New music update

I’ve written before about what a revelation Pandora Radio has been for me. Following, in no particular order, some capsule reviews of new bands I’ve discovered and old bands I’ve rediscovered through this resource.

Porcupine Tree spans a gamut between elaborate old-school prog rock, crunchy new-school prog-metal, and Pink-Floydish spaciness. Steven Wilson is a genuine genius who, unlike all too many of his stripe, manages not to slip into mere self-indulgence very often. If you like Radiohead or Transatlantic, this is the band that ups their game.

My reaction to Swedish death-metal band Opeth is more mixed. They write achingly beautiful music from a palette of influences that includes rock, classical, middle-eastern, technical metal, and pyschedelia – then they disfigure it with growling-zombie vocals. This is rendered odder by the fact that their vocalist can actually sing quite well and very movingly and will sometimes switch in and out of growling within in a track. One is left wondering why.

I find that Billy Cobham’s pioneering jazz-fusion albums from the early 1970s hold up extremely well, sounding much less dated than a lot of stuff from that era. I’m thinking especially of Spectrum and Crosswinds. It may be difficult to hear, nowadays, how innovative they were, because the fusion guys won the argument and reshaped much of mainstream jazz in their image.

The players in Riverside have done what Opeth should have; they’ve found a prog-metal sound that’s lush and stirringly beautiful (with a similar palette of influences) and transcended their death-metal roots. The result is like unto the epic progressive-rock concept albums of my teens, but with better musicianship and a pleasing absence of pointless bloat.

Planet X is, I think, my single favorite Pandora discovery – instrumental prog-metal played with filigree elegance and dark, savage intensity. The sound is dominated by layers upon intricate layers, often creatively dissonent, of knotty keyboards and shred guitar. Tempo and signature changes are frequent and the rhythm section is fully part of the conversation in a way that recalls the best jazz fusion. The effect is both spacy and crunchy, atmospheric and epic at the same time.

The Hellecasters are three session musicians from Nashville who record instrumental guitar albums in a style that could be described as follows: pour one part Grand Old Opry and one part Jeff Beck into a cocktail shaker, bolt a warp drive to the shaker, light it up and stand back. The results are both pyrotechnically good playing and hilariously funny. The funny is intentional; it is reliably reported that they recorded their first album, The Return of the Hellecasters as a joke, and their retro/campy cover of the Peter Gunn theme tends to confirm that. There have been two sequels. May there be many more.

Gordian Knot is another superb instrumental prog-metal band, differing from Planet X in being more overtly jazz-influenced and taking a cooler, more cerebral approach to their material. Indeed, some people might find their one album a touch on the sterile and mathematical side,. but I don’t think there was a track on it that didn’t challenge me to think about what the musicians were doing and present me with textures and contrasts not quite like any I’d ever heard before. A very promising debut that I’d like to see followed up.

Ozric Tentacles is just as much weird and loopy fun is you might expect from their name. It’s sort of late-70s instrumental space rock reloaded, but played like tight jazz with a keyboard- and bass-centered sound. The arrangements are rich and full of quirky, unexpected turns; the sound is unique and, once you’ve heard three or four tracks, instantly recognizable. This is party music for brights.

I wasn’t a big fan of Dream Theater during their first fifteen minutes of fame in the early 1990s. I got a couple of their albums as Christmas gifts from my sister Lisa, who understands my tastes pretty well and likes to push my envelope a little, but I found them too full of glossy soulless vocals and rock-opera pretentiousness. But Dream Theater shares musical DNA and personnel with a lot of bands I do like; Liquid Tension Experiment is a brilliant case in point, as are Planet X and Gordian Knot. Thus, they’ve been showing up on my Pandora station a lot and I’ve developed new respect for them. They’re good listening when they shut the annoying vocalist up and just play. John Petrucci’s brilliant guitar work can earn forgiveness for a lot of excess.

