Desert Island Discs

The classic thought experiment; trapped on an island with nothing but a box of records to keep you company, which ones would you choose?  It’s a simple question, but one that requires complex thinking.  The choice is more involved than merely picking your ten favorite albums.  You need to examine all your tastes and moods, and try to bring a package of music that can best serve all of them.  Sometimes this requires the sacrifice of a dearly loved album that is too similar to another you’ve already chosen, and sometimes it means denying yourself of an element of music you love because you can’t bear to part with any other albums to make room.

In deciding on my desert island list, I tried as best I could to make it as inclusive of all the music I love.  The goal was to give myself the widest range of sounds and emotions, while taking as many of my absolute favorite albums as was possible.  If I didn’t love everything I picked, this would have been a miserable failure.

I hope to never be stranded on a desert island, but if I am, these are the ten albums I want to have with me.

Meat Loaf – Bat Out Of Hell II: Back Into Hell

Nothing else sounds like the music of Jim Steinman.  His music is not for everyone, but if it speaks to you, there is nothing else like it.  His mix of Wagnerian drama and soaring theatrical bombast is one-of-a-kind, and something I couldn’t imagine being without.  “Bat Out Of Hell II” was the first album I ever owned, and remains a mainstay of my collection.  Every time I listen to it, I get lost in the grandeur of the music, and am transported back to my youth.  It’s one of the few albums that can move me in such a way, and aside from simply being great music, it’s a trait that would be most useful on a desert island.

Tonic – Lemon Parade

“Lemon Parade” is my favorite album of all time, and would appear to be an easy pick to include.  It wasn’t, however, as it’s follow-up “Sugar” may be the more appropriate album for this dilemma.  “Sugar” is the more balanced, diverse effort, the one that would pay dividends after long stretches of repeated listening.  Ultimately, I chose “Lemon Parade” because of what “Sugar” isn’t; gritty and real.  “Lemon Parade” isn’t a polished jewel of pop music, it’s a raw rock and roll record.  That honesty makes all the difference.

Dilana – Beautiful Monster

How could I not include an album by my favorite singer on the planet?  I couldn’t, in good conscience, and “Beautiful Monster” made any doubts I had disappear.  Dilana’s voice is a thing of wonder, and it was impossible for me to imagine never hearing it again.  While I loved “InsideOut”, that record was spotty enough to make me nervous about including it, but “Beautiful Monster” has no holes.  It is, simply put, one of the most beautiful collection of viscerally emotional songs I’ve ever heard, sung by a voice that makes me weak.

Black Sabbath – Heaven & Hell

My love of the heavier side of music must be addressed, and there is no better way to do it than with “Heaven & Hell”.  The seminal Black Sabbath album is everything a metal record should be; at times heavy, majestic, driving, soaring, and a testament to songwriting.  I commonly refer to it as the blueprint upon which metal should be drawn, which makes it a perfect choice for inclusion.  That it also happens to feature the immortal Ronnie James Dio, perhaps the greatest voice to ever grace a metal record, is icing on the cake.

Elvis Costello – King Of America

Picking an album from Elvis Costello’s vast catalog is not an easy task.  His diversity is remarkable, and his best songs run the gamut of styles.  What “King Of America” did better than any other album he has made is capture a mood.  The somber, dusty sound that comes through these songs is a special blend.  Though sparse in arrangement, there is a wealth of beauty to be found in these compositions.  I have learned so much from this album about songwriting, and it remains my favorite choice as the soundtrack to a dark mood.

Dan Swanö – Moontower

For those moments when you feel defeated, and need an outlet for your frustration, we tend to turn the dial towards the more extreme.  What that means for each of us is different, and for me it means turning to “Moontower”.  There are times when you want to be run over by music, and nothing can do that better than death metal.  But while most of that music would be unbearable after long, “Moontower” is a unique beast.  Every time I listen to it, I find something else to love about it.  It’s ugly enough for the times it’s needed, but is still beautiful enough to never been unwelcome.

