Let’s have a drum roll please while I announce the John Cripps Album of the Year award for 2014.  I’m opening the envelope…and the winner is, Anubis, for the album, Hitchhiking to Byzantium. Yes, I realize 2014 isn’t over yet, and there are many more albums to be released before year-end. I just know none of them are going to be better than this one, so I’m going ahead and getting this out of the way.

I predict some time ago Pink Floyd was touring Australia, and guitarist David Gilmour had a fling with a lovely local. The offspring provided a guitar player for Anubis. All joking aside (or am I?) this album, as well as its predecessor, has some amazing “Gilmour moments.” After listening to the synth solo in A King With No Crown, I might wonder if the late Richard Wright had a fling as well. While Anubis does favor a Pink Floyd Animals era sound, they are not Pink Floyd wannabees. The vocals are distinct from a Waters/Gilmour, style and the band has its own maturing compositional style. Nevertheless, there will be the obligatory comparisons.

Some bands dislike comparisons. Others bands consider it an honor to have their musical creations compared side by side to a great band. When two of my songs were compared to Kansas, I thought I had achieved something quite notable. I will say that most bands that get compared to Pink Floyd, greatly pale in contrast. That is not the case with Anubis. Recently, another band I like, Airbag, was highly-criticized for sounding too much like Pink Floyd. Folks, Rock and Roll is 60 years old. There have been hundreds and hundreds of rock recording artists releasing tens of thousands of songs. Everyone sounds like someone, and there is no new lick under the sun. It’s been 20 years since Pink Floyd made a new studio album, and it is doubtful they will ever make another. Hooray for the bands keeping aspects of their brilliance alive and in the ears of new listeners!

Anubis, a band from Sydney AustraliaAnubis is a neo-progressive rock band hailing from Sydney, Australia. They formed in 2004 specifically to create a concept album meant to honor a departed friend. The album titled, 230503, was released in 2009, and posted for free on torrent sites. It became popular in Europe as the Internet carried it away past the Australian shores.

In 2011, Anubis signed with Bird’s Robe Records and launched their second album, A Tower Of Silence, soon afterwards. The album greatly exceeded their expectations and managed to make the ProgArchives.com top ten neo-prog albums of all time. It is certainly in my top ten as well. Unfortunately, I didn’t know of the album until hearing the new release. I loved it so much I sought out the back catalog.

This year Anubis released their third album, Hitchhiking to Byzantium. It is their first album not not based on a plot or narrative. Their website, www.anubismusic.com, writes:

It’s more of a thematic work, based on modern life. “It’s about growing older and trying to do better at things,” says guitarist Dean Bennison, “and about the excuses we make for ourselves, all the crutches and braces that we find for ourselves along the way, and how good and bad they are for us.” “It’s perhaps a little more esoteric than the last two albums,” adds guitarist Douglas Skene, “although I think at core they all touch upon the same theme, which is: what is, and isn’t, important to people in their lives.” “You do still get the sense that it’s someone,” says drummer Steven Eaton, “Someone who is on a journey. And the hope is that when they get there, they’re happy with what they’ve found.”

 

 

Musical genres and sub-genres can often be a bit confusing. Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan recently explained the difference between American and British rock by stating, “American Rock is based on blues, while British rock is based on classical music.” It is quite an over-simplification, but nonetheless a very true general statement. Progressive rock is certainly rooted in classical music. It makes its own rules as it goes, despises formulas, mixes in irregular time signatures, and lets individual instrumental skill shine through; never caring whether or not there is any radio airplay. It requires attention as it moves your brain, not your feet. Some early prog rock was a bit overboard in my opinion. Take much of the Emerson, Lake and Palmer music for example. It often seemed more like a clash of egos than well-crafted compositions.

Neo-prog emerged to bring an emotional element to the intellectual progressive rock genre. It brought us meaningful, often deep, lyrics and thematic content. Further, it brought more attention to well-crafted composition over the improvisational feel of early prog music. I’m not saying none of these things existed before, but neo-prog brought them all nicely together. I believe the sub-genre emerged from the music of bands like Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes with a sprinkling of Ian Anderson. With these things in mind, let’s take a look at the tracks on Hitchhiking to Byzantium.

The album begins with Fadeout, a delicate intro which flows right into the killer track, A King With No Crown. This song is carried on a guitar riff backbone spiced with piano. The synth solo was my first clue to an Animals era Floydian sound, but this song rocks heavier than anything on that album.

I like the intro to the followup, Dead Trees. Quickly though, the rhythm section takes charge and plows through the song with biting drums and nice playful bass.  There is bad ass lead guitar throughout the song. The next track is the title track Hitchhiking to Byzantium, a lighter number with a very pleasing vocal style by Robert. The atmosphere created in this song is a textbook example of fine neo-prog rock. Fantastic lead guitar work along with beautiful keyboards. It was a good song to name the album after.

Track 5, Blood is Thicker Than Common Sense, has a slight funkiness to it with its riff-based verses. The trading vocals, presumably between Robert and David, work extremely well and is one of the highlights of the song. I also liked the well-placed organ solo, and the build-up at the end of the song.