Tool utterly blew me away with Lateralus, but I found the following album 10,000 Days a severe disappointment. Grungy prog-metal in 5/4 time is a trick you can repeat only so many times before it gets stale and you need to do something else, and they didn’t; 10,000 Days taken as a whole sounded like a weak imitation of Lateralus by a band that had run out of ideas and energy. But tracks from it kept coming up in my Pandora station, and I noticed something interesting; taken individually, and surrounded by other music, they sounded much better. So I’ve rediscovered that album, too.

29 thoughts on “New music update

  1. This is rendered odder by the fact that their vocalist can actually sing quite well and very movingly and will sometimes switch in and out of growling within in a track. One is left wondering why.

    Because for death metal, you want to scream from the bowels of your lungs! The bowels!

  2. How do you like Meshuggah?

    ESR: Heard of them, haven’t heard their music.

  3. Hi ers,

    i agreed with Ozric Tentacles, they are very weird and on live you could appreciate their feeling at its best…
    I run away from the so labelled “prog-metal”, because it hasn’t got what the “prog” bands from ’70 had: the creativity, that insane act of composing weird music never heard before, “hacking” their equipment to achieve uncovered results…
    I miss King Crimson (actually they split into ProjeKcts), Van der Graaf Generator (i saw them last summer… very deep), Gentle Giant, … i also miss the ’70 bands from my country (Italy) such as Ballettodi Bronzo, Jacula, Il Rovescio della Medaglia, …
    I look so nostalgic, isn’t it? ;-)
    If you’ll have the oppurtunity (maybe you already had) listen to those great bands, because i doubt the music industry lets the ’70 happens again… sad but true.

    Cheers,
    ff0000

  4. >I run away from the so labelled “prog-metal”, because it hasn’t got what the “prog” bands from ‘70 had: the creativity, that insane act of composing weird music never heard before,

    I totally disagree. I grew up on old-school prog and loved it dearly in its day, but I think some of the new prog bands are just as creative and good – and their standard of musicianship is far higher. Nothing from the 1970s can quite match the sheer virtuosity and tight ensemble playing of, say, Liquid Tension Experiment II. Bands like Planet X and Porcupine Tree have gone way beyond where Emerson Lake & Palmer or Yes ever went. And this is hardly surprising, because new-school prog builds on the old.

  5. They write achingly beautiful music from a palette of influences that includes rock, classical, middle-eastern, technical metal, and pyschedelia – then they disfigure it with growling-zombie vocals.

    I always thought of those as “Cookie Monster” vocals, and it meant that I couldn’t stand to listen to about half of the tracks that Nightwish put out, which was a shame, because I liked everything else about their work.

  6. You think Nightwish is too growly? I normally hate death grunts, but find Nightwish perfectly tolerable. The guy has a bit of a weird voice, but he is definitely singing, and it does mix well with the female vocals on a lot of tracks(Phantom of the Opera and The Siren come to mind).

  7. Rarely do a read a blog post which I agree with 100%, but this is a rare example :) I, too, love Pandora, Porcupine Tree, Planet X, and Dream Theater. Awesome stuff. You might check out Spock’s Beard for more of the same O)(

    ESR: Yes, I know of Spock’s Beard and like them.

  8. I know they’re not exactly prog-metal in the same vein as Dream Theater, but Queensryche’s gotten to be quite a favorite of mine, mainly their earlier work. (I think they peaked with Operation: Mindcrime, but Empire and Promised Land had some good songs on them, too, even though those albums were more mainstream than the ones before Mindcrime.)

  9. So, Eric – done much more listening and thinking about Larry and the Lounge Lizards “My Clown’s On FIre” have you gotten in since I shared it with you in October?

    ESR says: Pbbphffphhttl!

