I will not under any circumstances engage in a debate about what progressive rock is. Though I briefly discussed it here. Anyway, around the millennium a new wave of younger musicians, undaunted by any preexisting stupid punk dude prejudices against the genre, discovered their parents’ record collections, those lovely gatefold sleeves, concept albums, mysterious keyboard sounds and that air of musical adventure that has been mostly missing from the rock world since 1977, and decided to try their hand at it. And the results were good! Younger bands joined “neo”-prog warhorses like Marillion and IQ in keeping the flag for creative, artistic rock music flying. Thank god, because it gave me something good to listen to by people my age. Apparently this interest crescendo-ed for me around 2004, judging my the dates of these albums. However, younger bands continue to keep that flag raised in the face of a dying and flailing musical industry, and I intend to investigate more of their work now that I’m a famous blogger with the power to promote. And then there’s Anathema, the former doom metallers turned saviours of grandiose art rock. Who would have thunk it! Here’s to long songs, string sections, fuzz Rickenbacker bass and the world’s greatest invention: the mighty mellotron!
(You can also listen to a mix of songs from these albums while you read.)
UPDATE 2016: I wrote a part II
Playing this album after a few years, I’m just as excited as I was back in 2005. Back in the seventies there was a style of music called “zeuhl”, invented by a nutso drummer named Christian Vander of the French band Magma. It was a fusion of modern jazz, avant-garde classical and heavy progressive rock, characterized by hammering, brutally repetitive rhythms, overdriven bass and frenetic vocals. And if I’m not wrong, that genre provided a lot of the inspiration for the music of the British instrumental band Guapo, which unleashed a couple of truly glorious albums. This one is the best, with the pieces varying from swirling psychedelic storms of vintage synths and organs and fuzz bass to militarily regimented jackhammer rhythms immediately and awesomely redolent of Magma’s heyday (see: “Five Suns 3“). The insane intensity often transcends Magma-dom and approaches the sheerly intense lunacy of Japan’s noise kings Ruins. And this band had mellotron too! Not at all for the faint of heart, but if you have a hankering for a modern take on the heaviness of Magma or Starless/Red-era King Crimson and you have not heard this, prepare to be very, very happy.
Some people have invented a genre called “atmospheric rock” to describe lavishly arranged and artful music like this, but Anathema’s third career phase (doom metal, alt-rock, then this) has been embraced by modern proggers as their own, so I won’t disagree. Certainly this emotive behemoth of an album contains elements of classic progressive music: disdain for consideration of song length, creative use of orchestration (provided by National Health’s Dave Stewart; how’s that for prog pedigree) and multi-part songs with recurring motifs (“Untouchable” parts 1 &2). Never mind that, I have to say that I may well not have heard a better rock album from first note to last. “Untouchable”, which is plainly about the loss of a loved one, is so very lyrically and melodically moving without resorting to histrionics, and other uplifting, soulful songs like “Lightning Song” (sung by the divine Lee Douglas) and “Sunlight” are very beautiful as well. It’s hard to pick the beautifulest, actually. Danny Cavanagh and John Douglas (writer of the epic “The Storm Before the Calm”) have outdone themselves; even the sampling of the voice of near-death survivor Joe Geraci detailing his experiences in the last track doesn’t seem overblown when everything is just so effing lovely on this album. This one, discovered recently, restored my flagging faith in big rock. Merci, Anathema.
Anekdoten was part of the wave of new Swedish prog, along with Anglagard and Landberk (the latter made a classic album of its own, Indian Summer). The band started as a mellotron-obsessed King Crimson cover band, and while Anekdoten soon developed a personality of its own, fortunately the ‘tron fetish remained. Early albums follow the Red template pretty closely, with elements of alt-rock thrown in (these guys are my age, after all), but with Gravity Anekdoten came into its own. In addition to lengthy, dark and riffy Crimson-esque pieces like the title track, there are delicate psych-folk workouts like “The Games We Play” and “The War is Over“, which are very pretty, but there is also the magnificant “Ricochet“, a rollicking mid-tempo piece of high drama that mixes elements of heavy prog with Ziggy Stardust-style glam and neo-psych. The outro with its ramparts of massive MkII string ‘tron is one of my favourite moments in rock history — I ain’t lying. Apparently the band is working on something new in 2014, which is great to hear. Axe/’tron man Nicklas Barker is also a member of the excellent psych-rock improvisers My Brother the Wind.
