2015 Top 15 Rewind: #1 – Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase.

Steven_Wilson_Hand_Cannot_Erase

From start to finish, this album had both my curiosity and my attention, and was simply beautiful.  The story, and the album, are incredibly powerful and haunting.  The music is dense and complex, but those of you familiar with Steven Wilson are aware of his reputation for being a virtuoso in the music world.  He is the master of his craft, and should be applauded for this genius album.  Steven Wilson is truly a once in a lifetime musician, and it seems he can do no wrong.  Listen to the album for yourself and you will see what I mean.

It’s no coincidence that Steven Wilson made the best album of 2011, a top five album in 2013, and the best album of 2015.  There’s just something about him that is musically enthralling.  After this album was released last year, Wilson released the b-side/follow-up album in January 2016 called 4 ½, which was a ~35 minute album made up of bonus songs originally written for this album and his previous album, The Raven, from 2013 that didn’t make the cut.  That 4 ½ album was the icing on the cake that was the best album of 2015, but I’ll leave that for another time.  What more can I, a humble music fan, say about this album that hasn’t already been said any number of other reviewers gushing about this album on music sites.  One reviewer even called it “The Wall for the Facebook generation”, so there really isn’t much higher praise than that.

 

That track, Routine, may be a long one, but it encapsulates everything this album is all about.  As is the case with a lot of Steven Wilson’s work and many top-tier albums in the prog rock genre, Hand. Cannot. Erase. (punctuated like that) is a concept album, and it is a beautiful and heartripping one at that.  The story is about a lovely girl who lived in Britain with her family and friends, loved by all of them, and how she moved to London to start her new life.  While in London, she died mysteriously one day.  Over two years later, she was found in that apartment, and no one in her life had any idea she had passed.  The album is obviously not a scene-for-scene iteration from the real story of Joyce Vincent, but it tells quite a powerful story nonetheless.  This album, Hand. Cannot. Erase., is about her life.

The first time I listened to this album, it was emotionally devastating, and it hit me harder than almost any album I’ve ever listened to.  I attribute part of that to the other emotions I was dealing with at the time, and it was the perfect storm of emotion to kick me right in the chest.  Before listening, I was already familiar with the story of Joyce Vincent and had heard a few songs from this album before, but listening to it in its entirety put it all into perspective.  This is an album that doesn’t lend itself to a single, because it’s all surrounded by context, but I imagine the self-titled track may be a single for this album if any would be.  I had shared with several people the track and video to Perfect Life, and some of them weren’t able to get into it.  It’s ok, this is a concept album, singles don’t always hold up well.  I don’t hold it against them, because it was an isolated song about a girl finding her new sister, growing close with her, and losing her a few years later.  The sadness and confusion that the track drifted in and out with was on its own, so it didn’t pull forth the emotion of the tracks around it.  This is one of those difficult albums that basically requires a full listen from start to finish to get through the whole story.  Otherwise, it’s fragmented and doesn’t pack the same punch.

As I listen to this album again while I write this remastered review in 2016, the same emotions still ring true for me.  I still get sad when I hear Perfect Life, hopeful when I hear Hand Cannot Erase, and both when I listen to Happy Returns.  This album tugs at my heartstrings and all of those other cliched expressions of when something hits you “right in the feels.”  I don’t think I’ve listened to an album that grabs me from the very beginning all the way until the very end without losing me somewhere along the way.  This is a rare, once in a lifetime album that I can’t get over.  I know I gave his previous albums glowing recommendations and it sounds like I can’t find fault in his work, but if you would truly listen to it, you would understand.  By truly listen, I mean sit down and do nothing other than listen to this album, and not have it on while surfing the internet or playing video games or on in the background while making dinner or something where it is a supporting voice to your life going on around you.  This album deserves the kind of attention where you put on a pair of good headphones or turn up your stereo if you can and drift into the world that he creates.

Unlike other reviews, I won’t specifically go over a few highlight tracks, and even though there are some standout tracks like the few I posted above, it’s all one big track that needs to go together.  I also only have those three tracks posted above to give you, unlike the last two reviews with Earthside and Baroness.  You can find the rest.  You may find that some tracks will make you want to sway and others will make you want to cry, and by all means shed some tears.  This is a very sad story, and yet so powerful across the board that it shouldn’t make you feel down or depressed after you listen to it.  Whether it’s the pain from Home Invasion, the hopelessness in Routine, or the serenity in Happy Returns, this album is an emotional rollercoaster but isn’t exhausting like some other albums of this nature are.  I may be painting two seemingly incompatible pictures with this review, but you’ll just have to listen to it to understand.

Technically, this album is virtually flawless.  Marco Minnemann returns on the drums for this album and knocks it out of the park on every track he’s on.  Steven Wilson brought in a choir and an orchestra to wrap this album up as well, and they just add another layer on what was already a heavy and deep album.  The tracks transition into each other, so for example Regret #9 picks up right where Home Invasion leaves off and takes it into a whole different direction.  This album flows like a well written story, and I don’t feel like I’m ever at a point in the album where it feels like something doesn’t belong.  Even the banjo introduced at the end of Regret #9 makes sense and sounds right in its place.  That’s the big thing about this album: everything is in its right place.

