Sunday Jazz – Benjamin Croft’s “Far and Distant Things”

Benjamin Croft Far and Distant ThingsBenjamin Croft, Far and Distant Things, Ubuntu Music, 2021
Tracks: Overture (1:13), Far and Distant Things (6:13), Brock (4:47), S.A.D. (Spatial Awareness Disease) (6:21). Tudor Job Agency (6:25), S&R Video (5:07), The War Against Loudness (6:17), How Not To Win The Nobel Peace Prize (6:17), Than You, That’s What I Wanted To Know… (5:35), St Gandalf’s (1:55), The Cashectomy (6:25)

I don’t listen to as much jazz as I should, probably because it is such a diverse genre that I barely know where to begin. I’ve always enjoyed jazz music in live settings. I think the genre excels when played live because it is a highly experimental genre, allowing room for improvisation. When I was in college I loved attending the concerts put on by the faculty jazz band. They were always so much fun. I think I enjoy jazz for some of the same reasons I enjoy progressive rock, which obviously is heavily influenced by jazz. At its most basic, the technical musicality in jazz keeps me interested. 

UK musician Benjamin Croft’s Far and Distant Things has been such an enjoyable CD to listen to over the past month and a half. Croft wrote and arranged all the tracks on the album, and he also played all of the keyboards. In addition to Steinway and Yamaha grand pianos, Croft plays a whole list of various synthesizers and keyboards, thus bringing in a bit of a prog texture to his jazz record. Perhaps those elements are why he sent us his CD for review, but regardless of why, this is an excellent album. At any rate, the artwork is certainly prog, featuring cover art (and other artwork on the CD and in the packaging) by Hugh Syme. 

Beyond Croft on keyboards, the songs have a revolving cast of characters, with Tristan Mailliot or Laurie Lowe playing drums on most of the tracks, except for “St. Gandalf’s,” which features Chad Wackerman. Flo Moore and Henry Thomas share bass guitar duties on the record. Guitars and on the album are played by a few guests, as are the wind instruments. Garthe Lockrane’s flutes on “Overture” and “Brock” are really quite something. It brings in that element of classic progressive rock as well as a fresh classical texture.

As is typical in jazz, there’s a lot of soloing on each track – keyboards, guitar, bass, trumpets, flute. Not each one of those on every track, but you get my meaning. The playing is smooth and easy to absorb. Some jazz can be overpowering, but Far and Distant Things sets you right at ease. The drumming and bass create a smooth yet complex rhythm throughout the entire album. The interplay between piano, keyboards, and the various wind instruments is quite pleasant. 

“How Not To Win The Nobel Peace Prize” is an interesting piece in the way it shifts over the course of the track. It starts off as a more typical jazz song before speeding up and morphing at the end of the song into more experimental territory before fading out. It’s a shame it fades out, because I wanted to hear where they were going. The title of the track, along with others on the album, hints at a bit of sarcasm, which I can always appreciate. 

Benjamin Croft – Far and Distant Things Music Video – YouTube

There are some rock moments on the record. “Far and Distant Things,” featuring Frank Gambale on electric guitar, is perhaps more rock than it is jazz, especially when you take the synths into account. “Tudor Job Agency” has its jazz moments, but the guitar, played by Barry Finnerty, has a Clapton-esque vibe to it. There is also a passage of some incredibly fast drum beats that add a rock element to the song.

Give Benjamin Croft’s Far and Distant Things a listen for a laid back Sunday afternoon or evening. Or for any day of the week. The music is exceptionally well-written and equally well-performed. It brings me back to simpler times when I could enjoy a live jazz show without worrying about… well all the things we seem to worry about these days. This instrumental album will take you a world away, if only for an hour. 

https://www.benjamincroftmusic.com
Spotify

The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Twenty-Five): Marsupilami

Hailing from England, jazz-rock outfit Marsupilami released two albums in the early 1970s before calling it a day. Arena, their second and final album, is an exploration of the violence and brutality of ancient Roman culture (the album cover certainly offers a hint of said violence), with an especial focus on the bloody era of the gladiators and the persecution of the early Christians. Here are my thoughts on this obscure gem:

I’ve come here today to rip the veil from your eyes, unhinge your heads, and pull out your BLOODY MINDS!” So begins the “Prelude to the Arena” – fitting considering the topic being explored. If Fred Hasson’s screaming vocals aren’t enough to wake you up, then perhaps the superb musicianship will. After the violent opening, the “Prelude” eventually settles down, featuring lovely interplay between sax, flute, and electric piano courtesy of Leary Hasson.

The black theme continues in the ironically-titled “Peace of Rome,” which opens with the chilling sound of wailing voices. Soon, however, the flute, bass, organ, and percussion pick up the tempo, but it is guitarist Dave Laverock’s searing performance on his instrument that makes this song particularly strong.