Paatos is a Swedish band that joined the Scandinavian prog renaissance a little after Anekdoten. Mega-guitarist Reine Fiske came via Landberk and instantly gave this new band cred on its debut album. Vocalist Petronella Nettermalm, who sounds like a more restrained Bjork, provided the other novel aspect to the band’s sound. Fiske left to join Dungen (to be replaced by the equally dextrous Peter Nylander) but the band didn’t miss a beat on this second album, which is apparently a loose concept album. There is a famous Swedish dystopian novel with this title. Hence, these ten songs are very dark, very gothic and intense, and melacholy as heck. Opener “Gasoline” is distinguished by being heavier and utilizing Roma violin, but the rest of the album’s nine songs are very similar to each other — but so good that you don’t care. A combination of melancholy prog, gothic rock and trip-hop elements lends a hazy sorrow to songs like “Holding On” and “Look at Us”, but of course, being who I am, I love the big mellotronic endings to songs like “Happiness” . Oh yes, there’s lots of ‘tron. And drummer Huxflux is quite the beast. However, it’s Petronella’s angelic vocals that carry the day; just try not to be moved by the empathetic closing ballad, “In Time“. A lovely album indeed.
I’ve given full review treatment to two IQ albums, but I can’t leave this out. Up to this point IQ had made some pretty good albums, the latest at that time being the AOR-ish Seventh House, which has some pretty good tunes on it. However, the genius bug infected the band and they got dark and edgy and full-on mega-prog with this one. Martin Orford, the keyboardist, finally embraces the seventies, deploying an array of synths (including ‘tron, at last), Mike Holmes discovers he really is a guitar hero, Peter Nicholls transcends Gabriel-sque obfuscation to find a new humanism in his music, and, well, the tunes are just great. Of course, the highlight is the 23-minute “Harvest of Souls“, which has been criticized by some idiots for being structured similarly to “Supper’s Ready”. Idiots. This piece contains about 8 melodic and moving songs in one — far more melodic than seventies Genesis, in fact. The lyrics are really profound, and Holmes — well, just listen to the closing solo. If the hair doesn’t fall off your skin, let alone stand on end, you need to really examine your ability to appreciate music. It’s that beautiful. I wouldn’t call this a comeback, or a fulfilment, more just the band coming into its own and starting a new phase of greatness.
Italy has such a rich history in the prog-rock genre that you’d have to reckon there were some younger people continuing to nurture the flame, and indeed Finisterre mainman Fabio Zuffanti , who also runs another band, Hostsonaten, does just that. Finisterre makes classic Italian prog, often of the softer, prettier, ethereal variety, like Celeste or Le Orme. Some classic synth sounds and yes, our favourite, the mellotron, augment gently melodic songs like “La perfezione“. There are several rockier songs, such as “La mia identita” and “La maleducazione“, which are not quite as successful, though they do take things in a more PFM-ish direction, which will appeal to some. The highlights are the softest tracks, though, like “Ode al mare”, which has a great power ballad guitar solo (I’m a sucker for those) and the spacy, dramatic “Rifrazione”, which has some delightful ambient textures. I’m almost afraid to dig deeper into this scene; what if it turns out there are another 20 bands like this? Where will all my money go to?
