Friday, March 17, 2006

Redemption: The Fullness of Time

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The Fullness of Time
By: Redemption
Year: 2005

Every once in a while, and album just comes out of nowhere and blows the listener away. The unexpected nature of these musical surprises makes them that much more exciting. Redemption wasn't completely unknown to me. I recognized the name, and knew that the inimitable Ray Alder was the new voice of the band. But I wasn't familiar with the music and didn't have any elevated expectations going into the first listen of the band's 2005 release, The Fullness of Time. Sure, I expected good vocal melodies, but that was about it. Little did I know just how much I was missing.

Redemption is the result of one man's drive and brilliance: Nick van Dyk. I know, you probably haven't heard of him either. Well, let me say it now. Remember that name. It will continue to gain prominence with each new Redemption release. The Fullness of Time is the second Redemption release, following the eponymous 2002 release. There have been some lineup changes, particularly in the rhythm section. But the most prominent, and important, change was the inclusion of Ray Alder (of Fates Warning fame) as the permanent vocalist. It is hard to overstate just how much this adds to the band's sophomore release. Ray is, in this writer's opinion, one of metal's brightest and most versatile vocalists. His ability to be soothing, menacing, growling, and soaring all in the same song is impressive.

The Fullness of Time is the progressive metal album I was hungering for all last year. This is metal, no mistake. The songs are full of gritty, powerful guitars, pummeling double bass drums and driving, rich, dynamic bass work. But it is also progressive. Layered, elegant keyboards accompany the more gentle, calm passages. Songs change character multiple times throughout, never boring the listener. Lyrically, the album is thought provoking and insightful. Dealing with such themes as current politics, the pain of crumbling relationships, and the capacity of the human soul to be its own worst enemy. The final four tracks comprise the work titled "The Fullness of Time", chronicling the travels of one man through pain, loss, rage and finally coming to grips with his own demons. It is a progressive masterpiece.

Tracks to catch: This is one album where I can recommend every single track without hesitation. "Threads" kicks the album off, dropping the listener immediately into fifth gear. "Parker's Eyes" is a mournful work, father to newborn son, discussing innocence and the future loss thereof. "Scarred" grabs you by the throat and never lets go, throttling you for nearly 8 minutes. I have already mentioned "The Fullness of Time", but of particular note is the first part, "The Fullness of Time: I. Rage". If the beginning of this song doesn't give you chills and have you looking over your shoulder, well, you probably belong in prison. Most of all, though, I have to mention "Sapphire", the album's 15+ minute prog epic. Most bands would forsake their own mothers to write a song half as great as "Sapphire". It is one of the greatest prog epics I have ever heard. Moving, driving, powerful and hauntingly beautiful, it embodies all that is great about progressive metal. I get chills when it starts.

Objective Rating: 10 out of 10
There is no question in my mind, this is the top album of 2005. If someone asked me what it is about progressive metal that makes me such a huge fan I would simply hand them a copy of The Fullness of Time and tell them to listen to that and then we can talk. The songwriting is brilliant, the musicianship tight, technical, but never overshadows the heart and soul of the songs, and the production is clear, crisp and rich.

Biased Rating: 10 out of 10
Ray Alder. Already I am biased. The man rules. But I didn't need to be biased. With an album this stellar, well, you just sit back, listen and let the beauty wash over you.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Devin Townsend Band: Synchestra

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By: The Devin Townsend Band
Year: 2006

I am very, very cautious with my use of the word "genius" to describe musicians. I think it is overused almost to the point of rendering it a cliché. As such, if I call someone a musical genius, I really mean it. In that case, let me say up front that Devin Townsend is a musical genius. He is almost overflowing with musical ideas, and has the multiple different outlets for that musical energy. He first became known to me as the vocalist on Steve Vai's album "Sex and Religion". And while I do believe he is one of the most versatile vocalists out there, I think we should all be grateful he didn't get pigeonholed into that gig. His solo work covers the spectrum of progressive music from the atmospheric grooves of "Ocean Machine", to the speed-metal pop of "Physicist", and the earthy, emotional "Terria". If that wasn't enough, through in his other band Strapping Young Lad and their extremely aggressive brand of metal (too aggressive for this listener even!). Finally, recently we have had The Devin Townsend Band, a more balanced approach that provides an outlet for Devin when he needs a break from the pummeling, punishing power of SYL. And "Synchestra" is the most recent release from this band.

