By Michael Popke
Some music fans argue that progressive rock remains mired in the dark ages. They point to the genre’s reliance on concept albums, vintage analog instruments and overlong songs as proof. Then there’s Marillion, a British group that enjoyed mainstream success during the 1980s with such albums as Script for a Jester’s Tear and Misplaced Childhood.
But since the late 1990s, Marillion has embraced the Internet, asking fans to subsidize tours and pre-order albums to finance their recording. Now, with its 15th studio album, Happiness Is the Road, Marillion becomes among the first bands to legally distribute albums via peer-to-peer Internet networks. A partnership with www.MusicGlue.com, an online marketing and retail service for artists and record labels, enables the band to deliver a video message to fans downloading the music and invite them to check out albums and other merchandise at www.marillion.com.
“While we don’t condone illegal file sharing, it’s a fact of life that a lot of music fans do it,” says keyboardist Mark Kelly. “We want to know who our file-sharing fans are. If they like our new album enough, then we want to persuade them to pay something for it, or at least come back and see us on tour.”
No word yet on how the strategy is working, but Kelly adds that it is a way to make “something positive from the dire situation most artists find themselves in today.”
Happiness Is the Road ranks among Marillion’s strongest and most diverse albums in years, regardless of the format — although it also is available on traditional CDs. Suggesting that the band has left its Genesis-like roots far behind, the album is divided into two separate discs (Essence and The Hard Shoulder) that musically reference everyone from Radiohead and Interpol to Traffic, Pink Floyd, David Bowie and even Marvin Gaye.
Although Uriah Heep vocalist Bernie Shaw doesn’t consider his band “progressive” — “Prog? Not really,” he recently told Goldmine. “[We’re] just a good old balls-to-the-wall melodic rock band” — don’t tell that to critics. Wake the Sleeper, the band’s 21st studio album and first in 10 years, has been hailed as “symphonic and dramatic prog” (www.SeaOfTranquility.org) and proves the Heepsters have “lost none of their progressive edge” (www.Blistering.com). Indeed, songs like “Shadow,” “War Child” and “What Kind of God” blur the band’s signature blend of accessible hard rock, heavy metal and, yes, prog that made songs like “Easy Livin’,” “Stealin’ ” and “July Morning” so memorable.
Shaw claims Heep fell prey to industry indifference after the release of 1998’s underrated Sonic Origami on Spitfire Records.
“In a nutshell, the record company we were signed with at the time stiffed us,” he says. “We did a huge world tour to promote the album, only to find that in most places copies weren’t even in the shops. We got a bit demoralized at that point, and it took a while to get out of the contract.”
All of that seems to be in the past now. Wake the Sleeper was released on Universal’s Sanctuary Records (and also is available as a limited-edition gatefold LP), and Uriah Heep is playing to increasingly younger crowds.
“It’s good to see members of the younger generation are wanting to find out who influenced their favorite bands. And there are not too many of us left, still pumping out the good old hard rock with melody,” says Shaw.
A U.S. tour in early 2009, Heep’s first since Sonic Origami, is under consideration.
Back in the mid- and late-1990s, InsideOut Music and Magna Carta were
among North America’s leading (read: only) progressive-rock labels. Today, however, several labels are releasing quality and often adventurous prog, including Unicorn Digital, Kscope Music, ProgRock Records and Free Eclectic Sound. Here are some recent highlights:
• Quebec’s Unicorn Digital has unleashed arguably its most challenging release yet with Bluewolf Bloodwalk, the debut CD from a collective of established experimental musicians known as Snarling Adjective Convention. Featuring members of Kopecky, Far Corner, Yeti Rain and Parallel Mind, the music sounds eclectic and expansive, dense and airy, even haunting and occasionally disturbing. Call it dark fusion, as the presence of horns significantly increases the overall effective, lending a Miles Davis sheen to many of these seven songs. Sometimes lacking structure but not rhythm, these works of twisted genius flow like film soundtracks.
• Kscope (a new division of London’s Snapper Music) continues its streak of fine post-prog releases with Stranger Inside, the instrumental, electronic-ambient second CD by Porcupine Tree keyboardist Richard Barbieri. Significantly livelier than music by, say, Roger Powell or Brian Eno, Barbieri’s songs flirt with funky atmospheres and barely audible voice samples. Porcupine Tree drummer Gavin Harrison plays drums and PT mastermind Steven Wilson mastered the album.
• ProgRock Records, based in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., signed Metal Church guitarist Kurdt Vanderhoof’s Presto Ballet project for its second album. And from the first notes, it’s easy to tell that The Lost Art of Time Travel will live up to its title. Far from Vanderhoof’s metallic roots, the disc was recorded using only analog synths, Mellotrons and other vintage gear, and it proudly hearkens back to the prog-flecked classic rock of Kansas, Styx, Yes, Rush and Genesis. Like its predecessor, 2005’s Peace Among the Ruins, The Lost Art of Time Travel is bound to shock skeptics.
• The first release of the year by the progressive-fusion label Free Eclectic Sound (an offshoot of The Lasers Edge) comes in the form of Toons Tunes From the Past, a snazzy two-CD reissue featuring the goofy French metal-jazz trio Mörglbl. These first two long out-of-print albums, 1997’s The Mörglbl Trio!! and 1999’s Bienvenue a Mörglbl Land, are loaded with cool shredding, vocal gibberish and alternately comedic and dark moods. Despite containing mostly French song titles, both albums are surprisingly more accessible than Grotesk, Mörglbl’s third CD, released last year — seven years after the trio disbanded to pursue individual projects. Christophe Godin’s guitar playing alone should be enough to convince you to take a chance…
Speaking of labels, it’s amazing that Neal Morse’s progressive-Christian albums continue to be released on Metal Blade Records — a label whose roster includes Cannibal Corpse and Six Feet Under. After all, his former band, Spock’s Beard, is no longer signed to Metal Blade, and Morse and his people handle all promotional efforts, anyway.