I can’t say enough about this album, and although I could go on, I’ll just implore all of you to listen to this album as soon as you can.  This album is Steven Wilson’s magnum opus, and while I said about his last album that I didn’t think it could get much better, I was wrong.  Hand. Cannot. Erase. is the kind of album that only comes around once in a generation, and I’ll be proud if I’m the person to introduce you to this album.  If you can reach just one person, that’s making a difference.  I hope to make a difference in your life by recommending this masterpiece to you all.  Of course, I can only show you the door.  There is no doubt that this album deserves the perfect score of 15 out of 15 Ratings units.  I can find no flaws with this album, and if you can, that’s on you.  Bravo, Steven Wilson, bravo.

 

That’s it.  That’s the best album of 2015, and I’m so happy that I was able to write about these albums for you as well as myself.  If you read these reviews, if we discussed them, if you even thought about reading them and then decided not to click on the links, or if you listened to music because of these reviews, thank you.  Your readership makes this all worthwhile.  If you enjoyed reading this review or some of the others, follow us on Facebook!

At the end of 2015, I was excited for the music of that year, and even more excited about what was to come.  Seven months into 2016, and there’s already a whole lot of wonderful music from Haken, Dream Theater, Radiohead, Deftones, Gojira, and the incredibly powerful final and prophetic album of David Bowie.  I can’t wait for the next five months, as there will definitely be another dramatic write-up of the best albums of 2016, although it will likely drop back down to the best 10 instead of 15+, because who would read the top 21 albums of 2021 if this keeps up?

Thanks for playing, everyone.

One last thing, if you made it to the bottom of this list, you can see the top 15 albums of 2015 in short list form:

15) Motorhead – Bad Magic

14) The Dreaming – Rise Again

13) Ghost – Meliora

12) Gloryhammer – Space 1992: Rise of the Chaos Wizards

11) Faith No More – Sol Invictus

10) Leprous – The Congregation

9) The Gentle Storm – The Diary

8) Beardfish – +4626-Comfortzone

7) Symphony X – Underworld

6) Spock’s Beard – The Oblivion Particle

5) Riverside – Love, Fear and the Time Machine

4) Failure – The Heart is a Monster

3) Earthside – A Dream in Static

2) Baroness – Purple

1) Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase.

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2015 Top 15 Rewind: #2 – Baroness – Purple

baroness purple

During the tail end of 2015, there was a serious lack of good new music.  No major releases were interesting at the time, as there was some generic boring rap, some terrible screaming metal garbage, and some British indie/folk 21 year old kid telling people his life story.  Pass.  Then, this album emerged from out of the fog.  In fairness, this album’s release was long awaited and expected, and that it was likely the last big release of 2015.  What better way to end a year’s series of reviews than with an album like this, called Purple, by the art-metal band Baroness.  Like the #3 best album of 2015 by the surprise band Earthside, this band released a whole slew of tracks off the album.  In fact, the whole thing is out there, and I’ll do my best to pump them out track by track throughout the album in order.  Let’s start with the beginning, shall we?  This is Morningstar, what a fitting opener that really gets the blood flowing, your head bouncing, and your foot tapping.

This track is Morningstar, which introduces the listener to what they’re going to be in store from this album, gets things started with a catchy hook and an energy that stays fairly constant until the end.

This next track track, Shock Me, is the official single the band released for this album last month.  It’s very radio friendly and I hope they get the exposure they deserve with it.  Since this review was first written, the band released an official music video for the track, to everyone’s surprise.

This band, as I mentioned a moment ago, was fairly quiet since 2012.  They toured intermittently in 2013 with other bands until they decided to take the headliner role for the next year or so.  They were quiet for good reason, though, because the band almost died not long after the release of the terrific Yellow and Green back in 2012.  They were involved in a huge bus accident in England where the bus went off the road in terrible conditions and fell something like 30 feet off of a ledge.  The band broke various bones and some vertebrae (which is terrible for a drummer) and the band had to heal up and regroup for quite some time.  It was such a devastating accident that the drummer and bassist left the band, as they both fractured several vertebrae and were understandably traumatized from this whole situation.  I don’t blame them and I hope they have recovered back to full health, but Baroness needed to continue in their absence.

Reeling, Baroness picked up a new drummer and bassist and decided to keep on rolling.  The frontman of the band, John Dyer Baizley, didn’t want his vision to go to waste as he still had more work to do.  As the lead singer and rhythm guitarist (notice those harmonizing guitars, especially in Chlorine & Wine?), Baizley is also the artist of the band.  He went to art school for some time and then decided to leave and go make art of his own, and he certainly has.  On the top of this review is the album cover, which he painted, as well as the other album artwork for all of their previous albums.  Every Baroness album, as a note, is named after a color.  I expect Orange to come out in a few years, since we already have Red, Blue, Yellow & Green, and Purple.  No word on if they’ll release a Black album or a White album, but those albums are dangerous territories to cross into because Metallica has claim to Black and obviously The Beatles lord over White.  I won’t get into a discussion about what colors are and aren’t, no thank you, but I do hope that Baroness is around long enough that they have to start getting weird with album color titles like Chartreuse and Aquamarine.

