Music

The Best Progressive Rock of 2014

Jordan Blum

From idiosyncratic tales of dastardly aliens to concept albums about a mysterious demon, prog maintained its reputation for eclecticism in 2014.

From idiosyncratic tales of dastardly aliens to concept albums about a mysterious demon, prog maintained its reputation for eclecticism in 2014.

 
Artist: Transatlantic

Album: Kaleidoscope

Label: InsideOut/Radiant/Metal Blade

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/t/transatlantic_kaleidoscope_albumart200.jpg

List number: 10

Display Width: 200

Transatlantic
Kaleidoscope

Established roughly 15 years ago, progressive rock supergroup Transatlantic has earned a strong fan base. Fortunately, the quartet more than proved itself with its previous three albums. With Kaleidoscope, the band more or less sticks to the same formula, so it feels fairly safe. Still, however, Transatlantic's penchant for rich, arrangements, eccentric timbres, and stimulating melodies make it another stellar effort nonetheless.

“Into the Blue” starts things off with oracular ambience as strings bawl and sound effects soar. Neal Morse takes over the first vocal duties, singing solemnly yet strongly, taking listeners another spiritual journey. The music waves between ferocity and tranquility before erupting into more madness. Roine Stolt then takes command, and the piece feels like a lost Flower Kings gem. Oddly enough, though, the best portion of “Into the Blue” involves special guest Daniel Gildenlöw (Pain of Salvation), who grants a more ethereal treatment to one of Morse’s earlier expressions.

The middle three tracks, “Shine”, “Black as the Sky”, and “Beyond the Sun”, are shorter and simpler than their bookended siblings. The former is an acoustic ballad sung by Morse and Stolt with uplifting lyrics about perseverance and closure, whereas “Black as the Sky” is a quicker, darker, and more hectic beast. Morse’s keyboard riffs and Pete Trewavas’ bass lines govern as each vocalist dominates his part; of course, drummer Mike Portnoy holds it all together with incredible syncopation. As for “Beyond the Sun”, it features Morse lamenting softly over piano and subtle orchestration; really, it’s very similar in style to “Bridge Across Forever”, with a grand sense of poeticism creating a very touching musical shelter.

The 30+ minute title track closes the record, and not a second is wasted. After another boisterous and difficult introduction, Morse bursts in with a tempting verse and thrilling chorus. Tranquility mixes with panic as Stolt then commands the helm with vibrant confidence. Soon, a more peaceful section begins, evoking the warmth of Wish You Were Here, followed by Trewavas singing about uncertainties while horns flow around the band. Soon after, Stolt and Portnoy join forces for a quirky assault before the opening theme is reprised with added panache and weight. It’s a probable yet powerful way to conclude.

Kaleidoscope is another gem from the kings of symphonic prog. Music this audacious, intricate, and fun deserves acclaim regardless of how identifiable it sounds, and the quartet still stands as the dominant force in their field.

 
Artist: Closure in Moscow

Album: Pink Lemonade

Label: Sabretusk

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/c/closureinmoscow_pinklemonade_albumart200.jpg

List number: 9

Display Width: 200

Closure in Moscow
Pink Lemonade

Like stylistic siblings Circa Survive and the Mars Volta, Australian quintet Closure in Moscow assault listeners’ ears with highly energetic and sporadic bursts of brilliant dynamics. Colorful, complex, and superbly catchy, the band's debut LP, 2009’s First Temple, was an exceptional collection of hyperactive post-hardcore flights of fancy, with momentous musicianship infectious hooks scattered throughout. Arriving five years later, the group’s sophomore effort, Pink Lemonade, offers a substantially different approach. Although it’s not as hypnotically accessible as First Temple, Pink Lemonade is far more adventurous, imaginative, and surprising. In fact, it’s the most fearless and unique album I’ve heard this year.

“The Fool” kickstarts Pink Lemonade like an auditory heart attack. Vocalist Christopher deCinque roars with a sharp attitude whilst interjecting soulful harmonies at the end of each verse. Meanwhile, the music jolts with a start/stop frenzy that’s too tremendous to ignore. Similarly, the title track utilizes spares no expense to impress. deCinque provides an impassioned melody for each wildly creative rhythmic shift, which vary between hectic, tranquil, and atmospheric. Best of all, the final few minutes proves to be one of the most inventive and unforeseen segments I’ve heard all year. Essentially, a female counterpart sings seductively to an unknown person as the music veers more towards electronic swing than anything progressive. Her segment bleeds into the equally exciting “Neoprene Byzantine” too, making for completely unexpected stylistic shifts.

