Posts Tagged ‘ Progrock ’

Album of the Week 38-2018: Voivod – The Wake


After ‘Target Earth’ being much better than it had any right to be and the excellent ‘Post Society’ EP, Canadian sci-fi thrashers Voivod had a reputation to live up to. They proved that they could still write a song that their late guitarist Denis ‘Piggy’ D’Amour would be proud of. But could they continue his legacy in a satisfying manner? Hearing ‘The Wake’ leaves only one possible answer to that question: a resounding yes. Most impressively, Voivod decided not to lean back and release ‘Target Earth II’, instead treating us to an album that pushes their progressive tendencies to the fore.

Just like on ‘Target Earth’, Dan ‘Chewy’ Mongrain plays so many twisted dissonant chords and almost fusion-esque melodies that it’s barely noticeable that D’Amour is no longer there. The riff work is notably less thrashy though; ‘The Wake’ opts for a somewhat more spacious sound and therefore feels like the natural successor to ‘Nothingface’ or ‘The Outer Limits’ rather than ‘Killing Technology’. Every song feels like a little adventure on an extraterrestrial planet where anything can happen, without ever sounding as chaotic or busy as many of the other bands of the Québécois metal scene, as Michel ‘Away’ Langevin’s rhythms are generally laid-back rather than hyper aggressive.

It is interesting to see how every song unfolds, as many songs open with a riff that will claw its way to your brain and once the verse-chorus structure is established, the band moves into more experimental territory with a section that almost feels like a particularly tight jam. ‘Iconspiracy’ is the most notable instance of this, which after appearing to be one of the more intensely propulsive tracks on the record moves into an almost cinematic b-section with a string quartet, followed by what is arguably Mongrain’s best solo on the record. ‘The End Of Dormancy’ follows a similar path, forsaking conventional structures for an approach that builds riff upon riff.

Because of this approach, it is more difficult to pick highlights than it was on ‘Target Earth’, as ‘The Wake’ is best listened to in its entirity. It is impossible not to mention closing track ‘Sonic Mycelium’ in that context, however. It never feels quite as long as its running time of twelve and a half minutes, though it has a number of interesting shifts in mood and intensity. The track reprises several musical ideas that appeared earlier on the album with a completely different atmosphere and just when you think the returning string quartet concludes the album in a ‘Grand Fugue’-like fashion, Mongrain and bassist Dominic ‘Rocky’ Laroche return for the open ending.

For a band to be truly progressive, they’d have to try out new things without completely alienating their sound. That is exactly what Voivod does on ‘The Wake’. In a way, it is to ‘Target Earth’ what the holy diptych of ‘Dimension Hatröss’ and ‘Nothingface’ was to ‘Killing Technology’. Those who did not like the band before will probably still be unimpressed by the almost spacey atmosphere and the relatively montonous vocals of Denis ‘Snake’ Belanger, but anyone who loved the progressive sci-fi thrash Voivod got buried under justified praise for should be happy with how remarkably and weirdly good ‘The Wake’ really is.

Recommended tracks: ‘Always Moving’, ‘Sonic Mycelium’, ‘Spherical Perspective’

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Album of the Week 33-2018: Fates Warning – Darkness In A Different Light


Prolific is a thing Fates Warning has not been for a while. At the time of its release, ‘Darkness In A Different Light’ was only the fifth Fates Warning album 22 years and their first in almost a decade. Maybe they needed the time to recharge their batteries, because it is easily their best in a long time. While no Fates Warning album is ever less than decent, much of the material released prior to ‘Darkness In A Different Light’ lacked either assertion (‘FWX’) or melodic content (‘Disconnected’). However, this album restores the balance that is so essential for progressive metal.

Stylistically, ‘Darkness In A Different Light’ is not too far removed from ‘Sympathetic Resonance’, the album guitarist Jim Matheos recorded with original singer John Arch. The riff work is heavy, but there is an abundance of melodic and atmospheric touches to give the material depth and lasting power. The biggest difference between the two albums is defined by singer Ray Alder, who has a much darker and more emotional tone than Arch. And while his range has not aged perfectly, the emotional impact of his delivery is impressive, resulting in what is arguably his best singing since the rather vocal-centric ‘Parallels’.

