Thursday, 16 January 2014

2013: The Year in Prog Albums - Part One (Overture / BEM / Numbers 10-8)

If you've met up with me at all over the last 3 years, the chances are one of the following things happened:

a) I babbled incoherently like a teenage girl, and wouldn't shut up for hours because I was so happy so see another human being

b) I was moody and monosyllabic, then eventually started moaning at you about how miserable I am without an office to go to, before weeping into the first of many pints and then making a tit of myself at a gig, or insulting a snooker player.

Yes, working from home is a weird old experience, after the initial thrill of doing spreadsheets in your jogging bottoms, and emptying the dishwasher whilst pretending to listen to conference calls wears off. But if there's one thing it's good for, it's listening to music, so thank goodness that's something that I can just about tolerate.

I'm fairly sure that this is not an Occupational Health approved workstation.

Anyway, all of this is a very long-winded way of saying that I bought a lot of new albums this year - and by that I mean 70. 70 brand new albums - and that's not even counting the old crap I bought for a quid in a charity shop.

It also means that, as last year, I need to divide my list in two along the vague lines of "music which is considered ok to listen to by people who only listen to prog oh no wait they're really eclectic because they also listen to prog metal", and "other stuff." And because Santa told me you've been good this year, you can have your "prog-ish" list first - but if I get a quarter of the hits on the "definitely not prog stop trying to claim that everything good is prog for the love of god" list, I will come round your house and personally read every word of it through your letterbox, so be warned. Actually, that sounds like a good way to get myself out of the house doesn't it?

But before we even get that far...

Naughty Elephants Squirt Water

This year, a few of my mates got together and set up a record label, then released two albums which were written, recorded, produced and played on largely by more of my mates. Despite the reputation they seem to have somehow acquired for being a "prog" label, neither of the albums they've released so far actually fit neatly into my "prog" / "not prog" list, so perhaps they're just more of a "good" / "interesting" record label.

Both of these albums are excellent examples of pushing the boundaries of music - one puts me through the emotional wringer whilst making me want to jump up around at a 90's rave, and the other taxes the grey matter, demands some serious headbanging and makes me feel much hipper to post-rock music than I really am.
Guitars and rock and stuff.

My problem is that I am too close to these albums to stack them up against your Stevie McChuckletrousers and yer Snoopy Biggie Trainy Trains - I think they are both superb and that everybody should buy them, but I genuinely can't think about them objectively.

For that reason, and assuming that you are't allergic to intelligent pop-dance type music with progressive sensibilities and some killer hooks, I will tell you to go and read my sort-of-review of the Shineback album here, if you dare. It's destined to become a classic of electro-prog, mark my words.

Not so much with the guitars and rock and stuff.

And I will end this completely unbiased section with the suggestion that if you like the sound of an album firmly rooted in the challenging, instrumental rock category, whose title track starts with a kind of thrash-metal riff accompanied by cheesy handclaps, which is interrupted when you least expect it by some chiming guitars and the world's most cheerful tune played on a Glockenspiel, and then gives way to a disco drum and bass section before eventually coming to an abrupt, mind-blowing ending, then you ought to get yourself over to Bandcamp now and have a listen to some of The Fierce and the Dead's 'Spooky Action' album. It really does contain all this and everything else you can imagine besides - including a track which sounds like a Gamelan orchestra recorded in the Wookey Hole Caves ('Intermission 3') - no, I'm really not making this up.

Gigging Forever's Top 10 Prog albums of 2013

Right, now we've got that out of the way so that I don't have to offend any of my mates by judging them against each other, let's take a look at what we have left. 10 albums - yes, these are all I actually feel like endorsing in the Prog category this year. But what albums they are, no sympathy votes or barrel-scraping this year - these are all certified great buys, guaranteed or your money back*.

In some ways it seems silly to try to rank them at all, but non-existent rules are still rules. I fully expect some sternly raised eyebrows at the order here, but you know what, whilst I can appreciate that some things may be better produced, or more expensively recorded than others, if they don't make me feel quite as happy to be alive as others then all that's not worth a Squonk's tear in a Siberian Khatru. Or something.

*Money may not actually be refunded

10. Maschine - Rubidium

Yeah, I know that's an, um, interesting cover, isn't it? What you can't see is that there's a sticker on the front of my copy which proclaims Maschine (under their old name of Concrete Lake) to have been voted the best new band of 2011, which perhaps sums up why this, their first available recording, didn't quite make the splash I'd expected after that year’s triumphant Summer's End performance.

It may also be because it's an incredibly complex and inventive album, with more crazy ideas per song than an entire episode of Sherlock - taking several cues from the Pain of Salvation album after which they used to be named, but also reminding me of ‘Six’ by Mansun, aka the bonkers and brilliant album that killed their Britpop career.

At times, it doesn’t quite work – as with ‘Cubixstro’ which starts out in astounding fashion with some fine playing from everyone, but especially Dan ‘Funky Fingers’ Mash on the bass. But then by the time you’ve reached the last 3 minutes, with its repeated refrain petering out gradually like someone falling down a comedy well, you’ve basically forgotten what you liked so much about the first 5.

