Tag Archives: Mike Portnoy

Album of the Year 2016 – Number 13

Another day arrives and with it, comes another album in my ‘Album of the Year 2016’ top 30 countdown.

For a change, I’m going to go straight into the main body of this post without any delay other than to remind readers that you can get links to all of the other posts in this series at the bottom of this post. Please read, enjoy and spread the word, the Blog of Much Metal needs you!

And with that said, let’s delve into today’s album of choice:

Number 13

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The Neal Morse Band
The Similitude Of A Dream
Radiant Records

“I’m now on my umpteenth spin and I’m thoroughly smitten. Yes I can hear words like ‘God’, ‘Satan’, ‘Father’, ‘Mercy’, ‘blessed’ and others sprinkled throughout the record and yes, I do flinch a little at their use but I’d have to be a prize idiot to let that stand in my way. Why? Because ‘The Similitude Of A Dream’ is a phenomenal body of work that cannot be ignored.

It is way too early to say whether ‘The Similitude Of A Dream’ will eventually stand alongside the likes of ‘Quadrophenia’ and ‘The Wall’. However…there can be no denying the fact that this recording is a magnificent achievement and deserving of high praise. To my mind, ‘The Similitude Of A Dream’ is definitely one of the musical highlights of 2016 and a masterclass of progressive rock.

Read the full review here

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The number 13 is often viewed as an unlucky number, but not in this case for Neal Morse and his band. I never thought I’d see the day when an album with overt Christian lyrics and themes would find its way into my end of year ‘best of’ list, let alone be so high up the list. However, the unthinkable has happened thanks to Neal Morse and co. Mind you, given the quality of the musicians involved and the collaborative song-writing ability, it’s hardly a surprise. Perhaps, had it been released earlier in the year, it might have climbed even higher still.

‘The Similitude of a Dream’ is an extravagant and ambitious affair that embraces everything that you could ever want or need from a progressive rock album. It is well-written, well-executed and contains a huge plethora of influences from across the musical spectrum, bringing them all together in one triumphant package. It isn’t always the easiest of listens, but that’s exactly how it should be with prog – some aspects hit you right out of the blocks, whilst others take longer to be deciphered and work their magic. Plus there’s the sheer length of the record; make sure you set aside a good two hours to appreciate it in its entirety.

Each time I listen, I seem to discover something new to enjoy and that’s always a positive as far as I’m concerned. Be it a subtle instrumental flourish, a vocal harmony, a riff, a beat or an overall vibe or atmosphere, each listen throws up something new, making each listen a unique experience. I can’t profess to like every single second of ‘Similitude…’ but what I admire about it is the fact that nothing is seemingly off-limits. If it fits the musicians’ vision, it is included in order to create a richer tapestry and a less one-dimensional story.

‘The Similitiude of a Dream’ is a fantastic album and, whether or not it becomes a genre classic in time, it has provided me with huge enjoyment during 2016.

In case you’ve missed any of the other posts in the 2016 series, here they are for you to explore and enjoy:

Album of the Year 2016 – number 14
Album of the Year 2016 – number 15
Album of the Year 2016 – Number 16
Album of the Year 2016 – number 17
Album of the Year 2016 – number 18
Album of the Year 2016 – Number 19
Album of the Year 2016 – number 20
Album of the Year 2016 – number 21
Album of the Year 2016 – number 22
Album of the Year 2016 – number 23
Album of the Year 2016 – number 24
Album of the Year 2016 – number 25
Album of the Year 2016 – number 26
Album of the Year 2016 – number 27
Album of the Year 2016 – number 28
Album of the Year 2016 – Number 29
Album of the Year 2016 – Number 30

And from previous years:

Album of the Year 2015
Album of the Year 2014
Album of the Year 2013
Album of the Year 2012

The Neal Morse Band – The Similitude Of A Dream – Album Review

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Artist: The Neal Morse Band

Album Title: The Similitude Of A Dream

Label: Radiant Records

Date Of Release: 11 November 2016

Is it just well-calculated hype or is it a genuine belief? That was my first thought when Mike Portnoy declared that the new Neal Morse Band album, ‘The Similitude Of A Dream’ to be the album of his and Neal Morse’s career. But he even went further than that on his official Facebook page to declare:

“I will be so bold as to put my balls on the table and say I think this album can even sit side by side with The Who’s Tommy & Quadrophenia, Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway and Pink Floyd’s The Wall…yes, I said it!!! ”

It was at that point when I realised that I had to hear this record. I really enjoyed ‘The Grand Experiment’ from last year and when one of my favourite and most highly respected musicians and songwriters makes a comment like that, it is hard to ignore. I mean, come on, Mike was partly responsible for ‘Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From A Memory’ for heaven’s sake.

Inevitably, it fans the flames of expectation and gets tongues wagging immediately and I firmly believe that was an intended consequence of this quote. However, having lived with ‘The Similitude Of A Dream’ for a little while now, I’m beginning to think that the hyperbole wasn’t just a clever marketing ploy; Mike Portnoy believes his words to be true and, being the larger than life character that he is, he isn’t afraid to voice his opinion.

But not only that, other press bods are broadly in agreement too. Many of the reviews already published are dishing out full marks and not sparing the superlatives. I’ve deliberately not read any of the content because I didn’t want to have my opinion clouded by the thoughts of others, but it’s hard to avoid the raft of 10’s that have been flying about of late.

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But enough of that. What do I think?

