In review: The Music of 2012 (part 1)

2012 was an incredible year for music. It was also a weird year for prog. We got over a dozen good, nay, great! prog albums this year , yet oddly, out of what I consider to be the “Big 4” of currently-active prog bands (Dream Theater, Porcupine Tree, Opeth, Marillion), only one released a studio album this year. However, key members (or former members) of all those bands appeared on something this year. As for the band that did release an album:

Best Album: Marillion – Sounds That Can’t Be Made

Albumart

For the 5 Marillion fans who haven’t heard this yet (actually, that number may be a little high), this album is the perfect blend of the best elements of Marbles, Afraid of Sunlight, and This Strange Engine. Its production and epic scope make this Marbles‘ long-awaited worthy successor, but it lacks some of that album’s most processed-sounding effects (especially on the percussion). It’s also very much a song-driven record, and each piece is completely unique. Even the weaker tracks (“Montreal,” “Invisible Ink”) have enough charm to make a cynic smile.

The band got significant mileage out of “Power” and “Lucky Man” on their 2012 tour, and the official recordings don’t disappoint. “Power” especially lives up to its name every time the chorus comes around. A personal favorite is the under-publicized title track: whenever Steve H sings “…silent and high,” I have an irrepressible urge to close my eyes and lift my hands in prog-praise. And that’s nothing compared to what happens when H. starts singing about the aurora borealis. Rothery’s guitar tone and Kelley’s keyboards find that difficult balance between electronic and organic that perfectly complement the song’s imagery of impossible sounds and beholding nature from space. One last direct Marbles comparison: I can’t help but see “The Sky Above the Rain” as a “ten years later” follow-up to “Neverland,” and H.’s real-life struggles that inspired it. Appropriately, I feel like I age ten years every time I hear it, but no Marillion piece is without a glimmer of optimism.

The seventeen-minute opener, “Gaza” has gotten Marillion more publicity alone than most albums… to the point of dis-servicing both the song and the whole album. Musically, it’s one of the heaviest things they’ve ever done, up there with “Ocean Cloud” and “This Strange Engine.” Its lyrics, focusing on the civilian population of the Gaza strip, include passages inspired (or maybe directly quoted) from real Skype conversations H. had with Gaza residents. Almost all of the press addressing this song refers to it as “political” and “controversial.” I find that almost insulting… take a look at the actual lyrics:

We all want peace and freedom that’s for sure

But peace won’t come from standing on our necks

Everyone deserves a chance to feel the future just might be bright

But any way you look at this – whichever point of view

For us to have to live like this

It just ain’t right

Apparently, reminding the first world of the humanity of civilians caught in a warzone is now a controversial position. Good job, Marillion.

One last factoid to mention: the DVD documentary accompanying the deluxe edition of the album contains stills from the 2012 North American tour. My friend and I are clearly visible in one of the pictures. That has precisely nothing to do with this album’s position on my list.

Runner-up: Devin Townsend Project Epicloud

One shouldn’t judge a book (or album) by its cover… but in the case of Epicloud, I think it’s safe to say it sounds exactly like its artwork implies:
album artwork
The key descriptor here is manic!… it’s fifty minutes of loud, dense, heavy, quirky post-metal. This album is even more exciting considering the context of Devin Townsend’s career: he dissolved the band that made him famous, released several artistic, but oppressively-dark albums, went two years without recording anything at all, and then documented his recovery from substance addiction over a four-album series. This marks his first aconceptual post-recovery solo album, and he’s rocking out like a man reborn.

A constant of all of Townsend’s music (that I’ve heard so far) is its density: there is not a beat of silence anywhere. Sometimes it approaches ridiculous: multiple keyboards with theoretically infinite sustain, brass cymbals ringing out, distorted guitars playing loud, simple chords, and heavily-reverbed vocals all going at once. Even on the slow songs. And I love it.

What’s really impressive is how many of the layered vocals are provided by Townsend… he hired a session choir for the album, but on same songs (like “Animals” and “Save Our Now”), he turns himself into a choir, and doesn’t appear to have ever met a studio effect he didn’t like. He heaps on enough tracks and effects to cover for the fact that he’s a much better musician than a singer. Come to think of it… he’s pretty much prog’s equivalent of Andrew W.K.

And, proving that Townsend is a song-writing machine, the deluxe edition of the album includes a “bonus disc” that is basically a second album. Not as conceptually tight as the album proper… but it’s also only a dollar more. In the meantime, Nightwish charges almost double to include an instrumental mix of their albums… some people.

Best Independent Release: Sean Filkins–War and Peace & Other Short Stories

album artwork

This is my obligatory promotion of a very under-the-radar artist. I’m shocked and saddened at how little attention so many of these great artists are getting. Amazon currently only has two copies of the CD (but it’s $9 to download… that’s about $.07/minute).

This is a beautiful “classic” prog album. The album features the especially-impressive half-hour “Prisoner of Conscience” suite, right in the middle (unusual placement for such a piece, but no complaints). All composition, singing, and principle instruments are performed by Filkins himself. The overall sound is perfectly modern, but the style is a worthy continuation of the type of music Yes and Genesis released in the seventies, but is in no way derivative. (I could just as easily apply that last sentence to early Spock’s Beard, IQ, Citizen Cain, Glass Hammer, and Also Eden… it is seriously mind boggling at how much great prog there is right now).

Bonus — The Spock’s Beard/Big Big Train connection: Neal Morse is the former front man of Spock’s Beard who left the band to pursue a solo prog career. He plays all principle instruments on his albums. Sean Filkins is the former frontman of the British progressive rock band Big Big Train. Filkins left BBT, and was replaced by Neal Morse’s replacement, Nick D’Virgillio. This, Filkins’ debut album, features, among other guest musicians, current Spock’s Beard bassist Dave Meros. It’s simple really.

Continued in part 2…
Testament; Anathema; Neal Morse, and more!

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    • Jem Bloom
    • January 16th, 2013

    Excellent reviews and (of course) immaculate taste! These should be easily adaptable/expandable for the book.

  1. January 16th, 2013

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