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.
“You can decorate absence however you want- but you’re still gonna feel what’s missing.” ― Siobhan Vivian
Bloody hell, I didn’t realise it has been 8 years since Frost*, the brainchild of seminal keyboard wizard Jem Godfrey, released their last album ‘Experiments In Mass Appeal’.
This was a band who I saw supporting Dream Theater in Leeds and, despite the fact I’d never heard of, or anything by, them, was utterly blown away by the combination of incredibly complex keyboards and fizzing guitars which, combined with impressive melodies, gave us the breath of fresh air that was the ‘Milliontown album in 2006, one that is still revered in hushed tones to this day.
My love of Dream Theater began to wane in earnest that evening but I have been waiting with bated breath for news of a new Frost* album.
So, to bide the time awaiting the new record I came up with imagined scenarios as to what Jem could have been up to in the intervening years (I know, I need to get out more).
Have any of you watched DC Comic’s The Flash? I bet a few of you have but, if not, a quick summary.
Uber genius Harrison Wells has his own particle accelerator (like you do) at his company Star Laboratories which goes into meltdown and causes a huge explosion. Some of those caught up in the blast end up with super powers, Meta-Humans, some good and some bad.
Now, imagine if our Jem was one of those caught in the fallout and his supercharged, manic energy came as a result of the Star Labs explosion? (still with me?, good!) and he has been kidnapped by some evil Bond villain and forced to sit in a room and churn out turgid mainstream hits for the last 8 years?
Enough to send you mad, you would agree? Not Mr Godfrey, upon his exciting escape, he set about writing the latest Frost* album ‘Falling Satellites’ and put all of his near 8 years in captivity into this latest bombastic musical extravaganza!
On ‘Falling Satellites’ Jem Godfrey is joined by long term collaborator John Mitchell (Lonely Robot/It Bites) on guitar and vocals plus Nathan King (Level 42) on bass and drummer Craig Blundell (Steven Wilson).
“This line-up has been in existence since 2010 and is now the longest version of Frost* that there’s ever been”, says Godfrey, “so it’s strange to think that this is the first time we’ve recorded an album together”.
There are 11 songs in total with the final 6 songs forming a 32 minute long suite called “Sunlight”. Within this collection of songs comes an unexpected guest appearance from none other than Grammy nominated guitar legend Joe Satriani.
As to the album’s theme… “It’s about chance and life. The astronomically unlikely chance of being conceived to start with and then surviving to old age”, Godfrey says, “the near impossible odds of the things that happen to you in life benefitting you rather than killing you are gigantic and yet it happens all the time. It’s about celebrating how extraordinarily rare the period of us being alive is and how we should take more time to appreciate it while we’re here. We’re a long time dead at either end of this brief little flicker.”
What were we going to get after eight years? opening number First Day is a short introductory track that has Frost* writ large all over it, reverential keyboards and hushed, breathy vocals given a real sense of anticipation before we get into the new music proper…. Numbers showcases the new high energy prog/pop style perfectly with a funky keyboard intro, full of energy and innovation. The harmonised vocals are excellent and you just find yourself toe-tapping madly to the addictive sound of crunchy guitars and Jem’s manic keyboard style. The fast paced guitar licks and solo add even more impulse to this high octane four minutes of near-perfect musical vivacity.
How do you incorporate dub-step into progressive pop music? I have no idea but Jem Godfrey obviously does! Towerblock begins in quiet, reverential fashion, all calm and collected before all hell breaks loose and a really dynamic and grungy keyboard takes over. To be honest I had no idea what to make of it at first but, do yourself a favour, just go with the flow and it soon starts to make addictive sense as it gets under your skin. Flowing, fluid and off the wall keyboards writhe around never quite letting your brain comprehend them and Jem’s fiercely protective vocal gives a serious edge. It really shouldn’t work but it does, gloriously, as you find yourself playing air keyboards and jumping up and down (what do you mean, you didn’t?). One of the most innovative and fresh tracks to hit progressive rock in many a year, I loved it, the utterly demented keyboard and drum frenzy that closes out the song is inspired.