If Fred Hasson’s introductory lyrics didn’t make you pause, perhaps part of the opening lyrics to the title track will: “A Christian is a human torch exploding with a scream.” That line is then punctuated by the sound of a, well, screaming flute – again, fitting, but it certainly sends a chill down the spine. Overall, however, “Arena” is a flawed attempt at an epic: it loses much of its luster after an introduction that could have (and should have) been pared down. The lyrics, on the other hand, are never dull: we get references to both St. Peter’s upside-down crucifixion and Nero’s…relations with his mother, among other misfortunes.

“Time Shadows” places flutist Jessica Stanley-Clarke (whose work elsewhere on the album is worth noting) front and center, and she does not disappoint. Like the other tracks, “Time Shadows” remains somber in tone.

The opening thirty seconds of “Spring” – a gentle, pastoral combination of acoustic guitar, flute, and organ – contrast violently with the cacophony of electric guitar, keys, and percussion that follow for the next minute before the song begins to resemble a soft-rock tune out of Camel’s catalogue (as it turns out, original Camel member Peter Bardens produced Arena).

The dark, somber lyrics will recall to some listeners Aphrodite’s Child’s 666; the soft-rock and jazz-inspired riffs will remind others of Camel’s early work; and the screaming vocals will most likely bring to mind Peter Hammill’s distinctive screeches. Arena has its faults – the vocals are somewhat flat, and the random appearance of harmonica here and there disturbs the melodies (and not in a pleasant way) – but the lyrics are captivating, the musicianship top-notch, and the passion evident. It is one worth adding to your catalogue.

Stay tuned for number twenty-six!

Three Colours Dark, Love’s Lost Property

Collaborating as Three Colours Dark, vocalist Rachel Cohen and keyboardist/guitarist Jonathan Edwards made one of my favorite albums of last year. The Science of Goodbye remains a subtle, broodingly elegant debut, spinning a harrowing narrative of escape from both a toxic relationship and inner captivity. TCD’s welcome follow-up, Love’s Lost Property, doesn’t hesitate to ask the obvious questions: what now? How to deal with lingering pain? How to move forward? And in what direction?

The opener/title track sets up the premise. Standing with a ex-lover in the rubble of their broken relationship, Cohen wonders whether things could be different: “Versions of us/Love’s lost property is now in safer hands/Laws of motion proved/Let the light in, let the light in.” Kicking off with bittersweet lines from violinist Kate Ronconi and featuring stinging guitar solos from Tim Hammill and Dave Gregory, “Love’s Lost Property” looks back on the road taken and the damage done in a deliberate, leisurely unrolling musical arc.

“Dark Before Dawn” kicks into an uptempo, acoustic-driven shuffle, complete with countrified Gregory solo work and supple vocal harmonies, as Cohen encourages herself to move on, though the way is still uncertain. Pulled up short by the bitter memories of “Requiem” (beautifully cradled in a soundscape featuring Edwards on piano, Catherine Tanner-Williams on oboe and Andrew Coughlan on double bass), Cohen elegizes love lost in the soaring chorus of “Last Day on Earth” — then pivots to the reluctant but adamant kiss-offs “Wish I Wished You Well” (with more standout violin work) and “The Circus” (a masterclass in the art of the endless Floydian build-up).

As on The Science of Goodbye, it’s a cover that snaps Love’s Lost Property into sharp focus — in this instance, Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World.” Resplendent with Gregory’s 12-string and Ronconi’s lead work, it’s elevated by Cohen’s steely determination as she bites into the chorus (“But I won’t cry for yesterday/There’s an ordinary world somehow I have to find/And as I try to make my way to the ordinary world/I will learn to survive”) then soars into vocalese over violin licks. Then Gregory takes the whole thing even higher, and Edwards caps it off with a lyrical synth solo as the track fades. Whew!

Her journey’s path set, Cohen can move on at last in the emotional tour de force “Eye for An Eye.” Accepting herself, her former partner, the pain given and caused, and all the consequences, her vocals constantly grow in power and focus, feeding off and setting up Steve Simmons’ emotive saxophone work, Edwards’ cinematic synths backing and a wrenching Hammill solo. The whole thing builds to a shattering climax — then gracefully collapses into a “Reprise” of the title track, a perfect bookend to the album.

The shock of the new may have worn off for fans of Three Colours Dark, but the deep emotional content and musical gravity of this second effort are more than adequate compensation; Love’s Lost Property is another marvelously coherent song cycle that gets stronger as it unfolds. Cohen, Edwards and friends get full marks for their vivid, heartfelt portrayal of the comforting, wounding, uniting, dividing magnificence and terror of fallible love in a fallen world.

Love’s Lost Property is exclusively available on CD from Burning Shed or as a digital download from Bandcamp.

