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Best Albums of 2016 – Part Three

Into the top five now, as we count down from five to two. It’s a reminder of just how how much great music has been released this year that’s not on the mainstream radar.

5: Crippled Black Phoenix – Bronze

crippled-black-phoenix-bronseAfter some rather turbulent times within the band, Crippled Black Phoenix bounce back very strongly with a powerful follow-up to 2014′s “White Light Generator”. Beginning with a track called “Dead Imperial Bastard”, Bronze is a dark, angry and very intense record that in places sounds like Swans jamming with Pink Floyd, filled with dense, boiling guitars and ominous electronic soundscapes. It’s the sort of record that leaves you exhausted by the time you reach the end.

4: The Pineapple Thief – Your Wilderness

the-pineapple-thief-your-wildernessThe Pineapple Thief have always represented the streamlined modern face of progressive rock, and this album is a distillation of the best elements of their sound. There are moments of fragile beauty, times when they rock out, and the whole thing flows seamlessly. The band have always drawn comparisons with Radiohead. But while “A Moon Shaped Pool” is a good album, “Your Wilderness” is a better one. But you have to wonder how many mainstream critics who put Radiohead high in their end-of-year lists have even heard “Your Wilderness”.

3: Opeth – Sorceress

Opeth SorceressMikael Åkerfeldt and his band continue to draw deep from the well of 70s underground rock and reinvents the sounds for the 21st century with his legendary mastery of rock dynamics. The result is a record that invokes the spirit of that decade while sounding like something that could only have been made today. It goes from thunderous heaviness to the sort of sinister and cinematic atmospherics that recalls his Storm Corrosion collaboration with Steven Wilson. This is their best album since “Watershed” and despite the lack of death-metal growls, their heaviest since “Ghost Reveries”.

2: Iamthemorning – Lighthouse

iamthemorning-lighthouseThe third studio album from the Russian duo comprising singer Marjana Semkina and classical pianist Gleb Kolyadin is one of those records that’s near-impossible to classify. Sometimes accompanied by a small chamber orchestra, sometimes with a rock rhythm section including Porcupine Tree’s Gavin Harrison and Colin Edwin, the result is a kaleidoscopic record of ever changing moods taking in rock, classical and even instrumental jazz. Comparisons between Marjana Semkina vocals and those of Kate Bush are entirely appropriate. This is a record that takes a few listens to fully appreciate since there’s so much to take in; you can keep hearing new things even after many listens.

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Teaser for The Pineapple Thief’s Your Wilderness

A short trailer for the forthcoming album by The Pineapple Thief which mainman Bruce Soord has promised will be “more prog”.

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Best Gigs of 2014

Chantel McGregor at the 2014 Cambridge Rock Festival

Unlike almost everyone else, I didn’t get to see Kate Bush’s already legendary shows at Hammersmith in the summer. But I did get to see plenty of other bands, from festivals to free-entry pub gigs, so many in fact that I lost eventually lost count. I do remember nine in thirteen days in December, after which I collapsed in a heap.

These are ten of the best of the year, listed in chronological order save for the gig of the year. Several of them are from festivals, where I’ve highlighted individual sets rather than the festival as a whole.

The Pineapple Thief, HRH Prog, March

The first day of HRH Prog was somewhat patchy, with rather too many rather one-dimensional acts. The Pineapple Thief were the exception, with a magnificently intense set that stood head and shoulders above anyone else on Friday’s bill, including headliners The Flower Kings.

Riverside, O2 Academy, April

Poland’s finest proved they’re every bit as good live as they are on record, the perfect band for anyone still missing Porcupine Tree, but with enough of an identity of their own to sound like any kind of pastiche.

Panic Room, Gloucester Guildhall, April

2014 saw Panic Room back firing on all cylinders again after a somewhat shaky 2013, with the new lineup with then-new guitarist Adam O’Sullivan fully bedded it. They kicked off with an impressive performance at HRH Prog in March, and were on consistently good live form thereafter. It’s hard to single out any one show, but this early one in Gloucester was as good as any.

Magenta, Trinity Live, May

Magenta were only added to the bill of the all-day charity gig very late in the day when Christina’s cancer treatment was progressing well enough to allow her to perform. It’s always remarkable how good Magenta are live considering how infrequently they perform; but this time they completely stole the show. And they deserved it.