While ‘Darkness In A Different Light’ is no stylistic detour – it basically blends the heavy punch of ‘Disconnected’ with the melancholic melodicism of ‘Parallels’ – something feels fresh and more metallic about the album. My suspicion is that switching drummers had some influence on that. Mark Zonder’s skills are unquestionable, but he also has a tendency to overplay. Bobby Jarzombek is every bit as technical, but understands that even in its most complex form, heavy metal should be driven and energetic. The return of longtime guitarist Frank Aresti can also be felt in the lead guitar department, though it is still pretty much Matheos’ album.

At its best, ‘Darkness In A Different Light’ can certainly be compared favorably to Fates’ classic material. ‘Firefly’ is a gorgeous song that blends crushing riffing with a fantastic chorus, while ‘And Yet It Moves’ closes the album in a particularly epic fashion. It forsakes the suite-like nature of many long progmetal tracks in favor of a more song-oriented approach to the point where I didn’t realize I was listening to a 14 minute song until the acoustic part before the finale reared its head. The darkly brooding ‘Lighthouse’ is one of the most brilliantly atmospheric tracks in the band’s discography.

If there is anything to criticize about ‘Darkness In A Different Light’ is that it takes a slightly too obvious cue from bands that commenced their activities after Fates Warning did at times. The influence of Porcupine Tree pops up every now and then and ‘Kneel And Obey’ has a distinct Alice In Chains vibe. That is hardly an issue that ruins the listening pleasure of the album though, as it easily is one of the better progressive metal albums in recent years. Fates themselves would eventually outdo it with the slightly more consistent ‘Theories Of Flight’ three years later, but fans of intricate, yet heavy and melodically strong music should enjoy this immensely.

Recommended tracks: ‘Firefly’, ‘And Yet It Moves’, ‘Lighthouse’

Album of the Week 03-2018: Kayak – Seventeen


Kayak is one of the few bands who can keep changing musicians and still sound like Kayak. ‘Seventeen’ is the ultimate proof. Only founding keyboard player Ton Scherpenzeel remains from the last album, yet it is the most inspired set of songs Kayak has released in at least ten years, possibly even as much as three and a half decades. In a time when progressive rock fans have to count on affectionate retro bands, Scherpenzeel is one of the originators of the genre still laying down some amazing, symphonically tinged progrock compositions with a passion that is nothing less than admirable.

Despite being the sole composer of these songs, Scherpenzeel is not the only one who deserves credit for how good ‘Seventeen’ is. The eighties inspired guitar heroics of Marcel Singor – along his gorgeous tone – really make this material come to life and give it the rock edge that some of the band’s most popular songs lack. The difference on the vocal front is notable too; Kayak no longer has a male-female vocal duo. Instead, Bart Schwertmann has a passionate, almost theatrical vibe that fits Scherpenzeel’s compositions really well. Some may miss Edward Reekers’ warm delivery, but as far as prog rock singers go, this is excellent.

With ‘Seventeen’ being a progressive rock album, there are some long songs that move through several moods and atmospheres without sounding incoherent. ‘Walk Through Fire’ is one of those moments, which starts out almost intimate before entering a highly memorable section with fairly obvious Celtic influences and builds from a dark middle section to a bombastic finale. Another one of the epic suites, ‘La Peregrina’, has an almost classical elegance, while the shortest of the three, ‘Cracks’ feels like a more traditional progressive rock song with some amazing fretless bass work courtesy of Kristoffer Gildenlöw (ex-Pain Of Salvation).

If Kayak has proven anything through the years, however, it’s that their shorter, more concise song are no less interesting than the longer ones. And that doesn’t just concern the short instrumentals, like ‘Ripples On The Water’, which features some beautiful lead guitar work by Camel’s Andy Latimer. Opening track ‘Somebody’ has a Queen-like feel to it and some really strong melodies, while ‘Feathers And Tar’ has a great chorus an some of the most propulsive rhythms on the album. ‘All That I Want’ is a flawless pop song and the appropriately titled ‘To An End’ is a beautiful, heartfelt ballad like only Kayak can do them.