The calm after the storm, Signs begins as a wistful and whimsical delight with carefully delivered vocals before opening up with a monster riff and some towering keys. The rhythm section of King and Blundell (new cop partnership anyone?) ably providing support. the track flows between these calm amd collected verses and the lofty and imposing chorus where the organ-like keyboards add a real note of veneration. A superbly crafted piece of songwriting with some punchy powerful riffs that showcase Mr Mitchell’s guitar prowess and an utterly compelling performance behind the kit from Craig Blundell. This song sees a more influential return to the expansive and charismatic soundscape well beloved of Frost* fans everywhere and brings a smile to my face. Oh you thing of infinite wonder and delight, Lights Out is a gorgeous little track that pulls at your very soul with its unclouded resplendence. The keyboards have an ethereal edge to them, Craig’s drumming is sublime and the vocals have a soft yearning feel underlying them. A touch of longing fills your soul and you drift away on a cloud of well-being, notably Frost* but with a new and stylish veneer. Belay that feeling of goodwill, the high-energy intro to Heartstrings takes no quarter and fills you with a feeling of expectation. That keyboard heavy sound returns and the instantly recognisable and harmonised chorus could only be Frost* at the height of their powers. Like a white water ride in a tumbling raft, the irrepressible dynamics of the song pull you along in their wake, an utterly willing victim of its charismatic persona. The final repeat of the chorus feels like an outpouring of emotion as the track closes out with a hook filled ending.
The whole album is full of superb tracks and this is only intensified with Closer To The Sun. Another fine exponent of the new found pop sensibilites it just feels right. The introduction is catchy, upbeat and utterly persuasive and has a feel of lazy summer days without a care in the world to it. The vocals are kept in the background and everything is expertly subdued before John Mitchell delivers another spellbinding guitar solo that squirrels through your mind, touching every sensory receptor before making way for Jem’s potent and progressive keyboards that tell a musical tale all of their own. Zone out these two musical maestros though and you can hear the notable chops that Nathan and Craig bring to the party. If the previous track was smoother than an otter’s pocket (thanks to Robin Armstrong for that gem) then (deep breath all) Raging Against The Dying Of The Light – Blues in 7/8 is as forceful as a tsunami. The thunderous opening is dominated by the evil sound of Jem’s keyboards, literally blowing everything out of their path. The vocals have a real dark edge to them, forceful and demanding and Craig really gives his kit a work out. The real star of this track though is the hugely demonstrative tone of the keys as they forge their own way, brooking no argument. The occasional lulls only seem to enforce the aggressive and potent intent of the rest of this red-blooded track, it’s like Frost* on something entirely illegal, it shouldn’t be allowed, just be glad it is! I do like a good instrumental from these boys and they really scaled the heights with Hyperventilate from ‘Milliontown’ so it was great to know that ‘Falling Satellites’ would feature it’s own. Nice Day For It….. is another great track, technically it’s not fully instrumental but you’ll forgive me that foible I’m sure, that just seems to flow perfectly from beginning to end, all the musicians working in perfect harmony to deliver a near flawless slice of melodic precision that is just bliss to the ears. It rises and falls superbly, the keyboards being the driving force once again, guitar adding the finishing touches and drum and bass playing the perfect wingmen.
Hypoventilate is a two minute wall of sound, a musical force of nature that blots out the Sun around it. An slow burning, brooding and intense musical experience that just knocks you over, leaving you senseless before the gentle persuasions of Last Day pick you up and get you back on your feet again. The tender, mellow piano matching the placid, if a little care-worn, vocals to close out ‘Falling Satellites’ in a nostalgic, sentimental, even slightly regretful, manner.
So, after an eight year hiatus Frost* have returned with a triumphant third album that ticks all the relevant boxes for this tired old music hack. Definitively Frost* and yet with a distinctive lustre and some rather inspired new sounds that give it even more depth. Instantly accessible but, also, with untold layers of sophistication, oh bugger, this musical year just keeps getting better and better!