Tag Archives: Dream Theater

Dream Theater – The Astonishing

DreamTheater - The AstonishingDream Theater are a band who strongly divide opinions. For some they’re the epitome of progressive metal, with levels of instrumental virtuosity that render them without peers. For others, they’re all emotionless technical showboating, too many notes and not enough soul. The truth is probably somewhere between the two, but there’s no denying they’re one of the genre-defining bands of their generation.

They’ve been coasting a little in recent years, releasing albums that have their moments but don’t quite reach the heights of the 1990s work that made their reputation. Their last great record was 2002′s “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence”, and their thirteenth studio effort, like that one, is also a double album.

The Astonishing is a sprawling ambitious concept album with a science-fantasy storyline that includes The Map and a vast cast of character with names like Emperor Nafarys and Faythe. The concept and music owe as much to musical theatre as to progressive rock. Unfortunately what could have been their 2112 turns out a lot more like their version of Kiss’ “The Elder”. Except The Elder didn’t go on for two and a quarter hours.

It starts strongly with the instrumental Dystopian Overture, but it soon becomes clear that they’ve spread themselves far too thin, and there just isn’t enough worthwhile music here to fill a double album. There is very little that stands out strongly, and there’s too much mediocre filler, often with melodies Graham Kendrick would have rejected as too banal.

The problem with this record isn’t too much unrestrained instrumental virtuosity. If anything, the opposite is true; a few tasteless irruptions of widdly-woo might have livened up some of the dull bits. The biggest problem with this album, aside from the sheer amount of filler, is that there’s far too much of James LaBrie, and he’s never been one of the world’s most expressive singers. Not only that, the sheer portentousness of the whole thing gets wearing after a while, eventually leaving you with the feeling that only metal bands with enough of a sense of humour to include undead unicorms should be making science-fantasy concept albums.

It does have its moments, such as “A New Beginning” towards the end of disk one with its inventive spiralling solo from John Petrucci. The album does leave the impression that there might be a worthwhile 50-minute album in there struggling to get out. But the listener has to wade through a lot of forgettable dross to find enough diamonds in the rough.

Dream Theater remain a hugely important band in the history of progressive rock, but sadly this record adds little to their legacy. Anyone new to the band would do better to give this album a miss and instead go for one of the classic earlier ones instead.

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David Bowie, Suede, Mantra Vega, Steven Wilson, Dream Theater, Megadeth. Can anyone remember so many high-profile releases in January?

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Dream Theater T-shirts in the news

It has not been a good day for Dream Theater t-shirts. First there is this story of dodgy vet struck off for knowing animals in the (ahem) Biblical sense, with the BBC News story showing the guy wearing a Dream Theater shirt. (And if you click on that link, don’t say I ddn’t warn you).

Then there is this ridiculous story about Mike Portnoy.

You know how it’s a faux pas to wear a band’s shirt to see them live? It seems like it’s an even bigger faux pas to wear a Dream Theater shirt that was printed in the last four years to a Mike Portnoy signing.

Portnoy is of course the former drummer for DT, and left with a bit of drama behind it. So, when a fan showed up to a signing this weekend wearing a Dream Theater shirt with the artwork for Dramatic Turn Of Events on it, Portnoy was none too pleased.

Rather than letting it go, he decided to hop onto social media and rant…

Now, knowing a few members or former members of bands that went through acrimonous splits or worse, and I own quite a few t-shirts that I would never wear to some other band’s gigs, especially if I’m going to be anywhere near the front.

But I’d still expect musicians to behave professionally should they meet any fan wearing the “wrong” shirt at a gig.

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Top Ten Albums of 2011

2011 has been an incredible year for new music. In fact, I can’t remember another year when I bought so many new release, which makes the traditional end-of-year list especially hard this time round.

So, after much deliberation and consideration, here’s my completely personal and subjective list of ten best albums released in 2011.

10: Uriah Heep – Into the Wild
70s veterans Uriah Heep have undergone something of a renaissance in recent years. Even if this album doesn’t really break any radically new ground for them, with their trademark combination of searing guitar and Hammond organ they rock far harder than any band in their fifth decade of existence has any right to.