Though Kayak’s compositions are never less than good, I tend to prefer the material on which the guitars and the keyboards are in perfect balance. In addition, the fact that ‘Seventeen’ was conceived with the idea that a band should play it rather than being a studio project, the material just sounds a little more “alive” than usual. Everyone involved obviously plays their heart out and it is that simple fact that makes these compositions, which were already good to begin with, just a little bit better. Highly recommended for progressive rock fans, both traditional and contemporary.

Recommended tracks: ‘Feathers And Tar’, ‘Somebody’, ‘La Peregrina’

Album of the Week 49-2017: Fates Warning – Theories Of Flight

Initially, Fates Warning’s twelfth studio album ‘Theories Of Flight’ failed to excite me the way its predecessor ‘Darkness In A Different Light’ did. I dismissed it as the prog metal giants trying to repeat the same formula. Then suddenly, it clicked. And I realized that ‘Theories Of Flight’ is one of Fates Warning’s best albums thus far. Yes, it roughly follows a similar formula as ‘Darkness…’ did, but Fates Warning succeeds at blending their traditional progressive metal roots with contemporary prog rock elements in the vein of Porcupine Tree and Tool and more catchy moments better than ever here.

The guitar work of sole remaining original member Jim Matheos are an important part of the aforementioned formula. It is incredibly varied. Within the same song, it often flows from traditional heavy metal riffs to typical prog chops and atmospheric clean strums in a very fluent and pleasant manner. It would be unreasonable to ignore the contributions of Bobby Jarzombek though. While his predecessor Mark Zonder was an incredible drummer in his own right, Jarzombek plays with a comparable level of technicality, just with a style that feels somewhat looser and more driving than Zonder’s. A very solid foundation for compositions that often feel fluid.

Progressive metal has a bit of a bad rap for lacking a focus on songwriting. Enter Fates Warning. Even in their early days, they combined hooks and recognizable melodies with all the odd meters and unpredictable compositions you could wish for. Virtuosity does take a back seat on most of their albums and ‘Theories Of Flight’ is no exception. Sure, there are some great leads to be found here – remarkably, the majority recorded by former guitarist Frank Aresti and live guitarist Mike Abdow – but Matheos mainly seems interested in using his guitar for dependable melodic work.

Fortunately, this approach works very well. At time incredibly so. ‘SOS’, for instance, is a highly dynamic track with lots of fantastic twists, but its incredible chorus – performed expertly by Ray Alder – is the highlight of the song. Opening track ‘From The Rooftops’ feels like a bit of a mini-suite and as such, it is the most traditionally progressive song on the album, while ‘White Flag’ is so metallic that it would not have sounded out of place on one of the band’s late eighties records. The 10 minute songs ‘The Light And Shade Of Things’ and ‘The Ghosts Of Home’ are not crammed full of ideas, but instead given room to slowly develop into multi-faceted, atmospheric masterpieces with multiple mood changes. Very impressive.

And as if the fact that ‘Theories Of Flight’ does not have a single weak moment wasn’t yet enough, Jens Bogren’s fantastic production makes the listening experience even more pleasant. Sonically, the album is as far away from the overly compressed standard for contemporary prog metal releases as it gets. ‘Theories Of Flight’ sounds organic and lively, even giving the extremely effective bass work of Joey Vera the space it deserves without becoming intrusive. This album is what happens if you put a group of incredible musicians who only care about having the music sound as good as it possibly can in one studio. Absolutely essential for fans of progressive music.

Recommended tracks: ‘SOS’, ‘White Flag’, ‘The Ghosts Of Home’

Album of the Week 45-2017: Genesis – Wind & Wuthering


A popular opinion is that Genesis lost its progressive edge after the departure of original singer Peter Gabriel. Stating that they did after guitarist Steve Hackett left the band would be closer to the truth. His frustration about the diminshing role of his guitar is justified, but still there are notable guitar moments on his final record with the band. As a whole, ‘Wind & Wuthering’ is very much an early Genesis album, on which progressive song structures, lush keyboards and folky passages blend into one atmospheric whole. It might lack a ‘The Musical Box’-like highlight, but it is one of their most consistent records.

