Archive for the ‘ Music ’ Category

In review: The Music of 2012 (part 2)

…continued from yesterday’s post:

Best Metal Album: Testament – The Dark Roots of Earth

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Simultaneous winner of the “pleasant surprise of the year” award, this one snuck up on me. I was thoroughly pleased with 2009’s Formation of Damnation, but I really didn’t expect a comparable follow-up. Like prog, something magical is happening right now in the world of metal, where after a 15 year or so hiatus, the classic bands are artistically relevant again. Unlike prog, there are far fewer “new” bands poised to take over, so I’m not sure how long this can be sustained, but I’ll be thankful for whatever we get. I can’t help but feel like I’m enjoying this album for the wrong reasons, but the shout-along chorus of the opening track “When I say rise up, you say war!” is the perfect blend of awesome and cheesy… like an 80’s action movie (same goes for “True American Hate”). As always, Alex Skolnick’s lead guitars are awe-inspiring, and Chuck Billy’s thrashy shouts and near-death growls are admirable.

Despite my urge to make fun of their lyrics, “Native Blood” is inspiring. It also, notably, was awarded “Best Music Video of the Year” at the Native American Film Festival. Not sure how much competition it had, but then again, the portrayal non-violent confrontation is really something I think all Americans need right now [end of sentimental comments].

Testament also gets bonus points for “Cold Embrace,” as their first catchy ballad since “Return to Serenity”… twenty years ago.

This is also the second appearance of drummer Gene Hoglan on this list. The man is an unfailing ace in the hole for making sure your album is worthwhile. Not only is he on the previously reviewed Epicloud (and other Towsend albums), but he played on Death’s Individual Thought Patterns, aka the most influential death metal album ever… Dark Angel’s well-reviewed but impossible to find pair Darkness Descends and Time Does Not Heal, and provided drums for the fictionally-famous Dethklok.

[More prog]

Anathema Weather Systems

album artwork

I’m not sure if the album was meant to be taken this way, but to me, Weather Systems combines the best qualities of the electronic music I listened to in volumes ten years ago, and the ultra-technical prog that dominates my playlists now. I feel especially fortunate to have been shown this album by a friend, because before spring of 2012 I’d never even heard of Anathema. The melodies are so moving that I don’t even care that it’s all in common time and mid-tempo. Plus, when it’s done right, there’s just something so good about an acoustic guitar and a synthesizer playing together. The music straddles the lines between several genres… I could describe parts of it as ambient, chillout, electronica, metal, post-metal, neo-prog, new-prog, and symphonic prog. And I probably missed a few.

The shared vocals between the brothers’ Cavanagh and Lee Douglas are haunting, and stand out as essential to the music in a genre where vocals are frequently treated as an afterthought. Similar to Townsend’s work, some parts of this album get really dense, but its used as an exception rather than a rule, and the songs, while not especially lengthy, are long enough to ease into it. This technique is possibly a relic of Anathema’s origins as a doom metal band.

The highpoint of the album is the nine-minute “The Storm Before the Calm.” It builds tension during the first half (The Storm: “It’s getting colder…”) venturing the furthest into the electronic territory. A fade-out halfway through tricks you into thinking it won’t be resolved, but it lives up to its title. “It ebbs and flows and comes and goes / it eats you up and lets you go.” After sitting out most of the song, Lee Douglas joins adding a beautiful alto line to the final set of lyrics (“Am I still here?”. Notably, while guitarist/vocalist Daniel Cavanagh principally composed the whole album, this piece of melodic genius was written by… the drummer!

Neal Morse – Momentum

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A solo studio album, a super-group, a cover album, and a live album: rest assured Neal will release at least two of them every year. This year, he managed three.

With Momentum, Neal managed his first worthwhile non-concept album. I found last two albums to be a bit disappointing (including his first try at a song-driven album, 2008’s Lifeline), and on learning that he was basically recording this in a rush after plans of a new Transatlantic album fell apart [excuse me while I scream into a pillow], I was braced for more of the same. I was relieved. The music is bright, varied, and as always with Neal, catchy (esp. the title track, “Weathering Sky” and “Freak”). The Christian themes are right where I expected them, but the lyrics have gotten much less praise and worship-y. To steal from a friend, Morse writes incredible melodies with a similar ease and frequency to a bodily function, and it’s nice to know that he can occasionally realize the in a five minute song.

That all being said, about 55% of the album is dominated by the final track, “World Without End.” He’s done better, but there’s plenty to be desired here.

As an added bonus, Randy George’s bass seems to play a more significant role here than in the past (including taking a lead part in the main riff to “Weathering Sky”). Mike Portnoy’s drumming is exactly what it should be. Also, it’s the first worthwhile post-Dream Theater recording Mike Portnoy has appeared on, after the disappointing Flying Colors and artistically-null Omertà.

