Concluding 2016: Justin’s Leftovers


Before starting on 2017’s projects, I wanted to be sure to discuss a handful of quality releases that came across my desk last year.  Here are some final 2016 pieces that, if you haven’t already heard them, absolutely shouldn’t be skipped.

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barockbarock-vivo

The bombastic, 70’s-style prog act, fronted by keys extraordinaire Luca Zabbini, returned mid-2016 with a double live album – the Project’s first live release, which is a veritable portfolio of their collective decade of work.  Recorded on the road during 2015‘s tour in support of Skyline, the album includes both an unreleased studio track, “My Silent Sea,” as well as an imaginative cover of Genesis’ “Los Endos.”  Unfortunately, it wasn’t long after Vivo!‘s release that Luca Pancaldi, the band’s dedicated lead singer since 2005 – the voice of all four of the band’s studio albums – announced he was leaving amicably.  Since that announcement, the band has remained a dedicated four-piece, with Zabbini and a number of guest vocalists sharing lead responsibilities for live performances.  Regardless of what the future holds for this band, Vivo! is a strong testament to what they’ve accomplished since the Project’s inception.

Some things I really like about this record:

The band’s top-notch musicianship and tight performance mean that their live renditions quote the studio renditions nearly verbatim – which is an impressive feat, considering the complexity of the music.  The fact that these guys have been playing together for more than a decade is clear from the instrumental cohesion and their dynamic ability to work together as a musical unit.  If you’re into jazz-influenced prog with a neo-classical sound, this record would be a good one to try.

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This is a neat record, trending toward the psychedelic/funk side of progressive rock, with material cut from similar cloth as compositions by David Gilmour.  There’s lots of guitar work against eerie ambience and strong bass undergirding, in addition to strings and keys.  Ragni’s songs utilize a large variety of classical, rock, folk, and blues styles to create diverse feels and broaden the record’s overall musical scope.  Land of Blue Echoes features a number of supporting guests, including Durga McBroom (vocalist for Pink Floyd), Fernando Perdomo (Dave Kerzner Band), Peter Matuchniak (Gekko Project), Jeff Mack (Scarlet Hollow), Colin Tench (Corvus Stone), Vance Gloster (Gekko Project), Hamlet (Transport Aerian) and Jacopo Ghirardini (Stalag 17).  Ragni himself provides everything from vocals to acoustic, electric, and lap steel guitars to bass to keyboards and bouzouki, while enlisting Peter Matuchniak to play the majority of lead guitar throughout the album.  Land of Blue Echoes is Ragni’s fifth solo record since 2010, though he has been playing an active musician since the 80’s, and it’s certainly one of the definitive works in his discography.

Some things I really like about this record:

Land of Blue Echoes has a distinct “classic rock” sound, evoking ELO and Pink Floyd, yet still maintains a strong modern identity, pulling from the likes of Ozric Tentacles and Midlake.  There are plenty of musical hooks, varying instrumentation on each track, and plenty of spacey elements throughout.  It retains the flavor of classic Italian prog, but lacks the characteristic jazz/fusion undertones, which means that – despite its complexity – the music isn’t overwhelmingly progressive, but still nuanced enough to land it squarely within that camp.

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Two releases from The Neal Morse Band made their way to my playlists this year – the stunning Similitude of a Dream, and a live 3-disk, CD/DVD release recorded in Zoetermeer, Netherlands.  The setlist showcases Neal’s past solo material, though the band appropriately focused on 2015‘s The Grand Experiment, one of the Neal Morse Band’s more acclaimed releases, which had dropped earlier that year.  Yet again, Mike Portnoy (drums/vox), Eric Gillette (guitars/vox), Bill Hubauer (keys/vox), and Randy George (bas/vox) provide a strong compliment to their multi-instrumentalist frontman, performing together as their typical cohesive unit.  The show itself was filmed before a smaller, more select audience of the band’s passionate fans, which also leant considerable energy to the band’s performance.

Some things I really like about this record:

As always, Neal’s work is professional and flawless.  Even in a raw, live environment, the man and his well-rehearsed cohorts seem to never miss any cues or beats, and their fluid level of chemistry is astounding.  Alive Again was a nice little precursor to Similitude, bridging the gap between it and The Grand Experiment, and demonstrating that Neal Morse projects haven’t lost any of their frequency or intensity.

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Keys wizard, Erik Norlander, returned in 2016 with his first solo record in nearly 12 years, simultaneously marking the 19th anniversary of his very first album release (Threshhold, 1997)Dedicated to the memory of Erik’s father, who passed away in 2016, Surreal is almost a sequel to Galactic Collective (2009), involving much of the same personnel from that album and also trending in the same progressive themes.  Mark Matthews and Nick LePar, who have been supporting Norlander on various projects for over six years, provide the rhythm section for the record, along with percussionist Greg Ellis – another longtime collaborator.  Alastair Greene, Jeff Kollman, and Norlander’s partner from The Rocket Scientists, Mark McCrite, all provide guitar work, and Don Schiff (the third member of The Rocket Scientists project) also played bass and cello.  As per Norlander’s style, most of the album is instrumental, with various synths, Moogs, and organs sharing melodic duties with the guitars, though the title track does feature Norlander’s wife, Lana Lane, performing powerful vocals.

