Tag Archives: Top Ten

The Guardian Critics Poll

As I expected, The Guardian’s Critics Poll of 2009 failed to include a single album I actually own. While people keep telling me that there are genres out there other than prog, someone needs to tell The Guardian writers that there is music out there other than lo-fi indie-pop.  Yes I know there’s a bit more variety in the top 50, but the top 10 comes over as very one-dimensional.

It’s probably a consequence of their final list being made up by a committee, and a voting system that favoured the lowest common denominator consensus rather than a list more interestingly varied. Not that those in the top 10 aren’t necessarily worthy albums, but the way they’re described don’t fill me with a desire to go straight to YouTube or Last.fm to check them out.

Still, I think the complete absence of anything resembling Rock is a significant failing, and The Guardian are certainly wearing their genre biases on their sleeves here.  As I said in a comment

There still seems to be a bias against certain genres – whether that’s deliberate or an unintended consequence I’m not qualified to comment.

While I’m not expecting you to review every obscure self-released prog or metal album, I do notice you never seem to review artists such as Nightwish, Porcupine Tree, Within Temptation, Opeth or Marillion, all of whom sell far more albums and concert tickets than many of the indie/alternative artists you do review. Apologies if you have reviewed all these artists and I’ve missed them, but…

Do these bands or their labels not send The Guardian review copies? Note that many of them follow a fan-funded pre-order model, where the pre-orders are typically mailed out long before the official retail release. Is The Guardian not able to accommodate that model?

Or does The Guardian choose not to review such bands on the grounds that they don’t have any reviewers with enough knowledge of the genres to give them a fair review? Or they don’t reflect the perceived values of The Guardian’s brand? Or the bands themselves are afraid of being dismissed with a sneering hatchet job?

The Guardian’s Michael Hann actually responded to this:

Those acts, for whatever reason, seem not to be interested in us – we rarely get alerted to their releases, and rarely get sent the records. We did get the Opeth album in spring 2008, which narrowly missed review. But things like Isis, Sunn0))) and others in the underground metal sector have been written about very favourably in these pages. We don’t have a ton of reviewers who can deal with this stuff knowledgeably – and because budgets are tighter than ever owing to this recession thing, I am not in a position to go hunting for new writers.

I know metal/prog get short shrift in the mainstream media, but in our defence I’d say we Film&Music does more at that end than any of the other papers, and when we do so, we do it without taking the mickey.

On the other hand, if you were a publicist for an independent prog-metal band, saw The Guardian’s top 10 albums of 2009, and decided there was no point submitting their album to The Guardian for review because your band’s music didn’t seem to fit their brand image, who would blame you?

And one commenter identified the brand, and identified it as the “White Urban Metrosexual Macintosh Owner Music awards“. I couldn’t possibly comment…

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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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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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