The next track “Tightening of The Screws” is what got my wife interested in Anubis. She loved Robert’s vocal, and came to like the music style as well. This is rather significant since my wife is not a big fan of progressive rock. She likes some Pink Floyd, and has even started listening to Rush, but I would not have expected her to like this album. She now has this, and the previous album, in her Jeep. Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll! Personally, I like the verse/chorus transition. As a songwriter myself, I can appreciate a particularly nice flow between the verses, the chorus, and back. I also look forward to an interesting bridge, and this song doesn’t disappoint there either. Nice drum groove by Steven throughout.

Anubis Hitchhiking to ByzantiumTrack 7, Partitionists, starts out with a spacey atmosphere when, at almost a minute and a quarter in, it breaks into a irregular meter riff with some more vocal trade-off. Nice rhythm work between bass and drums too. Great Stuff! A word about the irregular time signatures. They say a rock song is either a march (4/4) or a waltz (3/4). One of the things I like about prog music is breaking all the rigid rules and formulas. In my own songwriting, I love taking away a beat or adding a beat…then going back into triple or common time. It grabs attention and makes a song interesting. Anubis does not disappoint here!

The following track, Crimson Stained Romance starts out with just church organ and vocals. It is one of the lighter numbers, but another catchy tune. I always look forward to the part where Robert sings, “You become the very thing you hate.”

Goldfinger, the new James Bond film…an ad clip that opens the ninth track, A Room With A View. It is eerily followed by piano and Robert’s strongly processed voice. Then we get some nice slide guitar and off we go into the album’s Magnum Opus. I really like David’s piano work juxtaposed against the wailing guitar. Soon the drums and bass kick it up, and add a measure of confusion to the song by tugging your attention. While you certainly wouldn’t want an entire album of this technique, it works brilliantly to accentuate a particular mood. We get more of the nicely traded vocals, which seems to be an Anubis trademark. About nine and half minutes into the song, the mood changes and we finally get to hear Martyn Cook strut his stuff. He gives us a flute solo that hearkens us back to Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull. The song changes up a lot, which is to be expected from a track clocking in at 15:56. It all comes together seamlessly, and I look forward to the different parts as I’m listening. This has become my wife’s favorite Anubis track. She freakin’ loves the vocals and sings along with it (even though she can’t figure out all the words). I also like the synth and guitar near the close.

The closing track, Silent Wandering Ghosts creates a mellow atmosphere true to its title. David’s haunting piano and, once again, some nice trade-off vocals. The song ends with a two minute guitar solo, then slowly fades out as if we are left with a “to be continued.”

Anubis Hitchhiking to Byzantium

So, here it is y’all – my 2014 album of the year. I guarantee it won’t be topped in the John Cripps ratings. Some of my favorite modern prog artists like Neal Morse, Airbag, Pineapple Thief, Transatlantic et al have all released albums this year, and they didn’t come close to this one. Hitchhiking to Byzantium is a long album, but one of those rare finds where all the songs are good – start to finish. I have a difficult time picking a favorite. Not counting the short intro, the 9 remaining tracks average about 8:31. Anubis really gives you your money’s worth as the 78 minutes of music barely fits on a CD. That is assuming anyone still listens to CDs besides me.

It’s sad to me that rock music no longer reigns in the United States. New rock music, particularly prog or classic rock styles, does not even receive airplay on radio stations. I believe if you transported Anubis back to 1973, they would be touring the world and showing off their platinum records. I look forward to hearing more from my favorite band of 2014!

A couple of closing notes. One thing I always liked about Pink Floyd was the Dick Parry sax solos. They so perfectly fit the mood and atmosphere of the songs. Anubis employed this on The Tower of Silence album, but it was missing on this album. I could certainly stand to hear some more of it. I believe it makes a perfect finale to the song, The Holy Innocents on the previous album. Martyn Cook was not absent though. He added the awesome flute on A Room With A View.

If I spent too much time talking about guitars, it is because I am a guitarist myself, and I favor any tones and style that remind me of my hero David Gilmour. I do not mean to belittle the remainder of the band. The entire band is quite skilled at their instruments, and this album would not be the same without them. The rhythm sections are always underrated, but are the ones that carry the song, and Anubis does a fantastic job.

Anubis Hitchhiking to ByzantiumThe Band’s Current Lineup:
Robert James Moulding: Vocals, Bass Guitar (on Hitchhiking), Percussion, Guitar
David Eaton: Keyboards, Guitars and Vocals
Douglas Skene: Electric Guitar and Acoustic and Vocals
Dean Bennison: Electric and Acoustic Guitar, Slide Guitar and Vocals
Anthony Stewart: Bass Guitars and Vocals (New bassist, did not play on album)
Steven Eaton: Drums, Percussion and Vocals (At first I thought he played a set of Gretsch Catalina Birch like me, but it is a set of Catalina Maple – good choice bro!)
Martyn Cook: Saxophone, Flutes, Brass