We are going to end 2016 at Progradar with a selection of ‘Top 10’ picks. I have asked as many contributors as would like to join in the fun to give me their best 10 albums of the year. Here we start with Rob Fisher‘s selections.
Flux – Shadowlines
I had the absolute pleasure of seeing Flux perform at the Darbar Festival in London’s South Bank. They gave a superb and truly heart warming rendition of songs from their uplifting debut album ‘Shadowlines’. Since first hearing it earlier in the year I have been championing their music which is alive, fresh and above all joyful. There is an alluring blend of eclectic influences from around the world, stamped with a unique style and identity which exudes a passion for life through elegant melodies, exquisite playing and energetic rhythms.
Frost* – Falling Satellites
Glorious, sizzling, pulsating walls of sound. This is truly modern prog, aware of contemporary influences and absorbing modern ideas and sounds. It is a triumphant and shamelessly inventive experiment on how to do prog in the 21st Century, using sounds and techniques belonging to other musical contexts but making them your own. The result is a breathtaking adventure through expansive soundscapes, fascinating samplings and an album which stands as a shining beacon for genuinely creative and dynamic song writing.
Southern Empire – Southern Empire
Inspired, powerful song writing and intense levels of technical and musical virtuosity combine to create a debut album which does exemplary justice to both aspects of the term ‘progressive’ and ‘rock’. Sean Timms masterfully weaves intelligent lyrical insights with textured layers of expressive and compelling music which are psychologically perceptive, full of emotional insight and brimming with melodic creativity.
Thence – We Are Left With A Song
Thence have created what is, in effect, the soundtrack for life in the 21st century. It is an album which bristles with creativity, dynamism and enthusiasm, bringing together elements of orchestral and classical music, jazz, blues, rock and metal. The music ripples with stark contrasts, using sweeping and scintillating soundscapes to mirror the noisy backgrounds against which we live our lives. The vocals are buried in music which is humming with layers of distorted guitars, yet emerging into crystal clear oases of melodic calm and clarity. Enthralling.
Karibow – Holophinium You can understand why Oliver Rüsing needed a two-cd release for the latest instalment of musical excellence from Karibow. The vision which inspires the album is majestic and sweeping in scope, telling stories of poignant self-discovery through vivid symphonic landscapes which are an exhilarating journey in delightfully imaginative musical creativity. From the outset you are fully engaged both intellectually as well emotionally in music which is hauntingly textured and beautifully expressed.
Damian Wilson – Built For Fighting
What an unexpected revelation and delight this fourth studio release from Damian Wilson really is. Penetrating lyrical vignettes tell poignant and moving stories, sung in a voice that portrays simply staggering levels of expression, emotion and passion. At the heart of it is the conflict between our biological and physical make up suited for life as a perpetual battle for survival, on the other the recognition that there is a kinder and gentler way of living. A remarkable and heart-breaking release.
Kaipa Da Capo – Dårskapens Monotoni
As soon as you hear the opening bars of this elegant and imposing album you both know and you feel as if you are home. Reuniting the original members of Kaipa from the mid 70’s, lush musical landscapes are built around smouldering keyboards, breath-taking guitar work, powerful bass and intricate drumming. This is prog as it was always meant to be, lovingly crafted and exquisitely played in songs which capture a bluesy, symphonic and deeply satisfying mood.
Dec Burke – Book Of Secrets
A fiercely intelligent and highly perceptive hymn to the pendulum of life as it swings between joy and despair. The album is boundlessly energetic, infused with power, drive and focus. There is an infectious conviction to the music which is expressed in a diverse mixture of styles, moods and competing instrumental emphases. The songs are incisive, vigorous and dynamic, filled with a strong sense of character and purpose.
T – Epistrophobia
A late entry to the 2016 list of releases, T’s follow up album to the fiercely powerful Fragmentropy illustrates that all good things come to those who wait. Despite having a more symphonic and even melodic character, Epistrophobia is intellectually intense and emotionally provocative in equal measure. T’s music has always demanded your time and attention when listening in return for the rewards it eventually yields and this is no exception. Profoundly brilliant.
Oak – Lighthouse
A third debut album makes my top 10 for 2016. Lighthouse is wonderfully charming and, the more you hear it, affectionately endearing. The album is a fusion and mixture of all sorts of feelings, experiences, thoughts and emotions which is expressed in music which has a vitality and dynamism that lifts you up, carries you along and sets you down again as it explores the joys and the agonies of being alive. Upbeat instrumental work builds foundations for energetic landscapes and highly melodic harmonies.
The Seasons Turn, the latest impressive album by Lee Abraham, has the theme of the passing of time interweaved through the songs.
“There’s never such certainty in life, but that’s the game
Just watch the Seasons Turn, never with a sense of shame
Watch the Seasons Turn as another year goes by
Feel the winter chill as we long for summer’s high..”