9: Steve Hackett – Beyond the Shrouded Horizon
Much like Uriah Heep, the former Genesis guitarist has hit something of a purple patch recently, with his third album in two years. It’s a rich, ambitious album that combines some heartfelt songwriting with his distinctive symphonic liquid guitar style that has rightfully made him the godfather of prog guitar.

8: Anathema – Falling Deeper
A largely instrumental set by Liverpool’s Doom-metallers-turned-proggers, containing radical orchestral reworkings of material from their earlier metal years. It’s an album for which you should sit back and let the huge atmospheric soundscapes wash over you.

 

7: Touchstone – The City Sleeps
The rising stars of the British female-fronted progressive rock scene deliver a strong third album, with a highly melodic mix of prog, hard rock and metal than builds on the success of their previous album “Wintercoast”.

 

6: Within Temptation – The Unforgiving
In which the Dutch band opt out of the symphonic metal arms race in favour of a far more rock-orientated album that emphasises Sharon den Adel’s incredibly powerful vocals over overblown arrangements. More varied than previous albums, there’s an emphasis on big anthemic choruses that ought to have a lot of crossover potential.

5: Chantel McGregor – Like No Other
Chantel’s debut album proves she’s far more than just a virtuoso guitarist, and far more than just a blues artist. It’s a hugely varied album demonstrating her talents as a singer-songwriter who can do hard rock, folk and pure pop as well as she can do blues-rock guitar wig-outs.

4: Dream Theater – A Dramatic Turn of Events
The band which more or less invented prog-metal deliver their best album for years, proving that Mike Portnoy’s departure, far from finishing the band, has given them the kick up the backside they needed, with more emphasis on composition than instrumental showboating.

3: Liam Davison – A Treasure of Well-Set Jewels
The solo album from Mostly Autumn’s second guitarist was an unexpected surprise, with some great songwriting and big atmospheric arrangements reminiscent of the early years of Mostly Autumn. Great guest performances from supporting cast including Iain Jennings, Gavin Griffiths, Anne-Marie Helder and Heather Findlay, but none steal the spotlight from Liam’s own contributions.

2: Steven Wilson – Grace for Drowning
With his second solo release, Steve Wilson has taken a step away from the metal stylings of recent Porcupine Tree albums in favour of swirling Mellotrons and spiralling saxophones. The resulting jazz-tinged album sounds like a cross between 70s King Crimson, Canterbury-scene prog, and the ghost of Porcupine Tree past.

1: Opeth – Heritage
Sweden’s finest drop the death metal growls and go all-out prog with perhaps the most musically ambitious album they’ve done to date. Far more varied than their earlier non-metal “Damnation”, it manages to sound both gloriously retro and absolutely contemporary at the same time.

With such a strong year, there are many more great albums that would have appeared in many years’ top tens, so honourable mentions for Also Eden’s progtastic “Think of the Children” Magenta’s excellent “Chameleon”, Matt Stevens unclassifiable instrumental “Relic”, very solid releases from veterans Yes, Journey and Megadeth, and Mastodon’s “The Hunter”.

I’ve also made the decision to exclude live albums, but I will mention Mostly Autumn’s powerful “Still Beautiful”, Heather Findlay and Chris Johnson’s beautiful “Live at the Café 68″, and The Reasoning’s hard rocking “The Bottle of Gettysburg”.

And there are a few albums I’ve yet to hear, and since it’s too close to Christmas to be buying albums for myself. So the reason for the absence of Nightwish’s “Imaginaerum”, Kate Bush’s “50 Words for Snow” and Morpheus Rising’s “Let The Sleeper Awake” is not that I don’t think they’re good enough, only that I haven’t heard them yet. Perhaps, for the purposes of end-of-year lists, the year should run December to November, so that late-year releases count as next year?

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Dream Theater – A Dramatic Turn Of Events

Dream Theater’s first album without founder member Mike Portnoy has been one of the most eagerly awaited releases of 2011. Following his somewhat acrimonious departure from the band many fans loudly declared that the band were finished without their charismatic drummer. But others, including myself, had felt the band had been coasting for the last few albums, and wondered if the enforced lineup change might be just be the thing the band needed to shake them up and make them hungry again.

