2013, what a superb year for prog music, there have been dozens of fantastic albums released across the whole gamut, from classic English prog, to experimental rock music, and returns of several prog legends with fantastic new albums and new bands making waves and moving the genre on.
This is what I consider to be the albums that have been the strongest this year, and ones which I have kept coming back to over and over again, the musicality, the performances, the songwriting, the production, the sound is different from album to album, the topics wide ranging and when you listen to these albums back to back, they are all fresh, vibrant and new.
This is my sound of 2013, and these are albums that will stay with me, long after 2013 is but a memory.
Kingbathmat: Overcoming the Monster
Following on from last years superb Truth Button, Kingbathmat returned in triumph, on their most assured album to date, Overcoming the Monster is all about dealing with psychological obstacles, which is reflected in the brilliantly observant lyrics, and the superb cover art as well.
Masters of making an album, rather than just one track, the full force of Kingbathmats impressive musical arsenal is unleashed and untamed over these 6 fantastic tracks, with luscious harmonies reminiscent of Yes in their heyday, with tracks like the driving Parasomnia and the musical finale, the epic riff driven full on space rock masterpiece that is Kubrick Moon, with its superb guitar and keyboard work, and the interplay between all 4 members of the band is a joy to listen to as the track reaches its epic conclusion after 11 plus minutes of sheer musical abandon.
Lifesigns by Lifesigns
Keyboard player John Young, bassist Nick Beggs and Martin ‘Frosty’ Beedle have combined their not inconsiderable talents, and present 5 amazing tracks as the Lifesigns project.
With guests of the calibre of Steve Hackett, Thijs Van Leer, Robin Boult and Jakko Jakszyk Lifesigns fits nicely in the English progressive tradition, with inventive performances, quality musicianship, (the interplay between Beggs fluid bass playing and Youngs superb keyboard playing is a particular delight, while Beedle builds on and adds to a tradition of inventive percussion started by Bill Bruford and others) and instead of imitating or following a pre-ordained idea of what progressive rock should be, this is showing what it is.
Intelligent mature well crafted songs, atmospheric and ambient soundscapes created by the band, where Youngs emotive vocals weave over, and the beauty of the album from the superb Lighthouse to the closing 11 minutes worth of Carousel, Lifesigns is the sound of three talented musicians having the time of their life, not compromising, and delivering the album they were born to make.
Thieves Kitchen-One for Sorrow Two for Joy
The trio of Amy Darby, Phil Mercy and Thomas Johnson have moved from being a live band to a studio project, and in the process have moved organically away from Thieves Kitchens original prog roots, into something more prog folk, with some fantastic vocals from Amy, whilst Phil’s versatility as a guitarist shows all over this album from the brilliant The Weaver, the two epics in which the album hangs, Germander Speedwell and the closing Of Sparks and Spires, whilst Thomas is as inventive a keyboard player as any on the current scene. This is a well-performed, well-produced album, which is made to be listened as a whole. There’s no dipping in or out of songs here and this is a superb musical meeting point of songs and lyrics and performance, and a high point in Thieves Kitchens story so far.
Ravens & Lullabies: Gordon Giltrap & Oliver Wakeman
Two musical powerhouses in their respective fields, guitar maestro Giltrap and keyboard supreme Oliver Wakeman combine their considerable talents on this magnificent concept album on Esoteric.
With Giltraps effortlessly beautiful playing and Wakemans beautifully fluid keyboards, any album with one of them on is a joy; with them both together you’re getting a masterclass in collaborative performances.
With Olivers vocalist of choice the incomparable Paul Manzi on board (seeing Oliver and Paul perform together sends shivers down your spine) and with Wakeman and Giltrap trading licks, exchanging riffs and building things of beauty around each others talents, has to be heard to be believed.
This album is a thing of great power and great beauty and is one which you’ll find you keep returning to again and again, and each time you’ll discover something new, one of the best albums either man has put their name to, and this is one of those collaborations you hope continues.
John Lees’ Barclay James Harvest: North
The first new studio album from John Lees BJH since 1999’s Nexus, this is a superb continuation of the BJH sound, and a triumphant musical return for one of the most underrated bands of the progressive scene, this is classic BJH at its finest.
However in an album full of strong tracks like the digital single Unreservedly Yours, The highlights of this superb album, which as the name suggests draws on the Northern roots of the band, reflecting beautifully and evocatively on where they came from, is the epic and beautiful title track, which brings the landscape and area home to anyone from the North, especially if they are so far from home, that and its beautiful finale At the End of the Day, a wonderful musical end with words from a poem by Northern poet Ammon Wrigley, these two tracks close a magnificent and wonderful album, with grace, beauty and pathos
This deserves to be acclaimed as a great album from John Lees Barclay James Harvest, building on the fine musical tradition and heritage that BJH have, whilst giving their sound a contemporary feel.
