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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My album of the year

Well, 2009 has been another interesting year for prog and progmetal. I looked back at my top 10 list of 2008 and there were only 2 or 3 albums that had any lasting appeal for me. So I might even call 2009 a resurgence of sorts for me but it's possibly all relative and at the end of 2010 I'll feel the same way about 2010 that I do right now about 2009.

There has been more than a few CDs that could easily be contenders for the top spot on my list, but I'm always keyed to a newcomer that seemingly comes out of nowhere and knocks my socks off. This year I chose the Israeli band Edgend's album, A New Identity. Hats off to Lance/Nightmare Records for finding and releasing this album.

The scope of this album is what grabbed me from the start. It's epic and magnificent in breadth. References to Symphony X and Adagio are obvious here. The bands treads a delicate balance into the neoclassical genre that is epic without being too cheesy, instrumental without being too much shred, and symphonic while keeping it heavy but while also avoiding the typical galloping drum pitfall of power metal. There are so few bands who can find the right balance, and Edgend does it perfectly. Symphony X raised the bar on the neoclassical genre but it took them 5 albums to do it, and Edgend comes close to matching this mastery right off the bat on their debut!

There's great talent at work here on the instruments, most notably in the keyboard and guitar work. The singer sounds to me like a close match for Adagio's old singer Readman. Highlights on the album are Revelation and A Chosen Truth which are both very catchy. Also Voices/Out of The Equation (A New Identity) make an excellent ending to the album and both songs flow together as a single song. My only nit with this album is on the production side. The guitar tone lacks clarity, especially during the guitar solos. The production issues are serious though. I'm just a bit of a stickler when it comes to guitar tone and I thought it could have been done better but it doesn't decrease my enjoyment of the album. The production of the album itself is quite clear with a good balance of keyboards within the music.

Considering this is the debut CD from the band, I hope Edgend have many more great albums in their future and will eventually release a masterpiece like Symphony X's 'V'. As a new avid fan of the band, I can't wait to hear what they do next.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A couple of stocking stuffers for the guitarist on your list.

There are a couple of guitar-oriented albums that I come back to time and again which I would consider essential for any guitarist's collection. There are guitarists who are well-rounded with their own unique styles and exhibit total mastery of their instruments. These aren't "shred" albums, but they are the result of people who have studied their craft and practiced endlessly and the results are timeless and always keep my attention:

Joel Hoekstra - Undefined and The Moon Is Falling: Joel assembled a great cast for these albums, with Virgil Donati on drums and and bass by Ric Fierabracci. Joel covers a wide range of styles throughout both albums with a reserved flair. The songs are well crafted and Joel lets it rip unabashadly at times. Other times he has a sense of humor. I'd have a hard time choosing between these two CDs. Undefined is a little "lighter" and more diverse, while The Moon Is Falling is a bit more thematic and stylized.

Brett Garsed - Big Sky: Brett has played with more artists and bands than I care to count, but he has only put out one solo album. It's interesting that this album also has Ric Fierabracci on bass. Every note on the album seems well thought out and perfectly placed. "Brothers" in my opinion is one of the best songs written recently for guitar. There's a emphasis on dissonance and resolution that shows how good songs are crafted. Brett is the guitarist's guitarist.

Cosmosquad-Squadrophenia: Jeff Kollman plays guitar and he shows on this CD that he's one of the finest guitarists on the planet today. While Brett Garsed and Joel Hoekstra are smooth and refined, Kollman is more gritty and biting and makes me think at times he is some strange homunculus of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. I love Kollman's guitar tone on this CD. Add Shane Gaalaas on drums and Barry Sparks on bass and you have the perfect power trio.

Tak Matsumoto-Hana: Most people outside of Japan have never heard of him, but the truth is he has over 10 solo albums and he plays in the band B'z which a very popular band there (according to wiki they have sold over 78 million records in Japan). I have not listened to all of his solo CDs, but I love Hana and heard from a colleague who has heard them all that Hana is his best solo CD. What's great about this album is it's so different. There are lots of Eastern-sounding melidies combined with a more traditional Western-sounding solo album. Tak is not one to play flashy on this CD. What you get is a beautifully written set of songs. There's also a really great rendition of Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing" on the album.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Interview with JT Bruce

JT Bruce is a composer and guitarist from southern California who has released 3 albums of instrumental music. His music can best be described as cinematic. Sometimes prog metal with crunching guitars, sometimes symphonic with spaced out synths, always painting an image in sound. These can be downloaded from his site for free, or you can order a cd from him (totally worth it for the artwork). In addition to music, JT is a visual artist, film maker, and animator. You can download music, see some of his art and watch some film clips at his site Please do donate if you like what you see and hear.