I wasn’t sure about this album for quite a few spins. At first it felt like just another recent Dream Theater album, good but not especially outstanding. All the trademark sounds of the bands that defined prog-metal as a genre are there; machine-gun riffs, tricky time signatures, neo-classical piano fills, and of course all those solos. But on repeated listens the songs started coming alive and lodging in the brain. This is definitely an album that a bit of time before it hits home, but when it does, it hits hard.

There’s a noticeably stronger sense of melody than on recent albums, whether it’s the anthemic stadium-rock chorus of “Build Me Up, Break Me Down”, the gentle opening section of “This Is The Life”, or the piano-led ballad of “Far From Heaven”. James LaBrie, sometimes the weak link in the band, sings far more than he screeches, especially during the less heavy moments.

Naturally, being a Dream Theater album, there are still plenty of opportunities to showcase the band members’ virtuosity in some serious instrumental wig-outs. But this time the technically superb musicianship doesn’t completely overwhelm the songwriting. Petricci shines in particular, and his solo on “Breaking All Illusions” is one of the high spots of them album.

So, while this album isn’t quite a career-defining masterpiece, it is a significant improvement on the last couple of albums; “Breaking All Illusions” and “This Is The Life” have all the makings of Dream Theater classics, and there’s relatively little in the way of filler. As the first album with new drummer Mike Mangini the band have something to prove, and it shows.

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High Voltage 2011

The High Voltage festival, held in Victoria Park in east London, is now in it’s second year. It’s focus is very much on classic rock, progressive rock and metal. Last years festival, headlined by ZZ Top and ELP was a fantastic weekend. This year’s bill has attracted some criticism for being weaker than last year, but still contained enough great bands to well worth attending.

For some of us at least, the weekend began on Friday with The Reasoning playing a packed Borderline in central London. The slimmed-down five piece incarnation of the band has gelled well now, even though the mix was little vocal-heavy with not quite enough guitar. Their set was an well-chosen selection of songs from their three albums with most of the classics accounted for, plus a couple of excellent sounding brand new numbers from their forthcoming new album, “The Omega Point”, and “No Friend of Mine”, which is apparently all about the pitfalls of social media. I just hope the lyrics are not about me! A great show, which turned out to be the first ever gig by a band I’ve known personally that completely sold out.

High Voltage itself opened on Saturday lunchtime with Von Hertzen Brothers on the Classic Rock Presents Prog stage. Not a band I knew much about. They started off playing melodic hard rock; good, but I wondered what they were doing on the prog stage. But as the set progressed they began playing some more complex material with intricate harmonies that more than justified their inclusion. Tight, energetic and melodic, a good start to the day.

Next up, the much-acclaimed Amplifier, from the more avant-garde end of the genre. The opening moments sounded like The Fall, all atonal noise, but after a few seconds, actual tunes started to appear. Their set was dense and riffy with a lot of atmosphere. By no means bad, but I’m not sure I’ve completely got my head round their music. This lot may take more listening before I really appreciate what they’re doing.

Canterbury scene veterans Caravan represented the opposite end of the spectrum of progressive rock. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from them, but they far exceeded whatever expectations I had. They played a great jazz-influenced set, keyboard-led with plenty of flute and violin, including the bouncy pop-rock of “Golf Girl”, and ending with the lengthy workout of “Nine Feet Underground” from their seminal album “The Land of the Grey and Pink”. Excellent stuff, and I can’t wait to see them again at the Cambridge Rock Festival.

Liverpool’s Anathema are very much the prog band of the moment. They started off life as a death-metal band, but there’s little or no trace of that now in their atmospheric indie-flavoured prog sound. This is a band who have toiled away for years before getting the recognition they deserved. Their triumphal set, drawn largely from the latest and best album “We’re Here Because We’re Here”, was simply stunning.

Neal Morse turned out to be the revelation of the day. I’ve admired his work with Spock’s Beard, but haven’t investigated his more recent solo work. With an eight-piece band including electric violin and electric cello(!), he played with an incredible level of energy and enthusiasm. The music was a lot like earlier Spock’s Beard, quirky but hugely melodic, with a clear nod to Gentle Giant. The very religious lyrics were a bit hard to take, even for me, but if you focus on the music, it’s amazing and heady stuff, and it was impossible not to be moved by the sheer exuberance of his performance.