First off, I must admit to coming at this album from something of a lay perspective. I have a guitar. In fact I have two guitars. Unfortunately, I can’t really play them and anything other than simple strumming in a 4/4 beat is beyond me. Therefore don’t read this review if you’re looking for a detailed commentary on the technicalities of the music, because you’ll be disappointed. Instead, I prefer to focus on what I like, why I like it and how it makes me feel.

That said, I can recognise talent when I hear it and there is no denying the technical ability of the musicians involved in this band. Alongside multi-instrumentalist Morse and drummer Portnoy are guitarist Eric Gillette, bassist Randy George and keyboardist Bill Hubauer. They are all, without doubt, some of the most extraordinarily accomplished, professional and highly talented musicians out there and their extensive abilities are writ large across ‘The Similitude Of A Dream’ both in terms of their individual performances and as a collective group. Ambitious and flamboyant drumming, blazing guitar work, expressive bass, top class vocals; it’s all here in abundance and more.

And, in keeping with the previous album, ‘The Similitude Of A Dream’ was written in a much more democratic manner with each member contributing to how it was shaped. When the result is a near two-hour double disc, you can tell that the chemistry and creativity must have been at an all-time high.

Now, I have written ad nauseum how I dislike any album with religious connotations. My reasons are myriad and complex but suffice to say that when my only sibling passes away in his mid-twenties, a victim of one of the most vile and evil diseases on Earth, it is impossible for me to accept that there’s anything or anyone ‘up there’ looking over us. As such, the music has to be of the absolute highest quality for me to even contemplate listening to it where religion is involved. So when I discovered that ‘The Similitude Of a Dream’ is, according to Morse, loosely based upon a 1678 Christian allegory called ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ by John Bunyan, you’d have thought I’d have run a mile. However, given the hype surrounding this album, I felt compelled to give it a try.

I’m now on my umpteenth spin and I’m thoroughly smitten. Yes I can hear words like ‘God’, ‘Satan’, ‘Father’, ‘Mercy’, ‘blessed’ and others sprinkled throughout the record and yes, I do flinch a little at their use but I’d have to be a prize idiot to let that stand in my way. Why? Because ‘The Similitude Of A Dream’ is a phenomenal body of work that cannot be ignored.

Before I get on to the numerous positives, there are a few parts of this behemoth that I’m not so keen on from a musical perspective. To be clear though, these are down to personal taste rather than a dip in quality. For example, I can’t get into the bluegrass workout that’s ‘Freedom Song’, it’s just not my thing. And neither is ‘I’m Running’, the chorus of which includes far too much brass in a far too ‘happy’, vaguely ska guise. And whilst on the subject of brass and my general aversion to it, the sax solo within ‘Shortcut To Salvation’ is a tad unnecessary within an otherwise fabulous acoustic-led track. Put into context though, these are just a few examples among many of the variety on offer within this record, something that should be rightly applauded and welcomed, especially by those who accuse Neal Morse of being a predictable musician.

I’m also not convinced that the whole album needed to be quite so long. It’s not often that you hear a prog fan being critical of excess in any shape or form. However, there’s an argument for a slight truncation because however much of an aficionado you might be, two hours is a lot of music in one go, particularly when the music is as intense and ambitious as this.

But then, to immediately contradict myself, I have happily sat through the entire album in one sitting several times now. So maybe I’m just trying to find fault where none exists? Perhaps, but this is certainly something that might put a few people off listening in a day and age where attention spans are eroding faster than the polar ice caps.

Regardless, at this point, let me cut to the chase. ‘The Similitude Of A Dream’ contains some of the very best progressive rock that I have ever heard.

The album opens with a short piece entitled ‘Long Day’ that introduces a melody and lyrics that are reprised at various points throughout the album and it sets the tone for what is to come rather wonderfully.

As the title suggests, ‘Overture’ is a near six-minute instrumental workout where every member of the band gets an initial chance to shine. Fundamentally however, in and amongst the technicality, there are lots of strong melodies to be heard as well as a myriad of different ideas that pull together to create a powerful song rather than a collection of disjointed noodlings. It flits from all-out 70s inspired prog with classic keyboard sounds, to heavier hard rock/metal via moments of wondrous and grandiose symphonic pomposity. The drumming is out of the very top drawer but then so is everything else. The keys are warm, inviting and varied, the guitar growls and sings in equal measure and the bass rumbles with panache. It might be self-indulgent, but it is highly enjoyable and when I listen, I can’t help but smile.

Comprised of a mere 23 individual songs, it would be impossible to run through each in turn so I will pick out some further highlights within an album that is, in itself, a highlight of 2016.

‘The Dream’ is a quieter, more contemplative piece that is beautiful with some excellent, emotional vocals that genuinely move me, whilst lead single, ‘City Of Destruction’ is an altogether angrier, more agitated, yet playful composition that delivers some of the heaviest passages within the entire record. Again, the guitars and the rhythm section come to the fore, as do the vocals that are delivered from multiple locations within the collective.

‘Draw The Line’ is a true Jekyll and Hyde track. It begins in spiky fashion, dominated by a funky bass and strong up-tempo rhythms. However, it unexpectedly changes tack quite considerably by delivering a sublime melody that borders on mainstream pop music blended with soothing sounds and soulful vocals, very 70s in their delivery. There’s even a dose of ‘lounge’ music for good measure and I can’t help but love it. It’s the kind of music that draws me in and forces me to press repeat as one listen is never enough.