  10. > Nothing from the 1970s can quite match the sheer virtuosity and tight ensemble playing of, say, Liquid Tension Experiment II.
    Uh… Ok, my point of view is quite different, but that’s why life is wonderful :-)…
    When i listen to music, any genre, i throw away the virtuoso appeal, because (to me) it doesn’t shake me at all, whereas if i take a single musician… well, maybe it could :-P
    So, my point to these modern tech band (sorry my will does not let me label them as “prog” ;-) is that they put the virtuosity in front of the music; this could be like an heresy, but it seems to me that they write music lessons instead of music…
    Don’t see me as a fool, but i hear so many people throw things like the following:

    * have you listen to the Metropolis’ bass solo? F***ing awesome!
    * what impossible tempo that drummer is playing!
    * that chords progression, make me crazy!!! 13th, diminished, diabolus in musica :-P

    so a question comes to me very often: are the people listening to the music or maybe to what the individual musician is doing?
    So sad… :-(
    Anyway this is only my distorted vision that reach what is metal (in all its subgenre) today: there is no metal at all, but this is another story, i don’t want to create a flame war :-)
    Last thing: if you like old stuff too, you probably like to check out Magma (from French) who started in 1969 and are still active… They created a language for their music (Kobaian) and the genre they play (Zeuhl), but they’re more prog than other [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WfEaAQFk0Is].
    Last word on Liquid Tension 2: i don’t like them, anyway aside Tony Levin (which is a god and in the same time a mercenary of bass and stick :-) what i mean is that the others can’t beat what (e.g.) King Crimson did; songs like Elephant Talk, Three of a Perfect Pair, Cirkus, …, are unreachable to them, not for the lack of technical skills but for the lack of crazyness, creativity, have fun with the band (it’s so rare today)… They will not compose anything like Gentle Giant’s On Reflection…
    I’m not criticizing what they compose, but only that they’ve limits (not technical) that in ’70 were fewer.

    Cheers and have a nice week-end :-),
    ff0000

  11. Porcupine Tree has become one of my favorite bands over the past 2 years. You’re right about Steve Wilson — he is simply a genius. I also like the fact that they often play in small venues, like the last time I saw them in Glenside, PA. Some of their early stuff is a bit wierd and heavy on the psychadellic, but it’s grown on me. Their current sound (from “In Absentia” onward) is really groovy and thought provoking.

    I agree with you 100% about Opeth as well; whenever Mikael Ã…kerfeldt isn’t growling, they sound amazing. Might I suggest the album “Damnation” — there’s zero growling, and it’s really phenomenal instrumentation.

    You’ve definitely given me a few more bands to check out this weekend. Thanks for this post.

  12. >Their current sound (from “In Absentia” onward) is really groovy and thought provoking.

    I’ve heard an interview with Wilson in which he talks about that change. Basically he tripped over Opeth and a couple of other Scandinavian metal bands and decided what they were doing was really interesting and he wanted to move in that direction. Thus the shift to more of a prog-metal sound.

  13. I love Dream Theater, but you’ve hit my problem with them on the head.

    Their vocals are crap, and their original lyrics are afterthoughts on top of the playing of Portnoy, Petrucci, and Rudess.

    Funnily though, the vocals on their covers are much better. In fact I think their version of Deep Purples Perfect Strangers” is better than the original… I guess LaBrie can’t write music that he can sing well”…. which isn’t exactly an uncommon failing among singers.

  14. >Funnily though, the vocals on their covers are much better.

    Yeah. I’ve also noticed that they sound vocally more convincing when they’re imitating Metallica (as well as covering Metallica). I’m thinking of Constant Motion, which is actually a better Metallica-style track than Metallica itself averages.

  15. Porcupine Tree is very cool, but prog-rock isn’t exactly the right label for them…. as pointed out on their website: “Porcupine Tree is unquestionably one of the most difficult-to-categorize and innovative bands working today.” They’re unique, and that’s exactly the sort of music I like, regardless of genre.

  16. “I run away from the so labelled “prog-metal”, because it hasn’t got what the “prog” bands from ‘70 had: the creativity, that insane act of composing weird music never heard before”

    I’m pretty sure all of it (at least the constituent parts) was already heard (Dave Brubeck, modern classical, various bits of avant garde jazz, even country) but they did throw it together and market it in an interesting way.

  17. It’s worth noting that in order to do death vocals without risking injury over time, fine-motor control in the vocal cords must be very well-developed. In other words, a good “normal” voice is a prerequisite for a good “scream” voice.

    By the way, I hadn’t heard of most of what was on your list, and I’m working through the recommendations and liking almost all of it. Thanks!

