Sunday, 19 January 2014

2013: The Year in Prog Albums - iii) As Sure as Eggs Is Numbers 4-1

(Continued from Part One and Part Two)

Ok, it's time to get down to business with my favourite 4 "prog" albums of 2013.

But before we do...

There's one album that hasn't quite made the cut- here's what and why and where.

Regal Worm: Use and Ornament

My crikey, this is mental. A mix of Canterbury-esque sounds, seriously obscure Swedish prog and, well, just noise and bonkers stuff, Regal Worm churned out its muddy little cast right at the end of the year and is frankly still in the processing queue whilst I decide whether it's the best thing in the world or utterly terrifying. Why not go and make up your own mind, with some free samples on Bandcamp, or Spotify? There's everything from 'Apple Witch', which is almost a song, to '6.17pm - The Aunt Turns into an Ant', which is 26 minutes to horrify every Genesis fan in the land expecting another 'Supper's Ready' rip-off. One thing's for sure - you may never be the same again.

Current favourite track: Apple Witch

4. Steven Wilson: The Raven That Refused to Sing

Ok, here we go… “BURN THE HERETIC! How can he possibly claim that any of the remaining three albums are better than this? What does he know, he likes the Pet Shop Boys..”

Actually, I’m not claiming that anything is better than anything – I believe I carefully covered my arse with a flameproof tarpaulin on that one right back at the start. There’s no denying that this is the most technically accomplished album of the year, with musicianship beyond reproach, extremely complex and challenging material which always comes off perfectly, and audiophile recording standards (no great surprise since Alan Parsons produced it.)

So, why isn't this higher up? Well, it's mostly because, although there's a very impressive technical display of Crimson/jazzy prog-fusion that drives along big numbers 'Luminol' and 'Holy Drinker', they don't bring joy to my heart or, to be honest, make any kind of emotional impact at all. In fact, the main enjoyment I get from ‘Luminol’ is singing “Yeeees, Yeeeees” along to various sections in reverence to its ‘Drama’-worship.

But wait - in amongst all the jazz-prog wankery there's an extremely moving core - Drive Home is simply the most gorgeous tune Wilson's ever committed to ones and zeros, and that guitar solo is either nails on a chalkboard or a lovely shoulder massage from a lady in a Bangalore hotel spa, depending on your point of view. (Just as a really non-specific example of something good, you understand.)

Title track 'The Raven That Refused to Sing' is an absolute highlight of his career; grand, majestic and touching - and don't expect to stand near me at a gig during this song without getting cried on. And then there’s 'The Watchmaker', which is easily the best homage to Genesis' "Trespass" album that anyone's ever written -  a fine thing in my book.

Key Tracks: Drive Home / The Watchmaker / The Raven That Refused to Sing

3. Moon Safari: Himlabacken Vol. 1

If ‘The Raven’ can be criticised for a lack of joy, I could almost believe that Moon Safari created this album as the antidote- in fact Moon Safari are in many ways the anti-Steven Wilson, with their cheery Beach Boys and Queen-esque vocal harmonies, major-key hard-rocking instrumental freakouts, and red stage attire (ok, that’s just one of them.)

On closer inspection, though, something is rotten in the state of Skellefteå, as underneath those tunes lies a dark heart of melancholy, exemplified by ‘Too Young To Say Goodbye’, whose music alone catches your breath, making you laugh out loud at how wonderful the world is, whilst having you jauntily singing “You don’t have a heart but you could easily break mine…

In fact, they even poke fun at their perhaps undeserved sickly-sweet reputation on ‘Sugar Band’:

“Come to Candyland, meet the Sugar Band, sweet and saccharine are we / Ride our unicorns, blow our summer horns, in our cotton candy dreams…”

Having said that, ‘Mega Moon’ seems to be a song about stealing the moon to give to a loved one, and ‘My Little Man’ is most definitely a funny little song about Pontus Åkesson’s son, so perhaps the “too cheerful” brigade have a point. Still, Moon Safari have been my discovery of the year since their Peel gig in the summer – if we were awarding album of the year based on how much I enjoyed someone’s live show, this would walk it. As it stands, it’s an extremely fine album and has single-handedly reminded me why I love traditional Progressive Rock so much, although I would be far more into it as a genre if everyone could write music as joyous and downright life-affirming as the hard-drinking Swedes from the land where the sun never rises. (except for when it does, and doesn’t go down again. Until winter. Ahh, you know what I mean.)

Key Tracks: Too Young to Say Goodbye / Mega Moon / Sugar Band

2. Sand : Sand

Earlier this year, I came across a band called North Atlantic Oscillation, who I subsequently found to be one of the most exciting new acts around at the moment – echoey vocals, distorted guitars, dance sensibilities but with a rock core. Unfortunately they didn’t release an album this year so I thought this list was destined to be NAO-less, until the band’s Sam Healy thoughtfully slipped out this side project under the name of SAND in the dying months of 2013.

The longer it takes me to write this list, the more I end up listening to all the entries and the more their ranking changes – and nowhere is this more apparent than here, with this quite unassuming little album having started out somewhere around the number 8 or 9 position, and gradually worming its way up to here – the second best prog album of 2013. Actually, let’s be honest, this isn’t a prog album at all, is it? It’s on Kscope and that’s the only prog thing about it. It’s more what I’d call a ‘mood album’ – at first it’s hard to pinpoint specific songs or moments that are drawing you in, but over the course of the album, it locks you into a particular mood which makes you rather pleased with the state of the universe and keeps you coming back for more. Like a drug, but with nice side effects like being pleasant to people and wanting to hug everyone.

