Progressive Chatter

[N.B.  Though many of the bands I review below are quite suspicious of illegitimate authority and, especially, the terrifying possibility of a reified dystopia, this post has absolutely nothing to do with politics.  Instead, it explores some new progressive rock.  If you’re not interested, no worries in the least.  I’m sure CV will publish plenty other things today for you to peruse!  If you are interested, amen!  Enjoy.  I know I have.]

I’ve had the chance to write and lecture on progressive rock music over the past several years, and I’m thrilled that so many Catholics are interested in the topic.  From my own perspective, progressive rock answers a very human longing for some form of liturgy in our lives, a liturgy that has been diminishing in effectiveness and beauty for ove a century in the western world.

I personally have been listening to progressive rock since the early 1970s, and I’ve never moved away from it, even though it went through a rather dry decade in the 1980s.

Since the early 1990s, though, it has slowly been making a comeback.  Since about 2000, it has blossomed, and we’re in a period of incredible output.  Indeed, I don’t think it would be too much to state that our current progressive rock scene is superior to any in the past.

While it would take a great deal of explanation to go into the origins of the current revival of progressive rock music (a topic I never tire of), let me here just offer some brief reviews of some new, great music that is not nearly as well known as it should be.

Astra, “The Black Chord,” (Metal Blade Records, 2012). As my English friend Richard Thresh has stated (and I’m paraphrasing here), “There are really only two types of folks in the world.  Those who love Astra and those who have yet to hear Astra.”  Richard’s right.  This is stunning stuff, but it’s not for the faint of heart.  Astra rocks more than just about any other band I can think of in the present day.  Their music could not not be classified as metal, but it is seriously hard, psychedelic, progressive rock.  In terms of writing and production, this album could’ve have emerged sometime around Iron Butterfly’s (also a San Diego band) 1968 “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” or Led Zeppelin’s first album in 1969.  “The Black Chord” is intense from the opening note to the last, and it really never gets old.  It also never stops moving; perpetual motion, it seems.  The gritty organ, the dark vocal harmonies, punctuated guitar riffs, roaring bass, and pounding drums make this, frankly, a real treat, and the band is to be congratulated for so brilliantly mixing the present and the past in a way that would be and is entirely acceptable for both.  My guess is that this album will become legend and this band will continue to grow, rather exponentially, in terms of its own abilities and in the audience it deserves.  At the risk of sounding jingoistic (for all that, I’m an Anglophile), I’m also glad to see some domestic prog living up to current British and Scandinavian standards of brilliance and excellence.

Cailyn, “Four Pieces,” (Land of Oz Music, 2012). Cailyn is another progressive act from the U.S., but her music sounds nothing like Astra’s.  These two albums, if nothing else, reveal the immense variety in the current progressive music scene.  Cailyn has taken three relatively well-known classical pieces–by Thomas Tallas, Antonin Dvorak, and Samuel Barber–and given them progressive rock arrangements.  Unlike some bands (such as Yes) that have unsuccessfully attempted to put orchestras behind their music, Cailyn follows much more in the tradition of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.  Cailyn’s arrangements, though, are far more beautiful and tasteful than ELP’s recording of Pictures at an Exposition.  Much like the Dutch composer and musician, Arjen Anthony Lucassen, Cailyn can seemingly play any instrument and play it well.  Somewhat shockingly, the CD credits list her as guitarist (and it soars and is surprisingly bluesy; hard not to think of Stevie Ray Vaughn), bassist, keyboardist, and drummer.  If you’ve been trying to get someone interested in progressive rock, this would be a perfect place to start.  I give this my fullest recommendation for any lover of music.

North American (Canadian) act, Innerspace, has just released their album, “The Village” (self released, 2012). Greatly indebted to 1970‘s Pink Floyd (and especially the guitar and vocal work of David Gilmour), Innerspace offers some incredible space rock, haunting vocals and sound effects, and beautiful melodies.  From the information listed on their official website, the members of Innerspace look very young (so writes a guy a month away from 45), and it gives me hope that these four will only get better (starting off very powerfully already).  I’m especially impressed with their lyrics–touching and imagistic vignettes, full of emotion and hope when dealing with ordinary folks.  The lyrics are also, in the great tradition of prog and, most especially, Pink Floyd, quite skeptical of political and economic authorities, in particular for those “behind the throne” where a “masquerade exists.”  I’m with these guys.  While the album flows together as a seamless whole, lyrically as well as musically, it really becomes a thing of brilliance around the middle of the third track, “Wild Flower.”  From this part in the album, I just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Coralspin, “Honey and Lava,” (Altrospire, 2012). Another new band, Coralspin comes from England.  If the music of Astra harkens back to the late 60s and early 70s, Coralspin has its roots in the early to mid 1980s, especially with its big guitar and big keyboards.  Much of the music on this excellent release has the feel of something Trevor Horn or Trevor Rabin might have produced around the time of Yes’s 1984 MTV masterpiece, “90125.”  Whether one likes the music of Horn or Rabin or not, no one could honestly dispute the audiophile proclivities of each man.  The same can be written of Coralspin’s Blake McQueen.  The production of this album is just stunning–this hit me from the first moment I put it in my cd player, and it continues to impress me with each listening.  Amazingly enough, almost all of the album was recorded in McQueen’s home, and he later mixed and engineered it.  He’s, simply put, a master audiophile.  The lyrics on this album are wonderful as well–mythic, pointed, hard, soft.  Everything has its place, and its place is good.  For what it’s worth, I’m a very proud owner of this CD, and I eagerly await the follow up.

Ambeon, Fate of a Dreamer (Expanded; Transmission, 2012). As I mentioned above, I’m not sure there’s anything this Dutchman (is this is still the proper way of putting this nationality?  If not, my apologies) can’t do!  When it comes to playing nearly every instrument, singing, or writing lyrics, Arjen A. Lucassen can pretty much do any thing.  A perfectionist to the core, Lucassen’s delight in life and art emerges in every single one of his projects: his self-identified solo work; Ayreon (progressive rock based on a cosmic voyage of a member of King Arthur’s court); Star One (space metal); Guilt Machine (progressive rock); and Stream of Passion (Dutch/Mexican gothic).  I think my respect for this man knows no real human boundaries.  Ambeon is yet another Lucassen project.  Unlike his other harder projects, Ambeon serves as a rather successful attempt to release Lucassen’s softer, ambient progressive side, though one can also find immense energy in this two-cd re-release.  I cannot stress this enough–every thing Lucassen does is brimming with perfection.  The music, the production, the packaging.  We are blessed to have such a gifted artist in the world.



  • NObody

    Seems you are facing quite the cultural conundrum here where you are reviewing “progressive” rock bands, no doubt most of the members of which support abortion rights, marriage equality,a myriad of other politically “progressive” causes. So if you boycott Starbucks, shouldn’t you boycott the product of musicians who hold and advance a progressive political agenda counter to your own?

  • Mike the (Converted) Geek

    Okay, I have to ask: How many years have you been waiting for the chance to work “reified dystopia” into sentence?

    • Brad Birzer

      Mike! Ha. I was definitely being a bit ornery with that one. A few days ago, some friends and I were joking about some of the ridiculous jargon we had to learn in graduate school. Subalternization, etc. I wrote that the only new word I liked was “reify.” So, it just kind of popped up–mostly in response to reading the lyrics of Innerspace. Thanks for commenting. This was a fun post to write (and a huge thanks to the CV folks for letting me blog about music).



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