Tag Archives: progressive rock

Transatlantic: Absolute Genius

The three versions of the album. Photo from nealmorse.com

So, after much anticipation and perhaps some untoward eagerness on my part, Transatlantic’s Absolute Universe: The Ultimate Edition box set finally arrived yesterday.  Or, maybe one should write more appropriately, it landed!  And, yes, I was and am thrilled.

I had received a promo copy of two versions of the album—The Breath of Life (Abridged) and Forevermore (Extended)—and I’ve been playing them pretty much non-stop. 

But, with The Ultimate Edition, I now have yet a third version of the album, Mike Portnoy’s blu-ray version. If you have to pick just one of the three, I’d highly recommend the blu-ray version as the best.  Not only does it capture the spirit of The Breath of Life (which Morse mixed and curated) and Forevermore (which Stolt mixed and curated), but its sound is just nothing short of glorious.  Each instrument is crystal clear as is the space between each. 

Most astonishing of all sounds to emerge from the blu-ray version is Pete Trewavas’s bass. I’ve always thought of him as an excellent bassist, but I didn’t realize just how excellent until hearing the blu-ray version. Somewhat funny that he was the only band member NOT to mix and curate a version of this album. 

Continue reading Transatlantic: Absolute Genius

Unfold the Future by The Flower Kings

Highest Prog Fantasy: Unfold The Future by the Flower Kings

[Originally published in 2017]

A review The Flower Kings, UNFOLD THE FUTURE (2002; remastered and reissued, 2017). Tracks: The Truth Will Set You Free; Monkey Business; Black and White; Christianopel; Silent Inferno; The Navigator; Vox Humana; Genie in a Bottle; Fast Lane; Grand Old World; Soul Vortex; Rollin’ the Dice; The Devil’s Schooldance; Man Overboard; Solitary Shell; Devil’s Playground; and Too Late for Tomatos

Grade: A+.  Glorious.  Full.  Enchanting.  Mesmerizing.

The Flower Kings released its first boxset, A KINGDOM OF COLOURS (Insideout Music), in very late 2017.  Granted, we’re more than a bit late coming to the news, and I (Brad) only realized that the boxset had come out when seeing an advertisement for the forthcoming second boxset.

This set—a gorgeously packaged one at that—is part 1 of 2, re-releasing the band’s first official seven studio albums.  Missing are any b-sides, extra tracks, live releases, and the album that started it all, Stolt’s 1994 solo album, THE FLOWER KING.  But, these absences are certainly fine, as the boxset is what it is.  The next set, according to Insideout, will have three full disks of new or previously unreleased material.  Additionally and spectacularly, of those original albums re-released for A KINGDOM OF COLOURS, the final one, 2002’s UNFOLD THE FUTURE, has been completely remastered by the Flower King himself, Mr. Roine Stolt.

Despite being a life-long prog fan, I didn’t come to The Flower Kings until the band released its 1999 album, FLOWER POWER.  When it came out, one of my best students (now, amazingly enough, a beloved colleague) lent it to me, knowing my love of all things prog.  Not only did FLOWER POWER floor me, but I had to purchase it and everything the band had done to that point.  To say I became a MASSIVE fan of the band in 1999 would be pure understatement.  My love of the music produced by Stolt and co. was tangible, and I simply couldn’t get enough.  Of those first seven studio albums, my favorite—to this day—is SPACE REVOLVER (2000).  Yet, there’s nothing the band has done that I don’t love. 

When UNFOLD THE FUTURE came out in November, 2002, I was just completely my first book (on Tolkien) and starting my second (on Christopher Dawson).  It was a heady time in my professional life, and The Flower Kings served as a thrilling and inspirational soundtrack.  To me, the band was making not just prog, but mythic prog.  Not just prog, but actual high fantasy.  Indeed, unlike almost any other band in rock, The Flower Kings alone were defining and making albums as manifestations of fantastic moods or states of being.  BACK IN THE WORLD OF ADVENTURES was explorative; RETROPOLIS was playful; STARDUST WE ARE was redemptive.  Of those first seven studio albums, though, the seventh, UNFOLD THE FUTURE, was boldly confident and righteous.  Not pretentious, but definitely righteous.