‘Back To The City’ offers some really great vocals, full of passion and gusto, whereas ‘So Far Gone’ is a five-minute microcosm of everything that The Neal Morse Band do well; this is a really excellent progressive rock workout that succeeds as a standalone song or as part of the wider narrative.

‘Breath Of Angels’ by contrast is one of those songs that I should hate but don’t. It is a ballad of sorts to close out disc one and the lyrics here are more overtly religious than almost anywhere else on the album. It also features church choir vocals but I’m not deterred at all because the melodies and the atmospheres are so strong and addictive, not to mention the deft compositional nous it displays. It should be my most hated track but it has quickly become a favourite. It builds from modest foundations into something much more grandiose, symphonic and genuinely euphoric, topped off by a beautiful lead guitar solo where Mr Gillette manages to make the guitar truly sing. It’s a truly fitting way to end the first half of the album.

And, naturally, the second act has several highlights as well.

It begins with some classic prog rock key sounds from Hubauer before building in intensity and exploding with plenty of exuberance. ‘The Man In The Iron Cage’ is equal parts moody and groovy, with an up-tempo hard rock vibe which contrasts starkly with ‘Sloth’, which as the name suggests, is an altogether slower proposition. Slower it might be but it contains some sumptuous melodies to dive into, including a return to the ‘Long Day’ theme. It is a track that ends with a demonstrably neo-prog edge but importantly, it bathes me in a warm glow every time I hear it.

Bill Hubauer is given centre billing on ‘The Mask’ which is essentially a solo piano piece for the most part, only joined by vocals after two minutes and then exploding with real voracity towards the end of the intense and dark track. ‘Confrontation’ on the other hand is a much more frenetic composition that sees a reprise of ‘City Of Destruction’ within it as well as a more pronounced multi-vocal delivery.

‘The Battle’ is an all-out fast-paced instrumental prog piece that packs a lot in to its relatively short life – it’s the kind of song that you listen to if you need a shot of full-on prog rock but you only have three minutes to spare.

However, as is perhaps fitting, it is left to the final track to steal the show. Entitled ‘Broken Sky/Long Day (Reprise)’, it concludes the story and delivers the epic climax that an album of this nature demands. By this point, the now familiar melodies are beginning to become etched on my mind and as such, they become all the more powerful. I could listen to the guitar solo over and over again and the same is true of the vocal melodies that make the whole thing so much stronger. But the way in which it all comes together is a work of art, building from calm and sensitive, to an insanely brilliant crescendo that is symphonic, majestic, compelling and utterly sensational in every way. I mentioned earlier that I wanted to focus on how the music makes me feel. Well, as I listen to this finale, I get goosebumps and shivers as my senses are almost overwhelmed.

It is way too early to say whether ‘The Similitude Of A Dream’ will eventually stand alongside the likes of ‘Quadrophenia’ and ‘The Wall’. However, despite the occasional flaw and my discomfort with the lyrical content, there can be no denying the fact that this recording is a magnificent achievement and deserving of high praise. To my mind, ‘The Similitude Of A Dream’ is definitely one of the musical highlights of 2016 and a masterclass of progressive rock.

The Score Of Much Metal: 9.5

If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others via my reviews pages or by clicking the links right here:

Memoreve – Insignia
Enbound – The Blackened Heart
Blind Ego – Liquid
Dark Tranquillity – Atoma
Hammerfall – Built To Last
Testament – Brotherhood Of The Snake
Crippled Black Phoenix – Bronze
Riverside – Eye Of The Soundscape
Hanging Garden – Hereafter
Theocracy – Ghost Ship
Arkona – Lunaris
Oddland – Origin
Sonata Arctica – The Ninth Hour
Edensong – Years In The Garden of Years
Meshuggah – The Violent Sleep Of Reason
Alcest – Kodama
Opeth – Sorceress
Negura Bunget – ZI
Epica – The Holographic Principle
Amaranthe – Maximalism
Eye Of Solitude – Cenotaph
Seven Impale – Contrapasso
DGM – The Passage
Pressure Points – False Lights
In The Woods – Pure
Devin Townsend – Transcendence
The Pineapple Thief – Your Wilderness
Evergrey – The Storm Within
Dream The Electric Sleep – Beneath The Dark Wide Sky
Periphery – ‘Periphery III: Select Difficulty’
Karmakanic – Dot
Novena – Secondary Genesis
Witherscape – The Northern Sanctuary
Eric Gillette – The Great Unknown
Tilt – Hinterland
Cosmograf – The Unreasonable Silence
Fates Warning – Theories Of Flight
Wolverine – Machina Viva
Be’lakor – Vessels
Lacuna Coil – Delirium
Big Big Train – Folklore
Airbag – Disconnected
Katatonia – The Fall Of Hearts
Frost* – Falling Satellites
Glorior Belli – Sundown (The Flock That Welcomes)
Habu – Infinite
Grand Magus ‘Sword Songs’
Messenger – Threnodies
Svoid – Storming Voices Of Inner Devotion
Fallujah – Dreamless
In Mourning – Afterglow
Haken – Affinity
Long Distance Calling – Trips
October Tide – Winged Waltz
Odd Logic – Penny For Your Thoughts
Iron Mountain – Unum
Knifeworld – Bottled Out Of Eden
Novembre – Ursa
Beholder – Reflections
Neverworld – Dreamsnatcher
Universal Mind Project – The Jaguar Priest
Thunderstone – Apocalypse Again
InnerWish – Innerwish
Mob Rules – Tales From Beyond
Ghost Bath – Moonlover
Spiritual Beggars – Sunrise To Sundown
Oceans Of Slumber – Winter
Rikard Zander – I Can Do Without Love
Redemption – The Art Of Loss
Headspace – All That You Fear Is Gone
Chris Quirarte – Mending Broken Bridges
Sunburst – Fragments Of Creation
Inglorious – Inglorious
Omnium Gatherum – Grey Heavens
Structural Disorder – Distance
Votum – Ktonik
Fleshgod Apocalypse – King
Rikard Sjoblom – The Unbendable Sleep
Textures – Phenotype
Serenity – Codex Atlanticus
Borknagar – Winter Thrice
The Mute Gods – Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me
Brainstorm – Scary Creatures
Arcade Messiah – II
Phantasma – The Deviant Hearts
Rendezvous Point – Solar Storm
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld II
Antimatter – The Judas Table
Bauda – Sporelights
Waken Eyes – Exodus
Earthside – A Dream In Static
Caligula’s Horse – Bloom
Teramaze – Her Halo
Amorphis – Under The Red Cloud
Spock’s Beard – The Oblivion Particle
Agent Fresco – Destrier
Cattle Decapitation – The Anthropocene Extinction
Between The Buried And Me – Coma Ecliptic
Cradle Of Filth – Hammer Of The Witches
Disarmonia Mundi – Cold Inferno
District 97 – In Vaults
Progoctopus – Transcendence
Big Big Train – Wassail
NightMare World – In The Fullness Of Time
Helloween – My God-Given Right
Triaxis – Zero Hour
Isurus – Logocharya
Arcturus – Arcturian
Kamelot – Haven
Native Construct – Quiet World
Sigh – Graveward
Pantommind – Searching For Eternity
Subterranean Masquerade – The Great Bazaar
Klone – Here Comes The Sun
The Gentle Storm – The Diary
Melechesh – Enki
Enslaved – In Times
Keep Of Kalessin – Epistemology
Lonely Robot – Please Come Home
The Neal Morse Band – The Grand Experiment
Zero Stroke – As The Colours Seep
AudioPlastik – In The Head Of A Maniac
Revolution Saints – Revolution Saints
Mors Principium Est – Dawn of The 5th Era
Arcade Messiah – Arcade Messiah
Triosphere – The Heart Of The Matter
Neonfly – Strangers In Paradise
Knight Area – Hyperdrive
Haken – Restoration
James LaBrie – Impermanent Resonance
Mercenary – Through Our Darkest Days
A.C.T. – Circus Pandemonium
Xerath – III
Big Big Train – English Electric (Part 1)
Thought Chamber – Psykerion
Marcus Jidell – Pictures From A Time Traveller
H.E.A.T – Tearing Down The Walls
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld

Live gig review: Haken, Special Providence, Arkentype – Highbury Garage 26/05/16

**please forgive the quality of the photography that accompanies this live review. Thanks to a very kind and polite security team, I wasn’t able to take my SLR into the venue and my brand new HTC 10 decided that it wasn’t going to play nicely with me, refusing to focus in anything but long range shots. But I hope the words make up for the rubbish imagery.**

Conner Green and I in the bar after the show

Conner Green and I in the bar after the show

There aren’t many bands that I’ve been following since the very beginning, but Haken are one of them. I have their demo CD prior to the release of their debut ‘Aquarius’ in 2010 and I vaguely remember catching a set of theirs at the Underworld I Camden many moons ago. I can’t remember who they were supporting, but I remember liking what I heard even if at that time the output was rather raw and in need of some honing.

As the years have gone by, I’ve taken Haken to my heart and have followed their endeavours as closely as possible; from interviewing them in their van at ProgPower Europe in 2010, to watching them play to just 50-odd people at Fused Festival in a small antiquated town hall.

Fast forward to 2016 and in the space of just a few years, the change has been incredible. No longer are Haken a raw young band. They are the real deal. Of course it helps if you get championed by some big names in your particular musical circle, in this case Mike Portnoy (ex-Dream Theater) and even the Dream Theater keyboardist Jordan Rudess.

However, this championing wouldn’t have happened without the product to back it up. For Haken, it was their third album, ‘The Mountain’ that made people sit up and take notice, a modern progressive rock/metal tour-de-force. And now, the Londoners have just released ‘Affinity’, their fourth album and, without a doubt, it’s their most accomplished, daring and emotional release to date. Want to know more? Here’s my review

Back to the main event and there’s a reason for this long-winded introduction. You see, what I hadn’t quite expected when I rocked up to the Highbury Garage was both the number of people sporting Haken attire and then the thunderous reception the band received throughout their set, even to the point that huge cheers greeted the various members in the changeover as equipment was set up and fiddled with.

But whilst Haken was undoubtedly the main draw for most within the venue, the support acts for the evening were most definitely worth a mention.

Arkentype 1Up first were Archentype, a Norwegian quartet who were every bit as visually interesting and they were sonically. Garbed in hooded white robes, or black in the case of guitarist Simen Handeland, it felt like we were witnessing some kind of ritualistic performance, particularly when the musicians swayed, slumped over their instruments at the beginning of some tracks like zombies. Bassist Kjetil Hallaråker even ventured into the crowd momentarily, adding to a nice sense of theatre, something that’s missing from so many bands these days.

