Blackstar: A David Bowie Tribute and Review

Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen

— David Bowie, “Lazarus,” Blackstar (2016)

I’ve been putting this off for a bit — That’s if, of course, you consider a month under the definition of, “a bit.” I honestly felt that David Bowie’s swansong, and final effort, Blackstar, deserved some time to grow, to escape the swelling press and nonsense attributed to a famed celebrity’s passing.  The Blackstar review needed to be objective.  The review needed to feel sincere.  My love for Bowie’s music and his various personas would’ve clouded the discussion and led to a completely biased post.  What else could you expect when one of your personal artistic influences dies the day after you purchase his last album?

Initial Reaction

After listening to Blackstar multiple times, and watching the “spectacle” of Lady Gaga’s Grammy tribute, I can safely say this is one of the Thin White Duke’s finest achievements, a record pulling from the melancholy of the Berlin trilogy and jazzing it up.  Yeah, yeah, bias be damned.

For projecting such a flamboyant stage presence, Bowie seemed to operate behind the camera’s eye.  Nobody, not even hailed producer and Berlin trilogy creative consultant, Brian Eno — whom Ziggy was scheduled to work with on a future project — knew how short the artist’s time was. Yet, Blackstar was recorded.  Blackstar dropped.



The record delves deep in symbolism, from the star pieces in the cover spelling out Bowie, to the cryptic lyrics throughout its seven tracks.  This highlights the artistic realization of the musician, the finality of the moment.  So, does it all mean something?  Or, am I just bullshitting away for the sake of word count?  You tell me:

In the villa of Ormen, in the villa of Ormen/Stands a solitary candle, ah-ah, ah-ah/In the centre of it all, in the centre of it all/Your eyes

— David Bowie, “Blackstar,” Blackstar

Immediately, Bowie adds an occult, dark tone to a career smothered in glamour, drugs, sex, and good ol’ rock n’ roll.  The twelve personas stare into the flame and capture that feeling of hopeful isolation.  As the record rolls on to, “Lazarus,” and then closes with, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” the message is simple and powerful, punctuated by the hopeless notes of a saxophone.  Bowie has said his goodbye to the the music world in the only suitable way.

An Influence

Bowie was a legend on the sheets of stardom.  He didn’t give a damn whether the mainstream market approved of his disco number or his funk experiment.  He certainly didn’t care if the masses disapproved of his support for minority musician airplay on national media. How many guys can enter the film world as Crotch and Big Hair — I mean, Labyrinth’s, the Goblin King, of course — and then, a few years later, jump on stage with Trent Reznor and seep venom into the crowd with Nine Inch Nails’ industrial rattle, “Reptile.”

Yet, through all of the collaborations, all of the media appearances, Bowie seemed to desire privacy in his personal life.  That’s why, on January 10, 2016, the music industry faced shock and reflection on just how much The Man Who Fell Down to Earth influenced the way music was composed, performed, recorded, and understood.

Bowie singlehandedly pioneered glam rock with Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.  He brought experimentation to the mainstream, starting with the blues/soul/pop sensibilities of Station to Station and ending with the listener friendly, but serene, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps).   Bowie continued this musical freedom into the eighties, where Let’s Dance and other do-whatever-the-fuck-Bowie-wants records came to fruition.  Let’s not even mention the amount of singles and classic tracks he pumped out;  “Under Pressure,” anyone? He was a fan of music as much as he was a creator, a trait evident in his — deceivingly random — performances with other musicians.

Basically, if Kanye West cites you as an influence, you know you broke some ground.

*Mic drop.

Pshhhh, I’m not going to end Bowie’s influence on a Kanye tweet.  That’s the last thing I want to do.  Either way, David Bowie’s stage presence itself brought theatrics into rock n’ roll, a flamboyant expression inspiring thousands to pick up the guitar, throw on — to mom and dad’s disappointment — a kimono and belt out some, “Wam, bam, thank you, ma’am!”

Bowie was a rock star who, quite simply, did not give a single fuck what the industry pushed or pulled. He performed and inspired artists to pursue what they wanted, rather than cater to the needs of a third party.  Of course, this led to fandom chaos, but, fortunately, each Bowie persona was met with embrace rather than alienation.  By the peak of his career, the Bowie brand was defined by the eccentricities and flamboyance of Ziggy Stardust.

