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Album Review

Album Review: Audio Insight – Dimensions

One of the reasons progressive rock lost popularity in the 1980s was that there weren’t very many new, young bands that took up the prog mantel once some of the older groups retired or became stale. Thus is makes me very happy when I come across young prog bands in this today, and it gives me hope for the genre in the coming years.

Audio Insight is one of those young bands. Hailing from the great state of New Jersey (which no one is allowed to mock on A Prog Blog), this trio has laid a solid foundation with their first album Dimensions.

The first thing that struck me about Audio Insight is how mature they sound for their age, both in terms of the band member’s actual ages as well as the lifespan of the band. Already they’ve figured out how to strike a good balance between showing off their chops and maintaining a good feel for the structure of their songs, something that many older prog bands continue to struggle with. Instead of sounding self indulgent and amateurish, Audio Insight impresses me with an album that sounds like the 3rd or 4th by professional musicians, and not the first album by a trio of college students.

Another pitfall that Audio Insight manages to avoid, one that I see a lot of young bands on the heavier side of the prog spectrum fall into, is the use of nondescript and interchangeable riffs that make tracks boring and forgettable. Instead of crafting interesting melodies, a band will simply down-tune themselves into oblivion and push out something guttural and indecipherable. On Dimensions, this is not the case.  Each track has its own identity, and it’s seems like the two years spent writing and recording were two years of actual time and effort. Audio Insight majors in a modern form of prog metal that is both heavy and melodic, which is a difficult balance to maintain even for established groups. The group’s sound has a mainstream appeal that will attract fans from similar genres, but material is varied enough that it should still please fans rooted in more stereotypical prog metal.

Audio Insight wears their influences on their sleeve, and fans of Coheed and Cambria will either love or hate the  group for this. While this similarity doesn’t particularly bother me, seeing as it’s the group’s first release, I’m hoping that the band is able to create a more distinct identity for themselves with future releases. I think the group has a lot of potential, and I’d hate for that to be dismissed simply because fans might see them as a C&C clone. Also, like a lot of prog, the vocals will most likely be a polarizing aspect of Audio Insight’s sound. The vocals aren’t bad by any means, but if one was to listen to just the vocal track, you might think you were listening to Fall Out Boy or similar bands.

The result of all of these characteristics is a heavy, high-energy, easily accessible form of prog that will appeal to younger audiences and hopefully some open-minded veterans as well. I think this group has a ton of potential if they can continue to evolve, using this strong first offering as a launching point. They’re playing February 13th at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, NJ for the chance to play at the Bamboozle festival later this year. Go support them, New Jersey music, and young prog musicians all in one fell swoop.


Not Actually A Review of Transatlantic’s Whirld Tour 2010 – Live From Sheperd’s Bush Empire DVD

I wanted to write a review of this DVD. I really did. I tried more than once to get it started. Every time I began writing though, I realized that I wasn’t saying anything that I didn’t already say in my review of the Whirlwind album or their tour stop here in NYC. It kept coming back to the basics: The band is awesome, the new music is pretty good, and their live shows are highly enjoyable.

I liked the DVD a lot, and any fan of Transatlantic will enjoy it as well. Pick it up! (You should probably do so here).

There are the few things I will say specifically about the DVD:

  • The vocals are the best they’ve ever been in the band. They added some new harmonies for the tour, and each new part definitely enhances the total package. Pete Trewavas and Mike Portnoy both sound significantly better than they did on the last DVD, and of course the addition of Daniel Gildenlow as a touring member just brings the performance to the next level. Of course Neil and Roine are still great. All around a great vocal performance from everyone on stage.
  • Speaking of Daniel and Pete, they are, in my opinion, the highlights of the DVD. Daniel brings that energy and enthusiasm to the stage that is so often lacking in the live performances of prog bands, and I’m extremely thankful that so much of him made it onto the DVD. Pete is notable for the great contrast between his presence on the last DVD and this one. He’s more animated, his parts stand out more (more an attribute of the song writing than his performance I suppose), and he handles a much larger portion of the vocal work, doing a damn good job with it. His performance here makes me wish I didn’t hate Marillion!
  • The special features are…ok. Buy the DVD for the concert.

