Friday, February 20, 2009

The Source- Prickly Pear

The Source is a young progressive rock band based out of Los Angeles. Prickly Pear is their sophomore album and shows development within the band from their first release. I regard them and Moon Safari as great new, young, fresh progressive acts amongst a lot of older, more established bands. I feel that the vast majority of prog bands are a lot older and it is refreshing to see young people closer to my age be inspired by progressive rock and provide a more youthful perspective. That is one of the main things I love about The Source, their sound is very refreshing in what can sometimes feel like a stale genre. I am in no way dissing progressive rock because I love more established bands, but it is a nice change of pace to have such a young band.

This album was a difficult one to review. At first, I was not that impressed by it. There were bits and pieces that caught my attention, but as a whole I wasn't moved by it. But, on repeated listens, I've really grown to love this album and now consider it a considerable improvement on their debut album. This album is definitely a grower, and I recommend that you listen to it numerous times to give it a chance before you make your final verdict on it. In fact, I still feel it is too early for me to form a final opinion, and I feel that it will only keep getting better as I keep listening. This album has become truly addicting for me and I love it.

While I feel the star of their debut was keyboard player/singer Aaron Goldrich, I think the star here is guitar player Harrison Leonard. I am drawn in by his playing which sounds an awful lot like Steve Howe at times, and very jazzy at others. I also love some of the acoustic guitar work as well that pops up on a few tracks. By highlighting Leonard, I in no way am downplaying the other members of the band. I think the playing is top notch all across the board. So, that being said, I'm not sure what bothered me when I first listened to this album. I thought Goldrich's vocals were perhaps too whiny, but I am now quite impressed with his style and love certain vocal sections. I think my main problem with the album is that there doesn't seem to be as much heaviness as I usually like in my prog. I don't mean that they have to have heavy, fast Dream Theater like sections, I just felt that sometimes they get a little too light in their approach and I would like a little more bite.

But, that being said, I've come to appreciate the more "light prog" elements of their sound. I absolutely love the opening track, "Promised Land" and have loved it from the start. The opening reminds me of the opening of "Close to the Edge" by Yes. It is chaotic and beautiful at the same time. I also love the instrumental bits at the end that lead the listener on quite the musical journey. I was actually a little dissapointed when it started to fade away because I was ready to be taken to the next part of the musical journey. The two shorter tracks, "Star Dreamer" and "Thin Air" are both favorites of mine as well, especially "Thin Air". I love the jazziness of this track and the "ooh, la la las" that make this such a fun listen.

The two longer tracks have been the most difficult for me to get into. "Until Morning Time" is great, but once again it seems to drift along without getting to a really hard hitting place that I expected it too. "Castles in the Sky" I like a lot more, and I especially love the ending which for me resembles the ending of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" by the Beatles. This really is a great piece and I have grown to love it more and more with each listen.

So, my verdict on this album is that I have really grown to love it and my score for it has gone up and up as I've listened to it again and again. I still feel I have a ways to go to truly appreciate this record. At first I thought that the compositions sounded chaotic and messy, but I am starting to get how the compositions fit together and flow and it is making for a much more enjoyable listen. So, my conclusion is that this is a remarkable band who have created a great album of music. There are parts where I get a little bored, but for the most part I am fully entertained and even blown away by some parts. This comes highly recommended and is the first album of the year that I feel truly has a chance of making the big end of year countdown. I look forward to getting to know this record even more.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Masterpieces of Music: Monsters and Men

I have always loved The Flower Kings since I first heard their music. The last CD I bought before I went on my mission was "Adam and Eve" which I loved to death. It was one of the first albums I was excited to listen to when returning from my mission. So, I can't tell you how excited I was to recieve their new CD "Paradox Hotel" that had come out while I was on my mission. I had heard that it began with a great epic called "Monsters and Men" that all fans of classic Flower Kings would love it. So I listened expecting "love at first listen". Instead, I was baffled because the song didn't connect with me at all. I was dissapointed with myself, and tried to listen to it a few more times before I decided that there was finally a Flower Kings epic I didn't like.

Then, I was walking one day to BYU campus, and I had my ipod on shuffle as usual and this song came up. I almost skipped it, but then decided to let it play, and I was completely blown away! The emotional power of this song gripped me and I was almost in tears as I walked on campus that day. The song was touching me so deeply that I took a longer route to get to class so that I would be able to listen to the whole song. I couldn't believe that this song had never connected with me before. But, now, the song is one of my favorites of all time and my favorite Flower Kings song by far. I also must confess something- unless it is Neal Morse, I don't pay much attention to lyrics, so I'm not completely sure what the song is about lyrically. But, I know that the Flower Kings are all about optimism and hope and those qualities shine through the music. I love this song for the way it makes me feel as I listen and for the smile it puts on my face.