Honorable Mentions:

Rush – Clockwork Angels; Coheed & Cambria – The Afterman: Ascension; Ian Anderson – Thick As a Brick 2

Best Live Album: Porcupine Tree – Octane Twisted

With this album, Porcupine Tree joins Dream Theater, Opeth, Transatlantic, Marillion, and Rush in an official live release containing the performance of an entire album. This time, it’s 2009’s The Incident, and arguably, it’s better than the studio release. Something about the intricacies of prog sort of demands a live performance of anything that sounds daring on a recording, as kind of a “proof” of musicianship. Let’s just say, Steven Wilson and so come through. The second half of the concert is none too shabby either: in addition to containing most of the second-disc songs from The Incident, it’s got a significant portion of “Anesthetize” and an always-welcome new rendition of “Arriving Somewhere.”

Best Re-release/ Re-Master:

Thick as a Brick, 40th Anniversary edition, with multiple mixes by singer/songwriter/guitarist/engineer/producer/genius/skinny person Steven Wilson.

Biggest Let-downs:

In addition to Flying Colors and Omertà (sorry, Mike Portnoy)… Storm Corrosion. That’s all I’m saying.

Best Christmas Album

I can’t believe I even get to make this a category, but I’ve got to recognize… A Proggy Christmas by the “Prog World Orchestra,” aka Transatlantic in all but name. I’ll never be able to hear “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” again without mentally putting Neal Morse’s voice to it. It’s great to hear musically-intricate takes on Christmas standards… but it makes it all the more frustrating that Transatlantic couldn’t produce an album this year. Let’s have a toast to 2013…

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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

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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

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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!

These Go To Eleven

In the dial-up days when I was just a noob, I ran across a piece of internet banality, listing several individual lines from the Star Wars trilogy, wherein a single word was replaced with the word “pants,” frequently yielding vastly superior results (you listening, Lucas? Next time you change it, add an optional “pants” dub).

Today, at work, while contemplating a playlist for Nigel Tufnel Day (there’s a good chance that link won’t work by the time you get to it), it occurred to me that the same can be done with song titles and lyrics. Here’s what I came up with:

The Clash — Pantsdown

London Pantsing

Excerpt from the lyrics:

But lately one or two has fully paid their due
Working with their pants down
Hut! Git-a-long-git-a-long

2) AC/DC — Back in Pants

…something devoutly to be wished for anyone who’s seen Angus Young lately.

3) Megadeth — Rust in Pants

I was strongly tempted to go with “Pants Sell… But Who’s Buying?”

4) Guns and Roses — Rocket Pants

… a side-effect that kicks in a few hours after satisfying your appetite for destruction.

5) Iron Maiden — The Number of the Pants

6) Led Zeppelin — The Pants Remain the Same

Now really I’m sure I could do a dozen just from this band alone. Custard Pants, When the Pants Break, Babe I’m Gonna Pants You, Pants For One, Achilles’ Last Pants… etc

7) The Beatles — Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Pants

One of the Best Beatles song to blast at eleven.

8 ) Dream Theater — The Pants of Eternity

9) Black Sabbath — Iron Pants

10) The Rolling Stones — Get Off of My Pants

11) Rush — A Farewell to Pants

Check out to the cover to their next album and it becomes apparent they took it literally.

What did you blast at eleven yesterday? What state were your pants in at the time? Let me know in the comments.

Lady Guacamole

Sometimes imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Other times it’s someone’s way of saying something is so bad, you’ve just got to make fun of it.

And occasionally it makes fun of itself.

This is the second. By the way, if anyone out there has either a reasonable popstar voice, or a copy of Autotune, I will totally make a MIDI of the song and put it on YouTube… it’s worth at least a million hits.

And in case the reader is unaware of this particular pop-piece, a) I am jealous, and b) it’s Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro,” altered so that even I could potentially enjoy it. I fear that actually mentioning Lady Gaga by name in this blog (see? I just did it again!) might get me some Google traffic… then again, said visitors will be rather disappointed.

Lady Guacamole – Filibertos

Spoken:
I know that they are cheap
And I know that you have coupons
But I just can’t believe I’m desperate enough for
Filibertos

He’s got both eyes
On the menu
Cashier won’t look at you (won’t look at you)
She texts something
A su novio
Then she says something that sounds like
“Qué for you?”

I can’t understand the staff
Straight from Mexico
(Olé!)
I’m next in line I’ve gotta choose
Nothing to lose

The combo plate! (The combo plate!)
Filibertos!
They’re open late (They’re open late)
Menudo
Don’t wanna drink
Don’t touch the stuff
Just roll my burrito and rush
The combo plates
All taste the same
Asado

Filibertos, Filibertos
Fili-fili-bertos, Fili-filabertos

Spoken:
Ouch!
Oh, what have I done?
filibertos
What have I done!