‘Invincible’ gets it right, though, with soft, breathy vocals from frontman and guitar genius Luke Machin recalling Prefab Sprout’s Paddy McAloon (this is A Good Thing), some lovely flute, and proper tunes with gorgeous harmonies from keyboard player Georgia Lewis. And then it goes a bit mental for 3 minutes as everyone indulges their inner Dream Theater or Jaco Pastorius  – but you know what? It’s absolutely perfect. More like this please.

Key tracks: Cubixstro / Invincible / Venga

9. The Tangent: Le Sacre du Travail (The Rite of Work)

I’ve got to be honest with you, I had a bit of a struggle with this album to start with – in fact I’m not sure we aren’t still slugging it out with pistols at dawn to determine the ultimate victor. Still, being a tribute to Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’, it’s only fitting that people should be confused, challenged and downright terrified on first listening, and Andy Tillison, aka The Tangent, manages to achieve this quite successfully with the first couple of ‘movements’ (cos it’s a proper symphony thing innit?) such as when a somewhat depressing monologue recalling the ridiculousness and futility of the daily ritual interrupts what initially promises to be quite a standard Tangent instrumental piece in the shape of ‘1st Movement: Coming Up on the Hour (Overture)’ (Andy - quick tip, you’ll never get on Radio 2 unless you make your song titles a bit more catchy…)

‘2nd Movement: Morning Journey & The Arrival’ doesn’t exactly encourage toe tapping or an easy listen either, being the most obviously recognizable example of Andy’s original intention to remake Stravinsky’s original – with some orchestral and sometimes slightly dissonant sections rubbing quavers with much more upbeat, catchy motifs including the “It all just looks like birdshit” section, as I like to call it (featuring the vocal stylings of the superlative David Longdon from Big Big Train – I wonder if they’ll make an appearance here in a bit?). Still, no refrain here outstays its welcome, in fact you’re hard pushed to find one that so much as takes its shoes off and asks for a cuppa, which is another reason for the lack of immediacy – hang on a minute, perhaps the Maschine influence has rubbed off on Mr Tillison…

Things get easier as we go, though, with the positively hit-single like ‘Evening TV’ rounding things up, but ‘3rd Movement: Afternoon Malaise’ is probably the most successful long piece for me, or at least the first to welcome me in and show me the secrets under its mattress, anyway – with the decently-proportioned 'Steve Wright' section being a lovely, warm and fuzzy post-lunch aural blanket in keeping with its subject matter and one of the few hooks to keep you humming away as you head home from your dreary toil like the corporate drone that you are, go on, hum away on the train to forget the pointlessness of your existence… Oh, looks like the album’s finally won.

Key Tracks: 4th Movement: Afternoon Malaise / 5th Movement : Evening TV

8. Cosmograf: The Man Left in Space

I have to admit that I wasn’t going to buy this album; for the simple reason that I had this idea that it was going to be a terribly amateurish one-man-and-a-laptop affair. So imagine my surprise to be coerced into giving it a shot by the lovely Nellie at The Merch Desk (quarterly plug over) only to find various members of Big Big Train and Spock's Beard adding their not inconsiderable talents to the mix, not to mention Luke Ma(s)chin(e), Lee Abraham, Matt Stevens (oh, you don't say) and Robert "I'm not scary, honest" Ramsay.

As you might imagine, the whole thing sounds great, but it would be nothing if the material was pants - and thank goodness, Robin (he who is Cosmograf) knows how to write a tune or two - with killer riffs and choruses all over, and that's to say nothing of the more ambient, spacey tracks such as the gorgeous 'The Vacuum That I Fly Through'. Key achievement is perhaps track 2-  ‘Aspire, Achieve’, which sets its stall out right from the start with brooding acoustic guitar and soulful vocals, which are suddenly obliterated by a monster electric guitar riff and furious drumming, reminding you of Steven Wilson and that band of his before he went all serious. Oh, alright then, before he went even more serious.

It’s the second concept album on our list this year, being the story of, um, a man left in space… accompanied by a lobotomised female version of Kryten from Red Dwarf, or something. Sorry, regular readers will remember that I am hopeless at paying attention to stories and lyrics when there are tunes as good as ‘The Man Left in Space’ on offer – but even for the verbally challenged like me, the mood of isolation and desperation is intrinsic to the music itself and makes this an emotionally affecting listen throughout.

Key tracks: Aspire, Achieve / The Vacuum That I Fly Through / The Man Left in Space

Next time: Numbers 7-5. Or maybe I'll do numbers 6, 3 and 4, just to confuse you. Bet you can't wait.


  1. That was a great read, as per usual :D I've short-circuited the "buy ALL the albums" thing by waiting until I've got through the first lot I bought... Hint: it hasn't happened yet...

    1. I'll be interested to see how short next year's list ends up being, now I have a "proper" job... ;)

  2. Good job you're verbally challenged :-)