[9 June 2013]
Let’s face it—ever since its inception in the late 1960s, progressive rock has been revered (or dismissed, depending on the listener) for its extravagance, complexity, exploration, eccentricity, innovation, colorfulness, and pretention. It’s easily one of the most polarizing musical subsections, as its artists love to take their audiences on wild journeys filled with elaborate arrangements, wacky imagery, outlandish concepts, clever continuity, and captivating melodies. Of all the staples and trademarks that make progressive rock so distinctive, perhaps none is more essential than the epic track. Just about every band in the genre has done at least one. Usually, these songs surpass the 15-minute mark—some have been twice or even three times as lengthy—and they often begin or conclude an album. Furthermore, these pieces represent their creators’ highest level of artistic ambition and self-indulgence, and they’re often declared the group’s best composition.
Classic opuses like Genesis’ “Supper’s Ready”, Jethro Tull’s “Thick As a Brick”, and ELP’s “Tarkus” are definitely among aficionado’s most treasured selections; likewise, newer gems like Porcupine Tree’s “Anesthetize”, Dream Theater’s “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence”, and the Mars Volta’s “Cassandra Gemini” are surely at the forefront of every prog lover’s consciousness. However, there are plenty of other relatively recent epics that are either underappreciated or under the radar. Below are ten such tracks, listed alphabetically by the artist’s name (rather than by rank). If you’re familiar with them, you’ll likely agree that they deserve as much attention as their more celebrated siblings; if you aren’t, you’re truly missing out.
Also, these are merely a sample of the many epics that deserve to be touted in the genre. Feel free to comment with any additional suggestions.
*All of the following quotes come from interviews conducted between the artists and myself unless otherwise noted.
Formed in 2001 by vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Rikard Sjöblom and guitarist David Zackrinsson (and later completed by drummer Magnus Östgren and bassist Robert Hansen), Sweden’s Beardfish oozes creativity and distinctiveness. Influenced by the usual ‘70s pioneers, such as King Crimson, ELP, and Gentle Giant, Beardfish’s music is arguably more zany and risqué than many of their peers, but those qualities certainly don’t undermine the group’s serious focus and craftsmanship. Their output exudes magnetic hooks, dizzying dynamic shifts, exhilarating energy, and a great sense of freedom (although their songwriting can venture into more dramatic topics, of course). While their music is extremely intricate, it’s also a lot of fun, and this duality is what makes the closing track of their 2008 album Sleeping in Traffic: Part Two so damn enjoyable.
According to Sjöblom, the track was inspired by “a pretty vivid and crazy dream I had back when I was younger. It was written in 2002 and we didn’t put it on an album until 2008; that’s just because of its length. It was tough to place on an album with other songs so that’s why we decided to build a theme around it and then it turned out as two albums.” As for how the two records connect, he says…
The concept was thought out after many of the songs were already finished and recorded. We basically thought it was time to release the song, and since it was quite an important one in our catalogue, we decided to build not one, but two albums around it. We managed to create a somewhat vague storyline about this guy who ends up in a whole lot of crazy situations and everything happens during 24 hours in his life. Of course, it ends with the suite on SIT2, which is basically a dream.
“Sleeping in Traffic” begins simply enough with a strong bass note and an awesome guitar riff (which recurs throughout the piece). Soon Zappa-esque counterpoints and charming bursts of technique take the spotlight, demonstrating how complex and varied Beardfish’s music can be. Soon, things quiet down as Sjöblom sings an introductory melody that’s urgent yet peaceful. Behind him, keyboard and guitar flourishes decorate the auditory space. A fourth of the way through, a new section begins, and it’s highlighted by eccentric effects and a very commanding chorus. Halfway through, the group channels the chord progression of Yes’ “Owner of a Lonely Heart” for an instrumental break, which transitions into a funky, almost Vaudevillian bit of playfulness, complete with drunken pirate voiceovers. Following this, Sjöblom narrates his thoughts before adding some heaviness to the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive”. It’s here that Beardfish truly displays its carefree, warm attitude; these drastic changes would feel out of place if it weren’t for how ingeniously integrated they are.