Bringing it Down

So, it is no surprise that, in this perspective, Blackstar brings a different light to Bowie’s discography, one of sincere sadness, reflection, and longing.  Please forgive the pretentious pun. Anyways, take the pairing of the haunting, marching rhythm of, “Girl Loves Me,” and the somber, “Dollar Days.” Both tracks highlight this dark atmosphere, as well as push the boundaries of the musician’s instrumental focus.

As I previously said, Bowie was no enemy of collaboration.  However, instead of bringing in A-list or aged names, the album welcomes the talent of prominent jazz musicians.  This is not a typical solo artist, half assed vocal performance, where session musicians take a back seat to the ego of their employer.  Blackstar often leans on its studio musicians, especially in the umph of the title track and, “Girl Loves Me.”  The LP’s rhythm section, courtesy of drummer, Mark Guiliana, and Tim Lefebvre, balance complexity with rhythmic freedom; noticeable, but not distracting.  Their chemistry and poise develop Blackstar into a lesson on tasteful, musical freedom.  That’s hard to find in a record emphasizing a jazzy style.  The record also features a career performance by saxophonist, Donny McCaslin, whose horns bring out, “Lazarus’,” heavy subject matter, making tears nearly inevitable.

Vocally, Bowie doesn’t even sound like he’s aged.  There are moments where his voice adopts a rasp, but that only heightens the overall feel; that of a tired man facing the reality of his situation.  Sure, his voice is not quite at the quality level of, “Under Pressure,” or, “Heroes,” but there is no denying the emotion transmitted through tracks like the title piece and, “I Can’t Give Everything Away.”

A Final Look

Overall, Blackstar brings the audience to the darker, experimental side of David Bowie.  In his final record, he pulls ears in with explorations in jazz form, dark atmosphere, and cryptic lyrics, often alluding to past treasures in the likes of the Berlin Trilogy and his quintessential 70’s classics.  A beautiful transition from the idol to the human, Blackstar serves as both a celebration and ode to the life of a musician, that of excess, fear, longing, and fulfillment.  Whichever Bowie felt in his final moment, we’ll never know.

We love you, David Bowie.  You will be missed.  Rest in peace.


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Live Review: Australian Pink Floyd

Kangaroos, boars, lasers, and good ol’ fashioned Pink Floyd. Shine on, you crazy diamonds.

Pink Floyd is one of those bands destined for imitation. You name it, Porcupine Tree, Airbag, Circus Maximus, Radiohead, pretty much any band using extensive, spacey keyboards possess some kind of influence from Gilmour, Waters, Wright, and Mason. Out of this mess comes the dime-a-dozen cover band.  Yet, like Black Sabbath, such a classic sound is hard enough to imitate, let alone replicate. You can say my expectations for a Pink Floyd cover band are astronomical.  Sure, St. Louis has El Monstero, who are a extremely respectable band in their own right. I have yet to see them — ironic since they played here over the weekend — so I cannot express judgment just yet.

However, Australian Pink Floyd are the real deal.  They have it all, from Floyd’s iconic circle production screen, to the laser show, to backup singers, to the overall stage presence of their inspiration.  Shit, even Gilmour himself invited them to perform for his 50th birthday event.  2013 brought Aussie Floyd’s extensive reach into Real Floyd’s back catalog.  2015 brought soundscapes, hits, everything you’d want from a cover band, a cathartic experience with overwhelming visuals.

Led Zeppelin 2 kicked off the evening. Now, I’m unfamiliar with St. Charles’ family arena, but lord was the sound horrendous at first.  Imitator Plant’s voice — or ear monitor. Insert vocal excuse here — seemed to dissipate at times, leaving the poor singer to reach through his already limited register.  Think of “Immigrant Song.” You know those opening wails? Now, think “Immigrant Song” performed in its original key, but with actual Robert Plant’s aged vocal chords.  Not good. Not good at all.