Elton John – The Captain & The Kid

For the sake of diversity, I need to include something that isn’t guitar-centric.  I love the sound of a thundering piano as well, and “The Captain & The Kid” is my go-to piano album.  Elton John’s string of hits is rightly revered, but never before did he have such a sense of relaxed freedom about his music.  His writing isn’t concerned with pleasing anyone but himself, and telling the story of his career was a masterstroke of inspiration.  You can hear in every song how much they mean to him, and that makes it a joy to listen.

Wallflowers – Rebel, Sweetheart

Every time you ask me, I will tell you “(Breach)” is the Wallflowers’ greatest work.  I was floored by it the first time I heard it, and remain convinced of its genius.  But for the purposes of this exercise, it is not the right choice.  “(Breach)” is many things, but fun is never one of them.  Those brooding songs are beautiful in their own way, but would become weary if they were all you knew.  “Rebel, Sweetheart” is a close second in quality, but provides a vastly different outlook.  It is sunny where “(Breach)” is gray, wrapping the band’s best qualities in a record that is a slow sugar-fix.  Sometimes you want to sit back and smile, which “Rebel, Sweetheart” will allow you to do.

Matchbox Twenty – Mad Season

I often recount the pearl of wisdom, “there’s nothing better than a three minute pop song.”  I believe it to be true, and this album is my finest evidence.  I grew up on pop music, and maintain a soft spot in my heart for when it manages to meet my expectations.  “Mad Season” is a brilliant album that encompasses the various forms and sounds of the pop music I grew up with.  It’s a perfect distillation of all the best days of the radio had to offer a wide-eyed kid such as myself.  I couldn’t make a list that avoided pop music altogether, and “Mad Season” is the easiest gem to fit in the setting.

Transatlantic – Kaleidoscope

Progressive music seems like a natural fit for this scenario, with its layers upon layers of weaving sounds and meandering structures a perfect way of breaking up the routine of four minute musical bites.  “Kaleidoscope” is more than my favorite progressive album, it’s the natural choice for this list.  The dueling epics are filled with the requisite musicianship to amaze me for as long as I listen, but it’s the diversity that wins out.  They music is epic in every sense of the word, but throws in a touching ballad, and one of the most riotously catchy songs I’ve ever heard.  It has a little bit of just about everything imaginable.

With these ten albums, I believe I have touched upon every base I would want covered.  They could never provide me with all the music I could ever want to hear, but they do the best job any small collection could.  If they were all I could listen to for the rest of my life, I can’t say I’d be entirely disappointed.

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One Song Per Track: Tonic

Talking with a friend yesterday, I was challenged to make an album consisting of my favorite song, by track number on an album, by the Beatles.  It was a fun exercise, so I decided to use it to tackle my favorite band of all time: Tonic.

Here are my picks:

1. Roses (A brutal choice. “Future Says Run” is one of my favorite Tonic songs, with those odd chord voicings.  “Roses” wins out because of how heavy it sounds when the riff kicks in, and how gorgeous the harmonies are.)

2. You Wanted More (“Take Me As I Am” is a close second, but “You Wanted More” is a perfect encapsulation of what guitar pop can be.)

3. If You Could Only See (One of my favorite songs of all time, so the obvious winner.)

4. Soldier’s Daughter (I love “Do You Know” as well, but “Soldier’s Daughter” is one of those songs where Tonic stretches themselves a bit, and the mood is so beautifully depressing.)

5. Sugar (I love “Bigger Than Both” nearly as much, but I can’t deny how great “Sugar” is. It has one of those solos that is so simple, yet so unforgettable.)

6. Mountain (Another of my favorite Tonic songs, an easy winner. The acoustic section that opens the song is great, and then the electrics are so dirty that the song has a ton of bite.)

7. Queen (One of those songs that proves Tonic can rock when they want to. It’s dark and beautiful.)

8. Wicked Soldier (One of my favorite guitar tones ever. The whole thing sounds like a massive explosion of rock and roll power.)