I was wondering just how John Lees Barclay James Harvest could follow that. But I needn’t have worried. I’m a late convert to BJH, loving their huge soaring Mellotron-drenched sound. Even without the late Woolly Wolstenholme, and now playing as a four-piece, they’re a great live band. Their distinctive stately symphonic rock culminated in the magnificent epic “The Poet/After the Day”, surely their equivalent of Mostly Autumn’s “Mother Nature”. They closed, as they always do with “Hymn”, which turned into a singalong.

After than it was a quick sprint over to the main stage to catch the hellfire and brimstone of headliners Judas Priest. Amazingly, despite owning a great many of their albums, I’ve never seen this genre-defining band live. Despite their age, the Black Country metal veterans rocked, and even at 60 years old Rob Halford has still got it vocally with those piercing screams. Their greatest hits set drew from right across their 40-year back catalogue, from their very early years to the title track of the most recent opus “Nostradamus”, which Halford sung dressed in a cape and hood. This is a band who really understand the art of showmanship, with Halford whipping the Harley-Davison during “Hell Bent For Leather”. Camper than Millets, but great fun. And what a setlist! Early epics like “Victim of Changes” and “Beyond the Realms of Death”, 80s hit singles like “Breaking the Law”, the controversial “Turbo” and more recent songs like “Judas Rising” from “Angel of Retribution”.

Sunday started with some old-school neo-prog from 80s veterans Pallas, who played an energetic and enthusiastic set, a great warm-up for the day. While much of the set came from their more recent albums I’m not familiar with, they ended with a rousing rendition of “Arrive Alive”.

There is no-one else quite like The Enid, led by keyboard wizard Robert John Godfrey. Not everyone gets what they do, essentially classical music played on rock instrumentation. Supplemented this time by a small choir and a four-piece trumpet section, their set was over far too quickly, ending with the medley of “Land of Hope and Glory” and The Dambusters March, which RJG took pains to suggest was being performed at the request of the promoters. All stirring stuff, and I’m looking forward to seeing them headline the Cambridge Rock Festival.

Curved Air are another band I was looking forward to seeing. Like Caravan, they’re a classic 70s band reformed in recent years, and like them, they’ve still got it decades later. Sonja Kristina was on excellent form vocally, still looking glamorous despite being a grandmother. Apart from their hit “Back Street Luv” and “Vivaldi”, both of which they played, I knew nothing of their back catalogue. They’re very much at the jazzy end of prog with electric violin central to their sound – this is certainly a band I want to see again.

Then it was fingers crossed for Mostly Autumn, for what was a very high profile gig for them. I know I’m a huge fan, and likely to be biased, but it was clear this was something out of the ordinary, even by the high standards of their shows this year. It was one of the performances of their lives. They completely owned the stage, with a mix of energy and emotional intensity that few bands can match. They deserve to pick up a lot of new fans on the strength of performances like that.

Spocks Beard were, for me at least, the sole disappointment of the festival. Maybe it was because I was watching them from further back, maybe it was because they had to follow Mostly Autumn’s stunning performance, maybe having Ted Leonard standing in for the unavailable Nick D’Virgilio on lead vocals sapped their energy. Despite playing a set drawing heavily from their earliest and best albums, they just failed to engage me at all. It all seemed flat – there was none of the jubilant enthusiasm of Neal Morse’s set the day before. I left before the end to catch Black Country Communion on the main stage, so missed Neal’s appearance at the end of the set – maybe that finally brought things to life.

Black Country Communion, on the other hand, absolutely rocked with the sort of performance that’s in danger of giving supergroups a good name. I’d seen Glenn Hughes fronting his own band last year, which was good, and proved his vocal chords are still in good working order. But when he’s sharing the stage with genuine rock stars rather than journeyman musos, BCC are in a completely different league. Joe Bonamassa is the axe hero of his generation, and is the perfect foil for Hughes’ still-superb voice. Jason Bonham is a chip off the old block on drums, and Derek Sherinian added huge depth to the sound on Hammond organ. They ended with an absolutely barnstorming cover of Deep Purple’s “Burn”.

