[21 January 2014]
Many diehard prog rock enthusiasts dismiss modern bands as inferior imitators. These three releases prove there are still a few visionaries out there.
There are numerous reasons why progressive rock is so admired by fans and serious musicians (and ironically, these are the same reasons why a majority of critics mock it so much), such as extremely lengthy songs, bombastic production, highly structured arrangements, and eccentric aesthetics. However, perhaps the most beloved trademark of the genre is the concept album; rather than contain an assortment of unrelated songs, these records usually tell a unified narrative or explore a few central ideas (often times, they do both). Usually this approach leads to an even more ambitious result, as the works often contain reprised motifs, conceptual continuity, overtures, distinct characters, and artwork that elaborates on the subjects.
To many, the modern day concept album began in the late ‘60s, with albums like the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Who’s Tommy, the Moody Blues Days of Future Past, and the Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow each setting itself apart from the rest of the bands’ discographies with a sophisticated gimmick. In the ‘70s, bands really started to venture into this realm, with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall, as well as Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play ranked amongst the most important. Every one of these albums is still considered a benchmark in the genre, and for good reason.
Unfortunately, because these releases are so revered, a lot of listeners dismiss newer concept albums as merely imitations of their predecessors. They feel that (as the saying goes) there’s nothing new under the sun, and so any dedicated effort to make a mark in the field is labeled as unoriginal and inferior (despite the fact that the music is still very complex and striving). Although this may be true in some cases, there are surely a fair amount of recent LPs that earn their place alongside the aforementioned gems; in fact, a few surpass them. Below are three such examples; if you’ve heard them before, you’ll likely agree that they measure up to the standard set by their forefathers; if you haven’t, prepare to be blown away.
Phideaux – Doomsday Afternoon (2007)
Phideaux’s sixth LP, Doomsday Afternoon, is the follow-up to 2006’s The Great Leap, as well as the predecessor to the upcoming finalé, Infernal. Here we find Phideaux Xavier and crew delving further than ever into virtuosic grace in an effort to convey their narrative with depth, color, warmth, and catchiness. In other words, this sequel is by far the more advanced and ambitious affair, as its song structures are more multifaceted, its instrumentation is more symphonic, and its organization is more inventive.
Thematically, the LP continues the tale of characters lost in a perilous fight for redemption against oppression and injustice (e.g., 1984). Doomsday Afternoon “centers on… two figures [from The Great Leap]... the one who would go out and be freedom fighter vs. the one who stays behind to ‘behave’…” Psychologically, one character represents “the id and intuition”, whereas the other presumably represents the superego. Clearly this album contains more social commentary than most.
Opener “Micro Softdeathstar” recalls the aesthetics of genre pioneers like Jethro Tull, Camel, and Renaissance, as it utilizes striking orchestration to add depth and intrigue. The piece eventually transforms into a progressive rock extravaganza as melodies are interwoven into unique timbres, lovely effects, and intense arrangements. There’s also a fair bit of thematic foreshadowing.
Later on, the first part of “The Doctrine of Eternal Ice” blends Phideaux’s token colorful rock basis with even more exuberant and engrossing classical touches, while the second part exudes forlorn subject matter with gripping countermelodies and arresting imagery before exploring more clever and complex musical shifts.
Of course, there’s also the ceremonial delicacy of “Candybrain”, which is simultaneously diplomatic, mournful, and refined, while “Thank You for the Evil” is more direct and powerful, as it signals the urgency of its doomed narrative with ferocious chords and panicked keyboard patterns. In contrast, “A Wasteland of Memories” is a symphonic interlude bursting with imperial splendor as strings and woodwinds blend with operatic vocals to express uplifting desperation.
“Formaldehyde” begins softly with wistful reflections, soft orchestration, and reserved percussion. Halfway through, echoes of classic Genesis shine through as a Hackett-esque guitar arpeggio serves as the bridge to more intense affairs. The piece then goes through several enchanting transitions as hooks and riffs weave around each other. It’s as exciting as anything else the genre has yet produced, and it provides the perfect prelude for the epic finish.
Without a doubt, “Microdeath Softstar” is an ingenious summit of everything that preceded it. After a quiet introduction, the most prominent keyboard riff on Doomsday Afternoon officially takes center stage. And it’s miraculous, as a few other instruments—including horns and strings—soon emulate it, which makes for a very hypnotic and invigorating passage.
