The Prog Life - October 5, 2003: For Love Or Money
by Clayton Walnum

I was going to try something new for this column, but it turns out that a Peter Gabriel "Slipperman" costume chafes like crazy -- even after dumping in a full can of talcum powder. Worse, once I had the costume on, I couldn't find any place to store my five-pound bag of gummy worms. I mean, didn't Peter ever hear of those new inventions called pockets? So, while I try to wiggle out of this thing, let's take a look at the mail bag. Let's see ... death threat, death threat, phone bill, death threat, Victoria's Secret catalog, death threat ... Ah, here we go! Here's a nice note from a fine fella named Rich Barden, who writes:

After searching through hundreds of prog CD reviews, I was very satisfied with your approach. It was refreshing and honest. I think you should talk to your boss about getting a raise! I am an original prog musician who plays several instruments and have about 700 prog CD's. Because of you I will visit the progressive world web site very often.

Thanks, Rich! I don't need a raise, because writing about prog is more a passion than an occupation, and email like yours makes it all worthwhile ... that along with knowing that I am, in some small way, helping spread the word about the great groups who make this fine music. Of course, the most important benefit of writing for is the way I get mobbed by admiring females at the prog conventions. Anyway, in case you're wondering (and even if you're not), one reason I folded my reviews into this column, under the "Clay's CDs in Rotation" banner, was so I had an excuse to review only CDs I liked. I love to recommend great music (or at least what I think of as great music), but I hate to trash someone's hard work, especially considering that musical opinions are so subjective and personal ... and that goes triple for prog.

Lest you think that I mention only favorable emails, here's something a little different from Byron Balaski, who has a bone to pick with my articles on Genesis:

Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down On BroadwayYou must be joking when you comment that Lamb Lies Down On Broadway is "**uninspired and unexciting**". When I first listened to this awesome work, I literally listened to it all night. Most of all the story telling is so intimate and congruous and the music matches the emotions of poor tortured Rael. I think you need to listen to this album again.

Thanks for the email, Byron! Hope you're enjoying those cement shoes I arranged for you. Seriously, thanks for your comments. (By the way, Byron is referring to my article, "Tricks Of The Tale: A Guide To Genesis, Part 1: The Gabriel Years.") Byron's email reinforces what I said earlier: You just can't stuff a five-pound bag of gummy worms anywhere into a Slipperman costume. No wait! What I said was that reviews are subjective and personal. I do, however, need to clarify Byron's email a bit. What I actually said was that the second part of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway -- not the entire album -- was uninspired and unexciting. I think the first half is terrific, and I think the second half has a few strong moments. I also said that even a flawed Genesis album was better than most of everything else released at the time. Listen to the album again? With pleasure, but it will be about the 1,000th time. And, of course, I did re-listen, as well as take notes, as I worked on the Genesis piece.

Now, here's a little something from Kerry Muller:

Yes I enjoyed your Yes column because it very closely matches my own views and experience.The Yes Album is probably my favorite because I dissected the whole thing when I was away at college learning the bass parts as good as I was able at the time. That will give you an appreciation for the complex melodic arrangements. The end of "Starship Trooper" gives me chills still. And yes, I remember the knee high boots - in Waterbury. I guess though I wasn't a true prog head because, although I liked Close To The Edge (not as much as Fragile), they lost me with Tales... for a number of years.

Thanks for reading, Kerry! Your Yes experiences match a lot of "prog heads." (Kerry is referring to my article "Tales From The Edge: A Guide To Yes, Part 1: The Classic Prog Years.") Yes disappointed much of their audience with Tales From Topographic Oceans (in no small part because Alan White replaced Bill Bruford on drums), and many people consider that album to the first down-turning point in Yes' career. It was definitely at that point that the mainstream press stopped praising the group and became downright vicious. I happen to love Tales, although even I have to admit that a lot of stuff could have been cut out, especially the whole first half of the second track, "The Remembering." (My wife says that the band also should have removed the bikini calendar from the album's gatefold; we won't tell her that's just in my copy of Tales, right?) I chose to end the first part of my Yes overview right before the release of Tales for all these reasons (plus when I took the album out to start reviewing it, I got engrossed in that calendar). Most people would agree that the group's best albums are The Yes Album, Fragile, and Close To The Edge.