9. Mr. Golden Deal (A beautiful ballad.)

10. Bigot Sunshine (A quick burst of energy that is as hard-edged as Tonic can be.)

11. Torn To Pieces (Another quick rock song that has a nifty riff and a killer chorus. Perfect Tonic.)

12. Top Falls Down (Tonic at their heaviest. That riff is crushing for this kind of band.)

13. Love A Diamond (The only choice, but still a good one. A beautiful way to end an album.)

Best Of 2015’s Early Months

The first two months of this year have been remarkable, in terms of how much really good music has been released. With that being the case, and since I like lists, here are my five favorite albums and songs so far this year (in no particular order):

Albums

Nightingale – Retribution

Nothing goes down smoother than melodic rock, and it’s seldom done any better than this. Dan Swano may be more famous for his death metal work, but Nightingale should not be overlooked. “Retribution” is a gorgeous, layered album full of lush sounds and fantastic melodies. Capped off with Dan’s unique vocals, and you have an utterly brilliant album. Oh, and the full-dynamic mix that’s available is mind-blowing. I haven’t heard a better produced album in years.

Jorn Lande and Trond Hotter present – Dracula: Swing Of Death

Since I grew up worshipping Meat Loaf, I am no stranger to cheesy music. This is about as cheesy as it gets, but that makes it even more awesome. You can have a laugh with it, or you can sit back and enjoy a surprisingly diverse set of songs that are jam-packed with awesome vocals and melodies, and some truly superb soloing.  It’s just a record that is overwhelmingly fun.

UFO – A Conspiracy Of Stars

UFO is mostly known as being that band everyone thinks is underrated. That’s sort of true, but they were never really that good. They are now, however. This album is a strong collection of no-frills rock that delivers some bluesy riffing, strong melodies, and Phil Mogg’s weathered-yet-even-better vocals. Forget Michael Schenker, because this is as good as UFO’s ever been.

Revolution Saints – Revolution Saints

The drummer of Journey is singing, while being supported by the bassist/singer of Night Ranger, and the former guitarist of Dio and Whitesnake. Yeah, that sounds like a train-wreck, yet it works. The vocals are stronger than I ever would have thought, but it comes together because of the fantastic songwriting. Yes, it’s heavily in the mold of Journey and other 80s cheese-rock bands, but there’s nothing wrong with that. I love a good sing-along.

Neal Morse Band – The Grand Experiment

Neal is pretty much the reason I’m into prog. Between his solo albums, and Transatlantic, he’s responsible for most of my favorites. This album is different, however, and I’m still trying to figure out exactly where it stands. While I miss the more overt poppiness of “Momentum”, there are some beautiful harmonies here, and plenty of fantastic playing. Everything Neal does is high-quality, and this is no exception.

Songs

Nightingale – Forevermore

The best song on a brilliant album, “Forevermore” is able to put it all together. It has a groovy main riff, a killer vocal performance by Dan Swano, beautiful keyboards, and a song structure that isn’t straight verse/chorus.  Most of all, the song has swagger, and it’s the sort of thing I can listen to over and over again without it seeming tired.

Dracula: Swing Of Death – Walking On Water

Picking one song from this album is hard, because there are a few absolute gems. In the end, I’m picking “Walking On Water” because it’s the best embodiment of everything Jorn’s music is supposed to be. It’s heavy, Jorn’s vocals are incredible, and the soloing is phenomenal. It’s the least theatrical song on the record, which makes it one of the few that works outside the context of the album.

Revolution Saints – You’re Not Alone

I am a sucker for ballads, and this is a great one. It’s got all the sweeping grandeur you would expect from a sappy ballad, a killer melody, and great vocals by both Deen Castronovo and guest singer Arnel Pineda.

Orden Ogan – A Reason To Give

In the midst of their modern power metal assault, Orden Ogan slows down for this song, which is the best example of what can be called ‘tavern metal’ I can recall. The acoustic guitars and folk flourishes make the song feel like it should be played at an old tavern, while the melody is killer. Even the people who aren’t into Orden Ogan’s type of metal should be able to appreciate this.

