, for this third update, I am reminded yet again how good BBT is. This week’s update comes in four (well, really five) parts.
First, there’s a new song, one written by Greg roughly ten to twelve years ago. It’s a love ballad for his wife, Kathy. Tender and fluid, “Sundial” might have ended up on Bard. Thus, it can probably be regarded as a “b-side,” if BBT created such things. I like the song quite a bit, and it fits nicely onto the Master Passengersonglist/album I’m slowly compiling as BBT releases each new song.
Second, there are a number of really nice photos taken during the Grand Tour rehearsals. Honestly, when the Passenger Club first emerged on February 14, I thought this was the weakest part of the service. But, I’m proven wrong here. There are no weak parts to the service, and these photos are really interesting. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to repost them, so I’ll refrain from doing so. But, I like them—really nice captures of the band.
Third, Nick Shilton give us yet another fascinating look into the marketing and branding side of the Big Big Train business. Shilton has a winsome writing style, and he clearly understands that the band must continue to innovate as entrepreneurs as well an innovate as artists. He sums up everything best about BBT in his final sentences of his update: “The BBT ethos is to strive for top quality in everything that the band does. If on occasion we fall short of that with the Club, we’re sure that you will let us know and we will always seek to rectify any issue as soon as possible.”
Fourth, BBT has released not one but TWO new videos! One is of the orchestration conducted at Abbey Road Studios, and the other is a “Behind the Scenes” look at the creation of the “Make Some Noise” video. When this first came out, I loved Dave Gregory’s “Slash” hat. If anything, I love it even more seven years later. There’s something quite humorously rebellious and defiant about the hat.
Well, there you have it. Granted, the world kind of reeks at the moment, and we’re either suffering or waiting to suffer—but that doesn’t negate the importance and permanence of the good, the true, and the beautiful. No matter how miserable things might get, BBT reminds us yet again that excellence really does matter.
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.
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.
Well, we’ve reached the end of the decade, and the end of our retrospective. Whew!
2019 proves that prog rock’s current renaissance is showing no signs of slowing down. We finish this decade with another year providing a surfeit of wonderful music. I’ve picked 11 representatives from 2019 for your listening pleasure. Here they are, in alphabetical order.
Big Big Train went for the big ideas on this one. It’s loosely based on the concept of a “grand tour” that educated Europeans took in the 1700’s and 1800’s. They manage to pull together such disparate topics as St. Theodora, the poet Shelley, and the Voyager spacecraft. Believe it or not, it all works!
Both Manuel Schmid and Marek Arnold are in Cyril, and I recently wrote a review of their excellent 2019 release, The Way Through. It’s about a man who has a near-death experience, and the struggles he has to overcome to reunite with his earthly body. A great prog effort!
This supergroup just gets better and better. On their third album, Flying Colors branches out into a diversity of styles, and come up with one of the best of the entire decade. “Last Train Home” is my favorite, “Geronimo” is funky blast of fun, and “Love Letter” sounds like a lost Raspberries classic.
In Continuum is another Dave Kerzner project that rose from the ashes of a planned Sound Of Contact reunion. It is a concept album about an alien who falls in love with a human, before Earth is scheduled to be destroyed. Kerzner recruited the cream of the crop to play on this, and it is a fine addition to his already impressive resume.
Izz released one of the most enjoyable albums of 2019. “42” is about Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier. While “Age Of Stars” features interweaving vocals and a driving beat. Their previous album, Everlasting Instant, was good, but Don’t Panic has more focus and confidence.
Goofy name, amazing music! These guys sound like a hybrid ska/prog/new wave band with an incredible vocalist. They have terrific playing chops, and their ability to switch styles mid-song makes my head spin. I found them via Tony Rowsick’s indispensable Progwatch podcast, and you can’t beat them if you just want to have something fun to listen to. “Captain Awkward” is a great track to start with, if you’re curious.
The Neal Morse Band pick up the story where Similitude Of A Dream left off. In this installment, the son of the protagonist from Similitude must battle his own demons and find salvation. I actually like this album better than Similitude, because there is more variety in the songs. There are so many good ones, but “Vanity Fair” really stands out.
Since Pattern-Seeking Animals consists of current and former Spock’s Beard members, you would expect this to sound somewhat Beard-like. However, the Pattern-Seekers come up with their own individual style that sets them apart. Ted Leonard is excellent on vocals and guitars, and John Boegehold steps up and takes a more visible role. “No One Ever Died and Made Me King” is the key track.
Often a much-loved album doesn’t make a positive first impression on me. That was the case with Bruce Soord’s (The Pineapple Thief) second solo album, All This Will Be Yours. On first listen, it is an unassuming set of songs, softly sung by Soord over a bed of mostly acoustic guitar and murmuring electronics. However, the more I listen to it, the more I am taken by it. “One Misstep” in particular is an engaging tune, with a mournful melody as Soord sings of his determination to make a broken relationship whole. As a matter of fact, I like this record better than the Thief’s much-acclaimed Dissolution, which was also released this year.
This was the biggest news in progworld in 2019 – after more than a decade, Tool reunited and recorded this massive groove-laden record. All of the songs segue into each other, and the result is almost trance-inducing. I was not a huge fan of Tool’s early work, but I love this one. Maynard James Keenan seems to be rejuvenated these days (as last year’s Eat The Elephant illustrated), and that is good news.
After recording several albums with his Devin Townsend Project, Townsend decided to go solo for the highly personal Empath. Once again, his patented wall-of-sound production is in play, and his incorporates choirs, strings, and guitars. Lots of guitars. Devin can be inconsistent, but Empath is one of his best.
And that completes our look back at the decade from 2010 – 2019. There were some exciting new artists that emerged, like Damanek, Evership, Perfect Beings, and Southern Empire, while veterans like Big Big Train, Gazpacho, Glass Hammer, Katatonia, and Neal Morse released some of the best music of their careers. Several surprise reunions bode well for the future: it was great to see Kino, A Perfect Circle, Tool, and Slowdive back in action.
I hope this series of posts inspired you to check out somebody you may not have been aware of, or go back a revisit an old musical friend. If you are interested in hearing more prog news and music, check out the podcasts ProgWatch and The Prog Report. Both are excellent resources for learning about and hearing new music in progworld.
Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Happy New Decade!
Seven years down and three to go in our look back at the best music of 2010’s. This post features 18 fine albums no self-respecting prog aficionado should be without. Here they are, in alphabetical order.
Southern spacey swamp rock (if that makes any sense!) that sounds relaxed and easygoing until the coffee kicks in. They really stretch out and mine some fine grooves on “Bulls” and “Alabaster”. If the Allman Bros. and Porcupine Tree had a child, it would sound like this.
A prequel to the Ayreon mythos, this 2-disc set is one of the most metallic in their catalog. It rocks incredibly hard, and as usual, Arjen manages to recruit an impressive cast of vocalists. The Ayreon arc of albums is one of the most impressive in rock, and The Source is a fine addition to it.
This was my top album of 2017. It’s an all-instrumental affair by Porcupine Tree keyboardist Richard Barbieri. While it is mostly jazz influenced, it also contains entrancing songs like “Unholy” – a meditative song with wordless vocals that could be a prayer. Nothing is rushed on this record, and I still never tire of listening to it.
We got an embarrassment of riches from Big Big Train in 2017. First, they released Grimspound which continued in the fine tradition of Folkore of celebrating unsung or forgotten heroes. “Experimental Gentlemen” and “A Mead Hall In Winter” are two outstanding tracks from this set.
A few months later, BBT released The Second Brightest Star, which was almost as good as Grimspound. The title track and “The Leaden Stour” are highlights.
BBT also gave away a digital-only release, London Story, which was a 34 minute track that combined several London-related songs. All of this activity was unprecedented for BBT and much appreciated by their fans.
Spirit of Cecilia’s founder and editor Bradley Birzer got in on the prog action in 2017 with this collaboration he made with Dave Bandana. Birzer wrote the lyrics – based on the sci-fi novel A Canticle For Leibowitz – and Bandana played and sang. It is full of majestic synths and great melodies.
Damanek is led by Guy Manning, and On Track is one of the best albums of the decade. Very sophisticated songwriting and playing abounds on this debut. African rhythms and catchy choruses make for a very nice experience. Marek Arnold lends his sax to the proceedings as well.
I was beginning to wonder if Depeche Mode was ever going to make a decent album after Playing the Angel. Fortunately, Spirit has some of their best tunes in years, and they sound energized. Let’s hope it lasts.
I didn’t catch this one until after 2017, but if I had I would have picked it as my favorite of the year. Geoff Downes (Buggles, Yes, Asia) and Chris Braide (Producers) join forces and produce an extraordinary album. The title track is one of the finest epics in the history of prog (and it even features vocals by Kate Pierson of the B-52s!). “Darker Times” has some of the most beautiful harmonies since the Beach Boys’ Surf’s Up. Chris Braide is a fantastic singer – pure and pitch perfect.
This collection of songs from Glass Hammer’s vault turns out to be one of their most fun albums ever. The stomping “Troll” is a hilarious takedown of internet trolls, and “Cool Air” is a marvelous musical version of an H. P. Lovecraft story.
I Am The Manic Whale’s second album is even better than their first. More confident and risk-taking, they succeed on “Strandbeest” and “Stand Up”. If you like XTC and Frost*, you will enjoy IATMW.
What a gorgeous album. It begins almost in midsong with Jonas Renske’s warm and hushed baritone singing, “You wait by the river/Days are long” and continues for more than a hour as one song flows into another. Even though there is a superficially languid feel to the music, I always sense the enormous power this band is capable of.
A supergroup composed of King’s X bassist/vocalist Dug Pinnock, Korn’s drummer Ray Luzier, and Lynch Mob’s George Lynch, this is a straight rock album with no apologies necessary. “Breakout” is a killer song.
The second installment in John Mitchell’s Lonely Robot trilogy. “Awakenings”, “Sigma”, and “In Floral Green” are an incredible one-two-three punch early in the album.
Gary Numan followed up the excellent Splinter with the even better Savage. There is a definite Middle Eastern vibe here, and Numan is still the master of the irresistible hook. His band lays down a massive groove on every track. It’s been fascinating to watch Numan struggle with his atheism – for someone who doesn’t believe in God, he sure does yell at Him a lot.
Slowdive were founding members of the “shoegaze” movement in the 90s. They disappeared after1995, and then suddenly showed up in 2017 with this eponymous album. It is as good as their best work from 20 years ago. Here’s hoping they don’t wait another 20 to make another.
Damien Wilson is no longer with Threshold, but that didn’t stop them from producing the fantastic double disc set Legends Of The Shires. “Stars and Satellites” is a fantastic song with layers of guitars and an unforgettable chorus.
Wilson embraces his love for ’80s new wave pop, and comes up with the most consistently enjoyable album of his solo career. His guitar solo on the title track is perfect: concise, melodic, and lyrical. “Pemanating” could be a Tears For Fears single, and “Blank Tapes” is unbelievably sweet and heartbreaking. A great, great record.
That’s our look at 2017, folks. Two more years to go! Honorable mentions for this year go to Dave Kerzner (Static), Godsticks (Faced With Rage), Lunatic Soul (Fractured), Sons Of Apollo (Psychotic Symphony), and Wobbler (From Silence To Somewhere). Add your choices in the comments!
Welcome to Spirit of Cecilia’s retrospective of this decade’s musical highlights! This is the seventh chapter, which covers the best of 2016, and Hoo Boy! we had a bumper crop of great music that year. Here are 20(!) of the best prog and rock albums from 2016, in alphabetical order.
Big Big Train continued its decade-long conquest of progworld with Folklore. A big part of their appeal (aside from their wonderful musicianship and beautiful melodies) is their knack for finding forgotten heroes and paying musical tribute to them. In Folklore, we are treated to the fascinating story of the messenger pigeon, Winkie. “The Transit Of Venus Across The Sun” is another indispensable BBT track.
Blueneck hails from Britol, UK, and The Outpost was one of the standout albums of 2016. Shimmering, slow-building, atmospheric, and majestic music made this a compulsive listen for me. “From Beyond” is a tremendous track.
David Bowie had this album released posthumously. As always, he resists easy categorization. The nearly ten minute title track is full of skittery rhythms, disembodied jazz sax, and disturbing lyrics. A fitting final statement from one of the most talented and creative souls in music.
I did not hear about this group until recently, but I am glad I discovered them. Cyril is from Germany, and Marek Arnold and Manuel Schmid are members. Paralyzed is a fantastic prog album – one of the best of the last ten years. There are hints of classic Genesis in their sound, and I can’t recommend this album enough.
It looks like this is the final offering from the Devin Townsend Project, and what a way to finish! They revisit a DTP classic (“Truth”), and cover a Ween song (“Transdermal Celebration”). In between are some of the strongest songs Townsend has ever written. His vocals can make my hair stand on end, they are so, well, transcendent.
Evership is from my own city of Nashville, TN, but I would add this to our list regardless of their location. These guys write lyrical epics that are performed flawlessly. “Ultima Thule” is a near-perfect song, building slowly and quietly to a roaring conclusion. I can’t wait to hear more from this group.
How about a little fun? Jem Godfrey’s project Frost* released a terrific pop/prog collection in 2016 that I still listen to often. “Closer To The Sun” is one of the most enjoyable and reassuring seven and a half minutes in music.
Glass Hammer embraced their inner Rush and put together a challenging concept album based on the trauma suffered by a WWI veteran. Suzie Bogdanowicz never sounded better, the band rehearsed all the songs before recording, and it shows. They really fire on all cylinders.
Haken took a time machine back 30-odd years ago for Affinity. There all kinds of vintage synth sounds and nods to ’80s hair bands that make Affinity a hugely enjoyable record. Of course, they still have their 21st century wall of sound on great songs like “1985” and “The Architect”. This is one of Haken’s best albums, and it is scary how good they are.
The second album from Adam Wakeman’s and Damien Wilson’s project was a stunning set of songs. There are rough blues (“Polluted Alcohol”), straight ahead metal (“Kill You With Kindness”), and complex prog (“The Science Within Us”). “Secular Soul” is the kind of song that forces you to stop what you’re doing and just listen.
One of the biggest surprises of 2016 was the triumphant return of Kansas. This was no cashing in on nostalgia – this was a truly excellent album that successfully compares to their classics from the ’70s and ’80s. Welcome back, boys!
These guys started out as Synaesthesia, and morphed into Kyros. Whatever they call themselves, Adam Warne and Co. are some of the most talented songwriters and musicians working today. Vox Humana was a 2-disc concept album about a scientist who creates an artificial human, and the problems that ensue. Highly recommended.
The Similitude Of A Dream was the Neal Morse Band’s second album, and it was a monster. Over 2 hours long, it told the story of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Upon its release, it was immediately hailed as a prog classic.
Opeth’s Sorderess topped a lot of critics’ Best of 2016 lists. With this album, Opeth laid to rest any remains of their death metal past, and jumped headlong into prog.
In 2016, Pineapple Thief released what I consider to be their finest album to date, Your Wilderness. Bruce Soord came up with a diverse and satisfying set of songs that really rocked (“Tear You Up”). Gavin Harrison plays drums, and he kicks them into high gear.
Radiohead rediscovered melody on A Moon Shaped Pool and came up with a beautiful album. String quartets, gentle synth washes, and massed voices combine for one of their finest hours.
Australia’s Sean Timms (keyboards) and Danny Lopresto (vocals, guitar) lead this marvelous new prog band. Their debut was one of the best albums of 2016, with “The Bridge That Binds” the standout track.
I listened to this album by Syd Arthur more than practically anything else in 2016. It is a funky, catchy set of songs that remind me a bit of Talking Heads. I dare you to sit still while listening to “No Peace”.
And finally, an offering from an old veteran: Vangelis. He can veer dangerously close to cheesy romanticism, but Rosetta is one of his best set of songs in his long career. He composed them to accompany the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft that successfully landed on a comet. It is appropriately spacey and atmospheric.
Whew! I hope this long post convinced you that 2016 was one of the best for great music. Let us know in the comments below what you enjoyed back then.
We’re continuing our look back at the decade that is ending in a few weeks with a fond recall of 2013. It was another exceptional year in terms of high quality music, and I have selected fifteen albums that represent just how good that year was for lovers of prog and rock. Once again, my choices are in alphabetical order.
Okay, this is certainly not prog, but the Beatles were the greatest rock group of all time. This is a huge collection of studio outtakes from 1963 that was initially available for purchase for only a few hours on iTunes. Why only a few hours? Because the 50 year copyright on them was set to expire if they weren’t made commercially available. Once they were put on the marketplace, their copyright was safe, and the music label could continue to make money off of them.
That said, these tracks are a fascinating glimpse into how good John, Paul, George, and Ringo were from the beginning of their recorded career. They hit their harmonies effortlessly, and their musicianship is excellent. This collection is now available on Apple Music, and it is worth checking out if you are a even a casual Beatles fan.
Big Big Train followed up 2012’s English Electric Part 1 with English Electric Part 2, which was, in some fan’s eyes, even better. It opens with the propulsive “East Coast Racer” and includes the tender “Curator of Butterflies”. “The Permanent Way” pulls together several themes from the two parts beautifully.
Later in 2013, BBT released a deluxe 2-disc edition of Parts 1 and 2 with a changed running order and extra tracks entitled Full Power. I suppose it is the definitive edition, but I prefer the original separate albums.
One of my favorite albums of the decade is Cosmograf’s The Man Left In Space. It is a concept album about the anguish an astronaut goes through as he realizes he will not be returning home from his space voyage. Great music, sensitive lyrics, and snippets of audio conversations create a claustrophobic soundscape that is redeemed by the uplifting finale, “When the Air Runs Out”.
After he released Reality in 2003, Bowie announced he was retiring from music. Ten years later, The Next Day appeared. Reality was a career high point, but The Next Day is a worthy successor. In it, Bowie explores all of his eclectic musical interests, and delivers a terrific set of songs. The album cover is simply a vandalized version of his 1978 classic, “Heroes”, as if to say, “What’s past is past. Listen to me now.”
Los Angeles-based Days Between Stations released their excellent second album, In Extremis in 2013. It features Colin Moulding of XTC fame on the catchy “The Man Who Died Two Times”, and “Eggshell Man” is one of the best epics of the decade.
Einaudi is a classical composer and pianist, and In A Time Lapse is a superb collection of his minimalist-tinged compositions. Unabashedly melodic and romantic, this album is a beautiful listening experience.
The Mountain was Haken’s third album, and it was a breakthrough. Every song is excellent, and “Paraidolia” is one of the best in their entire catalog. This album was my favorite of 2013 (yes, I liked it even more than BBT’s Full Power). Today, Haken is one of the top bands in progworld. This album shows why they deserve all the accolades.
KingBathmat is the brainchild of John Bassett, and for a while in the mid-’10s it looked like they were going to conquer the world. Overcoming The Monster is their best album, and it is a hard-driving metal/psychedelic/progressive melodic masterpiece. “Kubrick Moon” is one of the weirdest yet satisfying songs I’ve ever heard.
Most people in America think Gary Numan is that one-hit wonder guy with the song about cars. He’s actually had a long career, with many ups and downs, and Splinter is an incredible return to form. Trent Reznor owes a lot to Numan, as Splinter illustrates. A very strong album, performed very well. The bass is absolutely thunderous, and the hooks Numan sets up sink in and won’t let go.
Not a 2013 album, but a welcome rerelease. The original 2002 album was greeted rapturously, because no one knew if Rush would ever perform together after Neil Peart’s personal losses. Once the initial excitement subsided, it was clear that the mix on Vapor Trails was a disaster. With this version, these fantastic songs can be heard as the band intended.
Matt Healey (North Atlantic Oscillation) released this solo album that could be another NAO set. It is a wonderful album, including an ode to Halley’s telescope (“Elegy For The Old Forty-Foot”). I’m a fan of anything NAO does, and SAND is an essential part of their catalog.
Sanguine Hum’s second album is even better than their excellent debut. The title track is 15 minutes of endlessly delightful pop that flies by in no time. The Weight Of The World is a career high that they have yet to surpass.
One of the best albums of the decade. Simon Collins (son of Phil, with his father’s vocal and drum chops) and Dave Kerzner formed the creative nucleus of this band and released a terrific concept album about a being who can travel through different dimensions. “Mobius Slip” is one of the most exhilarating 20 minutes in rock. Too bad Collins and Kerzner couldn’t patch up their differences to work together again. We’re all poorer for it.
When I first heard Steven Wilson’s opening track to The Raven That Refused To Sing, I thought, “Hmm… Early ’70s Herbie Hancock fusion with Yes.” I’m not a fan of that particular mixture, but fortunately, track 2 is one of Wilson’s finest ever: “Drive Home”. I admire him for trying new things and never sitting still musically – that’s what keeps me interested in his work.
Other significant releases in 2013: Anathema’s concert set Universal, Blackfield’s IV, The Dear Hunter’s Migrant, Nosound’s Afterthoughts, and Tesseract’s Altered State. Let us know your favorites that we missed in the comments!