Regardless, Lifeline is Morse’s 11th post-Beard release but only the fifth that can really be considered progressive in nature. (Only hardcore fans seem to have noticed his three praise-and-worship CDs and an acoustic Christian folk record.)
The lyrics may have become overtly Christian since the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist left the Beard in 2003, but they reflect universal struggles — loneliness, desperation, self-doubt, temptation — that everyone experiences, regardless of creed. Guess that makes Morse a prolific prog-rock Everyman. And, of course, the music, like so many of Morse’s other songs, swells and swoons in all the right places (including the autobiographical 29-minute, six-part epic “So Many Roads”). Worth noting: The cover art looks oddly similar to Great White’s Hooked.
Progressive metal arguably has become prog’s most popular subgenre. And one of prog-metal’s most-famous bands, Dream Theater, also has embraced the DVD format more enthusiastically than many of its headbanging peers.
Chaos in Motion 2007/2008 — the fourth live DVD from the band since 2000 — showcases material taken from recent albums Systematic Chaos and Octavarium, as well as a smattering of fan favorites and lesser-known tracks from Images and Words, Awake and Falling Into Infinity. Never accused of lacking ambition, these technically proficient players take more than three hours to get through 14 songs on “Chaos in Motion,” which was filmed at gigs around the world and reveals the band’s aggressive and sensitive sides. A second disc includes an on-the-road documentary and promo videos. “Chaos in Motion,” is available as a double-DVD set and in a “limited deluxe collector’s edition” that also includes the soundtrack on three CDs.
Meanwhile, melodic dark-metal masters Evergrey return to their roots on Torn, the first album in the Swedish band’s new contract with German metal powerhouse SPV. A few songs on Torn seem to pick up where 2006’s aggressive and more-contemporary Monday Morning Apocalypse left off. But much here hearkens back to 2001’s seminal In Search of Truth and its successor, Recreation Day — even though more variety and stronger hooks would have been welcome. Evergrey is now without longtime bassist Michael Hakansson, who has been replaced by Jari Kainulainen of recently imploded Stratovarius.
Suspyre, a smart band richly influenced by fellow New Jersey headbangers Symphony X, recently released its third album, When Time Fades… But these guys are far from prog-metal clones, as evidenced by the gritty vocal performances of Clay Barton and the effortless blurring of jazz, classical and metal by guitarists Gregg Rossetti and Rich Skibinsky. (And somebody please offer guest keyboardist Christi D’Amico a permanent spot in the band.) Moody and pastoral one moment, vicious and intense the next, When Time Fades… takes several spins to sink in. But after it does, it will remain with you for a long time.
Progressive rock and metal have brought acceptance back to the “concept album.” Among the most ambitious of recent concept albums are Iced Earth’s second and final chapter in the “Something Wicked” saga and Equilibrio: A Rock Opera by the Dutch progressive-metal band Xystus.
Although both boast recurring choirs, symphonic crescendos and good vs. evil storylines, Iced Earth’s The Crucible of Man (Something Wicked Part 2) is heavier and more diverse, anchored by the sharp precision of guitarist/songwriter Jon Shaffer and the return of vocalist Matt Barlow — who was replaced for two albums by former Judas Priest throat Tim Owens. Barlow sounds confident, as if he never left, and his massive pipes carry this sweeping CD through 15 tracks — including at least two destined to become Iced Earth classics (“I Walk Alone” and “Sacrificial Kingdoms”)
Xystus, on the other hand, receive a lot of help not only from The Netherlands’ 60-piece Utrechtsch Studenten Concert Orchestra and a 30-member choir, but also from Epica’s sensuous mezzo-soprano Simone Simons and vocalist George Oosthoek from the now-defunct extreme-metal band Orphanage.
Originally performed in front of more than 4,000 people at four sold-out shows in The Netherlands, Equilibrio is now available as a studio recording featuring key scenes from the opera. Bridging heavy metal and classical music is nothing new; Metallica, Dream Theater and Evergrey have all done it. But those pairings weren’t true operas. Equilibrio is — and it’s a surreal listening experience.
A couple of veteran prog artists recently arrived on the U.S. scene with new projects. Mariusz Duda has taken a break from fronting Riverside — a popular Polish band that’s drawn comparisons to Porcupine Tree and Tool — to release the self-titled CD from Lunatic Soul. Without relying on electric guitars, Duda and his collective of friends and colleagues have recorded an atmospheric album that the singer says was inspired by “an Oriental trans-psychedelic verbal musical journey through the pitch darkness available only to those who have a lunatic soul.”
As melodramatic as that may sound, he’s right. Defying its name, Lunatic Soul is more low-key than Riverside but just as moody. The CD picks up intensity near end, but Duda shows brilliant restraint while incorporating flute, harmonica, Hammond organ, e-bow and various vocal techniques.
Japanese keyboardist Tadashi Goto, on the other hand, makes plenty of noise on his U.S. debut Innervisions. On his MySpace page, Goto describes his sound as “U.K. meets Metallica meets Chick Corea,” and that’s not too far off the mark. Amid the heavy-metal rumblings of “Never Free” dance Goto’s New Age flourishes, “The Night of Destruction” opens with a twinkling keyboard solo before pounding out shiny prog-metal riffs, and intriguing vocal effects make “The Spirits Within” an ideal soundtrack for a horror or sci-fi flick. What could be proggier than that?