It’s tough to accurately describe Baroness as a metal band, because they are so much more.  They’re psychedelic first, and have a lot of prog and some STP-esque alt-rock of the 90s in them too.  They even put a bit of twangy folk in the track Fugue, because they’re artists first and musicians second.  I admire that about the band more than anything – this band is interested in producing art and making music for the sake of art, and not solely for commercial purposes.  They may very well be an indie metal band too, but who likes labels anyways?

This next track is Chlorine & Wine, which was the first track they released to hype up this album back in August.  It whipped fans into a frenzy because the band had been relatively and understandably quiet for a few years as mentioned above.  It was very exciting to hear from them again after what happened, and it was a shot in the arm that the fans needed to get hyped for another Baroness album.  We knew that the band was recording again after the incident, but didn’t have much information – until this dropped, and boy was it exciting.

Purple, in many ways, is a combination of their previous albums Red and Blue.  There’s no way that was an accident.  The psychedelic nature of their early work combines with some of the heaviness, and it’s strange because for an album this heavy, it doesn’t feel it.  When you listen to their big wrap-up track, If I Have to Wake Up (Would You Stop the Rain), it doesn’t sound metally at all.  It’s vast and open, but I wouldn’t call it crunchy or heavy at all.  For a band that lost two major members recently, they haven’t lost any steam whatsoever.  Their new drummer, Sebastian Thomson, picked up right where Allen Blickle left off, and may have added a little flourish to the percussion section.  Things are very smooth in this album, and it’s clear that they’re having fun while recording together.  I’m glad a band with several new members is able to have this kind of chemistry already, and I wonder what a live show of theirs would be like.  They’re on solid US tour right now, so if you get a chance, you should definitely catch them if you enjoyed the music distributed throughout this review.

This album is polished and isn’t as gritty and raw as their first few albums, and that may be owed to the production of this album being handled by the band and its own record label, Abraxan Hymns.  I’ll also note in passing that Dave Fridmann produced this album, who some of you would know as the producer on bands like The Flaming Lips, MGMT, OK Go and Tame Impala.  Clearly, Baroness wanted Fridmann to be involved on this album because of his interest in artistic and unusual music, which in itself is a strange combination of words.

I am so happy to end the year of reviews with this album, because it’s always good to go out on a high note.  I’ve looked around and there are not many significant releases for the remainder of the year.  Instead of finding the best of the worst, I’ll transition to a different kind of list, which some of you readers are more familiar with – the Best Albums of 2015 list!  You knew it was coming.  Before I get too far, I want to throw a rating at Baroness’s Purple, because it’s good to have that kind of closure.  This album was a powerhouse, heavy in all the right places and yet catchy and fun enough to loosen up and give the listener a chance to breathe.  I loved this album.  I give it 14.5 out of 15 RUs, with the only ding being that it’s a remarkably quick (but brilliant) 43 minutes of music.  We may have been a bit spoiled after Yellow and Green, which ran for just under 80 minutes, and while this album is fantastic, it feels so short.

It’s only fitting to end this review as well as this album with a track like Crossroads of Infinity.  It’s just 15 or so seconds long, and you can make of it however you will.  Strange, sure.  Does it make sense?  Does it have to?  I like it just the way it is.

Thanks for sticking through till the end.  If you enjoyed this review, there are plenty more of them on this page, and you can follow me on this wordpress or on the official Audio Orbital facebook page!  There’s only one album left on this best of 2015 list, and it was a doozey.  If you have any comments or feedback, feel free to post them.  If you want to talk about the picks so far, have at it.  Let’s talk.

2015 Top 15 Rewind: #3 – Earthside – A Dream in Static

Earthside-A-Dream-In-Static

Before I say anything else, I want to say two things.  First, the band has posted their entire album on youtube since the inception of this review so I can actually give you all eight tracks instead of just the two I wrote about previously.  I won’t go into detail on the rest beyond this review, and I’ll try to post them in order even if the review gets a little squidgy because of it.  There were paragraphs where I highlighted the two posted individual tracks, and in an effort to post the album in order throughout the review, that may get muddled a bit.  The album will be posted throughout this review from top down in the order the tracks were placed on the album, starting with The Closest I’ve Come.

The other thing I wanted to point out about this album is that it is the band’s debut album.  This is the first thing we’ve heard from them.  I can’t stress that enough.  Earthside, as I have learned and am now relaying to you, is a band from New England mostly made up from music scholars.  If you’ve read my reviews for the band Dream Theater, you’ve probably seen me talk about their musical wizardry and technical savvy, and that largely stems from the fact that those guys originally went to music school together (well, they imported James Labrie from Canada).  Mike, John and John all played together at Berklee back in the 80s, and here they are now as one of the biggest prog bands around.

Earthside, much like Dream Theater, came together as students of music.  These aren’t just guys that played together in a garage, but they actually studied the nuances of music and went into it in detail.  Jamie, the guitarist, studied music (and composition) at Yale.  Frank, the keyboardist, studied at Hampshire College and Berklee focusing, obviously, on music.  Ryan, the bassist, studied at the Hartt School of Music focusing on Music production and tech.  Finally, Ben, the drummer, did not actually go to school for music, but has been immersed in the music world as well, studying Journalism and writing about music whenever he could.  These guys love music.  In fact, interestingly enough, they do not call themselves a band, and instead define Earthside as a “creative collective”.  How new age.  Don’t be afraid of the title, because these guys may have a unique band name, but they flow with the progressive rock and metal of the past and today and put them together to make something immensely fun to hear.

