Moody Blues - Days of Future Passed1967: Moody Blues - Days of Future Passed:  This album marked the formal debut of the psychedelic-era Moody Blues; though they'd made a pair of singles featuring new (as of 1966) members Justin Hayward and John Lodge, Days of Future Passed was a lot bolder and more ambitious. What surprises first-time listeners — and delighted them at the time — is the degree to which the group shares the spotlight with the London Festival Orchestra without compromising their sound or getting lost in the lush mix of sounds. That's mostly because they came to this album with the strongest, most cohesive body of songs in their history, having spent the previous year working up a new stage act and a new body of material (and working the bugs out of it on-stage), the best of which ended up here. Decca Records had wanted a rock version of Dvorak's "New World Symphony" to showcase its enhanced stereo-sound technology, but at the behest of the band, producer Tony Clarke (with engineer Derek Varnals aiding and abetting) hijacked the project and instead cut the group's new repertory, with conductor/arranger Peter Knight adding the orchestral accompaniment and devising the bridge sections between the songs and the album's grandiose opening and closing sections. The record company didn't know what to do with the resulting album, which was neither classical nor pop, but following its release in December of 1967, audiences found their way to it as one of the first pieces of heavily orchestrated, album-length psychedelic rock to come out of England in the wake of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour albums. What's more, it was refreshingly original, rather than an attempt to mimic the Beatles; sandwiched among the playful lyricism of "Another Morning" and the mysticism of "The Sunset," songs like "Tuesday Afternoon" and "Twilight Time" (which remained in their concert repertory for three years) were pounding rockers within the British psychedelic milieu, and the harmony singing (another new attribute for the group) made the band's sound unique. With "Tuesday Afternoon" and "Nights In White Satin" to drive sales, Days of Future Passed became one of the defining documents of the blossoming psychedelic era, and one of the most enduringly popular albums of its era. On CD, its history was fairly spotty until 1997, when it was remastered by Polygram; that edition blows every prior CD release (apart from Mobile Fidelity's limited-edition disc) out of contention, though this record is likely due for another upgrade — and probably a format jump, perhaps to DVD-Audio — on or before its 40th anniversary in 2007. (by Bruce Eder )

 

Traffic - Traffic1968: Traffic - Traffic:  After dispensing with his services in December 1967, the remaining members of Traffic reinstated Dave Mason in the group in the spring of 1968 as they struggled to write enough material for their impending second album. The result was a disc evenly divided between Mason's catchy folk-rock compositions and Steve Winwood's compelling rock jams. Mason's material was the most appealing both initially and eventually: the lead-off track, a jaunty effort called "You Can All Join In," became a European hit, and "Feelin' Alright?" turned out to be the only real standard to emerge from the album after it started earning cover versions from Joe Cocker and others in the 1970s. Winwood's efforts, with their haunting keyboard-based melodies augmented by Chris Wood's reed work and Jim Capaldi's exotic rhythms, work better as musical efforts than lyrical ones. Primary lyricist Capaldi's words tend to be impressionistic reveries or vague psychological reflections; the most satisfying is the shaggy-dog story "Forty Thousand Headmen," which doesn't really make any sense as anything other than a dream. But the lyrics to Winwood/Capaldi compositions take a back seat to the playing and Winwood's soulful voice. As Mason's simpler, more direct performances alternate with the more complex Winwood tunes, the album is well-balanced. It's too bad that the musicians were not able to maintain that balance in person; for the second time in two albums, Mason found himself dismissed from the group just as an LP to which he'd made a major contribution hit the stores. Only a few months after that, the band itself split up, but not before scoring their second consecutive Top Ten ranking in the U.K.; the album also reached the Top 20 in the U.S., breaking the temporarily defunct group stateside. (by William Ruhlmann )

 

Beatles - Abbey Road1969: The Beatles - Abbey Road: The last Beatles album to be recorded (although Let It Be was the last to be released), Abbey Road was a fitting swan song for the group, echoing some of the faux-conceptual forms of Sgt. Pepper, but featuring stronger compositions and more rock-oriented ensemble work. The group was still pushing forward in all facets of its art, whether devising some of the greatest harmonies to be heard on any rock record (especially on "Because"), constructing a medley of songs/vignettes that covered much of side two, adding subtle touches of Moog synthesizer, or crafting furious guitar-heavy rock ("The End," "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," "Come Together"). George Harrison also blossomed into a major songwriter, contributing the buoyant "Here Comes the Sun" and the supremely melodic ballad "Something," the latter of which became the first Harrison-penned Beatles hit. Whether Abbey Road is the Beatles' best work is debatable, but it's certainly the most immaculately produced (with the possible exception of Sgt. Pepper) and most tightly constructed.

 

The Move - Shazam

1970: The Move - Shazam :  The single most accomplished album to be recorded by any of the Birmingham rock bands (which include the Moody Blues), Shazam is sort of Sgt. Pepper with an attitude, a mixture of expansive progressive rock worthy of the Beatles and high-energy music honed by years of playing loud on-stage. The rendition of Tom Paxton's "The Last Thing on My Mind" pushes these guys simultaneously into Byrds and Jimi Hendrix territory, while "Beautiful Daughter" is one of the most unabashedly pretty records of this era, and "Cherry Blossom Clinic Revisited" is defiantly strange. The album only exists as an import from Japan, paired up on one CD with the earlier Flowers in the Rain album (all songs in print domestically or a better German version filled out with five live tracks from London's Marquee Club, off of the super-rare Something Else EP).

 

Ramases - Space Hymns1971: Ramases - Space Hymns :  by Dave Thompson
Although Ramases' debut album is best known today for featuring the infant 10cc as accompanying musicians (the 1990 Repertoire reissue even flags their involvement on the front cover), it is, in fact, deserving of considerably more attention than even that merits. Insistent, percolating rhythms float across a lightly funky soundscape, building with an intensity that ebbs and flows with every track and begging comparison with some of the other, darker folk devils that danced around the fringes of the early-'70s British underground. Comus, Gravy Train, and Dr. Strangely Strange all inhabit similar musical caverns, even as they strained toward new peaks of uniqueness, and Ramases shares that ambition — and occasionally even surpasses it. The opening "Lifechild" sets the scene, one of two songs (the other is "Balloon," later in the set) that all but strap you aboard the spacecraft blasting off from Roger Dean's excellent sleeve design. From there, the journey does occasionally stray into territory that 10cc would enlarge upon — or that they had already visited via their earlier Hotlegs excursions: "Oh Mister" is certainly the disinherited second cousin of "Um Wah Um Who," while "And the Whole World" could easily have become one of those insidious little ballads that Kevin Godley used to sing so sweetly. Again, however, it is misleading to emphasize such connections — Space Hymns was Ramases' show from start to finish, a mass of musical eccentricities that spend the entire album colliding with one another, without once disintegrating into chaos or nonsense. A beautifully atmospheric album, then, Space Hymns remains one of the most musically and lyrically intriguing releases of an age where darkness and atmosphere genuinely meant something to their exponents. If Current 93 had been making records in 1971, this would be one of their greatest.