Jeff Lorber, Swansea Jazz Festival, June

Most of this years gigs have been prog and metal, so the Swansea Jazz Festival was a change of pace. Among others it featured the veteran trumpeter Dick Pierce, the violin-driven gypsy jazz of Sarah Smith, and the jazz-rock of Protect the Beat. But the highlight of the weekend was Friday night’s set of jazz-fusion from pianist Jeff Lorber. The world of prog contains plenty of virtuoso musicians, but jazz can be on another level.

Mostly Autumn, The Box in Crewe, July

Mostly Autumn have bounced back very strongly after a hit-and-miss 2013, touring to promote the best album they’ve made in years and for the first time playing the new album in full on tour. Despite a fluctuating lineup in the early part of the year due some members’ prior commitments, which saw former flautist Angela Gordon standing in for a couple of gigs, they were back to the sort of live form they displayed in 2011 and 2012. An early highlight was their long-overdue return to Crewe in July.

Mr So and So, Resonance, August

Resonance was a strange festival, with an eclectic mix of bands playing across multiple stages, including a small room tucked away at up at the top of the building. One of the bands in that small room, Mr So and So, were an unexpected highlight, a band who have improved immensely over the past couple of years, with Charlotte Evans coming into her own as a singer.

Chantel McGregor, Cambridge Rock Festival, August

The Cambridge Rock Festival was another highlight of the year, with strong sets from Mostly Autumn, Mr So and So, The Windmill, Cloud Atlas and others. One of the highlights was the guitar-shredding set on Friday from Chantel McGregor, who simply owns the main stage at that festival.

Fish, Reading Sub89, December

Fish had planned to tour the UK in May but was forced to cancel due to Guitarist Robin Boult’s injury. The rescheduled shows in December looked in doubt at one point when the man himself went down with viral laryngitis on the continental leg. But in the end all was fine, and the band were on fire, with a completely new setlist compared to last year, with old favourites like “Big Wedge” and “Incubus” as well as the powerful High Wood suite from his newest album played in full.

It’s hard to narrow things down to just ten, so honourable mentions to Touchstone and IOEarth’s Christmas show in Bilston, The Tangent’s mesmerising performance at Celebr8.3 in Islington, Tarja rocking out the O2 Academy, Steve Rothery at Bush Hall, Opeth’s oldies-heavy set at The Roundhouse, and Alestorm’s booze and piracy in Reading.

It’s even harder to pick the best of the lot, but there can only be one, and this came towards the end of the year.

Marillion, The Forum, December

Even after more than 30 years in the business, Marillion never disappoint live, and their sell-out December Christmas shows were no exception. What was surprising was the number of real oldies they haven’t played for years; “Slàinte Mhath”, “Warm Wet Circles/This Time of the Night” and even “Garden Party” from the Fish era, and several song from “Seasons End” including the magnificent title track. It gave the impression of a band comfortable in their own skins and reconciled with their own past in a way they weren’t a few years back.

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2014 Albums of the Year, Part Four

And so we approach the end of the albums-of-the-year list. There are numbers 2 to 5, which means there is just the Album of the Year itself to go.

Again they’re listed alphabetically, because it’s too hard to rank them. In truth, any of these records would be worthy albums of the year, as would several others just outside the top five. It really has been that sort of the year.

Crippled Black PhoenixWhite Light Generator

Crippled Black Phoenix  - White Light Generator

A remarkable combination of progressive and alternative rock that sometimes sounds like Swans collaborating with Pink Floyd, with diversions via the pastoral folk-prog of The Decemberists and the high-octane space-rock of prime-time Hawkwind. Loud and dirty guitar riffs alternate with atmospheric soundscapes and spoken word pieces, such that you never quite know what’s coming next. It all makes for an intense and exhilarating listen, thought its depth and scope mean it’s a record that takes many listens to fully appreciate. It’s precisely the sort of record that proves post-70s progressive rock has evolved far beyond the template of 80s neo-prog.

OpethPale Communion

Opeth Pale CommunionMikhael Akerfeld and his men will disappoint anyone still hoping 2011′s “Heritage” might have been a one-off, for Pale Communion is not a return to their death-metal roots. Instead it develops its predecessor’s contemporary take on classic and more obscure 70s sounds, and if anything it’s “Meddle” to Heritage’s “Atom Heart Mother”. There are no cookie monsters, but the record does retain all of Opeth’s mastery of dynamics, and its dark intensity shows there can be other forms of heaviness than bludgeoning riffs. The dense and atmospheric record has a similar mood to Gazpacho’s “Demon”; while the execution is quite different both have a mood that suggests shadowy things in Scandinavian forests.