Thankfully, imitation Bonzo held the performance together with a rousing rendition — and, might I say pummeling expression — of “Moby Dick,” “Heartbreaker,” and “Stairway to Heaven.” It also helped that, as the performance moved forward, the sound guy came out of his smoke stupor and equalized the freakin’ master.  As a result, Plant finally heard himself, Page overcame his hangover, and JPJ, well, JPJ stayed the same.  Calm and collected, just like his source material.  Good set overall, so-so performance.  Unfortunately, that’s to be expected from an opener.

Aussie Pink Floyd gets an entire point for starting their set on time. I’d say it only took the roadies fifteen minutes to sound check and finalize.  Fifteen minutes! In the wide, wide world of Rock n’ Roll, that’s unheard of.  So, kudos just for that, Aussies.

That’s enough blabbering.

“In The Flesh,” gets me every time. I know it’s coming, but that opening chord always comes out of nowhere…Bang!  Instantly, Australian Pink Floyd’s performance felt tighter than their previous stop in St. Louis.  Sound wise, everything clicked, the bass audible — shocking, right? — the guitars ear splitting, the vocals synchronized beautifully, the keys completely Wright-esque.  Unfortunately, Colin Wilson, albeit a fantastic bassist, still could not quite nail Water’s nasal delivery, but that’s just nitpicking on account of a reviewer looking for negativity in the wee hours of the night.

Also, as the band moved from “Learn to Fly,” to “Shine On You Crazy Diamond Part I-IV,” it was obvious the show was hit-centric.  And you know me, I’m all about those hits! Pink Floyd produced their strongest material between Animals, Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and The Wall, but much of Aussie’s setlist could benefit from the oddball track here and there to please the Floydians and hipsters like myself.  Shit, trade “Learn To Fly,” for “Dogs,” and I wouldn’t have said anything. Or, “Set Controls for the Heart of the Sun,” that would’ve made the evening. Maybe I’m just speaking for myself now.

Okay, Dark Side, you win. The band’s most rousing moments — aside from the beautiful “Shine On…” — came from Floyd’s transcendental production, that thing classic radio has spammed for what feels like a century.  All I have to say is “The Great Gig in the Sky.” Wow. The girls, Lorelei McBroom, Emily Lynn, and Lara Smiles graced through their make or break moments with confidence, grace, and absolute awe.  I don’t think a single arm in that establishment was without goosebumps. Meanwhile, “Time,” complete with syncopated lasers, brought Pink Floyd’s psychedelic stage presence to the forefront, and demonstrated guitarist Steve Mack’s prowess.

Solo of the night belonged to David Fowler’s rendition of Gilmour’s most famous composition in “Comfortably Numb,” but there’s something about Mack’s atmospheric style that just sounds larger. It’s as if Mack understands Gilmour’s “less is more” attitude, focusing on precision and emotion over absolute chaos and technicality. “Time[‘s]” solo takes time — bad pun, sorry — and build, which wouldn’t work if played in Fowler’s more straightforward technique.  Fowler, you had the whole place after “Comfortably Numb” — including myself — so don’t be offended when I say Steve Mack better understands Gilmour’s playing style.

Australian Pink Floyd brought the sounds and sights of their inspiration to St. Louis on Tuesday, August 4. Although their set could benefit from, let’s say “Echoes,” the band’s performance far outweighed its lack of setlist creativity. Take away Led Zeppelin 2’s rough start and it’s easy to say Aussie Floyd put on one hell of a show.  Oh, and did I mention…


RATING:  4.75/5

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Review: Symphony X – Underworld

With their latest LP, Underworld, Symphony X taps into their neoclassical roots to create one of the more entertaining listens of 2015.

Yep, I’m doing a 180 here. When a band does what they do best, it’s hard not to appreciate their effort.  Because, let’s face it, Symphony X lays it all down on their latest studio album, combining past and present influence into one of their more consistent records.

Now, before you get all “Make up your damn mind!” on me, know that this is a record burdened by familiarity, pushing more of an Iconoclast sound over, say, their coined The Divine Wings of Tragedy’s Gregorian, neoclassical epic approach. However, where Iconoclast felt pointlessly heavy, Underworld amplifies that heaviness, all the while grounding listeners with the complex, beautiful, and might I say “cleaner” songwriting of their past.  There’s reason to Romeo, Allen, Pinnella, and Rullo’s style again. This is a testament to Romeo’s obsession with Christian mythology.  Look at it this way, when a prog metal album’s concept is loosely based on Dante’s Inferno, how can you not make the material heavy as shit?