David Bowie - Ziggy Stardust1972; David Bowie - Ziggy Stardust:  Stephen Thomas Erlewine - Borrowing heavily from Marc Bolan's glam rock and the future shock of A Clockwork Orange, David Bowie reached back to the heavy rock of The Man Who Sold the World for The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Constructed as a loose concept album about an androgynous alien rock star named Ziggy Stardust, the story falls apart quickly, yet Bowie's fractured, paranoid lyrics are evocative of a decadent, decaying future, and the music echoes an apocalyptic, nuclear dread. Fleshing out the off-kilter metallic mix with fatter guitars, genuine pop songs, string sections, keyboards, and a cinematic flourish, Ziggy Stardust is a glitzy array of riffs, hooks, melodrama, and style and the logical culmination of glam. Mick Ronson plays with a maverick flair that invigorates rockers like "Suffragette City," "Moonage Daydream," and "Hang Onto Yourself," while "Lady Stardust," "Five Years," and "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide" have a grand sense of staged drama previously unheard of in rock & roll. And that self-conscious sense of theater is part of the reason why Ziggy Stardust sounds so foreign. Bowie succeeds not in spite of his pretensions but because of them, and Ziggy Stardust — familiar in structure, but alien in performance — is the first time his vision and execution met in such a grand, sweeping fashion.

Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon1973: Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon:  Stephen Thomas Erlewine
By condensing the sonic explorations of Meddle to actual songs and adding a lush, immaculate production to their trippiest instrumental sections, Pink Floyd inadvertently designed their commercial breakthrough with Dark Side of the Moon. The primary revelation of Dark Side of the Moon is what a little focus does for the band. Roger Waters wrote a series of songs about mundane, everyday details which aren't that impressive by themselves, but when given the sonic backdrop of Floyd's slow, atmospheric soundscapes and carefully placed sound effects, they achieve an emotional resonance. But what gives the album true power is the subtly textured music, which evolves from ponderous, neo-psychedelic art rock to jazz fusion and blues-rock before turning back to psychedelia. It's dense with detail, but leisurely paced, creating its own dark, haunting world. Pink Floyd may have better albums than Dark Side of the Moon, but no other record defines them quite as well as this one.

Genesis - The lamb lies down on Broadway1974: Genesis - The lamb lies down on Broadway:  The group's only double studio album was the culmination of their early period, featuring Peter Gabriel in a bravura performance in the role of Rael, a New York street hustler, in this musical drama. The singing and playing are all strong, and the remastered edition from 1995 is the first CD edition that sounds as good as (or better than) the superb original Atco pressing from 1975. The piece's length makes it something of an acquired taste, but most serious fans regard this as the best record the group ever cut.

Queen - Night at the Opera1975: Queen - Night at the Opera:  Stephen Thomas Erlewine - Queen were straining at the boundaries of hard rock and heavy metal on Sheer Heart Attack, but they broke down all the barricades on A Night at the Opera, a self-consciously ridiculous and overblown hard rock masterpiece. Using the multi-layered guitars of its predecessor as a foundation, A Night at the Opera encompasses metal ("Death on Two Legs," "Sweet Lady"), pop (the lovely, shimmering "You're My Best Friend"), campy British music hall ("Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon," "Seaside Rendezvous"), and mystical prog rock ("'39," "The Prophet's Song"), eventually bringing it all together on the pseudo-operatic "Bohemian Rhapsody." In short, it's a lot like Queen's own version of Led Zeppelin IV, but where Zep find dark menace in bombast, Queen celebrate their own pomposity. No one in the band takes anything too seriously, otherwise the arrangements wouldn't be as ludicrously exaggerated as they are. But the appeal — and the influence — of A Night at the Opera is in its detailed, meticulous productions. It's prog rock with a sense of humor as well as dynamics, and Queen never bettered their approach anywhere else.

Tales of Mystery and Imagination1976: Alan Parsons Project - Tales of Mystery and Imagination : Tales of Mystery and Imagination is an extremely mesmerizing aural journey through some of Edgar Allan Poe's most renowned works. With the use of synthesizers, drums, guitar, and even a glockenspiel, Parsons' shivering effects make way for an eerie excursion into Poe's well-known classics. The instrumental "Dream Within a Dream" has Orson Welles narrating in front of this wispy collaboration of guitars and keyboards. The EMI vocoder is used throughout "The Raven" with the Westminster City School Boys Choir mixed in to add a distinct flair to its chamber-like sound. Parsons' expertise surrounds this album, from the slyness that prevails in "(The System Of) Doctor Tarr and Professor Feather" to the bodeful thumping of the drums that imitate a heartbeat on "The Tell-Tale Heart." "The Fall of the House of Usher" is a lengthy but dazzling array of musicianship that keeps the album's persona intact, while enabling the listener to submerge into its frightening atmosphere. With vocalists Terry Sylvester, John Miles, and Eric Woolfson stretched across each track, this variety of different singing styles adds color and design to the album's air. Without any underlying theme to be pondered upon, Alan Parsons instead paints a vivid picture of one of the most alluring literary figures in history by musically reciting his most famous works in expert fashion.

1977: Brian Eno - Before and after Science: Before and After Science is really a study of "studio composition" whereby recordings are created by deconstruction and elimination: tracks are recorded and assembled in layers, then selectively subtracted one after another, resulting in a composition and sound quite unlike that at the beginning of the process. Despite the album's pop format, the sound is unique and strays far from the mainstream. Eno also experiments with his lyrics, choosing a sound-over-sense approach. When mixed with the music, these lyrics create a new sense or meaning, or the feeling of meaning, a concept inspired by abstract sound poet Kurt Schwitters (epitomized on the track "Kurt's Rejoinder," on which you actually hear samples from Schwitters' "Ursonate"). Before and After Science opens with two bouncy, upbeat cuts: "No One Receiving," featuring the offbeat rhythm machine of Percy Jones and Phil Collins (Eno regulars during this period), and "Backwater." Jones' analog delay bass dominates on the following "Kurt's Rejoinder," and he and Collins return on the mysterious instrumental "Energy Fools the Magician." The last five tracks (the entire second side of the album format) display a serenity unlike anything in the pop music field. These compositions take on an occasional pastoral quality, pensive and atmospheric. Cluster joins Eno on the mood-evoking "By This River," but the album's apex is the final cut, "Spider and I." With its misty emotional intensity, the song seems at once sad yet hopeful. The music on Before and After Science at times resembles Another Green World ("No One Receiving") and Here Come the Warm Jets ("King's Lead Hat") and ranks alongside both as the most essential Eno material.

