Phil the Collector’s Year in Prog

Those who listen to Andy Read’s weekly DPRP Progressive Rock and Metal radio show will know “prog connoisseur” Phil as a regular (if occasional) studio guest. You can always rely on Phil for some great musical choices accompanied by entertaining and informative narrative. The ProgLite v ProgHeavy head-to-head with host Andy, towards the end of 2013, was one of the most compelling radio shows I’ve heard in a long time. Readers of Words and Music will know Phil from the Marillion/Prog chapter.

Phil is an avid and informed consumer of prog and rock. He often produces a top ten for friends and musical acquaintances at the end of each year and has kindly agreed to the publication of his 2012 review. So without further ado, I present for your reading pleasure and subsequent aural stimulation, Phil the Collector’s Year in Prog: 2012. (Please note that the choices and comments are entirely Phil’s and do not necessary reflect my own taste or views!)

PHIL THE COLLECTOR’S YEAR IN PROG: 2012

I only bought 76 new releases this year, the fewest for many years. So, was it a “bad” year for (new) music? Thinking back, I don’t consider it so, although I have found it especially difficult to order a top ten. Hopefully this simply reflects the high standard and consistency of the best releases.

Steven Wilson has yet again dominated my musical year, although this probably has as much to do with the proliferation of his releases as anything. Three of those were live ones and I prefer not to include these – especially when the recordings are not from the year in question.

Anyway, in usual reverse order:

10. RNDM – Acts
The first of two Joseph Arthur inclusions. This is his team-up with Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam and Richard Stuverud. Being touted – inevitably – predominantly from the PJ angle, Joe does the lion’s share of the writing. Other than their first collaboration, on Ament’s “true” solo album, tracks I heard in advance really didn’t inspire me or whet my appetite for the album, so I was delighted to be so pleasantly surprised by the end result. Talk of UK dates in 2013 is welcome. I just wonder what size of venue they’ll be able to carry off. The album seems to have had little publicity (a sample track on the latest Classic Rock magazine covermount CD excepted) and sold nothing, although I’m not actually sure it’s had an official UK release yet.

9. Joseph Arthur – Redemption City
Bookending the year (Acts appeared at the end), this second inclusion from Joe was my first acquisition of the year. I say “acquisition” as opposed to “purchase” as this double album was initially only made available as a free download. A subsequent triple vinyl version would otherwise have been bought, but at the time there was talk of a CD release with extra tracks. This has still yet to materialise, but I certainly hope it does. If not, I shall simply have to buy the vinyl. After all, I can’t possibly not have a physical copy, can I?

Inevitably, given Joe’s eclectic and prolific output, some of the tracks on this set are better than others, but I was impressed by the consistency – and the particularly high quality of quite a few of the pieces.

8. Producers – Made In Basing Street
Despite the calibre of the contributors to this project (Trevor Horn, Steve Lipson, Lol Crème and Ash Soan – hence the moniker) I was dubious about what this would sound like. There were suggestions of prog as well as of pop and there was only one way to find out. And whilst it doesn’t all work, there is more than enough to impress this listener. You will see the term “pop prog” used again under another entry but this cannot be compared to that. The time signatures are more mainstream here while there is sufficient substance to offer depth and reward repeated listening.

7. Sigur Ros – Valtari
Highly unusually for me, three of my top ten this year are from outside the UK, and this is the third. Those who know my tastes well will not be surprised to see these Icelandic stalwarts of my annual lists here again, although might be surprised to hear that I shan’t be seeing them on their forthcoming (belated) tour in support of this album. I have largely given up unreserved standing gigs at larger venues, based on more recent experiences, and Sigur Ros are best experienced in the seated position. Plus there’s my age. [Eh? You’re not that old are you? Ed] Thank goodness Steven Wilson is once again doing a seated theatre in London on his forthcoming tour.

I do not think Valtari is as strong as at least its last couple of predecessors, although it is a return to a more ambient form after the almost upbeat (everything’s relative) content of With A Buzz. It still deserves a place in this list.