Oh, also, I’m on the DVD, look!

I’m actually that blurry and poorly lit in real life

Again, I wish I had more to say about this, but there’s just very little else I can say that wouldn’t be repeating my last two posts about The Whirlwind. So check out the DVD, support the band, and maybe they’ll be motivated to take less than 9 years to get back together this time. I hear Portnoy will have some free time! (bad joke, sorry)


Album Review: King Capisce – King Capisce

King Capisce loves saxophone. That’s the clear message I received after listening to their self titled debut album recently. It’s not that I’ve never heard a saxophone, or that I dislike saxophone, or that I suffered a saxophone related trauma when I was a child which soured me on all saxophone-related activity for the rest of my life. Some of my favorite people play saxophone, like Charlie Parker, Bill Clinton and Ernie from Sesame Street. However I clearly do not come anywhere remotely close to the level of passion King Capisce has for the instrument.

To be fair, any band that features not one but two saxophone players is going to have their sound somewhat characterized by the inclusion of those instruments. What strikes me however is the complete omnipresence of saxophone in both the instrumentation and the final mix of each track. 90% of the time if there’s a melody it’s being played on saxophone, while the other 10% of the time the saxophones are bleeding uncontrollably into the sonic spaces left by the lead instruments, preventing you from focusing your attention on the rest of the group.

I do think that the inclusion of both saxophone players is a unique and interesting texture and a credit to the band’s overall sound, but most of the time I find myself wondering what potential lies beyond the thick forest of woodwind. King Capisce’s song writing is extremely varied, and the group is very adept at changes faces track to track, shifting from sleepy post-rock to frantic Mars Volta-style prog, to a jazz style that inspires a delightfully deviant type of energy for me as a listener. The drum work is also particularly tasteful and smooth. Hell, it’s not even that the saxophone players are bad! It is just that the saxophone presence is so ubiquitous that it washes away all of these very interesting and diverse elements and leaves behind a wall of sound entirely uniform and unfortunately lacking in contrast.

As a British group, I’m guessing that my chances to see King Capisce live will be few and far between. I would still like to see a live show however, because have a feeling that, in a live setting, my opinions could very well change. There’s definitely a strong current of momentum and a spark of liveliness in the band’s music that I think would be translated extremely well on stage.

For their second album I would hope that King Capisce explores the roles of the other instruments in more depth, while taking their foot off the gas pedal on the saxophone side of the equation. I honestly wouldn’t change a single other thing about the band, and I think there’s significant potential for growth in the future. You can make your own judgments yourself by going to the band’s myspace page, or by downloading two tracks off the album which the band has generously made available to the public:

http://dl.dropbox.com/u/3463011/01%20Cheer%20up%20Cyclops.mp3

http://dl.dropbox.com/u/3463011/09%20Boundless%20%28%2BReprise%29.mp3


Album Review: Time Columns – Sunriseinthesea

I’m a sucker for certain musical elements in prog. Your music could be absolutely terrible, but if you happen to include one or more of my prog turn-ons, then there’s a 99% chance that I’m going to like your music anyway. Bands with no vocals, bands that write music mostly with a 3-beat feel (or who use excessive triplet patterns), bands that create dense layers of poly-rhythms and bands that use arpeggios endlessly; these are the groups that I have an irrational affinity for. It’s a problem that I have no intention of fixing.

This being the case, I guess Baltimore’s Time Columns was already aware of my prog-vices, because these characteristics describe basically all of the songs on their EP, Sunriseinthesea (not that that’s a bad thing! It just means this review is most likely biased as hell).

The multi-instrumentalist duo (I’m still debating whether or not a duo can even be prog, I feel like the minimum number of people in a prog band has to be 3, with the preferable number being 11) creates their music using looping technology that, while popular in other genres, has seen limited integration in prog. Watch this video of Keller Williams (jump to around 4:50) demonstrating how he uses looping to create a full band of Keller Williams-es to support himself in a live setting in a very short amount of time:

I have to imagine Time Columns’ use of looping was born out of necessity. It has to be difficult to play your material live when your drummer is also one of your guitar players, and your other guitar player is also your keyboard player. I’ve been a fan of this technology for awhile, and I was pleased to hear that a prog band was using it so prominently.