— Rick Krueger

Werke Horse – Yellow Cab

We were recently sent this song by Dan Hereford of the band Werke Horse, and it’s very fun and eclectic. Part prog, part pop, and it may remind some of you of a certain banana-colored submarine. Although this song is far less annoying than that particular song. It has a vintage prog sound befitting the subject matter. Heck when my Dad was a kid, his parents had a Checker for a car. Yes that’s right – the Checker Cab Company made cars that the regular public could buy. They were basically unchanged from the 1950s until the early 1980s.

Werke Horse – Yellow Cab – YouTube

Check out Dan Hereford’s full album, Werke Horse, on Bandcamp: https://danherefordswerkehorse.bandcamp.com/album/werke-horse

And check out their website: https://www.werkehorse.com

Album Review – @Echo_Us – The Windsong Spires

a3501667282_10Echo Us, The Windsong Spires, June 22, 2021
Tracks: We Seek the Descending Levers, (8:06), If You Can Imagine… (5:29), The Night Sky (3:19), When the Windsong Spires, (5:49), Squals (3:53), (Fly You Home) (4:41), And When They Dance At Dusk, (4:16), I’ll Wave You In (4:54), (And Acquiesce) (5:41), If We Can Breathe Again… (3:39), Under the Smallest Sky (11:40)

Electronic. Atmospheric. Ethereal. These are just a few of the words I could use to describe Portland, Oregon, music project Echo Us. The band was founded by composer and multi-instrumentalist Ethan J. Matthews 20 years ago. He is joined on the record by drummer Andrew Greene and vocalist Charlotte Engler. Matthews provides vocals, guitars, hammered dulcimer, glockenspiel, percussion, and synthesizers.

Just based upon the variety of instruments Matthews plays, you might guess that his music has a rather eclectic mix, and you’d be right. Their sound ranges from atmospheric to classical and folk, all within a subtle rock context. I even picked up what sounded a bit like a Pacific Northwestern Native American influence in the opening moments of the album. Piano plays a prominent role on the record, along with clean electric guitar. 

The vocals contribute to the ethereal tone of much of the music, but the drums keep the music grounded here on earth without allowing the album to get too heady. In that way there’s a nice balance between the various sounds. The mix of male and female vocals also contributes to the balance of the sound on the record. Matthews’ voice reminds me of Tim Bowness, and Engler’s voice reminds me a bit of Kate Bush or Amanda Lehman

The Making of the Windsong Spires – Youtube

The music helps tell a story. “The Night Sky” is primarily piano with synth sounds swirling around it and ghostly vocals at times throughout the brief track. The listener is left picturing a calm, cool night sky away from the hustle and bustle of the city. 

Greene’s drums and percussion on the record might sound relatively straightforward at first notice, but when you dig in you notice there’s a lot going on. One moment it might be a simple drum part, but the next might have a military-style snare drumming, such as on a portion of “When the Windsong Spires.” This conjures up new images in the mind, adding to the musical tapestry Echo Us create. 

I’m not positive that this is intentional, but I get the feeling that the names of the tracks are meant to be read together as you might read an imagist poem. Since the names of the songs include punctuation, I suspect I’m right.

We Seek the Descending Levers, If You Can Imagine… The Night Sky
When the Windsong Spires, Squals (Fly You Home)
And When They Dance At Dusk, I’ll Wave You In (And Acquiesce)
If We Can Breathe Again… Under the Smallest Sky

This is a pretty cool way to add texture to a record. You have the poetry of the lyrics, but to use the very names of the songs to create another poem is unique. 

One might classify The Windsong Spires as ambient music, but there’s a lot more going on than just ambient sounds. The drums and guitars bring in elements of rock, although I don’t know if I can call this outright rock ‘n roll. At the end of the day genres can be rather meaningless categories to which we assign music. What really matters is whether or not the music is good, and Echo Us is very good. Their music has had a calming effect on me, which has been much appreciated and needed lately. When everything else seems to be crashing and burning, it’s nice to settle back into something that slows you down and makes you think. 

https://echous.net
https://echous.bandcamp.com
https://www.facebook.com/echous.net/
Twitter

The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Twenty-Four): Paul Brett

Considering his reputation as one of the greatest living twelve-string guitar players, Paul Brett is probably not among the more obscure names I have included in this series thus far. Having performed with the likes of Arthur Brown, Roy Harper, and the Strawbs in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Brett was by no means a stranger to the prog scene by the time he ventured forth on his own. He released several solo albums in the 1970s, Interlife being perhaps the most celebrated of the bunch. Although Brett’s acoustic and electric guitars are the stars of the show, the album also features the talents of ex-Strawbs drummer Rod Coombes and the ubiquitous Mel Collins on saxophone, who helps give the album a jazzier feel. Here are a few highlights from this hidden gem:

The opening number “Interlife” is both the longest and strongest track on the album. Although it begins as a soft folk tune with the rich sound of layered acoustic guitars, it transitions quickly and seamlessly to a unique blend of folk and jazz rock. Each member of Brett’s supporting cast is able to show off their chops, be it Coombes on drums, Collins on Sax, Derek Austin on synthesizer, or Delisle Harper on bass. Fans of Mike Oldfield’s instrumental prog masterpiece Tubular Bells – which also features several acoustic and electric guitars – will appreciate this track.