"Synchestra" really runs the gamut of styles. From the opening, acoustic, folksy song "Let It Roll" to the almost 80's-ish pop-metal of "Sunshine and Happiness", the album challenges the listener. Never content to just write a catchy riff and play it over and over again, most of the songs on the album are free to explore their own musical ideas, roaming from one passage to the next. If you are looking for an accessible album, Devin never was writing for you. Certainly not as aggressive as his SYL work, nevertheless, there is no shortage of electric guitar and metal riffs on the disc. In contrast with the previous Devin Townsend Band release, "Accelerated Evolution", "Synchestra" seems to capture more of the earthy, organic feeling that predominated on previous masterpieces such as "Terria". In fact, I feel that this album captures the best of those two albums and manages to use those parts to create something fabulous. Imminently more listenable than "Terria", however it also has much more depth than "Accelerated Evolution".

What else is there to say about "Synchestra"? If you aren't familiar with Devin Townsend, well, this is as good of an album as any to get familiar. Just be prepared to explore music that has sprung from the mind of one of the most energetic, brilliant, bizarre and crazy artists out there. Don't try to make the music "make sense", just let the massive wall of sound pour over you, batter you a bit, then gently recede and see where it has taken you. You just might be pleasantly surprised with what you discover.

Tracks to catch:"Let It Roll" is a wonderful tune that both reveals and deceives the listener. You'll just have to hear it to know what I mean. "Hypergeek" is astounding in its sudden transition from calm, quiet acoustic song to a stunning, brutal attack of speed metal. This song is the reason sub-woofers exist. "Vampolka" and "Vampira" are pure music magic. The first, a polka with accordion, tuba and the whole works, the second a powerful metal romp. "Pixellate", "Judgment", and "A Simple Lullaby" are a terrific prog-metal trifecta. You just have to hear them. In fact, there isn't a single song on the disc that isn't worthy of some sort of effusive praise.

Rating: 4/5
If this album is not high in my list of 2006 great albums, well, it will only mean 2006 was one of the greatest years in prog music ever. Period. "Synchestra" rocks, it rolls, it moves the listener, it challenges you to expand your horizon and expect the unexpected. The sound is pure Devin, a crystal clear wall of sound that is so full of ideas and themes that you just won't get it all in the first, fifth or even tenth listen. No one even comes close to sounding like Devin, and with "Synchestra", The Devin Townsend Band have released the first truly great album of 2006.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Top 10 albums of 2005

Well, the year 2005 is over. Yeah, yeah, it has been a couple of months now, but better late than never! San Chonino and I have been fighting disparate schedules, sketchy internet access, and busy lives to hammer out what we agree is our top ten albums of 2005. So, sit back, grab a cup of your favorite reading beverage, and check out the music that got our motors running this last year.

Top 10 albums of 2005

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us10. Demons and Wizards: Touched by the Crimson King

BlueDev: This first spot was a tough one. There were three candidates vying for the position, and I narrowly picked Demons and Wizards over Meshuggah's "Catch 33" and Nevermore's "This Godless Endeavor". This is straight forward metal, with lighting fast riffs, over the top lyrics inspired by Stephen King's work, and wailing vocals from Hansi Kursch. However, it also has a nice blend of very fast and slow, expressive ballads, allowing both Jon Schaffer and Hansi to flesh the album out a bit. It has a lot going for it and is a great album.

San Chonino: This is really metallic (is that how I would say it? Maybe . . .) but really good stuff. Once again, I'm not a huge fan of songs that tell silly stories, but the lyrics of this album interested me, being a huge Stephen King fan (and currently wrapping up book six of the Dark Tower series . . . curse that stupid Crimson King!!!). This is good metal, for those intimidated by great prog metal. A nice way to start off the top ten.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us9. Ayreon: Actual Fantasy Revisited

BlueDev: This one may seem a bit odd, as it was actually released in 1996. However, the Revisited version surely deserves some recognition, as the drums, bass and guitars were all re-recorded for this release. I love just about everything Arjen Lucassen touches, and this is no exception. While likely my least favorite Ayreon disc, it is still just so powerful and so much better than most of the music out there. And listen to the first chord Arjen hits in "The Abbey of Synn". Priceless.

