Tuesday, 22 January 2013

2012: The Year in Albums (Part Two)

Oh, I've really done a number on myself now, haven't I? Even worse than that time I started a new blog about travel, wrote a cracking first post, promised tales of mystery and intrigue in India for the next installment, and then... yeah.

Anyway, I do believe last week I promised a Part Two of my 2012 album round-up, in which I'd rate and review all my favourite prog albums of the year. The problem with this is...

- There are only a limited number of people who would be caught dead listening to a prog album.
- There are only a limited number of prog albums released every year
- There are only a limited number of prog albums released every year which aren't totally wretched.
- Most of the people who would be caught dead listening to prog buy all the prog albums which aren't totally wretched.
- You could probably write my top 10 list yourself based on all of the above.

So I'm not convinced I've got anything new or different to say. Like most prog bands - HA!

Ahem. Anyway, here's my list of prog albums with a few words about each, where useful. And if you scroll down past all the pictures of wizards, you will find some other albums I enjoyed this year (live albums, old albums, boybands...). And some I didn't.

9. Ian Anderson - Thick as a Brick 2

Confession #1: I'd never heard TAAB before I bought this album, I just picked it up because it has a Steven Wilson 5.1 mix on the DVD.

Confession #2: Now I've heard TAAB, I actually think I like this belated sequel better. It's a bit more accessible to the newbie, and I appreciate that that's on a par with saying you prefer 'Tubular Bells II' to the original, but so be it. Plus this one's got a "well clever" cover - you see, these days newspapers are online - get it?

Confession #3 - Although I'm impressed by the fact that 'Shunt and Shuffle' uses the phrase 'Fray Bentos Pies' in its chorus, I can't help but wish Ian hadn't ripped off the main riff from the theme song to  'Super Duper Sumos'.

Key Track: Banker Bets, Banker Wins

8. Stick Men - Deep

Oooh, I don't know if this should be here, since mere mortals aren't going to get to hear this album until later in 2013. I'm just special, you see, and got a pre-release set of MP3's for being part of the Kickstarter campaign to get this album made. Kneel before my Prog philanthropy.

Anyway, I saw Stick Men live earlier this year and explained then why they are pretty much the continuation of the 2000's era King Crimson, since old Bobby is too busy suing people, retiring from music, making an album with Theo Travis and not being invited to play on the new Bowie album.

This album is easily the best they've made so far, and is an absolute must for any Crimson fan, featuring as it does Tony Levin's driving and funky bass stick, as well as his growly vocals on 'Crack in the Sky'. Pat Mastelotto pounds the drums and anything else he can get his hands on, and Markus Reuter makes all kinds of noises with his touch guitar and plenty else besides. There are even more electronic moments than previously- utter bliss for the hipster secret Prog fan.

Key Track: Nude Ascending Staircase (this time I will make no apologies for picking track 1 because it contains everything I love about this album.)

7. Marillion - Sounds That Can't Be Made

Post-Marbles Marillion albums get a bit of a rough-ride in my house - Marbles was the first new album they released after I properly got into them, and coincidentally also managed to be the finest album they'd ever made (certainly in the 'H era'.) Hence everything else was going to have quite something to live up to in my eyes - and sure enough, 'Somewhere Else' really didn't do it for me, and although apparently I have played 'Happiness is the Road' 10 times right through, according to iTunes, I could not hum you a single note from it right now. Well, I could, here's "G" for you. (I'm assuming they used G somewhere.)

Happily, 'Hounds that Can't be Spayed', as I like to call it, is the best album they've made since 'Marbles', although in consistency it's still some distance short of that masterwork. Hence Track 1, 'Gaza', is by far one of the best things they've created in 10 years, despite, or perhaps because of the controversial subject matter, and 'Power' has a hook to die for. Even the title track makes up for a rather plodding start by building to a suitably grandiose ending with a nice Rothery guitar solo, and Mark Kelly adds some mellotron flute-y goodness to 'Pour My Love'.

However, then there's 'Montreal', which whilst being a nice love letter to the city and its people and all, seems to be someone's blog account of their holiday set to music. 

So I Skyped home and said "It's me. How are you babe? 
I can't be with you but I can see you on the screen..."

"Going down to breakfast ..What time is it now there? 
I'll go shopping for shoes ..or whatever ensues..."

"Got to my room and found there's no tea
I said to the band, you just can't get a decent cuppa here..."

I made one of those up, but I bet if you haven't heard the song you can't tell which.