Sunriseinthesea, strikes me as a strong first effort, and a good introduction for people who want to get into math rock without jumping directly into the mind-bogglingly technical deep end of the genre. That’s not to say that Time Columns isn’t technically talented. I’m only saying that their material doesn’t embrace the finger-contorting fretwork or calf-crushing double bass; the oh-my-god-how-is-he-doing-that side of the math rock spectrum. Instead, their sound is much more relaxed, and focuses on creating a solid, proggy groove for them to build off of, something which I suspect is a by-product of using loops so frequently.

The group could be diagnosed as having Andrew W.K. Syndrome, a common disease in which every song on a band’s album starts sounding the same. However, as a rule I will forgive bands of this infraction when it occurs on their first release, as I find it can take an album or two for a group to develop their full spectrum of sound outside of what they might be immediately comfortable with. Besides, much like Andrew W.K., I still like what I’m hearing, even if it doesn’t have a lot of variety to it.

Fans of Scale the Summit or Gordian Knot will find themselves enjoying Time Columns. The band will be touring in the very near future, and I know I personally plan on checking them out, even if it’s only to see how they pull off their live material. Check them out at http://timecolumns.bandcamp.com, like them on facebook, and you can follow them on twitter.


Album Review: The Suite Unraveling – Music for Robots

Who’s hungry! (also, is that Bryan Safi on the right?)

I have a soft spot in my brain for instrumental groups. Prog artists are rarely great with words, and often they just end up sounding contrived, shallow, or foolish when they try to come up with lyrics that fit their ridiculous melodies. Instrumental groups are wise enough to forego these often pointless exercises, and I appreciate their ability to communicate without being explicit (as a wise robot once said, “Your lyrics lack subtlety, you can’t just have your characters announce how they feel! That makes me feel angry!”)

The Suite Unraveling is a good example of how you don’t need words in music. The group falls somewhere on the spectrum between jazz and prog, which can be a hard line to straddle without becoming boring as hell or overly pretentious (or most often, both). Typically bands in this predicament will get too comfortable in their own skin and forget that their music needs to go somewhere, instead of droning on for ten minutes on the same chord progression like a depressed Buddhist chant. The Suite Unraveling avoids this pit fall on their most recent album, Music for Robots, fairly well. While I’d be lying if I told you that these songs rush from phrase to phrase, you will never wonder when the band is going to get over themselves and move on to the next point they’re trying to make. The vibe the album creates is methodical but energized, and even on my first listen I found myself really enjoying what my ear holes were witnessing.

The first comparisons I drew in my mind listening to Music for Robots were to the albums King Crimson put out between In the Court of the Crimson King and Red, as well as some of the less frantic Mahavishnu Orchestra selections. All of these bands take a “we’ll get there when we get there” approach to their songs that I find extremely listenable, though I know others don’t share this view. None of this is music to dance, headbang, skank, or freak out to, but it’s not music to zone out to either. In each song there’s a lot going on at any given moment, yet none of it ever happens in an ADHD sort of way where everything becomes random and disjointed, and substance gets lost in a flurry of poly-rhythms, prime numbers and dissonance. One idea clearly follows another, and instead of trying to squish and trim it’s material the band takes it’s time exploring each moment they create before moving on to the next.

It’s not music that will appeal to everyone immediately, but I really enjoyed listening to Music for Robots. As I said before, if you like early King Crimson but want something less sinister, or if you like Mahvishnu Orchestra but desire a little less aural masturbation (note: Obviously I’m still a huge fan of aural masturbation!) then you very well might enjoy The Suite Unraveling.

Check them out at http://www.suiteunraveling.blogspot.com/


Arm on Stage: Sunglasses Under All Stars

I went somewhere on this map recently. There was no prog to be found.

If I had to tell you everything I knew about Italy, the list would be pretty short. In fact, since it won’t take too much time, here you go:

-The food there is often delicious

-The country is shaped like a Louisiana shaped like a boot

-Rome happened there

-The people are passionate about basically everything, from sports to religion to the way you’re eating your dinner (hint: they want you to eat more)

None of that however is important to this review.