From the soft, serene piano opening, you know you are in for a treat. Then, Roine Stolt's guitar comes in for its heavenly melody before Hasse's voice comes in, starting the song in full force. I love the guitar lick at the first break from the singing, one of my favorites of all time. Then, Tomas Bodin comes back in with the great calm piano medley from the beginning of the song that leads back into the guitar lick I love being played mainly by Roine Stolt. It is hard to put into words the great feelings that wash over me as I listen to this melody as Roine Stolt and Tomas Bodin trade off in their virtuosic solos. It is Flower Kings perfection to the highest degree. It gives a distinct feeling that this song is not of this world, which is really a theme of the whole album in general.

Tomas Bodin plays more great piano, before Roine Stolt comes in with his voice to sing the next section. I really love his voice- it is so unique and fits the Flower Kings music like a glove. Roine Stolt compliments this section with some great guitar work. I am so impressed with how Roine and Tomas shine instrumentally throughout the whole piece. They really work well together and many of the solos in this song contain them playing simultaneously. There is a funny little section with a bouncy keyboard melody from Tomas interrupted by some mischevious laughter. It is a fun little section that ends with some great Organ work from Tomas. Once again, this leads right into another perfect Stolt solo that really rocks. I also love the drumming here, it really provides a great backdrop for Stolt and Bodin to shine.

Then we get into a heartfelt section led by Hasse's great clean voice. It is very reminiscent of Yes, especially the song Close to the Edge. There are some great harmonies that really lift this section. It is stunningly beautiful. This section moves along seamlessly with some more great piano playing from Tomas- I love the melody he plays here, it is so majestic. Then, things slow down even more for an emotionally heartwrenching guitar solo from Roine. I am so impressed with how he is able to just produce these amazing guitar solos in every project he is involved in. It is really amazing and makes him one of my favorite guitarists of all time. It really soars here before going back into one of the main melodies in the piece for a grand finale of epic proportions. It is truly one of the best examples of Roine Stolt's talent at the guitar. Then, the song fades away and the listener is left to ponder its brilliance.

I truly love this piece of art. Although I may not completely understand the lyrics, I feel the power in the music. The Flower Kings are masters at creating a mood in their music and I feel the majesty and positivity that this piece displays. I truly love it and feel it is the perfect representation of what the Flower Kings are all about. Truly brilliant!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Masterpieces of Music: The Door

It was a day in early 2007 and I was anxiously sitting at my computer downloading a radio program that was going to play two whole tracks from the upcoming Neal Morse album, Sola Scriptura. This was the first new Neal Morse CD to come out after my mission, and I was dying of anticipation to listen to it. The radio program finally downloaded and I pressed play and fast forwarded through some chit chat from the radio DJ. Then, I started with the first track of the album, "The Door" and was completely blown away. It was 30 minutes of pure elation- every thing I love about prog is included in this one track. Neal Morse is a true genius and this is my favorite of his solo albums, and my favorite song on that favorite solo album. It holds a special place in my heart.

Sola Scriptura talks about the story of Martin Luther and the evil that he observed in the church during that time. In this track, we go back and forth between the evil practices of the church and Martin Luther's own conversion to the truth and his obligation to share that truth with the world. The introduction is the first part of the song, and it is a musical powerhouse. Neal starts right off with an insanely fast keyboard riff that develops into a full hard prog opening that blows my mind. All three of them (Morse, Portnoy and George) are going at full speed and it is breathtaking.

This section flows right into "In The Name of God" where we get our first look at the evil doctrines of the church at this time. Neal is very bold in this section and throughout the whole album and he doesn't hide anything. Lyrics like "Calls himself the Bishop-Prince and blood's his favorite wine" and "We'll take the Roman Gods except the names will all be changed" are particularly biting. This section also involves one of my favorite chorus's where Neal exclaims "In the Name of God you must die!" I also love the punchy keyboard bits towards the end of this section.

This heads right into the next section which contains one of Neal's best chorus's to date, "All I Ask For". This is our first glimpse at Martin Luther and his desire to be with God and live the life that God wants him to live. This shows Martin's faith, which provides a foundation for the rest of the album. I love the beauty of this section with the acoustic guitar and sublime harmonies. It is great at showing God's love and Martin Luther's sincerity in the gospel. It ends with what I consider the "God's Theme" of this album, which is repeated during different sections of the album to show that God is with Martin Luther in his quest. This is a wonderful melody that really connects to me emotionally.

Then, we are thrown right back into the heavy section that preceded "All I Ask For" with the same great punchiness. Then we get more biting lyrics in "Mercy For Sale" which is a fun section musically. This section once again shows the evils of the church and how they are trying to sell the gospel. There are some great vocal harmonies here similar to Gentle Giant. This leads to a bouncy section that always reminds me of Kansas. There is also a great guitar solo in the midst of this bouncy fun.