These lines from the conclusion of the opening 24 minute epic title track led me to thinking about my own personal journey over the last few years following Lee Abraham’s music. It does not seem that long ago when I distinctly recall first hearing Lee’s music on the now sadly defunct ‘Rogues Gallery’ Podcast with Frans Keylard on The Dividing Line Broadcast Network in about 2009. Frans played the whole of the new album at that time ‘Black and White’ by the recently departed bass player with Galahad, a band I had heard of but had not yet explored.
I was absolutely blown away by the excellence of that album, particularly the closing suite of songs – Black (with ex-Big Big Train vocalist Sean Filkins on vocals) and White (with Steve Thorne on vocals.) I still think that music is some of the finest to come out of the resurgence of Progressive rock music since the turn of the new century, with the sparkling and emotional song White simply being one of my most favourite Prog rock tracks ever. It was remarkable to me that I had never heard of this artist and yet here he was releasing a stunningly good album.
‘Black and White’ received very positive reactions and certainly raised Lee Abraham’s profile above the level attained by his previous album ‘View from the Bridge’. I went back to that album and whilst it showed a lot of promise it had to be acknowledged that ‘Black and White’ was a considerable step up and put Abraham on a whole different level. He also involved a variety of renowned Prog musicians, including Jem Godfrey (Frost*), Gary Chandler (Jadis), Simon Godfrey (ex-Tinyfish, Shineback, Valdez) and John Mitchell (It Bites, Frost*, Arena, Lonely Robot… etc, etc!),
‘Black and White’ really touched me deeply. I remember having one of those ‘perfect moments’ with this album we sometimes get in life associated with a piece of music. It was later in 2010 and I had just spent a fantastic weekend with a group of great friends, whom all shared an interest in music. We had travelled to Liverpool to visit The Beatles sites around the city and have a few drinks at The Cavern Club… and elsewhere! We shared in great camaraderie and then all went our separate ways.
I was on the train home to Devon and was listening to the track White as the train travelled along right next to the sea between Exeter and Teignmouth. The sun was going down, shimmering beautifully on the sea and as I looked out of the train window I had a feeling of reverie. I felt such a sense of peace and contentment that I was returning home after a great time with my friends, back to my lovely family in the beauty of a place like Devon. I felt so fortunate. The beautiful closing words sung so delicately by Steve Thorne really stirred great emotion in me:
“My Memory has returned, I’m seeing Clear again,
I’ve got to go back to the start, I’m going to end it now and take control again
Black is dying out, it feels so good again, So now I close my eyes, to all the hate and lies
A World now open wide, where once a dream had died, No more in Black and White…”
I guess ‘you just had to be there’ as it’s hard to explain that personal moment, but that’s what Lee Abraham’s music meant to me at that specific ‘perfect moment’, and it’s a much cherished memory which comes back to me every time I hear that brilliant song.
I was fortunate enough to see the Lee Abraham Band, including Sean Filkins on vocals, perform most of that album at the one-off ‘Winter’s End Festival’ in Stroud in 2010 – he was one of the main reasons I attended that event. This may well be the only ever live performance of Lee’s solo progressive rock material so far, and Lee and his band certainly put on an accomplished show.
Sadly, the economics of such shows and fitting such activities in to ‘real life’ make such performances difficult to arrange and sustain. It is to be hoped that as Lee Abraham’s profile continues to rise with the continuing quality of his albums this may make it easier to countenance a return to the stage for the Lee Abraham Band in future, which Lee recently hinted at in a recent interview may be a possibility.
Lee Abraham next came to my notice on ‘War and Peace and other Short stories’, the 2011 album by Sean Filkins. Yet again this was a real surprise to me as I had yet to really delve in to the world of Big Big Train at that point so Sean was not known to me. Once again Frans Keylard’s Rogue’s Gallery podcast can be thanked for introducing that previously unknown album and artist to me. (Prior to ‘Progzilla Radio’ these days, finding new Prog was reliant on such podcasts, including The Amazing Wilf’s ‘The European Perspective’ by ‘Prog Guru’, David Elliott).
Sean Filkins’ debut release was an utterly outstanding album of consummate musical skill and epic Progresssive rock song writing, which Lee Abraham produced excellently and contributed to musically. This again is another very special album for me personally, and it’s sonic brilliance owes much to Lee’s skills as a producer in the studio. It is to be hoped that Sean will one day feel able to follow up that modern Prog masterpiece, maybe with Lee’s help again? Who knows what will happen as the seasons turn and time passes?
Despite the positive reactions to ‘Black and White’ it would be another 5 years until Lee Abraham released his own follow up album ‘Distant Days’ in 2014. A lot can happen in 5 years and this was an angrier album, partly borne out of the turmoil of the economic problems in the intervening years. It was also an album in which the passing of time featured as a theme in the songs, particularly the epic closing song ‘Tomorrow will be Yesterday’ with Steve Thorne on great vocals yet again:
“The rest of time is on our side, I hope deep down you know,
Let’s make tomorrow yesterday, and never let it go….”
