Tag Archives: Glass Hammer

Glass Hammer Continues Winning Streak with “Skallagrim – Into The Breach”

Skallagrim

Chattanooga, TN proggers Glass Hammer are set to release the second installment of the Skallagrim Trilogy: Into the Breach. It is an eagerly awaited work, and I am happy to report that it exceeds expectations. If you thought last year’s Dreaming City was a departure from their typical sound, Into the Breach further develops their new, heavier approach to their music.

Besides the obvious elements like super heavy, crunchy guitars, new lead vocalist Hannah Pryor rocks like a …. well, you can fill in the blank. Suffice it to say that Ms. Pryor can belt out a song with the best of them, while maintaining a purity of tone that is never grating.

The lyrics continue the adventures of the jewel thief Skallagrim, this time focusing on his mercenary adventuring as he battles to lift a curse and restore his memory. He is accompanied by his comrade in arms, Hartbert, and they are financed by a mysterious powerbroker, Erling. However, you don’t need to know the story to enjoy the music.

And what glorious music Into the Breach is! It begins with the short acoustic ballad, “He’s Got A Girl”, that segues directly into the roaring “Anthem to Andorath”. This one took my breath away when I first heard it (check out the official video below). Pryor’s vocals intertwine effortlessly with Babb’s and Schendel’s to an exhilarating climax.

The musical pummeling doesn’t let up with “Sellsword” which opens with the dirtiest guitar riff Glass Hammer has ever put to tape. Maybe they’re unleashing pandemic-spawned frustrations, but Steve Babb, Fred Schendel, and Aaron Raulston have never played with this much ferocity.

Glass Hammer, v.2021: Pryor, Schendel, Babb, and Raulston

“Steel” alternates between crushing riffs and bouncy flights of Rundgrenesque popcraft. Pryor’s powerful vocals are the glue that hold all the disparate parts together.

The next two tracks, “Moon Pool” and “The Dark” are instrumentals. “Moon Pool” recalls classic Tangerine Dream, continuing the trend Glass Hammer began in Dreaming City.

“The Ogre of Archon” is another winning hard rock song, which goes directly into the blistering title track. There is an excellent section where Babb’s bass and Schendel’s organ play off of each other as Reese Boyd (or Brian Brewer, it’s not credited) plays terrific solos worthy of Alex Lifeson.

To my mind, the next three songs form a mini-trilogy. “The Forlorn Hope” is one of the best songs on the album, and it offers a bit of a respite from the heavy atmosphere of the rest of the album. “The Writing On The Wall” combines Crimsonesque melodic runs with some more spacey sections that allow Babb’s always inventive bass playing to shine. “Hyperborea” is an almost ten-minute long tour de force that is the finest track on the album, and one of the best songs Glass Hammer has ever done. It is a loving tribute to classic Rush, which in true Glass Hammer fashion, deftly pays their respects without descending into mere imitation.

The album closes with the brief “Bright Sword” which sets the scene for the conclusion of the Skallagrim Trilogy, and leaves the listener begging for more. Into the Breach clocks in at a hefty 70+ minutes, but I’ve listened to it in its entirety a dozen times, and it never feels labored or long. Every note counts, and every second is an aural pleasure.

After nearly 30 years and more than 20 albums, most artists would be exhausted. With Into the Breach, Glass Hammer are playing as if someone has lit a fire under them; this music is some of the most passionate they’ve ever put together. Their ability to constantly challenge themselves and revitalize their sound makes them the most fascinating and satisfying rock band in America. Meanwhile, Skallagrim – Into the Breach consolidates the great leap forward Glass Hammer took with Dreaming City. It is the heaviest yet most graceful music they have recorded in their long career. It is an unalloyed triumph that leaves the listener eagerly awaiting Chapter Three.

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. 

In The DropBox: Loma, Big Big Train, Glass Hammer, and Doncourt/Olsson

The first album in this batch of DropBox offerings is a wondrous work of art from a group called Loma. They are on the Sub Pop label, of all places, and with Don’t Shy Away they have come up with a subdued, spacious masterpiece. Emily Cross (vocals), Dan Duszynski , and Jonathan Meiburg have collaborated to create music that reminds me of the best of Talk Talk and Laurie Anderson. This is music that takes its time to develop, yet grabs the listener’s attention from the first note. Brian Eno is a fan, and he lends his talent to “Homing”. Cross’s breathy vocals are gently enchanting, while a chugging sax provides counterpoint. On “Jenny”, crickets chirp in the background as muffled drums beat and a guitar is slowly strummed. It’s so inviting – as if they asked the listener to join them in an intimate jam session on their back porch. This album came out of left field, and I can’t stop listening to it. If you are a fan of Kate Bush, Talk Talk, Brian Eno, or Over The Rhine, you owe it to yourself to check this one out.

While St. Cecilia is the patron saint of this site, Big Big Train could be considered the patron group. It was mutual love of their music that brought many of Spirit of Cecilia’s contributors together, and we eagerly anticipate every new release of theirs. The latest from BBT is a recording of their November 2019 show at the Hackney Empire. It’s a very good performance, featuring songs from English Electric, Folklore, Grimspound, and The Grand Tour. For long-time fans, it’s also a bittersweet affair, since it includes the final performances of Dave Gregory, Rachel Hall, and Danny Manners. If you haven’t heard anything by BBT but were curious, this BluRay/CD package is a perfect introduction. David Longdon’s voice is in excellent form, and the band plays even the most challenging passages to perfection. Nick D’Virgilio’s drumming is exceptionally fine. The primarily acoustic “The Florentine” is a highlight with its lilting vocal harmonies and Hall’s ecstatic violin solo.

Back on this side of the big pond, Glass Hammer have released a download-only collection of favorite tracks from their early years. They have rerecorded them, and it is a lot of fun to hear these 20+ year old tracks given new life. I especially enjoy the ones from 1998’s On To Evermore, an album that is one of my favorites of GH, but which slipped under the radar for a lot of prog fans.

Finally, an album from Tom Doncourt and Mattias Olsson, Cathedral. The dark artwork matches the music perfectly, which was composed and recorded before Doncourt’s death in March of 2019. It includes Gregorian chant-like vocals, lots of mellotron and synths, as well as some hard rocking guitars in places. The highlight is the 12:34 long “Poppies In A Field”. Doncourt and Olsson obviously put a lot of thought into the arrangements of these songs, and I am impressed with how they are able to create a unique atmosphere. It is a fitting tribute to Doncourt, and if you are looking for an album to play on a rainy, gloomy Sunday afternoon, then Cathedral will fill the bill.

Okay, that’s the latest from the Spirit of Cecilia DropBox. A true masterpiece from Loma, some fan service from two old favorites, and an intriguingly dark work from Doncourt and Olsson. My next post will be my favorite albums of 2020. We have had a bumper crop of great music this year, so it might be a long one! Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with Loma’s video for “Fix My Gaze”:

Sea of Tranquility Interviews Glass Hammer

Pete Pardo of Sea of Tranquility conducts an in-depth interview of Steve Babb and Fred Schendel, the artists otherwise known as Glass Hammer. While focusing primarily on their newest album, Dreaming City (reviewed on Spirit of Cecilia here), they also cover a wide range of prog-related topics.

Part 1 of the interview:

 

Part 2 of the interview, in which Steve reveals which GH album is “the Seinfeld of prog rock”:

Through A Glass Hammer, Darkly

One thing I’ve learned in my eight years of being an avid Glass Hammer fan is to expect the unexpected. While every album of theirs is consistently excellent, there is not a consistent style that runs from their debut through to their latest offering, Dreaming City. So, I shouldn’t have been surprised at the onslaught of metal that greeted my ears when I cranked up the first track, The Dreaming City. Wait, is this the same group that gave us the light-hearted Chronomonaut last year? Yes, it is, and I like it. Actually, I love it! Under the massive guitar attack I can still hear Steve Babb’s melodic bass pounding away, and Fred Schendel’s keyboards providing bursts of furious punctuation.

The core group of Babb (lead vocals, bass), Schendel (guitars, vocals, keyboards), drummer Aaron Raulston, and singer Susie Bogdanowicz have augmented themselves with Reese Boyd (guitars, vocals), John Beagley (vocals), Brian Brewer (guitars), Joe Logan (vocals), James Byron Schoen (more guitar!), and Barry Seroff (flute). Dreaming City features the largest cast of contributors of any Glass Hammer album I am aware of, yet it doesn’t sound crowded or too busy. It’s a surprisingly lean production, with every instrument locked into the overall groove.

Dreaming City is the soundtrack to a very dark fantasy adventure, with the songs seamlessly flowing into each other, much like 2012’s Perilous. Our hero is a lowly thief, Skallagrim, who awakes in the land of Pagarna,  ruled by an evil sorcerer who has kidnapped his love. While in the Dreaming City, he is surrounded by evil ones who want to kill him. At the last possible moment, a sword appears over his head, which he grasps and uses it to save himself.

The sword, named Terminus, is possessed by an angel who provides the hero strength and hope during his daunting quest to rescue his love:

“And the sword is hope that comes from without by divine design, not from within.”

I won’t relate any more of the story, but there is a wonderful twist to it at the end which took me by surprise.

Musically, this is one of the most diverse and satisfying set of songs Glass Hammer has blessed us with. They are brimming with confidence and invention, and every track is a delight to listen to. The aforementioned opener, The Dreaming City, is the heaviest thing GH has ever recorded, while The Lonely World is an aural dose of pure pop. The angelic-voiced Susie Bogdanowicz sings lead on the beautiful October Ballad, while the epic closing track, The Watchman On The Wall, is a glorious and triumphant song that recalls the heyday of Permanent Waves-era  Rush.

I could rave about every single song, but I must single out Terminus for special praise. If Rush and  The Alan Parsons Project had a love child, Terminus would be it. A propulsive beat and a fantastic synth line serve a hook-laden melody to combine for a compulsive listen. Other highlights include the atmospheric instrumental tracks, Threshold of Dreams and The Tower, both of which are reminiscent of classic Tangerine Dream. But, as I wrote, every single song is outstanding.

What is most impressive about Dreaming City is how all the tracks come together to create a most satisfying whole. This is an album to listen to in its entirety, as it tells the compelling tale of an unlikely hero thrust into a desperate quest to overcome evil, and in the process find hidden strength within himself – with a little divine assistance. In Babb’s words, “This is all about evil people robbing us of our joy – holding it hostage. There can be unfortunate episodes in life where that happens and you can barely even remember what “joy” was like – may even become resigned to the thought that you may never know it again in this life, but determine to look for it nonetheless. So this was an important story for me and I hope it brings encouragement to many.”

Dreaming City is an extraordinary and career-defining work from one of America’s finest rock groups, and I can’t wait to hear what unexpected delights they have in store for us in the future.

 

Forthcoming Glass Hammer

The Tennessee-based prog rock band extraordinaire, Glass Hammer, has announced its next studio album, DREAMING CITY.

From the band’s official description:

Glass Hammer returns to the world of THE INCONSOLABLE SECRET with 2020’s DREAMING CITY. Perhaps the group’s most powerful musical statement to date, DREAMING CITY tells the story of a “desperate man…as doomed as they come” who must fight his way through a spectrum of horrors to rescue his lover. We find out early in the album that the protagonist has only three days to find her before she dies; a dilemma which sets the stage for all that is to come and guarantees an emotional roller-coaster ride for the listener.

For my own longish take on the band:

America’s single most innovative and interesting rock band is also, sadly, one of its least known and appreciated.  This needs to end, and the sooner, the better for all concerned.  Amazingly enough, the band Glass Hammer is now celebrating its 26th birthday, and it’s about to release its seventeenth studio album.  This is an astounding achievement in the world of art and, especially, in the world of rock.  To add even more accolades, the band exists because its two founders were and are perfectionists, refusing to compromise on their own vision of what excellence is.

. . . click here: https://www.theamericanconservative.com/birzer/glass-hammer-giving-meaning-to-time-space/

Those Awkward Teenage Years – The 2010’s, pt. 9: 2018

We’re getting close to the present day in our look back at the best music of the decade. 2018 was another bountiful year for prog fans, and, like 2017, it included a couple of surprise reunions along with some reappearing favorites.

We’ve chosen 15 albums to represent the excellence of 2018, so without further ado, here they are in alphabetical order.

Damanek: In Flight

Damanek’s second album is even better than their impressive debut. “Skyboat” sounds like a mid-70s Jethro Tull single, and the three-part “Big Eastern” is an epic telling of a family’s saga from their roots in China to their settling in America. Thanks to Damanek, I have become a big fan of Guy Manning.

Evership II

Another sophomore effort that improves on an excellent debut. Evership II continues their championing of classic prog. Fans of Marillion and early Spock’s Beard will love this.

Gazpacho: Soyuz

Gazpacho released one of their all-time finest albums in 2018 with Soyuz. Loosely based on the true story of a doomed Soviet Russian space mission, the music is uplifting, angry, and heroic.

Glass Hammer: Chronomonaut

There’s a reason a Glass Hammer album has been featured almost every year this decade: they have consistently produced great music! This entry to their catalog is a sequel to Chronometree, and it showcases their pop skills (think classic Todd Rundgren). “Fade Away”, the majestic finale, is one of their best.

Haken: L-1VE and Vector

Haken released a 2-CD/DVD set of a great performance in Amsterdam in 2018, where they play the entire Affinity album. Later in the year, they put out Vector, which made quite a few Best of 2018 lists. Haken are at the top of their game, with no sign of fading.

Kino: Radio Voltaire

This was a nice surprise! Way back in 2005, John Mitchell (Arena, Frost*, Lonely Robot, It Bites), Pete Trewavas (Marillion), John Beck (It Bites), and Chris Maitland (Porcupine Tree) got together and recorded what many people thought was a one-off album. Lo and behold, they reunited in 2018 and released Radio Voltaire, which ended up being one of the best of the year. Like anything Mitchell is involved in, there are excellent tunes, superb guitar, and a dash of humor.

Tim Morse III

Tim Morse (no relation to Neal) quietly and carefully self-produces gems of albums every few years. Tim Morse III is a delight to listen to, and I hope he never stops creating music.

North Atlantic Oscillation: Grind Show

If you’ve worked your way through this series, you know that I like North Atlantic Oscillation – a lot. Grind Show doesn’t disappoint, as they continue to hone their unique sound that marries layered harmonies to synth-heavy music. Sort of like what would happen if Brian Wilson collaborated with Kraftwerk.

Oak: False Memory Archive

A fascinating set of songs from the Norwegian group Oak. I would classify it as chamber pop music. They even include “Clair de Lune” in one of their songs, but it doesn’t come off as pretentious. Highly recommended if you are looking for something pretty to listen to.

Perfect Beings: Vier

Wow. This is one of the best albums of the decade, let alone 2018. Vier means “four”, and the songs are divided into four groups: Guedra, The Golden Arc, Vibrational, and Anunnaki. The entire album is one long suite as various themes emerge, recede, and reappear. On their previous two albums, Perfect Beings incorporated some Beatlesque power pop into their music, but this is on another plane of music entirely.

A Perfect Circle: Eat The Elephant

Another surprise reunion. Maynard James Keenan’s side project A Perfect Circle released two incredible albums in 2000 and 2003, and a horrible one in 2004. It seemed like that was that, and they were done. Fourteen years later, they put out Eat The Elephant, which is excellent. Not as metal-oriented as their earlier music, but more subtle. Beautiful melodies and lyrics expressing barely controlled rage characterize this one.

Riverside: Wasteland

Riverside survived the dreadful loss of Piotr Grudzinski, their guitarist, and released the very strong Wasteland in 2018. Set in a post-apocalyptic future, this album manages to be hopeful and uplifting.

RPWL: Tales From Outer Space

RPWL started out as a Pink Floyd tribute band, which was obvious on their earlier Beyond Man and Time. On Tales From Outer Space, they just rock out and have a great time. I ended listening to this album almost more than anything else in 2018. “Not Our Place To Be” has a great hook that gets in your ear and won’t come out.

Manuel Schmid Und Marek Arnold: Zeiten

This is the album I actually did listen to more than anything else. It is sung in German, and the melodies are elegant art-pop. Here’s what I said in my original review: Schmid and Arnold’s melodies are beautiful and delicate, catchy without being cloying, and deceptively complex. The instrumentation is primarily keyboards based, and mostly acoustic. There are very tasteful synth flourishes and electric guitar solos, but none of them overwhelm the beauty of the underlying melodies.

Southern Empire: Civilisation

The second outing by this band from Down Under consists of four epics, and there isn’t a wasted note anywhere. These guys are going to be prog superstars very soon.

That completes our look back to 2018. Honorable mentions are Big Big Train’s live set Merchants of Light, Gunship’s Dark All Day, Pineapple Thief’s Dissolution, Tesseract’s Sonder, and Umphrey McGee’s It’s Not Us.

Let us know what we’ve missed in the comments!

 

 

Those Awkward Teenage Years – The 2010’s, pt. 8: 2017

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.

All Them Witches: Sleeping Through The War

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.

Ayreon: The Source

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.

Richard Barbieri: Planets + Persona

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.

Big Big Train: Grimspound and The Second Brightest Star

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.

 

Birzer Bandana: Becoming One

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: On Track

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.

Depeche Mode: Spirit

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.

Downes Braide Association: Skyscraper Souls

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.

Glass Hammer: Untold Tales

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: Gathering The Waters

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.

Katatonia: The Fall Of Hearts

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.

KXM: Scatterbrain

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.

Lonely Robot: The Big Dream

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: Savage: Songs For A Broken World

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

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.

Threshold: Legends Of The Shires

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.

Steven Wilson: To The Bone

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!

 

Those Awkward Teenage Years – The 2010’s, pt. 7: 2016

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: Folklore

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: The Outpost

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: Black Star

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.

 

Cyril: Paralyzed

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.

Devin Townsend Project: Transcendence

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

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.

Frost: Falling Satellites

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: Valkyrie

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: Affinity

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.

Headspace: All That You Fear Is Gone

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.

iamthemorning: Lighthouse

A beautiful and sensitive portrayal of a young woman’s battle with mental illness, Lighthouse was iamthemorning’s second album. In my original review, I noted, “Imagine, if you will, a world where Aerial-era Kate Bush, Dumbarton Oaks-era Igor Stravinsky, and Sketches of Spain-era Miles Davis got together to compose a song cycle.”

Kansas: The Prelude Implicit

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!

Kyros: Vox Humana

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.

Neal Morse Band: Similitude Of A Dream

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: Sorceress

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.

Pineapple Thief: Your Wilderness

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: A Moon-Shaped Pool

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.

Southern Empire

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.

Syd Arthur: Apricity

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”.

Vangelis: Rosetta

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.

Those Awkward Teenage Years – The 2010’s, pt. 6: 2015

We’re midway through the decade – thanks for joining us on our journey through the musical highlights of the 2010s!

In terms of music distribution, compact disc sales continued their steep decline. In 2000, 943 million CDs were sold. By 2015, that number had dropped to a little over 100 million. iTunes (and mp3s in general) was fading fast as Spotify, Amazon Music, and Apple Music attracted listeners to their streaming platforms. What these trends mean for artists remains to be seen. As it gets harder to earn income from recorded music, will that discourage new artists from getting started?

On the other hand – stepping back and taking a longer view of history – perhaps we’ll look at the 20th century as an aberration in terms of the financial rewards many recording artists were able to garner. For most of recorded history, musicians and composers have  had to struggle to survive, and even the the most gifted relied on wealthy patrons.

Fortunately for us in the 21st century, there is no shortage of great artists producing fine music, and 2015 was a good example. So here are the highlights of that year, in alphabetical order.

The Dear Hunter: Act IV: Rebirth In Reprise

Casey Crescenzo has released five of his planned six acts. Act IV: Rebirth In Reprise is my favorite so far. As usual, there is everything but the kitchen sink here. “A Night On The Town” is the key track as it swings like a Gershwin composition before an exhilarating rock motif takes over.

Gazpacho: Molok & NIght Of The Demon

Another year, and not one, but two Gazpacho releases. Molok is another dark concept album about the ancient demon utilizing modern technology for his nefarious purposes (I think). The fact that Molok has some of the prettiest music Gazpacho has ever made makes the concept go down easy. Night Of The Demon is a live set where the band really cooks. It’s a perfect introduction to them, if you’re curious.

