Monday, November 30, 2009

Review: Comus - First Utterance (1971)

Sigh, to be around in the early 70s. You old farts have no idea how good you had it. Or maybe you did? I can only imagine a time of such creative freedom to be a fantasy beyond my wildest dreams. So much exciting and innovative music coming from those years. It was an era when a record label would actually take a chance with seemingly any oddball group, regardless of how noncommercial they might sound. The ideas flowing out of bands of the time seemed so wild and innovative and yet so logical and progressive. I mean, it makes sense doesn't it? Rock music had been around for at least a few decades already, bands like the Beatles seemed to have not only exhausted the possibilities of the genre but have also taken it to new heights. Let's experiment. Let's see what else we can do. Let's mix it up and try to incorporate other influences. The logic is seamless. On reflection it only makes the Punk backlash of the late 70s appear more ass-backwards than ever.

I couldn't imagine a year more ripe for a band like Comus than 1971. When else in the history of contemporary music could you envision a band so original, so creative, so unlike anything else to be allowed a chance to release an album of this nature? First Utterance seems to be an anomaly. It was apparently dismissed upon its release, garnering little commercial success. The sands of time could have easily lost this album forever. I can only describe its recent success in the online Progressive community as the quintessential example of music ahead of its time. This is folk music taken to heights that I can't see even remotely reached anywhere else. The overall feel of the music is dark, violent and often disturbing. Performed all on acoustic instruments, the darkness achieved here is remarkably unsettling considering the time period it was written in. It's no wonder that Progressive Death Metalers Opeth consider this to be an influence.

If I had to highlight one song that best showcases what made these guys so unique, it would probably have to be the violent Drip Drip. This is Progressive Folk music taken to bloody extremes. The chugging rhythm that breaks down midway through the song is effortlessly replaced with an equally sinister rhythm that showcases what you can achieve when traditional song structures are ignored in favour of more adventurous songwriting. The manic violin playing and woodwind instruments betray the evil lurking in the lyrics with an almost pastoral beauty. The line: "As I carry you to your grave, my arms your hearse" is not only quoted by Opeth, but could almost be a blueprint for the Death Metal genre, still decades away from the composition of this masterpiece.

In First Utterance we have a perfect example for my thesis on the impact of the internet on Progressive music. Since the album's first appearance on CD in the mid-90s, Comus have had a revival of sorts. They have since reunited and have even recorded a live DVD, sold through their website. As I highlighted in a previous post, they have even written new material and hopefully will be releasing a new album some time in the future. Considering this band was dormant for over thirty years, this is no small miracle.

If you consider yourself a Progressive Rock connoisseur, someone who knows even the most obscure act of the early 70s, and don't have this album in your collection... you are sorely missing out. A forgotten and dismissed masterpiece, revived through the power of free communication that is the internet. Slowly but surely Comus is getting the recognition they deserve. While the mainstream continues to elevate mediocre and redundant commercial acts to the plateau of super-stardom, the true creative geniuses of times long ago are beginning to get some well deserved respect.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

News: Holy Crap!!! Comus is back!!!!! New song!!!!

If I had made a list of one-off amazing bands from the early 70s that I never thought we'd ever hear from again (this is pure hypothetical musings here, who has time to make up ridiculous lists of this nature?), Comus would easily top that list. Holy crap! They're back! They've recorded a new live DVD! They're working on new material! In case you haven't guessed, I'm a huge fan. In fact, the creepy dark creature from the cover of their masterpiece, First Utterance, is featured in the header image on this very website. (That twisted agonizing thing hiding in the rocks on the right side) If this video clip, a live performance of their first new song in 30 years, is any indication; this is going to be a heck of a come back. If you've never heard of Comus, I'd describe their music as being some of the darkest all-acoustic progressive folk music I've ever heard. Check out their website and watch the video embedded below for crying out loud!

Comus - Progressive/ Psychedelic / Wyrd / Folk Rock (UK)
Comus played live again for the first time in thirty four years at Stefan Dimle’s Melloboat Festival on the 9th March 2008 to a tumultuous reception. A DVD of their electrifying performance at the festival is in production.

Comus "Out of the coma" new song live

News: Magic Pie new album slated for early 2010

If you haven't heard of Magic Pie, they are a band that took me by surprise in 2005 with their debut album Motions of Desire. I was impressed with their ability to combine crunchy hard rock riffs and soaring organ work. Well, their second album disappointed me a bit, sounding a bit too "modern prog by the numbers" if ya know what I mean. I am looking forward to what they are working on right now. If this embeded video is any indication, it should be a rockin' proggin' good time. What do you think?

Magic Pie Official Website
CD release early 2010
Magic Pie continues the work on the new album and we're going for a release early 2010. Eirikur has fit perfectly with the rest of the guys and has also contributed with lyrics to the songs. Stay tuned for more..

Magic Pie - Studio Sessions:Episode 1

Found Interview with Steven Wilson: Ambition Rocks

In light of the last link I shared with you, I want you to know that I'm not the only one who is as happy as perplexed by the sudden acceptance of music that does more than provide a steady beat to work out to. Steven Wilson again provides his perspective on the current climate for music. Can you imagine? You are once again allowed to have ambition when working on art! Jeez wiz....

Ambition Rocks - Attention Deficit Delirium
It seems the climate is more open than ever for doing something ridiculously over the top and over ambitious and reaching for the stars. It seems like it’s OK to do that now. I’m so happy about that. I’m so happy that ambition in music is acceptable, but God knows for 20 years it was almost like ambition was a dirty word.

Link: The folks at think that Prog should be called "high-IQ rock"

This sure is a fascinating time we live in. This article, from the same folks who slavishly award little golden gramophone status to generic boring commercial music, is actually positive to the revival of more complex and creative music that we are currently undergoing. The funny thing is, I couldn't think of a label more pretentious then their suggested alternative to Progressive Rock, "high-IQ" rock. Regardless, this is another interesting and perplexing piece of writing from a mainstream source music journalism. What kind of bizarro world have we entered???
While music with such characteristics has been historically termed progressive rock by music critics, these artists could also be labeled "high-IQ" rock.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Preview of a new series: Vintage Vinyl

I really have no respect for the music industry. While some of my most beloved releases do in fact come from early 70s - an era where major record labels actually signed innovative original bands - the last 30 years or so have been nothing but pure garbage. I've already gone on record here stating my belief that the internet is saving our culture from the grips of musical paralysis. Thanks to the freedom for anyone to say and do as they please, intelligent folks like you are finding music-nerds like me to help guide you to music that would be impossible to discover through the uber-controlled and dumbed down airwaves of traditional media. The major labels hate the internet. Unfortunately for them, they only see it as a way for people to download music without paying for it. They are focusing all their time trying to shut down file-sharing sites and ban ordinary citizens from the internet just for downloading some of their oh-so-precious and yet oh-so-crappy-and-overrated mainstream music. I want to see these companies fail. This new series of posts, starting next week, will be my little way of screwing these jerks without ever sharing a file or encouraging piracy in any which way.