The remaining tracks, beginning with “Celebration,” are much shorter and equally enjoyable. Brett again opens with the gentle sound of acoustic guitar on “Celebration” before he’s joined by his mates. The electric guitar soars on this piece before the track finishes in a sort of jig.

“Segregation” also begins gently, but transitions suddenly to a jazzy guitar riff and a thumping bass line courtesy of Harper, who does a superb job on this piece. “Isolation,” another acoustically-driven work, follows “Segregation” before we arrive…

“Into Life,” the heaviest piece on the album. Unlike the other tracks, the closer opens with electric guitar, bass, and drums. Perhaps this is meant to represent the (somewhat) chaotic transition into life itself, but it does feel somewhat out of place on what is otherwise a rather subdued album.

Fans of the Strawbs, Mike Oldfield, and Roy Harper will not want to miss Interlife. For those less inclined toward the prog folk scene, I would still recommend this as an excellent album for a rainy or slow-paced day. Brett’s work on both acoustic and electric guitar (but especially the former) is simply superb and would be appreciated by any prog enthusiast.

Stay tuned for number twenty-five!

The Fall 2021 Box Set Bonanza

As previously promised, a look at the big reissues landing in the next few months — especially those available in one or more box set formats. Ordering links are embedded in the artist/title listings below.

Out Now:

The Beach Boys, Feel Flows – The Sunflower and Surf’s Up Sessions, 1969-1971: between their initial impact and their imperial phase as timeless purveyors of fun fun fun, Brian Wilson and his family pursued heaviness and relevance in a market that thought it had outgrown them — at least for the moment. This slice of the Boys’ catalog features less slick, more homespun takes on their timeless concerns (the same amount of girls, less cars, more daily life), with Wilson brothers Dennis (on Sunflower) and Carl (on Surf’s Up) taking the lead. The brilliant moments — “This Whole World,” “Forever,” “Long Promised Road,” “Til I Die” for starters — outweigh the embarrassingly dated ones, and music to make you smile is never too long in coming. Available from The Beach Boys’ webstore as 2 CDs, 5 CDs, 2 LPs or 4 LPs (colored vinyl).

BeBop Deluxe, Live in the Air Age: when Bill Nelson’s avant-glam guitar heroics didn’t generate bigger record sales, a live album was the next obvious move for this sterling British quartet. Better chart positions weren’t forthcoming, but 1977’s Live in the Air Age is an exquisite slab of BBD at work — Chuck Berry updated for the Apollo era, with a bit of Bowie/Mercury panache in Nelson’s vocals and blazing solos aplenty. Available from Esoteric Recordings as 3 CDs (adding the complete 1977 London concert) or 15 CDs/1 DVD (adding all surviving recordings from the 1977 British tour and a live television special).

George Harrison, All Things Must Pass: the quiet Beatle exploded on his first album after the Fabs’ breakup, immersing his radiant devotional compositions in Phil Spector’s patented Wall of Sound and drafting Ringo, Badfinger and the embryonic Derek and the Dominoes as his rock orchestra. The new remix scales back the symphonic swirl, brings forward George’s vocals, and gives the rhythm section a kick in the pants; just right to these ears. A serious contender for the single best solo Beatle album, well worth an immersion course. Available from the Harrison webstore in Standard (2 CDs or 3 LPs — limited colored vinyl available as well), Deluxe (3 CDs or 5 LPs), Super Deluxe (5 CDs/BluRay or 8 LPs) and Uber Deluxe (5 CDs/BluRay/8 LPs/various bespoke gimcracks/”artisan wooden crate” — you don’t wanna know what it costs) editions.

The Elements of King Crimson – 2021 Tour Box: the 7th annual compilation of tidbits from the Discipline Global Mobile archives, doubling as a concert program. This year’s selection of rarities focuses on the nine drummers that have called King Crimson their musical home (sometimes two or three of them at once). Studio snippets – like the one with Fripp, John Wetton on bass and Phil Collins on drums – live tracks, oddities, previews of coming attractions, and more. Available from Burning Shed or on Crimson’s current USA tour.