Pressing Onward, Advancing, Sallying Forth and other Redundancies

And so now we get to the whole point of this column: an excuse to subject you gentle readers to misguided and downright bizarre opinions. More importantly, though, it's time to discuss love and money. (Place joke here about King Crimson's "Ladies Of The Road.") One question that's been bothering me lately: Is it just me or do squirrels have really soulful eyes? More pertinent to this discussion, though: Do prog artists today have to work really hard to make a living? Or do they put in those long hours only for the love of the music?

Roine StoltTake The Flower Kings' Roine Stolt, for example. Between his already prodigious band output, he's involved in more side projects than a member of Congress. Just off the top of my head, I can think of the following:

The Flower Kings
The Tangent
A multitude of CD guest appearances

Does this guy ever sleep? When does he eat? Does he ever have time with his family? And, most importantly, does he own one of those cool Wakeman-style gold capes?

Mike Portnoy (circa 2000)Another progger who pops up everywhere is Dream Theater's Mike Portnoy. If there's a harder working musician on the face of the earth, I don't know who it is. Here's a partial list of what he's been up to:

Dream Theater
Neal Morse's new album Testimony
A multitude of CD guest appearances

Does he even have time to take a deep breath? Does he buy drum sticks by the barrel? And, yes, I have to ask: Does he own one of those cool Wakeman-style gold capes?

Another thing to notice is how interconnected these many prog projects are. Forget Kevin Bacon. Anyone for Six Degrees of Mike Portnoy? Let's make it even trickier by both starting and ending with Portnoy:

Mike Portnoy is in Dream Theater with John Petrucci...
...who was in Explorer's Club with Trent Gardner...
...who played on the Yes tribute album Tales From Yesterday with Steve Morse...
...who played on the Feeding The Wheel album with Jordan Rudess...
...who played on the Rush tribute album Working Man with...
...Mike Portnoy

You can even make connections from present prog to past prog and back again, such as with Six Degrees of Steve Morse:

Trent Gardner was in Explorer's Club with Terry Bozzio...
...who was in the group U.K. with John Wetton...
...who was in King Crimson with Bill Bruford...
...who was in Yes with Chris Squire...
...who was in Conspiracy with Billy Sherwood...
...who played on the Yes tribute album Tales From Yesterday with Steve Morse

All this proves that I have way too much time on my hands. Moreover, it shows that everyone is working with everyone else, and most of these people would love to have 30 hours in a day rather than only 16 (Don't go jumping all over me; I know full well that there are actually 22 hours in a day). I'm sure some of these folks would like to slow down a bit, but, although the prog audience has gotten bigger in recent years, being in a prog band isn't exactly like being a member of No Doubt. First, you don't sell as many records as No Doubt. Second, you don't get to stare at Gwen Stefani. (God, I'm such a guy.) But, if these folks didn't love what they did, they wouldn't be able to put in such long hours, right?

[And one could write a whole novel on how much Clive Nolan gets around -ed.]

And now it's time for (drum roll please)...

Clay's CDs in Rotation

I've been pretty lazy lately. Okay, I've been lazy since the day I was born, but no matter how you look at it, I've got a huge backlog of albums to review. So, here are just some of the great CDs I've been listening to lately.

Enchant - Tug Of War

Enchant - Tug Of WarI've always been an Enchant fan, but in the early days, I thought their albums were inconsistent, combining a few great tracks with some not-so-great tracks. But I've watched Enchant grow with every album, and now they are clearly a prog force with which to be reckoned. The new album, Tug Of War, is as solid a prog album as you're likely to find anywhere these days, with long, complex compositions, great guitar work, and stellar vocals (I've always thought that Ted Leonard sounds a lot like Steve Walsh from Kansas, which is understandable considering that Kansas is one of his favorite bands). There's not a mediocre track anywhere.