Sometime after Universica, his newest album, was released I asked if he would be interested in doing an interview with me. He was kind enough to say yes and now that the physical cds for Universica are ready to go, I'm ready to post the interview.

He took the time to expound quite a bit. I think his answers are very insightful and show a great sense of humor. He's part of the young, new generation making prog music for the sake of the art, and one who pretty much entered the business knowing that file sharing and free music would be the new norm. He's got some great thoughts about the plusses and minuses of free music on the internet, getting on with your creativity, and he gives the best advice ever about what to do if someone knocks you down.


1. What or who got you started in writing and recording your music?

I never really liked popular music growing up. As a kid, I had very confused tastes and bought a couple cassette tapes to be cool, but I never really enjoyed the music for what it was. It took me until 7th or 8th grade to find an interest in old heavy metal and punk, which in turn inspired me to learn guitar. After picking up an instrument, it didn't take long for me to realize how formulaic and homogenous most mainstream music is. This really fueled my desire to make something different and new. 

Monday, December 14, 2009

The future you were waiting for has already happened (Part 1)

When I joined Strange Land 11 years ago, the music industry still worked the way it had, at least during the history of rock music. Ever since I had picked up the guitar the dream was to write and record some songs, build a fan base, get discovered, signed, rich, and famous. Pretty early on I figured out the rich and famous part was unlikely, and that is was more important (for me anyway) to be true to my artistic vision. I'm sure I could have done something more commercial with the intent to make money but I never would have been happy.

In 1999 we released our first 4 song ep. I found this new thing called and uploaded music to it. We did pretty well, with our song Foundation reaching number 4 in their prog chart. Now, imagine how long ago that was. I was using dial-up. If you could shell out for it and you didn't live out in the country (like I did) you could get a DSL. I was recording the band on my Powermac G3, recording to a whopping 10 gig external SCSI hard drive (Tech aside: My choice of backup back then was a SCSI DVD-RW drive that used cartidge-loaded dvds. I still have it, and the G3 - with a G4 chip - but I haven't powered them up in years). I didn't even have a real audio interface, I recorded into the computer via the stereo line in. If I remember right we recorded drums and bass at the same time. The drums were mixed at the board and tracked in mono. What was I thinking?! But it worked and it was a good start. Hell, I released my first acoustic album in 1999 on cd and tape.

Still, the 'make an album-build local fan base-play shows-get signed' model was still the norm. It was pretty much an all-or-nothing idea. You either broke big, even for a short while, or you languished in obscurity and faded away. and other early online avenues were just a little extra, a new way for indie bands to reach people but not to break out big. All the mp3s were 128k bitrate, I can't recall if you could do any better. By the time we released Anomaly in 2001, CD Baby had been established and it was a great way for indie bands to sell cds. Napster was around 1999-2001 (before its shut down and subsequent resurrection) but I never saw the point in using my dial-up connection to download crappy sounding mp3s from really popular bands I didn't like. Whatever you think of the fallout from Napster and all the lawsuits, the period of the late 90's and early 00's marked the beginning of the end of the industry as I knew it. Cable internet and faster DSL use spread. Some indie musicians figured out the best ways to capitalize on this but as far as I can tell most of us were still thinking of the internet as an add-on to the old ways of doing business. The internet was like TV. Consumption was passive. There wasn't even much real advertising then. You just put your web site up and hoped people would find you. And they did. But that was about it. I think in 2001 we were only slightly more likely to get an email from a fan than a phone call or a letter.

The INDUSTRY (worthy of all caps here) was already jumping all over this, like they do with any new technology. (sarcasm) Like the good gatekeepers they are, they stepped into the hero role once again to defend helpless but creative bands, gullible but well-meaning consumers, and the thousands of people whose jobs were at stake from the record producer to the guy sweeping the studio floor (/sarcasm). First recordable cassettes would doom the industry. Then it was recordable cds. Then mp3s and file sharing. It never occurred to them to examine the way they were doing business. Were they releasing good music? No, they stumbled on Nirvana and then signed every other band in Seattle that wore flannel shirts. Somebody manufactured a hit with Brittany Spears so they went out and signed every young woman they could doll up like an All-American Lolita. Did they think that maybe $15 or more wasn't a good price for a cd? No. (Food for thought: a mass produced cd costs $2 or less to make. Most major label deals pay less than $1 to the artist after recouping costs. Where is the rest of this money going?). So they drag their heels, kick up a fuss, and blame everybody else for their perceived woes. The truth is, the music biz was still doing pretty good in the early 2000's. But, the music biz emperor had no clothes. Instead of trying to figure out how to use new technology to their advantage, they tried to kill it. And then came myspace. And iTunes. And Rhapsody. And bit torrents. And Facebook.