Panic RoomIncarnate

IncarnateWith a new guitarist in Adam O’Sullivan Panic Room’s fourth album feels like the start of a new chapter for the band, and shows that sometimes a change of lead guitarist can be as big a change as a new lead singer. It’s a step away from the rich wall of sound that characterised their last couple of albums in favour of a lighter, more pared-back feel, with a stronger emphasis on Anne-Marie Helder’s songwriting. O’Sullivan has quite a different style as a guitarist, with jazz and blues flourishes, though he demonstrates that he can still rock out when it’s needed. But it’s still unmistakably Panic Room, with that combination of rock, pop, jazz, folk and prog focussed on strong songwriting and Anne-Marie’s award-winning vocals.

The Pineapple ThiefMagnolia

Pineapple Thief - MagnoliaThe Pineapple Thief are one of those bands generally considered part of the progressive rock scene, but take a modern, streamlined approach to their music. Magnolia sees them combine many of the best elements of their previous three records to result in their most accessible album to date. There are touches of dance/electronica rhythms and of hard rock riffing, but the emphasis is on big soaring melodies. They’re another band who are worthy of mainstream crossover success.

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The Pineapple Thief – Magnolia

Pineapple Thief - MagnoliaThe Pineapple Thief are one of those bands within the progressive rock scene who take a modern streamlined approach to their music, focusing on textures, atmospherics and strong melodies rather than complex instrumentation. Their last few albums have taken a zigzagging musical course, with the moments of dance/electronica on “Someone Here Is Missing” and the harder-edged guitar-driven sound of “All The Wars”.

“Magnolia” takes a slightly less experimental approach. Perhaps more consolidating than groundbreaking, it comes across as an amalgam of the best elements of their past few records. It’s very song-focussed, all shorter songs, mostly three or four minutes. The emphasis is on Bruce Soord’s vocals, with soaring minor-key melodies strongly recalling one of their best albums, 2008′s “Tightly Unwound”. Steve Kitch’s keys add tremendously to the atmospherics, including plenty of all-enveloping swirling Mellotron. Soord also impresses on guitar, going from Tom Morello-style abrasive blasts to evocative slide playing.

Highlights include the title track and the elegiac ballads “Seasons Past” and “From Me”, but this album is both consistent all the way through and contains plenty of variety; from epic balladry to full-on rock, from big walls of sound to stripped-down intimacy.

This is not only their best record since “Tightly Unwound”, but also one of the most accessible things they’ve done. Despite the tighter and more focussed approach to songwriting it’s still got all the depth of their earlier work. This is an essential album for fans of new-generation progressive rock, but fans of progressive-tinged mainstream rock acts like Muse or Elbow ought to find a lot to like about this album.

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The Pineapple Thief announce tour dates

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The Pineapple Thief have have announced a European tour culminating in four UK dates at the beginning of December.

The four UK dates are:

  • Wednesday Dec 3rd: O2 Academy Islington, London
  • Thursday Dec 4th: Fleece, Bristol
  • Friday Dec 5th: Ruby Lounge, Manchester
  • Suturday Dec 6th: The Liquid Rooms, Edinburgh
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The Pineapple Thief – Magnolia preview

A taster for the new album due in September.

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HRH Prog 2

Crimson Sky's Jane Setter at HRH ProgJane Setter of Crimson Sky

HRH Prog 2 is a residential rock festival held in this year the former Butlins holiday camp at Hafan-Y-Mor just outside Pwllheli in north Wales, following on from the successful first festival held in Rotherham a year ago.

It’s certainly a long way from anywhere, at the end of miles and miles of single-carriageway roads winding through the Welsh hills, or an equally winding single-track railway line, and it certainly wasn’t the organisers’ fault that part of the train journey was by replacement bus because the tracks had been washed away in a storm. There were complaints from some quarters that it was an inconvenient location. But it was an equal opportunity inconvenience; it takes just as long wherever you’re coming from. Continue reading

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Top Ten Albums of the Noughties

Loads of other people are doing subjective lists of best albums of the past decade – here are mine.  I always think personal lists are much more interesting than the sorts of bland lists of CDs you can get in Tesco’s compiled by committees that you’ll see in the mainstream.media  But I would say that, wouldn’t I?

In order to keep it varied I’ve imposed a rule that no artist may appear more than once in the top 10.