6. Steve Thorne – Crimes & Reasons
Thorne’s fourth release and, if his comments are borne out, his penultimate one. This is a real pity, but assuming he maintains this standard on his next set, it’s better to go out on a high. Despite consistently attracting the prognoscenti – somehow – to appear on each of his albums,  he simply hasn’t attracted the attention he deserves. Whilst this album is not, to me, quite as strong as its predecessor, Into The Ether, it is still excellent and contains in Moth To Flame one of my top three tracks of the year. Let’s just hope that the next album finally sees him rewarded by recognition and makes him reconsider his decision to call it a day. We’ve lost far too many great acts in this way as it is.

5. Anthony Phillips & Andrew Skeet – Seventh Heaven
After a few relatively fallow years, this was the first of two albums from Ant in 2012. A double at that, it sees him teaming up with Skeet in orchestrator role. A consistent high standard of composition across both discs (a set which is available at a ridiculously low price), it is just wonderful to hear Ant back in classical mode and with material composed largely outwith the constraints that his more usual library work imposes.

4. Field Music – Plumb
A band which just gets better and better, garnering a Mercury Prize nomination for this album. The Sunderland brothers Brewis still seem to be largely ignored, however, as evinced by the shockingly small audience when I finally got to see them live, in a tent at the Hop Farm festival and the (mid) size of venue on the accompanying tour. Perhaps their quirky style and time signatures means that it will ever be thus, critical acclaim notwithstanding (yet when did that ever really mean anything?). Another outrageously short album with no track troubling the four minute mark, this peculiar brand of “pop-prog” (I’m still not sure I get the prog suggestion) will not suit all, unless you like to do your toe-tapping in 9/8.

3. Shearwater – Animal Joy
Another band I finally got to see live this year (see below), having only picked up on them through the preceding album #5 a couple of years ago, courtesy of the recommendation of a certain Mr Wilson. I still prefer that album, The Golden Archipelago, but this set is notable and commendable for adopting a slightly different style. Whilst more accessible overall, it includes what must be my favourite track of theirs, and of the year, in Insolence, which was simply mesmerising in concert. Perhaps their obscurity over here can be better explained than Field Music’s given that they are from Texas as opposed to Tyne & Wear (I wonder when that comparison has ever been employed before in any context), but they equally certainly deserve wider exposure.

2. Anathema – Weather Systems
Sitting here compiling this round-up a year ago, I would never have expected to be including this band in my top ten – let alone so highly. Yet isn’t that one of the reasons music is so wonderful: its power to surprise? I already had several of their earlier albums, but had never really got into them, at least partly because, as with Opeth, they began as a doom metal band before becoming more proggy. They were highly touted as a live band but each time I saw them  – supporting Porcupine Tree, which they did regularly – I never rated them. My interest was piqued by 2001’s A Fine Day To Exit, mainly because it was very similar in style to PT. But really too similar. The album which preceded this latest one had been highly recommended [Especially by me! Ed] but by then I had lost interest.

Yet to prove that music on the internet does have something going for it, this album was streamed for free immediately prior to release, so out of interest I had a listen. And then another. And then I had to buy it. When I talk about this Liverpudlian band’s similarities to what’s gone before, this comes to the nub of the matter. This is recognisably prog, yet in a modern and non-derivative style. And the band recognises the importance of melody. This is all too rare in prog these days, with a few notable exceptions (Marillion, Wilson and Spock’s Beard in particular). The musicianship here is excellent but never in an obtrusive, showing off manner (hang your heads, Dream Theater et al). The use of female vocals, courtesy of Lee Douglas (more so than on previous releases), adds a dynamic which really enhances the material. I love it when an album or act about which/whom I have low, if any, expectations creeps up on me and takes me unawares. Mind you, that does result in more than a few guilty pleasures existing amidst the collection. Musical snob? Moi?

