2014 has been a year when I’ve been relatively quiet on reviews, but I have been listening to many things, and I was very fortunate to attend some fabulous concerts that I’ve documented here with brief write-ups and photos (no photos of King Crimson!). I’ve also been focused on other things, including making noise with some guitars. As in the past, my listening is concentrated on what’s available to me, which is relatively narrow in scope, but I do listen to a pretty wide array of music.
This is my list of 14 favorites for 2014 (in no particular order) and then a few special categories. Each title on the list links to the artist or record label website. Happy Listening and I hope you all have a nice Holiday season, no matter what you celebrate. Thank you for reading in 2014!
Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
Nick Magnus – n’monix
Tony Patterson & Brendan Eyre – Northwinds
Should – The Great Pretend
Gareth Dickson – Invisible String (a compilation of recent live recordings)
Hiss Golden Messenger – Lateness of Dancers
Steve Hackett – Genesis Revisited: Live at the Royal Albert Hall 2CD/DVD (a fabulous live album & DVD with excellent sound quality!)
Stephen Vitiello + Taylor Deupree – Captiva (double 10” LP)
Medeski Scofield Martin Wood – Juice
Ben Watt – Hendra
Beck – Morning Phase
Levin Brothers – Levin Brothers (It’s only taken decades, but the Levin brothers got together and made a really marvelous jazz album)
Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread
Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd – White Bird in a Blizzard
Anthony Phillips – Harvest of the Heart (Anthology Boxed Set): Unlike the recent R-kive Genesis box set, Cherry Red knows how to put together a proper anthology, complete with many tracks of never-before heard music from AP’s archives.
Jason Molina – Songs: Ohia – Journey On (7” 45 RPM Compilation Box Set, a really beautiful set, probably rarer than hen’s teeth by now.)
King Crimson – The Elements (Tour Box, archive, live and some new material as a companion to the 2014 US Tour)
East River Pipe – The Gasoline Age (vinyl reissue, my introduction to the brilliant songs of F. M. Cornog when it was first released on CD in the early 1990s)
Lambchop – Live at XX Merge (I’m so happy that Merge Records decided to release this in honor of their 25th Anniversary. Looks like the LP is out of print for the moment.)
William Tyler – Lost Colony
Olan Mill – Half Seas Over (Live performances 2012-2014)…too short for an album, too long for an EP, but what the heck!
An Accidental Concert Photo
EANTCD 1032 – Esoteric Antenna (Cherry Red Records) – Time: 46:54
Tracks: 1) Time, 2) Memory, 3) Kombat Kid, 4) Headcase, 5) Eminent Victorians, 6) Broken, 7) Shadowland, 8) Entropy
Other music genres aside, I posit that many fans of Progressive Rock (Progressive Metal and other sub-genres included) have fairly high expectations when anticipating the release of an album by a favorite artist or band. The hope is perhaps for certain sounds and instrumentation—in a way, holding onto the past, the memories. I’m certainly guilty of that (I want Mellotrons, Les Pauls, E-bows and bass pedals), but I also hope for variants and invention in addition to complicated rhythms and key signatures that I associate with Prog Rock.
Music can trigger memories; hear a song and it can take one back to a long distant place and time, instantly. My memory of Nick’s work goes back to the early days of the Steve Hackett Band, in the late 1970s through the 1980s, and I certainly remember standing up front at more than a few venues close to the stage, marveling at Nick using his two (four?!) hands, feet and even elbows at times to assist with bringing Steve Hackett’s early work to life (he was a large part of the sound and technology of that era…and the transition from the analog to digital era in instrumentation and recording technology). Then, of course, I have enjoyed his solo work beginning with Straight On Til Morning from 1993.
I’ve heard some recent Prog Rock albums (even albums that I like) where the artist felt it necessary to include frequent derivative historical references and instrumentation or phrasing to other artist’s albums, but Magnus resists this temptation and takes n’monix in unexpected directions and makes it his own. The album does include many new friends as well as old; a connection to the past while looking to the future: Steve Hackett, Tony Patterson, Tim Bowness, Pete Hicks, Rob Townsend, James Reeves, Kate Faber and Andy Neve. Once again, long time collaborator, Dick Foster delivers sharp, witty and poignant lyrics that combine so well with the music.
n’monix is social commentary, history, reality and an observation of the results of technological advancements and the effects they have on us all. The more information available, the more to process, the more to remember and as a result we need devices to cope, mnemonics of many types. And curiously, even with the most tragic and unjust, we humans have such short memories; history is bound to repeat itself, it sadly becomes inevitable. We are victims of our own creations. The album is also about loss on many levels.
Time is the allegro of the symphony or the overture to the opera and it’s aggressive with firm vocals by Tony Patterson (and it will give your audio equipment a workout). By contrast (but very much in keeping with the symphonic reference) Memory is an adagio (slower tempo) waltz of sorts, which shifts from a somewhat shrouded soprano solo to broad choral treatment. Kombat Kid is an allegory. It is part march, part recitative and a story of consumption, manipulation and obsession…a reminder to step away from the keyboard or game controller now and then. Headcase is the only track on the album that even vaguely includes an homage…in this case (it seems to me!) to Gentle Giant…with quirky rhythms and lyrics—and memory games in the lyrics. Eminent Victorians is the most fantastical of the pieces on the album (with a brilliant animated video to accompany and vocals by the carnival “barker” Pete Hicks), and traces the absurdity of the served and servants, the sacrifices of the young and poor for the glory of an Empire and upper class; a familiar theme even today as income gaps grow ever wider and those less fortunate suffer even more. EV also includes prominent and most welcomed solos by Steve Hackett.
Broken is a heartbreaking lament with remarkable and emotional soprano saxophone solos by Rob Townsend (I have to admit that I had quite an unexpected emotional reaction to the track). Reality hits in the mournful resignation and loss of Shadowland and includes choral treatments and a stark guitar solo again from Steve Hackett. Some of the original themes return in the opening of the final track Entropy, an acceptance of reality and the unknown possibilities. I am certain that I have missed some of the literary, mystical and historical references…for now.
Although the subject matter of this album can be rather daunting, I find it to be somewhat lighter in spirit at times and more musical compared to Nick’s brilliant previous album Children of Another God. n’monix is impeccably arranged and orchestrated, and dances on the edge of being symphonic and operatic while including original and accessible songwriting. This is certainly not an album that collapses under the weight of a Prog Rock cliché, in fact, just the opposite–it brings a fresh relevance and viewpoint to the genre.