A Song A Day — January 15th — Point of Know Return

Day: Monday, January 15th, 2018

Song: Point of Know Return

Artist: Kansas

Album: Point of Know Return

Year of Release: 1977

Kansas was responsible for a lot of hits in the mid-to-late ’70s, and I think my favorite of them is probably Point of Know Return. Steve Walsh is really the star of the show on this one with his lead vocals and, more importantly, keyboard work. The organ really drives the track here, moreso than the violin and guitar usually do, with its quick riffs dominating the choruses. That isn’t to say the violin and guitar aren’t there — they are, and they’re great. Kerry Livgren’s guitar punctuates the vocals during the chorus, as Robby Steinhardt’s violin does during the verses.

The song itself is somewhat whimsical, as one would expect from Kansas, detailing the wanderlust of a sailor who gets lost on a seafaring adventure to the “point of know return,” a somewhat Pirates of the Caribbean-y look at sailing to the end of the world. I quite like the way this lines up with the album’s artwork, which itself is really cool. This is a really simple song, to be quite honest, but there are some time signature changes that make it a bit more quirky, and overall it’s just a really solid album opener from the follow-up to the tremendous Leftoverture album.

See you (how long?) tomorrow.

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A Song A Day — January 14th — Mother, Father

Day: Sunday, January 14th, 2018

Song: Mother, Father

Artist: Journey

Album: Escape

Year of Release: 1981

While few would contest that Escape is one of Journey’s finest offerings, most would probably cite famous tracks like Don’t Stop Believin’  or Open Arms as its defining tunes. While those are also fantastic, I think Mother, Father is probably this album’s hidden gem. Its Vital Signs, if you will (and hey, both those albums came out in 1981! What a great year for music).

Mother, Father is one of the most moving songs Journey put out, and the band is at the top of their game here. Neal Schon’s guitar riffs are way more complex than they first seem behind Steve Perry’s completely out-of-this-world vocals. Jonathan Cain’s keys are equally great; he’s always fantastic at laying down memorable hooks that pervade the whole tune. While I love all the instrumentation on this track, and think that praise for the band always seems to neglect to mention how great folks like Neal Schon, Jonathan Cain, and Steve Smith are, I must admit that Steve Perry really is the standout performance here.

His vocal work on this is, to my mind, unlike anything else he ever did. It’s so mournful, emotional, and raw, with just that much more heart than anything else the band ever did. And Neal Schon’s solos following each of the choruses just build off that intensity in a way that makes Mother, Father one of Journey’s undeniable best tunes. It’s most definitely worth the listen.

See you tomorrow — Have faith, believe.

A Song A Day — January 13th — Malignant Narcissism

Day: Saturday, January 13th, 2018

Song: Malignant Narcissism

Artist: Rush

Album: Snakes and Arrows

Year of Release: 2007

Snakes and Arrows has never been one of my favorite Rush albums, but I do love a few of its many offerings. Malignant Narcissism is unique by Rush standards for several reasons. For one, it’s one of the shortest Rush tracks ever, keeping things short and punchy. It’s one of three instrumentals on Snakes, the only album with more than one instrumental. It sees Geddy on a fretless bass and Neil on a four-piece standard kit, the smallest drum setup he’d ever used on a Rush track. And it quotes the Trey Parker/Matt Stone film Team America: World Police. Yep.

This song just drives really, really well, and the fact that it was essentially a slapdash last-minute addition to the album, recorded really quickly with what the guys had to work with makes it an even more fun track. The rhythm section is the star of the show here, as it often is in Rush instrumentals, and Geddy in particular is at the top of his game here. There are tons of little flourishes and riffs he spits out that are just gold. Pratt at the kit is always a recipe for awesomeness, and even with less to work with than he’s used to, he still puts out some awesome fills. And Alex lays down some great riffs over the top of everything that tie it all together. Just a great little tune.

See you tomorrow.

A Song A Day — January 12th — Hard to Say I’m Sorry/Get Away

Day: Friday, January 12th, 2018

Song: Hard to Say I’m Sorry/Get Away

Artist: Chicago

Album: Chicago 16

Year of Release: 1982

I’ve always loved Chicago, and while they’ve gone through a lot of changes of membership and musical style, I can pretty much say every album of theirs has at least one or two songs that are standout tracks. While Chicago 16 is definitely one of their weaker albums, it did give us this track, one of my top ten favorite Chicago songs.

One of the things you’ll notice about this one is that, apart from Cetera’s vocals and Seraphine’s ever spectacular drum work, there aren’t any members of Chicago performing here, at least for the Hard to Say I’m Sorry part, which is the one you’re most likely to hear. That’s producer David Foster on that iconic piano part, and a few members of Toto round out the session band, which surprisingly works really, really well. I love Cetera’s mournful vocals here, a bit of a departure from the more up-tempo stuff he did earlier on in his career, and the synth stuff from David Paich and Steve Porcaro also fits pretty damn well here.