Of course, the song recalls its opening (though modified) near the end, allowing its central motifs to come full circle. Throughout the piece, Sjöblom exemplifies why he’s one of the best singers the genre has ever seen, as he alternates between singing softly and forcefully (of course, he would go on to explore a touch of growling on latter LPs). The most remarkable thing about the song is how assorted it is; in addition to the aforementioned genres, it incorporates hard rock, psychedelia, and jazz into its vibrant palette, making it thoroughly surprising. Overall, “Sleeping in Traffic” still stands as one of Beardfish’s greatest tracks, and many fans rank it amongst the best prog journeys one can take.
Progressive metal quintet Between the Buried and Me (who took their name from a Counting Crows lyric) have been wowing fans and critics ever since they released their third LP, 2005’s Alaska. Since then, they’ve had several other releases, including fan favorite Colors (which consist of a single 60-minute song) and its calmer, more diverse follow-up, The Great Misdirect. With ever-changing vocal styles, overwhelmingly frantic musicianship, dynamic arrangements, and fascinating production, theirs is some of the most melodic, schizophrenic, and technical music currently being made.
Last year, they set the bar even higher with The Parallax II: Future Sequence, the concluding half of a storyline that began with 2011’s The Parallax: Hypersleep Dialogues EP. A 72-minute song cycle, the album is a painstakingly crafted synthesis of everything that makes Between the Buried and Me so revered, and it truly reveals new textures and motifs with subsequent listens. Not only is it their finest release, but it’s nothing less than a work of genius and one of the best progressive metal albums of all time. Nowhere is this perfect formula more evident than on its grandiose and dramatic conclusion, “Silent Flight Parliament”. Adventurous, bleak, and oh so intense, the track leaves listeners breathless.
Structurally, The Parallax II begins at the end of the tale (“Goodbye to Everything”) and then recaps the events leading up to it (think Christopher Nolan’s Memento). Conceptually, it’s almost as complicated as its music (which isn’t to say that it’s not also brilliant), but essentially it tells the story of two “prospects” living parallel lives during an ill-fated journey in space (for a more in-depth, song-by-song explanation, check out this article from Heavy Blog Is Heavy). Like with most concept albums, understanding the storyline is only a bonus—the real treat comes from appreciating the ambition, continuity, and construction of the auditory experience. In that respect, “Silent Flight Parliament” (and the record as a whole) succeeds with flying colors.
All of the tracks on the album flow together, so this one segues seamlessly from “Melting City” (which happens to house the best chorus in the band’s discography) with suspenseful and precarious guitar work and percussion. Underneath it, Rogers plays mournful piano notes in the instruments highest octave. After awhile, everything but the piano is replaced by more psychedelic and tranquil textures as Rogers sings thoughtfully. It isn’t long, however, before his trademark growling emerges and is accompanied by rapidly changing rhythms and riffs. The fact that they can create and perform music this intricate and sporadic is simply astounding. Halfway into the track, things change completely, as synthesizers and various effects take a more prominent role and textures and arrangements become more spacey. Meanwhile, Rogers sings his most prophetic verse, signaling that the end is near. Following this, hyperactive guitar solos dance over wild syncopation until everything stops and dissonant strings seize the spotlight. The characters finally realize that the future holds nothing, and so they accept death. The track ends with an ascending guitar riff that masterfully leads into “Goodbye to Everything Reprise”.
“Silent Flight Parliament” is even more noteworthy because of how its conceptual continuity. In a recent interview with Loudwire, bassist Dan Briggs states that the first half of the song consists of “reoccurring themes that have happened earlier in the record,” and dedicated listeners will definitely notice this. For example, the percussion alternates a rhythm used in “Extremophile Elite,” and midway through the track Rogers says, “Say goodbye to everything,” which is a key phrase throughout The Parallax II. In the end, the track epitomizes how scrupulous, inventive, catchy, and daring its genre can be, which is just about the greatest thing a song can do.
