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The Black Chord
Astra, Southern California’s maestro of prog, crafts sweeping suites with a strong cosmic and hallucinogenic pulse that ebbs and flows with cinematic ease. The band’s sophomore release The Black Chord evokes the spirit and timbre of ‘70s prog admirably, hearkening back to the genre’s mind-expanding roots. While Astra’s songs are undeniably vintage, music this rewarding is timeless. The Black Chord is a Mellotron and Moog frenzy, harnessing flourishes of Yes, Uriah Heep, and King Crimson, as well as touches of the Canterbury scene, and acid-fried space rock and proto-metal à la Hawkwind. Referencing such scenes and bands, often in the same song, Astra rolls out endless keyboard blowouts and billowing, amp-fusing guitar solos. Although the DNA of many a classic yesteryear outfit is apparent, the band’s tunes remained wholly distinctive and inventive. The Black Chord underscores Astra’s mastery of phrasing and its songwriting finesse, but the album’s true strength lies in Astra allowing its songs to roam free in an effects-laden meditative state. The Black Chord is full of undulating, fluctuating rhythms; but while it’s a complex, mercurial album, it never loses touch with its intimate and palpable heart. Craig Hayes
Yellow & Green
Though known for their mastery of Southern sludge, Baroness has always had strong, progressive spirit. Following in the color-themed Red Album and Blue Record, the band has firmly defined its sonic by going for one of progressive rock’s most loved formats: the double album. But rather than capitulating to the double LP’s greatest weakness—the conflation of available space and the legitimacy of excess—Baroness create an incredibly streamlined yet adventurous affair over the course of 75 minutes. Each disc begins with a particular theme named after the two colors of the album’s name: Yellow opens with a tranquil, phaser-heavy guitar line, and Green kicks off the second half with a rousing, outlaw country inflected riff (it also happens to be the best instrumental song of 2012). After these introductions, the band takes many directions, ranging from the sludgy “Take My Bones Away” to the religious choir of “Twinkler” to the indie rock of “Mtns. (The Crown & Anchor)”. Years from now, I’ll look back on many of these albums and think them great, but with Yellow & Green, I’ll look back knowing it’s a classic. Considering that Baroness is only on their third studio record, the risk they took paid off in a way no other album did in 2012. Brice Ezell
Canadian prog legends Rush have never sounded uninspired during their long career—unruffled and drifting on occasion, yes—but never unimaginative. However, the sheer enthusiasm with which they returned on their 19th studio album, Clockwork Angels, sounds like a band reborn. Rush’s first full-blown concept album in decades binds a philosophically heavy steampunk tale to the band’s patented intricate arrangements; this recording containing a great deal more steely muscle and grit than its predecessors, Snakes & Arrows and Vapor Trails. Composed and performed with the expected immaculate precision, drummer and lyricist Neil Peart’s dexterous percussion and dystopian narrative weave through an hour’s worth of outstanding interplay between the band’s trio. Keyboardist/lead vocalist Geddy Lee and guitarist/backing vocalist Alex Lifeson sound reenergized, producing a compelling set of technically dazzling yet emotionally fulfilling tunes. Rush hasn’t sounded this progged-out in years—jazz, funk, and blistering hard rock collide with some solid metal riffing to keep things constantly engaging. Clockwork Angels is eclectic, electric, and eccentric. Four decades on from their birth, Rush’s creative drive remains undiminished. Craig Hayes
2Devin Townsend Project
If you judged Epicloud solely by the content of its lyric book, you’d likely be led to conclude that it was written by Andrew WK right after attending a self-actualization seminar. There’s lots of exclamation points and all-caps, a bluntly literal manifestation of the near-overwhelming positivity coming from this album, the fifth under the Devin Townsend Project moniker. On “True North”, he shouts “I LOVE YOU!” over and over again. The insanely catchy single “Lucky Animals” chants, “Animals, animals, and WE’RE LUCKY!” And, perhaps most fittingly, “Liberation” tells us, “THE TIME HAS COME TO FORGET ALL ABOUT IT AND ROCK!” While these may come off as banal or trite, together these simple statements form the apex of Townsend’s prolific career. Epicloud takes a step back from the highly technical prog of the demented concept LP Deconstruction, instead recalling the pop-metal of Addicted. However, unlike anything he’s done before, Townsend really brings incredible hooks out of these songs, definitively proving that heavy music can be “happy” without any false smiles or forced emotion. Ironically enough, it took a record of straightforward music for the very progressive Townsend to put out his best work. Brice Ezell
I first heard Anathema’s Weather Systems while driving down I-95 in the middle of the night, lost in self-reflection on dimly lit highways. By the end of it, I’d had a spiritual experience: never before had I been so affected by music. Never before had I heard such a powerfully beautiful and utterly emotional blend of vocals, lyrics, melodies, and instrumentation. Each element spoke volumes about love, loss, and life, and even after dozens of listens, it’s still absolutely astounding. I’m not ashamed to admit that Weather Systems is the only album that’s ever brought me to tears.
Every second of Weather Systems is damn near perfect. From the brilliantly arpeggiated “Untouchable Part 1” to the heavenly intricacy of “The Gathering of the Clouds” from the serene optimism of “Lightning Song” to the dynamic duality of “The Storm Before the Calm”, the lusciously orchestrated “The Lost Child” to the devastating finality of “Internal Landscapes”, Weather Systems expresses our most fragile, personal fears and feelings expertly. Not only is it Anathema’s best work and the best album of 2012, but in its own unique way, it’s the greatest album I’ve ever heard. Jordan Blum
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// Notes from the Road
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