Progasms: A Progressive Rock Rundown

proggasms-2015

Prog has come a long way since the seventies, when it was blamed for being responsible for everything that was wrong with music. Since then, many punks came out of the closet as fans of progressive rock, and its influence on post-punk has become clear in hindsight. While it remained a wallflower in the 80s, there have been a good number of bands that have been proudly flying the banner since the 90s. Traffic, Genesis and Rush are now in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, with Yes and Deep Purple likely to be inducted soon. Opeth, Mastodon, Enslaved, Katatonia and Anathema are all metal bands that have released progtastic albums, most of them in fact have likely fallen deep into the prog rabbit hole never to return to their roots. For many long-running bands like Rush, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, their roots are prog, with all three releasing proggy albums in recent years. Many more have explored a more seamless fusion of metal and prog, with large devoted audiences.

Dr. Fester’s prognosis? Prog is cool again. Sorta. It may never be cited as a “trending” genre amongst the kids, despite the fact that more young bands than ever are drinking the prog kool-aid! There are, however, some amazing new albums from both new and venerable names worth noting.

Baron – Torpor (Svart)

Of the batch, Baron sound the most exploratory, both looking back at Vertigo era psych prog, late period Traffic and the intensity of Joy Division, Talk Talk’s post-rock and outwards to space. Bandleader Alex Crispin was originally a member of UK Rise Above prog act Diagonal, leaving after their 2008 debut. After a 2010 demo, Columns (2013) delved into some psych and space rock. Torpor, however, is harder to nail down. On “Stry,” Joe Hollick from Wolf People contributes a haunting guitar line. Baron has a much different feel than Hollick’s band (who have a new album coming soon too.) Rather than focusing on a singular, distinctive rustic psych prog vibe, Baron are more diverse, reminding me of the adventurous spirit of Soft Machine and Robert Wyatt, and Van Der Graaf Generator. And perhaps another band that resisted pigeonholing and genres, Pink Floyd. Sonically there is little connection, but it does take a few listens for the music to unfold. While there’s effective melodies, there’s not a lot of hooks or fancy show-off solos. Some of it could have been improvised, but with a sense of not a single extraneous, wasted note. Secretly recorded in Purton Green, one of the UK’s last standing medieval halls, the atmosphere is dark, heavy and sometimes creepy, just how I like it. The tension between heavy and airy, dark and light is best encapsulated in “Sleepless,” alternating between pounding riffs a shimmering vocal melody. Their self-description of “retro-futurist visionaries” is accurate, and shows they’ve got the ego, if not the marketing muscle to push them through to the masses who honestly would lose their shit over this challenging, amazing music.

Anekdoten – Until All The Ghosts Are Gone (Musea/Virta)

Sweden’s Anekdoten started out 25 years ago paying tribute to King Crimson. Pretty quickly they managed to internalize the tools learned from the masters, enabling them to develop their own sound. For a band with such a long life span, six albums is not a lot of music, but each one is extremely worthwhile (and can be sampled on the 2009 compilation, Chapters). It’s been eight years since their previous one, A Time Of Day (2007). Despite being packed to the ass with mellotrons and rich, complex arrangements, the band also sounds fairly modern, even inspiring the likes of Elder, who are big fans. Over the years, their musical journey has incorporated additional influences, even alternative rock, along similar lines to Norwegian spiritual kin Motorpsycho. For example, The Church’s Marty Willson-Piper contributes his signature guitar to the title track. He even joined the band for a European tour earlier in the year. Their sixth album finds them at a peak, the older influenced perfectly balanced with the new, clear, crystalline production that retains warmth and grit of the 70s and avoids the overly sterile production trap that other current bands have fallen into. They also sound like they may have been a significant influence on Opeth’s recent prog albums. Honestly the songwriting here is significantly more engaging than those two albums. They would have been an ideal tourmate. Perhaps Opeth were afraid to follow them.

Gazpacho – Molok (Kscope)

gazpacho-molokFormed in 1996, Norway’s Gazpacho’s sleek sound gives a nod to the 80s era work of Marillion, and also the meticulous sound design of Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson. With consistently lush production almost to a fault, and Jan Henrik Ohme’s lovely Jeff Buckley-inspired vocals, I’m surprised they aren’t massive by now. The band is relatively prolific by modern standards, with nine albums in twelve years. Last year’s Demon ranked high in my list, with a suitably sinister theme matched by brilliant music, rivaling their previous highlight, Night (2007). Their latest is named after a biblical demon, with a confounding but fascinating mess of themes that delve into ancient Norwegian folklore about religion and trolls turning to stone, and instrumentation that includes a 10,000 year-old Skåra stone. On top of all that, the CD includes a code at the end that generates a random number that could theoretically, with the Quantum Zeno effect, destroy the universe. Why risk it? The thinking is if it’s so easy to unravel, what business do we have existing? That’s some seriously dark, nihilistic stuff, more metal than prog! You’d never know when listening to “Bela Kiss,” a great entrypoint for newcomers and candidate for a single, with bold vocal melodies that could have come from Patrick Wolf or Rufus Wainwright, with lively Eastern European folk instrumental breaks. “Alarm” also features a gorgeous hook that could easily be confused for a song about love, not oblivion. Perhaps they’re one in the same.

Roundtable – Dread Marches Under Bloodied Regalia (Self-Released)

What you get when you slow down High On Fire by a factor of three and substitute epic fantasy lyrics for UFO paranoia? Australian doom proggers Roundtable! This debut came out of nowhere last week and has blown me away. I can’t stop listening! How does a band like this happen? It kind of makes me want to take a trip to Melbourne and find out.