When you listen to a track like Mob Mentality, their single and the second track posted above, you can tell they are no mere debuting band trying to find their place in the world.  Instead, they’re letting the world know in a flash and a fury that they are a force to be reckoned with immediately.  This single features the Moscow Studio Symphony Orchestra.  How many debut bands can you think of that contacted a symphony to put together something like this?  With all these tracks posted throughout the review, this is no mere “ten minute review” like others I have written in the past.  If you listen to even one of these tracks that I’ve posted, then I’ve done my job.  If you have listened to the entire album, then congratulations, and I hope you enjoyed yourself as much as I did.  About Mob Mentality, I don’t need to explain how impressive this effort is, and can really let this video speak for itself.  This four piece, which at least for the time being plans on being an instrumental band with guest vocalists, managed to recruit an orchestra to play with them on their first album.  Some bands wait for years to realize that an orchestra behind them is terrific.  Think of Metallica’s S&M album, it’s one of my personal favorites and if you’re unfamiliar it stands for Symphony and Metallica, not something improper.  Even if you don’t like the band Kiss, their Alive IV album, featured a symphony as well, and was another perfect example of how a band can be truly enhanced with a symphony.

A lot of this music, especially in the prog world, is based on classical music, so it’s a perfect fit.  Dream Theater, as I mentioned above, also used an orchestra for an anniversary concert and even recorded the track Illumination Theory off their most recent (self-titled) album with a string ensemble.  As you can see from the video, Mob Mentality is not just a track, but an audio and visual experience.  They have dancing people, they have the orchestra, they have the band playing, they have the keyboardist on a stage playing a piano, and they have Lajon by himself on the microphone.  It is interesting that whenever Lajon is shown (and by Lajon I mean Lajon Witherspoon, the vocalist for this track, who is the lead singer of Sevendust), he is by himself.  He is never with the band, because Earthside wants to make sure that the audience sees the band apart from everything else.  This is an accurate description of this album in some ways, because they want to be set apart from the rest of the music scene and want to be on their own doing what they do.

At its core, despite whatever you may think, they’re a progressive rock/metal (because the two can flow back and forth, as they do in this album) band with rotating vocalists who may occasionally drift into post-metal territory.  In studio, they don’t have one standing vocalist as of yet, and some of the tracks on the album are completely instrumental.  The vocalists are impressively high caliber for a band that seems to have come completely out of nowhere.  As seen in that second track once again, Lajon from Sevendust joined them in Mob Mentality.  This is one of those albums that contradicts what I’ve written before about the dreaded .feat portion of song titles these days.  These guests fit right in to each of their respective tracks, and the guests also include Daniel from TesseracT on the title track and Bjorn from Soilwork on Crater.  Those are real bigtime guests that they somehow got to sing with them on this new album, and I don’t know how that happened.  Maybe they know some of the right people, or have a friend of a friend, or know a guy, but any way you squeeze it, it’s very impressive to have vocalists of that level and fame on this album.

Some of these songs could definitely be shortened, and feel like they are radio-length tracks just extended with djent and noodlings.  I could see Mob Mentality cutting down to about five minutes and playing on the radio and being fairly popular, even by the radio standards of today.  I will admit, radio is definitely a dying medium, but how else do kids hear new music these days?  Is it all from youtube, or friends sending them “some song I heard?”  It certainly isn’t from reading reviews like these.

Earthside, as a debuting band, blew me away.  I mean, on the track Entering the Light, not only did they have the Moscow Studio Symphony Orchestra join them again, but they also pulled in a guy named Max ZT, who is a wizard on a little known and way underappreciated hammered dulcimer.  A brief criticism I mentioned above was that they want to set themselves apart from the rest of the pack, and they did so in this album by making sure each track was distinctly different from the next.  The vocal styles were but one way that they made absolutely sure that each song defined itself.  They weren’t trying to tell a story, which can be easily imagined since how many instrumental albums tell stories, and just made great music.

I see a bright future for Earthside, especially as this debut album is so solid.  It’s very well produced and polished, as if they had done this before.  I wonder if they will seek out having a permanent vocalist, or if they will call friends to jump in to sing for them.  It would make for a very strange live show, if they play songs that traditionally have vocals with no vocalist.  Would they just hire a touring vocalist, or would they have a very limited tour and bring those vocalists along or tour with the bands they borrow from?  I doubt that Sevendust and Soilwork would tour together, so the renditions that we hear from this album could be drastically different on stage.  This is significant, since the track they want this album to be centered on, Mob Mentality, would obviously be massively different without Lajon on it.  I have yet to see them live at the writing of this revised review in 2016, but I imagine they have made due so far.

This review has gone on long enough, so I’ll wrap this up by saying how impressed I am with Earthside.  This is one of the best debut albums I’ve heard in a long time.  I give this breakout band an improved 14.5 Ratings Units out of 15, and I can’t wait to hear more from them.  I don’t know how you could expect more from a band that mere months ago you had a) never heard of and 2) released their first album.  Breakthrough album or band of the 2015, this was.  If you made it to the end of this review and managed to listen to all of the music contained within, well done.  I salute you.