“Underworld,” with its punchy, galloping chorus, accented by Russel Allen’s binary vocal style, complements this sound realization, reminiscent to Paradise Lost’s symphonic numbers.   Now, with that in mind, you won’t get anything new on this album.  That’s where this album suffers most.  Underworld feels more like a continuation of Symphony X’s newfound appreciation for metaldom, rather than a musical progression.  At this point, you must ask:  What else do these guys have to prove?  They rode Dream Theater’s wake, producing an organic combination of power, prog, and neoclassical metal, then darkened the progressive genre further, incorporating harsher vocals, blast beats, and heavier riffs.   And, hell, the blast beats in “Underworld” will most definitely take the casual prog listener out of the equation. But, to say Underworld is uninspired is an insult to the band’s legacy and meticulous effort to separate itself from dreaded Dream Theater imitation.


Credit: Blabbermouth

Does the album feel Nuclear Blast-esque?  Metal heads will understand that statement.  The LP, as feared, suffers from the band’s overwhelming metal obsession,  “Without You,” condemned as more of a sellout, derivative “Paradise Lost” clone, contains some of Russell Allen’s most passionate vocals.  So, power prog Symphony X fans listen up.  The clean voice has returned! That’s enough to give Underworld a star in itself.

“Without You,” brings back the band’s classical influence to the forefront, replacing complexity with good ol’ fashioned emotional songwriting.  Same with “To Hell and Back.” The track’s introduction adds atmosphere to the LP, then leads to guitar, vocal, and rhythm excellence, courtesy to each band member’s famous precision.  Again, “To Hell and Back,” is more of a listenable track — oh God, not melody! Melody doesn’t belong in metal! — but the band was known for melody, never brutality. “Swan Song,” continues this trek into melodic territory, alluding to “The Accolade.”  Atmospheric, complex, melodic, beautiful, heavy in an ideological sense, rather than in a “smash your face” sense. That’s something I thought I would never hear after Iconoclast.

*On a side note, has anyone ever wondered how chaotic it is when someone asks for Michael in the band?

Meanwhile, Romeo, with his blistering fretboard control, continues to wow listeners in tracks like “Nevermore” and “Charon.” Now, I’m on the fence with these two tracks.  Remember that little “Nevermore” single review that Reviews From the Other Side composed a month or so ago?  Obviously, Symphony X wanted to continue their “guitar first” philosophy, sacrificing chorus and general appeal in the process.  This leads to disenchantment from the source material.  I appreciate a kick ass guitar performance, but when everything around that guitar performance is, well, for lack of a better word, boring, then it’s easy to forget said tracks. Disenchantment and boredom is the bane to progressive metal. Even as a fan, I can admit that. Michael Romeo and Michael Pinnella tend to noodle, it’s a known fact!  “Nevermore” is a studio single, for crying out loud! For an album that promises a collage of influences, “Nevermore” fails in that the track sounds like nothing more than a Iconoclast bonus track.  That’s what is so frustrating with this album.  It tries to move past the heaviness of Paradise Lost and Iconoclast, but for every melodic, neoclassical passage, there’s ten overwhelming, “What the fuck? Should I bang my head or air guitar?” metal wanks.

It’s in these metal passages, however, that the band’s rhythm section pulls through. Michael Romeo and Russell Allen are awesome! Who in metaldom doesn’t know that? Pinnella is a little too Rudess for me, but does his part nonetheless.  Hell, the guy even has a couple credits to his name, so kudos, good key meister. In previous recordings — especially their rendition of The Odyssey — Jason Rullo’s drums came across as flat, even mediocre at times, but Underworld brings the best out of our little mountain mover.  It’s an understatement to say Rullo was made for explosive passages, complemented by Michael Lepond’s, as-always, moving rumble.

Symphony X, with their 11th studio album, Underworld, force listeners to gaze into the looking glass of their discography, exploring their descent from neoclassical, power prog to straight forward, kick ass metal. Fans, indulge. Casual listeners, think of this album as a focused, greatest hits record.

Credit:  Skullsnbones

Credit: Skullsnbones

P.S. That album art…


RATING:  4/5

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Review: Muse – Drones

Drones is the byproduct of a pop/prog band that takes itself too seriously. I love it.