I love the way the song builds through the choruses, as a true ballad should, before completely shifting gears to something that sounds like a Chicago song from ten years previously. Suddenly, there’s an up-tempo piano beat and … horns! Hey, it’s Chicago again! While Get Away really has nothing to do with Hard to Say I’m Sorry, I really love the dichotomy between the two halves of the track as they kind of show where Chicago was in 1982 versus where they used to be, and it’s just a lot of fun. A shame most radio stations cut off before we get there.

See you tomorrow.

A Song A Day — January 11th — The Call

Day: Thursday, January 11th, 2018

Song: The Call

Artist: The Neal Morse Band

Album: The Grand Experiment

Year of Release: 2015

The Neal Morse Band is a favorite of mine, something of a prog supergroup with Morse from Spock’s Beard and Portnoy from Dream Theater. If you were to ask me, though, the real standout member of the band is guitarist Eric Gillette, a multi-instrumentalist powerhouse from whom we’re definitely going to be hearing a lot in the future. At any rate, The Call is a spectacular track, the first one on NMB’s first album, The Grand Experiment, and it pretty much seals the deal that this is a band worth listening to.

The opening vocal harmonies do a great job showing the interplay here, and pretty much everything that follows just … flows. Everyone here is really showing their best. Bill Hubauer channels Rick Wakeman with his keys and Peter Gabriel with his vocals, Randy George drives the tune with his bass artistry (it gets a little Geddy Lee-style punchy at times, too), and Eric Gillette is a beast on the guitar, capable of both shredding and singing with his instrument, and his vocals are equally superb. Mike Portnoy is, as always, spectacular at the drums, moving around the cymbals and hi-hat to create some really intense beats, especially when coupled with his masterful double bass work. And Morse ties the whole proceeding together, on several instruments and vocals, with vaguely-religious-as-always lyrics and a great little vocal solo near the middle of the tune.

The song builds and builds after that interlude, kicking off with a fantastic drum fill from Portnoy that leads into the massive, sweeping epic that is the latter half of the track. It’s just all so awesome and goosebump-inducing that it’s hard to put into words. Just give it a listen.

See you tomorrow.

 

A Song A Day — January 10th — Postcards from Paraguay

Day: Wednesday, January 10th, 2018

Song: Postcards from Paraguay

Artist: Mark Knopfler

Album: Shangri-La

Year of Release: 2004

Mark Knopfler has long been a favorite artist of mine, with pretty much every solo release he’s done since the breakup of Dire Straits being an instant classic, with very few forgettable tracks. This one comes from Shangri-La, a song with a ton of great tracks, but I’m pretty sure this is my favorite among them.

Postcards really grooves, and showcases the fluidity of Knopfler’s band. Everything is in sync here, with a laid-back and fun backing beat behind Mark’s spectacular finger-picked electric and vocals. The story here is of a man fleeing the country after robbing a bank, and there are some really great lines, such as “I had to steal from Peter to pay what I owed to Paul,” among others. The lyrics aren’t particularly deep, but they’re clever and work well with Knopfler’s voice.

I love the guitar work in general, but the acoustic and mandolin backing the tune are both exquisite, as are Knopfler’s little voicings between the lines in the verse. When I saw him live he introduced the band member by member as they each came in for their part, and that was a really fun way of seeing just how many small moving parts there are that bring this tune together. It’s just a really fun, intricate piece of music that only Mark Knopfler could’ve made. Also, the way he sings “Paragua-yyyyy” at the end of the track is just the best.

See you tomorrow.

A Song A Day — January 9th — Amazing Flight

Day: Tuesday, January 9th, 2018

Song: Amazing Flight

Artist: Ayreon

Album: Into the Electric Castle

Year of Release: 1998

“There is danger ahead … but do not be afraid, for I am with you like breath itself. Darkness will lead to light. Colors will bleed into the night. Beautiful colors, the like of which you’ve never seen. Let the dream of confusion lead you into the virgin light. Be gone. Be all-seeing, be brave, be gone.”

Into the Electric Castle is one of my favorite Ayreon albums and one of my absolute favorite concept albums, and Amazing Flight might be the best track on it. It’s a multi-part tune, and the bluesy riff with that great bass line that starts it off is just a jam. The Barbarian and the Hippie (two characters on this album) take the vocal reins here, with Jay van Feggelen’s boastful voice putting in great work as the Barbarian and Arjen Lucassen himself laid-back and hilarious as the Hippie. The guitar, keys, bass, drums, and the vocals all work really well together here, and the flavor of the first half of the tune really does a good job of bringing out the conversation between these two very different characters. The extended guitar solo that brings us into the second half is also brilliant.

The interlude before the second half of the song is really chill and has some great vocals in the background from Sharon den Andel and Anneke van Giersbergen before the awesomeness that is the second half of the tune kicks in in earnest. I can’t really do justice to how much I love the instrumental section here, but it’s just so badass. The guitar, bass, and keys from Lucassen all rock hard, Ed Warby’s drumming (with the famous Neil Peart ride pattern, I might add) is great, and Thijs van Leer on the flute is very Jethro Tullian. All the instrumental solos are awesome, with special mention going to the piano solo that’s repeated on the acoustic guitar near the end. It’s all just so damn good.

See you tomorrow.