 

If you would like to read more of reviews like this great album, visit or follow the page on Facebook, or you can also follow this account on WordPress to keep up with the reviews of this noteworthy music.  Suggestions for future reviews are always welcome, and any feedback is greatly appreciated.  A review should be released at least every two weeks, and this particular review is one in a series of reviews highlighting the best albums of 2015.  Two more albums remain, and as big as this album was, the next two are just a bit bigger.

2015 Top 15 Rewind: #4 – Failure – The Heart is a Monster

failure the heart is a monster

Like the Heart, this album is a monster.  Words cannot effectively express how much I missed this band.  Fantastic Planet, released back in 96, was a big part of my musical growth as a kid.  It’s still hard to believe they were gone so long, but they are back and better than ever.  It’s unusual that bands make a sequel to their own record, and even more rare when the sequel takes 20 years to make.  They did it.  They were able to capture the brilliance of Fantastic Planet and make it better.  They had segues, distortion, and the same power as they once did.  They don’t have much in the room for filler, and it’s smooth and flows very well.  I missed you, Failure, and I’m so happy you’re back in my life.

It’s been 19 short years at the initial writing of this review, now 20 looking back at it, and boy are they are back.  Although they’re now back together, we knew they would be returning in 2014, and that they would be releasing an album.  Amazingly enough, it happens to be a direct sequel to one of my favorite albums of my childhood, Fantastic Planet.  Fantastic Planet was a quintessential space rock/alternative rock album by this criminally underrated band, and I would easily have it on my “ten 90’s albums that every person should listen to once before they die” list.  You may have heard some of their music without knowing it was them, but they have a very distinct sound.  The twangy guitar, the spacey sound, the listless yet powerful vocals…the whole experience.  They never got quite the exposure or commercial acclaim that they deserved, but they made a large impression in their three albums in the 90’s.

This is their sound.  Almost 20 years later, they have practically the same sound which is completely fine by me.  I don’t know if a band like this can “evolve” like others I talk about because where does a band go from here?  It’s a tough argument because the only way I can think of that they can expand to other subjects.  Fantastic Planet was about space, and its sequel, The Heart is a Monster, goes deep inside the human body instead of throughout the galaxy.  The human body is incredibly complicated, and the heart is indeed a monster, so I think the complexity of this album topically and I feel like I was having a Fantastic Voyage while listening to this album.  That has always been my experience with Failure – I feel like I’m going exploring through space and time and whatever else while I listen to them.

In addition to big tracks like Counterfeit Sky, which is now posted above, the segues in the album are a real highlight for me.  They break up the intensity and feel like you’re travelling through passages in the heart and mind to arrive at a new section with a new track or two.  They get it so right that it blows me away.  I can barely remember what I was doing 20 years ago, and they not only remember it all but they can recreate it and add to it.  Imagine writing a story, finishing half of it, and then coming back to it 20 years later to write the other half the same way.  They did learn new things as they’ve been away, and did play around with new techniques and have some new technology at their disposal, but at their core they have the same heart.  It’s a monster.  I feel I can get away with saying that more than once in the review based on the album title.

It doesn’t sound repetitive, and the only criticism of this album is with the track Atom City Queen.  The distorted shrill of the guitar would work for part of a song or for a solo, but for an entire four minute track, it tends grates.  It almost got to the point that I had to skip past it when I was going over this album again and again.  It is a unique sound but upon further listens, I may have to move past it even though I will lose a valuable part of the story.  I won’t go into the story, but suffice it to say love is a complicated messy nightmarish thing, and you can hear it in this album.  I don’t want to keep using the word heart in all these different contexts but it happens to be so appropriate that I can’t not.  The heartbreak is audible and readily apparent, but it doesn’t bring me down like some of the other albums I’ve written about this year.  It takes me on a journey instead.

To sum it all up, “The Heart is a Monster” is a monster.  This album is big, both personally and to the music world.  THIS is a comeback album.  I know The Magic Whip is also a big one this year, but to take 20 years off and come back to blow the doors off is huge.  This may be the year of the comeback, and I’m fine with that.  As long as it’s not the year of the remake, I’m good.   I am having a hard time putting my joy and satisfaction to words because this is like something from my childhood was revived and NOT destroyed (cough ninja turtles cough).  I’ll put it to a scale instead to quantify my feelings for you: this album deserves 14 Ratings Units out of 15.  It staves off perfection with Atom City Queen, but otherwise, the second part of the album starting from Segue 5 is just everything I hoped it would be.  It flows together smoothly, and it just felt right.  It hit all of the memory nodes I had for Failure’s Fantastic Planet and amplified them, and for that I am thankful.