1. Storm Corrosion  – Storm Corrosion
In contrast to Anathema’s, this is the 2012 album I approached with the most trepidation. Not necessarily with any expectations, as it was so hard to know what to expect. This long-touted/awaited teaming up of Steven Wilson with Mikael Akerfeldt of Opeth was preceded by forewarnings (not least from the pair themselves) of what, to use Wilson’s term, would be “weird sh*t” (I’m not being coy by employing the asterisk; I just know that some recipients’ email filters will like this as much as their administrators would enjoy St*rm C*rr*s**n). Now, any Wilson aficionado never knows quite what to expect from him, but to compound this I’ve never been a great fan of Akerfeldt (especially vocally: how could he be allowed to transgress on Supper’s Ready on Hackett’s latest project? Although that’s indicative of Hackett’s poor judgement across much of that album).

So, I was happy to be blown away – almost instantly  – by this album. Trying not to be lulled into a sense of false security by the ten minute opener, Drag Ropes, which was made available prior to release, I was quickly engulfed by the whole album. Sure, it won’t be to everyone’s taste: file under the old chestnut, “Uneasy Listening”, but there is a depth and hidden warmth amidst the apparent chill which if you get, you’ll really get. This is not an album to provoke ambivalence, but it is one that is consigned to the studio: as disappointing as it is, this material could not be recreated live. Even if these two collaborate again I can’t imagine them producing anything quite the same. But then, that’s their nature and all credit to them for it.

OTHER NOTABLE RELEASES (in no particular order)
An especially prolific year for Genesis-related products, it just surprises me that so few were real contenders for the top ten. Are they losing their power (Anthony Phillips excepted)? Or am I becoming more objective and my tastes moving on?

Anthony Phillips – Private Parts & Pieces XI: City of Dreams
An entirely unexpected appearance at the end of the year, this very nearly made the top ten. On first listen I thought it somewhat samey, but as happens with the very best albums, repeated listens proved this view incorrect and the set simply provides a mood which works well and makes for a cohesive whole.

Tony Banks – Six
The follow-up to his first classical work (the soundtrack to The Wicked Lady excepted), Seven, this is most notable for retailing at a fiver and therefore immediately worth a punt. I hope that doesn’t sound as though I’m damning it with faint praise. Yet as with its predecessor, having had high hopes of orchestral instrumental work from possibly my favourite composer, it simply does not live up to its promise. Banks says he learned many lessons from the experience of Seven for this one. Here’s hoping everything comes to fruition on the next release. (Assuming there is one: perhaps gardening will forthwith keep him fully occupied.) At least he no longer has lyric days with which to contend. And hopefully his central heating is in full working order.

Peter Gabriel – Full Stretch
Now, who expected this? Indeed, who knows about it? The story behind this remains entirely vague. This suddenly appeared as a “free” CD with the Spanish “art” magazine, Matador. I employ the quotation marks as this seems to explain its outrageous circa 60 quid price-tag and biannual status. It is a full length album, comprising 4 instrumental pieces. It hints at earlier work throughout in a similar vein to the Birdy soundtrack. Whether this will ever be granted a wider release remains to be seen. It certainly deserves it.

Squackett – A Life Within A Day
The long-awaited collaboration between Steve Hackett and Yes’s Chris Squire, awful moniker aside, this was – almost – as good as was anticipated. On the whole, not as proggy as probably expected, I commend the pair for an overall shorter, more commercial-sounding set of songs. I know others who rate this far more highly than I do but to me it sounds a rather thrown-together album. There are clear leftovers from both individuals’ pasts and while it is by no means bad, the often poor vocals don’t help do the songwriting justice. If an approach akin to the much-maligned GTR project of using a single (better) singer had been adopted this might have been so much stronger.

Steve Hackett – Genesis Revisited II – see below.