One must tread lightly when dealing with a band like Muse.  On one hand, there’s the fans.  Think, Radiohead fans, but take away a few years, and add belief that Matt Bellamy is Freddy Mercury’s second coming.  Yeah, we’re talking X Files devotion here, man.  On the other hand, the general opinion of the band lies on a “hate em’ or love em'” basis, leaving little room for objective criticism.  If such a thing even exists.  I don’t blame listeners, though.  Muse is too prog for the pop fan, too song-oriented for the general prog head.  There really isn’t a middle ground, but for eye rollers and coffee slammers like myself.

Muse is a band of taste, dabbling in prog excess without garnering too much of the pompousness required for a full blown member of the genre.  Yes, Bellamy’s lyrics are pretentious and ofttimes cheesy.  The concepts are often overblown and preachy.  Yet, when stripped down, Muse explores multiple musical avenues, a unique blend of electronica, jazz, rock, and even metal. Not to mention Absolution and Black Holes and Revelations brought progressive rock back into the mainstream. That alone is respectable.  Drones doesn’t bring anything new to the table, but continues Matt Bellamy, Dominic Howard, and Christopher Wolstenholme’s statement on the state of progressive rock.

Straight off, the album goes into Depeche Mode territory with opener, “Dead Inside.”  Cringeworthy song title aside, the track does well as an introduction to the band’s bombastic sound.  Drum machines.  Drum machines everywhere! “Dead Inside” is as genetically close to a classic Muse song than any other track on the record.  The track bleeps and bloops in a weird intro before hitting the listener with emotion.  Muse emotion, that is.  I say that because there’s a level of drama only Muse can create, and it is in this emotional crescendo, that listeners are divided. The lyrics, themselves, are suspect.  Behind Bellamy’s still impressive falsetto, “Dead Inside,” brings out a healthy dose of Muse drama, spouting:

Your lips feel warm to the touch/You can bring me back to life/On the outside you’re ablaze and alive/But you’re dead inside.

Muse, “Dead Inside,” Drones (2015)

Overseeing the album is a convoluted concept of prog’s finest subject: individualism.  As in the past, I try to focus on the music and lyrics alone, so concept falls low on my critical repertoire.  However, I can’t help but roll my eyes at the lack of originality in Bellamy’s lyrics.  They observe topics with the most shallow of executions, exploiting cliche after cliche as if wishing to frustrate the listener.  In this regard, the juvenile lyrics take away from the music.  Coming from a guy that places lyrics behind music, that’s saying a lot.

Luckily, the music is strong enough to mask the overdone concept. As listeners reach the album’s midsection, the music becomes abrasive, adopting elements of hard rock, even metal. “The Handler,” for instance, grabs this musical progression by the balls.  Muse tackled heaviness in previous albums in tracks like, “Knights of Cydonia,” and “Stockholm Syndrome,” but Drones brings their heavier spectrum to the forefront.  And I’ll admit, I like this new direction.  For the first time, Muse’s album feels tied together, bringing in multiple markets, but still holding on to their trademark sound.  Each influence comes through in album epic, “The Globalist,” the main highlight of the album, a track exploding with melody and aggression.  This track is the pinnacle of Muse’s experimentation, while, “Revolt,” and, “Mercy,” tap into accessible, Queen-esque waters.  If anything, Drones is an accessible progressive rock album, which — I must say — shows songwriting maturity.

At the head of this aggressive direction is Matt Bellamy’s guitar.  Neoclassical, earpleasing shreddery.  Although the album’s tracks fail to reach, “Stockholm Syndrome,” intensity, Bellamy still throws down memorable riffs in heavier tracks like, “Psycho,” and “Defector.” Besides lead guitar, each instrument plays for atmosphere over technical brilliance. That’s okay. My only complaint, musicianship-wise, is the absence of natural drum sounds. I get that the band strives for more of an electronic feel, but the drums, at times, make the songs feel…synthetic.  Perhaps intentional, perhaps an aesthetic choice.  Maybe it’s a production issue.  Either way, Dominic Howard’s kit sounds lifeless and that’s a problem.