Musically, Arkentype take their cue from the tech metal/djent arena but imbue it with moments of euphoric melodic clarity which are all the more powerful for being surrounded by the menacing, complex and rhythmic down-tuned chug upon which the compositions are built. I enjoyed the performance and was caught by surprise when it ended.

Following Arkentype was Hungarian instrumental prog rock band Special Providence. I‘m not normally a lover of instrumental music but the quartet’s blend of prog and jazz fusion was more entertaining than I had feared. Indeed, it was apparently a sentiment shared by large sections of the audience as the reception grew and grew with each passing song, ending with a rousing and warm cheer.

Special Providence 1Highly technical and brain-frazzling they may be, but Special Providence were able to increase accessibility by injecting moments of fleeting melody and plenty of funky groove into their compositions as well as a sense of fun. Visually, Special Providence weren’t the most exciting but the smiles on the faces of the band were infectious, particularly that of bassist Attila Fehérvári who, thanks to his huge grin throughout, was the star of the show.

And then it was time for Haken to hit the stage. Greeted like conquering heroes to a soundtrack of ‘Affinity’, this was the reception of a home-town crowd, proud of their compatriots and anticipating a great show. And they weren’t to be disappointed either.

Kicking off with ‘Initiate’, Haken looked hungry and ready to deliver the goods. The sound was slightly muddy at the outset but quickly cleared as I found myself wedged in towards the front of the crowd, surrounded by fans that were singing loudly enough to almost drown out vocalist Ross Jennings in the quieter passages.

Giving us no time to catch our breath, Haken then launched into ‘Falling Back To Earth’ from ‘The Mountain’. A personal favourite from that album, the quiet mid-section that builds in intensity came across really well. It almost goes without saying that the sextet played tightly, but in case there was any confusion, they were really tight. Drummer Ray Hearne has really grown into a formidable drummer and new(ish) bassist Conner Green was equally impressive camped towards the back of the stage.

Haken 1

And then, after the raucous introductions, the clock was turned back over thirty years to ‘1985’. Ray re-emerged from backstage sporting a green and white headband with matching wristbands, whilst Ross, always the cheeky chappie, sang the entire track bedecked in glowing luminous green sunglasses. If that wasn’t enough, keyboardist Diego Tejeida emerged from behind his static instruments with a grin to reveal a retro keytar. You couldn’t help but chuckle, particularly given the wonderfully uplifting and overtly nostalgic music behind the amusing antics.

The mysterious Charles Griffiths!

The mysterious Charles Griffiths!

After a couple of cuts from the aforementioned ‘The Mountain’ which included the quirky crowd favourite ‘Cockroach King’, it was time for some epic material in the form of Haken’s latest monster ‘The Architect’. It’s a fabulous song on record and live, it was just as good if not better. The twin guitarists of Richard Henshall and Charles Griffiths really shone throughout, especially with the killer solo towards the close. And, during the quieter moments, Conner was afforded the opportunity to take a step forward and take his moment in the limelight.

Just as I was about to bemoan the lack of any material from the first two albums, ‘Aquarius’ and my overall personal favourite, ‘Visions’ (2011), I was made to feel very silly. Diego indulged himself with a keyboard solo before the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as I realised that I was going to hear my favourite Haken track of all-time, ‘Deathless’ live for only the second or third time. It’s such a magical track, and the way the bad built it up from its emotional and tender beginnings to its bruising finale was extremely powerful and simply inspired. Whilst I would have liked another nod to the early days, I couldn’t really grumble with the set list, especially when the early curfew was pushed to its limit by an encore consisting of the epic ‘Crystallised’, a very early piece that was recently re-recorded on the ‘Restoration’ EP (review here).

I’m always amazed at how Haken manage to recreate their complex and challenging material in a live setting. More amazing though is the way in which the music is delivered so carefully and thoughtfully whilst maintaining a connection with the audience; Haken never lose sight of the fact that they are here to entertain and so the stops are always pulled out to ensure the punters are offered value for money. There’s no case of musical statues or aloofness here; they might not be as mobile as Iron Maiden for example, but I’ve never witnessed a bad show from Haken where I’ve been left disappointed or bored. And this gig was no different and the roar that greeted them at the end was testament to this. It was a fabulous show and it is great to see Haken doing so well, even if there was a brief pang of jealousy on my part that I now have to share them with so many others!

 

Half-Way Through 2015 – The Best So Far – Part 3

Welcome to the third and final part (unless I realise I’ve missed someone off my list) of my round-up of the best albums released in 2015 at the half-way mark of the year. As I have said before, 2015 has been exceptionally strong so far and, as such, my list is quite extensive; more so than in previous years. I have therefore tried to be a little more brief in my overview reviews in order to give every album their deserved moment in the spotlight.

If you missed the previous two parts, they can be accessed here:
Half-Way Through 2015 – The Best So Far – Part 1
Half-Way Through 2015 – The Best So Far – Part 2

As always, the albums are varied across genres and range from household names to those more familiar with the heavy metal underground. So, here goes, I hope you enjoy:

Subversion ‘Animi’
Rogue Records America

subversion coverThose who know me or know my Blog will know that I’m not the biggest fan of tech/djent metal. It might surprise you to read therefore, that such a record is one of my favourites of 2015 at the half-way mark. The thing with UK band Subversion is that they do it so well and in my opinion, so much better than some of their contemporaries. Self-billed as ‘symphonic tech metal’, Subversion have hugely impressed me thanks to their winning combination of complexity, subtlety, brutality and melodiousness. ‘Animi’ is a huge album in every respect and, above all, is hugely enjoyable.