I only caught the last few songs of Jethro Tull, so I can’t really give a thorough appraisal of their set. But I did see rousing renditions of “Aqualung” and “Locomotive Breath” with Joe Bonamassa guesting.

Finally, festival headliners Dream Theater. Even if their brand of intensely muso prog-metal isn’t your cup of tea, every band on the prog stage owes a debt to them. More than any other band, Dream Theater are responsible for putting progressive rock back on the map, and without them many other bands wouldn’t be there. This was a high-stakes gig for them, marking the debut of new drummer Mike Mangini, replacing the much-loved Mike Portnoy.

This is a band who have always been far more about the musicians than the singer. In theatre-sized venues where you can actually see the band members hands, they’re actually quite exciting to watch, fingers flying up and down fretboards. But in a large arena where you can only really see the band on the big screens at the sides of the stage, that effect gets lost. Vocalist James LaBrie was actually on quite good form for once – while he’s never going to be one of my favourite singers, this time his vocals weren’t nearly as bad as I feared they’d be.

While there’s no doubting the band’s amazing technical skills, there was little of the showmanship we’d seen with Judas Priest the night before. The music was great, with a dense complex tapestry of sound. But it clearly didn’t appeal to everyone, and I noticed people were leaving in significant numbers before the end. Still a good performance, but in a weekend that had seen several outstanding ones, by no means the highlight of the weekend.

And so ended the festival. A weekend of amazing music, and a great gathering of the rock tribes. Loved the way I kept bumping into friends all weekend, not just fellow fans but people like Kim Seviour from Touchstone and Ian Jones from Karntaka. Having spent most of the weekend in front of the Classic Rock Presents Prog stage, the sheer quality and variety of the music says it all about why I love progressive rock as a genre. Amplifier are nothing like Mostly Autumn who are nothing like Anathema who are nothing like Neal Morse. Need I go on? Got to an indie festival and all you’ll get a slew of bands drawing from the same limited musical palette, all playing the same predictable chord progressions.

I’m now counting down days until the Cambridge Rock Festival in less than two weeks’ time.

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Another 2009 Roundup – Live Music

Yet another end-of-year roundup, this time live music.

  • Best Gig – Has to be Progressive Nation at Manchester.  A great performance from headliners Dream Theater, a superb one hour set by co-headliner Opeth, and good supports from BigElf and Unexpect, neither of whom I’d seen or heard of before.
  • Worst Gig – Pure Reason Revolution playing in an awful venue that really didn’t do them justice.
  • Strangest GigBreathing Space playing a sold-out village hall in Nottinghamshire in snowy February.
  • Biggest Disappointment – Not seeing Karnataka at the Cambridge Rock Festival due to PA company snafu.
  • Band of the Year – Has to be Mostly Autumn, of course.  I saw them no fewer that twelve times over the year, always good, with their Halloween show at Burnley possibly the best of the year.  They recorded the whole of the spring tour, of which I saw several gigs, and the recordings make up the excellent Live 2009 pair of albums. A great band, and a lovely group of people too.

The overall verdict for the year can be summed up with the word “Progtastic”.

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Top Albums of 2009 – Yet another subjective list.

Yes, another top ten list.  This isn’t intended is a list of what I think are the most ‘important’ or ‘influential’ releases of 2009, and certainly bears no resemblance to those awful lists compiled by committees of groupthinking music journalists you’ll read in major newspapers which seem to be filled with albums of social-commentary lyrics or drug-addled personal angst with some hastily thrown-together music tacked on as an afterthought. Which is not my kind of thing at all.

This is all about my music – my personal soundtrack for 2009.  In the end, I couldn’t cut down my shortlist to just ten, so I chickened out, and went for 15.