UFO – Messiah Of Love

What I love most about this song is how little it seems like the band is trying to impress anyone.  Vinny Moore plays one of his bluesy riffs, Phil Mogg sings one of his trademark melodies, and the whole thing is exactly what you would expect from UFO. And that’s why it’s great. Moore’s guitar tone is spectacular, Mogg’s voice is the perfect amount of weathered, and the hook is incessant.  It’s simply a great rock song.

Bringing It Upon Themselves

The music industry is dying, or so we are told. Records are selling in smaller and smaller numbers every year, and all the blame gets heaped on us, the consumers. That is blatantly unfair, and it removes the blame that the labels deserve for their own stupidity.

That is not an excuse for downloading culture, nor a statement of any moral judgment on streaming services (more on that later). It is simply a reminder that the record labels have to shoulder a significant amount of the blame for their own downfall. They routinely make decisions that work against their own interests. I was reminded of this while listening to a new album, the details of which make me want to slap my own forehead at the rank idiocy of.

The record in question was released this week, and has been getting some traction in the media that covers that particular type of music. It will be mildly successful, and will make a few end of the year lists.

Where is the problem, you ask?

The record came out in Europe, but it won’t be released in the United States until JANUARY. That’s right, there will be two months in which the record is being sold around the world, except in a country with hundreds of millions of people and a massive record industry.

This is a perfect example of how the industry doesn’t understand how to adapt to changes in reality. Sales are down, yes, but the answer to combating downloading and streaming cannibalizing what is left in terms of sales is not to stagger release dates so drastically. The idea is that by staggering the dates, they can give proper attention to the roll-out in every location. The reality is that doing so only further alienates the potential customer by telling them that they have to sit on their hands and wait while the rest of the world is enjoying the records. They shouldn’t download the albums that are illegally online, and they shouldn’t look on streaming services to listen to them in a way that gives them both a pittance, they should instead be good little soldiers and patiently avoid reading the dozens of reviews and hundreds or thousands of threads on message boards, all raving about what you’re not allowed to have.

There is a simple reality to the world that doesn’t seem to be sinking in. The only way to get people to buy your product, regardless of what it happens to be, is to treat your customers respectfully and give them what they want at a fair price. Making people sit and wait while they get to watch everyone else go through the life-cycle of an album before they ever get the chance to brush the dust off the copies designated for their shores is criminal negligence. They have failed on every level, and they want to blame the listeners for their own mistakes.

Basically, decisions like this are begging people to not give them money. No wonder the industry is falling apart.

2014: The Year Of Neal Morse

In the olden days of the music industry, it was common for one artist to dominate a year, because they were releasing music at a far greater clip. When albums were only half an hour long, and sales were booming, product got churned out at an incredible clip. That led to some of the greatest music ever recorded, but it also meant that a lot of material that shouldn’t have seen the light of day got past the editor’s desk. But as a fan, if your favorite band put out two records in the span of a year, it was a magical time to love music, because you could find yourself overwhelmed by how much great material you had to listen to.

These days, things are different. With the average time between albums growing ever longer, and bands growing more popular in the years when they don’t release albums, being a fan can be frustrating. The waiting can seem endless, and then when the album does come along, there’s the inevitable question of why we had to wait so long for a mediocre piece of work. If the greatest bands of all time could write an album a year, most of which were classics, how can it take today’s bands four years to write a bland record?

There are exceptions to the trends of the times, and Neal Morse is one of them. 2014 is the year of Neal Morse, as he has dominated my experience this year like no one else I can ever think of.

At the start of the year, Transatlantic released their critically-acclaimed “Kaleidoscope”, which I raved about from the first time I heard it. It immediately took the spot as the front-runner for album of the year, and so far it has not ceded it’s position. Transatlantic is, simply put, the best prog band on the planet right now, and “Kaleidoscope” is their best album yet. They have done remarkable work to this point, but “Kaleidoscope” was able to condense the band’s history into one perfect record. Both Neal Morse and Roine Stolt were ramping up with their own careers, and they have now peaked with my favorite prog album ever, and what is sure to make my list of favorite albums of all time.

