Saturday, 29 December 2012

Music of 2012

As the year draws to a close it has become customary to look back over the past 12 months and review aspects of life, and none more so than in the world of music. There are a number of 'best of' lists being published and/or broadcast at the moment, and I thought I'd give you my take on the past year's musical offerings.

My personal preference for music is predominantly progressive rock, but not exclusively. Outside that favoured genre I have particularly enjoyed the offerings of the prolific Joe Bonamassa, who has produced not only his solo effort 'Driving Towards the Daylight', an excellent collection of guitar-driven blues rock, but also a third album with Black Country Communion - 'Afterglow'. With tensions in the band towards the end of the year, which may or may not have been resolved, this may be a swansong, but time will tell. Richard Hawley, a son of my current home city of Sheffield, gave us a corker of an album this year in 'Standing at the Sky's Edge' - a record with a different feel to some of his more recent recordings, with a haunting, Spector-esque 'wall-of-sound' feel to many of the tracks. John Mayer, a big favourite of my eldest son, and a great influence on his own music, gave us a very warm, accessible, country-feeling collection in 'Born and Raised' which grows with every listen. Perhaps a little nearer to the 'prog' universe were the recording of the reunion concert by Jazz Fusion legends Return to Forever, 'The Mothership Returns', which is just awesome, and the almost uncategorisable Sigur Rós, who gave us more of their ethereal soundscapes on 'Valtari'.

So to my top Prog albums of 2012: or maybe in a moment, because some may feel that there are some glaring omissions from the list that's about to unfold. I'm only including here records that I've bought and listened to this year, and so far I'm still waiting to hear/ purchase the following highly critically-rated collections, so can't give my opinion as yet: 'Skin' by Panic Room; 'Beneath the Waves' by Kompendium (was on my Christmas list, but never made it to my stocking); 'Perilous' by Glass Hammer; 'I Am Anonymous' by Headspace; 'Invicta' by The Enid; 'The Ghost Moon Orchestra' by Mostly Autumn; and 'On and On' by Syd Arthur. Maybe the New Year will see some or all of these making my collection.

There has been so much good Prog produced this year: it may even be fair to say that this has been a classic year, almost on a par with 1972. I do wonder whether in 40 years, as I turn 92, I will look back with such affection on the class of 2012 as I do on 1972's alumni in my 52nd year - only time, good health and avoiding Armageddon may tell. Of that great selection, here (finally) is my Top 25.

25. Rush - 'Clockwork Angels': been a Rush fan for 40 years, but still not totally convinced by this one yet.
24. Squackett - 'A Life Within a Day': a good, but not great, collaboration between two prog heroes.
23. The Reasoning - 'Adventures In Neverland': an enjoyable addition to the band's canon.
22. Gazpacho - 'March of Ghosts': moody and atmospheric, as one expects from this Norwegian outfit.
21. Galahad - 'Beyond the Realms of Euphoria': the second of two offerings by this band this year, an interesting fusion of heavy prog & trance.
20. Steve Hackett - 'Genesis Revisited 2': a nostalgic look back over Steve's history with some powerful collaborations and interesting reworkings.
19. Storm Corrosion - 'Storm Corrosion': no-one quite knew what putting Steven Wilson & Mikael Åkefeldt together in a studio would produce, and many were surprised by the result. Hard to define, but at times quite sublime.
18. Nine Stones Close - 'One Eye on the Sunrise': a new band to me, who have progressed from last year's 'Traces' to produce a great record.
17. Astra - 'The Black Chord': a great follow-up to 2009's 'The Weirding'; dark and compelling.
16. Cailyn - 'Four Pieces': introduced to this young lady when she followed me on Twitter. Some great reworkings of classical standards as well as her own composition, with some great guitar work.
15. The Flower Kings - 'Banks of Eden': this band, however long a hiatus there is between recordings, and however hard the band members work on other projects between times, continue to produce great, epic, dreamy prog.
14. Marillion - 'Sounds That Can't Be Made': reminiscent on 'Afraid of Sunlight', and containing the epic and prophetic 'Gaza', this is among Marillion's finest work.
13. Unitopia - 'Covered Mirror volume1 - Smooth as Silk': a collection of covers of songs that have inspired the band, this carries their hallmark of great musicianship and distinctive vocals. Stand-outs for me are the two medleys, and their take on Zep's 'Rain Song'.
12. Ian Anderson - 'Thick as a Brick 2': after 40 years we finally get to find out what happened to Gerald Bostock. A great album in the Tull tradition, and an equally great live show earlier this year.
11. Anathema - 'Weather Systems': an album of wonderful atmospheric music, showcasing great songwriting and musical skills. The latest in a line of 3 stunning recordings.