  • 15: The Mars Volta – Octohedron
    Although this album doesn’t have the energy level or sheer bonkersosity of their incendiary first album, this is still the best thing they done since Francis the Mute. They’ve gone and done an album full of actual songs, with tunes. Alhough some people might decry this as a dreadful sell-out, the compelling “Twilight is my Guide” is worth the price of admission alone.
  • 14: UFO – The Visitor
    There’s still life in Phil Mogg’s veteran hard rockers yet. The Visitor sees Mogg team up with American guitarist Vinnie Moore.  I’d known Moore’s playing from mid 80s shred-metal albums on Shrapnel Records.  Now an older and wiser Moore has abandoned high-speed shredding in favour of a bluesy style that’s the perfect foil for Mogg’s songwriting and often underrated hard-boiled lyrics.
  • 13: Pure Reason Revolution – Amor Vincit Omnia
    PRR take a major left turn with their second album. Their debut “The Dark Third” came over as a sort of prog Darkness.  Anyone expecing more of the same was in for a very rude shock, as they’ve gone all electro, swapping the Pink Floyd inflence for Depeche Mode.  It’s actually a very good album, especially when the guitars return a couple of songs in, harder-edged and more abrasive than their hypnotic debut, but filled with memorable songs.
  • 12: Parade – The Fabric
    Parade is the brainchild of Fish guitarist and former Mostly Autumn keyboard player Chris Johnson, with the collaboration of Anne-Marie Helder, Gavin Griffiths, Patrick Berry and Simon Snaize. It took me a few listens for this one to click; on the surface it’s an indie-sounding album with it’s sparse chiming guitars and clattering drums; but listen more closely and there’s some real musical depth there.
  • 11: The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love
    I bought this album on the basis of a luke-warm review by The Guardian’s Alexis Petredis, where he said “What we have here is a terrible infestation of Jethro Tull”. From the opening organ chords it’s obvious that while marketed as ‘indie’, this is a prog album, with a classic 70s prog appoach to melody.  There’s even a Hammond B3 wig-out at one point that reminds me of Uriah Heep.
  • 10: Mastodon – Crack the Skye
    For some reason, the hipster crowd seem to have picked up on Mastodon despite the fact that this is full-blown no-holds-barred prog-metal. Perhaps it’s the sludgy 70s-style production that makes it more accessible to that demographic than someone like Opeth. Saying that, it’s still a greatly entertaining album, with the 12-minute epic “The Czar” as the high point, with everything from a galloping Sabbath-like riff to an utterly over the top solo.
  • 9: Heaven and Hell – The Devil You Know
    Heaven and Hell is, of course, the reunion of the early 80s incarnation of Black Sabbath with Ronnie Dio on vocals and Vinnie Appice on drums.  Such reunions of veteran artists have a mixed track record, but on this occasion they’ve delivered the goods with great slice of the sort of epic operatic-tinged metal we got in Ronnie Dio’s previous stint with the band. Who’s have thought they’d have such a good album in them this late in their career?
  • 8: Touchstone – Wintercoast
    Jeromy Irons’ spoken word introduction opens Touchstone’s powerful second album, which fuses melodic hard rock with prog to great effect to produce a hugely varied and entertaining album. It marks a major step forward from their debut and makes them a force to be reckoned with in the growing British female-fronted prog scene.
  • 7: Dream Theater – Black Clouds and Silver Linings
    Prog-metal giants Dream Theater were a major band for me in the 1990s, with albums such as the intense Awake or the majestic Metropolis II. Their noughties output has been uneven; some strong individual songs, but sometimes self-indulgent soloing and instrumental virtuosity for it’s own sake seemed to take precidence over composition. Despite some lenghy epic songs, Black Clouds and Silver Linings is a major improvement in that regard, and is probably the best overall album they’ve produced in the decade.
  • 6: Porcupine Tree – The Incident
    Steve Wilson’s band take a step back from the metal-orientated recent albums towards the atmospheric progressive rock that characterised earlier albums. Although made up of separare songs, it’s intended to be listened to as a single continuous piece of music.  High spot is “Time Flies”, with is musical quoting of Pink Floyd’s “Dogs”.
  • 5: IQ – Frequency
    80s veterans IQ may wear their influences on their sleeve, especially Gabriel-era Genesis, but unlike some other neo-prog outfits of the 80s and 90s, they do it well enough to become far more than a simple pastiche of older and better bands.  Frequency sees them as good as they’ve ever been, possibly even topping 2004′s Dark Matter. If you like swirly keyboards, strange time signatures and melodramatic vocals, this one’s for you.
  • 4: Mostly Autumn – Live 2009
    This one’s cheating a little bit, since they released what is effectively a double live album as two single albums; I’m treating it as one album for the purposes of this list.  Previous Mostly Autumn live albums have been very disappointing; some of them have been little better than bootleg-quality recordings that have failed to do a great live band justice. This one, recorded on various dates from the 2009 spring tour, blows every previous MA live album out of the water, and really captures what it’s like to be in the front row at one of their gigs. The 2009 incarnation of the band with Iain Jennings on keys and Gavin Griffiths on drums is the best MA live lineup I’ve seen, and they were on fire this spring.
  • 3: Muse – The Resistance
    It’s not often I buy the number one album in the charts; the last time was, well, the previous Muse album Black Holes and Revelations. Sometimes you just want something bombastically over the top, and Muse deliver that in spades; fans of twee indie hate them with a passion. There’s something great about seeing a band who aren’t ashamed to be influenced by prog selling out major venues. Muse’s best to date?  Possibly.  They’re the band The Darkness would love to have been, if only they had the talent.
  • 2: Panic Room – Satellite
    Panic Room’s debut, Visionary Position was a complex multi-layered affair composed in the studio, and gave the band some headaches when trying to work out how on earth they were going to reproduce it all live. In contrast, many of the songs from their follow-up had been performed live long before the band went into the studio to record them.  The end result is an album of simpler, more direct songs.  The very different musical backgrounds of the five members combine in an alchemical mix which results in far more than the sum of the parts.  Elements of hard rock, prog, pop, folk and jazz contribute to a sound that defies easy pigeonholing, with some very thought provoking lyrics from Anne-Marie Helder.
  • 1: Breathing Space – Below the Radar
    Many people wondered how York’s Breathing Space would be able to follow 2007′s excellent Coming Up for Air, especially after the departure of guitarist Mark Rowen.  But Breathing Space’s third album, recorded with Mostly Autumn’s Liam Davidson standing in on guitar, emerged even stronger that it’s predecessor.  Without Mark Rowen or saxophonist John Hart they’ve lost the jazzier elements of their sound in favour of a harder-edged rock approach, which mixes hard rock numbers with atmospheric and emotionally moving ballads.  Iain Jenning’s production and keyboard playing is superb, and Olivia Sparnenn’s soaring vocals just get better and better. Yes I know I’m probably too close to the band to really be able to judge their music objectively any more, but as I said at the very beginning, this is a personal list.
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Progressive Nation – Manchester Apollo, 09-Oct-2009