Jeff Wayne - The War of the Worlds

1978: Jeff Wayne - War of the Worlds:  Paul Collins and Bruce Eder
Released 40 years after Orson Welles' infamous radio version of the H.G. Wells tale, Jeff Wayne's musical version of War of the Worlds straddles old-style radio drama and contemporary orchestrated narratives by Rick Wakeman and David Bedford. And while it lacks the sophisticated arrangements of, say, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, it does boast an impressively odd cast — this may be the only time that a member of Thin Lizzy worked with Richard Burton, and the presence of Julie Covington and the Moody Blues' Justin Hayward in very attractive singing roles attest to its pop/rock aspirations. It's Burton's sonorous tones that sustain this work; his frequent solo narrations are eminently listenable, whereas sections featuring dialogue with other characters often come off as a bit stilted. The music is competent studio rock, and "Horsell Common and the Heat Ray" does strike just the right balance between Burton's narration and an accompaniment built around a buzzsaw guitar riff. Overall, it's pleasant as a period piece, and still a fine way to introduce younger listeners to Wells' classic tale. (And if you can find it in a vinyl, it comes with a nicely produced narrative booklet with gloriously lurid illustrations by Geoff Taylor.) The album was actually appealing on too many fronts for its own good in many ways — the Justin Hayward-sung ballad "Forever Autumn," extracted from a much longer piece on the double-LP — showed some signs of appealing to AM radio listeners and climbed to the Top 40 based on airplay alone, but by the time Columbia Records in America (missing this boat entirely) got copies of the single into stores so that people could actually buy the record, the song had dropped back down; in the meantime, the record became a favorite of discos and dance clubs in New York and elsewhere, where its extended, highly rhythmic, synthesizer-driven sections delighted deejays and audiences, and Columbia missed another bet by not releasing an instrumental-only assembly of those long passages. (In New York, for years after it went out of print on vinyl, the album was sought after by club deejays eager to spin it).

Pink Floyd - The Wall1979 - Pink Floyd - The Wall:  Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Roger Waters constructed The Wall, a narcissistic, double-album rock opera about an emotionally crippled rock star who spits on an audience member daring to cheer during an acoustic song. Given its origins, it's little wonder that The Wall paints such an unsympathetic portrait of the rock star, cleverly named "Pink," who blames everyone — particularly women — for his neuroses. Such lyrical and thematic shortcomings may have been forgivable if the album had a killer batch of songs, but Waters took his operatic inclinations to heart, constructing the album as a series of fragments that are held together by larger numbers like "Comfortably Numb" and "Hey You." Generally, the fully developed songs are among the finest of Pink Floyd's later work, but The Wall is primarily a triumph of production: its seamless surface, blending melodic fragments and sound effects, makes the musical shortcomings and questionable lyrics easy to ignore. But if The Wall is examined in depth, it falls apart, since it doesn't offer enough great songs to support its ambition, and its self-serving message and shiny production seem like relics of the late-'70s Me Generation.

Peter Gabriel - Peter Gabriel 31980 - Peter Gabriel - Peter Gabriel 3:  Stephen Thomas Erlewine - Generally regarded as Peter Gabriel's finest record, his third eponymous album finds him coming into his own, crafting an album that's artier, stronger, more song oriented than before. Consider its ominous opener, the controlled menace of "Intruder." He's never found such a scary sound, yet it's a sexy scare, one that is undeniably alluring, and he keeps this going throughout the record. For an album so popular, it's remarkably bleak, chilly, and dark — even radio favorites like "I Don't Remember" and "Games Without Frontiers" are hardly cheerful, spiked with paranoia and suspicion, insulated in introspection. For the first time, Gabriel has found the sound to match his themes, plus the songs to articulate his themes. Each aspect of the album works, feeding off each other, creating a romantically gloomy, appealingly arty masterpiece. It's the kind of record where you remember the details in the production as much as the hooks or the songs, which isn't to say that it's all surface — it's just that the surface means as much as the songs, since it articulates the emotions as well as Gabriel's cubist lyrics and impassioned voice. He wound up having albums that sold more, or generated bigger hits, but this third Peter Gabriel album remains his masterpiece.

Rush - Moving Pictures1981 - Rush - Moving Pictures:  Greg Prato  - Not only is 1981's Moving Pictures Rush's best album, it is undeniably one of the greatest hard rock albums of all time. The new wave meets hard rock approach of Permanent Waves is honed to perfection — all seven of the tracks are classics (four are still featured regularly in concert and on classic rock radio). While other hard rock bands at the time experimented unsuccessfully with other musical styles, Rush were one of the few to successfully cross over. The whole entire first side is perfect — their most renowned song, "Tom Sawyer," kicks things off, and is soon followed by the racing "Red Barchetta," the instrumental "YYZ," and a song that examines the pros and cons of stardom, "Limelight." And while the second side isn't as instantly striking as the first, it is ultimately rewarding. The long and winding "The Camera Eye" begins with a synth-driven piece before transforming into one of the band's more straight-ahead epics, while "Witch Hunt" and "Vital Signs" remain two of the trio's more underrated rock compositions. Rush proved with Moving Pictures that there was still uncharted territory to explore within the hard rock format, and were rewarded with their most enduring and popular album.

Asia - Asia1982 - Asia - Asia:  This marriage of four players with impressive pedigrees proved to be the success story of 1982 when Asia's debut lodged itself at the top of the U.S. album charts for two months. The album spawned a massive number four single in "Heat of the Moment," a follow-up Top 20 hit in the sweeping "Only Time Will Tell," and a handful of other tracks that received heavy radio play despite going against the grain of the new wave styling of the day. Produced by Mike Stone, Asia's strengths were the powerful vocals of John Wetton, the nimble, classically tinged guitar work of Steve Howe, Geoffrey Downes' majestic keyboard playing, and anchoring the band, Carl Palmer's propulsive drumming. The lyrics are overwrought at moments, but there's no denying the epic grandeur of the music, which provided some much-needed muscle to radio at the time, and did so with style.