The only thing I knew about progressive rock in Italy before today was that there wasn’t a whole lot of the former going on in the latter. Sure, there have been Italian prog rock bands in the past, but very few of them made an impact internationally (the ones that did have very awesome names though, such as “Premiata Forneria Marconi”, which translates to “Award-winning Marconi Bakery”). In the grand scheme of European nations and their production of popular progressive rock bands, Italy isn’t exactly in the top 5. Or 10. Or…you get the picture.

So when I was introduced to the Italian group Arm on Stage (www.myspace.com/armonstage) I really didn’t know what to expect. According to the literature on the band, Arm on Stage is the group effort of four different musicians who met for 10 days in an mountain cottage with the goal of collaborating on a record that blended all of their interests and distinctive sounds into something new and original. While the ‘lock yourself in a cabin in the middle of nowhere’ strategy might be a good premise for a romantic novel or horror movie, it struck me as a little odd for a band, especially one that had never produced a record together before.

The album they produced, Sunglasses Under All Stars, catches my ear for a number of reasons. The atmosphere created by the first track, “The Guardian”, is both relaxing and slightly haunting. The electronic, offbeat intro gives way to a smoother, bluesy groove that pulls you out of an Italian frame of mind and places you in a foggy Georgian swamp. Folco Orselli’s vocals across the entire album are another point of interest. I can’t tell if he’s shy or just struggling with his English, but I wish he would just relax and sing out the whole time, because every time he lets loose he bring a valuable aural texture that is sorely missed otherwise. Lastly, a note to the engineer who mixed this, TURN UP THE BASS. I say this less as a criticism of the overall sound, and more as an endorsement of bassist Alessandro Sicardi’s efforts that are going largely unnoticed, especially on tracks like “Desert Coffee” where his performance can transform the entire song if you mess around with the EQ.

My overall impression of the album is that there are a lot of interesting ideas here that don’t get fully developed over the course of the record. The album has potential sprinkled throughout, but never do I feel like any one track fully evolved. Some tracks start out strong but then don’t grow, and other tracks probably could have been re-tooled to create greater contrasts for the listener. Too often I found myself intrigued by the first 45 seconds of a song, but 2-3 minutes later not much else had happened and the song was over. Also the lyrics, which were written in Italian, translated by a 3rd party, and then sung in English, are pretty damn confusing, even for a progressive rock record. I’m guessing a native English speaker never got a chance to review the lyrics, otherwise lines like “Then I cave down/Saving all my insane side/And never be late/Looking at my feet up to down” would probably have been retranslated. Again, I imagine this was more a product of the band not putting as much time into creating the album as one might hope they would, especially considering it was their first.

The album did grow on me over the repeated listens I gave it, so maybe my first impressions were the product of my ignorant American ears hating everything not from America. Regardless, I’m hoping that if Arms on Stage makes another album they take another more conventional approach to writing the material. I think they could produce something much more developed if they want to.


Album Review: Between the Buried and Me – The Great Misdirect

Between the Buried and Me are a relatively new band on the prog scene, having seen a huge spike in their prog-popularity after they appeared on the 2008 Progressive Nation tour. Of course with a name like ‘Between the Buried and Me’ you’d expect some kind of teenage hardcore or scremo group. It was this prejudice that actually kept me from giving the band a chance for their first few albums. It’s hard enough being a prog fan when you have to deal with band names like “The Flower Kings” (note: I love The Flower Kings), so I didn’t want to add to my portfolio of bands with names that would get my ass laughed at. Yet eventually the buzz around BTBAM became too great for me to resist, and I gave their most recent album at the time, Colors, a honest listen.

While some of my fears were confirmed with Colors, I found myself understanding quite clearly why BTBAM was generating so much prog-hype. The vocals were just as I feared, cookie monster growling along with some clean vocals from someone who sounded like they were 16. The song writing was also a little disjointed, which is more of a critique I have towards various metal genres in general and isn’t specific to BTBAM. However the musicianship was stellar, and when the band hadn’t randomly generating their phrasing the tracks they created were amazing and easily some of the best new prog in the second half of the decade. It was almost like two different bands, a horrible stereotypical teenage death metal band whenever someone was singing, and then an amazing prog metal band whenever vocals weren’t needed. In the end I decided I liked the overall product and would at least continue listening to their stuff whenever they provided new material.