‘Wind & Wuthering’ is also more adventurous than its direct predecessor ‘A Trick Of The Tail’. Phil Collins has obviously grown into his new role as the lead singer and as a result, he is allowed to stretch out a little. It is not just Collins who sounds more comfortable on this record though. Keyboard player Tony Banks is quite obviously the main contributor here, but everyone – including Hackett – truly gives their best here, never getting in the way of the composition as most progressive rock bands tend to do.

The album contains Genesis’ first stab at a full-on pop song and though ‘Your Own Special Way’ is expertly written and arranged, it is by far the weakest song on the record. Fortunately, it is offset against instrumental tracks like ‘Wot Gorilla?’ – on which Collins’ drumwork is truly out of this world – and the highly atmospheric diptych of ‘Unquiet Slumbers For The Sleepers…’ and ‘…In That Quiet Earth’. The 10-minute ‘One For The Vine’ sort of switches back and forth between those two extremes and despite a somewhat confused middle section, it turns out to be another strong progressive track in the tradition of songs like ‘Dancing With The Moonlit Knight’.

Hackett’s finest moment on ‘Wind & Wuthering’ surprisingly isn’t defined by his electric guitar, but by his skills on the classical guitar. ‘Blood On The Rooftops’ is an excellent, atmospheric track with fantastic performances by both Hackett and Collins. Opening track ‘Eleventh Earl Of Mar’ is another highlight. It is a light, but still substantial progressive rock song with strong melodies, multiple climaxes and some catchy sections carried by Collins’ excellent vocals. Closer ‘Afterglow’ was the live staple of this record and though it is good, it sort of feels like a reprise of the non-instrumental sections of ‘Firth Of Fifth’.

Despite sort of being the end of an era, ‘Wind & Wuthering’ does not feel like Genesis was running out of inspiration. In fact, it is easily their most inspired record since ‘Selling England By The Pound’ and has moments that exceed the seventies Genesis average by quite a margin. The instrumental tracks are all mindblowing and both “vocal” Hackett compositions are simply excellent. In addition, the album has a very pleasant flow that every other Genesis record seems to lack. As a fan of Hackett, I used to approach the album with caution, but I should not have. This is essential listening for fans of British progressive rock.

Recommended Tracks: ‘…In That Quiet Earth’, ‘Eleventh Earl Of Mar’, ‘Blood On The Rooftops’

Album of the Week 31-2016: Opeth – Pale Communion


Quite a bit of commotion has surrounded the fact that Opeth shed all of its Death Metal roots. Personally, I didn’t mind that much, as I was attracted to the band’s calmer side long before the Death Metal side made any sense for me; ‘Damnation’ was the first Opeth album I got into. The bigger problem I had with 2011’s ‘Heritage’ was its songwriting. The album’s dynamic was limited to soft and even softer and while that could work, there were hardly any memorable passages on the record. By contrast, ‘Pale Communion’ is actually a very fine progressive Rock record.

Although ‘Pale Communion’ shows the Swedes further down the progressive Rock road, improved dynamics significantly increase the replay value of the record. In fact, there are moments on the record – ‘Moon Above, Sun Below’ most prominently – that almost sound like the Opeth that recorded ‘Ghost Reveries’, save for the complete lack of Mikael Åkerfeldt’s death grunts. And while the heavier moments on the record are nowhere near as brutal as those on ‘Blackwater Park’ or ‘Watershed’, the contrasts really work wonders here, making tracks like ‘Cusp Of Eternity’ sound almost like a return to their Metal days without even being all that heavy.

Something I have always liked about Opeth’s calmer endeavors is the fact that it allows Martín Méndez to show what an amazing bass player he is. Sure, he’s not the fastest player of the bunch, but he has a creative, almost Jazzy approach to his bass parts that adds to the songs in a melodic fashion. And despite the fact that ‘Heritage’ and ‘Damnation’ are both calmer than ‘Pale Communion’, this is the highlight of his playing thus far. Another musician who finally gets the space he deserves is Fredrik Åkesson. Although I miss the brash Les Paul sound of his Talisman days, Åkerfeldt must have realized that Åkesson’s bluesy, emotional tone complements his more folky style perfectly.