Lee Morgan, The Complete Live at the Lighthouse: never a mass media superstar, Morgan was nonetheless a jazz icon — one of the finest trumpeters of his day who played with heroes of the music like Art Blakey and John Coltrane, recorded more than 20 albums as a leader for Blue Note Records, and even managed to score a Top 25 pop hit with his funky “The Sidewinder.” This box (another product of jazz archivist Zev Feldman’s boundless energy) sets forth an entire weekend’s worth of recordings by Morgan and his dedicated, powerful 1970 band. Bennie Maupin on reeds, Harold Mabern on piano, Jymie Merritt on bass and Mickey Roker on drums bring the sophisticated, challenging compositions and spirited solos and backing; Morgan takes it from there, lyrical and fiery in turn. This is a great potential entry point if you want to explore jazz as a newbie, and a serious desert island possiblility for those already into the music. Available from Blue Note’s webstore as 8 CDs or 12 LPs.

Clive Nolan and Rick Wakeman, Tales by Gaslight: keyboardists Nolan (Pendragon, Arena) and Wakeman (Yes, Strawbs) box up their out-of-print concept albums Jabberwocky (with dad Rick W. reciting Lewis Carroll’s nonsense verse) and The Hound of the Baskervilles, adding a bonus disc collecting rough drafts of a 3rd album based on Frankenstein. Separate booklets and art prints for each of the 3 CDs included. Theatrical as all get out, and surprisingly good fun if you’re in the mood for Victorian-flavored melodrama. Available from Burning Shed.

September:

Bob Dylan, Springtime in New York – The Bootleg Series, Volume 16, 1980-1985: Outtakes, alternate versions, rehearsals, live performances and more from the era that yielded Dylan’s albums Shot of Love, Infidels and Empire Burlesque. Out September 17; pre-order from Dylan’s webstore and elsewhere in the following formats: 2 LP Highlights, 2 CD Highlights or 5 CDs complete. (There’s also a subscriber-only 4 LP set from Jack White’s Third Man Records.)

Marillion, Fugazi: the band’s 1984 album, perceived as a “sophomore slump” at the time, is much more than a bridge between the feral debut Script for A Jester’s Tear and the early masterwork Misplaced Childhood, with plenty of gripping moments to recommend it. A new remix by Andy Bradfield and Avril Mackintosh compensates handily for the production nightmares recounted in this deluxe edition’s copious notes. Also includes a complete live set from Montreal; the CD/BluRay version adds bonus tracks, documentaries, and a Swiss television concert. Out September 10; pre-order from Marillion’s webstore as 4 CDs/BluRay or 4 LPs.

Van der Graaf Generator, The Charisma Years, 1970-1978: VDGG may have shared the stage with Genesis in each band’s formative years, but they were a thoroughly different beast. Peter Hammill’s desperate existential narratives and the wigged out instrumental web woven by David Jackson, Hugh Banton and Guy Evans made for a unique, highly combustible chemistry — bonkers dystopian sci-fi narrative over free jazz one moment, serenely soaring hymns to human potential the next. This 17 CD/3 BluRay set collects the band’s 8 studio albums from the Seventies, adding extensive BBC sessions, a live show from Paris, all surviving television appearances “and more.” Now available from Burning Shed; the four newly remastered albums in this box (H to He Who Am the Only One, Pawn Hearts, Godbluff and Still Life) are available as separate CD/DVD sets for those wanting a lower priced introduction to this underrated band’s indescribably stirring music.

October:

The Beatles, Let It Be: the Fab Four’s star-crossed attempt to return to their roots – recording live in front of movie cameras – ultimately became their first post-break-up release, drenched with Phil Spector’s orchestral overdubs to cover the rough spots. With a new 6-hour Peter Jackson documentary on the sessions hitting Disney Plus Thanksgiving weekend, Apple unleashes a fresh stereo remix (the 4th in the series that kicked off with Sgt. Pepper’s 50th anniversary). Super Deluxe versions also include 27 sessions tracks, a 4-track EP and a test mix of Get Back, the proposed original version of the album. Out October 15th; pre-order from the Fabs’ webstore in Standard (1 CD or 1 LP), Deluxe (2 CDs with selected bonus tracks) and Super Deluxe (4 CDs/1 BluRay or 4 LP/1 EP) editions. (The companion book of photos and transcribed conversations from the sessions, Get Back, is released on October 12.)

Emerson Lake and Palmer, Out of This World – Live (1970-1997): a compilation of key live shows in ELP’s history: their 1970 debut at the Isle of Wight Festival; a career peak show at the 1974 California Jam; the 1977 full-orchestra extravaganza at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium; 1992’s comeback concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall; and a previously unreleased 1997 show from Phoenix, Arizona. Out October 29; pre-order from ImportCDs as 7 CDs or 10 LPs.