Few countries live and breathe inside music as much as England does. As the starting place for progressive rock, the nation has birthed many of the genre’s most important acts, including Soft Machine, Pink Floyd, and Renaissance. Many of these acts incorporate social commentary about their homeland into their music, with (The Wallbeing the most famous example); however, perhaps none have sounded as quintessentially English as Big Big Train. Often (and somewhat justly) compared to early ‘70s Genesis, their melodies, timbres, songwriting, and arrangements are as warm, royal, and involving as anything else in the music industry today. In fact, their newer sound is significantly more lavish, grand, intricate, and powerful than their older one, and this change in direction was first unveiled on 2009’s The Underfall Yard. Of all the wonderful pieces contained on the record, album closer “The Underfall Yard” reigns supreme in terms of scale, length, and reward. It’s easily on par with any other epic in the field.
Really, The Underfall Yard represents an entirely new chapter in Big Big Train’s legacy. Besides their sonic evolution, Big Big Train also had two significant line-up changes here. Newcomer David Longdon replaced longtime singer Sean Filkins, complementing the increasingly orchestral and luscious music with his equally bold and charming voice. Likewise, it marks the inclusion of drummer Nick D’Virgilio as an official member (two years later, he would depart from his original band, Spock’s Beard, to focus on Big Big Train). Oddly enough, guest musician David Gregory (XTC) wouldn’t become a full member until the next release, English Electric, Part One.
As for the narrative, like a lot of Big Big Train’s material, it was inspired by British history and real-life circumstance. Longdon explains,
[The] track is primarily about the great Victorian engineers and navies who made the canals and railways that linked far-flung areas of Britain. They symbolized an age of reason and Greg [Spawton] was comparing the achievements of that age with some of the unreasonable things that happen today. It’s not just nostalgia, though; we are well aware of the progress that has been made in recent decades.
“The Underfall Yard” begins with interlocking guitar arpeggios, a thick bass line, and steadfast syncopation. Guitar lines soar and subtle horns perk up over everything. Longdon’s tense verse and majestic chorus (complete with golden harmonies) complete the magnificent mix, proving that he’s among the best singers around today. Interestingly, he foreshadows the title of the succeeding EP in his lyrics. After intense guitar and keyboard solos, Longdon introduces an even lovelier and gentler contribution; in fact, it’s probably one of the nicest melodies I’ve ever heard, and the way the flute dances around it is sublime. Eventually he belts out the same bit, which cues more intense music, followed by several minutes of breathtaking instrumentation that becomes slightly melancholic and sharp around the 20-minute mark. Naturally, it resorts back to its beginning as it fades out, and it even recalls album opener “Evening Star” in the process. The precise way Big Big Train does this is remarkable; it’s a glorious crescendo, to say the least.
While Big Big Train has probably bested The Underfall Yard as a whole with their recent English Electric albums, they’ve yet to release a track that triumphs “The Underfall Yard” (only “East Coast Racer” comes close). It’s a blissful yet critical narrative packed with gorgeous melodies, impeccable playing, and boisterous singing. Big Big Train has forever cemented itself alongside the best of the best in the genre, and this track represents the start of the group’s peak.
If you asked any Decemberists fan about the group, he or she would most likely describe them as a pop/folk outfit that conveys the romantic and tragic lyricism of classic literature. While this is a fair assessment for sure, it disregards a crucial element of their make-up—progressive rock. Okay, so not everypiece of theirs veers into that spectrum, but a few, like their early 18-minute, five-part classic “The Tain”, and parts of their 2009 masterpiece The Hazards of Love, certainly do in terms of range, duration, and story. Anyone who’s heard these pieces can recognize the concrete influence of ‘70s prog/folk pioneers like Steeleye Span, Pentangle, Fairport Convention, and of course, Jethro Tull. At times, they proudly venture into complex and colorful extravagance, and while the aforementioned examples work well, The Decemberists have never done it better than on “The Island”, the second track from their fourth LP, The Crane Wife. Divided into three distinct parts, it’s catchy and catastrophic storytelling is brought to life through exuberant and elaborate arrangements, making it a thoroughly gripping listen.
Lyrically, “The Island” is another fine example of singer/songwriter Colin Meloy’s fascination with the sea, drowning, ill-fated love, and betrayal (if he weren’t a musician with a very distinctive voice, he’d make a great English teacher). Some theorize that it’s based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, while others find that it references “Whiskey in a Jar”, an old Irish folk song. In any case, it’s skillfully emotive and engaging; you’d be hard pressed to find a more riveting and striving track in their discography. Despite the fact that it’s only 12 and a half minutes in length, “The Island” is as epic and attentively composed as anything else on this list.