That wasn’t enough for Neal, who then released “Songs From November”, a singer/songwriter album that went in the complete opposite direction. As a fan of Neal’s work, this was the album I had wanted him to make for years. His progressive music is amazing, but what makes him stand out from everyone else in prog is his ability to write catchy melodies that bury in your head and force you to sing along. “Songs From November” is a simple album, and showcases Neal as the best songwriter in prog. Like “Kaleidoscope”, it resides right near the top of my current list of favorites from this year.

But even that wasn’t enough, as Neal was also a major contributor to the sophomore Flying Colors record. That was an album that I had a massive mood swing on. The band moved in a more progressive direction, which I thought was the wrong thing to do, given how much progressive music the members had made. In time, the more I listened, I came to love what the album was. I still miss the blatant pop sensibilities of the debut, but there is still much to love about their second effort. Once I got over the disappointment of where the album went, I could see how beautiful that place was.

In the years that I’ve been writing about music in one form or another, there have been a handful of times that one person was a part of two important albums (including Neal himself when he released his own “Momentum”, as well as the first Flying Colors album). But to the best of my recollection, there has never been a year in which one person was a part of three albums, let alone three that were as good as these.

By the time my Top Ten list is official this year, Neal could very well wind up contributing thirty percent of my favorite releases. That number baffles me, and it also saddens me. Not in the sense that everyone else making music couldn’t make enough albums to compete, but in the sense that it is far too rare for anyone to release albums at such a pace, regardless of the quality. Neal is prolific, for sure, but he never releases anything that isn’t of the highest quality. Perhaps there is something to be said for always writing, always working. The act of continuously producing new music could keep the well of inspiration running, not allowing the creative muscle to atrophy over the normal years of inactivity.

Whatever the reasons are behind the mystery of creativity, 2014 is the year of Neal Morse. Long may the king rein.

Queensryche’s “Frequency Unknown” 2.0: A Zombie Needing To Be Killed

As anyone who has ever done anything creative knows, there comes a point where you have to draw a line and say something is finished, because endless tinkering can no longer make the end result any better.  It’s a difficult line to see, because it is not brightly lit, and it’s especially hard to discern when you are talking about your own work.  But it exists, and it has killed many a project over the years.  Think about an album like “Chinese Democracy”, which spent fifteen years being toyed with in studios.  Did those extra years, and the little blips of sound that got plastered onto the skeletons of the songs, justify that amount of time?  Did they make the album any better than if it was slightly more stripped down?

The answer is usually no, but it’s hard for an artist to ever be satisfied with what they have created, because they believe in their heart they can still do better.  Sometimes, however, they really can’t.

Last year, I was one of the few critics who gave Queensryche’s “Frequency Unknown” a positive review.  It wasn’t the result of picking sides, because up until that point I had never enjoyed a Queensryche album before.  I gave it a positive review because I genuinely thought it was a solid record, even if the rest of the world seemed ready to use it to slit their wrists.

The main problem with the album was that it was horribly produced.  Being rushed to get out ahead of the other (at the time) incarnation of the band, the mix the album came out with was dense and cloudy, and made the songs difficult to listen to.  I had heard that version, and thought it was promising but a disaster.  There was, in short order, a rushed remix of the album that showed the impact production can have on the music we listen to.

That version of the record was suddenly clear; the guitar had bite, the sounds were balanced, and you could hear every nuance (for good and bad) of Geoff Tate’s vocal performance.  That version is the one I reviewed, and the one I still listen to a year later.  Without that haze hanging over the songs, you can hear what is going on, and I still believe there is quite a bit of good material on the album.  No, it is not a classic, and no, “Slave” and “Dare” are no better than they were back then, but the melodic and melancholy songs are still striking.  It is clearly a better record than the album put out by the group that now owns the name, which was also marred by grievous sins in the production department.

