It has been a fabulous year for music, if you're a fan of progressive rock. I have purchased and listened to, more new recordings, than at any other time in my life and that's saying something, as I've been a bit of a 'music junky', my whole life. Growing up in the 60's and 70's with the classics of progressive rock, I never would've imagined the resurgence that's taken place, in recent years.
More than anything, my reason for submitting this list is, I almost feel obligated. I have derived so much pleasure in listening to these discs this year, that I hope to - in my on small way - turn some people on to these wonderful recordings. These bands and artists aren't making a lot of money from this. They do it for the 'love of the music', while in some cases, holding down day jobs, to put meat on their tables and raise families. So much thanks, from me to them, for making my days brighter, with this great music. Keep on progin'!
One more note. This is my list! The criteria for this list encompasses many things - complexity, production, instrumental dexterity, concept and many other things, that the lovers of progressive rock hold dear. However, for me, it still comes down to the feel of an album. Songs that transport you with their beauty, whether with the music or the lyrics. In short, it's still about the song! No matter which genre you prefer, in the end, it's the tune that stays with you, long after the listening that you hold dear. The song that, whether lyrically or musically, brings you joy, or causes tears in the eyes. This is what music has always been about!
So, without further babbling, here are my top 10 recordings from 2011.
Steven, is the busiest man in progressive rock.
Not only finding time to work with innumerable artist, producing and playing with them, but also re-mastering the King Crimson catalog. Throughout all this, he found time to record this 2 disc masterpiece.
Musically and lyrically deep, this is a disc that will sit number 1, on many lists. It may take a little work to get it, but when you do, it will give the listener much pleasure, for years to come. When all is said and done, this recording may be the one that launches progressive rock, back in to the mainstream. If nothing else, it will be what the new generation of progressive rock musicians, will aspire to. Mournful at times, heavy at other times, jazzy in places and technically brilliant, it must be heard to be admired!
Vocals, vocals, vocals. Not since Moon Safari's, 'Blomljud' album have I heard singing this good. Yes, there is still some great vocals, in progressive rock and if these guys are any indication, it's only getting better. But it doesn't stop here. Not only does every member in the band contribute vocally, they contribute musically. With deft handling of their instruments and - with each member sharing in then writing credits - it seems that they have a great feel for what works, in a band setting. Aside from the great lyrical content ( this is always a huge plus for me ), they take the listener for a ride, with some outstanding musical excursions and no band member gets left behind. This may be - for some - classified as neo-prog. Wherever it finally rests in the many classifications that progressive related music offers, it's a masterpiece! If I had had more time with this one, it may have been higher on the list.
These are the words that come to mind, when I think of this cd. For any of us on the other side of 40, the concept of this recording, can't help but bring on some melancholy, when taking it for a spin on the stereo. Multi - instrumentalist, Robin Armstrong, the brains behind this expansive recording, shirks the idea of 'growing old gracefully' and injects a little reality into the notion, by highlighting (?) the darker side of getting old. If this all sounds a little too depressing for you hang on, I did mention beauty remember. Somehow, Robin has managed to take this subject and with great melody and song writing skill, create one of the most beautiful cd's of the year. The title track - with guest vocalist, Steve Thorne turning in an incredibly emotional performance - is a heart wrenching experience, that stays with the listener for a long time. Musically, this one is a gem also, evoking late 70's Genesis and Pink Floyd, but only flavored so. This is Robin's own and we're the better for it. May it be heard by many! We'll give this album the 'Heart Wrencher Of The Year' award.
Apparently, the Canadian content laws, don't apply to good music. This excellent band from British Columbia, gave us the Canadian 'Album of the Year', but hardly anyone in this country knows it! This is 'new' progressive rock, in all of it's spacey, psychedelic, melancholy, early Porcupine Tree/Pink Floyd sounding beauty. As an added bonus, as a reformed Christian, the lyrics on this ( yes the title gives it away ) album are not the usual pablum heard on most contemporary Christian music. This is deep, well thought out content here folks. Great stuff. The music - as described earlier - leans to the mid-level paced and sometimes crunchier side of the scale. However, this is just a starting point. There are a lot of layers here that produce some great 'sit down' listening. This IS NOT a disc, you throw into the car stereo, for the highway drive to the cabin. This is the one that goes on, when the lights are turned down low. Just a side note. This is not a disc that preaches to you. This is intensely personal stuff here and Greylevel do it better than any other 'Christian' oriented band. Wake up Canada! There's a great band in our midst. Let's support them!
And now we move to some heavier material. Haken's first release Aquarius, was one of the great 'discovery' buys that graced my cd collection in 2010. Well, if that one was good, Visions is great. From the intricacy of the music, to depth of lyrical scope, to out and out heavy moments to the shear bliss of 'take you away' softer moments, this disc will have you gasping for air, by the time it's over. Now this is the one, that you put in the car stereo, for the highway drive. Watch the speedometer though. For anyone who leans toward the heavier side of music, this is a 'can't go wrong' purchase. The guitars are crunchy, with head-banging delight and the solo's match in intensity. The keyboard playing is out of this world, washing over the music as it swirls through your head. The rhythm section holds it all together, just as you think it's going to break down. Just when you think the song has exhausted itself, the band blow you away with something else. To top it all off, Ross Jennings is one of the top vocalists in rock music, which just adds to the greatness of this band. The Epic title track is worth your hard earned dollar alone. 20 minutes of pure prog metal bliss and oh yeah, the rest of the disc is just as good. Destined to be a classic!
What can be said of this band? The brainchild of Jacob Holm-Lupo, this is the quintessential European prog outfit! This band creates a sound, that puts you deep in a Norwegian forest and refuses to let you out, until it fills your ears with intricate, beautifully dark music as only they can make. I've been a bit of a fanboy of this band, ever since I listened to their Sacrament album. The return of vocalist Sylvia Skjellestad, from that period - with her little girlish, other worldly voice - was just the tonic to get me excited, for this new release and man, did they not disappoint! This is now my favorite White Willow album and that's saying a lot, as they have consistently - albeit, not quickly enough - have dished out top quality progressive rock since 1995. From the earlier Nordic-folk output through their heavier period and into their more poppier ( not really pop music, but the only description I could come up with ), they have taken all of the best of what's made them one of the top progressive rock acts in the world, putting it all together, to make their best recording yet! Guitar, keyboard, drums ( courtesy of Anglagard legend, Mattias Olsson ), flute and many more instruments, mesh together to form a sound that is purely White Willow. Sylvia's vocals are just icing on the cake here and with a guest appearance by Tim Bowness on the track 'Kansas Regrets', well......buy or die!
Subsignal was originally a side project from 2 of the members of German prog metal outfit Sieges Even. Their first album, Beautiful And Monstrous was an instant hit within the prog community and made the release of this new album, a much anticipated event. Boy, was the wait worth it. From beginning to end, this one is a burner. Great complex and yet accessible toe tapping, fist pumping music, with exceptional lyrics and vocals from the best vocalist, in metal music today - Arno Menses - this one wins, 'Progressive Metal Album Of The Year' hands down! Every song has that certain 'thing' that makes it great. Whether it's a riff, chorus, combination of both, or Arno putting it over the top with his pipes, this one rocks! The production on this cd will blow you away, as every instrument steps to the forefront, while not overpowering the others. A special note to drummer, Roel van Helden also who, for me gets the 'Drummer of the Year' award. He is simply outstanding!
Simply put, Sean is a story teller. In the spirit of Harry Chapin, Jim Croce and Neil Young, Mr. Filkins can draw you in and make you a part of the song. However, unlike the aforementioned legends, he does it with some of the most inspired progressive rock, this side of the mid-seventies. This one blew me away, with the depth and accomplishment from the first listen and more and more with each successive hearing. Had I had more time to soak in this fabulous recording, I do say it probably would have garnered the top spot, on this years 'Best Of' list. This is epic prog at it's finest, all killer no filler, on this cd. The songs are long ( two epic 20 minute tracks being the center pieces ), with absolutely no waste of energy or space at all. If you've ever had an inclination to explore the wonders of progressive rock, this is where I would have you start. Sean has made the most accessible, progressive rock album of the year, to be enjoyed for decades to come. I get excited just thinking about, what's to come from this great artist. I have a hand signed copy of this great cd and it's a prized possession in my collection. Bordering on perfection! ( by the way, that's about as good as any album can get, as I'm not sure you can make a perfect album ).
Can I call this 1A?
My progressive rock journey began with, Pink Floyd. As a kid, I can remember laying on the floor, with headphones on, being utterly blown away by, Dark Side Of The Moon. Afterwards came the rest of the 'Floyd' collection and the rest is history. Seeing Pink Floyd in concert still ranks as the highlight, of a very extensive concert going life. For me, it was David Gilmour's guitar and Richrd Wright's subtle keyboards that were the draw. The two of them always seemed to have an other worldly chemistry, that made Pink Floyd, what it was. My favorite Band. Even outside the band, if David and Richard could play together - which they often did - the chemistry was undeniable and always a treat to hear or watch. After Richard's sad passing and any hope of a true Floyd reunion with it, what was a fan to do - outside enjoying the back catalog? Who could take up the mantle of this great band and continue a sound, that I loved so much? Enter, 'Airbag'.
Coming from Norway ( yep, Norway again ), they released their first disc - Identity - in 2009. This album blew me ( and my wife ) away. This was the sound! Well, I'm happy to report that 2011's 'All Rights Removed', is even better. This is the music that Mr.Gilmour and Mr.Wright would be making together, if they could. From the opening chord to the closing note, this is a Pink Floyd fan's answer, to the loss of Richard Wright and never having another reunion to hang your hopes on. This is not a copy band. This is just a group of musicians, who are influenced by legends and are carrying on, in that tradition and good for them! And good for us too! Are they as good as Pink Floyd? Probably not. But who was? But if you're a fan of Floyd, you can't miss out on Airbag.
That's right, 3 albums in the top 5 and sitting 1 and 1A. What are they doing in the woods up there? I don't know, but whatever it is, the boys from 'Wobbler' got a double dose! The first time I played it, my first thought was 'wow, is this 1974'? This is part of the charm. Using analog equipment and modern recording techniques, if this album would've been released in 1974, it would be considered a classic today. This disc is a progressive rock fan's dream! If you're a fan of Yes' earlier output, early Genesis or any of the greats from the early period of the genre, this disc is a 'must have' for your collection. The music is top-notch retro prog at it's finest, with beautifully crafted songs, expert playing, time signature changes to blow your mind and great ( almost Jon Anderson sounding ) vocals to top it off. Out of all the new prog rock acts, this is the one I want to see live. These guys have mastered the art of retro prog, with a modern twist to the point that, if it could happen and Yes, King Crimson, Genesis and Pink Floyd were to be wiped from memory, Wobbler would easily slide in to take their place! And this for me, is why 'Rights At Dawn', wins, for album of the year.
Other discs for consideration
Steve Hackett - Beyond The Shrouded Horizon
Frequency Drift - Ghosts.....
Hostsonaten - Summer
Karmakanic - In A Perfect World
Leprous - Bilateral
Discipline - To Shatter All Accord
Neal Morse - Testimony 2 ( haven't heard this one yet, but Neal's automatic )
Sunchild - As Far As The Eye Can See
Guy Manning - Margaret's Children
The Tangent - Comm
Phideaux - Snowtorch
Beardfish - Mammoth
Magic Pie - The Suffering Joy
The Psychedelic Ensemble - The Dream Of The Magic Jongleur
Gosta Berlings Saga - Glue Works
My Brother The Wind - I Wash My Soul In The Stream Of Infinity
Magenta - Chameleon
Jane - Eternity
If nothing else comes from this post, please give these musicians a try. Not by illegally downloading, but by searching them out on YouTube or some of the other sites that offer streaming of their music. Visit their web sites, to get sound samples and full songs. If you like it, buy it and contribute to the hard work, of these great musicians.
This 'Best Of' list, is based on recordings that I've purchased and heard. Granted, due to budgetary constraints, I can't listen to every new release and still have some to order, especially of the late year releases. The list was created from over 80 discs that were released and purchased in 2011.