Let's face it. You know it. I know it. We all know it. The best and most original Rock music came from the early 70s. These albums were released on a format known as the Vinyl LP. These vinyls have for the most part long gone out of print, usually replaced with poorly mastered, often highly compressed CDs. Here's what we should do. If you owned a LP player in the 60s-70s-80s and have since stored in your attic or wherever, pull it out and set it up. If you, like me, are too young to have been around in the heyday of vinyl, either bug your parents for their old turntable, or get yourself a refurbished model on the cheap. Alternately, hunt down garage sales and see if you can snatch a bargain. Regardless of how you do it, make sure you have a way of vinyl playback.

If you live in a big city, small city or even some remote towns, odds are that there are plenty of places to hunt down used vinyl records. Here in Toronto, there are oodles of shops specifically made to buy and sell used circler wax, a.k.a. vinyl records. Even thrift stores usually have a small selection of used vinyls. You can usually find endless copies of old Progressive Rock classics on vinyl at prices a fraction of what you would pay for a new CD of the same album. Here is the clincher: even a slightly worn vinyl record will usually beat the snot out of a CD in terms of sound quality. Cheaper, better sound and since we're getting these second-hand, the record labels don't get a penny! Think of this as a totally legal form of screwing the same record companies who have shunned Progressive music at the expensive of mindless derivative crap for so many years.

The internet will in fact be the downfall of the music industry, but not because of its ability to share music files freely between users. The recommendations to be posted here will become your guide, helping you know what to look for when shuffling through all those used vinyls. I'll explain the sleeve design, point out if the album has an interesting gate-fold or other unique packaging characteristics. I'll rate the production of the albums and try to convey how good these old things can sound. Heck, if you're interested, I'll even link to guides that help you digitally capture your vinyls onto your computer and clean up the pops and scratches for perfectly legal mp3 copies of the same music all without giving those money grabbing jerks at the big labels a single penny.

You might point out the artists will also be missing out on any royalties if we exclusively purchase music this way. I might point out that the royalties earned by the artist is but a tiny fraction of the cost of a new CD, and that most of these old bastards are plenty rich enough as it is. Roger Waters doesn't need any more royalties. Period. Do yourself a favour and make your next Pink Floyd album purchase a used vinyl record.

Let me know if you have any requests as to which albums or artists you would like to see me cover here.

Until next week,

Keep the Prog Alive!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Surrounded By Prog - Porcupine Tree's Lightbulb Sun DVD-A 5.1 Review

I've already reviewed one of Steven Wilson's 5.1 mixes in the form of King Crimson's Lizard. There is little doubt that Steven is the king of Surround Sound. If my glowing recommendation of Lizard wasn't enough to prove this, I'm going to take a look at one of his own band's albums in the form of Lightbulb Sun. This album has already been hailed as a modern masterpiece by many Progressive fans out there, so I'll assume that this material needs no introduction. If you've only heard this album on regular CD or as a digital download (or even vinyl for that matter), you really haven't heard it to its full potential. Mr. Wilson has been a huge fan of 5.1 since the release of Porcupine Tree's In Absentia in 2003 on the DVD-Audio format. For a true artist like Wilson, the idea of a format that required the listener to sit down and really take in the full breadth of an album was an ideal platform for his music.

There is usually a confusion whenever I mention the idea of surround sound music. For those who have never experienced an album in this fashion, it may be difficult to imagine what it sounds like. The point of this series is to attempt to explain why I think this is the way for serious music listeners to experience their favourite recordings. The real key in understanding why this is, simply go step outside of your house for a moment. Focus on what you are hearing. Close your eyes. While it is true that we only have two ears, you should quickly realize that you are very able to hear sounds coming from all directions. 360 degrees of sounds. If someone were to snap their fingers behind your head, you wouldn't say that the sound is coming from your left or right. Our brains are able to quickly take the information coming from our ears and process it in a way that can help us locate the sounds very precisely.

There really are no rules when it comes to how one might use the extra speakers in a 5.1 setup. If you've ever had the pleasure of watching a concert DVD in surround sound, you might have noticed how well those speakers behind you help create the ambiance of the venue where the show is taking place. You hear the roar of the crowd and the sound of the instruments echoing off the back wall. A good concert mix can really make the effect of 'being there'. Some studio album recordings in 5.1 use this approach, putting you in the recording studio with the band. Steven Wilson, however, takes a more creative style to his 5.1 mixes. What I believe he does is create a 3D sound painting.

Sounds pretentious? Nah... I think that this idea comes from the notion that music can really transcend from being just simply background noise or, as I like to call it, aural wallpaper. Music can, and should be as immersive, as gripping and as emotionally engaging as a movie. By using the home theatre systems that are increasingly common these days, artists like Steven Wilson are creating audio entertainment that parallels movie soundtracks in quality of sound. Lightbulb Sun, which in fact can only be purchased at this time in a set that features the CD along with a DVD-A, is one of the best examples of how effective a 5.1 mix can be.

Take, for example, the album's second track: How Is Your Life Today. This simple little track, clocking in at under three minutes, is a true example of a 3D sound painting. Picture a dark shadowy chamber, a piano in front of you and the longing lyrics of Steven Wilson front and centre, reverberating off the walls of the chamber all around you. Then the first line of the chorus "How is your life today?" fades in from a disembodied voice over your right shoulder. The next line "How is your life?" emerges from a second voice over your left shoulder. The two voices sing the final "How is your life tooooday?" in harmony and fade to darkness. The spotlight focuses again on the echoey vocals front and centre for the second verse. "And the cat its been staring at me, all this time" is heard as the last word, "time", whooshes away as the protagonist disappears, leaving just the piano in the dark chamber. Then suddenly the room is full of harmonizing Wilsons "la la la"-ing from all directions. Things seem to be getting a bit brighter as the harpsichord joins the piano and the chorus repeats again with lush warm voices surrounding you. The light takes a sinister colour, as an evil circus-like sound takes over the chamber. As the last chord decays, everything fades to black. The pianist takes his foot off the pedal and disappears into the darkness.

Despite the flowery language, none of this at any point seems gimmicky. None of the effects scream out "look at me! I'm in surround sound! Whoosh Bang ain't that neat?". Instead one gets a real sense that there is an increased meaning and purpose in the sound placement to help tell the story of the song. This description is naturally just one man's interpretation. I implore you to seek yourself out a copy of this disc and draw your own conclusions. While this one track is definitely a standout, the entire disc is just as engaging and imaginative. I should also add that this DVD-A is a sonic masterpiece. On first listen you may find it to be on the quiet side, but that is simply a sign of excellent mastering. Use your volume knob and turn it as loud as you desire. Unlike the majority of modern CD releases, Lightbulb Sun sounds better the louder you make it. Simply put, this is audio perfection.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Steve Howe Interview from the Belfast Telegraph

Fascinating interview with Yes' guitarist. He muses about, amongst other things, life on the road, the impact of Progressive Rock on younger artists and how much Canadians sound like Jon Anderson.

Bunch of Yes men - News, Music & Gigs -
“We were told that there was this amazing guy in a cover band in Canada who sounded like Jon and we thought, ‘Wow, he’s obviously faking it as not many people in the world sound like Jon’, but he was the real deal. He just happens to be the other person in the world, unbelievably, who can sound naturally like him, and it doesn’t surprise me that he’s Canadian, because a lot of the twang of their accents is similar to the northern parts of England.”