San Chonino: Also my least favorite Ayreon disc, but the re-release is so superior to the sound of the original in every way. This is great tunes. "Abbey of Synn"? 'Nuff said.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us8. dredg: Catch Without Arms

San Chonino: Dredg's latest disc is less progressive in many ways than their first two efforts, but that makes the album all the more accessible. Songs like "Ode to the Sun" and "Planting Seeds" make this disc unreal, and I love to introduce people to the world of Dredg with this album. A strong effort from a great newer band. I have high hopes for whatever it is they do next.

BlueDev: San Chonino introduced me to these guys and I have been enjoying them ever since. I agree that "Catch Without Arms" is their least progressive disc, but it is still fantastic. Even songs that I didn't think I would like at first I love to listen to. This is really a brilliantly crafted disc.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us7. Dream Theater: Octavarium

San Chonino: I grew up listening to Dream Theater, thanks to BlueDev. I've always liked their earlier albums, most especially "Awake", but I felt as though "Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence" and "Train of Thought" were lacking in comparison – they didn't feel as full, as rewarding. But that's all behind me now, thanks to "Octavarium". I think this is DT's best disc to date – fully functional as a progressive metal album, but not overly metal, losing the style and musical sense that had defined this band for me growing up. A great effort from a great band.

BlueDev: I have been a Dream Theater fan since the release of their stellar sophomore effort "Images and Words". I followed them through the years and have watched them progress from album to album. While I agree that "SDoIT" and "ToT" are not their strongest albums, I still really love them. But "Octavarium" is a true return to form for the band. I scratch my head in wonder at those who say DT sound like they are running out of ideas. This is the freshest, best sounding album they have released since "Awake", and that is really saying something.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us6. Fiona Apple: Extraordinary Machine

San Chonino: As many of you know, I'm a Fiona fan. Love her music like nobody's business. And this, I believe is her strongest disc yet. The happy balance between morose lyrics and peppy music is enough to get my toes tapping and my mouth singing along. Simply put, I identify with Fiona's music – and a top-ten list of this year's best albums would be incomplete without a spot for Alternative music's leading lady.

BlueDev: Sadly, I cannot opine here, as I have not yet heard this album. I am simply going to have to defer to my brother's opinion and his musical acumen (which far exceeds my own). If he says it should be #6 on the list, I will trust him.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us5. Stream of Passion: Embrace the Storm

San Chonino: This album shows why it's okay to have female vocalists in metal. Too often it comes off feeling campy and clich̩d, another Evanescence rip-off. But Evanescence couldn't touch Stream of Passion with a forty-foot pole if they wanted Рthis is what "chick metal" was meant to be. And the musical skills of Arjen Lucassen are, as always, amazing. More than just another gothic-chick-metal disc, this album fills the ears with musicality, emotion, and grace.

BlueDev: It sends me through the roof when people talk like Evanescence really started the whole female fronted "goth rock" trend. They were derivative followers. Nothing more. And so, any comparisons between Stream of Passion and Evanescence deserve, at best, complete and utter ignoring, and at worst a boot to the head. This album is amazing, with stellar vocals, stunning musicianship, and very tight, focused writing. It will leave you wanting more.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us4. Kamelot: The Black Halo

BlueDev: Discovering good, new music is always exciting. I had heard the name of the band mentioned, but until I heard "The Black Halo", Kamelot was nothing more than a name. It didn't take long for that to change. This album is a superb example of just how good power metal can be when it wants to. Progressive thoughts and patterns flow throughout, elevating what could have simply been a melodramatic rock album to the level of rock opera epic. It is hard to find fault with this album, and it easily sits high in the countdown.

San Chonino: One word: wow. I'm not a huge fan of albums with storylines (I will forever maintain that Rush and Ayreon are the only bands that can really tell a cohesive story in song) but this one got me anyway. Its lyrics tell a tale without getting silly, but it's in the music that Kamelot shines. This is great metal – and it's taken me a long time to find great metal bands like this.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us3. Porcupine Tree: Deadwing

San Chonino: As I have mentioned on this site before, I am a huge Steven Wilson fan, most especially his work with Porcupine Tree. While Redemption and Opeth claim the top spots this year, I still maintain that "Deadwing" is the most important progressive rock album to be released in 2005. Who else but Steve Wilson can effectively pull off writing in the time signature of seventeen-eight not once but twice on an album and still make it sound decent (and not like over-the-top annoying prog)? This is an amazing album by an amazing band.