Iris Divine ‘Karma Sown’
Sensory Records

Iris Divine coverLike a few albums in this article, ‘Karma Sown’ is a slightly surprising inclusion in my list. I’d not have expected an album that merges Tool and Kings X prog with the more modern metal of Lamb Of God and even grunge, to feature among my favourites at the half-way mark of 2015. And yet, Iris Divine have managed it. The reason? It’s because the trio manage to create quality music with a modern metal attitude, atmospheric keys and huge melodic choruses. Whatever the influences may be, that’s a cocktail that can be very hard to argue with.

District 97 ‘In Vaults’
Laser’s Edge

district 97 coverIt took me a lot of time, attention and effort but my patience and stubbornness was ultimately rewarded. District 97 do not sound like anyone else thanks to their own particular brand of progressive rock/metal, which blends a myriad of styles into a cohesive whole, including rock, pop, jazz, fusion, even a smattering of classical and more extreme metal. Given time though, the subtle melodies and hooks come to the fore, meaning it is ultimately a rich and rewarding listen. As such, ‘In Vaults’ comes with a huge recommendation for open-minded fans of original and professionally-executed progressive music.

Read my full review here.

Revolution Saints ‘Revolution Saints’
Frontiers Records

Grunge rust metal surface with vignette.There had to be a melodic hard rock album featured somewhere in this series and the ‘honour’, such as it is, is bestowed to the ‘supergroup’ otherwise known as Revolution Saints. Messrs Aldritch, Castronovo and Blades have created a debut album that lit up those dark and cold January mornings with their own take on the melodic rock genre. As you’d expect, ‘Revolution Saints’ is a professionally put together melodic rock album with big AOR overtones. It has heart, integrity and, above all, a cracking bunch of memorable tunes that you’ll be humming for weeks.

Read my full review here.

Rise Of Avernus ‘Dramatis Personæ’
Code666

RoA coverYet another EP to feature within this round-up, Rise Of Avernus continue the trend of Australian extreme metal bands that have recently blown me to smithereens. Despite only offering five tracks, ‘Dramatis Personæ’ clocks in at around the half-hour mark and, within that time, batter and bruise the listener with brutality, complexity, subtle progressive elements and huge, bombastic cinematic compositions that are grand in scope and brilliantly executed. I just wish it was more than an EP because Rise Of Avernus may soon become a force to be reckoned with in extreme metal circles.

Sigh ‘Graveward’
Candlelight Records

sigh coverI have never truly liked Japanese avant-garde metallers Sigh; I have always found their eclectic and often bonkers output to simply be too much. However, at a loose end, I tried out their latest recording ‘Graveward’ and I’m so pleased I did. Sigh are still mad as hell, but the end result on this album is highly enjoyable and deeply fascinating. Hammer Horror and zombie films are the inspiration for a schizophrenic soundtrack that’s black metal at its core but which is then interspersed with bizarre moments from just about every genre of music on Earth. Yet it works and, in my opinion, is Sigh’s most cohesive and enjoyable record to date.

Read my full review here.

The Neal Morse Band ‘The Grand Experiment’
InsideOut Music

Neal Morse coverWhen progressive rock is done well, it can be one of the most enjoyable and rewarding styles of music out there. If you’re looking for evidence of this, you’d be hard-pressed to find better than ‘The Grand Experiment’ from The Neal Morse Band. Don’t let the occasionally overt religious lyrical content put you off because if you can get past that, the music itself is of the highest quality. Classic progressive rock epics feature heavily as you’d expect, but this record is more than that thanks to a couple of tracks that veer into modern rock or even pop territory. I’ve yet to hear better from this sub-genre in 2015 so far.

Read my full review here.

Pantommind ‘Searching For Eternity’
Spectastral Records

BuPantommind coverlgarian progressive metallers Pantommind have always been a band that have floated around the periphery of my consciousness. However, album number three, ‘Searching For Eternity’ has put them slap bang in the centre of my attention and threatens to break them into the prog metal big time. Technical musicianship, principally massive guitar solos, and huge swathes of keyboards make up the bulk of the Pantommind sound. And, fashions be damned, this excellently executed, slightly ‘old school’ approach sounds superb thanks to an impressive technical ability and really strong compositional awareness.

Read my full review here.

The Neal Morse Band – The Grand Experiment – Album Review

Neal Morse cover

Artist: The Neal Morse Band

Album Title: The Grand Experiment

Label: InsideOut Music

Year of Release: 2015

There are some musicians that can be referred to as a ‘safe pair of hands’ and Neal Morse is most definitely one of those. Whether it’s as a solo artist or as part of a band such as Spock’s Beard or Transatlantic, you just know that the results are going to be of a high quality. And, with this latest project entitled The Neal Morse Band, it is very much business as usual in terms of the professionalism and high standard of music that is delivered. This is progressive rock of the highest calibre.

That said, there have been occasions as a staunch atheist, that I have been somewhat put off by some of the overt religious lyrical themes that are explored on some of Morse’s solo work. There’s no doubt that the Morse’s obvious Christian sentiments will have lost a few fans as a result, but equally, will have gained from other quarters too. However, as someone for whom the music is more important than any other factor, I haven’t let the lyrical ideologies get in the way of my enjoyment of Morse’s generally high quality compositions however much of an initial struggle it may have been. Thankfully, despite approaching with my usual caution, ‘The Grand Experiment’ largely steers clear of such topics; at least, without the benefit of printed lyrics, that’s how it appears anyway. If I’m wrong, it must mean that it’s sufficiently hidden. Naturally there are several highly positive messages littered throughout this latest album but to bemoan this would be churlish in the extreme, particularly when the world is filled with negativity these days.