Found Link: PopMatters wants more Progressive Rock in the Hall of Fame

So I wake up this morning, after a night of bizarre and often intense dreams, to discover that a website is calling on the Rock and Roll hall of fame to include more Progressive Rock bands. This wouldn't be such a strange occurrence if it wasn't for the fact that the website in question is named Pop Matters! (I rub my eyes again, splash cold watter in my face, am I still dreaming?) What's going on lately? After three decades of being ignored, and worse, being mocked ruthlessly, suddenly everyone left-right-and-centre is claiming to appreciate and understand Progressive Rock. It doesn't help that they refer to the Proggers as the "Freaks and Geeks" of Rock and Roll, but we've heard worse. Read and let me know what you make of this strangeness.

Letting the Freaks and Geeks Into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame | Sound Affects | PopMatters
The nomination of Genesis is a decent start for progressive rock, but King Crimson, Yes, and Rush are still patiently waiting for nomination. One problem for progressive rock is that, in general, it’s not a genre adored by rock critics. But regardless of whether you think 2112 or Relayer is a masterpiece, progressive rock’s most notable characteristics (the odd time signature shifts, full albums broken into “acts” or “suites”) are everywhere in rock. If a song by a rock band exceeds eight minutes, chances are high that there’s going to be a Yes comparison. Even a band as critically adored as the Decemberists has garnered plenty of prog rock comparisons.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Prog Rock Guide to the Project/Object - One Size Fits All (1975)

There are a few reasons why I believe the best way to experience this album is by tracking down a copy of the original vinyl:

1. The cover design is really something to behold. It's so full of tiny intricate detail that the tiny size of the CD jewel case simply cannot do it justice. You can spend hours staring at the Zappa-fied map of the cosmos trying to just understand the meaning of it all. It's really so overflowing with imagination that you can keep yourself entertained for hours without ever taking the record out of its sleeve.

2. The sound quality of it all. For whatever reason, Zappa on CD is a messy affair. It seems that he created the digital masters for the CDs at a time of very primitive digital technology. Frank simply couldn't resist all the bells and whistles and trappings of over using them. Although this album is hardly one of the worst examples, very early-80s digital reverb is dumped all over his catalogue. There is an excellent (albeit dated looking) website that you can spend the rest of your life going over, that boldly attempts to make heads and tails of each and every Zappa release. The original vinyl version is, however, one of the best sounding releases of its day. It's warm, lush and brimming with the full breadth of frequencies that your human hearing is capable of hearing.

But wait, what about the actual music? Hmm, just give me 40 minutes or so to listen to this sucker and I'll get back to you...

Wow,! I had to stop listening after just the first side because I was so overwhelmed by it all, and I've heard this thing countless times! Where to begin? How about the beginning? Inca Roads! An undisputed Zappa classic in every sense. Originally composed as an extremely complex instrumental, the lyrics about flying saucers landing in the Andes are certainly amusing but hardly the main attractive. Did I mention that this lineup features one of the most talented ensembles ever assembled by Frank Zappa (or anybody for that matter)? Well I should have. The percussion throughout this album is a marvel to gawk at, but nowhere is this more apparent than Inca Roads. Ruth Underwood and Chester Thomson are on fire here. Zappa was always writing the most complex marimba parts for Mrs. Underwood to tackle and she seemingly could handle it all and make it look easy at the same time! And then there is the guitar solo. You can think of this as a song within a song. It's so perfectly constructed and played you'd think Zappa worked on its composition for days, except he didn't. It was improvised live at a concert in Helsinki and pasted on here. Inspirational stuff.

While Inca Roads is the main attraction on side one, the quality throughout never drops. Can't Afford No Shoes is the least Progressive item on the menu, but its lyrics concerning the economic hardship of recession will probably ring truer today then they even did in the volatile 1970s. Sofa #1 may be one of Zappa's grandest instrumentals. You'd think it would have some sort of serious epic meaning behind it if it were not for the reprise that occurs at the end of the album (we'll get there later). Po-Jama People, Zappa's tribute to all those boring dull folks in the world (and boy, are there ever plenty of them) is another guitar showcase. I really can't think of another guitarist that was playing like that in the 70s. The licks here cover the full range from the dirty bluesy intro to the rousing solo in the second half of the track. If you don't have the ending coda stuck in your head for days after hearing it (Wrap 'em up, Roll 'em out, Get 'em out of my way, Hoy Hoy Hoy!) then you simply aren't human. Period.

(Takes a deep breath) Alright, give me another 20 minutes while I indulge in side 2...

Pffffff.....Jeez. Somehow the second side is seemingly more rampant with musical ideas than the first, and it's a whole minute shorter! This is unbelievable stuff. It's the kind of album that conflicts me as a potential aspiring musician and composer. On one hand, I feel so inspired by the sheer amount of musical ideas presented here, and the seamless skill on display executing said ideas, that I feel that there is just so many possibilities to create something likewise. On the other hand, I'm just so intimidated by the fact that all of this came out of one man's head that even trying to create something similar would certainly pale so much in comparison, it's not even worth attempting.

Take, for example, Florentine Pogen. In its first two minutes or so you hear sooo many musical ideas and riffs. How does he do it? They are all catchy and complex yet it flows seamlessly. In fact, the recording on the album was taken directly from this TV performance. That's right, it's all done live! This band was a well oiled machine. They make it look so easy and appear to be having fun while doing it to boot. Chester Thomson was completely wasted during the 80s playing with Phil Collins' Genesis. This is impressive playing. And how about Napoleon Murphy Brock on vocals? You know Zappa discovered this guy playing in some corny night club in Hawaii?

The second last track, Andy, is another contender for 'most musical ideas crammed into a delightful six minute package'. It's Progressive, yet has a bluesy soulful charm that makes it simply addictive to listen to. A masterpiece without a doubt. San Ber'dino is another track that, were it written by anyone else and included on any other album, would be hailed as an all time great song. Sadly, it's packed into an album with so many great pieces and composed by the most prolific artist of its time. It seems almost forgotten in time. And then the album closes with Sofa #2. Reprising the melody of the instrumental from side one, it lyrically is based on the idea that (and I'm not making this up folks) God is singing an ode to a giant maroon sofa that happens to be floating in space, in German! Just look at the album cover! There is the sofa, and there is God's hand, holding a cigar (of course).

You think that putting such silly concepts onto such beautiful melodies may have diminished their impact? You bet. By doing this time and time again throughout his career, Frank Zappa has proven that you can make music that is complex, challenging and progressive without taking yourself at all seriously and being pretentious. Why isn't this album, and many others by Zappa, considered the out-and-out classics that they are? The humour contained in his lyrics are so disarming that you might not even bother to appreciate the musical ideas that he kept churning out throughout his tragically short life.

This album is not the easiest one to get into. It's a dense work that is brimming with some of the best music of the time. My recommendation is to take your time. You'll need to listen to it a few times over before you start to appreciate its genius. Once you do, once you 'get' it, you will undoubtedly regard this album as an all time classic of Progressive Rock. It's Progressive Rock in the truest meaning of the term. Oh yeah, it's fun and catchy too!

