Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Favorite Albums Of 2012

First off, what a year! After the slew of great releases in 2011, I was a little skeptical that 2012 could top it, but with the promise of releases from such heavy hitters as Anglagard, Echolyn, Neal Morse, The Flower Kings, Big Big Train, Anathema and The Gathering, there was some hope. Oddly enough, with all of the big names mentioned above, only 2 of those made this years favorites list. That's certainly not a slight against any of the ones that didn't make it, but more of a statement about the ever increasing quality of music out there. A little bit of searching time spent on the internet can reveal a slew of talent, just waiting to be discovered. That's half the fun for me!

Which brings me to my second point. I decided to call this a favorites list, rather than a 'best of' or 'top 10', only because of a fear of presumption in a highly subjective category such as music. As terrible as I think some music is, I don't have to listen to it, nor do you have to listen to mine. So this list is a personal thing. It's made up of music that is technically top notch ( a progressive rock fan's pre-requisite ), but most of all, it is what moved me, to the point of tears at times and because of that, became my favorite listening experiences of 2012.

Before I get started on my favorite 10, I'd like to give a nod to 2 albums that would've made it, if not for extenuating circumstances, the first because it was re-done older songs, the second because it was a re-issue of an older album.

Steve Hackett, Genesis Revisited 2. ( United Kingdom )

Steve Hackett, is one of my favorite musicians, certainly my favorite guitarist and any new release by him is a cause for personal celebration. When that new release is some re-done material from one of the giants of progressive rock - Steve's old band, Genesis - well for someone who grew up as a Genesis fanatic - until Hackett's departure - it just adds to the 'must have' category. Add in the fact that included on this 2 disc monster is the penultimate progressive rock song 'Supper's Ready', it sends it over the top! Done with a multitude of top notch musicians and singers, with added guitar parts and excellent production, this was a massive release and a constant in the cd player.

Arco Iris, Agitor Lucens V. ( Argentina )

Wow! This was a curiosity purchase for me. As a fan of progressive rock music from all corners of the earth, coupled with the enjoyment I find discovering obscure music, this release fits the bill. Arco Iris are one of the fathers - along with Bacamarte and Los Jaivas - of South American progressive rock and one of the best, at least as far as this album is concerned. This double album was released in 1974 and for the most part, unheard of in these parts. This is a shame as this album has it all. A mixture of Pink Floyd inspired space rock, psychedelic rock, jazz fusion, some 60's type sounds and spiced up perfectly by native South American rhythms. This is an absolute treat for the ears and the re-issue of this Argentinian gem is easily my favorite 'oldie but goodie' of the year!

                                         And Now On To My Favorite New Releases of 2012

10. Autumn Whispers, Cry Of Dereliction Volume 1( Norway )

This one was a bit of a sleeper and edged it's way into the top 10 at the last moment. Very ethereal, sparse and acoustic, this one is perfect for a quiet evening at home. Thought provoking in it's lyrics and subtle in it's instrumentation, this is a beautiful album and worthy of it's place. Added to what was said before, I must say that anything that comes from Norway seems to have a dark, wintery woods feel to it, like listening to an old nordic myth, put to modern music. Beautifully dark, with a sense of light to come. That's the best description I can give.

9. Astra, The Black Chord ( United States )

Stemming from southern California, Astra is just what you need to get your psychedelic/space rock groove on. Flowing keyboard and guitar jams with a rollicking rhythm section and solid vocals, is just the right tonic on those long drives to work for me. The best description I can give of this album is 'feel good and fun'. If you thought psychedelic music died with the 60's, Astra will change your mind in a heartbeat!

8. Kompendium, Beneath The Waves ( United Kingdom )

Big, stunning sweeping project from Magenta's Rob Reed, with an army of who's who musicians and singers, full orchestra and choirs, this had to be a logistical nightmare that only someone like Reed could pull off! With more time spent, this one surely would end up in my top 5. It certainly is number 1, when the whole package is considered. No expense or care was spared with this production. The package is absolutely as stunning as the music. This is a true concept album in the tradition of 'Dark Side Of The Moon' or 'War Of The Worlds',,,better yet 'Lord Of The Rings' of concept albums! Orchestral, celtic, operatic prog! Everything done here is top of the heep! To try and explain this album is folly really. You need to sit down and experience it!

7. Violeta de Outono, Espectro ( Brazil )

Dunno what they're singing about, don't care! The music on this disc is sublime. In the best tradition of Camel, the keyboard and guitar interplay is beautiful and whatever Fabio Golfetti is singing about with his outstanding pipes, I'm sure is wonderful! From start to finish, this one is a winner and if you don't mind listening to vocals in another language, I highly recommend this to you. You might even find yourself bellowing out with the music, even if you don't know what you're saying :-) The South American masterpiece of the year, if I were to pick one.

