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.