The song is broken into three subsections—“Come and See”, “The Landlord’s Daughter”, and “You’ll Not Feel the Drowning”. It opens with feedback that evolves into a marching beat accompanied by folksy acoustic guitar chords, dissonant strings, and Celtic timbres. In addition, there are several subtle sound effects that make it feel like a sea shanty from centuries prior; also, the percussion sounds like a giant trudging through a forest. It’s the perfect instrumental introduction for a grand tale. Meloy then takes over with his guitar and voice, singing about the explorers on the mysterious island who will “not go home again”. His chorus, matched by expressive drumming, is superb.
A brilliant keyboard arpeggio (that would’ve fit perfectly on A Passion Play) transitions into the middle chapter, which is where the prog rock theatrics really shine. It’s mimicked by acoustic guitar, creating a compelling duality. The other instruments crash around this central pattern as Meloy’s sings about “[producing] my pistol, then my saber” to capture the landlord’s daughter. He sounds like a brash madman, which is quite effective, as is the chaotic and hypnotic music that surrounds him. It dissolves into a simple arpeggio and sorrowful melody, representing the aftermath (in which the daughter is drowned). A poet at heart, Meloy is a master at crafting simple yet devastating stanzas, and the closing words of “The Island” are a perfect example of it. There’s regret in his voice as he sings,
Forget you once had sweethearts
They’ve forgotten you
Think you not on parents
They’ve forgotten too
Go to sleep now little ugly
Go to sleep now you little fool
Forty-winking in the belfry
You’ll not feel the drowning
You’ll not feel the drowning
“The Island” is the single best example of what makes the Decemberists so idiosyncratic and important—everything. Meloy’s songwriting and singing are wholly characteristic, as he crafts narratives and melodies like no one else. Similarly, the rest of the band provides ideal support, generating music that’s at once serene and substantial. While they’re structures are usually dense yet straightforward, atypical tracks like “The Island” prove that they can pile on the intricacy and histrionics when they so desire. You’d be a fool to discredit their musicianship and compositional skills after hearing it.
Having already established themselves as one of the primer American progressive rock bands of the last 25 years with classics like Suffocating the Bloom, As the World, and Cowboy Poems Free, Pennsylvanian quintet Echolyn faced an all too familiar question at the turn of the century: “Where do we go from here?” Like several of their genre forefathers and contemporaries, the group decided that the next stop would be to record an album that consists of just one long song. And boy did they outdo themselves. Entitled “Mei”, the piece runs approximately 50 minutes, making it lengthier than most of its similarly structured genre siblings. Bursting with joyous melodies, secular optimism, symphonic majesty, classical vibe, and brilliant refrains, it still stands as Echolyn’s greatest work.
Although not much is known about its concept (if it even has a concrete one), Brett Kull confesses, “It is about love, hope, and redemption.” In addition, Tom Hyatt (who left the band a few years prior) recalls that Mei led to his eventual return to Echolyn, saying, “It reminded of why I joined the band in the first place. I was pretty blown away by how much the band had evolved since As the World. I don’t remember if I was really asked back so much as I just wouldn’t leave after that.” Both men also admit that Mei is still their favorite Echolyn release, and for very good reason. Even with incredible subsequent outings like The End Is Beautiful and last year’s eponymous comeback, there’s just something special about this record.
Flutes and piano introduce one of the song’s main themes as “Mei” begins. Soon vocalist Ray Weston adds an equally naturalistic and inspiring chorus. Eventually Echolyn amps up the technicality as more instrumentation leads to a much heavier movement. Here the keyboards and percussion take center stage before the music dissolves into calmness again with more pastoral passages. Twelve minutes in, Echolyn incorporates their trademark vocal counterpoints, which sound as impressive and intricate as ever. Later on, additional harmonies and tranquil timbres are interspersed amongst moments of hectic yet accessible virtuosity, showcasing Echolyn’s exceptional skill at crafting dynamic arrangements. There’s a wonderful moment about 30 minutes in, in which a motif is played simultaneously on guitar and keyboard, and it’s just one of many fine ways the instruments move around each other throughout “Mei”. As you’d expect, things eventually wind back where they started, as the original section is brought back at the end (albeit in a slightly different way). By the end, one can’t help but be in awe.
