While Christmas time sure tends to keep many of us ridiculously busy, I hope that it has provided all with several proggy joys, such as the chance to enjoy a few new albums or at least get into the holiday spirit with some Neal Morse “Frankenstein vs. Santa.” If that doesn’t give you some good laughs, I’m not sure what will. At any rate, it’s always fun to reflect on the past year and come up with a top releases list. What’s even funner is when you discover an album in the last couple days of the year that throws a wrench at your list and forces you to consider how to include one last album and decide where to place it. The Tea Club did just that for me; I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Have a happy New Year!

The Tea Club – Quickly Quickly Quickly
Quickly Quickly Quickly by The Tea Club is an album that instantly caught me off guard and reminded me of the saying, “never judge an album by its cover.” At first I assumed that I was about to listen to a hipster band, but I was radically mistaken and realized it within the first few seconds of the opener, “Firebears,” a track  that launches off with frantic drumming and an onslaught of keyboards. The energy soars on this song as The Tea Club masterfully goes from fierce symphonic prog to dreamy and melancholic, and everywhere in between. Although the composition has hints of 60’s and 70’s, the overall feel of the composition, phrasing, chord changes, and especially the vocals, is very modern; there is very little about this piece that says ‘1973 nostalgia.’ With its densely orchestrated keyboards and emotional vocals that beat up against  moody sections of clean guitar or piano that give the piece a sense of narrative, “Firebears” aggressively thrusts itself onto my top compositions of 2012 list.

While the rest of the album does not quite match the majesty of “Firebears,” the remaining three tracks are phenomenal and are worthy to be on the same record. With “The Eternal,” we find something similar to the first track but with more jazz influences cropping up and a demonstration of chord-change-mastery that always provides unexpected but fitting subtle shifts in tonality or mode, as well as an emphasis on great melody and use of theme repetition. “Mr. Freeze” is the first song to perhaps give us a bit of a rest from the symphonic onslaught, but that’s not to say that this subdued track is peaceful or soothing. Right from the start the piece is extremely eerie, capitalizing on haunting guitar feedback and dark, clean guitar arpeggiation. The final track, “I Shall” makes fantastic use of tension at the begging as quick guitar arpeggios provide a stable backdrop to the bass, vocals, and keys that build and grow the section. Overall, it’s a rocking track that has some very ethereal melodies and knows how to get dark and menacing.

I’m sitting here asking myself what cave have I been hiding in that I hadn’t heard The Tea Club until now. This is a truly phenomenal band and masterful album which provides a fresh and modern take on symphonic prog. Highly recommended!

Listen to The Tea Club!

Tesseract – One 
Tesseract: the band that won “best new blood” in last year’s Prog Magazine awards. After far too long, I finally got a chance to check out the album that landed them that award: One. What immediately strikes me about Tesseract is that they have a sound which is very signature for them and doesn’t sound quite like anyone else. This is prog metal, but it’s not your typical Dream Theater/Symphony X brand of metal; it’s more along the lines of Meshuggah or the so-called ‘djent’ bands. While there’s plenty of mind blowing moments on One, there is one thing that I think it lacks; variety. Tesseract seems to mostly consist of three types of sections. Atmospheric clean guitar with tons of awesome effects, the previously mentioned type of guitar mixed with insane polyrhythms, and wild rhythms without the atmospheric guitars and usually some kind of post-hardcore influenced vocals. The result is that at the beginning of the album I am pumped up and saying, “Wow! This is incredible!” But after a few tracks, when the screamo vocals grow tiresome and the composition seems to lack variety, I say to myself, “well, time to listen to something else.” While all of that might or might not be fair, and might just be because I absolutely detest post-hardcore vocals, you must understand; I am writing for a general prog rock audience here.