Joni Mitchell, Archives , Volume 2 – The Reprise Years (1968-1971): more archival recordings from the early days of Mitchell’s recording career. Home and studio demos, outtakes, unreleased songs, her Carnegie Hall debut and much more — a complete acoustic set recorded by a enraptured Jimi Hendrix, anyone? Out October 29; pre-order from Mitchell’s webstore on 5 CDs or 10 LPs (4000 copies only), The Carnegie Hall concert is available separately on 3 LPs (black or white vinyl).

Pink Floyd, A Momentary Lapse of Reason (Remixed and Updated): the 2019 remix of Floyd’s post-Roger Waters comeback from the opulent The Later Years box, now available on its own. “Sounds less like the 1980s, more like classic Floyd” is the party line here. Out October 29; pre-order from Floyd’s webstore in 1 CD, CD/DVD, CD/BluRay or 2 LP formats.

November:

Genesis, The Last Domino? Yet another compilation of Genesis’ greatest hits, fan favorites and core album cuts, released just in time for with their first US tour in 14 years. No real surprises in the track selection, but the promise of “new stereo mixes” of four Gabriel-era classics is intriguing. Out November 19; pre-order from Genesis’ webstore on 2 CDs or 4 LPs. (The UK version of this compilation, out September 17, sports a slightly different track list.)

Elvis Presley, Back in Nashville: the King’s final sessions in Music City, stripped of overdubs a la last year’s From Elvis in Nashville box, that yielded material for three years worth of albums. 82 tracks encompassing country/folk, pop, religious music and Christmas music. Out November 12; pre-order from the Presley webstore on 4 CDs or 2 LPs.

In the Works (release date forthcoming):

Robert Fripp, Exposures: another exhaustive (and potentially exhausting) set from Discipline Global Mobile. This one promises to cover Fripp’s “Drive to 1981,” including his guest-star-heavy solo debut Exposure, the ambient Frippertronics of God Save the Queen and Let the Power Fall, and the egghead dance music of Under Heavy Manners and The League of Gentlemen. Tons of live gigs promised to supplement rarities and studio outtakes.

Marillion, Holidays in Eden: the new Marillion album (now officially titled An Hour Before It’s Dark) may push this further back on the release schedule, but Steve Hogarth’s second effort with the boys (an intriguing effort that tried and failed to go commercial) is next up for the deluxe reissue treatment.

Porcupine Tree, Deadwing: a promised deluxe set in the vein of 2020’s In Absentia. Internet gossip flared up when Steven Wilson, Steve Barbieri and Gavin Harrison were rumored to have reset the band’s legal partnership earlier this year; who knows how or when the Tree may blossom again?

Renaissance, Scheherezade and Other Stories: coming from Esoteric Recordings, the folk-prog quintet’s finest hour in the studio, melding orchestral grace with an Arabian Nights theme for the half-hour title track. If this is in the vein of other recent Renaissance issues, hope for a multi-disc set with a bonus live set and a surround remix.

— Rick Krueger

The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Twenty-Three): Polyphony

Although the name of this band refers to a musical texture defined by two or more lines of independent melody, I want to call your attention first to the album artwork, which is among the most beautiful I have seen in any genre of music. According to a review on Prog Archives, the artist wanted to show the “four elements of the universe subsiding toward an energy force which was ‘polyphony’.” The rich detail on the cover provides the perfect complement to such a complex album. With elements of ELP, Atomic Rooster, Jimi Hendrix, and Deep Purple, Polyphony seemed poised for success, but like so many other talented bands of the day were instead lost in the shuffle, and Without Introduction remained their only release. Here are my thoughts on the four tracks:

“Juggernaut” is a fitting title for the opening piece, which hits with a burst of keys and guitar right from the start. If Jimi Hendrix had joined ELP to form HELP (rumor has it he nearly did), it would probably sound like this piece. The interplay between Glenn Howard’s slide guitar and Craig Massey’s organ is excellent – and intense. It actually reminds me a little bit of Boston’s “Foreplay,” the lengthy introduction to their superb “Long Time.” We don’t get any vocals until after the nine-minute mark, and they may remind some listeners of Nad Sylvan, Progarchy’s favorite Vampirate.

The next piece, “40 Second Thing in 39 Seconds” is a brief experiment with a Moog synthesizer. It’s a bizarre piece, but considering what Emerson did with the Moog, it would be music to many a progger’s ears.

“Ariel’s Flight” is the longest piece on the album and, despite featuring more vocals, nevertheless remains dominated by Howard’s raw guitar and Massey’s deft work on the keys. Martin Ruddy’s pounding bass and Chris Spong’s steady beat on the drums are also superb; the rhythm section on this album is not to be ignored.

The closing track, “Crimson Dagger,” also opens with a blitz of guitars and keys but transitions to a smoother, psychedelic soundscape about three minutes in. This piece also features the strongest vocals on the album, including some solid backing vocals by all members except the drummer. Unfortunately, the song ends rather abruptly, but this is one of the album’s few weak points.

