December is an empty month, filled with too many cash-in re-releases and tedious album-of-the-year content to make our monthly genre-columns thing really work. That’s why we asked David Keevill to give us a retrospective of the Big Things that happened in Prog in 2014, before getting back to the serious business of 2015 next month…
1) How Not To Do The Internet
The year gone was full of tales of aging musicians trying to get a liver spotted grip on the internet. While some, like trifle-necked Thom Yorke, used it advantageously to tap into the consumers’ preference for downloading, others came a cropper of internet outrage; Mastodon, often touted as the future of heavier prog, showed themselves to be actually pretty regressive, using a montage of gyrating female bottoms to sell their latest meh-rock single, The Motherlode.
Last month, Mike Portnoy became the victim of internet fraud, as some rambunctious scamster created a fake Facebook account pretending to be him. He neither saw the funny side, nor saw the practicality of having an extra Portnoy to take the flak for every dire Adrenaline Mob release.
Then there was the ever-present reminder that the internet can serve as a mouthpiece for everyone with a keyboard and a mind full of ire. This year saw the release of the anticipated Together and Apart Genesis documentary, but not everyone thought that the programme fairly covered each member’s solo careers. Steve Hackett, former Genesis guitarist, took to hisFacebook page to moan about the uneven portrayal.
2) Beyond The Redshift
Beyond the Redshift was a high-aiming one-day festival curated by post-metal act Cult of Luna that took place across three stages around Kentish Town and Tufnell Park. Pints were reasonably priced, and the music was an exceptional mix of the experimental and the heavy, headlined by Cult of Luna themselves. Mixed in amongst seasoned acts were some staggering performances from the likes of Bossk, Sleepmakeswaves and Hark, all bands that deliver heavy in less obvious packages.
Cult of Luna’s ability to not only bring together such a roster of bands (Sleepmakeswaves were over from Australia), but coordinate the affair down to the vegetarian food on offer, showed the pulling power of the band and the festival’s promotion team. BTR was finely-tuned and intimate, a bright example of a smaller festival that offered ferocious consumer choice for a mere £30 a pop.
While many of the festival giants struggle to pull the crowds without resorting to tie-ins with magazines, these smaller, deftly-aimed shows are hoovering up a music-obsessed audience who are willing to put their hands in their pockets. People who buy into this market tend to be attentive to anything experimental that crosses their vision – BTR rewarded their devotion and rightfully packed both venues out.
3) Old Hat
Contemporary prog might be flourishing, but the majority of the scene remains a nostalgia act. This year has been a good one for the oldies, with new releases from Yes, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson and Gong, all bands that were peaking over forty years ago.
Less triumphantly, reissues too have peppered label’s schedules throughout the year. As I’m writing, Rush have announced a fourteen album reissue streak, that will take place across 2015. Re-mastering continues to be a license to print money for bands like Rush, whose notoriously avaricious fan base wolf down anything that Messrs Lifeson, Lee and Peart put out.
Just last month, drummer Neil Peart insisted that Rush had nothing left in their vault, saying “We’ve never given up on a song – we don’t have a single unreleased song in the world. Because if we went far enough, we believed in it, we kept working on it.”
There’s no doubt that prog remains the territory of the dedicated, both for the artist and their fans. Rush’s discography is a triumph of exertion and resilience, as Peart’s comments demonstrate, but do their fans have the patience to keep delving deep for endless re-workings of old material?
4) The Prog Delusion
2014 has been rife with dubious twitter activity, from the Grauniad-repelling automatroll Katie Hopkins, through to the unfiltered opinions of atheist messiah Richard Dawkins. What do you do when confronted with their polarising shtick? Power down your laptop and walk away? Have a grumble with your mates? Wrong – get one of them to appear on your upcoming album.
In a move that rates pretty highly on the daft scale, Nightwish have got the anti-creationist to feature on their as-yet unnamed next album, set for release in 2015. Lord knows (ahem) what his spoken word contribution will be, but we’re thinking it’ll either be an open-minded and well-informed assessment of Islam, on the essence of humanity or the sanctity of life.
Despite the Nightwish/Dawkins hook-up being questionable, prog again proved it to be fertile ground for collaborations this year. Questions have again been raised as to the validity and necessity of some tie-ins, with the feeling that some joint ventures are purely for marketing purposes or for reasons other than to boost the music. The news that purveyors of dense, miasmic drone Sunn O))) would be releasing an album with avant-garde nomad Scott Walker may not have raised alarms as a cynical money-making exercise, but it left sirens squealing across the industry nonetheless.
The result was Soused, a dense mound of surging noise with a twisted Andy Williams-esque baritone punching through the crust. It is absurd, bleakly humorous and unmeasurable in a year when the majority of music continued to follow a predictable trajectory.
What’s more, the mythos surrounding the record builds it into one of these musical moments that resonates, before a single chord is chord struck. Sunn, who play every show buried in deep shrouds, and Walker who refuses to play live, have given their careers to batting away the rot of consistency that has normalised the industry.
6) Tooling Around
Another year, another reason to think that Tool may never release a new album. We took a cheeky little pop in the heady days of 2012, when we assumed that their next album would just be around the corner. After getting mired in a legal battle, it seems their new record may be even further away.
Despite this, there were plenty of reasons to be happy if you’re a fan of sleek subversive lyrics and splintering riffs. Dubai-based Empty Yard Experiment, Chevelle and Soen all released albums that pay a distinct homage to the perennial procrastinators. Haken and Leprous toured the UK, marrying their overt technicality with explosive live performances and a notion of theatricality that would make MJK proud.
Keenan spent more time working with his barmy sideshow Puscifer, publishing a video for the excellent ‘TOMA’. Having released Conditions of My Parole in 2011, I think it’s safe to say that a sense of urgency registers pretty low-down on his list of strengths.