Key Track: Gaza

6. Anathema- Weather Systems

You know, I'd ignored Anathema for ages, for some reason. I checked out some old stuff when they supported Porcupine Tree in '07, and wasn't all that fussed. Probably my default Home Counties mistrust of anything Scouse. (Beatles excepted, naturally.) Or maybe it was the fact that they were basically a different band with the same name- a sort of depressing metal band without the metal sounds.

But since people have been going on about them for the last couple of years, I thought I'd give them another try - and I'm rather glad I did.

Are Anathema Prog Rock? Well, no, not really. I'm not even sure they shouldn't have been in Part 1 of this list. Not for them the keyboard solo or the cape, theirs is a more wistful, melancholic take on intelligent music, with gradually building layers of indie guitars, stumbling drum patterns, wonderful male/female vocal harmonies, and spine chilling melodies like "Untouchable", pts 1&2.

And in case we were already missing Pure Reason Revolution (which I certainly am), they even thoughtfully wrote a PRR song for us and included it in the shape of part 1 of "The Storm Before the Calm".

Key Tracks: Untouchable, part 2 / The Storm Before The Calm

5. Kompendium- Beneath the Waves

There was a competition going around on Facebook before this album, the brainchild of Magenta main man Rob Reed, was released- encouraging you to send in a picture of yourself having your first listen. This was part of the whole pre-release campaign which aimed to take you back to the time where we sat down and listened to albums in full whilst poring over gatefold sleeves. I don't know what you could win, a pipe and slippers to wear whilst enjoying the album, presumably.

Anyway, it's a good job I didn't send in a photo of myself having my first listen to this album because (quite apart from the fact that I always look like the Thumb Man when taking my own photo), my face was probably all over the place. "Narration, ok, that's quite prog...Hmmm, now this sounds like Enya, Oh, yep, that could be a Magenta song... EWWWW, Irish Pipes... Oh, that sounds like something from ChimpanA... OPERA SINGING! OH SWEET JESUS..."

Still, once you get past some of the sounds you might not normally listen to, there's a really good album here - sort of like a cross between Mike Oldfield, Riverdance and Phantom of the Opera. Which is not necessarily a bad thing by any means. Prog legends such as Steve Hackett, John Mitchell, Gavin Harrison, Jakko Jakszyk and Chris Fry add to the flavour of Rob Reed's slightly more Celtic-theatrical take on his usual retro-prog Magenta recipe, and ChimpanA's Steve Balsamo is soulful as ever on vocals. Nice.

I should also say that, although I took the piss earlier out of the whole "wasn't everything better in the 70's" thing - this whole package oozes class, from the oversized gatefold CD packaging with lyrics inside, to the DVD disc containing the whole album in genuinely audiophile Advanced Resolution 5.1 Surround sound, which is as surefire a way as I know of checking that your system sounds good.

Key Tracks:  The Storm (one for Magenta fans)  /  Beneath the Waves (one for ChimpanA fans - you may wish to steer clear of the cheesy video, though...) / Lilly (one for fans of Steve Hackett playing acoustic guitar whilst wistful female vocals mourn lost love before turning into a Mike Oldfield track)

4. Rush - Clockwork Angels

Oh dear, I've done it now - I'm expecting a strongly worded text message any day now for not putting this at number 1. Truth be told, it's only in the last 18 months that I've become a fan of Rush at all, after seeing them live in 2011, and finally starting to 'get it' and stop paying attention to the fact that Geddy Lee frequently yelps like a dog when you step on its tail.

Anyway, this being the first new Rush album since I 'discovered' them, I was pretty excited, and it's fair to say I wasn't disappointed at all - in fact I've now played it more than any other Rush album and it's therefore my favourite Rush album other than 'Moving Pictures'. (Here comes another text...)

What does it sound like? Well, it sounds like Rush, obviously. Duhhh. And most importantly, there's not a duff track on it - which I certainly can't say for any other Rush album in the last 20 years. (Oh, is that my phone again?)

Key Tracks: Caravan / The Wreckers

3. Flying Colors - Flying Colors

Oh, Hi, Neal Morse. What's that -  you've joined a supergroup, and you're making an album? Gee, that is a shocker. It's got Mike Portnoy on drums? You don't say... It's an album full of prog epics, designed to take us back to the old days of the 70's when everything was wonderful, with lyrics composed entirely of thinly veiled religious claptrap?

What? It isn't? Oh alright then, maybe I'll check it out...

I think if you'd told me back in January that my number 3 album of the year would be a Neal Morse supergroup project, I would have looked at you like a cat trying to comprehend Lego. Don't get me wrong, I've really liked pretty much everything that Neal's been involved in over the years and especially Transatlantic, but I couldn't help but feel last year that it was time to change the record a little.