“Mei” is undoubtedly Echolyn’s true tour de force, as well as a benchmark of the genre in general. Its distinctiveness derives mostly from its earthly palette, idyllic textures, and inviting melodies, making it sound like wholly original. Of course, it’s quite difficult to discuss a 50-minute song (especially one that’s so complex and multifaceted) in a few paragraphs, but trust me—“Mei” is as fascinating and uplifting as it is catchy and meticulously constructed. Few epic tracks flow as effortlessly yet inventively as this, and Echolyn left an indelible mark on progressive rock with it.
Formed by guitarist/vocalist Roine Stolt 20 years ago, symphonic troupe the Flower Kings, along with peers Beardfish, Pain of Salvation, and Opeth, and currently spearheading the Swedish prog movement. Like with Steven Wilson and Porcupine Tree, the project came to fruition when Stolt needed a backing band to support his solo record, The Flower King, on the road. Eleven albums later, they’ve become one of the most popular acts in the genus, excelling at crafting quirky, polyrhythmic suites that juxtapose off the wall antics with focused formations. Of all their phenomenal releases, 2000’s Space Revolves is often cited as their pinnacle excursion, and opener “I am the Sun—Part One” is commonly declared their best epic (well, half of an epic, as the album closes with “Part Two”). Infectious, bright, and very captivating, it encompasses everything that makes the Flower Kings so remarkable.
It begins angelically with synths, organ, and delicate percussion before shifting dynamics, allowing heavier guitar and bass lines to dominate. It introduces one of the piece’s main themes with splendor and wonder. Soon Stolt chimes in with his unmistakable cadence and tone, offering one of the most addicting choruses in the band’s catalogue. There’s a great sense of urgency in his delivery, as well as in the colorful frenzy that’s painted over it. Lyrically, the Flower Kings has always been a bit oddball and tongue-in-cheek, but there’s no denying the prophetic boldness of words such as:
Now, I am the sun, I am the first day of summer
Never give in to the dark deep, fast becoming
Now, I am the moon, I am the end of the tunnel
Never believe in the dark ages, let’s move a mountain
Soon Stolt switches to a more philosophical melody that’s accompanied by heavenly music (including bells and chimes). This leads into gorgeous harmonies, followed by some incredible keyboard solos. Afterward, things become a lot weirder (in a good way)—rhythms and timbres clash and tango as “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” is referenced. It’s silly, complex, energetic, and very eccentric in a way that only the Flower Kings could conjure. The thoughtful reflections that follow provide a great contrast as a result, and the track concludes with rowdy yet magnificent music that symbolizes triumph and closure.
The Flower Kings is revered for its rich, technically difficult yet easily accessible concoctions, and “I am the Sun—Part One” is certainly one of their best. There’s a lot of fun and happiness within it, too, making it inviting and inspiring. Most of all, it’s endlessly invigorating and appealing thanks to Stolt’s catchy melodies and opaque yet intriguing words. Considering that the group is still making music along the same wonderful lines, it’s no wonder that they’re still very popular two decades into their career. As long as they continue to capture the magic, listeners will be there to hear it.
Of all the progressive rock acts out there today, Phideaux may be the most criminally unknown. A group “…centered around several childhood friendships…” that “…search for unique combinations of sounds and textures”, it is lead by multi-instrumentalist/singer Phideaux Xavier, who often unites science and sociopolitical commentary into his peculiar, catchy concepts. By mixing lively timbres (including quirky vocals) with touches of folk, blues, and psychedelic, Xavier has created some of the most charming, intelligent, invigorating, and unique music the genre has ever had; in fact, his last three records rival anything that inspired them. Nowhere is this unparalleled combination more immaculate than on their last album, Snowtorch, which consists of a single piece broken into four parts. Although the entire record is incredible, its opening track, “Snowtorch (Part One)”, is easily the standout selection.