  18. I recommend giving Devin Townsend a listen; “Seventh Wave” is a relatively accessible entry point. Musically definitely metal but hard to classify – prog-, industrial-, ‘pop’-,…

    I used to enjoy Pandora until they stopped allowing non-US usage(Australian; proxies, yes, I know, just lazy). I’m looking forward to trying your human-curated/collaboratively filtered list in it’s absence.

  19. While I understand your reaction to Opeth, I think you have to remember that norweigian metal is the context they’re coming from and the fans of that genre are their target audience. And if you do like extreme-metal-vocals, then you will find they’re done very well.

    The progressive elements you like are what makes them unique among death/black metal bands. The death/black metal elements aren’t there to shake up the prog feel.

    Those kinda vocals are just something you like or you don’t. While I’m not all about them, I do, and I do find them really well done with Opeth.

    Anyway, I think thats the ‘why.’

  20. @Alsadius: “You think Nightwish is too growly? I normally hate death grunts, but find Nightwish perfectly tolerable. The guy has a bit of a weird voice, but he is definitely singing, and it does mix well with the female vocals on a lot of tracks(Phantom of the Opera and The Siren come to mind).”

    Marco Hietala, bassist and sometime-vocalist for Nightwish, doesn’t normally go in for the “growly” death metal vocals; on those particular tracks, he’s kind of at the top of his range. His usual voice is more in the power-metal range, and, when he’s singing gentler tracks (such as “The Islander” from Dark Passion Play, or “While Your Lips Are Still Red,” the track he and Tuomas Holopainen did for the movie Lieksa! that wound up as the B-side to “Amaranth”), you really get a better impression of his voice. Also look for his work on “Reach” (an early demo for “Amaranth,” recorded before Anette Olzon had been chosen as the new lead singer to replace Tarja Turunen), the live cover of Pink Floyd’s “High Hopes” from the End of an Era concert recording, and the track “The Gathering” by Delain, on which he does guest vocals.

  21. Alsadius: You think Nightwish is too growly? I normally hate death grunts, but find Nightwish perfectly tolerable.

    I’m not talking about the sung vocals; Cookie Monster, when he appears, is unmistakable. On “Slaying the Dreamer”, about 3:00 in, or “10th Man Down”, again around 3:00. It’s not frequent, but it’s there.

  22. Eric:

    The first Gordian Knot is a superb record. They actually did a second one, but I found it to be a little too “sterile and mathematical”. However, after years of searching, I finally found the solo album by Sean Malone, the bass player and primary driver of Gordian Knot. It’s called “Cordlandt” and it’s very good, a great companion to GK.

    In a similar vein, I would recommend Michael Manring, who is an inhuman jazz bass player who studied under Jaco, and he is worthy of that great teacher. I first discovered him playing with “Attention Deficit” a contemporary “supergroup” of Liquid Tension Experiment from the golden days of the Magna Carta label. Although you should be careful of some of the stuff he did for Windham Hill, which is more along the lines of the bland stuff they devolved into after their great days in the early to mid 80s, he’s also done really brilliant albums. Look for “Thonk” (another disc that took me years to find), “Book of Flame”, and the more recent “Soliloquy” which is very mellow in comparison, but not boring. The two “Attention Deficit” albums he made with Alex Skolnick and Tim Alexander in the late 90′s are also really good.

    Another similar project you should check out is “Black Light Syndrome” by Bozzio, Levin and Stevens. Then there’s Jelly Jam featuring alumni of the Dregs, King’s X and Dream Theater, the Rudess-Morgenstein Project, “An Evening with John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess” and of course, Liquid Tension Experiment, mentioned above. “Planet X” was largely driven by Derek Sherinian, formerly of Dream Theater, and he’s released several solo efforts of similar music, while branching out into beefy metal, and straight-ahead rock as well. And I’m just getting started with recommendations from the jazz/rock/prog/metal fusion genre.