And apparently so did he - right from the off, this album sets its stall out pretty clearly. Firstly- it's not really a prog album, or if it is it's more of a prog-pop album like It Bites or Kino. Secondly, Neal doesn't actually sing all that much and certainly not about Jesus. Neal is basically the band's keyboard player (something which is even more apparent when you see them live, which I heartily recommend) and does backing vocals and the odd spot of lead alongside new boy Casey McPherson and legends Dave LaRue from Dixie Dregs and his bandmate Steve Morse (also in Deep Purple since 1994.)

Along the way, they have a couple of songs which sound a bit like Muse in that metal-baroque-riffery kind of way (see 'Shoulda Woulda Coulda'), and some pretty nice power ballads like 'Everything Changes'. And then, finally, at the end, there's a 12-minute epic ('Infinite Fire') which is by far the Morse (N)-iest thing on the album. And do you know what, for being alongside so much other good, straightforward rock music, it's all the more effective when it finally comes.

Key Tracks: Blue Ocean / Shoulda Woulda Coulda / Infinite Fire

2. It Bites - Map of the Past

It's another concept album - huzzah! What's that? What's it about? No idea. We established last week that I'm rubbish at this kind of thing. There's something about a man in a wartime photograph, although to be fair that's nothing you can't tell from the cover. Then there's a wallflower and some clocks, and a meadow and a stream... and then some cartoons, and a boy who draws his Daddy and cruelly scribbles out his eyes (ouch.) Actually, are we sure it's a concept album? I might be making it up, like the time I was convinced there was a story in 'The Incident' by Porcupine Tree and spent hours working it out, only for me to explain it to Karin and have her look at me as if she thought I might need taking into care.

Anyway, none of that is important right now. Or indeed, at all. This album is absolutely cracking - quite possibly the best It Bites have ever served up. No longer do they sound like they're trying to justify the use of the band name (no dumbree-umbree-yay-yo this time around), instead Messrs Mitchell and Beck have concentrated on giving us some of the best tunes they've ever concocted, from the rocking 'Wallflower' and the bouncy title track, to the genuinely haunting 'The Last Escape'. And in the middle, there's a bona fide radio hit in the shape of 'Cartoon Graveyard', and the mostly overtly proggy thing they've done for years, in 7/8 and everything ('Meadow and the Stream').

Key Tracks: The Big Machine / Meadow and the Stream / The Last Escape

Any other year, this would have been a shoo-in for number one... except...

1. Big Big Train- English Electric, Part 1

Okay, hands up who saw that one coming. Yeah, all of you. There's one album this year which has got everyone excited about being a Prog fan again, and it's this one.

*BORING STORY ALERT* I first heard Big Big Train back in the early 2000's, when I was something of a bigshot in the Genesis bootleg trading community, and naturally thus fending off the ladies left, right and centre.

I traded a couple of times with a chap called Greg, who eventually ran out of things I wanted and offered to send me a couple of albums from his band instead. Those albums were, I think, Bard and English Boy Wonders- and I listened to and liked them at the time but didn't really get heavily into them. I was therefore watching proudly from the sidelines as my boy Spawton went from strength to strength and started gaining critical acclaim from the Prog elite for albums such as 'The Difference Machine' and 'The Underfall Yard', at which point I jumped back on the bandwagon to discover that he'd absolutely nailed it.

Yes, in recent years, BBT has found both a stable line-up including, critically, ex-XTC man Dave Gregory, should-have-been Genesis vocalist David Longdon and drumming legend Nick D'Virgilio - together with a marvellous sound which is all their own, despite the obvious nods to days gone by. My friend Tim completely hit the nail on the head with his summation here, where he correctly worked out that BBT had managed to capture the spirit of early Genesis (or 'visit the giftshop' as he so eloquently put it), without actually sounding like Genesis.

Indeed, if there's anything more English than this album (other than 'Selling England by the Pound'), I'll eat my bowler hat. From the cover art suggesting decaying industry, to stories of English heroes, rogues and engineers and travels through West Country landscapes, English Electric takes us on a proper journey around our fair land and its characters. It also skilfully manages to avoid using every prog cliche in the book - something helped in large part by the influence from Dave Gregory's other projects and Nick D'Virgilio's innovative drumming which puts one in mind of Phil Collins only in innovative approach rather than sound.

