Graham Thomas - Selective Aspects

The Decade in Review – Graham Thomas

Big Big Train
English Electric Full Power – 2013
Big Big Train - English Electric Full Power

Originally issued as two separate albums and an EP, but clearly intended as one cohesive work, English Electric is simply my favourite album of the last ten years. Quintessentially English both musically and lyrically, it covers so many lost tales of economic and social history, highlighting forgotten heroes, some well-known and some anonymous. It weaves a rich tapestry of memorable songs, achingly beautiful melodies and superb musicianship.

Throughout two hours there is barely a wasted moment, and the impression of a rural heritage gradually slipping into obscurity and obsolescence is palpable. Big Big Train’s most celebrated song, East Coast Racer, is the highlight on an album packed with highlights, and I find it hard to imagine anyone listening to it and remaining unmoved. The band’s finest moment to date.

The Mountain – 2013
Haken - The Mountain

“Basil, what on Earth is that racket?”

“It’s Haken! …… Haken’s third racket!”

So to the heavier end of what we like to refer to as prog, and Haken have risen steadily since emerging from the primordial prog soup, and have evolved into a world beating band. Their third effort The Mountain sounds to me like the end of the beginning, a culmination of what had come before, and a hugely sophisticated and mature work for a young band. After this, it was necessary to re-evaluate and almost reinvent themselves, but much as I love what they’ve produced since in their efforts not to repeat themselves, it’s The Mountain which I always return to, the pinnacle of stage one in their master plan. Richard Henshall proves himself a consummate writer of both the memorable and intricate, and the band rise to the challenge of playing this music, and giving it life. If you don’t know it, try The Cockroach King or Falling Back To Earth. Prog metal doesn’t get any more inspired than this.

Hitchhiking to Byzantium – 2014
Anubis- Hitchhiking to Byzantium

Aussie proggers third album, and most ambitious and varied effort thus far, Byzantium is a standout in their repertoire, and the first album that doesn’t have an obvious concept. The songs are memorable and perhaps thematically linked, and the band had by the album’s release in 2014 matured in their ability and approach, and delivered music with their own style. Previously obvious influences such as IQ had been developed into something much more original, and I have found this album to be a real slow burning grower, and one which I still play often. There are robust rockers such as A King With No Crown and Blood Is Thicker Than Common Sense, elegiac anthems like Dead Trees and the title track, and an epic in A Room With A View. The album is rounded of with the gorgeous Silent Wandering Ghosts. Anubis are a band who deserve more acclaim than they currently enjoy, and this album shows why.

Kaleidoscope – 2014
Transatlantic - Kaleidoscope

Arguably not quite reaching the heights of The Whirlwind, nevertheless the follow up comes close and is another tour de force of over the top prog excess! Two marvellous epics in Into The Blue and the title track, and three normal length songs; Shine being a beautiful George Harrison-esque song with a wonderful Stolt solo, the rocky Black as the Sky, and the Morse tear-jerking ballad Beyond the Sun. Each of the four star musicians in the band write and sing, so this is in no way another version of the Neal Morse Band.

The playing and production is impeccable and the vibe steeped in the 70s. I know this sort of thing isn’t for everyone, and it’s really not new or ground breaking, but in this region of the prog universe, Transatlantic have no rivals, and I unashamedly love every minute of this album. I’m sure I’m not alone either.

District 97
In Vaults – 2015
Distict 97 - In Vaults

Hailing from Chicago and blessed with one of the most amazing front-women in progressive rock in Leslie Hunt, District 97 have rapidly become hugely well respected in the prog metal arena. That respect might not have translated to commercial success in a big way, but that is probably down to their determination not to follow any formula or deliver what is expected. In Vaults though was a massive step forward from the first two albums, as good as they were, and proved that the band had found a niche for themselves.

They have never been an easy listen, and many songs can seem challenging to the ear, but once you become immersed in tracks like Snow Country, All’s Well That End’s Well, Takeover, or Blinding Vision, there’s no escaping their heavily off kilter appeal.