Chips are golden
Their cheese is tasty
But their beef tastes like a cat
(Just like a cat)
And are those flames that
Shoot from his nostrils…
Now he’s gotta chug horchata
To cool the burn

Two beef tacos, melted cheese
Hot like Tobasco
Burro…
Eyes are burning, tongue is bruised
I’m feeling loose

The combo plate! (The combo plate!)
Filibertos!
They’re open late (They’re open late)
Chorizo
Next to the beans,
What’s in the rice?
Is that a cigarette? Yikes!
I’m so ashamed, I ever came
Pendejo

Filibertos, Filibertos
Fili-fili-bertos, Fili-filabertos

The end of me (The end of me)
Filibertos
My eyes are glazed, Don’t know my name
(Qué me llamo…)
What will they make, Of my remains?
(Adobada)
I can’t get up, I’m giving up
(Muriendo)

The combo plate! (The combo plate!)
Filibertos!
They’re open late (They’re open late)
Menudo
Don’t wanna drink
Don’t touch the stuff
Just roll my burrito and rush
The combo plates
All taste the same
Asado

Filibertos, Filibertos

Fili-filibertos, Fili-filibertos

Visual Learner: Pop songs represented in chart form

Some light humor to kick off the week. Enjoy.

Please note that this particular post is rather image-heavy and may be slower to load than most of my postings.

One Step Closer

8 Days a Week

And while we’re on the subject…

Set on You...

Imagine

The same graph with different categories would work with Sam Cooke’s “What a Wonderful World It Would Be.”

Vertigo

And finally, difficult decisions, simplified by flowcharts

Difficult Decisions

Eleanor Rigby: A Glimpse into the Mind of a Pathological Trasvestite

Disclaimer: This was first written April 3, 2004 and originally posted Monday, December 11, 2006. While working on the aesthetics of this blog, I offer this oldie from the archives:

Ah, look at all the lonely people.
Ah, look at all the lonely people.

Lonely people indeed – it is a known fact that priests lead a lonely life, and the image of an abandoned parishioner, one “Father Mackenzie” leaves the door open for some interesting implications. Where do they all come from? Perhaps the imagination of a terminally depressed friar. Consider the following:

Eleanor Rigby sits in a church, dies in a church. Why so lonely? Father Mackenzie was not far off, or perhaps this was the problem – he was too close. After all, she does live in a dream. Father Mackenzie implicitly darned his socks in the night while nobody was there… but wasn’t Eleanor just sitting in the pews in the last stanza? How can we be sure that the “socks” aren’t “stockings?” Could this man have been so heartsick that he invented, and ultimately became his own companion? Or, as McCartney’s counterpart, John Lennon, put it a few years later: “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.”

Another curious facet of Paul McCartney’s surreal world – the face in the jar by the door. Who is it for? All the lonely people? I think not, for when the old woman dies in the church, nobody came. This raises questions about the sermon that no one would hear… was this to be Ms. Rigby’s dirge, or eulogy? How did the father know nobody would come to hear the sermon? She wasn’t even dead yet at the time he wrote it… unless the Father decided it was time to hang up the face and lay the stockings to rest for good. The lingering image of him wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave echoes like a gavel in the mind of the listener.

One of course can argue the validity of these claims; it could simply be a ballad of two God-fearing humans who had time for faith but none for friends. A good friend of mine, one Arthur Sierras, speculated that Ms. Rigby may have been terminally ill, and Father Mackenzie wrote the phantom sermon after administering the last rites. His theory was cancer (perhaps caused by lead-based make-up), but if I had to go with the disease theory, I’d go with leprosy. It better explains why her face was in a jar by the door.

Whatever the true nature of the song, we may never know. The Beatles were ever-secretive about their true feelings of their own works, and maintained an ever-present suspicion and cynicism of the American media. However, this two-and-a-half minute masterpiece contains much more depth than the literal interpretation of the lyrics. Father Mackenzie took her down, but did she go to Strawberry Fields? Perhaps it was necessary for her to bid the world goodbye, that the Father might say hello. Perhaps we should just let it be and enjoy the music. Where do we all come from? Where do we all belong? Perhaps she alone knew. Ah, look at all the lonely people. Where do they all come from? Where do any of us come from?

Added by request, the complete original lyrics:

“Eleanor Rigby” — (Lennon*/McCartney)
Originally available on Revolver (1966). Also available on Beatles ’62-66 (1993), and 1 (2000).

Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby
Picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window,
Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for?

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from ?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Father Mckenzie
Writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear
No one comes near.
Look at him working,
Darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody there
What does he care?

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?
Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby
Died in the church and was buried along with her name
Nobody came
Father Mckenzie
Wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

*Although the Lennon/McCartney writing credit is a Beatles trademark, the two rarely collaborated after 1965. John Lennon had absolutely nothing to do with the composition/recording of this particular song. The vocal harmonies are Paul, multitracking himself, and the string quartet was made up of session musicians. In fact, Paul is the only “Beatle” in the song.