2015 Top 15 Rewind: #5 – Riverside – Love, Fear and the Time Machine

riverside love fear and the time machine

This album is called Love, Fear and the Time Machine, and on first listen, sounded like a delightful combination of Steven Wilson (especially his most recent work that I wrote about, Hand.Cannot.Erase.), Opeth, early Pink Floyd, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer.  Put those all together and you get a great album.  Before going any further, I will add a 2016 update to this review: Founding member and guitarist Piotr Grudzinski passed away on February 21, 2016, sadly and unexpectedly from cardiac arrest.  In his memory, the remaining members of the band announced that they would release a new album.  This album would be dedicated to him and included tracks that he had worked on prior to his passing, and that it would be primarily an ambient and instrumental album.  The album has not yet been released, and there is no slated release date, but there is no rush.  The band should take all the time it needs to process this.  Before the music starts, I have posted an interview he did about this album in 2015.  May he rest in peace.

This album was once put up by the band or record label in its entirety on youtube, and has since been removed.  As it is no longer available, I’ll post their “single” below.  I say single because I don’t know if that’s the word for it in the prog rock sphere, although a huge development has come to progressive rock/metal as of late: there will be a CHART of prog music sales!  This may come about 40 years too late, but like every other bloody kind of music out there, albums will be ranked based on their sales, which is strange but kind of spectacular.  The genre, as compiled by OCC or Billboard or whomever, still needs a little work, as bands like Tame Impala and Sigur Ros are considered progressive in this category.  I guess it’s better than nothing, but it’s still amazing to see.  Yes, I am amazed, because it seemed to random and bizarre to have a chart, but great to see this genre finally appreciated in this manner.  It seems minor, and it probably is, but it’s another feather in the cap of bands releasing albums.  Also, it’s great to see Faith No More and Symphony X on that first list.  You can see the first list here:

http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-34127025

9/21 note: I see that link was broken and sent you through a redirect, so I apologize for that.  I have fixed the link today.  Back to the review.

No, Riverside isn’t on that list yet, so it seems strange to go off on this tangent in this review when it’s not entirely related to this band, but it’s pretty significant for the genre nonetheless.  Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds on the all-time top list is pretty impressive, as I recently discovered this gem last year.

Ok, back to the task at hand: Riverside.  No need for a sleek transition, just a clean break from the previous discussion and on to more of this very complicated band.  This track above may be the only one you’ll get to hear if the full album above gets removed.  What I notice immediately is that in each track, I hear influences from certain bands.  For instance, listen to the track Saturate Me and tell me that you don’t hear Dream Theater in at least the first minute of it.  With Discard Your Fear, there’s a massive amount of The Cure in the track (that intro, oh my god), and it practically screams its presence on the track.  In Under the Pillow, there’s some definite Steven Wilson in there, and in Lost (Why Should I Be Frightened By A Hat?) there’s some serious Opeth mixed in.  Yes, Lost (Why Should I Be Frightened By A Hat?) is the name of the first track.  The final track’s name is Found (The Unexpected Flaw of Searching).  Lost and found, that’s an appropriate description of this album, and I’ll explain why.  This album draws a lot of inspiration from the first Riverside album, Out of Myself, and even sounds like it to an extent.  Granted, Love, Fear and the Time Machine is a much more polished and clean and well-made album, but the general tone comes from Out of Myself.  Over the years, Riverside has evolved their sound from light to heavy to incredibly complicated to smooth and simple, and the sound they lost from Out of Myself is absolutely found again on this album.

What I enjoyed a lot about this album was its subtlety.  It doesn’t have many aggressive tracks, choosing instead to remain calm and composed for most of its length, but it is hardly monotone and each song distinguishes itself from the others.  The subtlety I mentioned is highlighted in how some of these tracks seem very simple, especially compared to to their previous albums of Shrine of New Generation Slaves (SoNGS) and Anno Domini High Definition (ADHD, yes, both are intentional…they have SLS and REM too).  Mariusz Duda, the vocalist, doesn’t use any significant voice altering effects in this album, and instead sings with his voice untainted.  On their last album, I mentioned that the additional effects on his voice were distracting and hit-or-miss, but he discards those this time which proves to be a total success.  He doesn’t need to change his voice at all, and although he tries a few other vocal stylings in this album including a falsetto, they don’t get in the way and never seem to be a problem.  His voice really shines on tracks like Towards the Blue Horizon and Found, where he can let it free (which in itself is a strange concept, letting your voice free, but go with me on this one).

My comparison of this album to other artists is not a takeaway from Love, Fear and the Time Machine.  In fact, it’s actually very high praise, because the musicians and bands that Riverside channels are some of the best around.  They don’t draw from something like 2015 Muse, and instead pull from bands and musicians with established sounds and grow on them with a Riverside flair.  I always like bands drawing from their influences and enhancing them, and this album did just that.  The most significant influence without question has to be Steven Wilson, who I can’t praise enough, and he is a fantastic person to draw inspiration from.  I enjoyed Riverside’s Love, Fear and the Time Machine from the first time I heard Discard Your Fear a month ago, and when I finally heard the entire album, it caught me under its spell.  It isn’t flawless, and of note the track #Addicted (that’s really the track name, I didn’t put the pound sign in by accident) falls a bit flat.  Otherwise, I don’t have much negative to say about this album, so I gladly give it 14 RUs out of 15.