The construction of Snowtorch is a bit enigmatic; its four sections make up a 45-minute piece called “Snowtorch”, but it also contains “Snowtorch (Part One)” and “Snowtorch (Part Two),” making the LP organized like one of those shape-within-a-shape images. Xavier explains the ambitious approach to the project:
Snowtorch is basically one song, even though they’re broken into different titles. For example, all the musical ideas that are in “Helix” are present in the other songs, anyway. Also, the structure of the lyrics is almost identical to that of “Snowtorch (Part One).” We extracted “Helix” out because we thought it might be a song people would want to listen to alone when they didn’t want to hear the entire piece. Really, though, it functions as the bridge between part A and B of “Snowtorch.”
As for the story, it’s concerned with astrology and the idea that “this torch in the sky will melt away the snow and free the life that was previously locked away in ice and cold gas.” In addition, the album deals with the origins of humanity, spiritual purpose, self-actualization, and other existential crises (for a full explanation, check out the interview). Of course, none of this would matter if its music and melodies weren’t worthwhile. Fortunately, though, the entire album is packed with brilliant arrangements, instrumentation, complexity, catchiness, and continuity, and its introductory gem is the best of the bunch.
In my review of the album for Sea of Tranquility, I called the song “the greatest progressive rock piece [released] since the mid 1970s”, and I still stand by that assessment. Its 20 minutes showcase a perfect blend of sublime songwriting, eccentric yet endearing lyrics, and gripping intricacy. It begins as a fairly straightforward rocker, with Xavier singing poetically prophetic words over bold chord progressions and spacey effects. After a couple minutes, things become more complex as a wonderful central motif provides the grounding on which other textures frolic. After a few minutes of wildly vibrant instrumentation, Xavier and vocalist Ariel Farber (whose tone is remarkably similar to that of Kate Bush) sing a duet that would’ve fit well on an Ayreon album.
While each transition in “Snowtorch (Part One)” is exceptional, the most enjoyable fragment is “Fox on the Rocks”, which consists of an intoxicating melody and some very clever rhyming. The subsection also finds Xavier testing his vocal limitations as he makes grand jumps up the chromatic scale to reach falsetto angst. Subsequently, elegantly played piano and strings lead to more extravagant theatrics. Several addictive themes are manipulated and reprised as each performer lets loose in grand displays of counterpoint and friendly showmanship. It’s absolutely hypnotic (especially the final few minutes, which are rhythmically frantic and joyfully adventurous before returning to the track’s core ornamentation).
Besides being ingenious as a self-contained work, the song stands out even more due to the way it establishes themes that reappear throughout the record. It’s full of patterns that Phideaux continuously recalls (albeit in different forms) as the LP progresses, and the methods they use (such as having a female sing “Fox Rock 2”) are quite witty. All in all, “Snowtorch (Part One)” is a gem on par with the genre’s most beloved blockbusters (new or old).
One of the biggest misconceptions about progressive rock is that it favors style over substance and virtuosity over emotionality. While it’s true that many artists in the field spoil themselves with overly elaborate structures and self-serving musicianship, plenty of them also excel at earnest, infectious songwriting. The best of the best know when to tone down the instrumentation in order to let the melodies and space take center stage. Case in point, English quartet the Pineapple Thief. Formed by singer/guitarist Bruce Soord in 1999 (after the disbandment of his previous venture, Vulgar Unicorn), they’ve since released nine albums that have lead to them becoming one of the most popular acts amongst fans and genre critics. Rather than go the symphonic route like several of their contemporaries, the Pineapple Thief often implements light orchestration and electronic manipulation into their rock music foundation, which, coupled with Soord’s fragile voice and bitter, sorrowful songwriting, makes their music quite distinctive. This exquisite blend of technical wizardry and heartfelt melody shines through in “What Have We Sown?” the closing track of 2006’s What We Have Sown. With its innovative transitions, engaging arrangements, and regretful sentiments, it’s simultaneously beautiful and bombastic.
Interestingly, Soord’s reflection on the track (and album) is honest and blunt. He recalls that it “really was me sort of indulging myself. That was literally a really quick album to finish my contract with the head of Cyclops before I moved over to Kscope… I went in the studio and said to myself, ‘Right, ok, let’s just write a really long progressive rock track.’ And funny enough that track has gone down really well with fans.” Considering how beautifully melancholic, diverse, and unique it is, the piece’s success amongst devotees really isn’t that surprising.