This leads to the next section, "Keep Silent" which starts with a great groove and goes into a more gospel oriented section. This section talks about how Martin Luther has to share the truth that he has found in the gospel. He can't just keep this truth to himself, he has a calling to bring this truth to the world, even though it might bring persecution from the church. I love the laid back feel to this section and there are some great guitar licks. It is really a cool section.

This finally leads to the finale of the song, "Upon the Door". This starts with a slow buildup with some beautiful strings carrying the melody. Things then get really quiet and there are some keyboard chords that closely resemble "Watcher of the Skies" by Genesis. Then, Neal's voice comes in and he sings alongside his piano. This is the moment where Martin Luther put the 95 theses, which show all the problems with the church at the time, on the door. It is a big moment of Martin Luther's life, and it is beautifully captured here. Then, there is the best guitar solo I have ever heard by guitar virtuoso Paul Gilbert. I cannot describe how wonderful this guitar solo is- it manages to be emotionally beautiful and technically brilliant all at the same time. It gets to me every time. Then, this song is brought to a close with the words, "I will write my words upon the door."

It is an amazing piece of art that is technically brillant and emotionally poignant. It has some of the fastest, heaviest riffs I've ever heard Neal play, but also with the most emotionally charged lyrics I've ever heard. It is a great balance that showcases the contrast between the evils of the church and the righteousness of Martin's divine calling. This is prog at its finest and I never get tired of listening to this masterpiece.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Masterpieces of Music: Stranger In Your Soul

This is the first entry of my "Masterpieces of Music" series. "Masterpieces of Music" is a series in which I highlight songs that I consider to be masterpieces. I will talk about what makes the song so special to me. I figured the best way to kick this series off is to talk about my favorite song of all time "Stranger In Your Soul".

Transatlantic is a magical band made up of several of my favorite musicians. First of all there is Neal Morse, my favorite song-writer/musician of all time- I think he is a musical genius. His music will be featured frequently in the "Masterpieces of Music". He is the main composer of this epic and his signature sound is all over it. Taking over the drum chair is Mike Portnoy, one of the most virtuosic drummers around today. Then there is Roine Stolt, who is at the head of another one of my favorite bands (The Flower Kings), taking over the guitar duties. He adds a unique spice to every project he is a part of. Finally there is Pete Trewavas who does a masterful job at playing the bass- truly one of the great bass players in the modern prog scene today. These four huge players in the prog scene came together for two incredible albums and, to me, the song "Stranger In Your Soul" is the peak (and unfortunately the end) of their amazing run.

One of my earliest memories of this song is when I was walking to High School one morning. I always would carry my discman with me and listen to a favorite CD during my walk to school. This particularly day the CD of choice was "Bridge Across Forever" and I was on the song "Stranger In Your Soul". It was a rainy day, and I didn't have a rain jacket or umbrella, but for some reason I was in absolute heaven listening to this sublime piece of art. The rain pounding on my head was like the drums pounding throughout the song and I was in a musical trance that I really hadn't experienced to this degree before. One of my friends moms pulled up to me and offered me a ride to school and I turned her down because I couldn't stand the thought of having to turn off this epic song that was giving me so much enjoyment. So, I continued walking in the pouring rain getting drenched, but feeling the music pulse through me stronger than ever.

Another reason I love this song so much was that it signified the day that I knew I had truly converted my best friend to Prog. He told me about how he was so in love with this song that he had to listen to it 4 times in a row (quite an undertaking for a 30 minute epic). I was impressed and ecstatic that his favorite song was mine as well and that we could share this new bond to strengthen our friendship. I also chose this song to be the final one I listened to before my mission. I was depressed because I wasn't going to be able to listen to my music for 2 whole years! But, as I listened to this song on the car ride to the MTC, tears of joy ran down my face. It was the perfect symbol for what I was going through at the time and continue to go through daily.

To me, this song is a metaphor for life and what we as humans go through in our lifetime. We are born as strangers and we spend our life trying to figure out who we are. We try to figure this out by looking into our past and grasping onto things that aren't of any worth. This search to find our true selves is what drives us and can ultimately lead us to awaken that stranger in our soul, to find out who we truly are and what our potential is. There is a lot of bad stuff happening in the world outside, but we can always find comfort in knowing who we truly are and what we can become. This is what life is all about, finding out who we really are- awakening the stranger in your soul. It is beautiful.