Marillion - Script for a Jester's Tear 1983 - Marillion - Script for a Jester's Tear :  John Franck
At the time, Marillion's remarkable, full-fledged 1983 debut Script for a Jester's Tear was considered an odd bird: replete with Peter Gabriel face paint and lengthy, technical compositions, Marillion ushered in a new generation of prog rock that bound them forever to the heroics of early day Genesis. Intricate, complex, and theatrical almost to a fault, Script for a Jester's Tear remains the band's best and sets the bar for their later work. Filled with extraordinary songs that remained staples in the band's live gigs, the album begins with the poignant title track, on which Fish leads his band of merry men on a brokenhearted tour de force that culminates with the singer decrying that "…the game is over." "He Knows You Know,," a song sprinkled with drug paranoia and guilt; as the song veers to its chorus, Fish announces, "Fast feed, crystal fever, swarming through a fractured mind." If "The Web" hints at a grain of commercialism, "Garden Party" is a joyous anthem that showcases Marillion at the peak of its powers. Bogged down by some hilariously over-the-top British poetry, "Chelsea Monday" may be one of the album's lesser moments (if there are any), but the magical "Forgotten Sons" concludes the opus magnificently. Luckily for Marillion fans, EMI released a remastered version of Script with two different versions of "Market Square Heroes," "Three Boats Down from the Candy," "Grendel," Chelsea Monday," the demo of "He Knows You Know," and an alternate track titled "Charting the Single." A vital piece for any Marillion head and an essential work for any self-respecting first- or second-generation prog rock fan.
 

Roger Hodgson - In the Eye of the Storm

1984 - Roger Hodgson - In the Eye of the Storm:  Vocalist/guitarist Roger Hodgson must have really felt stifled toward the end of his tenure in Supertramp in the early '80s — despite co-writing and singing many of the band's biggest hits — because his solo debut, 1984's In the Eye of the Storm, is a remarkable work of explosive creativity. Hodgson wrote, sang, arranged, and produced In the Eye of the Storm, but the real kicker is the fact that he played every instrument himself, with a few exceptions such as drums and fretless bass guitar on a few cuts. As a result, In the Eye of the Storm is easily the best synthesis of pop and progressive rock since, well, prime Supertramp. The spirit of traditional progressive rock experimentation is alive on this album; five of the seven songs exceed six minutes. The brilliant leadoff track, "Had a Dream (Sleeping With the Enemy)," is nine minutes long. An edited single just missed the Top 40, but every second of the sound effects, driving piano, tasteful guitar, and Hodgson's aggressive singing of this cynical song must be heard to be fully appreciated. "In Jeopardy" has a cha-cha, shuffle-like flavor and Hodgson's monotone vocals provide a faintly creepy effect. The gentle ballad "Lovers in the Wind" is sweetly arranged. "Give Me Love, Give Me Life" is exuberantly optimistic and hyperactively bouncy. "I'm Not Afraid" fearlessly flows back and forth between darker sounding melodies and upbeat pop. The creamy "Only Because of You" can be favorably compared to the floating instrumental passages on Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here. Without question, In the Eye of the Storm is an exceptional piece of highly listenable craftsmanship.

Marillion - Misplaced Childhood1985 - Marillion - Misplaced Childhood:  John Franck
After the album-tour-album cycle of Script for a Jester's Tear, Fugazi, and the subsequent Euro-only release of Real to Reel, Marillion retreated to Berlin's Hansa Ton Studios with Rolling Stones producer Chris Kimsey to work on their next opus. Armed with a handful of lyrics born out of a self-confessed acid trip, Fish came up with the elaborate concept for 1985's Misplaced Childhood. Touching upon his early childhood experiences and his inability to deal with a slew of bad breakups exacerbated by a never-ending series of rock star-type "indulgences," Misplaced Childhood would prove to be not only the band's most accomplished release to date, but also its most streamlined. Initial record company skepticism over the band's decision to forge ahead with a '70s-style prog rock opus split into two halves (sides one and two) quickly evaporated as Marillion delivered its two most commercial singles ever: "Kayleigh" and "Lavender." With its lush production and punchy mix, the album went on to become the band's greatest commercial triumph, especially in Europe where they would rise from theater attraction to bona fide stadium royalty. The subsequent U.S. success of "Kayleigh" would also see Marillion returning to the States for a difficult tour as Rush's support act. In 1999, EMI/Sanctuary re-released a remastered version of the album, featuring a bonus disc of oddities including live fave "Freaks," the previously unreleased "Blue Angel," alternate takes of "Kayleigh" and "Heart of Lothian," and Misplaced Childhood's actual demos.

Peter Gabriel - So1986 - Peter Gabriel - So:  Stephen Thomas Erlewine - Peter Gabriel introduced his fifth studio album So with "Sledgehammer," an Otis Redding-inspired soul-pop raver that was easily his catchiest, happiest single to date. Needless to say, it was also his most accessible, and, in that sense it was a good introduction to So, the catchiest, happiest record he ever cut. "Sledgehammer" propelled the record toward blockbuster status, and Gabriel had enough songs with single potential to keep it there. There was "Big Time," another colorful dance number; "Don't Give Up," a moving duet with Kate Bush; "Red Rain," a stately anthem popular on album rock radio; and "In Your Eyes," Gabriel's greatest love song which achieved genuine classic status after being featured in Cameron Crowe's classic, Say Anything. These all illustrated the strengths of the album: Gabriel's increased melodicism and ability to blend African music, jangly pop, and soul into his moody art rock. Apart from these singles, plus the urgent "That Voice Again," the rest of the record is as quiet as the album tracks of Security. The difference is, the singles on that record were part of the overall fabric; here, the singles are the fabric, which can make the album seem top-heavy (a fault of many blockbuster albums, particularly those of the mid-'80s). Even so, those songs are so strong, finding Gabriel in a newfound confidence and accessibility, that it's hard not to be won over by them, even if So doesn't develop the unity of its two predecessors.

Jethro Tull - Crest of a Knave1987 - Jethro Tull - Crest of a Knave:  Bruce Eder -
Ian Anderson and company seemed to make a conscious effort to update Jethro Tull's sound on this record. And, to the amazement (and distress) of many, it was voted the Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock/Heavy Metal Performance. Truth is, it isn't a bad album, with an opening track that qualifies as hard rock and pretty much shouts its credentials out in Martin Barre's screaming lead guitar line, present throughout. "Jump Start" and "Raising Steam" also rock hard, and no one can complain of too much on this record being soft, apart from the acoustic "The Waking Edge," along with "Budapest" and "Said She Was a Dancer," Anderson's two aging rock-star's-eye-view accounts of meeting women from around the world. The antiwar song "Mountain Men" is classic Tull-styled electric folk, all screaming electric guitars at a pretty high volume by its end. Overall, this is a fairly successful album and arguably their best since 1978, even if it does seem a little insignificant in relation to, say, Thick As a Brick. By this time Tull was effectively a core trio of Anderson, Barre, and bassist Dave Pegg, augmented by whatever musicians (drummers Gerry Conway and Doane Perry, Fairport Convention keyboard player Martin Allcock, and violinist Ric Sanders) that they needed to fill out their sound. The result is a very lean-sounding group and a record probably as deserving of a Grammy as any other album of its year — in the cosmic scheme, it sort of made up for Tull's not winning one for Thick As a Brick or Aqualung, or for Dave Pegg's former band Fairport Convention never winning.

