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2015 Albums of the Year – Part One

It’s that time of year again, when us music bloggers write our end-of-year lists of the albums that have impressed us over the past twelve months.

Usual caveats apply, of course, there are no doubt plenty of superb albums from 2015 I have yet to hear, and won’t be on my radar screen until I see them on other people’s end-of-year lists. Which, in a nutshell, is really the whole point of these things. I still think lists compiled by committees for general music publications are largely a waste of time. But this is not one of those lists.

There are 25 in my list this year, and here’s part one, going from 25 down to 18. They’re not in any particular order, consider them all 18-equal.

Caligula’s Horse – Bloom

Caligulas Horse - BloomState of the art twin-guitar prog-metal from Australia, filled with serpentine riffs, memorable vocal melodies and some spectacular soloing. It combines the dynamics of mid-period Opeth with the modern jazz-metal experimentation of Haken and Maschine with the atmospherics of Riverside, while managing to avoid sounding remotely derivaive.

Kamchatka – A Long Road Made of Gold

Long Road Made Of GoldThe Swedish power-trio deliver some classy blues-based hard rock. There’s an emphasis on tight arrangements, with punchy songs and short but effective blasts of shredding lead guitar, with a superb production that makes it sound as though the band are playing in your living room.

Muse – Drones

Muse DronesTeignmouth’s finest take a step back from the Queen-with-kitchen-sinks approach of their last couple of albums in favour of something of stripped-down guitar-driven power trio approach of their early albums. But when you’ve got Mutt Lange of AC/DC fame as producer, “stripped-down” is still a relative thing. There’s still a big expansive sounds that goes from hard rock boogie to a nod to spaghetti western soundtracks. This is still a Muse album, after all.

Pope Francis – Wake Up

Pope Fancis Wake UoNot many people would have put “The Pope releases bonkers prog-rock album” in their musical predictions for 2015. One of the years strangest releases mixes excepts from sermons with a blend of traditional church music and progressive rock with a nod to world music. The combination of spoken word with big minor-key choral crescendos and the occasional blast of full-on rock guitar is worth a listen for anyone who appreciates things like Mostly Autumn’s “The Gap Is Too Wide”. It certainly makes evangelical protestant worship music look tame by comparison.

Praying Mantis – Legacy

Praying Mantis - LegacyThe tenth album by one-time NWOBHM heroes is polished twin-guitar hard rock, more AOR than metal, with echoes of Uriah Heep and Journey. Remarkable in its consistency, there is no filler and every track has something to like about it. Just occasionally it skirts on the edge of cheese, but most of the time this is a classy piece of work.

Queensrÿche – Condition: Hüman

Queensryche Condition HumanWith new vocalist Todd Le Torre the prog-metal pioneers recover some of their mojo, with a record that evokes the spirit of the 1980s heyday, with soaring vocals and razor-sharp riffs. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of their peerless 80s masterpieces, but it’s still the best thing they’ve done for many years, and certainly blows Geoff Tate’s lacklustre album “The Key” clean out of the water.

Secrets of the Sky – Pathway

Secrets of the Sky - PathwayThis Californian band brew up a monstrous wall of sound. With no choruses or solos the songs take the form of dense soundscapes of layered guitars, doom-laden drums and washes of keys. With evil-sounding growls for the heavy parts and clean vocals for the reflective, atmospheric moments, the end result is an intense and in places very heavy record where even the lighter parts can sound truly menacing.

Spock’s Beard – The Oblivion Particle

Spocks Beard The Oblivion ParticleTheir twelfth album has verything we’ve come to expect from a Spock’s Beard record; swirling Mellotron and Hammond organ, blasts of hard rock guitar, rich layered vocal harmonies, and a strong sense of melody. Spock’s Beard again succeed by having one foot in the past and one in the present; creating a delightfully retro sound with a modern sensibility.

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Spock’s Beard – Islington Academy

Ryo Okumoto

Spock’s Beard were one of the first of the third generation of Progressive Rock bands, emerging in the mid 1990s when the genre was at its all-time lowest ebb. Over the years they’ve gone through a few ups and downs, including two changes of singer, and have survived to become something of elder statesmen of the scene. They came to Islington Academy to promote their 12th album “The Oblivion Particle”, the second to feature newest vocalist Ted Leonard.