So here I am now listening to their latest offering, The Great Misdirect. I think this album represents a huge step forward for the band and an significant progression (ha!) in their sound. The excellent prog-metal band seems to have taken the reigns on this album, as the song writing has become much more fluid and phrases are much more distinct. Instead of just random thrashing and crazy finger-twisting guitar dueling we actually have passages that stick in your memory and contribute to the feel of each track. On Colors I felt only the ending track, “White Walls“, had any kind of real identity that kept it distinguishable from the other tracks on the album. With The Great Misdirect I find myself identifying passages and songs much more easily. Even the clean vocal sections seem to have evolved beyond what they were on Colors. They still sound like the vocalist needs to finish puberty at times, but at least the music supporting said vocals has improved.

Once again the musicianship is top notch. It’s not the kind of stereotypical prog musicianship where you find your jaw on the floor after a particularly technical section, but it’s still present enough to be appreciated. The intro to “Swim to the Moon” is about as face-melting as the guitar parts get (if you don’t understand the concept of face-melting, look it up). One compliment I can pay the album as a whole is that, especially for a band that is still so young, they understand how to balance all of the instruments during the song writing process and create layers of sound instead of just writing multiple solos and telling the engineer to “Pro Tools the bitch”. Also, if I could give an award to a band for having a keyboard player while still maintaining an extremely brutal metal texture to their songs, BTBAM would win it every year. That goes for their albums before The Great Misdirect as well, in fact I was very surprised when I watched a clip of these guys on youtube and saw a keyboard player on stage.

The crappy death metal band hasn’t been kicked out of the studio completely, and whenever the growling vocals kick in the melodies once again become completely interchangeable with each other. However that’s part of the band’s sound and I can accept that for what it is. In fact I’m absolutely sure this is part of the reason that the band has become so popular, especially with younger prog fans. Whether I like it or not this aspect of their music is something that speaks to people outside of the progressive genre, and because of that I foresee BTBAM continuing to grow and exist as a band fans of metal and prog can connect to each other over.

Hopefully BTBAM can continue to build and progress (ha again!) their sound in this direction. Other reviews of the album I’ve read have been disappointed because it’s not as straightforward and metal as their previous efforts, but I personally view this as a good thing for the development of the band. This is a great album to listen to if you’re just getting into the band for the first time, and I wish I had it available to me before I listened to their older stuff. As with most death-prog-metal (yeah, that’s some over genre classifying there, deal with it), if you can handle the vocals then you’ll enjoy what is on the whole a really sick album.

Grade: B+


Album Review: Transatlantic – The Whirlwind

I was pleasantly shocked when I first heard rumors that Transatlantic had reformed to record a third album.  Their first two albums, SMPT:e and Bridge Across Forever were not only amazing pieces of work, but they introduced a lot of the newer prog fans to an style of progressive rock that hadn’t been recorded or appreciated in decades, melodic 70’s prog. Of course all of that came crashing down when Neal Morse, one of the two primary members of the super-group, left the progressive music scene to focus on faith-based music, effectively killing both Transatlantic as well as his main project, Spock’s Beard (note: Spock’s is still around, but the music isn’t nearly as creative. Neal, if you’re reading this, you broke my heart.) So when I started hearing rumors that the band had gotten back together to record another record, I thought it was just the wishful thinking of a obsessed fan base (and trust me, they’re obsessed. A lot of prog fans would have rather had a Transatlantic reunion than lose their virginity, and the band had only been gone seven years). Yet here I am, with a brand new Transatlantic album streaming through my headphones.

And this IS a Transatlantic album. First of all, the first disc is one solitary 77 minute piece. Transatlantic always prided itself on writing the most epic of epic epics, and they certainly accomplished that here in terms of shear volume of material. The second disc is more original material as well as some covers, which is something fans should be used to from their first two albums as well as their live shows, which always featured the integration of classic prog covers from artists like the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Procol Harum, and Genesis. The covers on this album are fairly solid, with “Return of the Giant Hogweed” being pretty fucking stupendous. “Soul Sacrifice” is also decent, but I can’t help but feel like it was put on the album as an excuse for Mike Portnoy to record  a drum solo.