And outside the Genesis family:

Marillion – Sounds That Can’t Be Made
Interestingly, Steven Wilson’s favourite (prog) album of the year, it is most unusual for an album by them not to be in my top ten – and high at that. The band which for years I declared my second favourite of all time, I now wonder whether they’ve been usurped by Porcupine Tree. Saying that, PT’s output has not been as consistent across its career (notably in early releases) and there is now some question over that band’s future, given Wilson’s apparent preference for his solo career and the fact that that seems to be becoming successful. I comment further on the Marillion album below.

Porcupine Tree – Octane Twisted
Steven Wilson  – Catalogue/Preserve/Amass
Steven Wilson – Get All You Deserve (see below under DVD category)

And talking of Wilson, I must round-up his most notable releases of the year (i.e. excluding B*ss C*mm*n**n). All live and in the case of the first two, recorded prior to 2012, they were never really contenders for the top ten. Yet it any sense of the word they were, to me, highlights of year. Octane Twisted provides a live recording of the entire The Incident album from Chicago in 2010 on disc 1. The second disc mops up the rest of the Chicago set with the bonus of three tracks from the memorable Royal Albert Hall show later the same year. Including these pieces helps makes up for the disappointment caused by the earlier suggestion that the originally promised recording of that show would no longer be forthcoming. It’s just a pity that the bonus DVD which accompanied the first editions of this release only includes the Chicago Incident tracks. Surely, the whole set must have been filmed, so quite why the rest has been omitted is unclear.

C/P/A provides a single disc of much of the 2011 European Wilson solo set – most from the London date which was my second favourite gig of that year. A welcome taster several months ahead of the full set from the second worldwide leg which Get All You Deserve documents.

Big Big Train – English Electric part 1
After being so impressed by the preceding Underfall Yard, I found this first part of what was initially considered as a double album to be a touch disappointing. As with the Marillion album, there are some extremely good moments but its inconsistency meant it failed to make the top ten. Here’s hoping that part 2 will correct this in 2013.

Rush – Clockwork Angels
Highly regarded by most fans (and critics), I consider it a good album; just not great and not as strong as its predecessor, Snakes & Arrows, which I found something of a return to form. This is close and, without being patronising, especially commendable for a band so far into its career.  I’m still looking forward to the accompanying tour but shan’t be bothering with the album’s companion novel. Hmmm…

Nik Kershaw – Ei8ht
Much of Kershaw’s more recent output, now that he’s largely ignored, has been excellent. This set is not quite as good as some of that, at least in consistency, but is still of very high quality. However, he worryingly seems to be teetering on the brink of slipping into that ‘80’s nostalgia circuit. I guess everyone has to earn a buck. Yet unlike many of the others who already have, he continues to produce new, worthwhile, material. And to think that his is one of the two concerts I’ve ever walked out of before the headline act came on (in 1986).

Alan Reed – First In A Field Of One
The singer in Pallas prior to his acrimonious split from them, this is Reed’s debut full-length solo release. I was never a huge fan of his but was interested to hear what he would produce on his own. This impulse purchase proved a worthwhile indulgence. (It’s so much more pleasurable when that happens.) A strong set which provokes high hopes for a doubling of the provision of good music from both him and his former band which is otherwise diluted by them all having to hold down full-time jobs. Not that their styles are that similar. Reed’s is a more stripped-down approach than the band’s symphonic (sometimes overblown) material. It’s really just the voice which carries the comparison. I look forward to what he produces next.

Sweet Billy Pilgrim – Crown and Treaty
A band of which I’ve been aware for a while but never felt compelled to explore. Continued references to prog had never seemed true on the few occasions I encountered them (as happened in the early years of Field Music) but a track from this album on a sampler CD and an attractive price proved too great a temptation. Now it’s time to explore their back catalogue. I considered this for the top ten but it’s a little too quirky/inconsistent in places for it to gain a place.