Perfect Beings – Perfect Beings II (My Sonic Temple)

Man, this L.A.’s Perfect Beings treads a thin line between masterful prog pop and just sheer overwhelming dorkiness. Interviews about their spirituality and inspiration from yoga frankly made me want to puke. However, it’s hard to write this band off once the music grabs me. It was only a couple months ago that I first listened to their 2014 self-titled debut that was extremely promising, the polished production complementing their concise songwriting and virtuoso musicianship. Now their second album is already out, and they mean business. The musicians can play note-perfect versions of  Yes’ “Roundabout” and back up Bruce Dickinson. They’ve got the chops like the guys from Toto, but with far better songs. I prefer the sci fi themes on the first album, but the songs are just so full of surprising sonic details like whizzing keyboard effects, odd percussion, it’s just the gift that keeps on giving. It’s November, it’s probably pitch black out. Light a candle and treat yerself.

Northwinds – Eternal Winter (Black Widow)

Northwinds - Eternal Winter (Black Widow, 2015)Northwinds is a fabulous French doom prog band formed in 1990. It hasn’t been a popular combo in the past, and when I was turned onto the band a decade ago, it took a huge amount of effort to track down copies of their first three albums released between 1998 and 2006. They’re all great. Like their last one, Winter (2012), Eternal Winter came out with little fanfare, and is overlooked by nearly everyone. That would be a mistake. While their art and titles may seem a bit awkward, the music is a fascinating mix of prog (flutes!), folk, and just kick-ass doomy riffage. What’s with the repetitive album titles? Well, Eternal Winter is part two in a saga about, you guessed it, winter! Will the third installment be Infinite Winter? I feel ya, winter isn’t even officially here and I’m sick of it. But if they wanted to release an album about winter every year for the next two decades, that would be alright by me. Just please hop the pond at least once and give North America a taste of your live chops.

The Dear Hunter – Act IV: Rebirth In Reprise (Equal Vision)

The Dear Hunter - Act IV: Rebirth In Reprise (Equal Vision, 2015)I have to admit, I somehow never heard of this Boston band until recently, despite the fact that they’re super prolific and from their latest album, is a pretty fetching mix of lush, orchestral indie pop and prog. Great cover art too. Previous to this latest addition to the sprawling concept, they took a break from the epic tale to release 9 EPs about the color spectrum. Lazy bastards. Extravagant multi-tracked harmonies, exotic instrumentation, cinematic emotional landscaping. My first impression is if The Arcade Fire, The Mars Volta, Coheed And Cambria and Muse played a game of dodgeball, and the last five standing played Dear Hunter songs. To some that might seem atrocious, but I like this more than most anything recent from the aforementioned bands. A band greater than their influences is worth taking note.

Diatessaron – Sunshine (Self-Released)

While Calgary’s Diatessaron has been around since 2007, this is actually their debut album, having released three EPs previously. Like Perfect Beings, they deal in polished prog pop, with elements of 80s Genesis and Rush, and even similarities with British bands like XTC and Field Music. The centerpiece is a 20-minute suite in three movements that is at times a bit unwieldy with ambient build-up taking too damn long. But the payoff is some pretty sweet guitar playing. They don’t quite shred, but they certainly could, and the restraint creates an interesting tension. A very promising debut.

Agusa – Två (Svart)

This Swedish band’s earthy psych prog debut, Högtid (2014) might come pre-scented with patchouli and cannabis in the vinyl version. Agusa quickly followed it up with an album of just two tracks that are 20 and 18 minutes long. What else is to say other than that’s prog as fuck. Dig in.

Echolyn – I Heard You Listening (Echolyn)

Lansdale, Pennsylvania’s Echolyn formed way back in 1989 and to be honest I just learned about them this week! Lately they have been self-releasing their albums, but compared to what little I’ve sampled so far from their vast back catalog, the new one is just as finely crafted symphonic rock and pop as anything they’ve done. They’ve been around too long to say Porcupine Tree were an influence, rather they’re undersung contemporaries.

Other albums worth checking out that I’ve already written about this year or have not….

Elder – Lore (Armageddon, 2015) | Bandcamp
Dungen – Allas Sak (Mexican Summer, 2015) 
Sundays & Cybele – Heaven (Beyond Beyond Beyond, 2015) | Bandcamp)
Sacri Monti – Sacri Monti (Tee Pee, 2015) | Buy
Mirror Queen – Scaffolds Of The Sky (Tee Pee, 2015) | Buy
Mondo Drag – Mondo Drag (RidingEasy, 2015) | Bandcamp
Sammal – Myrskyvaroitus (Svart, 2015) | Bandcamp
Spock’s Beard – The Oblivion Particle
Amorphis – Under The Red Cloud (Nuclear Blast)
Steven Wilson – Hand.Cannot.Erase (Kscope)
Dark Quarterer – Ithaca (Metal On Metal)
Riverside – Love, Fear And The Time Machine (InsideOut)
Zu – Cortar Todo (Ipecac)
Cave Of Swimmers – Reflection (Cave Of Swimmers)
Dreadnought – Bridging Realms (Dreadnought)
TesseracT – Polaris (Kscope)
Tribulation – The Children Of The Night (Century Media)
Scale The Summit – V (Prosthetic)
Timbre – Sun & Moon (Timbre)
Leprous – The Congregation (InsideOut)

More: Periphery, Ancient Sky, Enslaved, Sigh, Secrets Of The Sky, Vennart.

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