Yes, folk(s), it's that time again. As the year winds down, it's time for my annual "My Year in . . ." posts. Up first - tunes. Although I personally only managed a tiny bit of musical output this year, I managed to collect quite a bit from other people (54 new albums, by my count). So much so that, for once, I had a hard time selecting only a few actually new discs to talk about. Aren't you lucky! Without further ado . . .
New for 2008
- 3rDegree - Narrow Caster: Back when I was in law school, I got a used copy of 3rDegree's Human Interest Story from someone on the Web. A subsequent review attracted the attention one of the guys in the band, who was selling of the back stock of the album, who explained that they had broken up, unable to really get a footing in the rock world or the prog one. Nine years later, I got an email from him announcing their return effort, Narrow Caster. It was well worth the wait, a more mature evolution of the near-prog sound the band forged in the 1990s. Solid songwriting abounds, as well as some choice playing from all involved. Highly recommended.
- D.F.A. - 4th: Another band that waited a while between albums. I picked up their 1997 release Lavori in Corso used last year and liked it a lot. When I saw this new disc at 3RP this summer (more on that later), it was a must have. The band cranks out that fusion-tinged (mostly) instrumental prog that the Italians do so well. It smokes, it soothes, it rocks.
- Mike Keneally - Wine & Pickles: I've repeatedly admitted to being a Keneally fanboy, but even I didn't expect a collection of leftovers and miscellaneous bits of sound to be so excellent in the end. Mike assembles tracks that didn't make Dog and Dancing, some alternate versions from those albums, some collaborations, and even some cues/bumps he did back in the day for Court TV. Highlights include "Feelin' Strangely," the long promised finished studio version of "L'il," and "Inhale," a collaboration with Lyle Workman.
- Marillion - Happiness is the Road: Last year's Somewhere Else was a disappointment. Not so much as some people would have it, but still, pretty lackluster, particularly after the brilliant Marbles. When the band first released Happiness for download prior to its release this year, I wasn't completely convinced that they righted the ship. After living with the real CDs (two volumes, one dubbed Essence, the other The Hard Shoulder) for a few months, now I'm convinced. Some judicious editing could have coalesced Happiness into an amazing 1-disc record. As it is, there's enough to love over both discs (the title track, "This Train Is My Life," "The Man from the Planet Marzipan," "Asylum Satellite 1," and "Real Tears for Sale" in particular) to make it an essential addition to the collection.
- The Tangent - Not as Good as the Book: Life Happiness, The Tangent's fourth studio album probably could have been pared down to one disc without losing anything essential. What to cut, however, would probably spark some long and heated debates. I wouldn't want to live without Andy Tillison's continuing midlife crisis in "Lost in London 25 Years Later" or the title track. And I certainly wouldn't sacrifice the epic "Four Egos, One War," my favorite track of the year. Plus, the special edition came with a novella written by Tillison (which I still haven't read), so you can't argue you're not getting value for money, huh?
- Yezda Urfa - Sacred Baboon (1976): Another gem I picked up at 3RP, from one of the numerous American bands that managed to cut one album in the wake of prog's golden age before going the way of the dodo. Clearly influenced by Yes, Gentle Giant, and Zappa, the music here is on the verge of being so complex it's out of control. But the band tread that fine line with aplomb. Great fun to listen to.
- Ritual - The Hemulic Voluntary Band (2007): Considering all the new music I heard this year, I'm amazed that I can even make this determination, but - this is, hands down, my favorite album of the year. Steeped in the Moomin stories of Finnish writer Tove Jansson, it is melodic, bombastic, pastoral, and just really fun to listen too. It's also a very organic album. No synths (shudder to think!), but loads and loads of great clavinet and piano work, backing up some really interesting folk instruments here and there. Absolutely brilliant.
- The Mandrake Project - A Favor to the Muse (2006): 3RP is shorthand for "3 Rivers Progressive Rock Festival," which debuted this summer outside of Pittsburgh. Yes, right in the girlfriend's back yard! I managed to take in only half of Saturday's festivities, but came away with two things. One was a huge load of CDs, which continues my generous plan of putting Greg Walker's kids through college. The other was the discovery of The Mandrake Project, a local band and second on the bill Saturday morning. All instrumental, influenced by the post-rock scene I think, they just blew me (and most of the others in attendance) away. Needless to say, I had to pick up this album, which is equally brilliant. A new one is on the way for 2009.
- Jean Michel Jarre - Oxygene (2007): I decided to explore some electronic music this year, given my increased interest in synths and making music with them. This was the cream of the crop, a rerecording by Jarre of his 1976 classic (as heard in, among other things, Gallipoli). Particularly cool was the DVD that came with the CD, which has Jarre and a few helpers recreating the album (with some excursions) live, scuttling in and out of the coolest collection of vintage synth gear this side of VSE.
- Phideaux - Doomsday Afternoon (2007): Another brilliant album that I missed by a year. Phideaux is sort of a musical collective lead by its namesake, Phideaux Xavier. His day job, no kidding, is directing TV soap operas. Whatever pays the bills, huh? Doomsday Afternoon is the second of a three-part concept dealing with a future ecological crisis (the first part, The Great Leap, didn't do so much for me). They'll be at the 2009 version of 3RP, which I'm looking forward to a great deal.
The remix/remaster work is absolutely top-notch, bringing clarity and depth, detail and transparency to music that still holds up nearly 40 years later.But the real treasure trove is the DVD extras that come with each disc. Contemporary interviews with the guys in the band (including Anthony Phillips for Trespass, but, alas, no John Mayhew) are interesting, while Foxtrot and Selling England by the Pound contain about 90 minutes of classic live footage. The Selling England . . . DVD, in particular, contains the "Shepperton Studios" footage, complete with Gabriel in all of his costumed glory. Really, if you're at all a fan of Genesis before they went pop, you owe it to yourself to grab a copy next time Borders has a deal on box sets.