Overall, Muse’s seventh studio album, Drones, overcomes its shoddy concept and stale rhythm section with an accessible, but heavy approach to the progressive genre.

RATING:  3.75/5

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Review: Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase

A continuation of Steven Wilson’s prog trip, with the accessibility of Stupid Dream.

I’ve been avoiding this album for some reason.  I knew it was coming out, and once it hit the shelves, I let it sit there, almost like a punishment.  You see, I’m a Porcupine Tree fan.  I’ll admit it.  So, again, there’s going to be some bias.  Shoot me. Okay, back to business.  Even though Wilson is the band’s main songwriter — which means his solo albums shouldn’t stray too far away from that overarching sound — the barefooted Brit’s solo work has, so far, left something to be desired.  Grace for Drowning succeeded with its throwback to 70’s progressive rock, but fell victim to its own structure, a derivative collaboration of Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, Camel.

The Raven That Refused To Sing had its moments, but continued Wilson’s regression to derivative territory, influenced even more by King Crimson.  Yes, Steven Wilson became an oxymoron of the progressive genre.  Overall, there was something Porcupine Tree had that Wilson’s solo work didn’t, but defining that difference was a challenge all in itself. Gavin Harrison, perhaps? I don’t know. His 2015 album, Hand. Cannot. Erase, however, brings back Steven Wilson’s trademark pop/prog sensibilities.  The album introduces more personal sounds without becoming overburdened by influences, and that’s a welcome return to style.

There’s a lot going on here.  Musically, the album explores multiple genres, from Rush-inspired bass licks — ha, what a coincidence — in “First Regret/Three Years Older” to straightford pop in “Hand Cannot Erase.”  If you’re an avid Porcupine Tree listener, spin the instrumental “Home Invasion/Regret #9” and tell me you don’t hear those polyrhythms that made the Porcupine Tree metal phase so successful.  Oh, there’s even a Rick Wright-esque keyboard solo thrown in there, which leads Guthrie’s climactic guitar wail.  So, Wilson’s got that working for him.  Which is nice. And then the track concludes with a banjo! Fucking banjo! You gotta love variety.  “Home Invasion” stands as one of Wilson’s better instrumentals, which contains sound changes so abrupt that I could hear Kristoffer Ryggs’ knees buckle.  A definite highlight.  There are even some electronica influences in “Perfect Life.”  Although this particular track, and second single, lacks the inspiration of the first two tracks, the electronic layers and conceptual lyrics are a breath of fresh air, complete with a climactic conclusion.  Atop beautiful, electronic layers, Wilson croons:

We have/We have a perfect life.

-Steven Wilson, “Perfect Life,” Hand. Cannot. Erase (2015)

Don’t get the wrong idea.  This is not a happy album.  The lyrics follow typical Wilson-isms of over-the-top sorrow.  Steven Wilson is Melancholy, and he throws the listener off guard by coupling this darkness with inspiring, even happy melodies.  He is perfectly capable of igniting hope with a track like “Perfect Life” and then choking that hope out with “Routine.” I never usually complain about Wilson’s lyrics.  Within his vast discography is everything I want from a melodramatic sad sap: hopelessness, melancholy, and brooding with just enough cheese to make the lyrics delicious.  However, Hand. Cannot. Erase suffers a little on the poetry side.  Maybe I’ve grown up.  Or, maybe it’s just fatigue from the constant barrage of sadness from Wilson, a lack of variety in the most depressing way.  I know I just complemented the album’s musical variety, but when it came to the album’s lyrics, I found myself rolling my eyes at times.  Just look at this line from “Hand Cannot Erase” and tell me the cheese isn’t overwhelmingly funky:

Writing lying e-mails to our friends back home/Feeling guilty if we sometimes wanna be alone.

-Steven Wilson, “Hand Cannot Erase,” Hand. Cannot. Erase (2015)

Okay, that’s enough of lyrics.  Back to the music!