They had two support bands on the tour, and with the customary early curfew due to the following club night, the opening act Synaesthesia were already on stage playing to a near-empty room at the ridiculously early time of 6pm. This extremely youthful band had made a strong impression at HRH Prog last year, and again on supporting Marillion back in April, but on this occasion they didn’t seem quite as together. There were moments of impressive guitar work, especially during the final song, but the set as a whole seemed to lack groove and coherence.

Hungarian four-piece Special Providence were far more impressive. The instrumental band were the missing link between prog-metal and jazz-fusion, a concept which had the potential to be truly awful in the wrong hands. But Special Providence turned out to be one of the best previously-unknown supports act of the year, with tight grooves, fluid guitar and an emphasis on solid composition rather than endless soloing.

Ted  Leonard

Spock’s Beard kicked off with the opening number of the latest album, “Tides of Time”, all swirling keyboards, hard rock riffs and anthemic instrumental passages, pretty much the quintessential SB sound. Their music is rooted in 1970s sounds, the keyboards and guitars of classic first-generation progressive rock and the vocal harmonies of west coast rock, all presented with a modern sensibility without the self-indulgent excess.

One of the things that makes Spock’s Beard an entertaining live band is not just that they’re all talented musicians who clearly enjoy being on stage, but they also have a sense of showmanship many of the peers lack. The most charismatic figure is not frontman Ted Leonard or lead guitarist Alan Morse, but keyboard player Ryo Okumoto, his battery of keyboards down at the front of the stage and deployed side-on so the audience can see him play. His love of vintage 70s keyboards is one of the defining elements of the band’s sound. Though this gig didn’t see a genuine Mellotron or Hammond B3 on stage, there was still a real Moog with twiddleable knobs.

The bulk of the set came from the new album or its immediate predecessor “Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep”, all of which comes over impressively on stage. They did throw in a couple of much older songs from the Neil Morse era, both from 1998′s “The Kindness of Strangers”, “The Good Don’t Last” and the acoustic “June”, the latter turning into an enthusiastic audience singalong.

Although he often seems to play second fiddle to Ryo Okumoto’s keyboard wizardly, Alan Morse is a great if sometimes underrated guitarist, and is far more than just a foil. This was readily apparent whenever he cut loose, for example the climactic solo in “Waiting For Me” which closed the main set.

After a brief acoustic excerpt of “Bennett Build a Time Machine”, they encored with a real oldie, the multi-part epic “The Water” from their 1995 début album, stately anthemic passages alternating with jazz-rock workouts, with a few bars of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” thrown in for good measure, and the infamous “**** You” passage predictably became another singalong.

And so ended an excellent performance. Even twenty years into their career Spock’s Beard have avoided the all-too-easy the trap of turning into their own tribute act playing sets filled with crowd-pleasing early material, instead challenging and winning over the audience with a heavy emphasis on their most recent albums.

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Spock’s Beard – The Oblivion Particle

Spocks Beard The Oblivion ParticleSince their emergence in the mid-1990s when the genre was at its lowest ebb, Spock’s Beard have become elder statesmen of the third wave of progressive rock. With their twelfth album “The Oblivion Particle”, the second to feature Ted Leonard on lead vocals, they show no signs of running out of ideas.

The sound is what we’ve come to expect from Spock’s Beard. swirling Mellotron and Hammond organ, blasts of hard rock guitar, rich layered vocal harmonies, and a strong sense of melody. If you imagine 70s British progressive rock married to the US West Coast sound with a bit of The Beatles thrown in for good measure, that’s Spock’s Beard’s distinctive musical identity. As ever they love their vintage keyboards which have become a signature sound for the band, and Ryo Okumoto adds a few vintage synth sounds to the sonic palette.

From the opening wig-out “Tides of Time” and the soaring melodies of “Minion” to the stately finale of “Disappear” this is a record that needs multiple listens before it really starts to come to life. There are times when it strongly recalls Yes, especially those moments where the instrumentation drops out leaving gorgeous a capella harmonies, such as on “A Better Way to Fly”. But this is a record with far more energy than anything Yes have done for decades. There is an exuberance about the whole thing; it’s the sound of a band who know what they want to be and enjoy being it. Perhaps the only thing missing from this album is a stripped-down ballad to balance out the rocker workouts. Something along the lines of Octane’s “The Beauty Of It All” might have lifted the record to the next level.