The Neal Morse Band is comprised of some extremely noteworthy names only adding to the sense of expectation prior to release. Alongside Morse himself who plays the guitars, keyboards and sings, fellow Transatlantic colleague Mike Portnoy frequents the drum stool. In addtion, the familiar name of Randy George (Ajalon, Neal Morse) handles bass duties and Bill Hubauer (ApologetiX) takes care of the flute and clarinet as well as additional guitars and keys. Eric Gillette has also been drafted in to provide extra guitars and vocals.

Courtesy of: John Zocco

Courtesy of: John Zocco

First impressions of ‘The Grand Experiment’ lead me to conclude that the album title is entirely apt. For a recording that bears Morse’s name, the content certainly offers something a little bit different. Of course, much of the material is instantly recognizable as classic Neal Morse, but the album was written much more as a collective band effort. As a result, there are a number of different ideas and flavours to be heard within the five tracks, some of which will have long time listeners both surprised and intrigued.

The album opens up with quite possibly my personal favourite track in ‘The Call’. It is a ten-minute prog rock masterclass that blends a whole host of different musical ingredients into a whole that is instantly likeable but which, over time, only gets better and better. The melodies are very strong and form the bedrock of the track, a fact that’s underlined by the bombastic and anthemic crescendo that draws the composition to a truly rousing and thoroughly satisfying conclusion. But in and amongst those recurring melodies, there are flavours from all corners of this band that aren’t necessarily part of the staple Morse solo sound. The up-tempo and vivacious composition references everything from hard rock riffs that have subtle thrash-lite overtones to dexterous synth solos, from heavy and pounding drumming from Portnoy to exuberant lead guitar solos and a whole host of other ingredients. ‘The Call’ is a cracking start to this impressive album.

Track two, the title track, is ushered in upon a driving riff and a classic rock groove, complimented as always by Portnoy’s powerhouse percussive prowess. The chorus takes things down a notch and unleashes Morse’s love of 60s-70s pop and prog to great effect. It’s a definite grower too and I have grown to really like the juxtaposition between the prog, the pop and the groovy hard rock. More of this in future, please Neal.

Next up is ‘Waterfall’ and it offers a complete change of pace from what preceded it. Portnoy is effectively redundant for six or so minutes as a beautiful acoustic guitar takes centre stage alongside some really gorgeous vocals that are hook-laden and properly addictive. Sombre is the wrong word but ‘Waterfall’ is certainly a slightly more atmospheric and introspective piece of music that is an utter delight. The woodwind-led closing segment is inspired too.

‘Agenda’ is an entirely different beast yet again. It’s more of a straight-up, more modern-sounding rock song with a demonstrable pop feel particularly in the choruses and with the more simplistic lyrics delivered with plenty of vocal effects. I didn’t like it on first listen and whilst it remains my least favourite track on the album, my feelings towards it have begun to thaw more than a little.

Courtesy of: John Zocco

Courtesy of: John Zocco

In proper prog rock style, ‘The Grand Experiment’ closes with ‘Alive Again’, a truly epic 26-minute composition in every sense of the word. As all good epics do, the rich musical tapestry tells a story and it seemingly runs the entire gamut of musical ideas. But, given the quality of the personnel involved, the shifts in tempo, the juxtaposition between light and shade and every subtle nuance is managed in such a way as to maintain an almost seamless and smooth flow. The talent on display means that there’s literally no constraints placed on this composition and even when things take a turn for the strange at around the ten minute mark thanks to a heavily sampled guitar, a brass accompaniment that has ska overtones and latterly a harpsichord-style flourish, it makes a kind of warped sense. Cleverly, it also creeps up on you with remarkable stealth to the point that you don’t immediately realise when things changed. Again, as with the opener, it’s the melodies that pull everything together and on ‘Alive Again’, they are out of the top drawer, providing hooks aplenty to keep the listener entertained from start to finish. The simple fact that the song flies by in the blink of an eye speaks volumes for its undeniable quality.

As with all music of this nature, I always long for an extra track or two. But then, I’m just greedy because at 52 minutes, there’s more than enough music on ‘The Grand Experiment’ to keep us all fully entertained. Fans of Neal Morse, Spock’s Beard and Transatlantic are certain to lap this record up, as will anyone who enjoys genuinely high quality, professionally-performed and intelligent progressive rock music. This one comes highly recommended.

The Score Of Much Metal: 8.75

If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others right here:

Zero Stroke – As The Colours Seep
AudioPlastik – In The Head Of A Maniac
Revolution Saints – Revolution Saints
Mors Principium Est – Dawn of The 5th Era
Arcade Messiah – Arcade Messiah
Triosphere – The Heart Of The Matter
Neonfly – Strangers In Paradise
Knight Area – Hyperdrive
Haken – Restoration
James LaBrie – Impermanent Resonance
Mercenary – Through Our Darkest Days
A.C.T. – Circus Pandemonium
Xerath – III
Big Big Train – English Electric (Part 1)
Thought Chamber – Psykerion
Marcus Jidell – Pictures From A Time Traveller
H.E.A.T – Tearing Down The Walls
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld

Haken – Restoration – Album Review

Press_Cover_01

Artist: Haken

Album Title: Restoration

Label: Inside Out Music

Year Of Release: 2014

It has been an eventful year or so in the world of Haken. In September 2013, the sextet released what can only be described as a masterpiece of progressive music in the form of their third album, the magnificent ‘The Mountain’. This album received almost universal critical acclaim upon its release and even led to interest from the likes of Mike Portnoy (Flying Colors, Transatlantic) and Dream Theater’s Jordan Rudess. In the case of the former, it led to an invitation to play the inaugural ‘Progressive Nation At Sea’, but thanks to both ringing endorsements, the door to the American market has opened more widely of late. And if that wasn’t enough, Haken recently received no less than three nominations in the Progressive Music Awards, quite an achievement for a band so relatively young.