Manning: The Root, the Leaf & The Bone
This is Guys 14th album, and he shows no sign of slowing up, with a magnificent concept all about change and time passing, brilliantly executed and realised, with superb pieces like the opening title track, the dramatic Forge with its fantastic percussive sound, and the lyrical themes running through the album about what has been lost to progress.
The core Manning band are a stunningly tight group, and guest musicians like Chloe Hetherington and Marek Arnold enhance the magic of Guys music.
This is a brilliant folk tinged work that shows Guys songwriting to be top notch and is another triumph for Manning.
The Tangent – Le Sacre Du Travail
L’Etagere Du Travail
After a break of 2 yrs Andy Tillison and the Tangent return with not one, but two stunning new albums.
The main treat is the new studio album proper Le Sacre Du Travail, which translates as the Rite of Work. Influenced strongly by Stravinskys Rite of Spring, this is a contemporary progressive symphony for modern times, with Andy thinking big about things that don’t necessarily fascinate other songwriters, the music itself is written and should be listened to as a complete symphony, like Andy says, progressive music should take you on a journey, and Le Sacre does that, from the opening of Coming up on the Hour (overture) the 22 minute epic Morning Journey and Arrival, its musical dexterity, with wryly observant and sympathetic lyrics, pulling you into the piece, and its counterpart the leading to the conclusion of the symphony, Evening TV, with its cyclical ending of ‘it all starts again’. This is one of the finest examples of a rock sinfonia I have ever heard.
The companion piece of an album as well L’Etagere Du Travail, the Shelf of Work, a 10 track supplementary disc of outtakes and alternate mixes available only from the Tangents website, from the older material the remix Dansant Du Paris is the Tangent go pop, with a fantastic sax break and clever remix, and a different version of the brilliant Ethernet. There are also 5 extra tracks on here, the brilliant Monsanto, the contemplative lost in Ledston, however the stand out track here is the fantastic Suppers Off, an amazing piece of work, from the free festivals of the 70’s to the corporate greed of today via questions about why people have stopped making things and only want to make money, this is a musical angry young man statement, with big questions about musical recycling, and how come big bands remaster stuff all the time, and people lap it up.
To create a masterpiece like Le Sacre is achievement enough, but to then follow it up with a companion album including Suppers Off which would be a significant track by anyone’s standards is an astonishing record by any musician, but to do it in one year as a simultaneous release reminds us why Andy Tillison is one of the most important voices on the prog scene.
Shineback: Rise up Forgotten Return Destroyed
This debut release by Tinyfish frontman Simon Godfrey with lyrics from Robert Ramsay, this is a step away from the Tinyfish sound.
Drawing on a diverse range of genres and sounds, this tells the story of Dora who videos her dreams and is drawn into a dark journey into her own past uncovering dark secrets.
Danny Claires vocals work so well on the album in the musical blog interludes, telling part of Dora’s story, whilst musically the genres flip from the driving electro rock of Is this the Dream? The synth driven Bedlam days that mixes techno and garage sounds, with some great keyboard work.
Godfrey has pulled together an amazing story and the electro emphasised music taking his muse in a totally different direction from anything he’s done before.
His own insomnia is drawn on throughout the album adding to the story, particularly on the mood changing piano driven Faultlines, his vocals being sublime throughout the album, whilst the title track is 10 minutes plus of musical brilliance.
This is a superb debut for a talented musician stepping out from the music he’s known for, into a left field musical future. The fact that this succeeds so well is testament to Godfreys talent and vision, and his choice of collaborators (including Matt Stevens, Dec Burke, Henry Rogers). This is fantastic.
The Fierce and the Dead: Spooky Action
The Fierce and the Dead is this intense, powerful, exciting groove monster.
The 11 new tracks that make up this mighty album all take you different places, and into unexpected territories, from the opening groove of Part 4, the driving intensity of the single Ark underpinned by a monster bass riff, and powerful percussion sound, whilst the twin guitars trade riffs and licks of an almost industrial nature, it’s a mighty blend of light and shade.
There are hints of jazz, of rock, of prog, of allsorts running through this album, and plenty of sounds coming through that you wouldn’t expect a guitar to be able to make, the fantastic Lets start a Cult with its stabs of brass and epic finish, the funk stomp of I like it, I’m into it, with its great drum beats and dirty bass and guitar sound, and a that killer riff, this is the sound of a band operating at full capacity.
Kev Feazey plays his bass like a third guitar, whilst the guitar sparring of Matt Stevens and Steve Cleaton is exemplorary, both being mighty guitarists, whilst the drums of Stuart Marshall underpin everything and build to the mighty sound of the Fierce and the Dead.