I mention this because “Frequency Unknown” is being re-released, complete with a second disc that features yet another mix of the album.  The label says there was not enough time at the original release to complete this mix and get it out, and judging by what I have heard of it, perhaps it should have stayed that way.

Instead of a simple remixing, this is a re-imagining of the record, with new focus and instrumentation added onto what we have already heard.  Nothing of the effort makes the music an ounce better.

First of all, the sound quality of this new version is atrocious.  The guitars are stripped of their heft, sounding thin and weak, and pushed well behind the drums.  Geoff Tate’s voice is likewise drained of it’s energy, sounding like a demo sung by someone trying to sound like Tate.  The whole package sounds cheap, flimsy, and not at all like the rock record is was supposed to be.  This version is as much a beat-driven pop album as it is a Queensryche record.  What’s worse, the added orchestration is obviously synthetic, and is slathered atop songs that were not written with room for such things to be added.  They feel tacked on, because they are.

The first version of “Frequency Unknown” was terrible, and this new version is even worse.  But the version in the middle, the rushed remix that very few people got the chance to hear, is the gem.  It shows the music as it needed to be, and sounds fantastic.  If that version of the album had been released to begin with, I honestly believe much of the criticism of the record would have been revealed to be petty gripes dealing with Geoff Tate personally.

What we learn from all of this is that making music is not as simple as writing a song and playing it while a microphone records it.  There is an art to making a record, and the production of the music can kill an album before it ever has a chance to succeed.  That happened the first time with “Frequency Unknown”, and it’s happening again this time.  They got it right after the initial debacle, and now they’re forgetting all about that and shooting it to hell again.

Why?

For some people, good enough is never good enough.  If they think they can do even a little bit better, they will try.  Sometimes they manage to hit the mark, and sometimes they throw the first shovel of dirt atop their own casket.

I’ll let you figure out which one this case is.

Taylor Swift & Pop Music’s Sins

The biggest story in music this week is going to be the release of Taylor Swift’s new album, “1989”.

While I have never counted myself a fan of Taylor Swift’s music, I am not one of those people who has any sort of problem with her.  Her music has always been in the periphery of my life, and what I have heard has been pleasant.  She doesn’t make the kind of music I would seek out and absolutely need to listen to, but when it comes on, I don’t mind it.  I can see her appeal, and I can understand why she has become the megastar she is.

That being said, what I have heard in the run-up to “1989” leaves me confused.  I understand her desire to do something different, and I don’t for a second mind her going full-bore into the world of pop.  My problem is that by doing so, she has shown the fatal flaws in what it means to be pop music these days.

The first tracks that have come out from the album, “Shake It Off” and “Out Of The Woods” fall into the same category; rhythm heavy electronic music that drills and drills the hook into you.

Pop music today is no longer a medium for instruments and melodies.  Instead of having skilled session musicians playing the musical backdrop for a catchy melody, we have entered a phase where ideas have been stripped down so much that they barely exist.  I have issues with the electronic nature of pop music, and how the removal of a human player disconnects the music from our very humanity, but more than that, the focus on rhythm above all else is a decision I can’t get behind.

Rhythms are fine, and I appreciate a good one, but when a beat remains static throughout even a three minute song, it gets too repetitive for its own good.  Hearing it a few times is exciting, whereas hearing it fifty times in a row is not.  That is where pop music is.

More than simply repeating beats, the ideas of the songs follow suit.  In both of her new singles, Taylor repeats lines in the songs so often that they feel like the rough sketches you make before writing the final lyrics.  The fact that these songs have been released, and critically praised, is baffling to me.  A song should say something, and it should do so with more then three words.  Endlessly repeating a line is lazy songwriting, whether you’re Taylor Swift or Iron Maiden.  We should expect more from the music we listen to, but there I go again being old-fashioned.

By all means, I hope Taylor Swift finds all the success she’s looking for with her musical shift.  Taking an artistic chance is a courageous move.  I just wish there was more actual art involved.