Afterward, several melodies and motifs are recalled with charming subtly amidst poignant rhymes and counterpoint. Midway through, dramatic percussion signals a riveting new segment. The second half of the track is an immaculate example of dynamic shifts and interlocking ideas. It concludes with a bit of closure, as Xavier sings a final thought with eerie calmness, issuing his trademark taste of prophetic poetry in the process.
Doomsday Afternoon was the first entry into the modern Phideaux cannon, and it continues to serve as an example of how farsighted, peculiar, multifarious, and captivating music can be. Indeed, it was a great leap forward not just for its creators, but for progressive rock as a whole, as its ambition, palette, performances, and vision breathed new life into an arguably exhausted template. Beyond being Phideaux’s strongest work to date, Doomsday Afternoon is destined to be remembered as one of the greatest progressive rock records ever produced.
Riverside – Out of Myself (2003)
Polish virtuosic quartet Riverside has been at the forefront of the field ever since they came onto the scene a decade ago. Although each one of their five studio works is a stellar excursion, their debut, Out of Myself (which is also the first entry in the Reality Dream trilogy), remains their most balanced array of intricate instrumentation and solid songwriting. It’s easily one of the best debuts I’ve ever heard.
According to bassist/vocalist Mariusz Duda, the “Reality Dream” saga is “about a guy who has problems with himself… I think there is something about love in the trilogy too. Basically it’s about finding your own place in life [and] dealing with feelings. Not even love, but just feelings. The problem with the main character was that he had a problem with this, which is why he was so brutal to different people.”
Essentially, the main character thinks he killed someone and “...the shock was so big that he decided to hide inside of himself and start to live in his own mind. He imagines that someone loves him and he tries to bring this person back to life and create a life with this person…so basically it was about mental problems.”
Musically, there are a few clear inspirations, such as Pink Floyd, King Crimson, and most notably, Porcupine Tree. One can sense the impact of all three groups on album opener “The Same River,” which is also the album’s longest track. It begins with various sound effects (such as radio static) as the band builds atmosphere with spacey guitar and synthesizer riffs. Eventually a dominant one is chosen and the music takes a more unified approach; a few minutes later, a brilliant alteration completely changes the direction of the music, and it’s here that Duda introduces his first melody, which is ghostly yet humane.
There’s a pained urgency in the way he expresses his love for the aforementioned person, as well as asks her if he’s “to blame” (presumably for the murder). Duda’s bass work is complemented exquisitely by the other players, whose solos and ambience make for a very gripping experience. The final part of the track is slower and more somber, with a hypnotic and touching melody. It’s an exceptional introduction.
Out of Myself also includes two incredible instrumentals, “Reality Dream” and “Reality Dream II” (interestingly, the third part appeared on the sequel, Second Life Syndrome). The first one opens with a ticking clock and then explodes into a frenzy of technical showmanship, while the second is more aggressive overall. In both cases, Riverside outshines many of its contemporaries and precursors by incorporating emotionality and a constant battle between calm introspection and heavy domination. It’s here that guitarist Piotr Grudzinski truly shines, as his guitar lines soar with piercing humanity. Every second of these tracks is invigorating and memorable.
This disc contains some fantastic songwriting too, such as “I Believe”, a detailed acoustic ballad that oozes enticing melodies and distressed harmonies. Duda’s voice has arguably never sounded so bold yet beautiful. “In Two Minds” follows a similar path, albeit in a more regretful yet optimistic fashion, with Duda promising to remain loyal to his lover if “the sky falls down”. As lovely as these two are, however, “Loose Heart” is probably the standout track here; its verse is utterly enthralling, and the accompanying effects add even more affective depth.
In the end, Out of Myself showcased a band with plenty of confidence and individuality; sure there were some transparent inspirations, but Riverside was able to sidestep blatant mimicry by harnessing its learned techniques into a courageous new chemistry. No other band sounds quite like Riverside, which is a testament to how idiosyncratic their writing and production still is (even their timbres are entirely distinctive). Out of Myself deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as anything from the prog rock pioneers.