Some things I really like about this record:

Much about Surreal feels retro, but not in a weary sort of way.  Norlander employs styles of playing and vintage, analog gear to capture some of the elements that made progressive music from the 70’s and 80’s sonically distinct.  The compositions cover lots of ground: spacey grooves; anthemic refrains; instrumental shout choruses; and pensive, ethereal breaks.  The instrumentation is also phenomenal: guitars working in unison/harmony with keys, active bass presence, synth solos, dissonant noise sections, and crystal clear keys and strings.  The album rotates around a series of themes – most notably in concluding track, “El Gran Finale,” which reprises the melody of “Surreal” – that altogether give Surreal a cohesive structure and a strong sense of completion.

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stradaviii

A grand, symphonic prog album working with heavy, emotional themes, Babylon was composed by founding member and keyboardist, Silvano Negrinelli.  The record was actually released late in 2015, but arrived in my mailbox along with The Barock Project’s Vivo! this past summer.  From what I can ascertain, the “Babylon” imagery used here seems to be a symbol for the advancing world (industry, technology, society), which Negrinelli uses to make a statement about the isolation of the individual in the midst of progress.  But anyone who speaks fluent Italian can correct me!  Tito Vizzuso’s vocal work is profound and emotive; newcomers Daniele Zigliani and Sergio Merlino respectively provide strong guitar work and bass support; and Riccardo Preda returns to anchor the project together on the kit.  Guest vocalist Andrea Negrinelli joins the entire band in providing backing vocals.

Some things I really like about this record:

Babylon has some really strong musical elements.  Touches of the band’s older, more metal-influenced style, blend well with the more symphonic mantra, and Negrinelli employs an approach to songwriting that strongly emphasizes carefully arranged parts for the instruments in the band’s repertoire.  Strategic voicing and well-arranged parts lend to the album’s wide, clear sound, while the double-tracked guitars and the occasional doubled bassline still give a meaty, hard edge to the compositions’ heavier refrains.  Whether or not you understand Italian, this is a fantastic record to crank up.

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tpt

Pineapple_Thief_Your_Wilderness

Released 12 August via Kscope, Your Wilderness is the band’s 11th studio release and the first in their discography to feature guest performers – most notably, Gavin Harrison (Porcupine Tree, King Crimson) on the drum kit, Darran Charles (Godsticks) on additional guitars, John Helliwell (Supertramp) on the clarinet, and a string quartet performing arrangements by Geoffrey Richardson (Caravan).  It took me a long while to sit down with this album, but I think it was good for me to have some extra space between 2014‘s Magnolia, Soord’s eponymous solo record, and Your Wilderness.  I got into TPT late in their discography, so I can’t lament the transition from more progressive to more ambient writing to the same degree as longtime fans, but – by the same token – I can appreciate the cross-pollination between Soord’s three most recent releases.  Much of Your Wilderness is very Radiohead in its ambience, and it borrows a heavy Porcupine Tree feel with its inclusion of Harrison on drums and in its overall tonality, but it’s still a standalone record that is decidedly more prog than Magnolia.

Some things I like about this record: 

The emotional songs Soord composed for this record are memorable, and there are some truly beautiful instrumental textures throughout Your Wilderness.  There is also a notable return here to the classic Pineapple Thief style of sparse intro, tension-building choruses, and powerful, emotional climaxes to conclude.  The entire record seems to be asking the question voiced in “Tear You Up,” and that is, “What’s become of me?”

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pandora

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Released late in 2016 (30 November), this is the Italian prog band’s 4th studio record since their inception in 2005.  Beppe Colombo (keys, backing vocals), Claudio Colombo (drums, bass guitar, electric and acoustic guitars, keys, backing vocals), and Corrado Grappeggia (keys, lead & backing vocals) remain the ELP-esque trio behind the impressive wall of baroque sounds.  For this commemorative release, they enlisted a numer of supporting guests: Dino Fiore and Andrea Bertino of Castello di Atlante (bass on “Canto di Primavera” and violin on “Drunken Poet’s Drama” respectively); Irma Mallus (backing vocals), and David Jackson of VDGG on brass.  Additionally, Vittorio Nocenzi, one of the members of Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, appropriately takes the final moog solo in “Canto di Primavera,” and Emoni Viruet – the artist who created the LP’s artwork – added her own voice to the record, singing both lead and backup.

Though not technically a compilation record, Ten Years includes both re-imagined material from the band’s own back catalogue with lyrics translated into English, as well as a series of classic prog “covers” – “Canto di Primavera” (Banco del Mutuo Soccorso), “Second Home by The Sea” (Genesis), “Man of a Thousand Faces” (Marillion), “Ritual Part II” (Yes), and “Lucky Man” (ELP).  To be frank, most of these renditions come across more as unpolished live takes than true covers, and I’m not particularly invested in them, but they do showcase both the band’s creativity as well as their respect for the genre’s greats.

Some things I like about this record:

Ten Years has a strong rhythm section, powerful arrangements that focus on layered keys and synths, and a neat three-part structure – “Fragments of the Present” (tracks 1-5), “Temporal Transition” (track 5), and “Fragments of the Past” (tracks 6-9).  The band’s virtuosity makes this record an enjoyable listen, even if you aren’t familiar with the classic tunes the band re-interprets here.

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2 responses to “Concluding 2016: Justin’s Leftovers

  1. I’ve always enjoyed Norlander’s stuff, and I was really impressed by The Barock Project’s live presence — virtually no difference from the studio!

    Like

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