Top 20 Albums of 2009 (10-1)
10. Pendragon – Pure
Pendragon’s first album came out in 1985. They recorded their most significant album, The Masquerade Overture, in 1996. You would think that Pendragon’s leader/writer/vocalist/guitarist Nick Barrett would no longer have anything new to offer. That would be a mistake. With this album, Barrett takes the band into heavier and darker territory. His guitar work has always sounded like Steve Hackett (Genesis) and David Gilmour (Pink Floyd), but now it also reminds me a lot of Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree). The trademark Pendragon melodies are still there, Clive Nolan’s great keyboards are still there, but it is all done with a much more modern rock sound. Opening track “Indigo” offers a 13-minute epic; Barret’s vocal work reminds me of Pink Floyd’s harmonies (maybe that’s because I hear dogs barking in the background, but it's more than that!), and his gravelly guitar ventures close to metal without crossing that line. The three-part epic “Comatose” is an expansive musical gem, starting out with piano and moody guitar, then explodes into a hard rock section, then a string quartet kicks in to set the beat for part 2, featuring a great guitar loop and soundscapes from Clive Nolan. Part 3 sounds very Roger Waters-ish, introspective and haunting. A fine album from one of the giants of Prog Rock.
9. Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid
I know I’m late for the party. Elbow’s been on my radar, but I didn’t explore them until this past year. When Peter Gabriel announced his next project (Scratch My Back, due out this month, on which he does covers of twelve of his favorite songs), it brought Elbow back onto my screen. Gabriel will do “Mirrorball” from The Seldom Seen Kid. When I saw that this album won the prestigious “Mercury Prize” in 2008 (awarded for “the best album from the United Kingdom or Ireland”), I thought I’d check it out. I am a fan of Radiohead and Coldplay, and this album is in the same vein of music, but remains very unique - enough not to be seen as “just another one of those.” It is just a fantastic album, filled with progressive musical textures placed within accessible pop songs, with warm vocals and excellent lyrics provided by frontman Guy Garvey. As a hopeless romantic, these lyrics truly struck a major chord for me (“We kissed like we invented it”) – some of the most authentic love songs I’ve heard in a long time. I like how allmusic.com sums it up in their review, “It's no surprise that Elbow are regularly compared to old-school prog rockers like Pink Floyd and Electric Light Orchestra: they're proof that records can be cool and commercial at the same time, an idea that's not particularly hip in this day and age.”
8. OSI – Blood
OSI is a partnership of guitarist Jim Matheos (Fates Warning) and keyboardist/vocalist Kevin Moore (Chroma Key, ex-Dream Theater). OSI’s self-titled album (2003), was an instant prog classic. It featured Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater) on drums, and Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree) as a guest vocalist on one of the songs. Their second album, Free, made my top 10 for 2008. With Blood, they made the top 10 again. This time around, Gavin Harrison (Porcupine Tree) takes care of the drums. Portnoy and Harrison are arguably the #1 and #2 best prog drummers in rock today. Moore's keyboards create ambient soundscapes while Matheos’ guitars provide the driving metal textures. OSI’s unique progressive blending of electronics with hard rock makes them distinctive, and one of my favorite bands. Kevin Moore's almost-monotonish vocal delivery is an acquired taste, but I really like it, and it fits perfectly in with this style of music. Stand out tracks include "The Escape Artist," "Radiologue," "Be the Hero," and the title track.
7. The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love
This is a progressive/folk rock-opera masterpiece. The individual songs are immediately accessible, yet they flow into one another to tell an epic captivating fairy tale. Musical themes are repeated throughout the album (the title track is broken into four parts, once to introduce the story, twice in the middle, and then again to wrap up the tale). Frontman Colin Meloy recruited two female vocalists to augment his vocals in order to have play the role of the maiden who finds herself pregnant by a shape-shifting creature who may be her future husband. The music incorporates folk, distorted guitar hard rock, harpsichord, orchestral strings, and everything else in the kitchen sink. Guitarist Chris Funk reminds me of Yes’ Steve Howe, playing all kinds of stringed instruments: electric guitar, acoustic guitar, mandolin, autoharp, and pedal steel. And you’ve got to love lyrics that aren’t afraid to use archaic English (“Thou inconsolable daughter / Said the sister / When wilt thou trouble the water / In the cistern”)!