On the next instalment, I'm going to take a look at one of the earliest examples of real Progressive Rock, The Mothers of Invention's Absolutely Free.

News: They're baaaack. ELP reunite once again.

According to their official website:
ELP agrees to headline the new High Voltage Festival, the UK's new flagship classic rock event, on Sunday July 25, 2010. It is expected that fans from Europe, USA, Japan and around the globe will fly into London to see this much anticipated and unique event.
Emerson, Lake and Palmer

How excited you are by this news depends on your opinion of the band itself, of course. The band most easily cited as an example of the excess of Progressive bands in the mid to late seventies, you either love them or hate them. (or love their early material and can't stand their later material, Pirates etc..) As somebody who has often criticized older artists of cashing in on past successes, (cough, Roger Waters) I'm not entirely sure how enthusiastic I can be with a band that hasn't recorded anything worthwhile in well over 30 years. Plus Greg Lake is HUGE these

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Review: Klaatu - Hope (1977)

The Prog Rock Blog is now proud to present a short dialogue in between a disillusioned hippie in 1976 and myself in the present.

Man From 1976: Hey Dude, check it out! The Beatles are back together.

Me in the Present: No, no they aren't.

Man: Dude! They are! Check out this album. It's the Beatles reunited under the name Klaatu!

Me: Why would the Beatles secretly reunite under the name of a character from the film The Day The Earth Stood Still. Trust me, it's not them.

Man: Ya! It so is! (takes large amount of drugs) I'm telling you man, it's like a conspiracy dude.

Me: Nah, it's just three random dudes from Toronto. I should know, I'm from the future. I went to high school with the drummer's son!

Man: (passes out from all the drugs)

Me: From the perspective of hindsight, you might wonder exactly how desperate people were in the late 70s. Listening to Klaatu's debut album, you would really have to stretch your imaginations just a bit to see where anybody might get the idea that this was the Beatles in disguise. Besides the sugary pop harmonies, these Canadians only kinda sound like Lennon/McCartney. In any case, the lack of any liner notes detailing who exactly was in the band was enough to have most people thinking along these lines. Klaatu may have been trying to milk this illusion when they also released their second album without revealing their true identities. The problem with that was Hope is even farther removed from the Beatle-esque pop of the first album.

The album is a cautionary tale of a civilization on another planet who, despite their arrogance, were lay to waste. The first track is so clearly an attempt to milk the Beatles illusion as far as one could take it. It's so derivative of the kind of sound the Beatles had in the late-sixties that maybe - just maybe, you might have believed the rumours. Unfortunately as the album continues, the band shows much more diversity. Wait, it's not unfortunate at all! In fact, this album turns out to be one of the great examples of late 1970s Canadian Progressive Rock. Klaatu really flex their musical muscles here showing that they can provide the musical chops to back up this ambitious story. In fact, they even employ the London Symphony Orchestra on a few of the more epic tracks.

The plot line appears to me as a sort of condemning of American egotism. It was easy, I suppose, to see just how the American way of life could lead to disastrous consequences from up here in the great white north. Basically Klaatu used the guise of science fiction in much the same way Rush used Trees. I'm not quite sure why this sentiment seemed so rampant amongst Canadian bands at the time. I guess since we're too polite to ever criticize anyone directly, we'll do it through song.

Musically speaking, this album is an absolute joy to listen to. Tracks like Long Live Politzania and Prelude just sparkle from the speakers full of musical ideas and excellent orchestration. As a matter of fact, this album won the Juno (Canada's cheapo imitation Grammy awards) for Best Engineered Album and it's easy to see why. The original vinyl sounds so lush and full, using the full reach of the dynamic range available to the format to dramatic effect. They cram so many ideas into the instrumental track Prelude, yet it never sounds too busy or cluttered. Clearly an example of some of the best production values to come out of Canada in the late 70s. Did I mention that this album is full of catchy melodies? No? Well I should have! It is! You'll be humming the bouncy chorus to The Loneliest of Creatures for days on end after hearing it.

All in all this album is a forgotten classic in my opinion. Klaatu's legacy sadly seems to be nothing more than 'the band everyone thought was the Beatles reunited". It should actually be the achievement of this fantastic Progressive concept album. Coming at the start of the Punk movement this album was sadly ignored. So do yourself a favour and try and hunt this one down in a used record store. It may be worth it for the stunning cover art depicting the crumbling decays of a once mighty civilization, and the lighthouse beam scanning the cosmos.

Sadly, this album would be the first and last masterpiece for Klaatu. They instead went into a more pop-rock generic simple song vein over their next few albums, even putting a picture of themselves on the sleeve or their next LP, thus putting an end to all Beatle rumours once and for all.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Video: Ed Palermo Big Band - King Kong

Oh, and if you enjoyed that long interview with Ed Palermo I linked to in the previous post, then I thought I'd share this fine video document of Ed's Big Band doing a stunning live rendition of Zappa's King Kong. I believe they were about to break into King Crimson's 21st Century Schizoid Man as the clip ends.

Links: Cool People Playing Zappa

While things are busy behind the scenes here at The Prog Rock Blog, I thought I'd share some cool articles with you. Enjoy!

Ed Palermo: We're Only In It For The Music

Opus 21's rendition of Zappa's artier side wins standing ovation

Saturday, November 14, 2009

News: Greg Lake Relaunches his Website - Live Chat Tomorrow

For all you fans of the ballooning body that is Greg Lake, he has recently relaunched his website. As part of all the hoopla surrounding this fact, the man himself will be there to answer fan and media questions in a live chat Sunday afternoon/evening. If you are interested, go to for more info.

Join us November 15th at 10pm GMT, 5pm ET for a live chat with Greg.

Link: All About Jazz review of the 40th Anniversary Edition of ITCOTCK

In anticipation of my in-depth look into Steven Wilson's 5.1 remix of this all time Progressive Rock classic, I thought I'd share with you this review which does a decent enough job giving a broad overview of this new release. They also reviewed the other albums recently rereleased (Lizard and Red) but those reviews were crappy in comparison. I'm going to focus on the surround sound treatment and go into a bit more depth in terms of how this thing sounds, but All About Jazz's review is fairly deep and resoundingly positive. 

King Crimson: In the Court of the Crimson King (40th Anniversary Series)
For the first time since its initial release, not just remixed but remastered as well in both stereo and 5.1 surround, the 40th Anniversary Series incarnation of In the Court of the Crimson King is the gold standard against which all previous editions will be measured—and, ultimately, fail.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Essay: Let's get serious here for just a second...Prog Rock in the online age

In light of that Cracked article I posted here, I thought I would add a serious essay as contrast.

While there is no secret of how the over-the-top nature of bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer in the mid to late 70s has indeed cast the name of Progressive Rock in negative light over the last three decades, I do have reason to believe that the internet is starting to bring some perspective to the perception of the 'genre'. While all the negative aspects listed in the Cracked satire have some justification, the angle taken in judgment of music is altogether wrong-headed. The focus on style over substance in the music industry is a direct product of the need to increase profits in the era of the mass market. The dumbing down of all media (TV, Radio, Newspapers etc...) over the last 30 years reflects the need for the corporations selling content to reach as broad an audience as possible. Then the internet came along...