  • 10: Nightwish - Dark Passion Play
    There are so many female-fronted symphonic metal bands coming from various parts of Europe that it’s very difficult to single out just one. Finland’s Nightwish throw choirs, orchestras, Uilleann pipes and kitchen sinks into a gloriously over-the-top album mixing metal and opera with a touch of celtic folk, with new singer Anette Olzon adding a touch of warmth to lead vocals that’s missing from some bands in the genre.
  • 9: The Pineapple Thief – Tightly Unwound
    The Pineapple Thief describle themselves as ‘indie prog’, whatever that’s supposed to mean.  Some sonic similarities with pre-Kid A Radiohead, but with more traditional style rock vocals, and a extremely strong sense of melody, which is what makes this album stand out.
  • 8:  The Mars Volta – Deloused in the Comatorium
    After a string of disappointing albums over the past few years it’s easy to forget just how great their incendiary debut was. What’s been described as a mix of speed-metal and free jazz somehow combines the raw energy of punk with the complexity and technical skill of progressive rock.  It’s all completely bonkers, but in a good way.

  • 7:  Breathing Space – Below the Radar
    The York band really come of age with their third album. They may have dropped the jazzier elements of their sound in favour of a harder rock edge, but they still find room for some atmospheric ballads and big soaring epics which showcase Olivia Sparnenn’s amazing voice.  Iain Jennings production job gives the lie to the idea that you need a major-label budget to come up with a great-sounding album.
  • 6: Porcupine Tree – In Absentia
    It’s difficult to choose a single Porcupine Tree album out of several great ones they’ve recorded over the past decade. Indeed, with the possible exception of 2005′s slight misstep of Deadwing, all their albums in the noughties have been classics. If the 90s charted their progress from ambient Floydian soundscapes to a more song-orientated approach, 2002′s In Absentia saw them add some metal to the mix.  The combination of some Zeppelineque riffing and some darkly ambiguous lyrics may have lost them some older fans, but introduced them to a younger audience of metal fans.
  • 5 Karnataka – Strange Behaviour
    Some may say including a live album in the decade’s top ten may be cheating, but this is my blog, where I make up the rules. Strange Behaviour caught the atmospheric celtic-tinged prog outfit  just when they seemed poised for a major breakthrough, the live dynamics making the songs far more powerful than the studio recordings.  Sadly this double album turned out to their magnificent swansong, and the band were to implode shortly after it’s release.
  • 4 Marillion – Marbles
    Marillion are a rare example of a veteran act who can still make great new  music more than two decades into their career. Their output in the noughties may have been uneven, but this double album shows the Steve Hogarth incarnation of the band at their best; a hugely varied work which goes from experiments with drum loops and dub rhythms to huge soaring epics filled with Steve Rothery’s trademark sustain-drenched guitar. Ignore the single-disk retail edition; you need the double album available only from the band’s website.
  • 3 Fish – 13th Star
    Marillion’s former frontman’s career seemed to be petering out by the middle of the decade after a couple of disappointingly weak albums.  But he bounced back very strongly indeed with this one.  Musically it’s far removed from the ornate neo-prog of 80′s Marillion, a mix of metallic grooves and heart-on-sleeve ballads, lyrically it’s just about the most intense and emotionally charged thing he’s even done.
  • 2 Opeth – Blackwater Park
    Sweden’s Opeth combine death metal with 70′s style pastoral prog-rock to produce the perfect antidote to anyone who thinks heavy metal hasn’t progressed since Toni Iommi started playing tritones through a fuzzbox way back in 1970.  Blackwater Park, produced by Porcupine Tree’s Steve Wilson, marks the point where they established their signature sound, Mikael Åkerfeldt switching back and forth between ‘Cookie Monster’ and ‘clean’ vocals, and the music switching back and forth between dense swirling heavyness and reflective acoustic passages. Metal has never quite been the same since.
  • 1 Mostly Autumn – The Last Bright Light
    As I said at the very beginning, this is a personal list. And this is the album which has changed my life more than any of the preceding ones. This was very much the coming-of-age album for York’s finest progressive rock band, and marked the high point of their celtic-prog phase of their career, full of soaring and emotionally powerful epics making use of flutes and even crumhorns alongside traditional rock instruments. Although they subsequently moved to the more polished commercial sound of the follow-up Passengers, even now their live sets still draw heavily from this album.

There are plenty of other great albums just outside the top 10; Therion’s totally bonkers choral metal Gothic Kabbalah, Muse’s recent The Resistance, IQ’s neo-prog masterpiece Frequency, Pure Reason Revolution’s hypnotically captivating The Dark Third, either of The Reasoning’s two albums, and Dream Theater’s recent return to form Black Clouds and Silver Linings.

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Top Ten Albums of the Year 2008

I wasn’t originally going to arrange these in order, but in the end I did it anyway, just to annoy those people who hate ranked lists.

