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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

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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:
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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!

Sauce: A Review by a Culinary Philistine

I may have a primitive understanding of the concept of “artisan pizza,” but unless Sauce was in fact founded by hipsters looking to name their establishment ironically, I’m perplexed. It may say “Sauce” on the sign, but I saw not a drop of it featured in our meal. More on that in a moment.

The North-Phoenix location which I visited during lunch hours was was clean, the atmosphere was genuinely inviting, the staff friendly. I tried my first bruschetta here, and according to the online recipe I referenced while my wife was in the restroom, they did a good job; it was prepared to textbook specifications. Not the most pragmatic of appetizers, though: lacking a bonding agent to make the cubed mozzarella adhere to the shingle on which it is served, each bite ensures a quick burst of falling debris.

The selection in their wine bar (the presence of which completes the double entendre of the chain restaurant’s name) is ample and varied, though I personally chose to go with a glass of the 2012 lemon-lime.

Regarding the main course:

Perhaps I’ve grown to have scewed expectations of pizza due to a lifetime’s exposure to the type of pizza usually served by a suited mascot. Nonetheless, when I think of “pizza crust,” words like “crunch,” “shard,” and “air pocket” do not come to mind. I do appreciate the authenticity added by the woodfire grill, but it has its drawbacks. In place of the thin layer of flour typically coating the bottom of a pizza for non-stick purposes, this preparation method tends to leave traces of charcoal-like deposits on the bottom of each slice. Due to this, an absent-minded scratch of an errant itch below the eye left my wife looking like Ke$ha. And, again, there was no sauce!

It looks like the restaurant is making the food it intends to make, so, if you’re into this sort of thing, it’s great. I’d be more than willing to join friends there in the future, but I don’t see myself actively seeking it out anytime soon.

Strafe Reviews: The Apple iPad

Note: In the past few weeks, I have entertained at least two personal and one professional inquiry as to what, exactly, the iPad is. In the interest of full disclosure, I feel obligated to let my readers know that I do not now, nor do I ever plan on owning an iPad. Also, in spite of my job and personal interests, this blog is primarily for entertainment purposes and not a platform to promote/condemn products, or influence purchasing decisions. And to that end…

~Strafe Presents~

His humble, called-for, and factual review of the Apple iPad

Have you ever come across a pretzel, or perhaps a Cheerio, floating in an amount of liquid? You may have noticed how, through osmosis, the object becomes bloated, and useless. Now, imagine doing the same thing with an iPhone.

Congratulations. You now understand the iPad.

From http://www.apple.com/ipad, the device is for sale “starting at $499.” Price-wise, that puts it well into the “laptop” range. Or, the “netbook plus a decent non-Apple cell phone” range. Or the “let me build a moderately-impressive desktop computer, including operating system, from scratch, and maybe have enough left over for a cheap printer” range.

And you know you could do with any of the above alternative configurations, that you can’t on a iPad? Multitask.

Yeah, that’s right. If, as you’re reading this, you have music playing in the background, or an email client, or something printing, or even another browser window (and if you got here by means of Facebook or MySpace, odds are you do), you are currently outperforming the iPad. Just to demonstrate how fundamental the concept of multitasking is to the overall concept of the operating system:

Xerox got it.

Above is a picture of the Xerox Alto. Notice that not just the monitor is in black and white… it’s the whole picture. It was taken in 1973. Nixon was president. Star Wars was 4 years away. Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy” was about to come out. And that computer is running multiple applications… graphical applications, at once.

You know what else the iPad is missing? USB support. So, as you’re reading this on your multitasking machine, there’s a good chance that there is something plugged into your computer via USB. A mouse, keyboard, printer, modem, flashdrive, camera, personal music player (including an iPod/iPhone).

It is perhaps not surprising that the “U” in “USB” stands for “Universal.” And aptly so. USB 2.0 is fast, reliable, and available on almost all hardware. Including cars. It may not always be the best port for every job, but it’s a pretty good port for most.

Apple may have great Bluetooth and 3G support, and great ability to sync with other Apple products (you do own other Apple products, right?), but when you decide to skimp on support for something non-ironically named universal, the implication is that you’re just creating your own universe.

There is a podcast out there celebrating this very fact.

I haven’t even mentioned things like the ability to play CDs/DVDs, physical keyboards (that don’t cost extra), ability to run Java applets, or, heck, the ability to purchase what would otherwise be a decently-manufactured piece of hardware and put your own software on it.

Ubuntu iPad

This might make me change my mind.

However, according to Apple’s tech spec’s, the iPad boasts at least one feature, the lack of which I have railed against in a previous post: more than one button.

Coming Soon: Site Construction

I’ll be taking this week to (hopefully) customize this site a bit… at least get some info into the “About Me” section. This will probably trump any new posts next week, but fear not! I will be (re)publishing a post From the Archives.