6. Silhouette, Across The Rubicon ( Netherlands )

Ahh, the Dutch always make an appearance and with Silhouette's Across The Rubicon, it's an easy choice. Call it neo-prog if you'd like and in the best traditions of IQ and Marillion, I guess it is. This is their 3rd and also easily their best! 3 out of four band members share the vocal duties and musically, this disc is built around the wall of keyboard sounds of Erik Laan. Not that the other musicians are not outstanding, but this is a keyboard lovers dream, especially if you like that 'wall of sound' sound. Great melody tops this one off and permeates the whole album. This one is as good a neo-prog album as any you'll find and as nice of a surprise as Anubis' A Tower Of Silence, from last year. Another sing along album. Great stuff!

5. Frequency Drift, Laid To Rest ( Germany )

These guys almost made the list last year with the album 'Ghosts' and have done themselves better with this release. The stars of the show here are the haunting vocalist Antje Auer, keyboardist and composer Andreas Hack and the incredible violinist Frank Schmitz. This music will take you for a ride as they are not afraid of long stretches of exploration. Not in the sense of a lot of noise, but long drawn out melodies and solos, especially by the aforementioned Schmitz. In fact his violin is almost the lead instrument at times, but don't let that scare you off as this is an incredible album, where all musicians shine! Look at the album cover, it really does say a lot about this music. Very dark at times, but never depressingly so. This one could've come from Norway!

4. Anathema, Weather Systems ( United Kingdom )

Next to Kompendium, this gets the nod as the best produced album of the year. Simply stunning in it's sound only surpassed by the music. As a former doom metal band, Anathema has left that sound far behind them, but not so far as to not let it influence them on occasion. The Cavanagh brothers have had to deal with a lot of personal toil in the last few years and it pours out from their music with abandon and makes for some emotionally wrenching moments. The music is simply outstanding here and pretty much each song tends to rise in tempo from mellow beginnings to ear shattering heights. However it's the emotionally charged vocals of Vincent Cavanagh and Lee Douglas ( the new queen of progressive rock singers ) that make this album the winner that it is. This is a powerful album that will bring tears to your eyes.These guys have refined their sound with each album and I can't wait to see what's coming next.

3. Big Big Train, English Electric Part 1 ( United Kingdom )

How can an old Genesis fan not love these guys? This album is filled with those sounds that made me fall in love with progressive rock in the first place. No rip-offs here though as these guys have pretty much rose to the top of the prog rock heap, by taking those sounds from the past and modernizing them, with their own brand of Britishness and story telling. This is 'Trick Of The Tale' for the modern age, but with more of a focus on real life stories. The Gabriel/Collins like vocals of Dave Longdon are the icing on the cake here. This vied for number 1 this year, but settles in nicely at number 3.

2. Gazpacho, March Of Ghosts ( Norway )

I'm blessed with a wife who loves me and this I am grateful to God for. I also count myself blessed, because although the music I love wouldn't be considered mainstream by any stretch of the imagination, Carla also loves it. I say this because for a second year in a row, she would have my number 2 album choice be number 1. We have come to blows over this and I am now eating frozen dinners,,,I mean they're really frozen! Hehehe,,just kidding.
I love this album as much as she does in reality and Gazpacho are probably my favorite of the modern progressive rock bands as they have truly hit their stride over the last 4 albums and become the kings of the laid back Radiohead meets Talk Talk meets Porcupine Tree meets Marillion sound, which really has produced their own classy sound, heavy on thought provoking lyrics sung by superb vocalist Jan Henrik Ohme. This is truly a band and each member contributes to the songwriting and the songwriting is stunning. This is a concept album of sorts, as the songs have to do with encounters with ghosts and their stories. Emotion is also the key here with Ohme's vocals riding high upon layers of outstanding music, where one musician doesn't outshine the others, but the others wouldn't sound near as good without each individual contributing. These guys have found a sound that's money in the bank and can do no wrong. No song on this disc is sub-par and none really outshine another as every song on this disc is of the highest quality, just like the band themselves. Carla's #1 :-)

1. Autumn Chorus, The Village To The Vale ( United Kingdom )

Oh boy, if I sound liked I was gushing over Gazpacho, I will overflow with this description! This album was actually officially released at the end of 2011 digitally, but didn't see distribution on hard copy until 2012 and was one of those 'this sounds interesting purchases' that I make every once in a while, without much info to go on. Classified by the band themselves as post rock/post classical, when the music is this good classifications are not needed thank you. To give you an idea, it's as if a band of English minstrels were transported into a 21st century recording studio that was already occupied by classic French Canadian progressive folk band Harmonium and asked to make an album with them. That might be a little obscure for some folks, but that's the best I can do. When I put this disc into the stereo it transports me to places that very few albums can do. This is truly other-worldly and never loses steam. From beginning to end this album delivers a musical experience that is as close to perfection - for me - as I have ever heard. The vocal performance of the year lives here, in the person of Robbie Wilson, a light shimmering and yet powerful performance that will leave you breathless! Together with the absolutely brilliant use of classic and modern instruments blended to near choral perfection, this - for me - was a no-brainer, for album of the year. If you decide to hear just one of the albums on this list, let it be this one. Turn off the lights, hit play and come back when it's over, so you can tell me what you think :-)