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.