What makes ‘Pale Communion’ easier to review than ‘Heritage’ is the larger amount of memorable moments. The album’s absolute highlight is the instrumental ‘Goblin’, that almost finds the quintet in Fusion waters. I really like the two string-laden songs that close the record – ‘Voice Of Treason’ and the particularly baroque ‘Faith In Others’ – as well, while opener ‘Eternal Rains Will Come’ has a nice dramatic build-up, as well as some beautiful vocal harmonies. In the end, the only song I don’t like is ‘River’, because I think its acoustic first section is much too upbeat, which contrasts too sharply with the rest of the record.

Of course, ‘Pale Communion’ isn’t the second coming of ‘Blackwater Park’ or even their latter-day masterpiece ‘Watershed’, but it’s a surprisingly good progressive Rock album. I feared the worst when I heard ‘Heritage’, but this record proves the Swedes only needed a slight change in dynamics to make the full transition to progressive Rock and still end up with something memorable. It’s not an easy record by any means, but no Opeth album ever was. Even when its predecessor put you off, give this record a chance.

Recommended tracks: ‘Goblin’, ‘Faith In Others’, ‘Voice Of Treason’

Album of the Week 25-2016: Steve Hackett – Spectral Mornings


Former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett is to me one of those people who should consistently be mentioned in any list of guitar heroes, but somehow hardly ever is. Maybe it’s because he focuses on tasteful, melodically oriented leads rather than constant speedy runs, although the is perfectly capable of writing the latter. Another reason why he deserves all the praise he can get is the fact that his records are infinitely more listenable than those of any neoclassical shredder. Hackett is an excellent composer and though his consistent embrace of technology makes some of his efforts sound a bit dated, his third album ‘Spectral Mornings’ was his first masterpiece. Definitely worth a listen.

Like the vast majority of his solo records, ‘Spectral Mornings’ is a bit of a hodgepodge, which can make it sound a little uneven at times. It’s not completely fair to judge it by that, because he tackles every style on the album with an elegance and an expertise that makes it nearly impossible not to admire Hackett for it. Even the humorous, vaguely Carribean sounding ‘The Ballad Of A Decomposing Man’, which does stand out like a sore thumb in a way, because the rest of the record is such stately, progressive music.

The most important reason for me to love this record is opening track ‘Every Day’. It starts out reasonably poppy with a prominent role for Nick Magnus’ synthesizers and the excellent vocal harmonies Hackett shares with bassist Dik Cadbury and lead singer Pete Hicks, but it’s the second half that turns the whole song into gold. Lead by a myriad of fantastic melodies, these are quite likely the most beautiful three minutes of guitar music ever laid down on tape. Hackett’s playing is highly expressive, but the melodies are also extremely well-written. The backing by his band, Magnus especially, is subtle, but just right for the part.

So ‘Every Day’ starts the record off in a mindblowing fashion, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything else to be enjoyed here. The closing title track is more proof that Hackett is an excellent guitarist who refuses to let his playing get in the way of the composition. ‘Clocks – The Angel Of Mons’ is another great instrumental built upon a strong recurring theme and features an overwhelming drum solo by John Shearer, which I suspect is double tracked. But even outside of his pastoral Progrock sound, Hackett and his band excel: ‘Last Time In Cordoba’ is a vehicle for the guitarist’s considerable skills on the classical guitar, while ‘The Virgin And The Gypsy’ highlights his Folk origins beautifully.

Anyone who doesn’t consider Steve Hackett a guitar hero obviously hasn’t heard him play. Maybe part of the “problem” is that the calm, sympathetic Brit has never had the ego to impose himself onto the audience as the next facemelting shredder, but his best records feature some of the most tasteful, pleasant guitar music ever made. And he’s still going strong. His three most recent studio records are every bit as good as this one, but if you’re looking for a way to get into the man’s impressive skills, look no further than the last three minutes of ‘Every Day’.

Recommended tracks: ‘Every Day’, ‘Spectral Mornings’, ‘Last Time In Cordoba’

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