(to be continued)

Friday, December 11, 2009

Prog Muggin'

Just thought I would share this one...

A month ago my son asked if I could write a list of some of the bands I like.

Then yesterday I was presented with the mug shown in the picture. It is not a work of art, but considering who made it, I will definitely be using it.

For your notice, the text has been burned onto the mug, so it is wash resistant.

If I was drinking coffee, I suppose I would be drinking Progolatte from now on.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The 5th Season - a diary, Day 2

Rememberance is a "soft skill", especially on such a weekend. I know that some things are in different order as they happened, but I can't bring the proper order up anymore. Anyhow, it was a great day!
Dutch readers who are proud about Dutch food, better do not read the part where I'm eating a burger. That may be misunderstood as an offense, although it is not meant to be one. Some people might have a laugh reading it.

Hello world...
hello room...
...what room are you?
... hello progpower!
It's cold in here... Ah, yes, the broken window...
I better get up slowly... well that works good, no headache it seems. Good. Ah, Dario found his bed last night. 10:30 am already, I bet I'm gonna miss the progpower breakfast. Bummer.
Hmm, shower. ... we don't have a washroom in here, there is a shower room at the other end of the corridor. Going down a hotels corridor in shirt and pants is a new experience. I turn on the shower and wait for hot water. And wait. And wait. Oh no! Cold shower! Yikes! In '07 we've had boiling water, that was ok, but cold??? That won't get my body started. Ok, after shower's done, I go back to our room with the same mess of a brain as before, and do the rest of my personal hygene there, as quietly as possible. I'm glad I took my little electric espresso maker with me. Though the Dutch coffe is way better than the German one, espresso is even better anyway.

I can't manage to control my body properly, I'm unconcentrated on everything, can't focus on things... Where and when did I find Gary and Simon? But luckily no headache. :D
We're walking around in the little "park" and check it out a bit, while Gary starts picking apples from a tree and eating them. We decide getting some food and a coke at the supermarket in Barloo for breakfast. Gary takes an apple with him, seems he's found a new love. In the supermarket I'm feeling misplaced. Us among so  many normal people that do normal things in life. Back at DeBerckt we find a nice place and start 'breakfast'. Breakfast and coke on the table, Gary adds his apple. Suddenly a bottle of Jack Daniels is there. This is the reason for getting the coke. Why not? That may help on my hangover, so I blend my coke with it. Staff seems to have an office behind that door there. A man comes along, looks sceptically at us and enters the door. He didn't say anything... thanks god. I get out in the courtyard again for a cigarette and walk around a bit, walking on clouds... A few proggers are hanging out, in a small circle. I notice that there are no "normal" people there. There used to be families making vacations in the last years, but not now. Seems like the castle is all ours. Hehe! A van is standing there, and on the drum cases inside there are A.C.T. labels. A band's bus. ...Wait... A.C.T.? Just a moment... they're not on the schedule. Strange. Anyway, I'm too lazy to think about it. Or better, I can't...
We decide that it's already time to wake up Dario and prepare for "the walk". Waking up Dario was easier than expected. He gets an espresso and Gary's beloved apple.
The walk to Baarlo is refreshing, and soon I'm touching ground again. We go the new way the other regulars showed us yesterday, through the park, where Gary starts picking up nuts from the ground and eating them. No wonder that he grew so big.

When bands are loosing it

I think most of us regularly go through the motions of eagerly awaiting a new release from one of your favorite bands, just to find it to be a rather moderate achievement or an outright disappointment. Sometimes we loose patience with a band and more or less give up on them, expecting nothing from them that would deserve our attention.

Why write about this topic? Don’t we just get over the disappointments and get on with it? There are after all plenty of other bands we can depend on to deliver what we need.

It is true that we turn to other sources, but if you are like me you never really get over the past. Once awed by the talent of “your band”, you tend to crave more of the same, and if you don’t get it, you wait, hoping for the day when they will take themselves together and bring back the “sound” of their former glory.

Reality check: Are the bands in question really getting worse in means of quality or did something happened to our perception of them?

Yes. Most bands are getting worse, either for real, or in relation to our expectations.
It is a known fact that great quality and innovation instills equally great expectations, expectations we tend to let grow regardless of how well a band keep churning out good quality music. We always expect or at least hope that “the next” album will give us as many, or even more, exciting moments as its predecessor. So, for a band to stay “on top of the game” they constantly need to outdo them selves. Maybe this seems unfair, but that is just how it works, music is above all entertainment, and if it doesn’t entertain its existence is moot.

So basically there are 2 ways a band can “loose it”:
1. The quality of their music it truly getting worse
2. Their talent has stagnated, enabling them to keep the level of quality, but produce nothing new that challenges or surprises the listener.

To back up my line of thought, lets look at some examples.