Queensryche - Operation Mindcrime1988: Queensryche - Operation Mindcrime: Queensrÿche scored their breakthrough success with the ambitious concept album Operation: Mindcrime, which tells the story of a fortune hunter whose disillusionment with Reagan-era American society leads him to join a shadowy plot to assassinate corrupt leaders. For such a detailed story line (there is also a tragic romance thrown in), the band keeps its focus remarkably well, and the music is just as ambitious, featuring a ten-minute track with orchestrations by Michael Kamen. Those experiments don't tend to work as well as the tighter, more melodic prog metal songs, which are frequently gems, especially the singles "Eyes of a Stranger" and "I Don't Believe in Love." Granted, the lyrics and political observations can sometimes be too serious and intellectual for their own good (few bands, metal or otherwise, can make lines like "There's no raison d'être" work). But despite the occasional flaws, it's surprising how well Operation: Mindcrime does work, and it's a testament to Queensrÿche's creativity and talent that they can pull off a project of this magnitude.

Fates Warning - Perfect Symmetry1989 - Fates Warning - Perfect Symmetry: This was the recording that established Fates Warning as a progressive band. Their metal influences still dominate the group's overall sound; however, Mark Zonder's unique approach to drumming adds another level of depth and credibility to the music. His double bass, odd-time introduction to "Part of the Machine" is the session's defining moment. "Through Different Eyes" is a catchy song that provides insight into the band's future pop/metal direction. "Static Acts" still stands as one of the most aggressive songs the band ever recorded. Ray Alder's aggressive singing has a genuine quality which allows him to legitimately convey his anger and pain without sounding clichéd. "A World Apart" is one of the weaker songs here; however, there is some impressive odd-metered drumming from Zonder. "At Fates Hands" has become one of the band's classic songs, and for good reason. The incorporation of the violin and piano provide a refreshing change from the overall metallic sound. While Alder and Zonder prove here that the band is capable of achieving many different moods and sounds, the instrumental section of the song reveals that both Jim Matheos and Frank Aresti are still dependent on their metal guitar style. The most powerful song in terms of lyrics, singing and playing is "Nothing Left to Say," which stands as the band's high-water mark. A historic recording in the progressive metal genre.

Queensryche - Empire1990 - Queensryche - Empire: One of the most praised metal albums of the late '80s, Operation: Mindcrime was an extremely tough act to follow. But while Empire isn't quite on a par with that gem, it is certainly one of the most absorbing headbanger efforts of 1990. Highly conceptual and anything but redundant, Empire demonstrates beautifully just how imaginative Queensrÿche can be. If anyone has bridged the gap between the bombast of Iron Maiden and the artiness of Pink Floyd, it is Queensrÿche. But as much as one may be reminded of Floyd's The Wall on pieces like "Anybody Listening?," "Silent Lucidity," and "Resistance," Empire leaves no doubt that Queensrÿche has a rich personality all its own.

Savatage - Streets A Rock Opera1991 - Savatage - Streets A Rock Opera: Streets picked up where Gutter Ballet left off, taking Savatage's interest in progressive metal into a full-album concept. Based around a short story written by producer/songwriter Paul O' Neill, Streets is a diverse collection of songs about a lost soul trying to find himself in the New York City night. Although not based around real life events in the life of the band, it's obvious the group is quite attached to the material, turning out very emotional performances. Unlike many rock operas where the story suffers to further the music or vice versa, the band finds a nice compromise on Streets and is able to convey feelings of deep sorrow, elation, anger, and beauty, sometimes even on the same track. Opening with a snippet from Mozart's Magic Flute, the group quotes from a wide range of influences. "A Little Too Far" has a show tune quality to it, while the beautiful "Heal My Soul" takes its melody from an old Welsh lullaby. Both songs feature lead singer Jon Oliva alone with a piano. Savatage, who before Gutter Ballet had only written a handful of ballads, turns in several brilliant ones here, concluding with perhaps the band's greatest song, the dramatic and impassioned "Believe." That's not to say that there are not a fair share of rockers, as well. In fact, "Strange Reality," "Ghost in the Ruins," and "Jesus Saves" are among the leanest and most intense the band wrote, and Criss Oliva got more interesting as a guitar player with each successive album. While many metal guitarists seem only interested in technical displays, Oliva turns out material here that equals the heart-wrenching singing of his brother. Considering the intensity and beauty of the diverse material here, this is a fine place to start learning about this band.

Dream Theatre - Images and Words1992 - Dream Theatre - Images and Words: Dream Theater's first album with new vocalist James LaBrie is an excellent mix of progressive metal stylings with heartfelt vocals and thought-provoking lyrics. Guitarist John Petrucci, bassist John Myung, and drummer Mike Portnoy, all of whom trained at Berklee, show impressive ability on their respective instruments. Kevin Moore's keyboards weave strongly through the intricately constructed songs, while operatically trained LaBrie shows an impressive range with his tenor. Standout tracks include the complex "Metropolis, Pt. 1," the Shakespeare-influenced "Pull Me Under" (also released as a single and video), the dramatic "Take the Time," and the 11-minute, thoughtful "Learning to Live." Dream Theater's musicianship and songwriting are a cut above the norm; this is a very good disc.
 

Tool - Undertow

1993 - Tool - Undertow : Just as grunge was reaching its boiling point and radio-friendly punk-pop loomed on the horizon, Tool released Undertow, which firmly reinforced metal's prominence as a musical style — but, for once, it had something worthwhile to say. At the forefront of Tool's commercial explosion were striking, haunting visuals that complemented the album's nihilistic yet wistful mood. Drawing equal inspiration from Black Sabbath, alternative theories of science, and Eastern religions, Tool's abrasive sonic assault begins from the opening notes and continues through the final moments of the last composition, an open mockery of organized religion and its incapacity for original thought. With its technical brilliance, musical complexities, and aggressive overtones, Undertow not only paved the way for several bands to break through to the mainstream adolescent mall-rage demographic, it also proved that metal could be simultaneously intelligent, emotional, and brutal.

Spock's Beard - The Light1994 - Spock's Beard - The Light: The Light is the debut album from Spock's Beard, the Culver City, CA neo-prog rock band whose sprawling exercises in technical proficiency and suite-like compositions made them an underground legend almost immediately. One has to understand that The Light is nothing at all akin to anything being done in the mid-'90s. Yes hadn't yet made their full comeback, and the memories of Genesis with Peter Gabriel faded ever more pervasively form view with each subsequent Phil Collins solo release. Here are four sprawling, knotty, syncopated tunes, two of them, the title track and "The Water," are multiple-part suites that encompass no less than 48 minutes of the album's 67 minutes. In addition, this album was self-financed. (What "responsible" multi-national recording conglomerate during Nirvana-mania would give them a record deal after all?). There are wonderfully referenced elements here in these massive and yes, overblown constructions — but that's what prog's delight is — it's overblown and confoundingly complex. There's the great King Crimson "21st Century Schizoid Man" reference in "One Man," and the flamenco-cum-near-gothic metal of the "Return of the Catfish Man," near the end of The Light. The layered keyboards and backing chorus in "Go the Way You Go" reminds one of Yes at their knottiest, before slipping expertly into an altered universe dynamically and becoming a poetic and romantic elegy. And "The Water"'s labyrinthine, apocalyptic, maze-like compositional journey that may not sound like punk, but certainly reflects many of its sentiments, is an anomaly in any kind of music that espouses this M.O. The dodgy (but not substandard) recording makes it sound like classic- '70s vintage, and the music is out of time and space. Fans of this genre have long regarded it as a classic.