And, of course, the music behind all of these meaningful lyrics is incredible for the whole 26 minutes or so that makes up this masterpiece. It begins with the great string melody that begins the album on Duel With The Devil. Then you hear Mike's drums in a very unique rhythm before Neal comes in with the keyboards. It is an awesome buildup that creates excitement for what is to come. The first section, "Sleeping Wide Awake" introduces the main themes and is a beautiful piece that leads right into the hard rocking "Hanging In The Balance" where the 4 members get to trade off vocal lines in a very unique fashion. This technique really displays the confusion that can come from trying to find out who you really are.

Part 3, "Lost and Found Pt. 2", brings back an older theme on the album from "Suite Charlotte Pike" and is a lot of fun. It is a great way to convey the desire of trying to become found when you feel lost. Then, things slow down considerably for "Awakening the Stranger" which is pretty much just Neal playing beautiful keyboards and singing passionately. This passage describes the beginnings of the Awakening process and it is beautifully done. But, its not over yet, because this leads back into another rocking section called "Slide" which is one of the more fun bits in the song. All musicians are playing top notch here and the lyrics describe getting rid of all the doubt and fears and truly coming into your awakening process for your soul. Then comes the ultimate climax that is the most grandiose, beautiful ending for an album/song ever. This is a huge chill inducing moment as the first part of the song is repeated, but the lyrics are changed ever so slightly to have the complete opposite meaning from the beginning. No longer is the individual lost and a stranger to he has found himself and awakened that stranger in his soul. He can rise up to his potential and do that which he was meant to do! This is brilliant and gets me emotionally everytime I listen to it.

This song is a true masterpiece and I can't imagine any song ever surpassing it. It is the perfect description of everything I love about music and about life in general. If you haven't heard it, you are severely missing out on a life changing experience.

(Quick Note: This entry is quite a bit longer than what most entries in this section will be- I got a little bit carried away.)

Monday, February 2, 2009

Umphrey's McGee- Mantis

This is my first album review of the year, and I am pleased to say that it is a good album. Umphrey's McGee is a jam band out of Chicago that has had increasingly progressive rock leanings throughout their history. I listened to their album "Safety In Numbers" a while ago, and was not overly impressed. There were some cool things on there, but overall I found it to be quite forgettable. So, I had my doubts about this album, but I have to say that it is a vast improvement over "Safety In Numbers" for me.

The album begins with "Made To Measure" which is a fun, bouncy Beatles-esque track. I really love this song and find it to be one of the more fun on the album. It is a great start for what is to come. The short "Preamble" sets the stage for the big epic of the album, "Mantis". I love so many things about this song. I love the piano line at the beginning that is a little haunting, and then it launches into a great lead guitar that gives the theme of the whole piece. This song moves from one section to another without stopping for the listener to take a breath. There are times when I felt the song maybe went on a little long, but there is so much great stuff included, that I can forgive this minor complaint. There is also some great string parts, particularly at the end. Great stuff!

"Cemetery Walk" is my personal favorite song of the album. I love the feeling the eerie piano gives at the beginning. This album, after the first song, seems to have a slightly darker mood to it. It is such a fun song with a great groove to it that is perhaps reminiscent of Steely Dan. It is very jazzy and funky and irresistably fun to listen to. I recommend it strongly! The band obviously felt the same way about the song because they immediately follow it up with "Cemetery Walk II" where they take the same great medley and turn it into an electronica dance song. It is very strange, and perhaps a little unnecesary.

"Turn and Run" is another favorite track of mine. It starts of with great acoustic guitar that provides a foundation for the rest of the song. The best part of the whole song, though, is the amazing guitar solo at the end. This is perhaps the most amazing display of guitar skills I've ever heard- it is just perfect. It would be a lot of fun to see live. "Spires" is another fun song. I felt an almost ELO vibe on this song. It is heavy in the first part, but then gets a lot more spacey towards the end. I love the vocal harmonies at the end, very cool stuff.

This is where the album kind of takes a turn for the worse. I really don't care for "Prophecy Now" which feels almost like filler to me. It is a droning piece with a lackluster vocal that follows the piano melody exactly. "Red Tape" is a little better, but it is particularly forgettable to me. But there are some cool horns on it and a great synth solo. I just don't feel it quite matches the quality of the better stuff on the disc. Thankfully, Umphrey's manages to get back on track right before the album ends. The album closer, "1348" is a great track that has some great guitar lines that are really rocking. It is a great finish to a really remarkable album.

So, in conclusion, despite my reservations, I thoroughly enjoyed this album. I feel Umphrey's are coming out of their shell and developing into a full fledged prog rock band. When this album is at its best, it can contend with the best stuff in the progressive music scene today. I love the solos, which still remind us that this is a jam band at heart. So, I feel this is a potential contender to be on my top ten list at the end of the year. It is definitely a grower, and I love it more and more with each listen. I was going to give it a score of 7 originally, but after repeated listening, I had to raise that up a little. Great job, guys! Keep improving and you may end up as one of my favorite bands!

Score: 8/10