It’s too bad Polyphony was little appreciated in their day, as their debut album suggests they could have contended with some of prog’s heaviest hitters. Lovers of symphonic and “classic era” prog rock will especially enjoy this hidden gem, but it will no doubt appeal to many in the prog world.

Stay tuned for number twenty-four!

Album Review: Amanda Lehmann — Innocence and Illusion

Progarchists will know Amanda Lehmann from her work with Steve Hackett. Perhaps they’ve even been lucky enough to see her onstage with Hackett, both side-by-side wailing away on their guitars.

Now she’s out with a solo album, and I know what you’re thinking: Is it any good? Or is she just one of those musicians who best functions doing side work in service of a more famous talent?

Let me answer that question right away. The album is excellent. It’s proof why prog lovers should be open to new musicians and new experiences and not just spend their time buying bloated box sets of the greatest artists of yesteryear.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with owning and collecting all of Steve Hackett, because he is amazing, and he’s total prog royalty. But we have to realize that there are so many other talented (but lesser-known) artists out there who also deserve our passionate support.

To his credit, Hackett obviously recognizes Lehmann’s talent. By happy circumstance, he surely knows her thanks to his wife. That’s great. Likewise, by happy circumstance, you know Hackett only thanks to your fan-marriage to Genesis. That’s exactly how we meet one other and discover new things.

Next question: should you buy this album? Yes, absolutely. It is worthy to be added to your prog collection. If you need a quick excuse, let me point out Hackett himself appears on track 6, “Forever Days”, and deploys a wicked guitar solo that alone is worth the price of admission.

So, if you need an appearance from prog royalty to justify the adoption of a physical CD into your collection, this is it. Thanks be to Hackett for dropping this solo onto Lehmann’s album and giving us all an excuse to get to know her better.

Hackett also co-wrote a nice little song with Lehmann that closes the album: track 9, “Where the Small Things Go”, which at 1:42 shows us that small little songs do indeed go well at the end of an album. It’s a nice finish, showcasing the artistic bond between the two artists with a gentle acoustic departure using classical guitar.

Lehmann wrote the rest of the album’s material herself and it’s all superb. The album kicks off with “Who Are the Heroes?” as we first get to hear her singing voice along with her guitar work. I was pleased to find myself making analogies to Kate Bush right away. Lehmann’s vocal phrasing and general sensibility (marking both her vocals and arrangements) call to mind Bush quite remarkably.

Lehmann’s voice is different in timbre, so don’t go listening and expect a soundalike. It sounds more like an alternative universe where Kate Bush smoked three packs a day. So, Lehmann is truly her own voice, but she’s still hugely talented like Bush and longtime fans of Bush will understand what I mean about their shared artistic sensibilities.

Further proof of my analogy is “Tinkerbell” (track 2, 4:52), which includes orchestral arrangements, and “Only Happy When It Rains” (track 3, 3:47), which has a swinging jazzy arrangement that would not be out of place on an early Kate Bush album. Here, the mischievous Hackett plays harmonica. And Rob Townsend plays sax; he also appears on “Memory Lane” (track 5, 4:49), a poignant personal reflection about dementia by Lehmann inspired by her mother.

“The Watcher” (track 4, 7:25) is an epic prog extravaganza that is well placed. After introducing her range of musical abilities on the first three tracks, Lehmann hits us with a prog experience that makes us happy we came on this journey. The title made me think of “Watcher of the Skies” immediately, but that obvious association aside, this track illustrates why I hope Lehmann keeps composing and putting out albums. She’s got what it takes and she makes great unknown music that stands well next to the best known of our favorites.

“Childhood Delusions” (track 8, 4:46) consolidates the Kate Bush comparison for me, with its jazzy whimsy. I can easily imagine Bush singing this song. Lehmann’s own unique voice is great on it too. Who knows, maybe they can do a duet of it sometime for charity. I’d totally pay to hear that. Kate Bush is one of my all time favorites, but I am most pleased to discover this album thanks to the nifty introduction that the generous Steve Hackett has arranged for us all.

The album credits don’t say who plays sax here, but maybe we should assume it’s Townsend a third time. The album credits also fail to tell us who the drummer on the album is, so I’m going to go right ahead start a rumor and say it’s Phil Collins, just to get more people out there buying this excellent album.

Nick Magnus and Roger King between the two of them offer impressive support, contributing keyboards and engineering and mixing on different tracks, thereby helping to keep everything throughout the album running smoothly at the highest levels of musical excellence.

“We Are One” (track 7, 4:56), which precedes “Childhood Delusions”, is also highly reminiscent for me of the sort of Kate Bush song I love, and it is another prog extravaganza standout (like “The Watcher”). If you haven’t already paused during this review to order a copy of this CD, let me just stop now so you can go do it. I hope you will enjoy this music as much as I do.