Spock’s Beard – Snow (2000)
Few progressive rock albums are as historically significant to their creators as Spock’s Beard’s sixth outing, Snow. Fundamentally, it signified the conclusion of their first iteration (band leader Neal Morse left to pursue a pious solo career, which has been phenomenal in its own right).
In his absence, drummer Nick D’Virgilio (who’s since departed as well) took over vocal duties, and thus this moment in their legacy is often compared to the career of Genesis, whose drummer (Phil Collins) replaced singer Peter Gabriel following the release of their sixth album, the aforementioned Lamb Lies Down. Fortunately, Morse left on a high note, as Snow is a thoroughly ingenious composition overflowing with colorful complexity, thematic variation, and of course, some of the best melodies the genre has ever had. It’s easily their greatest accomplishment yet.
The plot of Snow revolves around an albino loner (whose real name is John Sikeston) who leaves his home to find himself in New York City. Along the way, he falls in love, faces rejection, and ultimately finds peace with those he’s helped. The spirituality of Snow was obviously related to Morse’s own Christian awakening, and many listeners feel that it makes the record feel preachy or cheesy; on the contrary, though, the story is among the most uplifting and relatable tales ever told through rock music.
Of the album, Morse once remarked, “…it’s difficult to listen to because it was a difficult time. But sometimes difficult times create beautiful things, and I realize that…I felt from the Lord that I was going to quit about halfway through the making of it…there was a nine month period where I really felt like I was going to quit, although I didn’t know for sure if I was going to go through with it. That was the whole period when we were making Snow. It was very difficult and there was a lot of grief and tears.” For many (including myself), Snow is one of the most meaningful albums ever made.
It begins with “Made Alive/Overture”, which starts off softly with Morse and an acoustic guitar. His singing is thoughtful, as are his lyrics, which introduce listeners to Snow. Afterward, the band implements their token eccentricity with a relentless fury of bombastic musicianship (including horns, baffling syncopation, and a few bizarre tones), foreshadowing several future motifs along the way. It’s an incredible beginning, and it leads into “Stranger in a Strange Land” (which is a luscious, folksy ballad) seamlessly.
“Long Time Suffering” is catchy as hell, and it’s notable for being the first of several instances in which the band implements their adored vocal rows (which they no doubt took from Gentle Giant, to be fair). Still, it’s quite energetic. This technique is utilized to its full potential at the end of “Devi’s Got My Throat,” which is just about as close as the band ever got to progressive metal. It’s antagonistic yet inviting, and the pervasive jam is among the best instrumentals I’ve ever heard.
Morse has always been considered one of the top songwriters in the community, and he’s never been better than on “Solitary Soul” and “Wind at my Back” (the concluding songs of disc one). They feature hopeful, delicate melodies with heartrending words, and they’re packed with lovely orchestration and rich harmonies. The former is especially tragic and solemn, while the latter is communal and sanguine, offering a glimmer of promise for the protagonist. You’re guaranteed to sing along with them.
As for the second half of Snow, it begins with “Second Overture”, which is pretty self-explanatory (but very thrilling ,nonetheless). D’Virgilio takes the vocal spotlight on two tracks: “Carrie” and “Looking for Answers”. His contributions aren’t as distinctive as Morse’s, but they offer a nice change of pace, as well as explore the theme of unrequited love most palpably. There’s also the rebellious two-part “Freak Boy” suite, with the stunning “All Is Vanity” instrumental in the middle.
The ending sees the band reprise “Devil’s Got My Throat” before delving into even crazier, more complex antics. Following this, the group allows Snow to find solace in “I Will Go” and “Made Alive Again/Wind at My Back.” The way Morse ushers in these familiar themes is fluid and clever, and the additional arrangements are boisterous and elegant; it’s as if listeners are in a grand congregation bursting with spiritual support and vibrant appreciation for life. It’s likely one of the most impressive finalés you’ll ever hear.
Snow is nothing short of a masterpiece; it’s the culmination of what made Spock’s Beard so important in their earliest years (which isn’t to dismiss their newer material, which is also superb). Everything that makes progressive rock so special is on full display here (and merged exquisitely), and it still stands as the perfect swan song for the Neal Morse era of the band. It may not be as original or brave as the records that motivated its creation, but it’s just as enjoyable, comprehensive, and enduring.
* All quotes are taken from discussions between Jordan Blum and the artists.