Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Decemberists- The King Is Dead

I really started to fall in love with The Decemberists about a year ago when I decided to pick up "Hazards of Love" due to many positive reviews. I was blown away. It was a concept album full of simple beauty and clever lyrics. Typically, the kind of music I like is much more complex and fits firmly into the progressive rock genre. Although they display certain characteristics of progressive rock at times, I don't think that The Decemberists could really be considered a progressive rock band. They are more Indie/Folk. But, this is definitely not a criticism. In fact, I'm really glad that "Hazards of Love" allowed me to expand my musical horizons and take me out of the prog box that I was putting myself into. I realized that music doesn't have to be incredibly intricate and complicated in order to be good. Music can be beautiful when stripped down and focused on the melody and lyrics.

Which leads me to the review for "The King Is Dead." I will admit, at first I was a little disappointed when I heard the album. The more progressive elements I enjoyed from "Hazards of Love" seemed completely absent. If possible, The Decemberists stipped down their sound even further to be even more simplistic. What appealed to me with "The Hazards of Love" was the concept and storytelling, and the new album seemed to be just a collection of songs. But, after repeatedly listening to the album, its beauty has been unfolded to me and I consider it to be a really good album. It doesn't quite reach the heights of "The Hazards of Love" or even "The Crane Wife" but there is a simple beauty here that I can't deny.

There is an interesting mix here between folk and country that is really pleasing to listen to. There is plenty of acoustic guitar, slide guitar, harmonica and even fiddle. At the center is the distinctive voice of Colin Meloy. I really like his voice. It is unlike any other voice I've heard and really gives The Decemberists an unmistakable sound. The lyrics are really interesting, each song is like a poem being delivered by an expert storyteller. The music, while not overly complex, really compliments the lyrics well. There is enough instrumentation on display that I'm never bored. The sound quality is really good and the instruments sound really crisp and clear to my ears.

So, what we have here is a collection of poetry set in a folk/country setting. There are moments throughout the album that are beautiful. I love "January Hymn," the simple arrangement with beautiful singing is perfect and really creates a perfect mood and feel. I just can't help but have a tear come to my ear at the beauty created here. "Dear Avery" is another beautiful track that has an almost haunting feel. The mixture of male and female vocals is perfect here and gives me goosebumps. Another favorite is "This Is Why We Fight" which is a little more upbeat, but the music really combines to create something special with a great sing-along chorus.

I love this album because it has allowed me to look at music in a completely new way. "The Hazards of Love" started this changing view, but "The King Is Dead" really solidifies it. Music does not have to be complex and played by virtuosic players to be good. A good songwriter can create beauty out of simplicity. The way that the instruments combine, the unique way the lyrics are written, and the passion from the musicians involved really create something special and beautiful. Once the beauty of this album became apparent to me on about my third listen, I couldn't help but tear up and feel that my whole listening experience has changed. This is a wonderful collection of beautifully written and played music. I am embarrassed that I almost dismissed this as an average country album. It is much more than that. I recommend it to all.

Rating: 7/10

Friday, January 7, 2011

Top Ten Albums Of 2010

This is my list of top ten albums of 2010. Just so you know, my favorite kind of music is progressive rock, thus all of the following albums are from that genre. They are not very well known albums, but each one is really brilliant and I highly recommend them. I feel that 2010 was a great year for music and introduced me to some fantastic albums. Music is a big passion of mine and discovering new albums is one of my favorite past-times. So, here is the big list!

10. Drama Rama- Agents of Mercy

This is a very pleasant album from one of my prog rock idols, Roine Stolt. The music is never very heavy, and they stay on the pastoral side of prog, but it makes for a very pleasant listen. The music is very much in the style of early Genesis and late Beatles, both of which I love. I was a little disappointed that Roine Stolt doesn't sing lead on any of the tracks, but Nad Sylvan has a great voice that really fits this style of music. There are some great moments throughout the album and certain tracks are really brilliant. I am very happy that I own this album and that Roine Stolt keeps putting out such high quality music.

9. Victims of the Modern Age- Star One

I always love Arjen Lucassen's work, and this album is no exception. This project focuses on the more metal aspect of Arjen's sound, so there are lots of heavy parts with crunchy guitars. Each song on the album is based on a different sci-fi movie or TV show. There is a cast of vocalists that trade off singing throughout the album and they are each world-class vocalists. The music is solid and there really isn't anything here to complain about. It is a joy to listen to and everything I've come to expect and love from Arjen.

8. Hybrid Child- District 97

This is an incredible debut album from a really talented group. They are unique due to their inclusion of a female lead singer who was an American Idol contestant, and a world class cellist. The band is quite eclectic and often sounds almost like King Crimson. There are some mainstream sensibilities on this album, but they definitely are not afraid to prog out. I especially love the multi track suite at the end of the album where all elements of the band are showcased. There are even some goosebump moments. I can't wait to see what this band does in the future.

7. In The Wake of Evolution- Kaipa

This is a fun and happy band on the same level as the Flower Kings. In fact, Roine Stolt of the Flower Kings was a founding member of this band. This album showcases the band at their best. It is pure symphonic prog. I love the opening track that showcases all the great elements of this band: a fantastic, unique keyboard player, both a male and female vocalist, pounding drums, and soaring guitar. I love their sound, and discovering this album led me to further explore the rest of their catalogue. Now this band sits comfortably among my favorites in my music collection.