Life for me had also changed, including the loss of a parent and all that entails emotionally as one adapts to loss and a growing realisation that time stands still for no-one. Excellent though it is as an album, ‘Distant Days’ did not have quite the same impact for me as ‘Black and White’.
Sometimes such preferences are simply down to where we are personally and emotionally when we hear an album, and how attuned we may be to the message or feel the artist is trying to convey. However, it is interesting to note that Lee Abraham in an interview recently rated ‘Black and White’ alongside his new album as his favourites, which may indicate that he recognizes there was something special about that particular album.
The title track on Lee Abraham‘s new release, The Seasons Turn, continues in the vein of the epic grandeur of Blackand White , opening with a delicate piano motif from Rob Arnold leading to rising keyboards and then the rest of the band powerfully joining in like some sort of Prog overture before returning to the piano. The mellotron like keyboards drench the piece in atmosphere again before the band launch in to the heart of the song, driven along by Gerald Mulligan’s skilful drumming. Mulligan has been a stalwart band member with Lee Abraham for years, alongside the other talented core band members Christopher Harrison (guitars), Alistair Begg (Bass) and the aforementioned Rob Arnold, assembled for the previous album ‘Distant Days’.
They drive this epic song along with a balance of power and beautiful melody, but the master stroke by Lee Abraham for this epic piece was in asking Marc Atkinson (Riversea / ex-Nine Stones Close) to put his fantastic voice on this piece. Atkinson has probably one of the finest and most engaging voices in recent Progressive rock, as evidenced on the debut Riversea album ‘Out of an Ancient World’ (2012) and the two Nine Stones Close albuma upon which he sang, especially the classic ‘Traces’ (2010). His voice perfectly evokes the contrasting senses of wistful elegy and heroic defiance. Martin Orford (ex-IQ & Jadis), a mentor figure for Lee Abraham from his early days, comes out of his musical retirement briefly to add a lovely but all too short flute interlude in the middle section.
This is a piece marked by soaring and stirring stellar guitar solos (presumably by Simon Nixon and Christopher Harrison), particularly in the closing section. This is quite an opening piece, which Lee stated did not start out as an epic piece but evolved over time. Lee Abraham has admitted that lyric writing is ‘the hardest bit’ and it perhaps shows in this lengthy piece, which may have needed rather more substance lyrically in my view. Nevertheless, that quibble is easy to forgive as you are seduced by the excellent, stirring music and overall epic sweep of this piece.
In contrast to the opening track, Live for Today is a much more straightforward rock number, featuring Dec Burke on powerful vocals and distinctive guitar work, and continues the theme of time passing and living for the moment. Marc Atkinson returns on vocals for the hauntingly beautiful Harbour Lights, which once again is perfect for his marvellous voice. Rob Arnold shines on piano again in this evocative piece. Lee Abraham lives by the sea on the South coast of England, and is perhaps inspired by the ocean in this shimmering piece, filled with hope:
“The Night is growing weaker, I see the Sun ahead
The Harbour Lights are dying, they’ve shown the Road ahead for me..”
The shortest and lightest song on the album, Say Your Name Aloud, surprisingly finds Mark Colton of Prog Rock band Credo very engagingly singing what can only be described as a pop song, showing his versatility as a vocalist. It’s a nice contrast to the more portentous songs on the album.
The eerie, Floydian sound effects in the opening of the album closer The Unknown returns us to epic prog rock territory with Simon Godfrey singing with great feeling. This is a much darker piece with echoes of Porcupine Tree in places. David Vear adds in a surprising saxophone later in the song, which helps give this song a different atmosphere, but once again, it is Lee Abraham and Christopher Harrison’s guitars that take centre stage. A rather curious and seemingly almost endless 3 minute fade out tone closes the album. Perhaps it symbolizes the imagery in the closing lyrics of journeying endlessly into the Unknown :
“The Road to Freedom is all that keeps us Sane, The Miles go on and all we need is a Home
Will this never end the Path to the Unknown..”
I am not entirely sure what the song means, but having recently experienced great personal loss as a listener I draw some comfort from these words and this music. The beautiful artwork on this album by Paul Tippett shows a landscape experiencing all four seasons in one scene. Over the last few years I have also experienced the bloom of summer in a ‘perfect moment’, the autumnal decline of loved ones and the cold death of winter. For me it feels like it’s time for Spring again as reflected in Lee Abraham’s words:
“The Promise of Hope, the Promise of Freedom will be shown…”
Music is subjective and is filtered through all our own feelings and circumstances. Do I like this as much as ‘Black and White’ ? – probably not, but that may have more to do with my internal feelings rather than musical quality. ‘The Seasons Turn’ is undoubtedly another very fine album for Lee Abraham. We all read what we will into music, but it takes evocative and beautifully played music upon which to cast our thoughts and feelings. Lee’s music has provided some meaningful moments for me in recent years, and this excellent album continues that journey. Thanks.