“What Have We Sown” begins simply yet ominously with otherworldly dissonance underneath percussion, panicked strings, and fierce guitar work. It’s destructive and ethereal. A few minutes later, everything fades away as sorrowful piano chords and synthesized effects create a perfect foundation on which Soord pours his disdained verse and forlorn chorus. His eventual falsetto harmonies and guitar solo add a lot of weight and complement the space well. Halfway through, the track evolves slowly and masterfully into an almost progressive techno freak-out full of affective countermelodies and layered patterns, which are outstanding. Afterward, the song changes into a more rock-based instrumental with sounds that fluctuate and soar.
As usual, there’s stunning emotion buried underneath dissonance, as well as Soord’s subtle yet potent lyrics and vocals. “What Have We Sown” still stands as one of the group’s crowning achievements, as it meshes all of their specialties smoothly and powerfully. Despite releasing several fantastic LPs in the years since What We Have Sown, the Pineapple Thief has arguably never captured their inimitable merge of genres and production better than they did here.
Many fans (including myself) find striking similarities between the histories of Genesis and Spock’s Beard. In both cases, the lead singer (Peter Gabriel/Neal Morse) left to pursue other interests after releasing an ostentatious concept album (The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway/Snow) and was replaced by the drummer/backing vocalist (Phil Collins/Nick D’Virgilio). Taking this into consideration, one could view Spock’s Beard’s 2000 classic V as their Foxtrot—an album consisting of a handful of tracks that concludes with an epic masterwork that houses religious themes. Entitled “The Great Nothing”, the piece is ripe with authoritative orchestration, clever transitions, peculiar production, and some of the catchiest melodies the group has ever crafted. It rightfully earns its place as their “Supper’s Ready”.
“The Great Nothing” represents the beginning of Neal Morse’s Christian awakening (thought it’s not as overtly religious as Snow or Morse’s incredible solo career). For that reason, its lyrics are vaguer and quirkier than anything he’s written since; even so, one can grasp messages about destiny, fulfillment, divinity, and the like in its themes. One could argue that its title refers to the way atheists look at God, or that it’s about the life cycle of humanity, as its opening and closing lines suggest:
One note timeless
Came out of nowhere
It wailed like the wind and night
It sought no glory
It added no meaning
Not even a reason why
No need to say something
No message to sell
It played without a buzz or a showing
Out of the great nothing
It came without fail
Whatever it’s about, one thing’s for sure—musically, it’s as good as progressive rock can get. It begins with deep choral voices, as well as guitar and strings that introduce one of the piece’s central musical ideas. Eventually other instruments echo and elaborate on it while D’Virgilio and bassist Dave Meros lead the charge. Things then quiet down so Morse can sing the aforementioned melody (with harmonies) alongside a nice piano progression. Suddenly, it changes into a more imperative passage, with acoustic guitar taking over. This part evolves into a delightful virtuosic freak-out—including bizarre keyboard effects—that recalls the original idea. The way Spock’s Beard continuously fools around with this part throughout the work is what makes it so spectacular.
After introducing a thunderous new rhythm and a whole new set of incredible arrangements, Morse introduces the best melody in the piece, subtitled “Missed Your Calling”. His voice jumps between stereo channels, which is a nice effect. In the midst of his rant, there’s a brief instrumental break that features several great production techniques, including a piano riff that’s counterpointed by liquid pouring into a glass. It’s wildly experimental traits like this that makes early Spock’s Beard so unique. After several more minutes of instrumental wizardry, the opening section is reprised in an extended, marvelously fleshed out way (which is typical of Morse’s compositions). It concludes justly with a soft piano coda underneath ambience.
“The Great Nothing” stands not only as both Spock’s Beard and Neal Morse’s greatest epic (of which they have several), but it’s easily among the best entries in the genre. Period. The quintet accomplish as much in these 27 minutes as any predecessor or contemporary ever has, which is truly saying something considering what inspired it. In assessing the group’s legacy, “The Great Nothing” (as well as Snow) is destined to be remembered as the ultimate swan song of its chief creator and a wonderful closing to the first chapter of Spock’s Beard’s story.