The Top Ten

10. Flying Colours - 'Flying Colours': one of Mike Portnoy's many projects since leaving Dream Theater, featuring, among others, his fellow Transatlantician, Neal Morse. A smorgasbord of pop-y, heavy and epic tunes showcasing an array of talent.
9. Lalle Larsson - 'Nightscapes': The final part of Karmakanic keyboardist Larsson's 'Weaveworld' trilogy, this is evocative, moody music that takes you into and out of the darkness.
8. Mystery - 'The World is a Game': This is the music Benoit David was meant to make. It suits his vocal style so much better than Yes did, and along with 'One Among the Living' is some of the band's best material.
7. Kaipa - 'Vittjar': Another product of the Scandinavian prog stable, mostly sired by the almost ubiquitous Roine Stolt, Kaipa continue to produce their distinctive music album after album. This is another classic: soaring guitars & keyboards, unique vocals, driving percussion; an almost perfect band.
6. It Bites - 'Map of the Past': for over 25 years now It Bites have been turning out memorable pop-prog, but with the arrival of John Mitchell in 2006 they have turned out some stunning music on 'The Tall Ships' and this latest offering. Memorable, driving tunes; great musicianship - what more could you want?
5. Threshold - 'March of Progress': an outstanding Prog-Metal album that grips you from the onset and carries you on an hour-long roller-coaster of musical brilliance, catchy hooks and rattling good tunes!
4. I and Thou - 'Speak': I've only recently discovered this album, but have been blown away by its beauty. Chiefly the work of Jason Hart of Renaissance, this is an exquisite collection of tunes that takes you out of yourself and to a better place.
3. Änglagård - 'Viljans Öga': The last of the Scandinavians on this year's list, but undoubtedly the best. Änglagård have only produced now 3 studio recordings, and their last one was 18 years ago. After such a long hiatus, they have returned with an astounding piece of music - truly masterful.
2. Echolyn - 'Echolyn': It is difficult to know what to say about this record that would do justice to it. An amazing collection of songs, brilliantly executed, with a warmth and a depth to them that is almost tangible. Sell your mother and buy this record!

1. Big Big Train - 'English Electric (Part 1)': When I first heard this album I said 'listen to this: your ears will love you for ever', and in the 4 months since its release I have only strengthened my opinion of this masterpiece of English Progressive Rock. All of the band's output, but particularly their last 3 outings ('The Underfall Yard', 'Far Skies Deep Time', and this one) have the ability to evoke an essential Englishness that very little can these days. There is nostalgia here, both in the lyrical content and in the musical style, but not in a backward-looking sense. It evokes all that is good about this nation of ours, and I wait in eager anticipation for March 4th 2013 and Part 2.

As I said, it's been an outstanding year for music this year!

Friday, 28 December 2012

The Hobbit

Many years ago, when my two boys were quite young, I remember reading them 'The Hobbit' as a bed-time story. They both loved the story, and my young son, James, got quite upset near the end of the book when one of the dwarves died. This story has been an important part of our family.

When Peter Jackson adapted 'The Lord of the Rings' for the cinema, we lapped it up, immersing ourselves in the epic tale of adventure, friendship & obsession; of the triumph of good over evil despite almost insurmountable odds. We even bought into the extended DVDs, which have provided hours of entertainment in the years since.

So when it was announced the Jackson was to adapt the prequel to LOTR, 'The Hobbit', for the cinema, there was much anticipation. Then the film was extended to 2 films, then 3, spread over the next three Christmases. The boys managed to see the first film on or shortly after its general release, but it wasn't until yesterday that my wife & I got to see it. And we went for the full package: 3D IMAX, which may have been a mistake.

Although a fully immersive experience, the 48-frame IMAX film caused great problems for my wife, who had to leave the theatre after about 15 minutes feeling dizzy and nauseous: I too felt a little queasy, but managed to sit through the 3 hours of the film. It was a good film, with stunning special effects (as one would expect of Jackson), but I have to say that it did seem to drag a little - well, quite a lot, actually. My feeling was that it was about an hour too long, and would've lost nothing if the pace could've been quickened a little. If the further two films are as long and ploddy, then it may not be the enjoyable experience that I, and many others, had hoped it would be.

It's not a bad film - Martin Freeman is very good in the title role as young Bilbo Baggins, and you do feel as if you care what happens to the company of dwarves as the story progresses - but I don't think it's going to be winning too many awards outside the Special Effects categories.