Flower Kings - Back in the world of Adventures1995 - Flower Kings - Back in the world of Adventures: Roine Stolt's voice is strong, full, passionate, and delightfully accented. The Flower Kings' lyrics are heady, compelling, and hook-city. The guitar work is extremely melodic and rates right up there with anything Brian May or David Gilmour has offered. Stolt is expertly meshed in this band with brother Michael on bass and voice. Tomas Bodin excels on Hammond organ, Mellotron, piano, and flute. Hasse Bruniusson is percussion alongside Jamie Salazar on drum kit. Ulf Wallander guests on sax. Ten songs offer five instrumentals and five with great vocals mingled with extended instrumental bridges and a variety of sonic excursions. Each piece is a rocking, swirling matrix, of multifaceted sound-gems glistening in an endless cascade of wonder. "Big Wheel" and "World of Adventures" baptized me in concentric waves of synapse firings and flooded my heart with gossamer-winged butterflies. Take the best of Crack the Sky, Pink Floyd, early Genesis, and the pop-rock, slickcool of Queen and Prince's 1999, mix it all together in the cauldron of Stolt's vision of world peace and out comes a fresh batch of magic.
 

Tool - Aenima1996 - Tool - Aenima: For their third release, Tool explore the progressive rock territory previously forged by such bands as King Crimson. However, Tool are conceptually innovative with every minute detail of their art, which sets them apart from most bands. Make no mistake, this isn't your father's rock record. Sonically, the band has never sounded tighter. Long exploratory passages are unleashed with amazing precision, detail, and clarity, which only complements the aggressive, abrasive shorter pieces on the album. There is no compromise from any member of the band, with each of them discovering the dynamics of his respective instrument and pushing the physical capabilities to the limit. Topics such as the philosophies of Bill Hicks (eloquently eulogized in the packaging), evolution and genetics, and false martyrdom will fly over the heads of casual listeners. But those listening closely will discover a special treat: a catalyst encouraging them to discover a world around them to which they otherwise might have been blind. If these aren't good enough reasons to listen to Ænima, then just trust the simple fact that Tool deliver the hard rock goods every time the band chooses to release something.

Radiohead - OK Computer1997 - Radiohead - OK Computer : Using the textured soundscapes of The Bends as a launching pad, Radiohead delivered another startlingly accomplished set of modern guitar rock with OK Computer. The anthemic guitar heroics present on Pablo Honey and even The Bends are nowhere to be heard here. Radiohead have stripped away many of the obvious elements of guitar rock, creating music that is subtle and textured yet still has the feeling of rock & roll. Even at its most adventurous — such as the complex, multi-segmented "Paranoid Android" — the band is tight, melodic, and muscular, and Thom Yorke's voice effortlessly shifts from a sweet falsetto to vicious snarls. It's a thoroughly astonishing demonstration of musical virtuosity and becomes even more impressive with repeated listens, which reveal subtleties like electronica rhythms, eerie keyboards, odd time signatures, and complex syncopations. Yet all of this would simply be showmanship if the songs weren't strong in themselves, and OK Computer is filled with moody masterpieces, from the shimmering "Subterranean Homesick Alien" and the sighing "Karma Police" to the gothic crawl of "Exit Music (For a Film)." OK Computer is the album that establishes Radiohead as one of the most inventive and rewarding guitar rock bands of the '90s.
 

IQ - Subterranea1998 - IQ - Subterranea: Released in September 1997, Subterranea was quickly hailed by most progressive rock critics as a masterpiece and became one of the very few "classic" albums this style brought forth in 1990s. The two-CD, 103-minute concept album is indeed IQ's strongest effort and would even eclipse The Wake, if it weren't for the historical significance of the 1985 LP. An obscure story of subterranean beings, life-and-death chase, and initiatory quest packed with metaphorical implications, Subterranea, as a concept, is typical Peter Nicholls; all lyrics remain vague, only suggesting emotions and bits of plot, but to phenomenal results. The easy comparison would be Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and, yes, there is something of that in here, but the meaning of this album is even more cryptic. The music is rooted in IQ's neo-prog past: rather simple songs, driven by Martin Orford's keyboards and Peter Nicholls' theatrical and emotion-packed vocals, dressed in progressive rock grandeur without the flashy chops, and — most of all — very strong melodies. This monster of an album takes some time to get used to. After the first listen, one is left puzzled and uncertain, but once some of the melodies have had a chance to implement themselves in one's brain, Subterranea quickly becomes a "desert island" disc. Highlights include the rocking title track and "Tunnel Vision," the pompous "Failsafe," the heartbreaking ballad "Capricorn" (embellished by the saxophone of guest Tony Wright), and the short "State of Mind" and "Laid Low." The first of these two ends the first disc, while the second opens disc two, thereby presenting the "positive" and "negative" sides of the same melody — a very clever way to link the two parts of the album as two "acts." The only weak track of the set is the 20-minute epic "The Narrow Margin." Coming at the end, it is simply too hard to digest, and it seems to lose its cohesion somewhere in the middle. Nevertheless, Subterranea is IQ's biggest musical accomplishment and will get under the skin of any prog fan. A live version of the album was released in 2000 under the title Subterranea: The Concert.

Opeth - Still Life1999 - Opeth - Still Life: Having taken their oppressive black metal symphonies to their furious zenith with their third effort, My Arms, Your Hearse, Sweden's Opeth began deconstructing their sound on 1999's brilliant Still Life. A logical next step in their evolution, the album finds the band re-examining their unlikely fusion of progressive rock and black metal to highlight the former while staying in touch with the latter. The result is a formidable splicing of harsh, often jagged guitar riffs with graceful melodies, and the increasing use of Mikael Akerfeldt's "clean" vocals (alternated with his ever-present death growl). This tactic only serves to spotlight the quality of Akerfeldt's lyrics (a rarity in extreme metal circles) and, in the tradition of prior efforts, Still Life is a full-fledged concept album, which, without going into unnecessary details, centers around a tale of unrequited love for a character called Melinda (a discreet reference to Mercyful Fate's early-'80s classic Melissa, perhaps?). Also new to the mix are a wealth of more dynamic, almost groove-oriented riffs (see "Godhead's Lament" and "Serenity Painted Death") which break away from the Wall of Sound overtures of the past. On the other hand, outstanding, multi-faceted epics like "The Moor," "Moonlapse Vertigo," and "White Cluster" carry on in the proud Opeth tradition. The all-acoustic "Benighted" is the album's only one-dimensional track (and a beauty it is, too), while the awesome "Face of Melinda" represents a new career high with its quietly building atmosphere and powerful finale. Ultimately, this is another star turn for the group, and the fact that they somehow managed to outdo themselves with their next work, Blackwater Park, is a testament to Opeth's greatness.