Anyone who's read much of my music writings knows that I'm a real stickler when it comes to melody. If the early Enchant albums had a flaw, it was that many of the vocal melodies were unmemorable and clumsy. Enchant has fixed that, becoming, over the years, important songwriters in the genre. Moreover, Enchant's songs have a distinctive sound that's instantly identifiable. And did I mention that Ted Leonard is a terrific vocalist?

Heartscore - Sculptures

Heartscore - SculpturesHeartscore is a two-man "virtual band" (to use the group's own terminology) from Germany. A 10-song disk in the style of 70's so-called art rock, this album presents a lot to love. Vocalist Oliver Hartstack reminds me a little of Peter Hammill from Van Der Graaf Generator, while Dirk Radloff's vocals sound a lot like Ric Ocasek from The Cars crossed with Roger Waters from Pink Floyd. The music is complex from the viewpoint of rock and roll -- that is, this is by no means conventional rock music, but not symphonic either. Expect interesting performances, despite its basic guitar-drums-bass core -- with simple, yet sharp, production. Guitarist Dirk Radloff can roast the score when he lets loose, while the core rhythm engine of Dirk Radloff on bass and -- you guessed it -- Dirk Radloff on drums keeps the proceedings on an even keel. This is one cool album.

The Mars Volta - De-loused In The Comatorium

The Mars Volta - De-loused In The ComatoriumDon't let the mainstream marketing and major-label (Universal) affiliation fool you. This is prog, pure and simple. Descriptions are tough to come by, but you can expect to hear influences such as Led Zeppelin, King Crimson (sometimes you'd swear that was Fripp on guitar), Pink Floyd, Rush, and Radiohead. A few of these songs even reach for RIO territory, what with their sonic blasts and noise excursions. Make no mistake: These folks would fit right in at the next NEARFest or Prog Day, and from the sound of this album, they'd tear down the house.

A fabulous piece of work with musicianship -- especially the drumming -- that is out of this world. When the major labels start signing acts like this, one can only hope that progressive music is about to make a serious comeback, albeit in a more modern style, one that harkens back not only to classic prog, but also wraps in the significant developments of modern groups such as Radiohead and Porcupine Tree. This is the best album to come from a major label in a long time. In a word: Wow!

Thinking Plague - Early Plague Years

Thinking Plague - Early Plague YearsI was first turned on to this band when I heard In Extremis. At that time, their first two were no longer available, but a while back they were re-released on this single CD. This is Thinking Plague back in the 80s, and it's pretty terrific, though those with timid ears better stay away. This is raw, in-your-face Rock In Opposition that is guaranteed to drive away all unwanted guests and have your loved ones consider you for therapy, if not actual commitment. In other words, this is avant-garde: discordant, noisy, chaotic, sometimes atmospheric, but always wonderful. Not to mention beautifully recorded and produced. If you like groups like 5uus and Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, or even the avant-garde moments of King Crimson, you'll definitely dig this album.

Jughead - Jughead

Jughead - JugheadWhen proggers like Derek Sherinian, Ty Tabor, Matt Bisonnette, and Gregg Bisonnette get together to record an album, the last thing you expect is power pop, but that's what you get with Jughead. Imagine The Beatles crossed with Stone Temple Pilots. Like The Beatles, you can expect great songwriting with strong vocal harmonies throughout, and like Stone Temple Pilots, you can expect smokin' guitar riffs, upbeat songs, and a very modern sound. Things do slow down on a couple of tracks, such as on the melodic and Beatle-ish "Waiting On The Son," but for the most part, this album cranks right along.