When dealing in the mass market, art is something that can't really be sold. The risk of signing a band that focuses on pushing boundaries and experimenting on form, structure and overall sound is a risk that a big corporation dealing with big bucks just simply couldn't take on. While they were slow to catch on to the Progressive revolution in the late 60s and early 70s, they jumped at the Punk and New Wave movement. The focus of those 'genres' was far more on appearance and basic aesthetics then the actual music. What a punk band wore on stage was usually far more important then what they played. The folks in charge of marketing music at big record labels were clearly thrilled by this prospect because it made their jobs much easier.

They used to play all kinds of stuff
And some of it was nice
Some of it was musical
But then they took some guy's advice
To get a record deal, he said
They would have to be more punk
Forget their chops and play real dumb
Or else they would be sunk
So off they go to S.I.R. to learn some stupid riffs
And practice all their poses
In between their powder sniffs
Chop up a line now, snort it up now
And when they think they've got it
They launch a new career
Who gives a fuck if what they play
Is somewhat insincere
Did you know that in Tinsel Town the people there
Think substance is a bore
And if your New Wave group looks good
They'll hurry on back for more
Of leather groups and plastic groups
And groups that look real queer
The Tinsel Town aficionados
Come to see and not to hear

-Frank Zappa
lyrics from the song Tinsel Town Rebellion

Zappa knew exactly what was happening. While Punk was being sold as a rebellion to the 'snobby' sounds of the Progressive bands, most people were completely ignorant to how conservative it was musically. The notion of rebellion may have existed in the fashion of Punk, but musically it was as far from pushing the boundaries as it could possibly be. It was, in fact, an undoing of progress. It was a rehashing of a form of rock that had already been done. It ignored all the giant leaps Rock had undergone and return to retread old ground. Conservative in every which way, it followed the notion that things were better in the 'good old days' while ignoring all the latest evidence and the need to move forward. Like an oppressive religion, all those who doubted that the punk way was the right way were ridiculed and dismissed.

The effects of the corporate need to sell a 'product' far out weighed the true notion that music is an art form that is made to be listened to and not to be looked at. In the years that followed Punk we saw the birth of MTV that further compromised and plasticized music. The work of the true rebellion that took place in the late 60s, the idea that musicians are artists and therefor should create art, was replaced with the notion that musicians as salesmen, pushing a product.

What you had in the 80s and 90s was a few generations deprived of any exposure to music that didn't fit the 'paint-by-numbers' formula created by the record labels as the only sounds that were sell-able. The radio dial was full of same-sounding derivative replications of the same song over and over again. It's a wonder that I was able to discover as much Progressive music as I did, mainly as a result of combing through used record stores and finding the gems of the 70s and ignoring the top 40. Most of my pears were not so wise and ate up the corporate spew as feverishly as they could. A generation whose exposure to sound was dictated by the profit-margins of men in suits sitting in a board room.

The internet has slowly diminished this stranglehold on what a young person was able to hear.  It was now possible to figure out that, wait a second, not all music has to sound exactly the same. The so called 'rules' were mere fabrications of an industry focused on making billions at any cost. You could actually listen to music because it could be interesting, entertaining, emotional and all other things that it never was. Lightbulbs started to appear over the heads of many a young person. Bands like Porcupine Tree, always pushing the boundaries, started to gain large audiences. Before you knew it an album with a 55 minute title track was appearing on the top 40 charts, something unheard of in over 30 years. All because the internet has opened doors long closed by the media empires of the world.

I don't think we can underestimate what the internet means to folks who enjoy listening to music. The long-gone act of spending an evening in front of your hi-fi system listening to an epic concept album is viable again. Artist can make music that is engaging without fear of record labels rejecting it. The platforms exist now for artists to return to making music once again. So laugh all you want at silly dress and style of the 70s Prog bands. Remember though, when it comes to Progressive the appearance doesn't matter, it's about the music. And thanks to the internet, the music is back.

Sigh, Cracked's Dated Prog Satire

Alright, while I may be giving this thing too much credit by featuring it here, I thought I had to bring it to your attention. Yeah, the clichés are all over the place. We've heard them all before. Look over it and have a laugh. Long songs, how silly. Good musicians, who'd a thunk it?

Progressive Rock |
Progressive Rock is an attempt to musically orgasm as many times as possible during a 15-minute song.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Surrounded By Prog - Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon 5.1 SACD

I believe I'm right in saying that this is the highest selling SACD of all time. This is hardly surprising considering it's Dark Side of the Moon, the gateway of so many into the ambitious and aurally dense world of Progressive Rock. It also happens to be the most overplayed album on FM radio to this very day. Seriously, just try tuning into your local Classic Rock station and odds are you are going to hear tracks like Time, Money and Us and Them over and over and over... Well let me tell you now that listening to this classic album on the radio is really the wrong way to go about it. In fact, listening to it on Vinyl or CD may even be considered a second-rate way of enjoying this classic. The fact of the matter is this: Dark Side of the Moon was made to be heard in surround sound.

Firstly, this album was mixed in Quadraphonic sound (that is the four channel surround system that failed to gain any traction in the 70s) by Alan Parsons. This release is considered by many to be the definite version of the album. Although never released on any digital format, if you are clever enough you can find a bootleged DVD-Audio version online that sounds simply amazing and can be listened to on any DVD player with a surround sound setup. In 2003, Dark Side of the Moon was released on the then new format SACD. Instead of releasing the original Quad mix, the band elected to do a brand new 5.1 mix. This is the version I will be focusing on now.

The fact that this SACD sold as well as it did may come down to the fact that it was released as a hybrid SACD/CD. This meant that it could be played on any regular old fashioned CD player. There is a slim chance that you have this SACD and don't even know it! All you need to do is get a multichannel SACD player to be able to enjoy the surround sound layer of the disc. Sound complicated? Well, this confusion was probably something that doomed the format in the end.

Before I start up the disc and describe some of the surround effects, I want to start out by saying that this is one of the finest sounding music releases I've ever heard in my life. The sonic quality is just "melt-into-yourself" quality. All those analog purist who claim that digital recordings will never have the depth or warmth of vinyl have clearly never listened to this SACD. It is pure sonic bliss. Alright, let us begin.

Speak To Me: The heartbeat begins in the front, clocks begin to tick all around the room. Voices from all corners of the room! You immediately get the feeling that all these layers of sounds and voices were really meant to surround you in this fashion. The screaming lady sound from behind/overhead brings us into...

Breathe: The bulk of the music appears to be coming from the front left and right. Those who heard the much more aggressively mixed Quad mix may be disappointing here. Gilmour's vocals really sound amazing and the real charm of this track is revealed with the clarity of the SACD.