The 77 minute title track is quite the beast. I’ll commend the band here for creating something so large that still manages to sound like one cohesive piece. I was afraid when I learned that they were only giving themselves four weeks to write and record the entire album that the result would be a rushed, choppy, and unimaginative product, but this certainly isn’t the case. At the same time, there’s a ton of very diverse music to wrap one’s head around, and I’d be very impressed if they try to perform it live (which of course they will, because they’re a ridiculous prog band). I LOVE the fact that the first voice we here is Roine Stolt’s instead of Neal’s, because, while I think Neal may be the superior vocalist technically, I find Roine’s voice to be infinitely more unique and entertaining to listen to. There isn’t as much vocal interplay between the member of the group as there has been in the past, but we still get a healthy cross section of the different vocal textures that make up the band. The song writing is kept fairly simple through out and the only member who seems determined to show off his chops is Portnoy, which is normal for the style of the band. That isn’t to say the record doesn’t reek of prog, it’s just a style of prog that doesn’t focus on technical proficiency. The high-energy sections are thoroughly invigorating without being overly complex or blazing fast, something that has become a crutch for less creative prog bands. This is precisely the classic 70’s-style prog fans of Transatlantic love the band for.

Left to Right: Pete Trewavas (Marillion, Bass/Vocals), Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater, Drums/Vocals), Neal Morse (former Spock's Beard, Keyboards/Guitars/Lead Vocals), Roine Stolt (The Flower Kings, Guitars/Lead Vocals)

That being said, there are some things that keep The Whirlwind from being on the same level as the bands previous albums. There are a lot of high points where I find myself becoming really engaged in in the title track, but these sections are punctuated by stretches of material that don’t really add anything to the piece. If they had cut the piece down to something more reasonable (you know, like 45 minutes) the result could have been a truly great piece of music on par with their previous efforts. Instead we have something that has large stretches of brilliance accompanied by chunks of stagnation. I’m not saying it’s a bad piece of music, because it’s not, I just find myself skipping around a lot to find the awesome parts (which again, there are plenty of). One other thing that is a bit of a bummer is that it does sound like Neal was given the reigns on the lyrics for a lot of the piece (which may have been a condition for him agreeing to do the project in the first place), because many sections of the song are full of references to ‘eternal glory’ and ‘the giver of life’ and there being ‘a reason you’re here, it’s not by chance’. I understand that that kind of topic matter his focus now, which is fine for him, but it’s also why I don’t listen to his new music. Having these kinds of lyrics dominate the piece is kind of a let down, albeit one I expected.

The original material on the 2nd disk so far doesn’t strike me as the best work they’ve done. While the band has always been known for their epic, 15+ minute plus songs, their other albums have been rounded out by really strong supporting tracks like We All Need Some Light, and so far I don’t hear anything nearly of that caliber on the second disk. ‘Spinning’ is probably the best track of the bunch of the new material on this second disk, but that’s mostly because the rest of the songs don’t do anything for me. To be fair the 2nd disk is a ‘bonus’ disk, so I guess it’s possible these tracks are supposed to be B-sides. The one totally redeeming aspect to these secondary tracks is that they give us the very first Pete Trewavas lead vocal song, ‘Lending a Hand’. It’s not even a great song, I just love hearing him try to sing the high notes that for some reason he feels the need to reach (though I guess it IS prog, where everyone feels the need to sing outside their range). In the end I’m glad I got the second disk because the covers are really fun to listen to, but the original material besides ‘Spinning’ could have bee left off and I would have been fine with it.

What I take away from this album is that it was a solid effort by some of the best musicians in progressive rock (or outside of progressive rock, as the case may be). I’m glad they got back together to give us this very enjoyable album and I’m excited about their announcement that they will  be touring sometime in the future. However I’m not going to be starry eyed about The Whirlwind either and say that it’s just as good as their previous albums. I think they may have tried too hard this time to create an ‘epic’ album, the second disk’s original material probably could have been left on the cutting room floor, and Neal’s direction with a lot of the lyrics leaves me a little peeved. Still, the good outweighs the bad and I’ll be listening to this for quite awhile longer.

Grade: B