2015 Top 15 Rewind: #6 – Spock’s Beard – The Oblivion Particle

Spocksbeard_theoblivionparticle

Today, I want to spread the gospel of Spock’s Beard.  Like my review for Ghost, you may also recall Spock’s Beard from my 2013 list of greatness.  Their album, Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless sleep, was featured on that list, and a few years later, Spock’s Beard is lighting up my day once again.  While Ghost was progressive focusing more on Metal, Spock’s beard is progressive focusing more on the prog.  They have always used unique melodies and structures to make intriguing music, and this album, The Oblivion Particle, is no different.  It’s clever, inventive, and diverse.  I don’t run into a problem where any song sounds like another, and each track has a life of its own.  You can probably tell already that I really enjoyed this album…you’re right, I did.

I can’t help but enjoy true prog rock.  It speaks to me in a way that most music can’t, but it could be because it’s so complicated, I can keep up with it and understand and appreciate what they’re getting at.  If I can’t, then I can make it up and never know the difference.  Some of you Spock’s Beard purists reading this may have given up on the band after Neal Morse left, but I think that Ted as the frontman has done a great job filling the void.  Sure, it’s different, but unless you’re AC/DC getting Brian Johnson after Bon Scott died (but don’t get me started on Axl Rose), or the dude that took over Journey’s vocals that sounds just like Steve Perry, you’re going to have a different sound with a new vocalist.  Despite the change in vocals, the heart and soul of Spock’s Beard hasn’t gone anywhere.  You can hear the essence of the band with this track, Minion, which is posted below.  They have one foot in classic rock and the other in prog rock, and it sounds wonderful.

I can hear influences of other bands in the tracks, like Tides of Time has some Dream Theater floating around in there, and Minion has Yes flowing through its veins (or whatever songs have for circulatory systems).  It takes a good musician to use someone else’s sound, but it takes a great musician to use that sound and transform it into their own.  I could keep pointing out that X song sounds like this or Y chorus reminds me of that, but Spock’s Beard is its own band capable of taking what it’s made so far as well as the music around it, and evolving it into something great.  That may sound confusing, but what I mean is that they clearly are big fans of the progressive rock genre of music because they are paying attention to what other bands are doing.  Listen to A Better Way to Fly.  It’s a deep and complex nine minute track that starts slow and builds into something massive, and has the kind of power that can match other big bands of the genre with their long songs.  It’s one of those “we can make multiple long songs on an album and sound great too, you know” situations.  There are layers upon layers in the music, and that makes it even more impressive when you can get to the bottom of the music.

That being said, this is definitely a multi-listen album.  The first time, I didn’t get the whole experience.  It’s the kind of album you need to sit and listen to without doing anything else, and just pay attention to the music and the pictures the band is trying to paint.  Everything on this album has been done for a reason, and there are no wasted sounds anywhere on it.  It’s smart music, plain and simple.  That isn’t to say that if you are not a fan (ugh, double negative) of this music, you are not intelligent.  Not at all.  You can like whatever you want, except for Coldplay, and I won’t judge you for it.  There’s no excuse for enjoying Coldplay, though.  That’s where I draw the line.

You can find the rest of the album elsewhere, I have given you three tracks officially released by the band, I have faith in you.  It’s worth a listen, mostly because of how far down the rabbit hole they can go.  I am grateful that I have a decent stereo system with multiple speakers arranged around me (that’s what we in the industry call Surround Sound) so I can hear the keyboards on my left, the percussion in front of me, and the guitars on the right.  I can also hear them shift back and forth, and it lets me imagine how much fun it was to record and mix this album.  When I listen to this album, it makes me smile.  The song that made me the most glad was The Center Line, which started with a beautiful piano intro that obviously turned it something grand.  You may have seen a pattern here, but that is progressive rock.  Start with something simple, and explode it into something engrossing and beautiful.  Yeah, go ahead, make the flower comparison, I don’t mind.

You won’t regret listening to The Oblivion Particle.  It’s a beast of an album that isn’t bookended with strong songs at the beginning and end with nothing in the middle.  It’s consistent and solid, and clocks in at just over an hour so it’s an excellent journey you can take.  The shortest track is just under five minutes, so you should know what you’re getting yourself into.  No three minute little tracks or short interludes, they’re all contained in tracks.  You could probably break To Be Free Again up into different sections, but I prefer it all together because it tells quite a story.  I have to admit, I had a little bias coming into this album, because I had heard a track or two a month before the album’s release and knew that The Oblivion Particle would be really something special.  I was right.  When you do listen to this album, pay attention to Bennett Built a Time Machine (which was sung by drummer Jimmy Keegan), The Center Line, and Get Out While You Can.  Great stuff all around.  I proudly give this album 14 Ratings Units out of 15, and the only thing that I found that took away from the album is that some of the choruses grew repetitive and weren’t always needed.  Don’t be alarmed if the ratings for particular albums are lower than the ones higher up on the “Top Albums of 2015” list, it’s all relative and subjective.  Speaking of relative and subjective, this is prog rock, we don’t need traditional or “objectively good” song structures here.  Oh yeah, one last note – watch out for the violin in Disappear, it comes out of nowhere, and boy is it a welcome addition to the music.