6. Riverside – Anno Domini High Definition
This album reached number 1 in Riverside's homeland of Poland. With ADHD, Riverside develops their prog rock sound toward a more prog metal style. And with it, they offer one of the best prog rock albums to come out in a long time. Perhaps the best song of the year is "Egoist Hedonist." It is multi-textured, starting out with staccato guitars, then a power chorus, adding in some horns, Hammond organ and keyboards reminiscent of Rick Wakeman (Yes), and then a Pink Floyd-ish instrumental section – all in a song that comes in at just under 9 minutes. If you like Porcupine Tree, Radiohead, OSI, Nine Inch Nails, Opeth’s Watershed, all done with “the delicate thoughtfulness of Pink Floyd” (to quote one review), then check this out.
5. Muse – The Resistance
Muse has been growing on me over the last year, so when The Resistance came out, I was ready for its quirkiness and over-the-top arrangements. Muse takes the rock sound of Radiohead and couples it with Classical Composers Wagner and Chopin, while paying homage to Queen (“United States of Eurasia” shows their reverence for “Bohemian Rhapsody”). Here we have clear-cut evidence that Prog Rock has finally gone mainstream again after 30 years. The album ends with a three-part “symphony,” “Exogenesis,” which has it all: symphonic majesty, rock power, melody, inventiveness, and emotion.
4. Orphan Project – Spooning Out the Sea
Orphan Project is a very pleasant surprise for the Christian who also loves progressive rock (thanks, Jeff, for bringing them to my attention!). Their second full-length album continues the excellence of their debut outing – heavy prog rock with great hooks and accessible choruses. This reminds me of early Spock’s Beard and Kansas. One review labels them “Peter Gabriel going heavy.” Many of the songs are disguised worship songs, in that they don’t seem like that at first listen (after all, they are hard progressive rock songs). Only when you listen intently to the lyrics do you realize what’s really going on. For instance, from Angels Desire: "You bring me shelter / You refine / All that I am / Unchain and free / This burdened soul / I’ll fly where angels desire."
3. Devin Townsend Project – Addicted
This is actually the second of two releases from Devin Townsend in 2009 (the first was Ki, and two more are slated for 2010 in order to complete the four-part “The Devin Townsend Project” series). He is the founder of “Extreme Metal / Thrash Metal / Death Metal” band, Strapping Young Lad. I am not a fan of these genres of music, and have little interest in SYL. I find it all so loud and obnoxious. But with his new endeavor, “The Devin Townsend Project,” Townsend is turning over a new leaf. “I wanted to make a record that was heavy, without being dark or depressing. When I got into metal it was for the energy behind it, but somewhere along the way that energy started getting really negative.” Townsend, known as a “growler” from his SYL days, surprisingly has an incredible vocal range, and when he sneaks a growl in here and there, it is absolutely appropriate and actually acts as another instrument in the harmony. With Ki, Townsend created a mellow, restrained album. With Addicted, Townsend found the perfect formula. He added the incredible vocal talents of Anneke van Giesbergen (Agua de Annique, ex-The Gathering, Ayreon). This was an excellent choice; Anneke’s beautiful and haunting vocals compliment Townsend’s exceptional vocals perfectly. This album must be heard on top-of-the-line headphones or a high-end home sound system to get the fullness of the production value. Townsend’s ability to add layers upon layers of sounds without muddying the sound is an amazing feat. Turn off the lights and get lost in the place that this album will take you.