King Crimson in Concert: A Love Letter on the Occasion of – A Final Hot Date?

Robert Fripp, resplendent with mohawk, at August 28th’s Royal Package presentation.

A studio album is a love letter. And I enjoy love letters, especially when they’re from my wife. But live music … (looking to the heavens with a sigh) I’ll always go for the clinches.

Robert Fripp, King Crimson Royal Package presentation

King Crimson, Meadow Brook Amphitheatre, Rochester Hills, Michigan, August 28, 2021

Following an opening set from The Zappa Band that showcased Frank Zappa’s lifelong trademarks — smug, satirical vignettes enfolded in gleefully virtuosic workouts — King Crimson went straight for the clinches. The rock (as in the opener “Pictures of A City” and “Radical Action II”) rocked hard; the metal (including “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part Two” and “Level Five”) was remorselessly heavy; the out there material (“Neurotica” and “Indiscipline,” played back to back) went waaaaay out there; the more intricate music (the opening multi-part drum trio, along with “Discipline,” a welcome surprise in the setlist) shone with both precision and passion.

Left to right: Mel Collins, Tony Levin, and Jakko Jakszyk groove on “Neurotica,” as Jeremy Stacey and Gavin Harrison wait to pounce. Photo by King Crimson manager David Singleton. Click here to access Singleton’s online diary for the show.

To be fair, the genres — along with the era a song may have come from — are never that clear cut with this Crimson, even within individual pieces. The mid-section of “Pictures of A City” saw Mel Collins pushing at the boundaries of tonality with his sax solo, egged on by Robert Fripp’s banjo-from-hell guitar chords. Tony Levin’s inventive bass lines on “The Court of the Crimson King,” “Red” and “Larks Two” honored the original work of Greg Lake and John Wetton while adding his own spin to spur on Collins and Fripp. And the drum battle that opens “Indiscipline” turned into a comedic cutting contest, as Pat Mastelotto, Jeremy Stacey and Gavin Harrison moved from flashing their chops to cracking up each other with their contributions. (Harrison’s deadpan disco snippet got the audience laughing too.) By treating everything as brand new, the band gracefully transcends the multiple eras in which these varied musics were birthed.

With a shorter setlist than recent tours and fewer surprise choices in the mix, what stood out for me this evening were the ballads — “The Court of the Crimson King,” “Islands,” “Epitaph” and “Starless”. Even the two guys sitting in back of me who talked through a good chunk of the show shut up for them! Vocalist/guitarist Jakko Jakszyk stood and delivered, drawing old emotions and new insights from the lyrics as he sang. And the ensemble coalesced around him with palpable intensity, cradling the vocals, then conjuring up the ironic circus of “Court,” the serene seascape of “Islands” (kudos to Stacey for his luscious piano work), the bleak cultural devastation of “Epitaph.” The endlessly mounting tension of “Starless” was, as always, a high point — melancholy and uplifting at the same time, grabbing for the audience’s heart as it built and cracking psyches wide open as the double time finale took flight. After that, what could be the encore but a slamming “21st Century Schizoid Man,” complete with Levin prodding Fripp and Collins to even greater extremes and a kit-spanning drum excursion by Harrison?

The band takes a bow following “Starless.” Photo by King Crimson manager David Singleton.

I make no secret of my admiration for King Crimson; Robert Fripp and his various co-conspirators have formed my ideal of the questing musician’s life and work since I stumbled into a Frippertronics record store show back in 1979. And I’ve never hesitated to sing the praises of the current Crimson incarnation; their 2017 and 2019 tours yielded two of the best rock concerts I’ve ever attended. So it moved me that, with the COVID-19 pandemic delaying this show for a year and throwing numerous obstacles in their path, Crimson could return to the States and provide another genuinely awe-inspiring evening for the thousands gathered in this Detroit-area amphitheatre. Never say never; but if (as Crimson’s management has stated) this may the final time the band plays North America, I’m convinced that we shall not see their like again.

Band and audience seen in 360 degrees at the final bow. Photo by Tony Levin; click here to access his online diary for this show.

Setlist (as assembled by Robert Fripp):

  • Drumsons – Bish! The Way to Universal Peace and Amity
  • Pictures of A City
  • Red
  • The Court of the Crimson King (with coda)
  • Tony (Levin bass) Cadenza’s Wernacious Slitheriness
  • Discipline
  • Neurotica
  • Indiscipline
  • Islands
  • Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part Two
  • Epitaph
  • Radical Action II
  • Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part Five (Level Five)
  • Starless
  • 21st Century Schizoid Man (including Gavin Harrison drum solo)

— Rick Krueger