On The Run: Ok, now the real fun begins. The whirling sounds circle the room. The low synth bass runs shake the room with amazing presence. The running man actually runs right around the room! The various helicopter-like sounds shoot over your head in an exciting and startling manner. The synth sounds sound soooo warm and lush you would be surprised to know they were recorded almost 40 years ago. Again, the sound effect work on tracks like this were completely cheated in plain old stereo. The manic laughter from behind sends shivers down the spine. A loud boom at the end and the running man takes another lap around behind your head... Uh oh, suddenly you are in a room filled with ticking clocks!

Time: All the alarm clocks go off at once from all directions! The loud angry chords surround the room and Nick Mason's drum fills are just as enveloping as they dance around the sound field. When the singing starts you get a "being in the room with Floyd" sensation with some of Rick's keyboards coming from just behind. The choral backup singers are given way more room in this presentation. Once again, the real shining element here is the outrageously good sound quality of it all. Roger's bass is not at all overpowering and very distinct. The mix in Breathe reprise is again focused in the front with Rick's organ bringing the song to a conclusion from the right rear.

Great Gig In The Sky: I adore the way Rick's piano sounds in this song. I feel that the mix, however, is a bit cheated from not enough use of the rear channels. In comparison to Alan Parson's Quad mix, this is a tame beast. At the very least, the sound has been really opened up and the "you are there" factor is really high with the reverb in the rears giving you a sense of space. The female vocals sound so lifelike that you might think this was recorded yesterday. "I never said I was frightened of dying" chimes in from the rear left channel (it caused my dog to jump!).

Money: The first cash register sound is anchored in the centre channel. The remaining ones emerge from all four corners. one at a time. Roger's bass takes over the centre channel and sounds simply amazing. The guitar chords emerge from the rear. The sax solo is featured right in the centre of the sound field while those clangy guitar chords hammer out behind you. This section is real audio 3D. The time signature change into the guitar solo brings a little more 'oomf' to the proceedings in those low tom fills by Mason. The drum sound is really something to be amazed by. Again, I can't help but feel that this song could have used more adventurous use of the rear channels. The talking voices emerge from all different corners of the room. Rick's organ in the front right channel transitions us into...

Us and Them: I love the way the bass sounds here. Roger may have not been the most technically gifted bass player, but he made sure his bass was well recorded. Again the sax appears to be front and centre. The echoing vocals start out in front and decay slowly behind you. Very cool. The choral backup singers fill out the rear of the room quite nicely during the powerful chorus section. It's impossible to deny the whole track is a simply sonic joy to hear. You know that really emotional section when the choral backup singers join in with the sax solo? It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. This is what I mean by "melting" good sound.

Any Colour You Like: Rick's echoey synth fills the room and echoes from everywhere. The effect never quite was this convincing in stereo only. Dave's guitar solo starts in the centre but slowly expands to the point you have one part in the front left and an overdub in the left rear of the room. This track may have the best surround mix of the album so far! This is a real showcase of how a good mix can bring a layered instrumental track to life.

Brain Damage: The rhythm guitar is focused in the front and those little lead lines kind of come from over your right shoulder. Roger's vocals sound like they are coming from just about everywhere. A whirling organ from behind introduce the backup singers who also seem to emjoy hanging out in the back of the room. (Maybe they're chilling with Rick and his organ?) The lunatic is in my head, or in the left rear speaker, either way that manic laugh has never been creepier. The moog synth during the instrumental break circles around the room while that crazy guy laughs back and forth in the rear.

Eclipse: Oooooooo in the rear, Roger in the front (mostly). This track seems to really fill the sound field as it climaxes. The female backup singers anchored all over the place. "There is no dark side of the moon really..." is quietly muttered behind you as the heartbeat slowly fades out.

All in all, I can't say this is the best 5.1 music mix I've ever heard. It is far too tame and I find it hard to pick out discrete elements the way I can in some of my other favorites (check out my Lizard review). I'm quite sad that this is considered by many to be the best surround sound album as it's really a "stereo+effects" mix. Alan Parson's Quad mix is, in my opinion, much better in terms of giving the layered nature of the music its deserved space with the rear channels employed far more often. Given his work with King Crimson's albums recently, Steven Wilson should be given the task of doing similar treatments to Floyd's catalog. If this album was released with a more ambitious mix you may have to wonder if the SACD/DVD-Audio formats would have been taken more seriously. Oh well...mere speculation on my behalf really.

I will, at some point, give a similar review to Alan Parson's mix of this album. Considering that you can get that version "illegitimately" online, and the fact that it is on the DVD format (one you can probably play without purchasing additional equipment) makes it an ideal choice for the surround beginner to enjoy a 'free' sample. (I'm not encouraging piracy here, only that Parson's mix was never officially released on a digital format, so going through so-called "pirate" channels is the only way to hear it)

Until next time, keep your ears open and

Keep The Prog Alive!

Mike Portnoy Takes The Prog Rock Quiz

Here's a fun little video to test your knowledge. I did better than Portnoy, but I would wouldn't I? I got about 10/15.  How many did you get right?

Warning: That Mike Portnoy has a dirty dirty mouth and loves his language to reflect its filth.

Dream Theater || Planet Rock Presents the Prog Rock Quiz

Found Review: A Prog fan's dream come true

As you may know, Transatlantic, the 'modern Prog' super-group is back after an extended hiatus that was initiated when Neal Morse decided that he needed to do God's work and put out some really great instrumentally interesting albums with preachy religious lyrics. Well, he finally decided that Jesus had enough for now and Transatlantic is back. I'm working on a review of their new album "The Whirlwind" but unlike most reviews I've read, I'm planning on panning the work. I'm sharing this review with you now just so you can get the feel of what most reviews for this sprawling epic have been thus far. I've actually yet to find a negative review for the album so mine may be a first. Stay tuned...

CD REVIEW: A prog fan’s dream come true | The Weekender, Northeast PA
After 77 minutes, it would be hard not to appreciate the virtuosity and skill evidenced here. It’s precise and symphonic but at no point does “The Whirlwind” sound like 12 separate songs glued together for the hell of it. The transitions make sense, and the whole thing builds up to the crashing climax of “Dance With Eternal Glory,” a song that allows some of Morse’s Christian rock lyrics to creep in.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Prog Rock Guide to the Project/Object - The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life

If there is one thing I regret in my life it would have to be never attending a Frank Zappa concert. Thankfully there are many other things I regret in my life. Too many. Oh Jeez do I have regrets... sad convoluted mutated confusing regrets. So this is somewhere on a large sprawling list of many regrets. I won't disclose the rest of them here since, well, who cares? Besides me, they are my regrets after all. So mind your own damn business!!!

err....not sure what provoked that....moving on

Either way, the title of this 1991 release rings incredibly true to me. I never got a chance to hear this specific incarnation of Zappa's touring band (or any of his bands for that matter since I was either not-born of in diapers). Neither did many people apparently since the tour was canceled early on. Apparently there was just too much in-fighting and band member politics. Poor old Frank got very fed up with it all and was saying at the time that he never wanted to go on tour with a rock band ever again. Of course, we know now that he passed away shortly thereafter so he wouldn't even have the chance if he changed his mind. At any rate, the title to this live album, documenting some of the 1988 tour (his last), is apt for plenty of folks out there.