But once you’ve given it enough time to get under your skin, “The Oblivion Particle” is a highly enjoyable record. Spock’s Beard succeed in having one foot in the past and one in the present; a delightfully retro sound with a modern sensibility.

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Neal Morse – Songs for November

Songs for NovemberSince leaving Spock’s Beard to “pursue a more spiritual path”, Neal Morse has released a string of albums combining over-the-top progressive rock with Evangelical Christian lyrics so heavy-handed than even many Christians find them hard to stomach.

This record is neither of those things.

This is quite explicitly a singer-songwriter record, with straightforward songs rather than multi-part prog epics, every song clocking in at around four minutes of so. A few of the big soaring melodies wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a mid-period Spock’s Beard record, and “Spock’s Beard Lite”, wouldn’t be a bad description for much of the album. Lyrically the “God stuff” isn’t entirely absent, but it’s not in-your-face either; the songs are more about life in all its richness.

Neal plays the guitars, keys and bass, with a variety of guest musicians contributing percussion, brass, strings and backing vocals. Even though the songs themselves are simple, quite a few are still embellished with some rich arrangements. There’s a big brassy riff on opener “Whatever Days”, gospel-style harmonies on “Heaven Smiles” and some very evocative solo violin from Chris Carmichael on “My Time of Dying”. More than one track has a summary west coast feel, ironic given the album title.

The one fall from grace is the overly saccharine “Daddy’s Daughter” which falls deep into pass-the-sick-bag territory. That one track aside, this is an enjoyable album that does what it says on the tin. As a singer-songwriter album by a progressive rock frontman it bears comparison with Alan Reed’s excellent “First in a Field of One”. Certainly there are plenty of tunes that get stuck in your head after a few listens.

Spock’s Beard fans ought to find a lot of like about this record, especially those who find the overt religiosity of his other solo work a bit too much.

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Spock’s Beard – Snow

With their sixth album, Californian prog-rockers Spock’s Beard have done what many prog-rock bands have done at some point in their career, produced a double concept album. In prog-rock history, such beasts have either been their creator’s finest hours, or marked the point where hubris got the better of them. So, is “Snow” a ‘Lamb Lies Down on Broadway’, or is it a ‘Tales from Topographic Oceans’?

For the uninitiated, Spock’s Beard are a 5-piece from San Francisco, comprising of Neil Morse on lead vocals, keyboards and acoustic guitar, Alan Morse on lead guitar, Ryo Okumoto on keyboards, Dave Meros on bass and Nick D’Virgillo on drums. Over the course of the previous five their sound has blended influences of Pink Floyd, Yes, The Beatles, and more obscure English progressive bands like Gentle Giant with that of American bands such as pre-blandout Kansas into a seamless whole; their sometimes lengthy songs feature strong melodies with big sweeping choruses, punctuated by manic instrumental sections. Eschewing modern synths sounds and and samples, they play 70s instruments, with heavy use of Hammond organ and Mellotron.

The concept is a trifle vague; with the central character ‘Snow’ a Tommy-like messaianic figure; but progressive rock isn’t really about the lyrics, it’s about the music. And music-wise, Spock’s Beard deliver.

All these trademark Spock’s Beard elements are present on “Snow”. The songs on both disks run into each other to produce a pair of hour-long pieces, in true concept album fashion. There are some noisy guitar-driven songs, such as heavy “Devil’s Got My Throat”, jazzy instrumental passages like the instrumental break on “Open Wide the Flood Gates”, and even an ELP-style keyboard explosion in the appropriately-titled “Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr Ryo Okumoto on the Keyboards”. The strongest individual song has to be the ‘Comfortably Numb’-style ballad “Solitary Soul”, penultimate number on disk one.

Overall, a strong album even if the two-hour length means there’s a bit of filler there, although I found it took quite a few listens to really get in to. If you like this album, there’s a good chance you will also like their five previous albums.

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