However, with the smooth, also comes the rough and almost immediately following the release of this ‘breakthrough’ album, bassist Tom MacLean announced his departure from Haken. An apparently amicable split, it was nevertheless a hurdle that had to be overcome at a point when the largest wave of the band’s career was about to be crested. An international audition invitation was extended and, following an extensive search, a young American by the name of Conner Green was assimilated into the Haken collective. Welcome sir!

Courtesy of Sevcan Yuksel Henshall

Courtesy of Sevcan Yuksel Henshall

In many ways, ‘Restoration’ a three-track EP is as much a bedding-in of their new colleague as it is an opportunity to maintain the momentum created by ‘The Mountain’ whilst a new full-length album is brought to life. That said, to consider ‘Restoration’ a stop-gap is disingenuous in the extreme. It may only contain three tracks, but when the three tracks last well over half an hour and sound this good, who cares?

The three compositions that make up this EP are very loosely based on tracks from the bands 2007/08 demo days, thoroughly re-envisioned, re-worked and re-produced in order to reflect the changing personnel and the experience gained since the demos were originally written. The result is, frankly, stunning.

Whilst it took me a good many spins and many hours of effort to get fully submerged into the world of ‘The Mountain’, the music on ‘Restoration’ is much more immediate to these ears. No less complex and challenging of course, but for some reason, the music has ‘clicked’ much more quickly here.

The EP opens up with ‘Darkest Light’, (Official video below) an energetic track that ably demonstrates the up-tempo and powerful side of Haken well. It’s an agile composition too that alters pace and timing signatures seemingly at will and pulls in influences from everyone from Dream Theater to Meshuggah. The latter is primarily due to the impressive combination of Ray Hearne’s powerful drumming, the chunky guitar tones courtesy of Charlie Griffiths and Richard Henshall and Green’s intricate bass work. Importantly however, the song is never derivative and contains everything you now expect from a band at the height of their powers. It’s a piece of music that oozes class but also offers that touch of playful cheekiness that has become synonymous with the Haken sound.

‘Earthlings’ is a completely different proposition entirely. For my money, its closest reference point would be ‘Deathless’ from ‘Visions’ in so far as it is a much more introspective track with real atmosphere and a quiet, brooding intensity that is utterly beguiling. The melodies are much more immediate, much more pronounced and the whole thing builds beautifully and stubbornly towards a fulfilling climax that pushes all the right buttons.

Courtesy of spiegelwelten.com

Courtesy of spiegelwelten.com

The undisputed star of the show however, is ‘Crystallised’. At over 19 minutes, it offers a return of the Haken ‘epic’, joining the likes of ‘Visions’ and ‘Celestial Elixir’ in an already formidable armoury. If anything, ‘Crystallised’ may be even better than the aforementioned, thereby easily taking its place among the very best that Haken has ever created.

First and foremost, the sheer ambition is staggering. The composition begins unassumingly enough but quickly reveals a more grandiose underbelly thanks to some lush orchestral arrangements. From then on, the gloves well and truly come off and Haken take us on a wondrous journey full of twists and turns, light and shade, lengthy and dextrous instrumental segments and gorgeous melodies that stay with you long after the music has ended.

There are echoes of those Gentle Giant influences and nods towards ‘Cockroach King’ et al in some of the a capella segments as well as hints of ‘Pareidolia’ at other times, thanks to that by now familiar delivery of vocalist Ross Jennings. Never once do the extended instrumental passages, led by the flamboyant keys of Diego Tejeida feel contrived or out of place; they are full of those classic progressive overindulgences, further reinforcing the importance of the likes of Yes, early Genesis and many others, but crucially, they fit in with the core of the composition and seamlessly segue from one to another perfectly.

And then, everything comes together in what I can only describe as a stunningly epic finale, the kind where the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end and you find yourself grinning from ear to ear, enveloped in a musical utopia. The melodies are so uplifting and gorgeous that, coupled with the grandiose return of the orchestral embellishments, mere words find it hard to adequately express just how good it makes you feel.

The bones of these songs may have been written many years ago in the band’s infancy. However, they have been brought back to life in the most brilliant way possible; taking everything that’s been good about the band in recent years and applying them to their early past to create something truly special. I only wish that ‘Restoration’ was six, seven or eight songs long. Mind you, if it were, I think I might have fainted from bliss before reaching the conclusion.

The Score Of Much Metal: 9.5

Check out more reviews from the Blog Of Much Metal:

James LaBrie – Impermanent Resonance
Mercenary – Through Our Darkest Days
A.C.T. – Circus Pandemonium
Xerath – III
Big Big Train – English Electric (Part 1)
Thought Chamber – Psykerion
Marcus Jidell – Pictures From A Time Traveller
H.E.A.T – Tearing Down The Walls
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld