There’s always been a question I’ve had in mind. Why the term ‘rock opera,’ if most of albums that get this label aren’t actually ever produced for the stage? While there have been a number of such works that have actually been staged, what about those who haven’t? Having recently been listening to Hostsonaten’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and even more recently with the Syndone’s  La bella è la bestia on rotation, the first thing that came to my mind was the term “rock oratorio.” Now, this doesn’t sound nearly as catchy or desireable as rock opera. For one, a lot of people don’t know what the term oratorio means (if you don’t, look it up), and even though it may not fit these albums perfectly either, it at least gives off the idea of a concept story that is presented musically by various singers and is not staged. Does that mean I’m going to replace my vocabulary and start using the term ‘rock oratorio’ with my buddies? No. But I couldn’t help but wonder anyways. In the meantime, there’s some killer works being written as of late.

Syndone – La bella e la bestia
It’s pretty few and far between when I hear a band that I find to be truly fascinating. Syndone, with their album La bella è la bestia, proved to be one of those truly unique musical presentations, one that will stick in my head and my collection for a long time. Just to get this out of the way, don’t let the album cover fool you into thinking this is a metal album. That was my first impression of the cover, and it couldn’t be further from the truth. La bella è la bestia presents a compelling and distinct retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story, mixing jazz and avant-garde with symphonic prog in ways that make total sense yet sounded far from generic. La bella è la bestia stands out for its purposeful composing; the various sections of songs are meaningful and memorable, as are the singers and the vocal lines. With a variety of voices giving very distinctive and ‘in character’ presentations of the various protagonists, the singing is simply stunning, ranging from soft and emotive at times to harsh and passionate, all the while delivering a variety of modalities from avant-garde to rock. What’s more is the first class music that accompanies them. While this album is, to a certain degree, defined by the story and the singers’ presentation of it, that hardly means that it is a voice driven album. There’s plenty of instrumental brilliance to satisfy any progger’s appetite. For me, what makes the music itself stand out is that it seems to be very narrative as well. Syndone delivers, through the music, a great soundtrack for this story, making use of unique tonalities and haunting choices in matching melody to instrumentation. All of these aspects, melded together create La bella è la bestia, a near perfect oratorio of progressive rock. Once again, my Italians have done me proud.

Mr. Gil – I Want You to Get Back Home
While Poland’s Mr. Gil would perhaps generally be regarded as neo-prog, their latest release, I Want You to Get Back Home breaks from the standard and presents a collection of quasi singer songwriter tunes that are extremely laid back and majestically orchestrated. Don’t be expecting ‘dude with a guitar’ type music here, although this does remind me a bit of the ‘indie’ thing. That out of the way, and the fact that I usually hate this type of music, I was thoroughly impressed with Mr. Gil’s arrangements. While the songs are generally more ‘indie’ and less prog, I honestly cannot complain about the production of the album, the performances, or the orchestrating, all of which are magnificent and fit the music perfectly. Mr. Gil delivers heartfelt and emotional vocals backed by an assortment of piano and strings which provide lush atmosphere and texture as a background for well delivered vocals. For the most part, the songs are pretty somber, which I’m a fan of; however, my only complaint is that they don’t seem to present enough variety for me. At the same time, I suspect that people who are fans of this genre would probably disagree with me on this point. In the end, this kind of music isn’t really of album that I could sit straight through, devoting 100% attention from start to finish, it’s perfect for a randomized playlist and would give good variety to any collection. Although it’s not an ‘essential’ prog album, fans of the genre will probably absolutely love this one.

Stratospheerius – The Next World
I’m just gonna say it, no one stop me, please: This album drove me absolutely nuts. So, why the good rating? It’s well done, I simply can’t argue with that. Stratospheerius is a unique band, melding blugrass, rock, prog, jazz, and funk. It’s really hard to describe. It’s got great violin happening all over the place, it breaks down to these blugrass and country moments all of a sudden, then this weird electronic bit, and all of a sudden there’s a funk guitar going, followed by classic rock guitars and vocals. Then, of course, there’s the prog elements on a variety of tracks, which prove to be quite well done (check out “Fleshbot” and “Road Rage” great instrumental driven violin rock madness). I’m not gonna lie, this violinist is really good, and really fun. If I were supersticious, I’d have to say that the devil came down and made a deal with Mr. Denizon for sure. Stratospheerius is all over the map on The Next World. Great band, not my style, but still a great band. This one’s worth checking out to see whether you love it or hate it.