In truth, it’s not that far removed from North Atlantic Oscillation, albeit with much less guitar – it’s kind of like NAO crossed with M83, minus the beats. Which is alright by me. The first couple of tracks are bombastic and exhilarating in a somehow quite low-key way, and track 3, ' Destroyer' seems slightly less exciting on first glimpse but gradually reveals itself to be a slow burning epic as the album gets more plays – a simple ballad building up to a swirling fairgroundish ending. Elsewhere, ‘Astray’ moves from a sombre, quiet start with gentle throbbing piano underpinned by cello, to an explosive, joyous middle section with frenetic beats, before an ambient spacey section with beeps and bloops, which subsequently bludgeons you over the head with fragmented, unexpected drum and guitar stabs – and all of this within 5 minutes. Plus, 'On a Spent Sea' is a pretty good instrumental cover version of ‘No Surprises’.

If most of the albums in this list are fine examples of artists who are still making ‘Prog Rock’, then this (along with Shineback) is probably my favourite example of where real progressive music is heading – and I’m most definitely along for the ride. As my friend Tim is fond of asking, where would we be without Sand, indeed?

Key Tracks: Life's Too Easy/ Destroyer / Astray/ A Pill to Keep the Plane from Crashing

1. Big Big Train: English Electric: Full Power

Oooooooh, this is kind of a cheat, isn’t it? They’ve pulled a sly one here. Yes, readers of last year’s list will know how I felt about ‘English Electric, Part 1’, so you’ll probably imagine the anticipation round my way when Greg’s next package landed on my doorstep.

And you’ll also probably understand that my expectations were impossible to fulfill, and that whilst ‘English Electric, Part 2’ is a fine, fine album, it was perhaps less immediate by itself than EE1, having for whatever reason the slight feel of an add-on or bonus disc - which would probably have left it languishing around my bottom end. I mean, the bottom end of my list.

And I can only imagine that crisis talks were held at Big Big Towers about what they were going to do about this sorry state of affairs, although… although… did they know what they were doing all along? Yes, there’s always been an intention to release Parts 1&2 as a glorious whole, with reorganized tracks and cherry sprinkles and bluebirds singing over the white cliffs of Winchester- but how much difference would that make? It’s still largely the same collection of songs, isn’t it?

But they’ve only gone and bloody done it. Yes, if ever there was a case for continuing to listen to full albums, and album sequencing not being as much of a lost art as winding up slack cassette tapes with an HB pencil, this is it.

The songs from EE1 are the stuff of legend, so no more need be said about them here, save for the fact that playing musical chairs with them thankfully hasn’t dimmed their impact. And perhaps the most exciting thing about this lovingly manufactured breezeblock of a double-CD is Disc 1, Track 1- ‘Make Some Noise’, subject of BBT’s first promo video and also of the first mini-backlash from bellends who say things like “not enough going on in the music for me…”. There are notes, there are drum beats, and there are words – what more do you want? A joyous celebration of what it means to be in a band and to want to entertain people, it’s the perfect mission statement for the next 2 hours of unremittingly top-quality music.

In fact, I completely failed to identify this last year, but David Longdon (whose song this is, along with many of the other favourites of mine here) has to be by far the most important addition to BBT in recent years, not only in terms of finally giving the band a vocalist that doesn’t make me want to gouge my ears out with a rusty spoon, but especially by providing a more traditionally song-based foil for the full-on prog that Greg does so well. In fact this balance is exactly what makes EE:FP so successful – sort of like when you eat a whole bag of Cadbury’s Buttons and feel a bit sick, so you have to eat some Monster Munch to soak them up. Yes, exactly like that.

Hence, for every ‘Seen Better Days’, with its 7/8 clattering piano patterns and massed choral vocals (a great big melting fistful of Buttons), there’s a ‘Leopards’, which quite apart from being basically this year’s ‘Uncle Jack’ only with fewer yellowhammers and more dangerous felines, is a motorway-services sized bag of Monster Munch. And then there’s ‘The Lovers’, which is is all beautiful flute passages and threatens to out-Trespass ‘The Watchmaker’ before adding some Gabriel-esque percussion into the mix and then heading off into a fusion instrumental workout, finally ending up with some triumphant mellotron choir, proving that even the worst prog clichés can still be effective when used sparingly. (Monster Munch. With a confusing hint of Buttons.)

Every new song of this year’s batch sits comfortably amongst its older siblings, but ‘East Coast Racer’ was the immediate standout of ‘EE2’, with its absolutely spine-chilling, glacial piano opening from Danny Manners (who’s much more prominent in general this year), before the eponymous locomotive takes flight with chugging strings and triumphant brass pushing her off down the mainline, and Messrs D’Virgilio, Spawton, Manners, Poole and Gregory stoking the rhythmic fires.  And then there’s ‘The Permanent Way’ which proves that all the best albums need to have a reprise of the main themes at the end (‘Duke’, ‘Band on the Run’, ‘Jazz’, okay maybe not Jazz…)

In summary, English Electric: Full Power is quite probably the most important Progressive Rock album of the 21st century. Reverential of the past when necessary, innovative when desired, and reclaiming a place in modern music for brass bands and banjos, it’s the perfect argument for filling a double CD to bursting point. I wouldn’t want to give up a second.

I will have to take your first answer next time though, chaps.

Key tracks (that aren't recycled from last year, tut tut): East Coast Racer / Leopards / The Lovers / Seen Better Days / Make Some Noise

Spotify User? Why not play all my top tracks except the ones which aren't on Spotify (and a few bonus ones which didn't quite make the cut...)

Next time: Some albums that wouldn't be seen dead within 20 feet of a Mellotron.

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