6. The Great Escape- Seventh Wonder

This is my favorite progressive metal release of the year. I feel that they have topped themselves after an excellent concept album called "Mercy Falls." The new album has everything I love about the band. There is some incredible instrumentation from all the musicians. They have one of the best singers in Rock, in my opinion. They have an incredible catchy and fun song called "Alley Cat" that I just can't get out of my head. And there is a 30 minute epic to close out the album that is incredible. I love how they can go from a beautiful section of just vocal and piano, right into a hard rocking section with everybody playing at the top of their game. I can't wait to keep my eye out for this band and see what they will do next.

5. Mars Hollow- Mars Hollow

This is the number 1 debut album of the year. This band came out of nowhere and really blew me away. I gained a whole new level of appreciation of them after seeing them live in a club in L.A. They have a great progressive sound that brings to mind the old favorites (Yes, Genesis, ELP) and new bands that I cherish (Transatlantic, Spock's Beard). Their songs are catchy yet intricate. I really love the opening track on their record, titled "Wait For Me." It is everything great about this band in one track. Also, it helps that the band is extremely nice and friendly to their fans. I can't wait to hear what they come up with next in 2011. Based on this debut, it should be awesome!

4. Artificial- Unitopia

I really loved this album at the beginning of the year. I listened to it over and over again several times and never got tired of it. It is a concept album about the way that we as a society are becoming too artificial. It is really compact and well done. I love how the band does not sound too retro, but infuses some modern influences into their sound. It sets them apart from the other bands that I listen to. Their singer is especially incredible, he sounds a lot like Peter Gabriel and is able to put a lot of emotion into his voice. Another element I love about this band is their use of saxophone. There is a tendency to even stray into Jazz, which is used to great effect. This is a really great album.

3. If- Glass Hammer

I was pleasantly surprised by this album. Glass Hammer is a band that I have struggled to like in the past. I have always tried to like them because people who like the bands I like also really like them. I have been disappointed in the past but this album way exceeded my expectations. I feel they have finally found a singer that fits their sound. He sounds a lot like Jon Anderson from Yes, and I feel he lifts their music to a new level. Oftentimes they sound like what Yes wishes they sounded like today. Majestic, symphonic prog done extremely well. I especially love the epic closing track "If The Sun."

2. X- Spock's Beard

This was the album I was most excited to get throughout the year. I had been waiting quite some time for a new Spock's Beard album. Plus, my best friend bought me the super deluxe version, and my name was going to be sung in one of the songs! It was really exciting. I was very pleased to find out that this album is one of Spock's Beard's very best. I typically prefer their material with their previous front man, Neal Morse, but I think this album is up to the same quality as those earlier albums. Everything I love about this band is on full display here. Great melodies, expert musicianship, and tons of fun. I absolutely adore this album.

1. Lover's End- Moon Safari

This is by far my favorite album of the year. It is clearly a masterpiece to me. I absolutely adore the incredible vocal harmonies that are throughout this album. The instrumentation is great as well, with a focus on vintage progressive keyboard sounds, piano, and acoustic guitar. Every song is a highlight for me. There are no weak moments. I just can't describe the beauty of this album, I am just in awe each time I hear it. I never get tired of it. The first time I listened through this album I had tears in my eyes and thought that this music is what I was meant to listen to. This will be one of the most cherished albums in my entire CD collection.

Additional Music Experiences of 2010:

Best Album Not Included on The Top Ten: Aquarius- Haken
It was really hard to not be able to include this album in my top ten, so I thought I would mention it here. This is a fantastic album by a new prog band. There are brilliant instrumental passages that are amongst my favorite in progressive rock. The closing track of their album "Celestial Elixir" is particularly incredible, and is indeed one of the best tracks of the year. I can't wait to see where this young band goes next.

Best Song of the Year: The Dividing Line- Frost*
Although Frost* didn't release a new studio album this year, they released an incredible live album (The Philadelphia Experiment) with a brand new studio track. That track is The Dividing Line and it is a monster of a song. It is 17 minutes long and has everything I love about progressive rock. It is mind-blowingly awesome, moving seamlessly from some of the craziest stuff I've ever heard to sections of pure beauty. The track leaves me breathless, and certain sections are still hard for me to wrap my head around.

Best Live Experience Of The Year: Transatlantic
I had the privilege of seeing Transatlantic live in 2010 and it was a dream come true. It was the best concert I've ever attended by far. Transatlantic album released a live DVD/CD set called Whirld Tour 2010. Watching that DVD concert was like relieving the whole experience. I just couldn't help but tear up and just watch the screen in pure amazement. This DVD/CD live set is one of my favorite progressive rock items I have in my collection. Just awesome.

Best You-Tube Music Discovery: Project RNL
I am absolutely addicted to the videos Project RNL puts out. They do unique takes on old songs, and also have some originals. They have a very jazzy, eclectic sound and have an incredible vocalist that sings multiple parts in each video. In fact, there is an amazing purely a capella video where he sings every part. They are amazing musicians and are incredibly unique. Their music is pure ear candy. I will be first in line to buy an album of their music when it is released.

Best Non-Prog Album of the Year: New Morning- Alpha Rev
Yes, I like more music than just prog, even though prog is my favorite. This album is featured as Mike Portnoy's favorite album of 2010 so I thought I would give it a try. I really fell in love with it! It sounds a lot like Coldplay. There is a fantastic frontman and some really catchy melodies. I really love the album. And, the lead singer is joining Neal Morse, Steve Morse, Mike Portnoy and Dave LaRue for a project hopefully coming out by the end of 2011 that I am super excited for.

Honorable Mentions (albums that I liked but didn't quite make my year-end list):
Excavations of the Mind- Sky Architect
Pennies In The Karma Jar- Salem Hill
Rise- Resistor
Far Skies, Deep Time EP- Big Big Train
Nightmare- Avenged Sevenfold

It was an incredible year for music and I anticipate that 2011 will be even better. I can't wait!