10. Van der Graaf Generator – Trisector
Reduced to a trio after the departure of David Jackson, this album proves the slimmed-down version of the 70s progressive rock veterans can still deliver an album in the same league as their 2005 comeback album “Present

9. Magenta – Metamorphosis
Magenta are very much old-school Prog, wearing their Yes, Genesis and Mike Oldfield influences on their sleeve, playing 20 minute epics with titles like ‘The Ballad of Samual Layne’. They get away with it though superior songwriting and arrangement, and stunning individual performances from Christina Booth on vocals and Chris Fry on guitar.

8. Josh and Co – Through These Eyes
This solo album from Bryan Josh of Mostly Autumn appeared out of the blue at the end of November. Has a similar sound and production to Mostly Autumn’s last album, but the songs are looser and more contemporary-sounding. Quite dark in places, playfully self-indulgent in others, and Bryan cuts loose on the guitar in a way that shows how much he’d been holding back on recent Mostlies releases; I haven’t heard him shred like that for ages. Although Bryan naturally handles most of the vocals, there are also some quite stunning contributions from Olivia Sparnenn which really make me look forward to the next Breathing Space album

7. Uriah Heep – Wake the Sleeper
Nine years since their last studio album, and the mighty Heep are back with a powerful statement that the hard rock veterans are very much in business. Ironically for a band who have spent much of their career in the shadow of the much bigger and more successful Deep Purple, they’ve now come up with something that blows away anything Purple have done in the last nine years. It compares very favourably with their best output from their 70s heyday, and I don’t think they’ve ever rocked harder than this.

6. Panic Room – Visionary Position
The debut from the band that grew out of the ashes of Karnataka, fronted by Anne-Marie Helder. Three years in the making, it’s a rich multilayered album with a real mix of styles from hard rock, folk, pop and full-blown prog which was well worth the wait.

5. Pineapple Thief – Tightly Unwound
Pineapple Thief are one of the new generation of progressive rock bands who mix elements of 70s progressive rock with more contemporary influences to give a streamlined modern sound rather than produce a pastiche of older bands. You can hear the influence of both early Radiohead and Porcupine Tree on this album, although thankfully we’re spared Thom Yorke-style whining vocals, and there is definitely no shortage of tunes.

4. Mostly Autumn – Glass Shadows
A strong release which is a marked improvement on the patchy and badly-produced “Heart Full of Sky” even if it doesn’t quite match their best work. Written entirely by Bryan Josh and Heather Findlay this time around, it’s more mainstream melodic rock than the celtic-tinged prog of their early work, but retains the 70s vibe that’s still a major element of their sound. Musically it has hard rockers, shimmering piano ballads, dreamy atmospheric numbers and soaring guitar-driven epics. Lyrically they’re certainly not singing about Hobbits any more, this is a true life story about heartbreak, joy, tragedy and hope.

3. Opeth – Watershed
2005′s “Ghost Reveries” wasn’t an easy album to follow, but Opeth managed to equal it with “Watershed“, which contains all their trademark elements; piledriving heavy passages alternating with delicate guitar harmonies, Mikael Åkerfeldt’s vocals swapping back and forth between harsh ‘cookie monster’ and heartfelt clean vocals, typically all in the same song. It’s not an easy listen, songs average ten minutes, and don’t have anything as crassly commercial as conventional verses or choruses. But when you get what they’re doing, the result can only be described as ‘symphonic’.

2. Marillion – Happiness is the Road
This double album is a vast improvement on last year’s patchy “Somewhere Else“. The two disks are conceived as two separate single albums; the atmospheric “Essence“, and the rockier “The Hard Shoulder“. Both contain plenty of gems and very little filler. Stylistically it’s the same contemporary sound as recent albums rather than a reversion to an earlier sound. Steve Hogarth is on great form, using his voice as much as a musical instrument rather than solely to express the lyrics, and Steve Rothery demonstrates in many places why he’s one of the best rock guitarists out there.

1. The Reasoning – Dark Angel
It’s difficult to choose just one album as my album of the year, but in the end I’ve settled for The Reasoning’s second album. Last year’s debut “Awakening” was one of my top albums of last year, a great mix of melodic hard rock with progressive flavouring, with three-part vocal harmones and a powerful twin lead guitar attack. This one takes things to another level, adding some metal to the mix, full of melodies that get stuck in your brain, sublime vocals from Rachel Cohen, and some amazing but never self-indulgent playing from new guitarist Owain Roberts.

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