And what's my most-played song of all in 2012? Was it a massive prog behemoth, or some kind of pounding electro dancefloor smash? No, it's a whimsical little banjo-driven tale of hedgerows, honeysuckles and yellowhammers called 'Uncle Jack', in which the band manage to encapsulate everything that's so wonderful about our green and pleasant land without making you want to join UKIP.

Key Tracks: Uncle Jack / Summoned By Bells / Hedgerow

Oh hang on, what's this...?

Echolyn - Echolyn

I know a few people will have been shaking their heads when I appeared to have missed this out, saying "whaaaaa?" or something more erudite - but the truth is this just came to my attention too late in the year for me to get to know it properly. And I'd hate to pass proper judgement on a couple of plays, but I can tell already that there are going to be many more in 2013. And the cover looks a bit like 'Misunderstanding'.

Live Albums of the Year

Say, what? People are still making live albums? Well, yes, it appears that they are... or one man is, at least - with no fewer than 4 live albums from the Steven Wilson stable of artists. 'Catalog / Preserve / Amass' served as a little taster for the main course which was...

Steven Wilson - Get All You Deserve

...which wins Live Album of the Year purely by virtue of being the only one which was a full concert which you didn't have to buy a reissue of something you already owned to get hold of. And the Blu-ray portion of the release, showing off the cool visuals I saw live back in November last year didn't hurt, either.

Other notable SW-related live albums came from No-Man, whose superlative 'Love and Endings' album was taken from another concert I attended (get me), and Porcupine Tree, whose 'Octane Twisted' live album was nice but not earth-shattering.

If your name was not Steven Wilson, it seemed that it was ok to release live shows as long as you packaged them up with a reissued studio album. Peter Gabriel served us up an excellent live concert from Athens in 1987 along with the crazy box set version of 'So', and Mike Oldfield finally opened up the vaults to bring us two wonderful vintage shows from the 70's and 80's on his reissues of 'Platinum' and 'QE2'.

New-Old albums of the Year

Here's part 2 of my 6-word review series of old albums I discovered in 2012 (snappy title, I know.)

Kate Bush - Live at Hammersmith Odeon (1981/1994)

Bonkers chanteuse's only live tour. Wowooowowoowow...

Richard Wright - Broken China (1996)

The best album Floyd never made.

Kevin Gilbert - The Shaming of the True (2000)

Tortured genius' bitter concept masterpiece. Shame.

Tears For Fears - Raoul & The Kings of Spain (1994)

80s Popsters turn serious, exit charts.

Talk Talk - The Colour of Spring (1986)

Band confuses public. Gains permanent fanbase.

Tin Spirits - Wired to Earth (2011)

Dave Gregory's other band. More chipper.

Anyway, clearly I can't have enjoyed everything that came my way this year, can I? I do have some critical faculties. Here I present for you...

The Gigging Forever "Nahhhh" awards 2012

Most pointless album, 2012:

Steve Hackett - Genesis Revisited II

Beautiful cover, isn't it?

My relationship with this album went a little along these lines:

Play 1: Ahhh, cracking song. Ooh, haven't heard that one for ages. Oh, he changed that guitar solo a bit, that's interesting. And the different vocalists are a cool idea. It's like everything sounds fresh and new - but with all the same sounds I already love - brilliant!

Plays 2-3: Hmm, ok, some of these vocals are a bit ropey. Why is that man shouting 'Blood on the Rooftops'? And who let Nad Sylvan anywhere near the studio, and why didn't they give him the lyrics to read instead of letting him make up his own?

Plays 4-5: Yeah, that guitar solo's not as good as the original. Skip. Skip again. 'The Lamia' is pretty nice. And so's 'Entangled'. Where are my Genesis CDs? Ahh, that's better.

Plays 6+: N/A

'Much Ado About Nothing' Award, 2012:

Storm Corrosion - Storm Corrosion

Well, if ever an album was musical Marmite, I guess this is it. It's not that I expected it to sound like Opeth or Porcupine Tree, I just expected it to sound like something. This is just a whole load of 'blah'. I don't think I've ever made it to the end without giving up.

Still, 'Drag Ropes', with the video, was actually pretty cool. Perhaps there's a really strong EP here, struggling to get out.


  1. Fripp was invited to play on Bowie's album, but turned it down, which just goes to show his historic and staggering level of self-importance

  2. Also, you might want to change the text colour on the No Man page... but only because at the moment your readers can't read about me.

  3. Duly noted, sir - thank you! Lots of the old posts need a tweak since the makeover.

  4. Fixed No-Man review, thanks - please let me know people if you spot any more!