I don’t think it would do the album justice, however, to stop there; There are actually quite a few great things to say about Tesseract. In all honesty, the album had plenty of fantastic moments and I could see them as a band that would go great in my playlist when it’s on shuffle, since I think they are very much more enjoyable ‘one song at a time.’ The opener, “Lament,” strikes in immediately with all the emotions seen across the album as it puts quite a lot of emphasis on fantastic drumming, tricky rhythms, and heavy rhythms interspersed with dissonance that doesn’t get in the way of the melodic approach at all.  The epic, “Conceal the Fate” demonstrates what the band really is all about; they start off very ethereal-like with their signature clean guitar with a multiplicity of effects under mind boggling syncopated rhythms in the first part of the song and pulverizing double kick in “Part 2” before going into one of the most successful moments of the album where atmospheric vocals and polyrhythms abound, creating a sensation of calm and soothing overladen with destructive chaos. As the multi-part piece continues there are powerful choruses and memorable chord changes abounding. All in all they’ve created a pretty good prog metal epic. Perhaps the real treat comes towards the end of the album though, with “Eden,” a song whose opening riff and atmosphere will instantly make you nod your head and dance. In the end, I’ve got to hand it to Tesseract. What they do, they do really well. I absolutely fell in love with the way that they combine heavy guitars with mind-spinning polyrhythms over gorgeous clean guitars. While this album might appeal to only a certain subset of the prog community, but I’m sure they will rank it very highly.

Listen to Tesseract!

Illumion – The Waves
Once again, the Dutch music scene shows that it cranks out top notch female-fronted heavy music; however, Delain, Epica, Within Temptation, and The Gathering aren’t the only ones in town.  My first encounter with Illumion was a pleasing one as Waves proved to be an impressive album which represents a stunning and fresh take on female goth metal meets prog rock. Perhaps what sets Illumion apart from other female fronted rock bands is that the band always seems to present its own style as opposed to just another take on a familiar genre. Waves gives us a full on journey with lots of influences ranging from Asian folk, jazz, and flamenco, to symphonic prog and heavy metal. The good thing is that almost nothing here feels like a rip-off and nothing feels overdone. “Ember” starts off with some serious electronic meets heavy guitars groove and combines with vocals that give sort of a Renaissance feel with a gothic touch; the key word here is catchy. Both “A Tale of Kings” and “Canvas” show tasteful jazz influences while maintaining a heavy edge, or in the case of the latter, moments that are so dark they evoke funereal moments of nihilistic despair, which is particularly interesting because the song has moments that are quite bright, even bouncing, I would say. “Adamantine” caught my attention with it’s flamenco influences, while “Sorrow’s End” is a fulfilling ballad with mystical qualities that combines guitar arpeggiation with synth bass and sax soloing in a way that recalls the mood plainly put forth by the title. If you are into the female-fronted goth metal thing but want something that doesn’t sound like the same rehashed thing, be sure to check out Illumion.

Scarlet Hollow – What If Never Was
Every once in a while you run into an album that’s hard to pigeonhole, and it’s usually a good thing. Such is the case with What If Never Was by Scarlet Hollow. My initial inclination is to say this is a metal band, but I think that wouldn’t quite be putting my finger on it. There’s a sort of 2000’s era prog metal sound here, but there’s lots of other stuff going on in ways that would be atypical to the genre. For example, the jazzyness of the lead guitar on “The Path” shows diverse influences but doesn’t sound like a rip off of the standard ‘metal fusion’ bands. Furthermore, an ambient approach to the synths and engaging employment of Italian vocals round off this piece for a nice touch. “Around the Bend” is an all around superb song with fantastic mood changes. Once again, the use of Italian vocals is meaningful, non-cliche, and there’s something about the arrangement that reminded me a bit of Riverside, but still diverging quite a bit from that style. Also worthy of mention is “The Waiting,” which sports a ridiculously cool opening guitar riff; not too complex, but very catchy, I must say. The vocals on this track are attention grabbing and supremely dark, all the while the song poses a sort of eastern feel in its atmosphere.

While there are several great songs on the album, I think Scarlet Hollow’s composition is still in the process of maturing. There are moments, such as on “Thermal Winds” where I felt like something doesn’t quite mesh between the vocals and the instruments, and the sense of epicness that is displayed on other tracks is absent. That said, this is a debut, and a good one at that. It’s definitely recommended for those who like their prog heavy.

Listen to Scarlet Hollow!