Tracks like "Yesterday I Found Myself" reveal Tabor's King's X background, but, again, it's King's X interpreted by a modern group like Stone Temple Pilots. "I Just Wanna Be Like You" is in the considerably competent style of the Foo Fighters, one of the best power-pop groups out there. "Paging Willie Mays," on the other hand, sounds like George Harrison gone metal. As you can expect with Tybor behind the frets, the guitar solos are terrific (although short, as dictated by the power-pop style).

I don't know whether the boys did this album just for fun or to try and capture a new audience. Frankly, I don't care. This is an album for when you're all progged out, and just want a set of good songs.

Akacia - An Other Life

Akacia - An Other LifeSome reviewers are nuts over these guys. I haven't yet decided why. Maybe it's because, instrumentally, Akacia is on fire, rocking hard along the lines of early Yes -- or more accurately Yes clone bands like Starcastle and Flash. But, melodically ... not so much. Specifically, the songs here lack interesting vocal melodies. This stumble is especially unfortunate because vocalist Eric Naylor possesses a darn good voice, one that would shine with better material. More harmonies, which are too few and too buried in the mix, would stir the vocals up a bit.

Sonically, the album is nicely recorded, each instrument sounding just as it should, clear and crisp. The production, however, is bare bones, so much so that the album comes across more as a one-off live recording rather than a carefully thought-out studio album. Still, something keeps drawing me back, which is, of course, why I'm talking about it here. The bottom line is that Akacia has a lot of potential. They just need a producer to polish off their rough edges.

Neal Morse - Testimony

Neal Morse - TestimonyI've saved the best for last. Most of the prog world was taken by surprise when Neal Morse announced that he had a new prog album close to release. Still more surprising was that the album was a 2-CD set with over two hours of music. Even more surprising was that Transatlantic pal and Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy manned the skins on this lengthy piece of work. The album is now out, and, religious messages notwithstanding, this is one magnificent release. It turns out that, when Morse left Spock's Beard, we didn't lose a great prog act, we gained two new ones (both the new Spock's Beard and the solo Neal Morse, dummy). In fact, Testimony sounds so much like Spock's Beard that many people won't even notice the difference.

If you liked the previous Spock's Beard opus Snow, you'll go bonkers over Morse's Testimony -- assuming, of course, that you can deal with the religious content. Luckily, as Morse has promised, the lyrics avoid preachiness, being instead more biographical. However, words like "God" and "Jesus" pop up everywhere, and more than one hymn -- albeit in rock form -- makes its appearance in these tracks. In short, unlike Snow, Testimony makes no attempt at subtlety. Still, I've always figured people should sing about what they want, as long as the music is great. (Gee, how big of me.)

From the first notes of "The Land Of The Beginning Again," Morse's incredible sense of melody jumps from the CD. (If there's a better songwriter in modern prog, I don't know who it is.) Moreover, we get treated to an authentic orchestra, which never gets overdone, always adding the perfect touch of depth and classiness to the proceedings. The songs themselves range from pop to pop-prog to raging prog, with plenty of reoccurring themes and intense musical ideas. Calling these tracks "songs," however, risks understatement. Although the album boasts 29 tracks, Morse's journey actually comprises five lengthy suites, running 41, 32, 12, 28, and 11 minutes in length. Within each part, the songs segue smoothly one into the other, giving the impression of much longer compositions.

Testimony is already on my list for one of the best prog albums of the year. Neal, you're still my hero. Welcome back.

Until next time, send me your proggy thoughts via email at Most importantly, keep on proggin'!

Peter Gabriel
The Flower Kings
The Tangent
Dream Theater
Neal Morse
Van Der Graaf Generator
Pink Floyd
The Mars Volta
Led Zeppelin
King Crimson
Porcupine Tree
Thinking Plague
Birdsongs of the Mesozoic
The Beatles
King's X
Neal Morse
Dream Theater
Spock's Beard

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Published on: 2003-10-05 (2210 reads)

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