Thursday, December 22, 2005

Porcupine Tree: Deadwing

By: Porcupine Tree
Year: 2005

Porcupine Tree is a relatively new acquisition in my music tastes. They were introduced to me by my brother, a fellow progressive music fan. The first album he told me to check out was their first big American release, 2002’s In Absentia. I picked it up, having never even heard it before, simply trusting in my brother’s taste.

Frankly, I was blown away. It was so crunchy, so sonorous, so . . . splendid! Later that week, I ran out and purchased PT’s newest release, Deadwing. Again, I was amazed at their musicality, the wonderful mesh they achieve in their sounds.

This album has barely left my CD player. I listen to it all the time; I made a copy to carry in my car, it’s one of the “old standby” albums that never leaves the Mp3 player, etc. This is a very important album for any rock fan. While Rush may be my all-time favorite band (has been since I was a little kid, and probably always will be), Porcupine Tree has quickly become my second favorite band, and the band I’m the most passionate about introducing people to. I’m officially slightly obsessed with Steven Wilson and all of his projects.

Tracks to catch: Deadwing: The opening track – this song has one of the best beginnings of any rock album; this song rocks so incredibly hard and you can’t get it out of your head – ten minutes of blessed rocking. Halo: this song has a rocking bass line that makes your car shake. Arriving Somewhere But Not Here: My other favorite track on the album; eleven minutes of fun, building from simple and soft to complete rock. Open Car: I just have to mention this song because the verses are in seventeen-eight time – who the crap can write in seventeen-eight, besides Steve Wilson?

Objective Rating: 9 out of 10
I frankly love this album. Production quality is through the roof; Steven Wilson’s stuff always is, he’s picky about it. The musicality and talent of these musicians is astounding. They just mesh in a way most bands only dream of.

Biased Rating: 10 out of 10
So, I figure if Peter can give a 9.5, can I give this alubm an eleven? This is my single favorite album that I’ve purchased this year, I think the most important progressive rock album to come out in 2005. This band is entirely not well-enough known, and I highly encourage that anyone interested pick this album up.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Kamelot: The Black Halo

The Black Halo
By: Kamelot
Year: 2005

I have to admit up front, this band is very new to me. Thanks to the wonders of the internet and internet radio, a track from Kamelot showed up on one of my Pandora radio stations (my Fates Warning station). It started slowly, built nicely, and then erupted into a marching, anthemic, powerful song. This was a band I needed to hear more of, and their most recent release "The Black Halo" seemed like a good place to start.

Kamelot are what I would call progressive power metal. And saying this is the best power metal album I have ever heard would really not be that much of a compliment. So, instead, I will say this is one of the best melodic metal albums I have ever heard. A continuation of their previous release, "Epica", "The Black Halo" carries on their retelling of the story of Faust and his deal with the devil. Like its epic source material, this album is powerful and epic in many ways as well. The album starts off with a stunning opening track "March of Mephisto", made all that more effective by guest vocalist Shagrath (of Dimmu Borgir) as the voice of Mephisto. From there, the album never looks back.

The music is melodic, moving, powerful and at times even poignant. Form the slower paced march of the first track, to the double bass flurry of the second and so on, the album moves and weaves, deftly weaving from fast to slow, light to heavy, while never losing sight of the melodic nature that makes this music so accessible to anyone. Broken up into four segments, three short interludes create the divisions. Yet somehow, the band even manages to make the interludes interesting. Power metal is known for over-the-top, fantastical lyrics, but perhaps due to the subject matter with such a rich tradition and history, Kamelot avoids that pitfall on the album. The talent of the members shines through on each track as well. The playing is excellent, the singing marvelous, and the production is just about perfect.

Tracks to catch: "March of Mephisto" is a powerful, thunderous opener that instantly draws the listener in. Emotional, gripping, and moving, there are few first tracks that are as great as this one. However, it gets even better. The epic "Memento Mori" is brilliant. A melodic and hauntingly beautiful beginning is balanced by a fast paced, dynamic metal tune. This is quickly becoming one of my favorite songs. Ever. The title track "The Black Halo" is great, with excellent guitars and keyboards complementing each other. "Interlude I: Dei Gratia", though short, is wonderful, with a melody that leaves you slightly unsettled.

Rating: 5/5
I will simply say that this is what power metal should be: epic, anthemic, melodic, majestic. Larger than life is what this album attempts to be, and it truly succeeds. This is great, great music.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

G3: Rockin' in the Free World

G3 Live: Rockin' in the Free World
By: Satriani, Vai, and Malmsteen
Year: 2004

Since 1996 guitar god Joe Satriani has organized and spearheaded the G3 tour every year or two. And occasionally we get a CD from the show. I was out of the country when the first two went on, but I found the first G3 disc and ate it up. After all, what guitar fan could pass up an album with Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and Eric Johnson playing live and together? I certainly couldn't. However, there were many aspects of the album that left me feeling a little disappointed. 2003 brought another G3 tour, and 2004 brought the release of the second CD. This time, Yngwie Malmsteen would join Satch and Vai on the stage. This should be fantastic, right?

I wish I could say yes. But the truth is I cannot. This isn't a horrible CD. In fact, it is a lot of fun to listen to. But it does have more than its fair share of problems. First, the good. All three of the guitarists are extremely talented, well respected musicians. And they can play like you wouldn't believe. Each one of them could easily lay claim to the fastest fingers award, and such shredding is well in evidence here. The production of some parts of the disc are great as well, with Satch's and Vai's songs sounding crystal clear, full and powerful. And the G3 jam is a blast, with all three taking turns soloing.

However, too often the flaws prevent this from being a really great album. Each guitarist produced his own songs, and this sorely damages Yngwie's portion of the disc. The sound is muddy, unclear, and watered down. This is particularly painful since Yngwie is the one who focuses most heavily on a veritable flurry of notes. Most get lost in the muddy sound. Also, there are a few portions of feedback that are literally painful, forcing the listener to skip ahead or turn the volume WAY down. The other biggest problem is song choice. Satch plays too many songs that we have heard before. Vai picks a first one that is just not strong, a second one that gives him plenty of space to noodle in, but little else. At least the third is a great song. Then there is Yngwie. Some of his songs are really cool, embodying his neo-classical style that can be very fun to listen to. But too much is just too extravagant, with no restraint and little regard for melody. Oh, and the attempt at the blues fails miserably and painfully. The jam fares a little better, though Yngwie picks a song (Voodoo Chile) that will never sound as good as when SRV played it on "Couldn't Stand the Weather. But hey, on the jam you aren't listening to the songs, you are listening to the solos. And there are many. Sadly, it seems that the extent of Yngwie's solo skills involve really, really fast runs, up and down the fretboard. Satch and Vai keep things much more interesting, but I just tire of every Yngwie solo. Very disappointing.

Tracks to catch: "Midnight" by Satch is a fantastic song from his ground breaking "Surfing With the Alien" album, and it actually turns out pretty cool live. "Crystal Planet" is one of my all-time favorite Satch tracks, so I can't pass up the opportunity to hear it live. "Reaping" gives Vai a lot of room to show off his shredding skills, and is a fun track. But it does pain me to hear Billy Sheehan reduced to such a pedestrian bass line for 7 minutes. "Whispering a Prayer" is beautiful, one of my favorites for sure. Finally, "Blitzkrieg" by Malmsteen is a cool song. Too bad it sounds like it is being played under water.

Rating: 2/5
I would like to rate this album as a great example of guitar playing. But while it has a lot of great guitar playing, as an album it just falls short of the mark. I am sure that live, in the show, this all comes off much better. Simply, the song choice isn't that great, there are serious production problems, and some of the playing, particularly from Yngwie, is uninspired and uninspiring. This CD should be guitar onanism at its best. Instead it leaves you feeling dissatisfied

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Flower Kings: Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve
By: The Flower Kings
Year: 2004

The Flower Kings have often been referred to as the poster child for European progressive rock. Not prog metal, just rock. I hadn’t heard anything by this band prior to this album, but I was familiar with the work of Roine Stolt on the Transatlantic project and was interested enough to pick up the album. Also, their addition of Daniel Gildenlow as a vocalist intrigued me; I had enjoyed his work in Pain of Salvation and was curious to see how “Adam and Eve” would play out.

Sadly, I was initially disappointed in this album. It wasn’t what I’d hoped; maybe it was because I was coming off a big metal kick, maybe it was because Euro-prog just wasn’t the scene for me, but I found it less-than-inspiring and kind of insipid.

But after a few more listens, I began to get into the music more. It’s incredibly layered; you have to pick it apart to really enjoy it. The more I would listen to it, the more I would come to enjoy it. Euro prog works; it’s certainly not my favorite, but The Flower Kings have at least upped themselves in my eyes.

Tracks to catch: In “Love Supreme” the words are a bit silly and preachy, but it’s got some catchy melodies and good sounds. “A Vampire’s View” is a bit quirky in its sounds, but remains one of my favorite songs on the disc. The title track “Adam and Eve” has a lot to be said for it; the message of our own materialism and foibles is timely.

Objective Rating: 7 out of 10
Overall, the production on this album sounds good. There really aren’t any troubles with that; the guitar solos, however, are uninspired, and I found the use of three vocalists at different times and in different songs to be a distraction rather than a benefit. Of the three vocalists, Gildenlow puts on the best show; those tracks featuring him as singer stick out as the best.

Biased Rating: 6 out of 10
I really WANT to like this album. It’s a decent effort; it’s got some real high points to it. But after all the hype I heard about the Flower Kings being the “cutting edge” of progressive rock, I expected more of a cut. It’s an okay album if you’ve grown tired of the real kings of prog for awhile and you’d like a break, but it’s not a disc that gains tons of time in my stereo.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Dream Theater: Octavarium

By: Dream Theater
Year: 2005

2003 was an interesting year for Dream Theater fans. It saw the release of "Train of Thought", DT's heaviest album to date. Some critics loved it, calling it their best work yet. But many fans were left with a bit of a cold feeling in the pit of their stomachs, wondering what had happened to their beloved progressive metal band, and who were these angry guys who had taken their place. A three disc live release (with accompanying DVD) improved my opinion of some of the songs from ToT, and helped to smooth out some of the ruffled feathers. Still, anticipation for their next disc was high, and the internet rumor machine was running in full force about the direction the band would take on their newest release.

A single note on the piano quietly begins "Octavarium". This slowly builds, as more sounds coalesce for what becomes a thundering opening with "The Root of all Evil". The third installment in the series written around the AA 12 step program, this is by far the strongest of the three. It also demonstrates some of the more significant changes to be found on the latest Dream Theater release. Prominent in the mix is John Myung. This has long been one of my complaints of Dream Theater records. If you have an amazing, talented bass player, you really ought to ensure he be heard in the music. While "Train of Thought" was a step in the right direction, as far as the mix is concerned, "Octavarium" really gets it right. The music is warm and full, very well balanced, and no single instrument seems dominant. With any Dream Theater album, the performances are top notch. However, too often the players demonstrate their proficiency with long passages of needless noodling. That is gratefully kept in check on "Octavarium", with the performances working to push the song forward. Finally, this album brings back some of the balance found on Dream Theater's best albums, balance that was lost on "Train of Thought".

As an album, "Octavarium" has a little something for everyone. Fast, heavy metal tunes, mellow, soulful ballads, accessible pop-rock, and a fantastic 20+ minute prog epic fill the album to near bursting with great music and great performances. It really seems that the members of the band were exercising their creative muscles while writing this one. Familiar territory is tread with songs such as "The Root of all Evil" and "Sacrificed Sons", as both deal with lyrical topics that have already been visited. But the music is fresh and refrains from becoming mundane. Lyrically, there is less anger and more reflection and even hope on this disc than in the past as well. While still dark and heavy at times, the disc ends with a feeling of lightness and hope that makes the album that much more enjoyable. Finally, enough cannot be said regarding the mix and the production of this album. Both are masterfully handled.

Tracks to catch: "The Root of all Evil" is an excellent start to the album. Building slowly with instrumental and ambient sounds, this one erupts into a great, powerful song. Also, hints of the previous songs in this cycle are found, helping to unify them all. "The Answer Lies Within" is a bit saccharine at times, but is a welcome return to Dream Theater's surprising ability with the ballad. "Panic Attack" harnesses the frenetic energy of LTE and turns it into Dream Theaters fastest, most energetic and focused song ever. This song is truly a stunning piece of progressive metal. "Sacrificed Sons" revisits the concept of religious fanaticism. It begins with eerie voice overs from the 9/11 tragedy, moves to a slow, plodding ballad, then erupts into a powerful, poignant piece of music. Finally, the title track "Octavarium" is a meandering 24 minute epic that covers a sonic landscape that nearly overwhelms in its variety. A long, extended introduction build slowly to carry the listener through quiet introspective moments, frantic cries for freedom, and orchestral interludes that keep the listener riveted throughout.

Rating: 4/5
"Octavarium" is a great album, no question. It is much more progressive than its predecessor "Train of Thought" and infinitely more varied in style and theme. It is also more focused than "Six Degrees if Inner Turbulence". The musicianship is as impressive as ever, and perhaps even more so because of the uncommon restraint demonstrated by the players. The production and mix are also worthy of note. Lowering the score, the title track, while certainly impressive, does lose focus and steam at various moments. Also, it feels that thematically, Dream Theater is revisiting the same topics again and again. They do it well on this disc, but some songs feel old because of it. Finally, while I think this is certainly Dream Theater's best since "Scenes From a Memory", it lacks some of the intensity and earnestness from such triumphs as "Awake". Nevertheless, it is a worthwhile addition to any CD catalog.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Grammy groaning

They are out! The announcements of the Grammy nominees! Yeah! Not. Every year the Grammies are announced, the music industry spends countless hours and dollars flattering themselves, and we, the masses, are willingly force fed some of the most shallow, insipid, and vacuous music that has been created. We eat it up, rushing to purchase Grammy nominated tripe, tuning in to see the artists, adding to the general buzz and bluster. Idiotic. Every year I lament the state of music and it appears that this year will be no different. I realize it is foolish of me to hope that the masses will forsake the refuse we are spoon fed daily. Call me an idealist, but I just can't accept that everyone can be so unimaginative to think that garbage such as "Hollaback Girl", "Gold Digger" or the formulaic, pseudo-sentimental tripe "We Belong Together" are worth listening to, let alone worth honoring. There is so much music out there that is really brilliant. It is artistic, it is thoughtful, it is adventurous, and it can even uplift and engage the listener. There is music that transcends the senses and connects to the listener on an emotional level. Sure, we all need a break from the dense stuff at times. Pop music has its place for thoughtless escapism. But its place is not up on a pedestal, to be honored by the masses. Can you tell it pisses me off?

Monday, December 05, 2005

Opeth: Ghost Reveries

Ghost Reveries
By: Opeth
Year: 2005

With the release of "Blackwater Park" Opeth did something that has damaged the careers of many other bands: They released a perfect album. Other bands release what is often considered their greatest work and then spend the rest of their careers trying to recapture that moment. Opeth, wisely, refuses to do that. They have continued to evolve, to experiment, and to craft excellent music. Each new album since that time has been unique, and the excitement for their newest, "Ghost Reveries", was very intense. Fueling the excitement and speculation were three major changes for the band. First was the addition of Per Wiberg on keyboards. Opeth has had keys in the past, but never a full-time keyboardist. Second was the absence of Steve Wilson as producer on the album. Third, in the interim between "Damnation" and "Ghost Reveries" Opeth signed a deal with RoadRunner Records, a label known for angry, angst-driven 'nu-metal' bands. These factors, along with the fact that "Damnation" was such a singular album in the Opeth catalog, resulted in many rumblings about what the new album would bring.

Reaction to the first single "The Grand Conjuration" was mixed. Some thought it a new level in Opeth metal. Others thought it too accessible. Whichever side of the battle you stand on though, this song gave clues of what was to come with the release of the album, but nothing more. "Ghost Reveries" stays true to Opeth's recent records, while still treading some new waters. Don't expect a reinvention of the wheel here. Rather we are treated to a refining and retooling of the sound that has defined metal's most brilliant band for years now. "Ghost Reveries" starts off with the title track, a beautiful and brutal epic that blends the different styles Opeth is known for. Mixing aggressive metal with acoustic passages, guttural growls with excellent clear vocals, pummeling double bass with hints of jazz fusion, Opeth carves out their place in metal history even more with this album. While individual songs on the disc have less calm acoustic passages, the inclusion of three full songs that could have come straight off "Damnation" more than make up for it. They serve nicely to balance the album, adding depth to the experience.

So what about the three big changes? How do they effect the album? In reverse order, the band signing with RoadRunner will only help both the label and the band. It provides Opeth wider distribution outside of Europe and will add to their exposure. In turn, it provides RoadRunner with a more established, critically acclaimed band that is widely respected. Second, I actually had to look through the liner notes to confirm that Steve Wilson wasn't involved. The production is excellent, and Steve's knack for progressive music is all over this record. His influence continues to be felt. Finally, Per Wiberg helps to add depth to the sound of the band, filling the music nicely with his key work. Some find the keyboards at the beginning of "The Baying of the Hounds" and "Beneath the Mire" to be somewhat over the top and out of place. I vehemently disagree with them, particularly with the keyboards at the beginning of "Beneath the Mire". They manage to capture perfectly the organ sound from old black and white horror films, and given the subject matter of the disc, this is a subtle and effective touch that is certainly not out of place. All in all, I believe that the changes have only helped to strengthen the band.

Tracks to catch: "Ghost Reveries" is a brilliant song, both brutal and haunting, and a very effective introduction to the album. "Atonement" is a meandering, spacey piece that rolls over the listener in gentle waves. It is reminiscent of 70's prog at its best. "The Baying of the Hounds" is another punishing track, yet never to the point of overwhelming the listener. Opeth seems to have a talent for pushing the listener to the edge and then stepping back just when you least expect it, but most need it. Finally "The Grand Conjuration" is an epic anthem not to be missed. The principal riff is one of the most memorable in all of metal, and while it is used extensively, it builds in such a way to pull the listener along to the mighty climax. This song will be simply amazing live. It has become one of my favorite Opeth songs.

Objective Rating: 9 out of 10
Do not mistake "Ghost Reveries" for a "Blackwater Park II". That is not what this album was meant to be. This is another step forward in an impressive catalog of a band that refuses to stagnate. A brilliant album in every aspect: the writing is amazing, the performances second to none, and the production is flawless. Opeth continues to push their progressive edge, without losing any of their metal might. Mikael further impresses with his voice, using his clean vocals more on this disc than any other (with the obvious exception of "Damnation"), allowing for his growl to have even more effect when employed. It is apparent that his work with the brilliant Arjen Lucassen on "The Human Equation" left an indelible mark on him. The balance of aggressive and tranquil music on this disc will allow it to appeal to an even more broad audience. I cannot call "Ghost Reveries" the band's best work to date (I have to give that nod to "Blackwater Park"), but it is an amazingly strong album from a band who seems incapable of creating anything less than excellent.

Biased Rating: 9 out of 10
Truly, the only bias I may have when it comes to this disc is my love of the band. Opeth has done no wrong in their eight album career. In fact, I can think of no song on any of their albums that I simply won't listen to. There are certainly some I like more than others, but not a single song I would say is a stinker. That alone tells you how impressed I am by the band. "Ghost Reveries" stands tall as one of the strongest releases of 2005, with or without any sort of bias on my part.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

New staff at Progged

I would like to take this moment to announce that there will be a new writer here at Progged, in addition to myself. Another self-styled music critic with similar tastes, though at times varying opinions, San Chonino has been added as staff here. Look forward to great music reviews and commentary from him as well.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

An Evening with Trans-Siberian Orchestra

Trans-Siberian Orchestra
RBC Center, Raleigh, North Carolina
November 21, 2005

Grow my hair out (it would be very straight and blonde) give me a black, sleeve less shirt and toss a denim jacket on the top and I could head bang with the best metal-heads. And I have a soft spot for some of the more talented metal acts to make it through the dark and dreary guitar solo-less wilderness of the 90's. One of those bands I still enjoy is Savatage. From a pretty run of the mill metal band in the 80's, to evolve and become a rather progressive metal act in the 90's and beyond, Savatage kept my interest. Great guitar solos, layered, majestic vocals, and a penchant for the melodramatic, it seems logical that Paul O'Neil and Jon Oliva would create something like Trans-Siberian Orchestra. For the unfamiliar, Trans-Siberian Orchestra is an act that, on paper at least, probably shouldn't work. Take some of metal's most enduring instrumentalists, toss in a bunch of guest vocalists and choirs, then back them up with real orchestral instruments (woodwinds and strings most prominently), and have them play Christmas music and over-the-top rock opera stuff. Even I admit, it could be a hard sell.

Yet because of, and in spite of, all that, work it does. Melodramatic to the point of cheesy, with wild stylistic swings throughout, and no excuses offered at any point, Trans-Siberian Orchestra brought their annual show to the RBC Center in Raleigh, North Carolina Monday night, the 21st of November. By no means unfamiliar to their music, my wife and I were virgins of their live act. But we try to hit different types of Christmas concerts each year. Mannheim Steamroller was the big show back in 2003, last year we went for the more long-haired approach and made the main concert a fabulous concert of The Messiah to a packed house in the Duke Chapel. So this year we figured we needed something different. TSO fit that bill for sure. A nearly full house, the first thing we noticed were the obvious, enormous speaker towers hanging from the rafters. No question about it, this would be a loud show. The second thing we noticed was the crowd. The diversity was almost humorous. There are not too many shows where you will find sexagenarians sitting next to guys in Slayer shirts. But there was no shortage of such dichotomies at this show.

And what a show it was. Introduced by the local rock radio gang, the show started off nice an mellow. Gotta keep those old folks from arresting, right? A narrator, with a rich, deep bass voice started the story of TSO's first album, "Christmas Eve and Other Stories". The music kicked in, and with a punch. Chris Caffery and Alex Skolnick on guitars traded crunching, metal riffs and soaring, blistering fast solos throughout the show. Yet they did a marvelous job balancing the heavier, more metal music with the more traditional tunes. But make no mistake, most of the music was driven by thundering bass and powerful electric guitars. Many different vocalists left their mark, each with their own distinctive style, and each brought a different personality to their songs. However, the instrumental stuff was what really got me going. Chris, Alex and Dave Z on bass jumped around the stage, banging their heads, swinging their hair, and playing off each other's energy. And there was no shortage of energy, both from the performers and from the light show. Upon completion of the basically their entire first album, an intermission of sorts introduced the audience to all the members of the band, and gave some very entertaining and human interplay between Chris Caffery and the audience. I almost thought for a moment the show was over. But not ones to disappoint, the band then jumped into a second half that was more loud, more energetic, and more fun than the first.

Every member seemed to enjoy themselves thoroughly, which energy and enthusiasm spilled over to at least some in the crowd. Even the local folks in the string section were really getting into the music. The light show and pyrotechnics were stunning, with lasers, snow, and 25 foot colored flames adding to the whole experience. From start to finish, it was one of the most enjoyable and entertaining experiences of my life. However, to be honest, I must lodge one complaint. But not against the band. It is against the fans. Far too many in attendance seemed to forget that, first and foremost, this was a rock concert we were at. At the end of every rocking riff and blazing solo I lost count of the looks tossed my way as I screamed myself horse and jumped up, hands in the air. Others sat serenely, no excitement apparent as they watched two incredible guitarists trade off solos and monster riffs. I was truly embarrassed by the lack of crowd participation that is so common and integral to all rock concerts I have been to in the past. Nevertheless, there were enough of us who banged our heads and screamed our voices away to let the band know we appreciated them. And I am sure they are used to that mixed reaction, part and parcel of playing such varied music.

All in all, it was a magical, musical night. We left, more than slightly deaf and hoarse, our spirits lifted, renewed enthusiasm and excitement for Christmas filling us nicely. The performers gave their best effort, and you couldn't help but tell they were having a good time. There is no doubt, we will be looking forward to next year's tour. Anyone even remotely familiar with TSO or their music will be blown away by this show. As much as I enjoy listening to the CD's, the live show blows it out of the water. On a final note, I also appreciate that it is Christmas music they play. Not holiday music, but Christmas music, full of inspiring stories and no shortage of references to Christ and God. Some may balk at that, but I appreciate the refusal to succumb to the notion of 'pleasing everyone'.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Dredg: El Cielo

El Cielo
By: Dredg
Year: 2002

Some albums are positively disturbing. Perhaps it is the thematic content, perhaps it is the music itself. Or, in the case of 'El Cielo' by Dredg, some albums are disturbing because they are just too impossibly good. What may be even more disturbing is that this is only the band's second full-length album. I have my brother to thank for introducing me to Dredg. I had never heard of him until we were discussing some bands we really loved that the other may have not heard of. In the mood for something new to listen to, I saw their first album, 'Leitmotif' in the store and picked it up. I was instantly hooked. Then I picked up 'El Cielo'.

Taking after it's name, the Spanish word for 'the sky', this album exudes atmosphere from the first second to the last. Layers of ambient sounds both complement and collide with one another. Songs carefully flow into each other, often blurring to a degree where one ends and the next begins, though not nearly to the extent as on 'Leitmotif'. A concept album of sorts, the album's liner notes are filled with letters describing sleep-paralysis, a condition in which people awaken to find they cannot move, often accompanied with various and sundry hallucinations. The songs loosely address this subject as well as they meander from one to the next. And while I admit this is a very odd concept to base an album on, the songs pull it off, creating a mix of sleepy and urgent all at the same time.

Musically, Dredg has given up some of their edge found on 'Leitmotif'. However, on this album it simply works. Creating a smooth, atmospheric, almost floating feeling, the instruments all combine to carry the listener away. Balancing acoustic and electric guitars, with the occasional cello and Middle Eastern chanting, Dredg create an amazingly diverse and beautiful tapestry. The playing is nearly flawless. Not over bearing in a technical sense, yet certainly complex and fascinating to listen to, each member of the band carries their weight, without one ever becoming over the top. And Gavin's voice is best described as simply a pleasure to listen to.

Tracks to catch: The entire album really needs to be listened to in order to truly appreciate it. Yet there are some stand out tracks. "Convalescent" is both poppy, catchy yet cynical all at the same time. "Scissor Lock" is so beautiful it almost brings a tear to my eye. "Eighteen People Living in Harmony" is a brilliant song that combines just about everything that is good about Dredg into one four and a half minute work. Finally, the album climaxes with "The Canyon Behind Her", quite possibly the greatest song I have ever heard. Yes, it is simply that good.

Rating: 5/5
Sure, the subject matter is esoteric and unusual. Yet esoteric is better than the banal we hear on the radio ever day. And the execution is flawless. The production is clear, the instruments perfectly balanced, and the performances excellent. After dozens of listens I have yet to find a true flaw on this disc. It is art rock at its finest.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Fates Warning: FWX

By: Fates Warning
Year: 2004

For many years, Fates Warning was an enigma to me. I was sufficiently prog savvy to know the name, and had heard one rather pedestrian live track. But that really was the extent of it. Then, in 2002, things changed. I listened to 'Disconnected'. I was astounded. I was blown away. I needed more. And so I began to explore the back catalog of this amazing band. Then I explored some of the side projects. And I just listened to the music. And listened. 'Disconnected' became easily one of my most played albums. But something was missing. In the interim there was no news of a new Fates album. And I craved that excitement that comes from anticipating a new album from a favorite band.

Once the announcement was made that Fates Warning was in fact back in the studio and working on their 10th album the celebration could begin. The release of the first single "Simple Human" on their web page fueled that already bristling excitement and energy. It was a polarizing track though. Many fans found it too simple, to much like Ray's side project Engine. Others found it aggressive, gritty, and powerful. I fell into the latter category, and that low quality download was played time and time again. Upon release my hands literally trembled as I opened the CD and put it into the stereo. And I was greeted by a choir of crickets. Then entrance of the entrancing acoustic guitar was all it took. I was hooked. This was new Fates Warning.

'X' is a carefully measured album, both heavier than and not as heavy as its predecessor. Jim Matheos, the true mind behind Fates, proves that he is capable of writing music that both embraces and defies current trends in rock and metal. Some of the songs could very easily fit into the playlist of any modern metal radio station, while others would never make it. The album is very deceptive. On the surface it seems rather simple and accessible, but the rich depths of music that are present are only discovered after repeated and careful examination. The guitar is aggressive when it needs to be, careful at other times. A nice balance of electric and acoustic guitars complement many songs on 'X'. Joey Vera is solid on the bass, as he always is. And Mark Zonder turns in another subtly brilliant drum performance. But I cannot talk about Fates Warning without praising Ray Alder's talent. His voice on this album is excellent. Age has made his voice more rich and full, and that is apparent on this album. Easily one of my favorite vocalists, Ray's voice, coupled with Jim's powerful guitars really drive this album forward.

Tracks to catch: "Left Here" is heady, complex progressive metal tune that is sure to confuse some folks. But those with a penchant for something more than your standard song will find this a moving, powerful gem. "Simple Human" is a driving, gritty, aggressive song that begs for some head banging. "Crawl" is a deliciously cynical tune, one that I can't help but scream along with. "River Wide, Ocean Deep" utilizes Middle Eastern overtones to enhance an already potent song. "Heal Me" is quite possibly the most powerful song I have heard in years. Absolutely stunning.

Rating: 4/5
'X' is just about everything I hoped for in a new Fates Warning album. Still distinctly Fates, but a progression from their previous releases, it is a must have in any rock/metal fan's catalog. It could be lamented that we don't have any 15+ minute epics on this disc (such as "Still Remains" on 'Disconnected'), but I appreciate the desire to not repeat themselves. Many of the shorter songs still manage to maintain a very epic feeling to them. The overall tone of the album is certainly dark and cynical, but tastefully avoids falling into the angst so common among modern rock. The only complaint I would lodge is that the album becomes somewhat predictable, alternating between slower, longer songs that build, and shorter, straight ahead rockers. But this is a minor complaint, and one that hardly detracts from the greatness of the album.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Rush: Vapor Trails

By: Rush
Year: 2002

After the 1996 release of 'Test for Echo' tragedy struck. Painful, personal losses in the life of drummer Neil Peart left the future of Rush uncertain. Alex Lifeson kept himself busy with some producing and his restaurant The Orbit Room. Geddy Lee released a solo album that helped to tide some of us over. And Neil rode his bike, trying to find some healing on the road. Faithful fans waited patiently for some bit of news, but for many years nothing was forthcoming.

Then the news hit and hit with an amazing power. Early 2001 and the band was back together and in the studio. The tension began to build. And it had plenty of time to build. It had 17 months to build in fact. And shortly before the release in May of 2002 the first single hit, and it was a sucker punch to the gut of anyone who brushed Rush off as no longer being relevant. "One Little Victory", with its thunderous double bass drumming, gritty, in-your-face riffs, and driving, dynamic bass kicks the album off and silences all doubters. Rush is back, and they aren't playing around.

From the frenetic energy of the first track to the thriving energy of the last, 'Vapor Trails' is quite possibly Rush's most energetic work to date. And with such an impressive catalog (now 18 studio albums, 5 live discs [the last two containing 3 discs each], and multiple compilations), that is really saying something. Recorded entirely without keyboards, the feel of this album is much grittier, much more aggressive, and much more organic. Rush has been criticized in the past of making music that is too cold, too calculated. And while 'Vapor Trails' has many of the Rush trademarks, such as odd time signatures, unexpected musical direction, and instrumental acrobatics sufficient to spin your head, they are toned down somewhat from past albums. But that doesn't take away from the power of the album at all. Musically 'Vapor Trails' is unrelenting. It is powerful, it is beautiful, it is haunting and it is heavy, all at the right time. Lyrically it is poetic and introspective. Hopeful, yet often cautiously so, Neil Peart deftly works much of his own journey into the words, and his healing is evident. 'Vapor Trails' admirably answers the call of its predecessor 'Test for Echo', and shows that there is plenty still ahead for Rush.

Tracks to catch: "One Little Victory" is just a great song. Heavy and melodic in equal parts, this one really gets the blood pumping. "Peaceable Kingdom" was originally to be an instrumental, but became the band's reaction to the events of 9/11. Some of Alex's best, most aggressive guitar work is found here. "Ghost Rider" is the autobiographical song of Neil's journey to healing on the road. "Secret Touch" is just about the most energetic, greatest 'jam' song these guys have ever written. "Earthshine" has a great groove, with a meaty guitar intro that is unforgettable. There really are no stinkers on this album.