Further on, “Dinosaur Boss Battle” lives up to the zany awesomeness of its title. It’s epic, luscious, multifarious, and wholly confident, with a killer retro guitar solo near the end. Next, “Mauerbauertraurigkeit” is heartfelt and elegant, with soaring vocals and wonderfully tasteful accompaniment; likewise, “Beckon Fire” oozes classiness with its noir-ish orchestration, heavily effected vocals, and mysterious air, which segue into the joyously catchy “Happy Days”. Lastly, Pink Lemonade concludes with “ピンクレモネード”, a wondrously unexpected venture into Asian aesthetics in which women sing over an 8-bit tune. It feels ripped directly from the ending of an ‘80s video game, so it seems completely absurd in the context of its predecessors.

Of course, that’s what makes it, and Pink Lemonade, so inimitable. Rarely have I been so impressed with the sheer nonconformity of an album. Then again, it’s equally rare to find a modern band who strives so hard to set itself apart from the pack. Without a doubt, this one is special.

 
Artist: Amplifier

Album: Mystoria

Label: Superball

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/a/amplifier_mystoria_albumart200.jpg

List number: 8

Display Width: 200

Amplifier
Mystoria

Formed 15 years ago in Manchester, England, Amplifier currently rules as one of the chief psychedelic/progressive rock bands in the world. While the quartet found significant success with its first two studio LPs, Amplifier and Insider, 2011’s lengthy opus The Octopus is what really made earned them great recognition. In addition, its successor, the wonderfully catchy Echo Street, arguably impressed even more, so it’s no surprise that Mystoria handles the torch equally well. Heavier, faster, and darker than previous outings, it’s indisputably a quintessential Amplifier creation.

The disc begins with “Magic Carpet” and a dissonant explosion of percussion and spiraling guitar riffs, evoking the trajectory of Mastodon circa Blood Mountain or Crack the Skye. Its continuous shifts (both in terms of tempo and dynamic) keep it interesting. There’s a touch of Black Sabbath in the mix too, which is cool. Starting an album with an instrumental is usually a guaranteed way to build momentum and excitement for the rest of the adventure, and Amplifier certainly does that here. “Magic Carpet” feels like a delightfully cataclysmic yet melodic overture, and it breaks into “Black Rainbow” with a cool flash of reluctance. The first proper song on the disc, “Black Rainbow” is superbly histrionic, with instrumentation that dances around Balamir’s verses precisely. His performance is as distinct and colorful as ever, with shining harmonies that make it irresisitable.

Further on, “Cat’s Cradle” is one of the most alluring songs Amplifier has ever created. It begins like an unearthly festival, with zany tones leading the charge as Balamir sings some of the most contagious melodies he’s ever offered. Best of all, it progresses with refined urgency, as does “Bride”, a magical affair that packs in some fascinatingly odd rhythms. “OMG”, on the other hand, is a slower, more esoteric excursion loaded with feedback and tasty grooves. There’s a bit of King Crimson in there too. Finally, the album concludes with a two-part journey: “Crystal Mountain” and “Crystal Anthem”. The former is relatively softly and slow, like what Pink Floyd did before Dark Side of the Moon, while the latter piece is like the thrilling revelation or amazing epiphany coated in more glittering instrumentation, dominating percussion, and layered singing.

Mystoria easily earns its place in Amplifier’s discography. Although some influences are transparent, it’s another stellar collection of intricate yet accessible music and idiosyncratic, alluring songwriting. There’s still nothing quite like an Amplifier record.

 
Artist: The Pineapple Thief

Album: Magnolia

Label: K-Scope

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/t/thepineapplethief_magnolia_albumart200.jpg

List number: 7

Display Width: 200

The Pineapple Thief
Magnolia

Spearheaded by Bruce Soord, English outfit the Pineapple Thief has long stood as one of the most gallant, unique, and touching progressive rock bands around. Although they always offer an exquisite synthesis of tasteful musicianship and top-notch songwriting, their last couple releases received some criticism for abandoning trademark experimental arrangements in favor of more straightforward approaches. However, the band still incorporates a lot of superb artistry, as their newest effort, Magnolia¸ validates perfectly. Each track maintains the superb blend of subtle orchestration and instrumentation that complements Soord’s fragile yet powerful vocals perfectly. Magnolia also sounds like their most confident and mature album yet.