“Routine” is the pinnacle of Steven Wilson’s solo vision. A track dominated by melodramatic riffs, beautiful piano, and a rousing performance by Ninet Tayeb, the track rises and falls with purpose, especially during its dramatic midsection.  At the 6:00 mark — or somewhere in there, I’m too lazy to actually check — Tayeb’s voice pushes forward in the mix…and the rest is history.  A truly beautiful, inspirational track, the lyrics interesting, the music everything you can expect from Mr. Wilson.  The final highlight of the album is also the album’s shortest song, “Transience.”  Very Porcupine Tree-like, the track opens with an acoustic riff, spotted here and there with Hans Zimmer-like blaams.  Then, Steven Wilson’s trademark “ahs” and harmonies take over to create his trademark emotional atmosphere.

Steven Wilson’s 2015 LP, Hand. Cannot. Erase is a return to accessibility without abandoning the technical prog of previous albums.  This evolution not only adds unique quality to the album, but grants Steven Wilson a sound all his own.  Bravo, Mr. Wilson.  Bravo.

Rating: 4/5

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5 Days of Rush! Day 5

1.  2112

Now, for the number one pick.  As one of the hardest lists I’ve created, this pick did not come easy.  I’ll admit, I was torn between Hemispheres and 2112.  Both albums emit the best of Rush, showcasing versatility, drive, and genre bending kickassness.  Lord, I never thought I’d say this, but I almost wish the band’s heyday was shorter.  Lee, Lifeson, and Peart produced so many consistent records and worthy performances that a top five list serves as an injustice to their catalog.  Early Rush was rough, but not without hits such as “Fly By Night” and the classic, “Working Man.”  Once they found their sound, however, Rush exploded onto the market with middle fingers held high.

You see, Caress of Steel, is what we, at Reviews From the Other Side, call a colossal failure.  A solid effort, with memorable short tracks and allusions to future epics, but the record suffered financially.  When it comes down to it, that’s what matters when you want to continue making music.  The band needed life, and that meant — and I hate saying this — “selling out” or rolling up their sleeves and letting their sound evolve organically. 2112 was that “fuck you” moment that changed the industry.

Credit:  Edtech

Credit: Edtech

Now, look at those assholes.

So, here it is, the album that put Rush on the progressive map.  Yes, Caress of Steel tapped into the well of prog, but 1976’s 2112 hits the genre with a closed fist.  The musicianship is revolutionary, the concept creative and mysterious.  For three young chaps — do they say that in Canada? — just coming off their third album, that’s quite an accomplishment.  This was the first Rush album I listened to, and when I heard the first notes to the epic title track, I knew I was on to something.  Never had I heard a band make a 20 plus minute track sound so engaging.  Shit, the title “Temples of Syrinx” just looked awesome on the sleeve.

The gigantic title track immediately draws the listener in with an accented introduction.  Then, Lee, Lifeson, and Peart gallop into “Syrinx,” complete with Geddy’s trademark shriek.  I don’t want to go into the full song, because that would tire your little eyes out, but as a whole, the song is a cohesive piece of art, pushing and pulling to catch the listener off guard, all the while showing off each member’s growing talents.  With such a large spectrum of music, it wouldn’t be surprising if the piece scattered into a jumbled mess, but 2112 holds onto its structure, always alluding to the main melody. How they came up with those transitions, I’ll never know.

One side done.  Yes, 2112’s title track takes up a whole fucking side, that’s how big it is.  The other side, many fans and critics claim, is inconsistent and irrelevant in regards to the former monster.  Scope and ambition-wise, I’d say “of course,” but there are worthy moments within each piece.  “Train to Bangkok” is a by-the-books Rush number, a guitar driven, fun. hard rock tune with a catchy melody.  Not exactly the best the holy trinity has to offer, but is a breather after 2112’s explosiveness.  “Tears,” meanwhile, is one of the band’s more beautiful tracks.  Geddy Lee lowers his register for this tune, creating a soothing, lullaby vibe.  Technical noodling takes a back seat for this track. The musicians use more of a subtle approach, accented by mellotron and Lifeson’s expressive acoustics.

2112 is the most important album in Rush’s discography, not only in terms of influence, but the band’s longevity. Rush’s fourth output is the culmination of Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart’s refusal to follow industry standards.  With one song, they evolved from a so-so hard rock band to a legendary progressive rock outfit.

Rating: 4.75

What’s next? Why, Reviews From the Other Side Rush R40 concert review, of course!  Say that ten times, really fast.  Check the review out, Saturday, May 16.