Radiohead - Kid A2000 - Radiohead - Kid A : Instead of simply adding club beats or sonic collage techniques, Radiohead strive to incorporate the unsettling "intelligent techno" sound of Autechre and Aphex Twin, characterized by its skittering beats and stylishly dark sonic surfaces, for Kid A. To their immense credit, Radiohead don't sound like carpetbaggers, because they share the same post-postmodern vantage point as their inspirations. As a result, Kid A is easily the most successful electronica album from a rock band — it doesn't even sound like a rock band, even if it does sound like Radiohead. So, Kid A is an unqualified success? Well, not quite. Despite its admirable ambition, Kid A is never as visionary or stunning as OK Computer, nor does it really repay the time it demands. OK Computer required many plays before revealing the intricacies of its densely layered mix; here, multiple plays are necessary to discern the music's form, to get a handle on quiet, drifting, minimally arranged songs with no hooks. Of course, the natural reaction of any serious record geek is that if the music demands so much work, it must be worth it — and at times, that supposition is true. But Kid A's challenge doesn't always live up to its end of the bargain. It's self-consciously alienating and difficult, and while that can be intriguing, it seems deeper than it actually is. Repeated plays dissipate the mystique and reveal a number of rather drab songs (primarily during the second half), where there isn't enough under the surface to make Radiohead's relentless experimentation satisfying. But mixed results are still results, and about half of the songs positively shimmer with genius.

Therion - Secret of the Runes2001 - Therion - Secret of the Runes: Secret of the Runes is a concept album whose concept is centuries old. Norse mythology is said to have nine different worlds or planes, and each world gets a track devoted to it. With the lyrics that are sung in several different languages, it's hard to keep up unless you're a UN translator in your spare time. However, the operatic overtures transcend verbal communication, as every song swells and recedes with majestic aplomb, taking the listener on a ride that sounds more like a very loud opera instead of anything with a metallic base. Christofer Johnsson's gothic flair for the dramatic has never been more pronounced than on this, the band's tenth album, and the life he breathes into underground metal will make up for the breath it takes away from its listeners. Metallica's forays with a symphonic orchestra sound like being stuck between two radio stations compared to the seamless integration of metallic trappings and Wagnerian soundscapes. Therion continues to be one of the most painstakingly original acts, and even those who think the band strays too far from their roots with each subsequent album have to marvel at the musicianship and imagination Therion displays on Secret of the Runes.
 

Porcupine Tree - In Absentia2002 - Porcupine Tree - In Absentia: Continuing in the growing commercial vein of their previous releases, Porcupine Tree's In Absentia may be the most accessible release to ever spew forth from the group. Rolling electronic percussion blends with simple and solid live drumming to provide an understated backbeat as perennial Tree leader Steven Wilson pastes his complicated pop over the proceedings. Wilson's ability to bury his layered vocals in mountains of spacy electric guitar without drowning out his fragile lyrics is still a valued feature of the music, and the rare moments of clarity that his vocals display are breathtaking in their power. A reliance on a somewhat gothic heavy metal sound makes for some bizarre moments, especially when held up against his gentler material. The best example of this is the chugging "Wedding Nails," which recalls Dream Theater in its grandiose scope without utilizing the same sort of technical wizardry. But Wilson manages to bridge the gap between the various genres he utilizes, creating an environment where his haunting melodies could take a drastic turn at any minute. Porcupine Tree also continue their Radiohead fascination, although the influence is much less direct than on their last few efforts. Instead, it comes through at odd moments, like the moments of sparse instrumentation on the otherwise lush "Heartattack in a Layby." Sonically gorgeous and deceivingly complex, In Absentia has the most immediate appeal of anything Wilson has released under this moniker up to this point. By keeping the songs at manageable lengths and avoiding the avant-garde electronica flourishes of the band's early days, Porcupine Tree grow into a fully realized pop group without cutting any of the elements that also makes them an important force in the neo-prog movement.

Rush - Rush in Rio2003 - Rush in Rio: Set for production as a live DVD from the Vapour Trails tour, the audio from Rush in Rio clearly stands as a startling historical and musical document. The live mix is simply superb and reveals the show as it happened, without overdubs or DAT splices. The band played in front of their second-largest crowd ever, 40,000 people on the final night of the tour. (The largest was 60,000-plus the night before in São Paulo in the rain.) Covering three CDs, this is one of those documents that can make a punter wonder why he ever doubted the glory, majesty, and heavy, overblown, pretentious rock power of Rush. Opening with thunderous crowd noise, "Tom Sawyer" — with complete audience participation from the git — it is somehow awe-inspiring to hear 40,000 people singing the song with Geddy Lee. These people are so crazy; they aren't left out of the mix because they couldn't be! But it works. There was no soundcheck that night due to production delays in the arena. This is the sound of a band going for it in spite of everything and on the wing — and the sound, very live, very real, extremely dynamic — and not only do they pull it off; they issue their best live outing ever. Seeing Rush live can be an experience, but only those people in Rio saw them like this: far from complacent veteran rock stars, they musically push their own envelopes to the breaking point and goad each other onto ever greater intensity. Lee's bass playing has never been this ferocious, so aggressive and driving — on a live album anyway. Neil Peart pushes the entire band with his polyrhythmic assault and overdriven flourishes and fills; knowing this is the last date, he gives it all up in every single track. And Alex Lifeson, ever the band player, is, on this night anyway, simply the greatest arena rock guitarist in the world. The program ranges over the band's entire recorded output. The majority of the material comes from Farewell to Kings and after, though "Working Man," "2112," and a medley of "By-Tor and the Snow Dog" and "Cygnus X-1" are present here. Versions of "Roll the Bones," "The Big Money," "One Little Victory," "Ghost Rider," "Red Sector A," and "La Villa Strangiato" are given something like their definitive reads. Again, on well-known tracks like "Closer to the Heart," "Free Will," and "Spirit of Radio," the crowd participation would normally be off-putting. In this context, however, it is an asset. One can hear how this adulation and frenzy literally feeds the band, forcing the issue and making these breathtaking performances. To round out the encores on disc three Rush has included "board bootlegs" of "Between Sun & Moon" and "Vital Signs" that are more than worthy performances. They were taken from shows in Phoenix and Quebec. For those for whom Rush is a secret and guilty pleasure, it's time to indulge it openly by playing this for friends who erroneously insist that Sonic Youth or Strokes concert bootlegs are the epitome of "big-label live rock." For the faithful, you'll know. This one is bloody great.

