Tag Archives: Porcupine Tree

Desert Island Disks

The long-running BBC radio series “Desert Island Disks” asks the guest celebrity of the week to choose eight of their favourite records. The premise is that if you were marooned on a desert island, and you had just eight records to listen to, what would they be?

I’m treating “records” as albums, and for this exercise, I’ve imposed a rule of no compilations, and no live albums. So with no further ado…

pink-floyd-meddlePink Floyd – Meddle

The first album I ever bought was Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”. But although that album means a lot to me, there’s only room in this list for one dark angst-ridden concept album, and that’s coming up further down. And though “Dark Side of the Moon” and “Wish You Were Here” are undisputed classics. they’re so overexposed that they’ve just been worn smooth. If I’m in the mood for some Pink Floyd nowadays it’s most often either “Meddle” or “Animals” that gets played. If forced to choose, we’ll go for Meddle. It’s worth it for the extended dreamy atmospherics of “Echoes” alone, but there’s more to the album that that.

blue-oyster-cult-secret-treatiesBlue Öyster Cult – Secret Treaties

Blue Öyster Cult have been one of my top bands ever since a college friend played me the live version of “Astronomy” from Some Enchanted Evening when that live disk was still almost a current album. But since live albums are against my self-imposed rules, so we’ll go for their classic third album. Fan consensus is their Secret Treaties is their best, and fan consensus isn’t wrong. It’s the final album of the so-called “Black and White trilogy” combining richly layered music with a raw garage-like sound, with high weirdness lyrics hinting at the magical origins of World War Two. Blue Öyster Cult were always far more that just a metal band, and this album is proof of that.

Rainbow RisingRainbow – Rising

Hearing “Eyes of the World” on Nicky Horne’s show on Capital Radio radio changed my life. Ever since then Ritchie Blackmore’s music has been part of the soundtrack of my life, either with Deep Purple or with Rainbow. He was at the peak of his powers when he made this record along with the greatest hard rock singer of all time in the shape of the late Ronnie James Dio, and a sheer force of nature in Cozy Powell on drums. With just six tracks and a running time of less that forty minutes it’s all-killer-no-filler, with the monumental “Stargazer” as the centrepiece of the record.

220px-MarillionBraveMarillion – Brave

The three previous bands had been long-established by the time their music first appeared on my radar, but with Marillion I was there from the start. Not quite to the extent that I was seeing them play to thirty people in pubs before they were signed, but I did see them at the 1982 Reading Festival and bought their first album of the day of release. Since then they have released many great albums both with Fish and later with Steve Hogarth, but the favourite has to be their dark and intense 1994 concept album. As the sleeve notes say, play it loud with the lights out.

mostly-autumn-the-last-bright-lightMostly Autumn – The Last Bright Light

Anyone who knows me knows that Mostly Autumn are one of my favourite bands. I’ve seen them something like a hundred times live now. Which doesn’t make it easy to choose just one album, especially when their music has evolved of the years along with changes in the make-up of the band. But if forced to choose just one, it will be their third, the high point of their celtic-folk-prog era on Cyclops records. It’s now sadly out of print, though many of the best songs appear on the retrospective compilation “Pass the Clock”.

porcupine-tree-in-absentiaPorcupine Tree – In Absentia

It’s not easy to choose one Porcupine Tree record. Sometimes it seems as if their best album is whichever one I’ve just listened to. But if forced to keep just one, it would be have to be this album, because it’s sheer variety covers many of the bases of their sound. In just the first three numbers it goes from the Zepellinesque riffery of “Blackest Eyes”, the song-focused pop-rock of “Trains” and the psychedelic atmospherics of “Lips of Ashes”.

opeth-waershedOpeth – Watershed

Perhaps more than any other band, Opeth have redefined what a metal or progressive rock band can be, with deep roots in the classic rock of the 1970s on one hand and a contemporary attitude and desire to avoid repeating their own past on the other. Few other bands can match their sense of dynamics and compositional skills. All their albums are good, but Watershed is the best, seamlessly combining intense heaviness with mellow atmospherics, often in the same song, and would be the last time Mikael Åkerfeldt would use his death-metal growling vocals on record.

Panic Room - SKINPanic Room – S K I N

Along with Mostly Autumn, Panic Room are my other favourite club-level band, and I’ve seen them live almost as many times. Indeed, the two bands were joined at the hip at one point with Anne-Marie Helder and Gavin Griffiths doing double duty in both. All their albums have their fans; there are even people who think the first was the best, but for me the favourite has to be their third, which goes from hard rock to jazz-tinged adult pop to epic soaring ballads while still adding up to a coherent work. It may well be that their best is yet to come, but for now this album is their masterpiece.

Over to you. What eight records could you not live without?

Posted in Music Opinion | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

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.
Posted in Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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.

Posted in Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Porcupine Tree, Prog and the MSM

Even the indie-obsessed BBC has noticed Porcupine Tree’s chart success

Observant chart watchers may have noticed an unfamiliar – and unusual – name in the UK top 30 album chart this week.

Among a flurry of new entries from Peter Andre, Jay-Z, Pixie Lott and David Gray is an album by a band that has been around longer than any of them: Porcupine Tree.

Porcupine who?

Yes, Porcupine Tree’s new album, “The Incident”, has charted at No 23, in the same week as Muse, who despite being in the NME are proggier than a very prog thing, are sitting at No 1.

Of course, some people are never happy…

Bad news: the article is a remix of the usual “prog’s back!” non-story and, worse, SW doesn’t reject the label this time.

Personally I thought Steve Wilson’s “we’re not prog” was always rather silly, and my opinions of genre gerrymanderers who make a distinction between “progressive” (i.e. music they like) and “prog” (i.e. music they don’t) is well-documented. I’m not interested in reopening that argument yet again. Post self-justifying rants in the comments and I will track you down and force you to listen to Arena…

As for the album itself, it’s certainly one of those that takes quite a few listens to get into.

Posted in Music | Tagged , | 4 Comments

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.

Posted in Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off