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5 Days of Rush! Day 4

2. Hemispheres

Is that not the most prog album art ever conceived? I mean, you got a naked guy pointing longingly at another guy in a suit and cane, both standing on a brain. Deserts, brains, and an Eastern-style logo. What else could you ask for from prog pioneers, Rush?

Okay!  Now, as I stayed up last night thinking of which Rush album deserved first place, I came to a crossroads between my two picks.  Not spoiling the top selection — you’ve probably already guessed it, anyways  — I threw out standards because, let’s face it, reviews aren’t about standards.  Reviews are about how much you like the damn thing!  So, to be the most unprofessional as I possibly can, Rush’s 1978 LP, Hemispheres, ranks above Permanent Waves because I just like it more as a cohesive whole.  The album is a progressive masterwork, hinting towards future projects, but, overall, reflecting the peak of Rush’s ambition.  Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart kick off on all cylinders from the get go, and conclude with one of the best instrumentals ever recorded.  Yes, I went there.  Let’s go!

“Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres” explodes with guitar chords before entering a complex march.  Lee’s bass dominates this track, complementing Neil Peart’s accents nicely. This, behind 2112, is the album that defined the prog epic, where we get not one, but two tracks surpassing the 8 minute mark.  If I had one complaint for the progressive genre, I’d bang my head over the never ending noodlery.  I’d say wankery, but that’s been overused on RFTOS.  Many bands, especially modern prog bands, suffer from too much freedom.  Instead of composing songs, they craft dueling solos and nonsensical, extended passages, sacrificing direction for vanity.  A little guidance would help, along with a little “hey, we need to get this moving” attitude, but that’s not the case with Hemispheres.  The band members utilized their ambition, but never deviated from the songwriting process in favor of glorified jam sessions.  “Cygnus” is the culmination of this process.  And it’s a hell of a track, displaying the band at its best, with spacey keyboards, complex guitar chords, and adventurous lyrics.

The next two tracks, “Circumstances,” and “The Trees” add accessibility to the album.  I’ve always thought “Circumstances” as under-appreciated.  I don’t blame the fans and critics.  It’s easy to forget a hard rocker when said track is surrounded by three musical juggernauts.  Fans of Geddy’s higher, mouse-like voice should jump for joy during the track’s chorus, with its stand-up-and-shout chorus.  It’s just a catchy song, a breath of fresh air from the complexity of the previous number.  Meanwhile, “The Trees” bends genres, adding folk elements to the band’s repertoire.  Now, I’ll admit, I cringe every time at  “The Trees” lyrics, which is a commentary on social status, all told through a grand metaphor of oaks and maples.  Maybe it’s Geddy’s delivery; maybe it’s the metaphor.  Either way, the vocals walk the line of ridiculousness.  It’s so Canadian, it makes me want to cry maple syrup and apologize for the mess.  The music, however, is absolutely outstanding.  Peart smashes his drums on this song and shows he’s not only precise, but powerful.  During the midsection, he even explores more percussive avenues.  I’ll admit it, when I heard those wood blocks, I smiled like an idiot. You can tell he’s really passionate about those poor maples.

The band reached its absolute peak, songwriting-wise, with the album’s closer, “La Villa Strangiato.” A micro and macro instrumental accomplishment, the track challenges each member’s creativity.  This is Alex Lifeson’s song. Opening with Spanish-style guitar, the guitarist throws down some of his most thoughtful licks and riffs. “La Villa” then descends into a moody section, and it is here where Rush’s guitar reaches its absolute peak.   Lifeson builds from a Gilmour-esque moan to a bombastic, heart wrenching climax. This is, without a doubt, the guitarist’s greatest achievement.  Subtle, expressive, but technical all the same. What a sneaky bastard, you are! The track moves quickly, transitioning between sections flawlessly, and never feels nine minutes long.

Hemispheres explores all of the musical avenues and lyrics from Rush’s previous albums.  On the album, you’ll hear 2112, you’ll hear A Farewell To Kings, you’ll even hear some Fly By Night, but what separates this album is the band’s disregard for its own standards.  Peart, Lee, and Lifeson weren’t quite at their most mature, but they were definitely at their most ambitious.  And that solidifies Hemispheres spot at number 2 on 5 Days of Rush.

Rating: 4.75/5

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