The first song, “Simple as That”, finds Soord confessing pained uncertainties to an unknown person whilst repeating a dulled guitar riff. Things become more frantic once the chorus kicks in, with the concluding moments bursting into luscious layers. In contrast, the second song, “Alone at Sea”, is more hostile, yet it also has a striking sense of urgency all the same. It’s also coated in deadened picking that, combined with its subsequent wrath, evokes aspects of What We Have Sown. Later on, “Don’t Tell Me” is sentimental and light, with a lovely, heartbreaking string arrangement. It’s a sublime example of how the staple of what makes the Pineapple Thief so special—a tantalizing mixture of rock and orchestral composition—is still very much intact.

Meanwhile, “Season’s Past” is fairly scarce; it begins as a piano ballad but eventually incorporates softly covered percussion and strings, as well as Soord’s falsetto charmingly angst-ridden harmonies. With tribal rhythms and a dense soundscape, “Coming Home” is more sinister and multifaceted, showcasing the aggressive sentiments that are scattered around most of their releases, while “The One You Left to Die” is quite dramatic, a bit reminiscent of “So We Row” in the way the scoring and percussion work together to increase the tautness. The final track, “Bond”, steals the show in terms of sheer songwriting. Conquered by a habitual hypnotic guitar pattern that complements everything else brilliantly, its chorus is heavenly yet tragic, while its verses exude betrayal and scorn. It’s stunning.

Magnolia may not be the best Pineapple Thief record, but it’s still another fine excursion into sorrowful poeticism and idiosyncratic sonic classiness. Best of all, Magnolia proves that The Pineapple Thief is still at the top of its game—just in a different way.

 
Artist: Knifeworld

Album: The Unravelling

Label: InsideOut

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/k/knifeworld_theunravelling_albumart200.jpg

List number: 6

Display Width: 200

Knifeworld
The Unravelling

Knifeworld is a group known for its ingenious blend of psychedelia, jazz, chamber music, and progressive rock. An peculiar English troupe led by guitarist/vocalist Kavus Torabi, the group formed in 2009 and soon garnished praise spotlight their debut, Buried Alone - Tales of Crushing Defeat. Unsurprising, each subsequent release has been even more impressive, and their newest effort, The Unraveling, which they describe as “an eight song cycle shot through with existential angst, regret, and melancholy in an explosion of colour,” absolutely blew me away.

With its juicy timbres, wild arrangements, and bold vocal pairings, comparisons to acts like Phideaux, Gentle Giant, Frank Zappa, and Goblin are fitting. For instance, “I Can Teach You How to Lose a Fight” begins lightly, with a sophisticated rhythm and peculiar effects complementing vocalist Melanie Woods’ tantalizing melody. Soon after, Torabi’s ominous jazz fusion guitar lines, as well as the spastic horns and eerie chaos that unfold in the background, makes the track become very foreboding indeed.

“Send Him Seaworthy”, with its warm horns and friendlier phrases, feels like some Camel might’ve crafted in its prime. It’s still quite adventurous and complex too, with rich vocal harmonies throughout. In contrast, “Don’t Land on Me” is probably the most schizophrenic and extraordinary entry on The Unravelling. It begins with a hodgepodge of vigorous instrumentation that’s awesomely hypnotic. Its songwriting then takes center stage, offering masterful dynamic changes and peaceful passages. Overall, it’s an incredibly exciting and daring affair that single-handedly demonstrates why this is an album to relish.

The group’s odd lyricism continues on “The Skulls We Buried Have Regrown Their Eyes” (just look at that title), which consists of Torabi reciting a creepy poem as saxophones contrast with other shades. Meanwhile, a cyclical keyboard pattern dominates as more vivid instrumentation fluctuates brilliantly as he speaks. Also, “I’m Hiding behind My Eyes” is an exquisite finale that reaches Zappa-esque levels of intricacy. There’s a wonderful balance of acoustic and electric instruments here, and Torabi and Wood balance their voices together well with pretty melodies.

To be sure, this is one of the most idiosyncratic, courageous, and colorful records of the year. It reveals how special new music can still be. Do yourself a favor and unravel its splendor as soon as you can.

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