It seems ridiculous to just flippantly write about a great masterpiece in such a small space, but having reviewed the concert, I’m unlikely to give this album the novel-length treatment it needs as well. Suffice it say that after resisting for years being branded with the ‘prog-rock’ label with Porcupine Tree, Wilson decided to show everyone just how it’s done, assembling a band of total shredders (tasteful ones, too — they do exist!) and writing an album that tosses a salad of styles influenced by classic seventies Yes, Genesis, Crimson, VdGG, etc., from beautiful mellotronic interludes to even more transcendent Rutherford-esque 12-string balladry to brutal riff-driven workouts and mind-blowing solos. Then, when he’s exhausted you, he hits you with the emotional K’O of the title track (listen to it with the accompanying video and see if your eyes stay dry), a slow-burning piano piece that builds in intensity, musically and lyrically, until exploding into an exultant shoegaze/dreampop finale. I kind of reckoned Wilson would come out with something like this eventually (his first two solo albums hinted at it), but I had no idea it would be this good. Before, much as I enjoyed his music, I didn’t really buy into the Wilson-as-musical-Moses worshipful thing progressive fans have for him, but after this one … I almost do!
What’s that you say? This ain’t prog? This is Brit-pop? No, it’s not, you twerp. You are stupid. Dude, the band based a song on this album on King Crimson’s “Moonchild”, you know. If that’s not enough, give the album a listen. No, there are no “epic”-length songs. But the grandiose production is full-on art-rock and the songs are truly grand, not to mention stupendously, cosmically melodic in a way that sweeps your brain right out of your skull and off to Antares. I find this album to be undervalued by just about everyone; sure, it’s not Krautrocky or anything like that, but then neither was OK Computer, the supposed onset of prog-Radiohead. And this is a superior album to that. Yes, it is. Listen to the totally creative use of percussion on the 7-minute “There Goes the Fear”, the monolithic orchestral treatment of “The Sulphur Man” and the psychedelic early Floyd-esque balladry of “Friday’s Dust“, just to name three killer tracks. And all this by a three-piece former Brit-pop band throwing the kitchen sink around the studio. Tell you what, if acts like Sigur Rós get to be called “progressive rock” by some supposed aficionados, then this classic album certainly is too.
Marillion have been keeping on keeping on for a while. The band hit its career zenith, in my opinion, with Afraid of Sunlight, which is no shame because there’s no way they could top that meisterwerk. However, after a few middling efforts (possessed of some scattered virtues to be sure), they came damn close to equaling their best with this one, which I guess makes it a “comeback” of sorts. And it’s not surprising that they did it by dropping all pretense of fitting in with alternative rock and by re-embracing their artfulness. This meant doing whatever the fuck they wanted, be it tying the longer tracks together with weird little “Marbles” interludes, a long piano ballad in which they play around with weird delay on Steve Hogarth’s vocals (“Neverland“), accompanied by a very long, Gilmour-esque Steve Rothery solo, and some nice little pop tunes as well, like “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and “You’re Gone”. Even the “bonus” tracks from the double-album version are top quality, particularly the 17-minute “Ocean Cloud”; I love the foggy drama of that song. Definitely the second-best album of the Steve Hogarth era and an affirmation that Marillion is at its best when embracing its prog-rock heritage and bending those conventions in new ways.
Around 2006 this band was being heralded as the next big thing, the musical force that would restore prog to critical darling status and commercial respectability. And you know, this album’s quality sorta did justify the hype. I guess The Darkness weren’t the next Queen after all, either. Nor was Crash Kelly the next Cheap Trick. (I had to throw the cult band I was a member of in there….) No shame in that. Anyway, this band had a lot going for it, inspired mainly by the spacy textures of early- to mid-seventies Pink Floyd mixed with a bit of dreampop, and you can’t go wrong with that. Unafraid to voyage on the cosmos, these psychedelic young things stretched out in lengthy, ethereal, echoey numbers like “Goshen’s Remains” and “Bullitts Dominae”. What distinguished them for me at the time was their awesome use of elaborate male/female vocal harmonies; clearly someone had been listening to their Beach Boys and Moody Blues albums, because much like in the aforementioned Mr. Wilson’s work, these reverby, layered and creatively arranged vocals are a delight. Check out the lengthy “The Bright Ambassadors of Morning” (yes, yes, a direct tribute) for some truly glorious atmospheres. I rather wish this band had kept going, but after a couple more albums they were done. Alas.