NOTABLE REISSUES/COMPILATIONS (in no particular order)

Peter Gabriel – So (“25th” Anniversary Edition)
Typical for Gabriel to be late with even a reissue and to miss the anniversary by over a year. But for all its failings, this is a great set. And it’s a relief to know that he will be bringing the accompanying tour (which looked to be confined to the US this year) to Europe next Autumn after his year’s sabbatical. The box set deluxe edition is excellent, and although it has flaws (quite why the b-sides and mixes have been omitted remains unclear)  it is worth it for the DNA disc alone. Even as a massive fan, I never expected this compilation of different stages in the evolution of each of the tracks to command more than a couple of listens. Yet the intelligent and loving way it’s been put together bears repeated plays.

The Bible – Eureka
Following last year’s Walking The Ghost Back Home reissue, this is an even more expanded and impressive 25th anniversary edition of the band’s second album. A rare gig in London on the same weekend as Steven Wilson this March should make for a memorable few days.

Twelfth Night – Live & Let Live (“Definitive Edition”)
The latest in a series where each of the TN albums are being spruced up and having relevant additional tracks appended. In this case turning what was originally a single slab of vinyl of the highlights from the band’s final gigs with singer Geoff Mann at London’s Marquee club (on 4 and 5 November 1983) into a recreation of the entirety of the set across the two nights. Consequently, the sound quality is patchy on some of the added tracks, and in the case of The Collector, the best available version was an audience recording of a show a few nights earlier. This is the only unnecessary inclusion, not least as the piece remains far inferior to the oft-compared epic Sequences, which was on the original release and remains one of my Desert Island Discs. I suppose it was felt it had to be included for completeness and fortunately is at the end of disc one so can easily be skipped. Comprehensive sleevenotes further enhance this lovingly put-together release, as with the rest of this ongoing series which emanates from the band themselves, who, sadly, finally seem to have now called it a day since reforming in 2007 (an occasion I actually enjoyed more than Genesis getting back together the same year).

Elbow – Dead In The Boot
Titled as a counterpoint to their debut, Asleep In The Back, this b-sides compilation has been long-mooted. It is by no means definitive, but has been compiled to offer a specific flow of music – as all good albums should – as opposed to chronologically or whatever. And it really works, although it may still be frustrating for latecomers to the band as the earlier singles are now almost impossible to find – at least without paying through the nose. Some of those singles also included real gems which are not included here. Some, however, have been made available via the reissues of the first three albums over the past few years.


GIGS

1. No-Man – London, Islington Assembly, 2 September
Whilst a very similar set – though longer – to the previous October’s one-off gig in Leamington Spa (made available on 2012’s Love & Endings CD/DVD set), this was quite simply one of the most moving performances I have experienced for many years. And in the best tradition, it’s impossible to define why.

2. Shearwater – Bristol, Fleece, 25 November
My first opportunity to see them live and they were truly magnificent. I did wonder whether this would pip No-Man to the best of the year but objective hindsight reinforced the earlier show as my highpoint of the year.

3. Peter Gabriel – Hop Farm Festival, Kent, 29 June
Really only included as it was his only UK appearance of the year and the last chance to see the full orchestral show. I’m no fan of festivals and that was reinforced by a disinterested audience expecting the hits. To his credit, Gabriel failed to pander, but it did mean that the quieter moments were spoiled by chatter and there seemed to be very few people there specifically to see him, which I found odd. A couple of plus points were that this was a rare sunny day in a truly terrible summer and that I’d been led to believe that this festival was one of the better organised, friendlier and less corporate on the circuit, and that did seem the case.

DISAPPOINTMENT OF THE YEAR

Peter Gabriel not bringing his ‘Back To Front’ tour of the So album to Europe? This has been made up for by the announcement of 2013’s gigs.

Field Music not winning the Mercury prize, having been nominated? Such things don’t really bother me.