 

A Song A Day — January 8th — Siberian Khatru

Day: Monday, January 8th, 2018

Song: Siberian Khatru

Artist: Yes

Album: Close to the Edge

Year of Release: 1972

Yes were one of the prime movers of the progressive rock genre in the early ’70s, and nothing cemented their position as a truly legendary prog band like Close to the Edge. With just three tracks, the album was front-to-back epics, each one a different sort of song. Ending the album is Siberian Khatru, a really catchy track built mostly on Steve Howe’s quick guitar riffs and Jon Anderson’s excellent vocal work on his pretty much nonsense lyrics.

Siberian Khatru starts off with my favorite Yes guitar bit ever, and keeps the tempo going throughout the rest of the song thanks to some really great riffs from Howe. While it’s the guitar that drives the song, every instrument here has something great going on, as one would expect from the best lineup Yes ever had. There’s a great keyboard-to-harpsichord solo around the middle of the track from Rick Wakeman, and the rhythm section is as always phenomenal, with Bill Bruford going to town on the ride cymbal and hi-hat to keep the tune going and Chris Squire’s subtle but intricate bass line backing the proceedings.

Jon Anderson’s vocals are standout here as well, and while I have absolutely no clue what the hell he’s singing about (what even is a khatru?), it’s delightful. I love the scat portion at the end as it heads to the fade, as well as the harmonies through the verses and choruses. I go back and forth between this, Roundabout, and And You and I being my favorite Yes track, but if I’m ever in the mood for some really slick guitar, I need look no further than Siberian Khatru.

See you tomorrow.

 

A Song A Day — January 7th — Take the Time

Day: Sunday, January 7th, 2018

Song: Take the Time

Artist: Dream Theater

Album: Images and Words

Year of Release: 1992

Hey, I made it a week!

Images and Words is an insanely badass album, and pretty much every track on it is solid gold. Take the Time is one of my favorites, as it shows off the “prog” in DT’s “prog metal” moniker better than any other track on the album (with the exception of Metropolis Pt. 1, natch). We start out with this badass riff from John Petrucci and some samples (one of whom I believe is James Brown), with John Myung backing with this insane bass line before James LaBrie comes in with the vocals. All the while, of course, Mike Portnoy is jumping around on the cymbals and toms as he often does, with virtuosity pretty much unheard of from someone as young as these guys were when this album came out.

From there on Take the Time just gets better and better. I love the vocals after the first chorus, and how they kind of mask the insanity going on at the drum kit. Kevin Moore’s keys are much subtler than the work of his future replacements, but he does a great job giving the tune a backbone. After the second chorus, we get a slower bit where LaBrie can showcase a bit of the depth of his voice and Moore gets a little more to do on the keys before Petrucci comes in with an insane guitar part mirrored on the keyboard and drums. This instrumental section just builds in intensity until it becomes full-blown shredding that’s just jaw-dropping. All the while, of course, Portnoy’s dutiful double-bass keeps up. After that, of course, we get … another awesome guitar solo. Seriously, this instrumental section just keeps on coming up with new shit before we get back to the chorus, and I love it.

After the final chorus is a guitar part that I seriously think sounds just like a Jun Senoue riff, like it could’ve come straight out of the Sonic Adventure soundtrack. Your mileage may vary. The song slows down a bit here but the riffing builds to another high before the song fades out. The lyrics don’t really make a lot of sense, but I appreciate them anyway, as DT’s lyrics are often … obtuse. Still an awesome track, though.

See you tomorrow.

A Song A Day — January 6th — Home By the Sea

Day: Saturday, January 6th, 2018

Song: Home by the Sea

Artist: Genesis

Album: Genesis (Shapes)

Year of Release: 1983

While their later, Phil Collins-y work was certainly much less proggy than what came before, I still love pretty much everything Genesis came out with up until Collins’s departure. Home By the Sea comes from their 1983 self-titled album, which was their poppiest album to date at the time of its release, but it still included some proggier tracks like this one.

Home By the Sea is prog pop at its best, telling the story of a man who breaks into a house to rob it before finding out that it’s full of ghosts and now he can’t leave. Tough break. I really love the instrumentation in this — Tony Banks’s keyboards spooky, Rutherford’s bass and guitar punchy, and Collins’s drum work just straight-up groovy. Seriously, there’s not a lot going on in terms of the drums here, but they just work. The highlight of this track, for me, is Collins’s vocals. There’s just something about the way he sings “sit down” that is so mournful and maudlin while still maintaining a lot of power. It’s one of my favorite vocal performances from him.

The second half of the track becomes pure prog, with a lot of the focus on synthy ambiance and a driving beat from Phil’s electric drums. I think Home By the Sea and later tracks like Domino or Driving the Last Spike are evidence that Genesis never truly gave up on prog. They became more pop rock in their later years, but I think that was a necessary evolution following the loss of guys like Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett. These three guys showed they had the chops in the ’70s to make really chunky, high-concept stuff, and later on they just wanted to loosen things up while still holding onto some of that prog edge. Which, I think, they did with aplomb, especially with stuff like Home By the Sea.

See you tomorrow.