Even more than the previous releases, the band embraced every form of musical expression for UNFOLD THE FUTURE: everything from Genesis-like symphonic prog to Metheny and Brubeck-like jazz to tiddly-winks and novelty music.  It was all there.  All there.  Everything.  Nothing absent.  Yet, it all came together in some appreciative whirligig of cohesive and thunderous reality. 

Additionally, while the themes of earlier albums, such as FLOWER POWER, were overtly pagan, the themes of UNFOLD THE FUTURE are subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) Christian.  But, they’re mythically Christian rather than pietistically Christian.  At center stage in the drama of UNFOLD THE FUTURE stand two mighty figures: the devil and the Holy Mother.  Whether Stolt means the Holy Mother to be the white goddess who appeared to Socrates, the White Buffalo woman who appeared to the original Sioux, the Lady of the Lake who appeared to Arthur, or the Virgin Mary, it probably matters not.  She’s the Holy Mother, and she hates the devil.

The three central tracks of the album are 1) The Truth Will Set You Free; 5) Silent Inferno; and 16) Devil’s Playground.

The opening track, “The Truth Will Set Us Free,” not surprisingly, takes us to the beginning—allowing us to imagine the first rainfall on the earth and the incomprehensibly huge heart and grace that allowed it all to come into being.  The second main track, “Silent Inferno,” is tenebrous, and the world slides easily into the twilight realm of existence, a haunting and foreboding hovering over all humanity.  The final track, though, “Devil’s Playground,” pits the two giants against one another, the force of Hell and the Holy Mother.  Though the song ends on a nebulous note, it’s hard not to believe that the Holy Mother has not emerged victorious.  After all, how could the album—or the band—ever promote the transcendence of the human person (as seen on the cover of the album) without a victory against the forces of evil.

Well, maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part.  Still, let me just state: I’ve been listening to UNFOLD THE FUTURE for sixteen years now, and it never gets old.  That Stolt has remastered the entire album is just an added blessing and grace.  Perfecting that which is already perfect. 

At least perfect as understood in this world of sorrows.

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

Image borrowed from the Burning Shed website.

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

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

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

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The (accidental) Christian Humanism of Steven Wilson

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

An Incarnational Whole

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

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

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

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

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

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Best Prog of 2020, Part II

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

Anyway. 

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

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

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

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

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My Conflicted Relationship with Progressive Music (Prog)

By Mark Sullivan

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

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

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

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

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

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Profoundly Tangible: Nick D’Virgilio’s Invisible

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.

To find out everything about NDV, click here: https://www.nickdvirgilio.com

Passion Incarnate: IZZ’s Half-Life (2020)

Well, let me admit, immediately and without hesitation, I’ve been a huge fan of IZZ since I first heard them a little over a decade ago. In everything they do, they combine passion, taste, and elegance.  One might even describe their music as an earnest intensity.  Lyrically, the band never dumbs itself down, but offers words of majestic inspiration and serious contemplation. 

Their latest release is an EP, appropriately and rather cleverly entitled Half-Life, itself comprised of three new tracks and one live track.  The three new tracks—entitled, in order, “The Soul of Music,” “Into the Sun,” and “Half Life”—offer grand progressive visions, reflecting, respectively, IZZ’s deep appreciation and love of Kate Bush and Chris Squire and Yes;  Rick Wakeman and Big Big Train and ELP; and, perhaps most interestingly of all, Stranger Things(the Netflix series) and Kansas and Glass Hammer.  

None of IZZ’s appreciation of other progressive rock acts gets in the way of that uniquely beautiful IZZ voice.  Indeed, such appreciation on the part of IZZ of other bands only makes IZZ all the more interesting, honed, and glorious. And, just in case it might seem like the music overwhelms the listener, the lyrics simply soar, especially on “Half Life,” bringing the listener to the verge of tears in the last several second of the track.

The final track is a rather stunning live rendition “The Weight of It All” from the band’s Ampersand, Vol. 1, album.

In this current whirligig of viruses, protests, injustices, and anxious unrest, do yourself a grand, grand favor—treat yourself to the humane, cultivated, and class act that is IZZ.  Your soul will thank you.

[To support IZZ (and for a mere $5), click here: https://izzmusic.bandcamp.com/album/half-life-ep]