The reason I'm suggesting this as a launching point to a new fan's Zappa discovery is complicated and controversial. I am pretty sure that, regardless of what other Zappa freaks may believe, Frank specifically created a beginner friendly compilation from his extensive recordings from the 1988 tour. What I mean by this is that the track selection compiled here contains his more 'listener friendly' compositions. With the exception of 'The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue' near the end of the album (and "A Few Moments With Brother A. West", who wants to listen to that? Very dated American political satire...), there isn't anything too avant-garde or atonal here. The focus is on tracks like Cosmik Debris, Zomby Woof, Inca Roads and The Torture Never Stops that are all showcases of Frank's humour, instrumental complexity, guitar skill and ability to just write catchy melodies.

Again, the title of the album hits the nail on the head. This is not only one of the largest bands Frank ever assembled, but absolutely jaw-droppingly skilled as well. If you are not familiar with Zappa's music then you can check out the cover tunes included here to get an idea of just how tight this band was. Ranging as far as Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire to Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze, you quickly can recognize how painstakingly well rehearsed this band is. (I've read that Zappa rehearsed this band for six months before starting the tour) Just listen to the album's closer, a cover of Led Zeppelin's overated 'epic' Stairway to Heaven. Jimmy Page's infamous guitar solo is performed by the brass section almost note-for-note. If that doesn't give you a picture of just how skilled these musicians were, and also an idea of Zappa's creativity as a musical arranger, then you may never understand music in general. In fact Zappa's arrangment of Ravel's famous Bolero may have much of the same affect. It's a stirring rendition that tends to send shivers down the spine of unsuspecting listeners.

The only thing that may impede your enjoyment of this album are the dated references that show Zappa's strong political opinions in the late 80s and may confuse you now in the almost 2010s. You see, there was this televangelist named Jimmy Swaggart and....ah forget it. If you really want you can read this wikipedia article and understand what exactly they are going on about in the 'Swaggart Versions' of songs on the second disc. Just understand that as rehearsed and tight as Zappa's touring bands were, Frank always insisted on creating an air of improvisation and unpredictability at his concerts, and this could include changing the lyrics to songs on the spot. I just ignore these now dated references and enjoy the music being played because that's really what it's really all about.

All in all, this album is a showcase of Zappa live. The musicianship is simply increadible, the brass section sounds really cool (check out the opener Heavy Duty Judy or Let's Move To Cleavland), the guitar solos are mighty impressive (Zoot Allures and The Torture Never Stops Part Two) and the whole thing is just lots of fun to listen to as a whole. The way it's structured makes it sound as though it is one continuous concert, but in fact is carefully collected and edited by Frank from throughout the 88 tour. I'm pretty sure he was going for a 'listener friendly' experience here so his more adventurous instrumentals and cruder lyrics are ommitted on this release. For all these reasons I'm pretty sure this is an excellent place to start your Zappa adventure.

On the next installment, we are going back to the early 70s to explore the forgotten Prog Rock classic "One Size Fits All".

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

News: InsideOut Bands on Tour

I received the following tour dates from the mostly Progressive label InsideOut:

Bloodstock Festival 2010
13.08.2010: GB-Walton-On-Trent, Derbyshire/Catton Hall

Frequency Tour 2009
12.12.2009: GB-London/O2 Academy
16.01.2010: GB-Rotherham/Classic Rock Society
30.01.2010: D-Aschaffenburg/Colos Saal

Linoleum tour (Australia supporting Dream Theater)
27.11.2009: RU-Moscow/Gorbunova Hall
28.11.2009: RU-St. Petersburg/Glav Club
03.12.2009: AU-Brisbane/Convention Centre
05.12.2009: AU-Sydney/Hordern Pavillion
07.12.2009: AU-Melbourne/Palais Theatre
08.12.2009: AU-Melbourne/Palais Theatre
09.12.2009: AU-Adelaide/Thebarton Theatre
12.12.2009: AU-Perth/Metro City

Anno Domini High Definition Tour 2009
10.11.2009: IT-Milan/Zoe
11.11.2009: CH-Pratteln/Z7
13.11.2009: D-Aschaffenburg/Colos-Saal
14.11.2009: FR-Paris/La Locomotive
15.11.2009: GB-London/O2 Academy
16.11.2009: GB-Wolverhampton/The Robin 2
18.11.2009: D-Hamburg/Logo
19.11.2009: D-Berlin/Sage club
26.11.2009: FI-Tampere/Klubi
27.11.2009: FI-Jyväskylä/Lutakko
28.11.2009: FI-Helsinki/Nosturi
12.12.2009: RU-St. Petersburg/Troitsky
13.12.2009: RU-Moscow/Tockka

More info on the label's website

News: New Tangent Album next week

Just a quick heads up to any fans of the sometimes British/Swedish band The Tangent that their new album will be coming out early next week. It will be called 'Down And Out In Paris And London' and according to a press release "comes in a Limited First Edition Digipak with the bonus track 'Everyman's Forgotten Monday'".

I was a pretty big fan of their last album although this one will be the first to have an entirely British lineup. How this will effect the sound remains to be seen. Also, we are still waiting for the first release with the combined lineup with Beardfish, which is, from what I can tell, not this album.

Anyone have any insight to share? The Tangent has one long complicated history of lineup changes surrounding the front man Andy Tillson.

Monday, November 09, 2009

News: Roger Waters wants to tour The Wall in 2010/2011

Look at this picture. He looks terrible doesn't he? Old. Miserable. Just a sad looking aging man. Well, that sad old man is going out on tour again. Could this finally be the long awaited follow-up to his 1992 album Amused To Death? No. Not even close my friends. It seems that he is quite keen on following up the cash grab that was his Dark Side of the Moon tour from a few years ago with a recreation of tour of The Wall. I hate to say this but, it smells like easy money. Wasn't he working on actual new material at some point? He got distracted with his 'opera' Ca Ira and never got around to finishing it. Well it seems that he is all too content to rehash old successes and rake in the dough once again. I expect this tour to be extremely overpriced and yet still sell out before the tickets ever go on sale. A couple of sites are indicating that this is what the old man really wants to do. Now please, could somebody inform me as to how this is acceptable practice? The guy is already a multi-millionaire I'm sure. Could he really be short on cash? Am I completely off base here, or is touring old material nothing but a scam when, as a supposed 'song-writer', he should be releasing and then touring NEW MATERIAL? If he wants to honour the legacy of The Wall, I'd suggest he release one of the many video recordings of the original tour on DVD. A reasonably priced DVD for home viewing is, to me, much more appealing than the prospect of paying hundreds of dollars to sit in the nose-bleed seats of some over sized arena with lousy acoustics listening to the drunken screams of beer-filled aging balding men vomiting all over me and blocking my view....

Now who sounds like the cranky old man? (And I'm in my 20s!!!)