    My favorite groups, however, are Spock’s Beard and the Flower Kings (from which sprang Transatlantic), which are much more melodic and song-oriented than the groups and projects I’ve listed so far, but they don’t lack for technical skill and add a lot of compositional skill to the mix. Every album by either groups is recommended, but for you I think I would recommend “X” (the latest release from Spock’s) and “Unfold the Future” by TFK from about 2002. These groups and their innumerable side projects and solo efforts are a treasure trove of wonderful music to explore.

    My biggest complaint about Pandora is that about 90-95% of what it plays is already in my music collection. I’m having a hard time trying to get it to branch out more while still keeping to things I don’t outright dislike. I’m not sure if this means my tastes are too narrow or my music collection is too comprehensive, or some of both.

    Oh, and Cookie Monster Vocals == Instant FAIL.

    Rick

  23. >If you liked Ozric Tentacles, then perhaps you might like similarly-sounding but electronic music

    Sorry, but…utter fail. I liked the Electric Universe cut until the bog-standard dance beat kicked in at about 1:05 at which point it became just another piece of boring techno. And I couldn’t even listen to the second track all the way through, the vocals were so bad. I’d have expected much much better taste from you, Shenpen.

  24. Did you catch Opeth in NYC or LA in April? The show was EPIC! Opeth ROCKS!!!!
    The growling is an element of influence from “death metal”, but, they are so far beyond that genre, so much more diverse, anyway.
    Like you said, they write “achingly beautiful music”.

    Perhaps try some great rock en español desde Argentina: Cabezones http://www.cabezones.com.ar/
    and/or
    Catupecu Machu: http://www.catupecumachu.com/

  25. I find your taste in music surprisingly in line with my own; not something I would have expected, but rather nice!

    I think you would probably enjoy the following bands:

    Gryphon – A progressive folk band in the true sense of the word, it sounds as if a proper 70′s progressive rock band inherited krumhorns and mandolins and decided to write music. If you don’t like folk, shy away, but the album ‘Red Queen to Gryphon Three’ is highly enjoyable and masterfully done.

    Blackfield – Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree teamed up with Aviv Geffen from Israel (I am not familiar with whatever else he may have done). Sounds reminiscent of some softer Porcupine Tree songs, but a unique sounding project. Their self-titled album is wonderful.

    Bigelf – Modern progressive rock band out of the western US, they sound somewhere between Black Sabbath, The Beatles, and Pink Floyd. Somewhat out there and very talented, ‘Closer to Doom’ is one of my favourite modern progressive rock albums that comes clearly out of left field.

    Ayreon – Somewhat of a one-man progressive metal project from the Netherlands, Aryeon is famous for creating epic metal operas with many, many guest vocalists and musicians. Most notable of his albums is probably The Human Equation, but everything he’s done is quite fantastic. (Including his numerous side projects, especially Star One’s “Space Metal”, which is space rock + progressive metal, and includes a 9-minute Hawkwind medley with Tim Brock of Hawkwind fame on vocals.)

    Josh wrote: “While I understand your reaction to Opeth, I think you have to remember that norweigian metal is the context they’re coming from [...]”
    Opeth is Swedish, and modern death metal is a rather Swedish and American genre; pioneered by Floridean bands such as Morbid Angel and Death in the US and Göteborg-based bands like In Flames and At the Gates in Sweden. Norway is famous for second-wave black metal, such as Emperor or Burzum.

    Of black metal bands, my highest recommendations (to everyone) are Enslaved and Ihsahn, both progressive black metal acts out of Norway. In a minor nod towards brevity I won’t go into detail in this post, but both bands are worth checking out if you’re into such music.

  26. jugga jigga wugga

    C IS FOR COOKIE

    jugga jigga wugga

    DAT GOOD ENOUGH FOR ME

  27. Old blog post, sorry, but I just realized you might be interested in a more recent discovery I’ve made: The lead guitarist from power-metal band Nevermore has done a solo instrumental album, Zero Order Phase. Here are a couple songs off it:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6Y7iLDj9Cg
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7nY-XDF_Ask
    If you like good shred guitar and no-nonsense fast-paced instrumental metal you will love this album. Most of the songs could be considered neoclassical metal.

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