Rating: 4/5
Being objective about this record is very nearly impossible for me. My love of Rush is so strong that I fear my bias will bleed through. I would love to objectively give this record a 5 out of 5, but cannot do so in good conscience. The writing is brilliant, the playing equally so. But the production scars what would otherwise be a perfect record. Some of the songs are recorded so hot that the clipping is unavoidable. And there are times where a clearer, more pristine sound would be more what we expect from Rush. The issue of the production has ruined this album for some, but for me is not nearly as dramatic as to do that. But it does necessitate knocking the score down one point.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Ayreon: The Human Equation

By: Ayreon
Year: 2004

Arjen Lucassen has built quite a reputation for himself in the realm of progressive rock/metal. Frequently called a genius by fans, the buildup on the net for the latest Ayreon release was nothing short of monumental. The release of names of some of the guest vocalists was stirring up quite a buzz, long before the album ever reached stores. And with good cause. As background for the unfamiliar, Ayreon is one of many musical projects headed by musical mastermind Arjen Anthony Lucassen. The music of Ayreon can often be categorized as rock opera, with many vocalists playing varied parts in the work. "The Human Equation" is no different, and in fact represents the most ambitious use of guest vocalists to date on any Ayreon project.

As with all Ayreon albums, truly appreciating the work includes comprehension of the story. Arjen carefully crafts an interesting, powerful story that is often poetic without becoming incomprehensible. Too often lyricists dress their stories up in confusing metaphors, but not here. This doesn't mean the story is simple though. Quite the opposite is true. "The Human Equation" takes place over two discs, nearly two hours of music, and 20 tracks, each representing a day. The album tells the story of a man in a coma and his struggle back to life. Told from two perspectives, cleverly woven lyrics and music take us from his bedside where his wife and best friend stand vigil, to the inside of his mind where his demons are haunting him. He must confront his emotions: Rage, Pride, Fear, Reason, Love, Passion, and Agony, all brilliantly sung by some of the most talented vocalists in the industry, in order to fight his way back to life. As he confronts these inner demons we discover what led to the coma in the first place, and some of the fears and trials that await him outside his own mind.

Musically, "The Human Equation" truly runs the gamut of styles. Everything from acoustic folk, hints of orchestral arrangements, spacey psychedelic prog, and powerful metal finds the appropriate place on the album to move the story forward. Most of the instruments are played by Arjen himself, but he wisely pulls in some truly talented musicians to flesh out the sound. As we have come to expect, Ed Warby does a masterful job on the drums, and guest instrumentalists bring their talent to the table on the keyboards, cello, violin and flutes. There really is something for just about everyone on this fine album. And while often clumped into the category of progressive rock/metal, Arjen tastefully refrains from the blatant displays of technical virtuosity that is often associated with the genre, while still displaying excellent musical ability.

Tracks to catch: 'Day Two: Isolation is our first real glimpse into where the album is going, and it displays not only the musical diversity of the album, but also showcases the voices of James LaBrie, Eric Clayton, Magnus Ekwall, and Irene Janssen in particular. 'Day Eight: School' explores some of the past trauma of the protagonist and is brilliant. 'Day Eleven: Love' is particularly moving and powerful. 'Day Twelve: Trauma' is a dark, disturbing journey that unleashes the full fury of Mikael Akerfeldt's brutal growl. 'Day Sixteen: Loser' confronts us with the psychotic figure of Father, sung by Mike Baker, as the final barrier to fully coming back to life. Finally, 'Day Twenty: Confrontation' powerfully resolves the epic album.

Rating: 5/5
I believe every artist is entitled to a perfect album. Whether or not they produce that is another thing. But amongst such a stellar catalog of albums, Ayreon's "The Human Equation" is perhaps the quintessential example of what a prog rock opera can and should be. The writing is stunning, the performances unparalleled, the production clean, crisp, full, and flawless, and the lyrics fascinating. Even the cover artwork is stunning. This is an amazing album, and I recommend it to any music fan without hesitation, no matter what genre they prefer.

Album reviews at Progged

As I have often professed, I love music. I decided I wanted to take that love of music, and my desire to improve my writing, and begin writing music reviews. So here, at Progged, I will be showcasing many albums, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses. Just one note, each review will have two scores. The first score is an attempt at an objective score, judging the album based on its own merits, and trying to leave any personal bias out. But because there is just no way for me to be completely unbiased, especially about some albums I love, I will also include a biased score. This could be the same, higher or lower than the objective score. This will attempt to capture my general feelings about an album on a more personal level. Hopefully someone will stumble across some of these reviews and check out some music they might have otherwise missed.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Prog happens

It is true. Prog happens. It happens every day, and when it happens, my smile can't stop. I love prog, metal, some good old classic rock and a bunch of other music. But I focus my collection mainly on rock/metal that is at least in some manner progressive. But how do we define progressive? Every one has their own definition, but here at Progged we think of progressive music as music that defies simple compartmentalization. It doesn't sit still. It evolves. It can be epic, it can be simple, it can be just about anything. And that is what makes it so fascinating. So prog happens, and reviews of my music will find a cyber home here, on Progged.