Sanguine Hum
Now We Have Light – 2015
Now We Have Light

Sanguine Hum are an Oxford band who seem to me to be massively underrated, perhaps not helped by their somewhat sparse live shows. Regardless of this, their albums are all interesting, original and hugely listenable despite their relative complexity. I have no hesitation in picking this one though, 2015’s Now We Have Light, a double album of such intricate detail and beauty it’s difficult to describe. Unusual other-worldly melodies and odd time signatures sounds like a rather uncomfortable listen, yet the opposite is true, and the album draws you into its world of whacky storylines and strangely beautiful accompaniment inexorably. There are moments of simplicity, juxtaposed with ‘difficult’ sections, and nothing outstays it’s welcome. Their Bandcamp blurb describes this album as a “twisted mix of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Zappa’s Joe’s Garage and Lamb Lies Down on Broadway”, and I cant improve on that description! Genius.

Steven Wilson
Hand. Cannot. Erase. – 2015
Steven Wilson - Hand. Cannot. Erase.

Having been recently re-released and re-reviewed, there isn’t much more to be said about Steven Wilson’s epic and inspired concept work from 2015. Its sombre themes ideally suit Steven Wilson’s oeuvre, and prompted him to write some of his best and most poignant work yet released. The supporting live shows, playing the album in its entirety further underlined what a masterpiece he had created.

The band on this album interpreted his compositions perfectly, as Wilson reaches heights he had been hinting at and working towards since the early days of Porcupine Tree. Probably the most important artist of his generation, and a truly great progressive rock album which will stand the test of time for sure.

The Neal Morse Band
Similitude of a Dream – 2016
The Neal Morse Band - Similitude of a Dream

Neal Morse is another artist who has been slowly crafting quality progressive rock for many years. Many might have feared that, having quit Spock’s Beard at their creative height having ‘found’ God, his musical output might have dried up. In fact, his first solo album confirmed those fears for many of us, with its overtly preachy lyrics. However, each subsequent album has seen him getting back to his prog roots. With the formation of the current band, he has assembled one of the best live groups around, and with SOAD, created arguably his finest work. He is the master of the ‘epic’ with an incredible ability to fashion memorable and melodic songs with great hooks and real dynamics. This album has it all, and is the most satisfying collection of songs he has made under his own name. The religious angle to his music is not ‘in your face’, and can either be embraced or ignored, but what cannot be ignored is the quality of the music.

Phi Yaan-Zek
Reality Is My Plaything – 2018
Phi Yaan-Zek - Reality Is My Plaything

Multi-instrumentalist, composer and music lecturer Phi Yaan-Zek took more than a decade writing and recording this masterpiece of Zappalogical madness, and my goodness me it was so worth it. With an amazing troupe of guest musicians, (Phi is well connected!), he constructed an alternative universe of varying musical styles, incredibly tricky compositions, mixed with more accessible songs, all bound together into a cohesive whole with exemplary playing. Phi’s main weapon of choice is the guitar, and his distinctive style acts as an anchor from which the other contributors can hang their creativity. It’s the sort of slightly deranged music which constantly entertains and challenges in equal measure. With such luminaries as Marco Minnemann, Mike Keneally, Bryan Beller and Lalle Larson playing on most of this, you can’t go far wrong. Stand out tracks such as Down From the Mountain, Kindling and The Magnetic Victory prove this album’s worth. Essential.

Bryan Beller
Scenes From The Flood – 2019
Bryan Beller – Scenes From The Flood

I was debating whether it was right to include such a recent release, but have concluded that, having listened to it literally dozens of times without getting bored, it deserves its place. It is without doubt Bryan Beller’s finest moment, a superb if slightly ambiguous concept piece which is open to interpretation, and that perhaps is the key to its listenability. Mostly instrumental, it is cinematic in scope, ambitious in approach, has a host of ridiculously talented musicians, rocks like a tidal wave, and will overwhelm with its deluge of different ideas and textures.

The album of 2019, and a fantastically fun listen on any level. Immerse yourself in it, that’s my advice. For a taster, try The Storm or World Class. And it is.