So it’s probably got to be the Steve Hackett Genesis Revisited II project. I mean, what was the point? For the first time since 1983, I am giving the associated tour a miss. Do I really want to hear an otherwise excellent drummer massacring many of my favourite songs of all time in a cabaret-style? There are a few worthwhile moments on the album such as Steven Wilson’s contribution (biased, me? Actually, I’m not a huge fan of his vocals but his take on Can-Utility works well) and those from Jakko Jakszyk and Steve Rothery, but they are outweighed by the less notable, including some I was looking forward to (Simon Collins’s and Nik Kershaw’s, for instance). I know that Hackett has endeavoured to clarify that the decision to keep the tracks close to the originals – unlike what he did with much of the first volume – but update them sonically was deliberate. But if I want to hear these tracks, am I really going to reach for this set, with frequently poor, sub-tr*b*te band, vocals, rather than the originals?

DVDs

Steven Wilson – Get All You Deserve
A rare instance of a DVD which, having watched once, I immediately wanted to see again. Although from the second leg of the tour (which I didn’t see as he opted for an unreserved standing London gig) with a slightly different set, it still acts as a wonderful memento of my second favourite gig of 2011. As well as being incredibly well filmed, it is simply the quality of the performance and material which sets this apart. As usual with Wilson, the deluxe set comes with audio discs for further enjoyment without the visuals.

Peter Gabriel – Live in Athens 1987
Part of the So box set, this gig finally gets a DVD release in a beautifully restored and enhanced version.

Marillion – Holidays In Zelande discs 2, 3, 4 & 5: Saturday & Sunday
Final parts of the record of the 2011 convention.           


SONGS

Shearwater – ‘Insolence’

Steve Thorne – ‘Moth To Flame’

Anthony Phillips – ‘Under The Infinite Sky’ (from Seventh Heaven)

ALBUM ARTWORK

Marillion – Sounds That Can’t Be Made. An otherwise inconsistent album (excellent in parts) is improved by its cover art and another lovingly put-together deluxe package. It further benefits from the employment of a number of artists, rather than the single one as on the preceding Happiness Is The Road album. The disparate styles for different tracks does not impede the overall flow. If anything, they mirror the album’s sonic roller coaster. The album is never bad (other than lyrically in places); just not as consistent as we should expect.


BIGGEST (PROG) HAPPENING OF THE YEAR
I’m not sure there has been anything especially notable – for me at least. Picking reissue packages, as attractive as many of these have been, does seem somewhat <ahem> regressive. The one day of the Summer’s End festival I attended was notable for the Cryptic Clues (aka Twelfth Night) performance, but this was tinged with sadness at what seems to be basically the end of the band, especially in light of vocalist Andy Sears’ recent – and rather guarded – comments. And the rest of the acts of the bill were largely uninspiring or just plain awful in one way or another. [I guess I must have enjoyed some of them more than you did! Ed]


ANTICIPATED HIGHLIGHTS FOR 2013

Steven Wilson solo album and tour

Peter Gabriel European ‘Back to Front’ shows

David Rhodes – Rhodes
Taking his live project with Gabriel colleague Ged Lynch on drums and Robert Plant’s son-in-law Charlie Jones on bass into the studio, this release is being funded using the Marillion model of “pledging”, now an entirely common affair with its own dedicated website for use by artists. It did look for a while as though it wouldn’t reach its target but fortunately did so just prior to its self-imposed deadline. After my initial disappointment with Rhodes’ Bittersweet album, the tasters for this one which those who have pledged have been able to d*wnl**d, augur well.

Marillion Weekend
These biennial events provide three nights of entirely different music. The first of these see the rendition of a complete album from their back catalogue. A trend by so many artists of which I am now thoroughly tired, the way Marillion weld this into these events alongside so much other music excuses this for me. And this time around I understand that a second album is being performed: 1994’s Brave, which remains my second favourite album of all time.

THANK YOU PHIL!

Andy Read’s DPRP Progressive Rock and Metal Radio Show can be heard on Stroud FM 107.9 every Monday between 10pm and midnight.

You can listen live as shows are broadcast or listen again to previous shows (including the ProgLight v ProgHeavy show) via the Stroud FM website.

For album reviews, gig reviews, interviews and lots more beside, visit the Dutch Progressive Rock Page website: http://www.dprp.net/

DPRP review of Words and Music

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