BlueDev: This album ties my all up in knots. Porcupine Tree's previous album "In Absentia", is one of my favorite albums. Ever. Period. I couldn't help but feel let down at "Deadwing", but the oddest thing is I couldn't really tell you why! It is just more of my general gestalt. Nevertheless, I recognize what a powerful album it really is, and it has some superb songs. So, I can 100% agree with it being high on the list, but just don't find myself listening to it nearly as much as some of the others found here.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us2. Opeth: Ghost Reveries

BlueDev: I couldn't have an annual countdown without Opeth being on it, granted they released an album that year. Heck, there have been some years when Opeth would still have been on my countdown, they are so amazing. "Ghost Reveries" could have claimed the top spot this year, but it had some tough competition. That should tell you just how good the album above it is. "Ghost Reveries" is a great next step on the evolutionary path of Opeth. Some complain they are loosing their death metal edge, others think they are stagnating. I simply feel they are expanding and exploring their own style. "Ghost Reveries" has it all, from disturbingly beautiful acoustic moments, to bone crushing metal riffs. I love this disc.

San Chonino: I have vacillated about where to put this disc ever since BlueDev recommended it for this list. I had tried Opeth before, with the disc "Deliverance" (a bad place to start, it was too metal for me) and I was hesitant to try again. But this album exceeded my expectations in ways I can't describe. If you are in the mood for teeth-rattling metal, Opeth can capture that sense, but many songs are so morose and melancholy that I can't help but love them – especially the tune "Isolation Years". A rock-solid lovely effort.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us1. Redemption: The Fullness of Time

BlueDev: This is the progressive metal album I was hungering for all year. Some of the other albums on the list teased me with their potential, but nothing really captured everything I wanted in a progressive metal album. Until Redemption came along and released their second disc. First, it has Ray Alder. I don't think there is any doubt in my mind that he is my favorite vocalist. He is just so versatile and powerful. Second, the music is fabulous. Heavy, melodic, moving, all at the right time. And, well, it has the song Sapphire. This is one of those rare prog epics that gets everything right. It never feels too long, but keeps you interested throughout, while still feeling cohesive, like a single song. Just about everything with this album is perfect, and I have no problem making this my top album of the year.

San Chonino: This album is simply put: amazing. Everything about it is wonderful – it easily earns the top spot. If it were only for the song Sapphire as BlueDev mentioned, it would be more than enough, but the other tunes on the album are stunning as well. This is a well-crafted effort by an amazing group of musicians.

Well, there you have it, our top ten albums from last year. A decent mix of pop, rock and metal. It was tough getting the list finalized, but we both feel this represents our favorites of the year. Check them out!

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Album Review: Blackfield - S/T

By: Blackfield
Year: 2004

As anyone who frequents this site (or, in all honesty, converses with me about music for any period of time) will know, I am a huge Steven Wilson fan. I have loved his work with Porcupine Tree, and was curious to see what else this amazing musician had done. In the reissues of all the old Porcupine Tree discs there was a little flyer for a project Wilson had done with Aviv Geffen, a popular Israeli musician.
Finally, after much searching, I was able to find this disc at Media Play (right before it went out of business, no less . . .) and was thoroughly surprised yet delighted with this album. I wondered if it would have the same drive as a PT disc, seeing as how Wilson would be sharing the pen with someone else whose music I had never heard, but I was pleased with this album.
Keep in mind – this record has nowhere near the immersive quality of any PT disc, but for what it lacks in ambience it makes up for in sincerity. All of the songs on this album are short – the thirteen track CD is less than forty five minutes, after all – but are catchy, pop-ish, slightly progressive tunes. I still enjoy this album as a gateway for normal music listeners into the wonderful world of progressive rock.
Tracks to catch: Open Mind: the opening track, it starts so subtlety but builds with exceeding force to an impressive climax – a great tune. Glow: a creepy, atmospheric tune that also builds to a splendid explosion of sound. Lullaby: a song that sounds like it should be a sappy love song, but with biting, seething lyrics and creepy melodies. Where is My Love?: a bonus track only available on the special edition of the disc, but very rewarding and melancholy song.
Final verdict: Explore it
This album is a great effort from a band – most groups would love to put out an album this focused, this unique, and this driven, but because of my familiarity with the other works of Steven Wilson, there are far better places to begin.