Devin Townsend is an artist like no other (although I’ve often compared him to the late Frank Zappa because of the way he hires an alternating set of musicians to bring his complex, humorous, eccentric, and diverse music to life). While he’s commonly thought of as a metal artist, he also incorporates a staggeringly wide array of other influences, as well as a host of different styles, meaning that (as clichéd as it sounds) his music is in a genre all its own. Furthermore, while many musicians’ solo careers are arguably lacking in relation to their main group, Townsend’s solo work is leaps and bounds beyond the discography of Strapping Young Lad. Most fans and critics agree that Townsend is an egoless genius, and nowhere is his unique vision more potent, impressive, and alluring than on “The Mighty Masturbator” from his operatic 2011 concept album, Deconstruction. As with many of his songs, the tongue-in-cheek lyrics are wonderfully juxtaposed by incredibly intricate and idiosyncratic music. It’s a work of silly brilliance.
Townsend’s known for putting a lot of absurdity and humor into his music, and the concept behind Deconstruction is a fine example. It tells the story of a man who travels to Hell to meet the devil and learn the truths about reality. This reality is represented in a cheeseburger that the devil wants him to eat; unfortunately, the man is a vegetarian, and thus he can never fully accomplish his goal. The record is also about overcoming fears. Musically, Deconstructionis probably his heaviest and most complex work, as it’s highly symphonic, histrionic, and dynamic, with plenty of orchestration. These qualities also made it stand out as the polar opposite of its simultaneously released sibling, Ghost (think Damnation and Deliverance by Opeth). In addition, the album features several guest vocalists, including Floor Jansen (Ayreon, ReVamp), Mikael Åkerfeldt (Opeth), Ihsahn, Tommy Rodgers (Between the Buried and Me), and Paul Masvidal (Cynic). On “The Mighty Masturbator”, Townsend is joined by Greg Puciato of the Dillinger Escape Plan, who helps add to the zany antics and powerful performances.
The track begins with a lovely, lengthy guitar arpeggio as Townsend sings delicately. Truthfully, it’s reminiscent of “Ki”, which is another piece that single-handedly displays his genius. It isn’t long before this soft setup explodes into madness; the arpeggio is complemented by thunderous rhythms, operatic harmonies, and a sardonically deep lead vocals and growls. It’s a kamikaze of overdubs, sound effects, and joyous insanity, which is Townsend’s trademark. Considering the way his growls and falsettos clash, it’s no wonder that he’s often ranked as one of the best singers around today. Eventually, things settle down so he can assure listeners that he’s got his “saving the world boots on” in a goofy Canadian accent. It’s quite funny. Afterward, he unleashes one of the most dizzying guitar patterns he’s ever written, and the rest of the band somehow manages to keep up with whatever tricky time signature he has entered (again, it’s comparable to the compositions of Zappa).
Midway through the track, everything changes as an audience cheers on Townsend’s ridiculous narration as spacey ambience and effects pervade the universe. Later on, he screams and bellows countermelodies alongside some of the coolest metal music you’ll ever hear. It’s sublimely cartoonish, varied, and confident, and it builds to a wonderful crescendo of dreamy “oooohs” and “oahhhs”. At this point, he calls out various sideshow attractions (such as “the vagina-faced lady”) as the carnival continues. It concludes with a final “Amen” as the announcer realizes that his life’s purpose is to be “the mighty masturbator”. It’s extraordinarily strange, bold, dynamic, and satisfying.
Taken as a self-contained piece, “The Mighty Masturbator” is quite notable. However, it’s made even more remarkable by its conceptual continuity to the rest of his discography. One of the elements that make Townsend’s work so special is the way he constantly references himself, and this track futures two great examples. Firstly, he utters the line “I’m alright to fly! Only we both know we never once were right,” which also appeared on Deconstruction‘s predecessor, the underrated Addicted. Also, we learn that the speaker of the track is Ziltoid the Omniscient, the title character of Townsend’s 2007 opus. Actually, Townsend is said to still be working on Z2, the sequel to Ziltoid, so one could view “The Mighty Masturbator” as a link between the two. At the very least, it’s a cool cameo, and “The Mighty Masturbatory” is undoubtedly one of Townsend’s truest masterpieces.