1 (Tie). Porcupine Tree – The Incident
This is the best PT album since 2002’s In Absentia. As a huge fan of Porcupine Tree, I was disappointed with their last offering, Fear of a Blank Planet, and thought that maybe my Porcupine Tree days were finished. But this album got me back in their camp, big time. Steven Wilson has created an incredible masterpiece of dark electronica mixed with nasty guitars, wonderful melodies and haunting atmospherics, all performed with incredible instrumental precision by expert musicians and mixed to perfection (Wilson has already been nominated for a Grammy for “Best Surround Sound Album” for PT’s last album). I have to confess, however, that this concept album was hard to get into at first, since the first CD is basically one 55-minute long composition. So I re-listened to the album by thinking in terms of "suites:" “Great Expectations” together with “Kneel and Disconnect,” “The Incident” together with “Your Unpleasant Family” and “The Yellow Windows of the Evening Train,” and “Octane Twisted” grouped with “Séance” and "Circle of Manias." All of a sudden, I "got it." And I loved it. The centerpiece song on the album, “Time Flies,” will remind you a lot of Pink Floyd, especially with the acoustic riff reminiscent of “Dogs,” and then the atmospheric sections reminding us of other Floyd classics. When Porcupine Tree first came into existence in the 90s, they were often called the new Pink Floyd, their earlier albums featured long instrumental pieces that were very psychedelic and spacey. But by the turn of the century, Wilson found his groove with a distinctive Porcupine Tree sound, which is now so influential that it is copied by many others. Every song on the first disc is a winner, from the opener, "The Blind House" (gritty and hard guitars juxtaposed with quieter verses) to the ender, "I Drive the Hearse," where Wilson sings the very haunting chorus: "And pride is just another way / Of trying to live with my mistakes / Denial is a better way / Of getting through another day / And silence is another way / Of saying what I wanna say / And lying is another way / Of hoping it will go away." And on top of this, there’s a second disc! “Bonnie The Cat” shows off Gavin Harrison’s drumming expertise, and two other songs remind me of early Porcupine Tree, and don’t forget “Remember Me Lover,” a classic PT song.
1 (Tie). Transatlantic – The Whirlwind
Where Porcupine Tree’s album represents the new cutting-edge of prog rock, Transatlantic represents the very best of old-school prog. For those not in the know, Transatlantic is the “Progressive Rock Supergroup” of the 21st Century. The band features Neal Morse (ex-Spock’s Beard), Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater), Pete Trewavas (Marillion, Kino), and Roine Stolt (The Flower Kings, Kaipa, ex-The Tangent). Their first album, SMPTe (2000) was an instant classic and the follow-up Bridge Across Forever (2001) was even better. But when Morse left his band Spock’s Beard to pursue a solo career focusing on Christian themes, Transatlantic was closed down as well. But then in 2008, my buddy Matt and I went to the 3 Rivers Prog Festival, featuring Spock’s Beard, Neal Morse, and The Flower Kings. It was an amazing event because at the end of the Spock’s Beard set, Neal Morse reunited with the band he founded for a song, and then at the end of Neal’s set, Roine Stolt was introduced and then Mike Portnoy walked out on stage and they performed a couple Transatlantic classics. After the show, Matt and I hung out with Neal and Mike like we were all old friends. The rumors began to fly—will Transatlantic reunite? Yes! Eight years after their last release, The Whirlwind was in my hands. And, it is their most ambitious offering, a 78 minute 12-part epic. Amazingly, the album feels both more cohesive and more diverse than their previous albums. All the members share in writing the music (though Morse and Stolt naturally are the main composers), and each person gets an equal spotlight, without making the effort feel disjointed or forced. This truly is the best of Neal Morse, Spock’s Beard, The Flower Kings, Marillion, Kino, Dream Theater, and Liquid Tension Experiment all mixed into one. Morse’s vocals are outstanding, his keyboards are played masterfully. Roine Stolt cranks out incredible guitar solos and adds his trademark atmospheric soaring notes. Mike Portnoy shows that he is indeed rock’s best drummer, able to restrain himself from all the strange time signatures he does with Dream Theater, playing this style of music flawlessly. Pete Trewavas is one of the most underrated bass players in rock, and he is perfectly in groove with Portnoy here. One more thing: I’m surprised that the other members of the band allowed Morse to sing such conspicuously Christian lyrics. For some fans, this was a turn-off. But for me, it was more of what makes me adore Neal Morse.
Related: Top 20 Albums of 2009 (A Brief History of Prog)