Touch - Touch2004 - Touch - Touch : Touch's only album briefly enjoyed legendary status during its recording and again shortly after its release, but all too rapidly entered the realm of the well-kept secret. It may or may not be the very first progressive rock album, but what is indisputable is that few bands engineered a more satisfying collision of rock, jazz, psychedelia, and classical music during the genre's heyday. Much of the album's effectiveness stems from the soaring imagination of the band's leader, keyboard player, and principal composer Don Gallucci, incredibly just 19 years old. Throughout, he plays only piano, clavinet, and what sounds like a cheesy old theater organ — no Mellotron, no synths — yet he does so with a virtuosity tempered by the kind of restraint that would become all too rare among bands like ELP, Yes, and other behemoths of the prog era. Opener "We Feel Fine" demonstrates that this is a band that can rock, too — an impression confirmed by the band's single "Miss Teach." But it's "Friendly Birds" that confirms that Touch could do a lot more than kick ass. Essentially a trio for piano, guitar, and bass — with a brief vocal introduction — its dynamic range alone makes it remarkable. Over the course of just four minutes, it swoops and soars as piano and guitar trade phrases in a manner more typical of chamber music than rock. More remarkable yet is Gallucci's ability to weave melodies and riffs together without ever resorting to mere rhetoric. "Friendly Birds" finally soars into the distance after a series of shattering climaxes all the more impressive for the fact that no drums are involved. "Down at Circes' Place" is, in its way, equally extraordinary, effectively fusing a link between the psychedelia of the late '60s and the more expansive styles to come. Its climactic two minutes, best likened to the sound of Santana on a really bad trip, has to be one of the most satisfyingly cacophonous noises in all of rock, despite the total absence of electric guitars. The album also contains two epic tracks in "The Spiritual Death of Howard Greer" and "Seventy Five," only one of which really comes off. But while the former drinks deep from the well of hippie pretension, with its tale of some straight who's, like, spiritually dead but doesn't know it — and throws in everything from Gregorian chant to good-time boogie — the latter is a genuine tour de force. Here it's not just Gallucci's organ playing that shines. Vocalist Jeff Hawks gets to demonstrate a truly formidable vocal technique — one moment up close and breathy, the next shrieking up a storm — while guitarist Joey Newman also turns in a genuinely thrilling solo, featuring a curiously harsh, lo-fi tone that was entirely his own to round off the album. Both CD reissues feature extra tracks that never come close to matching the original album, but the Eclectic version benefits from vastly improved sound quality.

Opeth - Ghost Reveries2005 : Opeth - Ghost Reveries: Stockholm's most unpredictable metallic sons Opeth have offered another step on their dark journey into the Maelstrom that combines progressive sonics, and acoustic and electric instrumentation, all the while extrapolating on their now-trademark brand of death metal. Stepping aside from the malevolent acoustic elegance of 2003's Damnation without abandoning the textural advances, Ghost Reveries is a tour de force of creativity, power, and innovation. Alternately melodic and brutal, the album takes the band's progressive acumen to a new level while never abandoning the crunch. Vocalist, guitarist, and lyricist Mikael Åkerfeldt has become a complete poet of the dark side. With bandmates Per Wiberg on keyboards, drummer Martin Lopez, guitarist Peter Lindgren, and bassist Martin Mendez, Åkerfeldt has forged ahead into a vein of this music that moves it further forward while embracing not only elements of the band's foundational past, but also elements from the annals of heavy metal. The sheer, harsh, tragic beauty of Ghost Reveries reveals it as more a hunted album than a haunted one. The opener "Ghost of Perdition" is layered with heartbreakingly lyrical beauty — amidst its crack and burn — with vocals either sung poetically or growled from the depths of the ravages of the human throat: "In time the hissing of her sanity/Faded out her voice and soiled her name/And like marked pages in a diary/Everything seemed that is unstained/The incoherent talk of ordinary days/Why would we really need to live/Decide what is clear and what's within a haze/What you should take and what to give...." The guitars, electric and acoustic, intertwining and winding around one another with quick figures, move the melody into the labyrinthine "Reverie/Harlequin Forest," that goes on for over 11 minutes while its tales of sickness and tenderness rub against one another and become one tortured being. Justification and easy moral judgments become futile, reflections of painful memory and dislocation are taut, walking a rusty razor wire as propulsive drums and crackling guitars carry the singer into his desolation. Ultimately, Ghost Reveries comes together like a suite, characters have various faces and traits, but they are all reflections in a mirror that retains no permanent image. This album is a culmination of everything Opeth have worked toward throughout their career. It's fully realized, stunningly beautiful, and emotionally fragmented; it's a terrain where power, tenderness, and sheer grief hold forth under heavy manners. Awesome.

Muse - Black Holes and Revelations2006 - Muse - Black Holes and Revelations: Naysayers listen up. Teignmouth, England's Muse refuse to be your "next" Radiohead. Since forming in 1997, this alternative rock trio has continuously battled comparisons to the famed Oxford group while ambitiously creating a sound of their own. U.K. fans have praised the group since the albums "Sunburn" and "Hyper Music" despite it taking Americans until Absolution to discover Muse and give them their props. Whether or not you championed the grand dramatics of Absolution, Muse is a solid band and Black Holes and Revelations defines that with a passion. Rich Costey joins Muse in the co-production of this 11-song set; together they've created the band's most realized and meticulous album to date. "Take A Bow" sets the scene immediately; a mesmerizing, full orchestrated rock sound, layered in waves of synthesizers and percussion, build up to vocalist/guitarist Matthew Bellamy's aching performance of a world torn apart by it's own instability. Frequently compared to Queen's Freddie Mercury and Thom Yorke, Bellamy has totally come into his own here. He, drummer Dominic Howard and bassist Chris Wolstenholme appear completely in sync for the first time, really. Sure, their previous work has shown promise, but they sound like a complete band on Black Holes and Revelations. Songs such as the sultry swagger of "Supermassive Black Hole" and the razor-edged paranoia of "Assassin" are good examples of how adamant Muse is in delivering the biggest rock & roll package they possibly can. Bellamy howls "You and I must fight for our rights/You and I must fight to survive" on the riotous Rush-like megalomania of "Knights of Cydonia," They've totally fought for their craft with this one. It might have taken four albums for Americans to get it, but with Black Holes and Revelations, the whole world should be watching.

 

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