Saturday, December 21, 2013

"Take this with you to work next week!" Prog Rock Discoveries on (what else?) someone else's list

Discussed: PopMatters' 10 Best Progressive (and Metal) Albums of 2013

I tend to think my interest in Progressive Rock was fanned into flame only recently, with my accidental discovery of Steven Wilson, via Porcupine Tree.* Wilson’s album, The Raven That Refused To Sing is among the musical highlights of this last year for me. I enjoyed it immensely — the technical virtuosity, the literary pretensions, the cartoonishness of it all — as I enjoy just about everything Wilson’s put out.** This guy gives Raven a proper rave, sparing me the trouble. I tend to prefer the crunchier Insurgentes and Fear of a Blank Planet to it, but there’s no denying just what a powerful package Raven is.

In fact, I expected the album to top a chart like this, but to my surprise it occupies the #2 slot.

"#2? Really?"

Anathema’s Universal gets the crown. I hadn’t heard a single song by the band, but this super-highly recommended live album seemed like the ideal place to start, so I clicked over to the digital warehouse and hit “download album.”

What a mistake. I should have watched the video first.

The band and orchestra are clearly “on,” the crowd is obviously loving it — it’s a sympatico moment for all involved. But, wow, is this scene ever not for me. It reminds me of nothing so much as a David Crowder Band concert. The temptation is to declare that if you’re a rock band (“Prog” or otherwise) that draws natural comparisons to an Evangelical Christian worship band, something’s wrong. A more charitable tack is to acknowledge that both acts clearly (and similarly) appeal to that deep ineffable “something” in their audiences. Good on ‘em, good for ‘em. Good bye.

Moving down to #3, then, I vaguely recalled encountering Devin Townsend’s name and slightly kooky/slightly sinister demeanor in the pages of Revolver magazine (a yearly beach-read for me). Beyond the fact that he was Canadian, and originally signed by Frank Zappa’s beleaguered guitarist, Steve Vai, I knew nothing of the man or his music.

Kooky meets Sinister

Chastened by experience, I clicked the video. Vai shows up as a talking head, delivering a cheesy invocation. The track is titled “Grace”: was this going to be another sleepy, soppy “Anathema moment”? I kept watching, and . . .

Now that’s more like it!

The portentous disjunctive lyrics, delivered with such conviction within this extravagant Europa/Cirque du Soleil/mash-up mosh pit hits my inner sweet-spot — pretty hard.  I wouldn’t just put The Retinal Circus at the very top of the list, I’d assign it a league of its own.

Speaking as a glib newcomer, Townsend’s concert seems to offer a surprisingly satisfactory survey of his staggeringly enormous catalogue. A magnificent introduction, a delicious, well-edited spectacle — an approachable format all the way around — The Retinal Circus has me circling back to see what I’ve been missing.

A lot, apparently. Townsend’s webpage is its own merry wonderment, and includes a complete discography, on which he comments with bracing candor. Merry Christmas to me — and, if this is your sort of thing, you too.

Actually, Merry Christmas to you regardless. Thanks for reading. Goodbye ’13, hello ’14.

*I was a young adolescent when Prog Rock was in its hey-day, and had little use for the genre at the time. Not for me the castrato-choral noodlings of Yes, the flute-whiffling of Jethro Tull, the studied drollery of Emerson Lake & Palmer (things might have been different if I’d had an older brother). Sure, I admired RUSH, but after 2112 they CLEARLY shifted from a “Prog” outfit to a “Power Rock Trio” — right?

The dude doth protest, of course. The truth is almost all the bands I’ve adored slip comfortably into Prog Rock’s loose uniform — beginning, especially, with the Christian Rock outfits. Themes of cosmic significance, an eagerness to try (and frequently fail at) new stylistic genres, stage shows that hammer home What It’s All About — most of those early Christian bands were Prog pretenders, really.

The bands that followed all fell into similar slots. Talking Heads, Pink Floyd, The Police, Peter Gabriel — even adroit Trickster figures like Tom Waits, or Donald Fagen and Walter Becker . . . an argument could be made that they all in fact have deep roots in the larger Prog tree.

But submitting to such enthusiasm is merely the flipside of the Prog Embarrassment Factor.

**Wilson was born in ’67, so for me he plays like a slightly younger, cranky, British brother who’s keen on Hitchens. Now, I can’t speak with any authority on that final conviction***, but Wilson is unmistakably British and does indeed get cranky where claims of religious certainty are concerned.

***Wilson’s thematic explorations suggest, to me at least, a vague techno-paganism. Wilson's site is here.

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