Glass Hammer: THe Breaking Of The World & Double Live

Another year, and not one, but two Glass Hammer releases. The Breaking Of The World is another peak for them (how do they keep doing that?) with essential songs “Mythopoiea”, “North Wind”, and “Nothing, Everything”.  Double Live is a terrific no-frills live performance. Susie Bogdanowicz and Carl Groves are excellent singing classics like “The Knight Of The North” and “If The Stars”, while the band rocks tighter than a tick.

I Am The Manic Whale: Everything Beautiful In Time

A new band from Reading, England, I Am The Manic Whale sprang fully formed from the brain of Michael Whiteman (the band name is an anagram of his). This is an impressive debut with songs celebrating subjects ranging from 10,000 year clocks to the joys of parenting messy toddlers. “Princess Strange” is an inspiring take on cyberbullying.  A true delight to listen to, and worthy of a large audience.

Karnatake: Secrets of Angels

Veteran proggers Karnataka enlisted new singer Hayley Griffiths for Secrets Of Angels, and she really lit a fire under them. Opening track “Road To Cairo” has a killer middle eastern riff that is as satisfying as Led Zep’s “Kashmir”. The title track is also excellent.

Dave Kerzner: New World

The keyboardist and composer from Sound Of Contact struck out on his own and produced this wonderful Floydian sci-fi epic. Put it on, and imagine you are back in 1977, hearing a fantastic new prog masterpiece.

 

Lonely Robot: Please Come Home

John Mitchell’s (Arena, Frost*, It Bites) first album in a trilogy about an astronaut lost in space. One of the best albums of the decade, Lonely Robot features John’s excellent vocals and stellar guitar work. Every song is memorable, but “Oubliette” and “Are We Copies?” are standouts.

Neal Morse Band: The Grand Experiment

The first album from The Neal Morse Band is one of the best of the decade. First, it is NOT a Morse solo record – this is a band effort with all members contributing to the songwriting. Second, Neal found a young multi-instrumentalist in Eric Gillette who is simply phenomenal and spurs everyone to new heights. “Alive Again” may just be the finest epic Neal has been involved in.

Riverside: Love, Fear, and the Time Machine

This was my favorite album of 2015, and I still listen to it fairly often.  Riverside pulled together their metal and hard rock roots with Mariusz Duda’s gentler Lunatic Soul excursions, and came up with a winning mix. Add in some nods to ’80s new wave, and this is a very fine record.

Rush: R40

A document of Rush’s 40th anniversary tour, where they played songs from every phase of their long career. The stage set began filled to the brim with props and effects, and they gradually shed them as they worked their way back to the first shows they played in a high school auditorium.

Subsignal: The Beacons Of Somewhere

Subsignal’s The Beacons Of Somewhere was a highlight of 2015. Straight-ahead prog rock with awesome melodies. “Everything Is Lost” is an excellent song, as is the multi-part title track. Every time I listen to this marvelous album, I hear new details that delight.

Tesseract: Polaris

Tesseract toned down the more extreme metal aspects of their music for Polaris, and that made a huge difference. Daniel Tompkins has always been a terrific vocalist, but on this album he really shines.  “Dystopia” soars, and “Tourniquet” is a gorgeous cacophony of sound. “Phoenix” makes me want to drive 100 mph. A great album that earned Tesseract a well-deserved wider audience.

Steven Wilson: Hand.Cannot.Erase

Steven Wilson’s Hand.Cannot.Erase caused the biggest stir in progworld in 2015. It was his breakthrough album, catapulting him into the mainstream, and deservedly so. That said, the subject is so emotionally harrowing (the true story of a young woman who died alone in her apartment, and wasn’t discovered for three years) that I have a hard time enjoying it.

Yes; Progeny

A box set that contains recordings of seven concerts from 1972. Yes was touring in support of Close To The Edge, and this is a fascinating document of a young and hungry band at the peak of their powers. Yes, the setlist stays constant, but it is fun to hear how their performances evolved over a short period of time, and how they dealt with onstage setbacks, like a local FM radio station taking over their PA system!

Once again, I easily could have doubled the length of this post. I left off excellent albums by Bruce Soord, Downes Braide Association, Echlyn, Izz, and Perfect Beings, among others. Let us know what your Best of 2015 list is in the comments!