2015 Top 15 Rewind: #7 – Symphony X – Underworld

SymphonyX Underworld

I’ve been waiting for this album for years now, and I’d like to welcome back Symphony X to the top of the prog metal ladder.  We missed you.  The members of Symphony X have been very busy since their last album, making solo albums, working with different bands, and melting faces.  Plenty of faces were melted during the making of this album, as well.  In fact, listening to this album again, I needed a cold drink to maintain the balance of…ah whatever, you get it.  This album is called Underworld, and it packs a wallop.  In its basest form, you can call this metal.  It’s not your daddy’s metal, it’s more like your granddaddy’s metal, and here’s why.  Symphony X, like several other major prog metal bands, perform music based on classical music and use symphonies to add to the ambiance that is their music.  It’s extravagant, it’s over the top, and it’s brilliant.  Sometimes, it can get cheesy, because a chorus of angels backing up the lead singer can sound strange, but Symphony X has all of the power and none of the cheese.  Ok, fine, there’s a little cheese, but it’s spicy…it’s habanero jack.

This is their first single off the album, called Nevermore, and it hits hard and fast and doesn’t let up until it’s all over.  When some of you think metal, you think screaming and cookie monsters and rage and mosh pits with kids flipping around, but this is not that metal.  I’ve been to several Symphony X shows, and the only mosh pits formed were made by a bunch of kids and the rest of the fans looked on wondering what the hell those kids were doing.  This is complicated stuff with heavy thematic elements and deep melodies that tell a story.  This album isn’t a full-on concept album like some of their earlier works, including The Odyssey and The Divine Wings of Tragedy, but there’s a common core that holds this album together.  Michael Romeo, the lead guitarist and songwriter, is a brilliant lyricist, and he and Michael Lepond, the bassist, put together some deep tracks basically about (literally) going to hell and back to find something or someone.  At this point, I guess I should mention that there are three Michaels in the band: Romeo the guitarist, Lepond the bassist, and Pinnella the keyboardist.  The lineup of the band has remained the same since 2000, which means that they have developed incredible chemistry after being together as a unit for 15 years.  It’s amazing that I’ve been a fan for that long.

Speaking of long times, it has been four long years since their last album, Iconoclast.  Over that time, for example, Sir Russell Allen (yeah, Sir) has made three albums with two different bands in Adrenaline Mob and Allen/Lande, and been a guest on seven other albums playing alongside other major prog metal names like Iced Earth and Timo Tolkki.  Are you kidding me?  That’s so busy, and that doesn’t count having written and recorded this album in 14 and 15, plus all the tours he’s done with Adrenaline Mob and Symphony X during that time.  That’s just the vocalist, by the way.  The whole band is that talented and active, and that’s what makes me so glad that Symphony X “reunited” so to speak to release this new album.  I look forward to catching it on tour when I get the chance.

This next track is Without You, which is quite different from Nevermore.  It’s a ballad.  Yes, it’s a ballad.  No, there’s nothing wrong with ballads.  Ballads are wonderful, knock it off.  You have to have something to break up the energy of the album, because there’s no denying that it’s fast and furious through most of it.  It’s heavier than some of their earlier work, and is a headbanger’s delight.  The interesting thing about the creation of this album is that Michael Romeo himself admitted that concept albums aren’t as big of a thing as they used to be, but as he is so attached to them, he wanted to make an album that still consisted of individual songs but had something link them together.  At parts, it’s aggressive and in-your-face, but then it pulls back and gets emotional.  I look to the longest track on the album for perfect evidence of that, with To Hell and Back.  Yeah, looks like I wasn’t crazy when I said that this album was about going to hell and back for someone or something.  Anyways, the heaviness and aggression hold on long enough throughout the track and let up  every so often, and the track flows very well and you don’t even realize that almost ten minutes has passed since you turned the track on.

Symphony X, as I mentioned, went heavier with this album, but they have a few tracks that go back to their core as a band.  First of all, the album started off with an overture, appropriately titled Overture.  Any album that has an actual overture is a good album by my standards.  The overture flows straight into Nevermore, which is posted above.  Further down in the album, a few tracks stand out as having some very significant influencing sounds about them.  For example, Run With the Devil sounds like the beautiful merger of Dream Theater and Symphony X.  Legend, their final track, does as well to an extent, but if I were to send you one track that represents everything that Symphony X, it would unquestionably be Legend.  It contains everything that Symphony X is and ever has been, but not necessarily everything that will be.  They took some chances in this album, with actual ballads in this album instead of a power ballad like they had used before, but they nailed it in every sense of the term.

This album is incredibly solid from start to finish.  I can’t sing enough praises about Underworld.  Despite how much I love this album, my mind goes back to something a teacher told me many years ago.  This teacher never gave anyone a 100%, because there’s always room for improvement even if the execution is flawless.  I don’t know why it stuck with it, but maybe it was because I was always chasing that perfect score in his classes, and a 98% wasn’t good enough for me.  That being said, I give Underworld 14.5 Ratings Units out of 15.  I don’t know if I can give a 15 to any band or musician in good faith, because where do I go when someone else comes out with something that is better?  Steven Wilson came out with Grace for Drowning, a 5 star album by all regards, but when he came out with his next and superior album, how can you make the ranking matter?  A 5 star plus?  I’m not entire sure, but this album is practically flawless.  Well done, Symphony X.