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

News: Steve Hackett's new album Out Of The Tunnels Mouth is finally available

After many a delay (a skill probably learned from Peter Gabriel) Steve Hackett's newest 'rock' album is finally available. Out Of The Tunnels Mouth is currently being sold through Steve's website. This album is exciting for Prog fans because it contains performances from original Genesis guitarist Anthony Phillips and Yes bass player extraordinaire Chris Squire. While such collaborations are not entirely unusual for world of Progressive Rock, these specific combinations are ones that I would have never thought would happen and could actually be quite interesting. This also marks the first Hackett solo album that I can remember not featuring a painting by Kim Poor as a cover. This probably has everything to do with the fact that the couple recently got divorced. I personally don't have enough money to purchase the album myself at the moment, but if somebody feels kindly enough to drop some change into the donate button I'll make sure a review is up as soon as possible.

The track listing is as follows:
Fire On the Moon
Emerald And Ash
Ghost In The Glass
Still Waters
Last Train To Istanbul

Monday, November 02, 2009

Surrounded By Prog - King Crimson's Lizard DVD-A 5.1 Review

When choosing how to commence this series examining how 5.1 Surround Sound has affected the scope and sound of classic Progressive Rock albums, I decided to start with something that is currently available for purchase. You see, the heyday for 5.1 music releases was all the way back in 2003/2004. This was the era that the record labels put out the competing formats DVD-Audio and Super Audio CDs. Since that time almost all the releases have gone out of print. As I explained previously, the consumer confusion as to what exactly these formats were in tandem with the fact that most were moving their music listening away from the home stereo and onto iPods created essentially what amounted to a flop. Neither format sold well and have since disappeared off the shelves. I could go on as to why exactly this is one of the great tragedies in the history of recorded music, but I'll save that for another post on another day.

Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree saw through the market confusion and continued to release DVD-Audios of his own material. I'm not sure exactly how it came to pass, but eventually Robert Fripp enlisted Wilson's expertise in Surround Sound to remix the entire King Crimson catalog. Now, in 2009, almost six years after the major labels chose to can the format, we are finally seeing the first of these Crimson remixes. The results? Simply outstanding! The added depth of sound provided by remixing these albums from the original recorded multi-tracks has given new life to these compositions, the oldest of which is now 40 years old.

Lizard has always been a difficult album for even some of the most dedicated King Crimson fans. It has always fallen into the "love it or hate it" category. Those who couldn't grasp it have always cited its leanings of free-jazz as well as just the sheer amount of musical ideas crammed into each track. Dense is too light a word to describe the aural layering involved in its creation. As Steven Wilson remarks in the new liner notes:

"One of the first things I said to Robert when we started talking about the 5.1 mixes was that I wanted to do Lizard because for me, that’s always been an album that was too big for stereo to contain. There’s so much going on in that record. I’ve always felt that if presented in the right way, I could make a case for this being the most experimental rock record ever made. It’s extraordinary what they’re doing on this album. In terms of fusing free-jazz with progressive rock for me there’s almost no parallel and yet it seems to (be) an album that is overlooked by jazz fans and progressive rock fans alike."

He hits the nail on the Lizard's head. Listening to this surround sound mix is a revelation. I'm going to go through the album now, track-by-track, and attempt to describe some of the ways the mix is presented. If you feel that the idea of describing music in such ways a bit silly, then by all means go out and purchase this album for yourself. Since it contains a DTS encoded version of the surround mix, essentially any surround sound home system should be able to play back this DVD. If you already have a surround sound-compatible DVD player at home you have no excuse not to buy this. Unlike many of the albums I will eventually cover in the column, this has just been released and shouldn't be too hard to find either online or in-store.

Let us begin.

Cirkus: Amazingly, the album begins with the vocals starting out behind you and slowly make its way towards the front centre channel of the mix. When the rest of the band joins in, the full power of the bass is felt as Robert Fripp's acoustic guitar has never sounded quite so clear. This is what I would call an extremely active mix with whirling melotron and organs surrounding you. The song no longer has that cluttered feeling that marred the original mix. The spacing around the sound field really is well done and allows you to hear each instrument clearly. At this volume, the melotron is really something other-worldly. Shiver inducing stuff. The dynamics during the quiet section allow the return of the powerful riff with Robert's frantic acoustic playing to make you jump out of your seat. Like an explosion almost in terms of how it hits you. This has never sounded so good.

Indoor Games: Brass spread before you in the front, keyboards in the rear and vocals locked right in the centre speaker. The strumming acoustic guitar coming at once from the front right and rear left punctuating the "Indoor Games" chorus. Again, the clarity of individual instruments is a revelation to anyone familiar with this album. In the quiet bridge section fuzzy low moog (i think) sweeps around the room. The sax solo is in the centre as the electric guitar answers in the rear. The effect is startling. I'm hearing details that I never thought I would, and I claim to know this album inside and out. The moog effects surround the room in a rousing example of the warmth of analog synthesizers. I might consider this song an excellent candidate for a 'demo' track to show off the power of 5.1 mixing. Simply as masterpiece!

Happy Family: I never really liked the way the vocal effects distorted the lyrics in this song originally. Wilson, while keeping the same 'feel' on the vocals, mixed them in a much clearer fashion here. The first instrumental break features keys in the front left, guitar front right and flute behind you. It has the effect of being in the middle of the room as the musicians play. The increased fidelity provided by the DVD-Audio format and the fact that Wilson was able to use the original source recordings to mix this is really 'ear opening'. If you thought this song sounded too 'busy' during its instrumental sections before, this new presentation may be a revelation.

Lady of the Dancing Water: After the aural assault of the previous tracks, this track remains a calming peaceful interlude before the epic. The opening electric piano opens the song in front as the flute fills in the rest of the room. The vocals have never sounded so clear. The trumpet (or trombone) during the chorus whispers over your left shoulder. Again, another shiver inducing moment. Fripp's acoustic guitar sounds fantastic. So warm and lush.

Lizard: Attempting to go into too much detail to describe this epic-length track is impossible, but I'll highlight a few of my favorite moments. Jon Anderson sounds purer here then ever before. The harsh melotron swells haunt you from behind as the gorgeous piano stays to the front. The vocal harmonies during the chorus are now much more apparent as they have been spread into the rear speakers. Prince Rupert's Awakening has been given a new lease on life. There is no doubt that Mr. Wilson has a great understanding of this music as his presentation is true to the original yet so much bigger and clearer than before. The Bolero section's trumpet solo is anchored dead centre and sounds magnificent. The swingy jazzy section is a sonic wonder, with brass instruments seemingly coming from right across the front of the sound stage. Like a jazz band performing right in front of you. This is a smart and intelligent mix that is guaranteed to satisfy both long time fans of this track and those who were skeptical initially as well.

If there was an award for "Album most improved by Surround Sound mix" this would win it hands down. In fact this may be one of the best DVD-Audio discs in my collection. This on a brand new disc on a format that was long thought as "dead". I can't recommend it enough. It gives a troubled album a new lease on life and is without a doubt the new definite version. Get it now while you still can. Even if you don't own a Surround System (what are you waiting for?) then Steven Wilson's new stereo mix may also interest you as it does indeed go to great extent to 'clean' up the messy original. The real attraction here, however, is the new 5.1 mix. Believe me when I say that even if you were not a fan of this one originally, this new release may change your opinion on this forgotten masterpiece of Progressive Rock.

Although not indicated, this is indeed the new two-disc DVD-Audio version. Order it from this link and help support the Prog Rock Blog!