The Progressive Nation tour is an ambitious package tour highlighting the best of prog-metal.  Effectively a double headliner of Opeth and Dream Theater, plus two support bands, doors opened at 5:30, with the music starting just after six, making it a real marathon if you were standing.  And the early start meant it was straight to the gig from work, without having time to have anything to eat.  The things I do for rock and roll.  Or rather prog.

Openers Unexpect were a completely bonkers female-fronted seven-piece including a fiddle player.  While they played with high level of energy, unfortunately poor sound meant a lot of the intricacies of their music were lost; the vocals especially being lost in the mix. Such is the fate of opening acts in large venues, but they still impressed enough for me to buy their album,

Four-piece BigElf took the stage with a Hammond organ, a Mellotron and an analogue synth centre-stage. They played a sort of psychedelic stoner-prog, very reminiscent of Atomic Rooster with elements of early Uriah Heep. Impressive live band despite poor sound.  Top-hatted lead singer Damon Fox playing the Hammond in one hand and the Mellotron in the other had to be the image of the evening.

The sound improved dramatically when Swedish death-metal/prog crossovers Opeth took the stage. Tonight they emphasised the ‘progressive’ emphasis of the evening by opening with “Windowpane” from their decidedly un-metal “Damnation” album. The six-song hour-long set mixed their progressive and metal sides, which a powerful rendition of “Deliverance” one of the metallic standouts. “Harlequin Forest”, not played live in Britain before, was stunningly beautiful, the highlight of the entire evening. Only downer was the constant buzz of background talking from Dream Theater fans that was audible throughout the quiet bits.

