Tag Archives: Lonely Robot

Those Awkward Teenage Years – The 2010’s, pt. 10: 2019

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: The Grand Tour

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!

Cyril: The Way Through

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!

Flying Colors: Third Degree

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.

 

Continuum Acceleration
In Continuum: Acceleration Theory

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: Don’t Panic

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.

 

Moron Police
Moron Police: A Boat On The Sea

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.

 

Neal Morse Band: The Great Adventure

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.

 

Pattern Animals
Pattern-Seeking Animals

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.

 

Bruce Soord: All This Will Be Yours

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.

 

Tool: Fear Inoculum

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.

Devin Townsend: Empath

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!

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. 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!

Lonely Robot Finally Comes Home

Under Stars

John Mitchell (Arena, Frost*, Kino, It Bites) has just released Under Stars, and it is a fitting conclusion to his Lonely Robot trilogy. Full of oblique lyrics sung by Mitchell in his gruff tenor, every song is a melodic tour de force. The trilogy is ostensibly about an astronaut (the lonely robot?) who eventually finds his way back home after some surrealistic detours. In John’s words, “It represents the human condition. I’m not suggesting that human beings behave like robots, but so many people lead regimented lives and it’s easy to get stuck in a rut and not realise or know how to get out of it.”

Please Come Home
The First Album Of The Trilogy

A recurring theme throughout the trilogy is the call to “Please come home.” In Under Stars, he finally makes it. The album begins with “Terminal Earth”, in which a Vangelis-inspired instrumental emerges out of radio static. In “Ancient Ascendant”, the astronaut is chided for his aloofness: “Ancient ascendant, well I think that we should talk/We may be evolutionary but it’s a backward walk.” “Icarus” features some tasty vintage early-80s sounding synths, while the title track is a beautiful ballad that tugs at the heartstrings. It also happens to contain one of Mitchell’s finest guitar solos – lean, clean, and lyrical.

In “The Only Time I Don’t Belong Is Now”, the astronaut gradually comes to terms with his humanity, and he cries out, “I know that I’m alive without a doubt/The seasons changing, history waiting/The only time I don’t belong is now.”

“When Gravity Fails” takes on superficial social media virtue-signaling with the lines, “Checking in with false empathy/Do you feel #proud, proud?” In “How Bright Is The Sun”, he laments, “We’re basking in the progress; we’re blinded by the cost/And in the forward motion, we’ve never been so lost.”

BIg Dream
The Second Album

The album’s overarching theme seems to be the necessity of embracing one’s common bond with all of humanity. The astronaut tried to separate himself from everyone through a sense of superiority, but he only succeeded in realizing his own incompleteness. As the final song, “An Ending” reassures him (in a reprise of the theme from the first album), “Please come home, lonely robot/Your heart is beautiful, programmed to receive.” No man is an island, indeed.

Taken together, the Lonely Robot Trilogy is a magnificent achievement by one of rock’s most talented artists. John Mitchell has an unerring ear for a seductive melody, and the instrumental chops to back it up. The thematic material might be pretentious in another’s hands, but Mitchell’s lyrics are elusive enough to suggest multiple meanings on several levels. This is music for thoughtful persons, who happen to appreciate finely crafted melodies.