This is experimental, this is exciting, this is everything that is good about instrumental rock, new, fresh and an album you will keep returning to, time and time again as there is so much depth to these tracks that you pick something new up every time you listen.
Sanguine Hum: The Weight of the World
Oxfords Sanguine Hum took their debut, Diving Bell as their starting point, and pushed their music even further creatively and musically, creating as they do so, one of the most interesting, exciting and unpredictable albums I have heard all year.
From the musical tour de force that is the epic title track, clocking in at well over 15 minutes, and not one minute of which is wasted, there are hints of electronica running throughout the album, pulsing through the fantastic Cognoscenti, providing an exciting counterpoint to the beautifully melodic guitars and the driving percussion, whilst Day of Release provides one of the many musical highpoints, with hints of early OMD and Joffs vocal melody providing a sublime contrast.
From the start not a moment is wasted, not a foot is put wrong, and there is beauty throughout the album, in the music, the lyrics, the spaces between the notes.
This is an album like albums are supposed to be made, running almost seamlessly from start to finish.
I would argue that they are one of the few truly progressive bands out there, not copying, but creating, not imitating, but innovating.
Conundrum in Deed – Gentlemen
This is London based quartet Conundrum In Deeds debut album and is classic jazz prog rock, with their sound being enhanced by the fact that instead of different keyboard sounds, its just Sadlers piano adding to the rock, sound, and from the opening Falling leaves, right through to the closing title track, the music entrances you, draws you in and takes you on a journey.
With the lyrics as important (if not more so) than the music, songs like the beautifully mellow Strangers in Sympathy, the driving funk bass driven Love in the Age of Technology, the brilliant Holy Flowers, and the majestic Rise/Church Bells with its stunning bass/piano interplay.
Conundrum in Deed are the finished article, a superb band with something new to say, echoing the sounds of yesterday, reminiscent of bands like Caravan and others of that ilk from the Canterbury Scene.
Big Big Train – English Electric Full Power
A monumental collection by anyone standards, this is strange as it may seem, my first introduction to Big Big Train, and what an introduction.
This is English Electric parts One and Two, and the EP Make some Noise, in a lavish hardback book with some beautiful new pictures, stories behind the songs, and is a weighty package suitable for one of the greatest musical projects its been my pleasure to listen to.
From the opener of Make some Noise, and into the albums proper, the expansive sound, the powerful musicianship, the intelligent and well observed lyrics, this is a complete musical package.
Tracks like Uncle Jack, the haunting and poignant A boy in darkness, the English sound of Hedgerow and Keeper of Abbeys, and the frankly brilliant East Coast Racer make this a double album to get lost in, you don’t listen to one or two songs, you clear the decks, turn off the phone or internet, put the album on and sit down, let it wash over you, as you absorb its beauty, its strength, its power.
This is a magical work and one, which in 20 years time will be looked on as a significant musical achievement.
There are loads more albums that could have made this list, and some honourable mentions must go out to Chris Wade, whose been so prolific this year (three Dodson & Fogg albums, and one prog instrumental one) that it has been hard to choose between them, the musical maturity and progression from Derring Do, to The Call, via the Sounds of Day and Night have been exciting to listen to, and fascinating to see where Chris is going to take his musical talent next, I predict even bigger things for him in 2014.
Haze’s fantastic Last Battle saw their triumphant return, and what was nearly a goodbye has become a new beginning for them.
Jump just get better and better, and like a fine wine keep on maturing, and their stunning Black Pilgrim takes familiar themes and weaves their musical magic round them.
If I’ve missed out some other big releases like the Steven Wilson album, or the new Magenta album then it’s because sadly I’ve not heard them yet!
2013 will go down in Prog history as a superb year, and I am already excited about the prospect of 2014, so I shall end by wishing you all Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Sad news tonight from organiser Kris Hudson-Lee of the cancellation of the weekend part of Y-Prog here in the UK, intended to be Yorkshire’s first progressive rock festival.
Saturday 15 March was to feature Dec Burke, Also Eden, IOEarth and The Enid; Sunday 16 March had Crimson Sky, Knifeworld, Manning and It Bites on the bill. Thankfully, the Friday night show featuring the mighty Riverside goes ahead.
I have no further information on the reasons for cancellation, but I presume poor ticket sales are at the heart of it. Y-Prog may have been hit by the subsequent announcement of HRH Prog, a bigger festival at a more glamorous venue a few miles away, just three weeks later.
It’s a salutary reminder that, despite prog’s resurgence, the audience remains finite. Too many events in too short a span of time and some are going to struggle.