It’s seven or eight years since I’ve seen Dream Theater live.  Love them or hate them, Dream Theater have more or less defined the genre of muso prog metal, playing insanely complex music in wierd time signatures with plenty of extended solos.  Bassist John Myung in particular is as interesting to watch as to listen to, his fingers flying up and down the fretboard as if he’s playing lead guitar, and John Pettruci and Jordan Rudess played enormous numbers of notes. Only vocalist James LaBrie let the side down in places, and I have to say too much of his singing is rather ordinary.  The setlist drew heavily from the new album “Black Clouds and Silver Linings”, opening with “A Nightmare to Remember” and “A Rite of Passage”. They also played quite a bit from their superb “Scenes From a Memory” including the completely over-the-top instrumental workout “The Dance of Eternity”, and 80s-style power ballad “The Spirit Carries On”, complete with a sea of lighters in the air. They encored with a stunning rendition of the epic “The Count of Tuscany”.

Gig of the year?  It’s definitely a candidate.

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Albums of the year 2007

Everyone else seems to be doing their annual ‘best of’ list, so it would be remiss of me if I didn’t do one as well. I’m not going to try and rank everything in order.

Album of the Year

  • Porcupine Tree – Fear of a Blank Planet. It feels as if the whole of their 15 year career has been working up to this album. It combines metal influences of their recent work with the soaring atmospheric soundscapes of earlier albums to produce the most consistently good album they’ve ever recorded. Just six songs, the longest clocking in at 17 minutes, with not a weak moment among them.

Runners-up

  • Fish – 13th Star. A major return to form by an artist too many have written off as a has-been who can’t sing any more. This emotionally-charged album seems him singing in a lower register, half-spoken in places, that suits his present-day vocal range, backed by a hard-edged guitar-driven groove-orientated sound. His best album since at least “Sunsets on Empire”.
  • Odin Dragonfly – Offerings. Not a prog album, or even really a rock album, but an acoustic work with guitar, piano, flute and two voices. The result is a stunningly beautiful album that perfectly captures their live sound. Yes, they really do create those harmonies on stage with just two people.
  • The Reasoning – Awakening. Remarkable debut album marking the welcome return of Karnataka’s Rachel Jones. Best described as prog-tinged hard rock, with some remarkable harmonies from their three lead vocalists, and full of melodies that get permanently stuck in your head.

Strong Contenders

  • Breathing Space – Coming Up For Air. Effectively the debut for the lineup of the band that’s been playing live over the past year, it’s a well-crafted mix of 80s pop/rock numbers and the sort of sweeping rock ballads Iain Jennings used to write when he was with Mostly Autumn.
  • Dream Theater – Systematic Chaos. Complex, epic prog metal by the band that really defined the genre, and a rather more consistently strong album that their previous couple.
  • Joe Bonamassa – Sloe Gin. Part acoustic, and part guitar-shredding electric blues. The title track has to be one of my songs of the year.
  • Epica – The Divine Conspiracy. The European rock scene is awash with female-fronted symphonic metal bands, and this album is perhaps the best out of a whole bunch of good ones.
  • Therion – Gothic Kabbalah. Scandinavian choral death metal, totally bonkers but compellingly brilliant. Because a lot of the arrangements are a bit off-the-wall it does take repeated listenings to really get in to.
  • Apocalyptica – Worlds Collide. One of the most metal albums of the year, except it’s all played on cellos rather than guitars. 50/50 mix of manic instrumentals and songs featuring a variety of guest vocalists.
  • Rush – Snakes and Arrows. Return to form after the disappointing “Vapor Trails”. I find my enjoyment of any Rush album is directly proportional to how prominent Alex Lifeson is in the mix. He’s to the fore on this one.
  • Marillion – Somewhere Else. The album that’s really divided the fanbase. While this is no ‘Marbles’, it’s still a good album once you get into it, simpler songs with more straightforward arrangements rather than the multi-layered epic approach some might have expected.

And there were plenty of other great ones, making 2007 such a great year for music. And then there are a few albums people have raved about although I have yet to hear them, such as the new ones by The Pineapple Thief and Riverside.

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