It is that time of the year to recall and reflect on what has been another extraordinary year for this crazy little thing called prog.
Again, as the fans and consumers of huge quantities of prog, our expectations were high and once more, the bands continued to deliver in the most spectacular fashion.
A question I have asked myself on many occasions this year is where on earth is this music coming from? It appeared there was a whole new seam of invention and creation being mined in the most spectacular fashion by the current torch-bearers of the musical genre.
There have been so many highlights both on record and indeed live this year. Watching bands, especially The Enid, Haken and Maschine overcome the extreme cold at HRH Prog; seeing Benoit David and Michel St Pere dazzle with Mystery at Celebr8.2; encountering Steven Wilson at the Royal Festival Hall in the same week as the Flower Kings, Neal Morse, Transatlantic and Steve Hackett were at Camden’s Electric Ballroom (plus three other gigs we attended), and of course, celebrating the return of Lazuli to Summers End, all brought immeasurable joy to this humble observer.
The “wow” moments have come thick and fast, the personal high being The Big Big Weekend, when a simple idea took on a life of its own and became a celebration of the warmth and camaraderie between one very special band and its fans. Here’s hoping there will be a chance to repeat the occasion next year.
Central to all of these activities of course is the music, that has been extraordinary, exhilarating, life-affirming, game-changing and frankly brilliant.
There were ten particular albums which stood out for me and here they are in order of preference:
1) Lifesigns – Lifesigns
A beautifully balanced album composed by John Young containing all the classic prog elements and some stunning performances from a “who’s who” of players. Shining out in particular are JY’s superb expressive voice and virtuoso keys, Nick Beggs’ sonorous bass and frenetic Chapman stick, Frosty Beedle’s energetic drumming, together with dreamy guitars from both Robin Boult and Steve Hackett, and classic flute flourishes from Thijs van Leer.
What made it stand out for me was the very deep spiritual chord it struck especially through the lyrics which reflected on some of my own personal life experiences and hopefully, lessons learned as a result. It will be wonderful to see it all performed live next March.
2) English Electric Pt 2 – Big Big Train
Well, how do you follow English Electric Pt 1 which was my 2012 album of the year. Pt 2 came oh so close to repeating this feat in 2013 and East Coast Racer is without doubt the stand-out long track of the year. Nobody can get through this remarkable composition without marvelling at the innate splendour of the legendary locomotive so lovingly built and still a centrepiece of British industrial heritage. The whole album is a musical meditation on times past and all that we have lost in order to gain in the name of “progress”.
3) The Raven That Refused To Sing – Steven Wilson
As a long-time SW naysayer, I locked myself away in a darkened room to listen to Raven with a view to writing a negative review. How nice to be proved wrong once in a while. Finally, I felt him reaching out and grabbing those of us sitting on the fence. Everything about it oozes total power and artistry, the playing and production an exercise in consummate prog excellence.
4) The Mountain – Haken
Having finally caught up twice live with one of prog’s emergent stars this year, they deliver the killer blow with an album bursting full of pomp and swagger. It fuses prog metal with some deft touches including the Marmite track The Cockroach King which channels Gentle Giant and Queen, plus the mighty Atlas Stone, a cinematic masterpiece of epic proportions.
5) The Twenty Seven Club – Magenta
This is arguably the finest album so far by the Welsh quartet, a breath-taking collection of carefully crafted songs, each depicting a particular musical legend whose life was cut short at that tragic number. It could have been mawkish or contrived; instead, it hit new heights through both the instrumentation and the gorgeous voice of Christina Booth. Here’s hoping her current treatment for cancer will enable her to return to the stage very soon to perform those glorious songs live.
6) Le Sacre Du Travail – The Tangent
One of the most eagerly anticipated albums of the year did not disappoint as Maestro Tillison and his all-star cast rewrote the prog script harking back to Stravinsky and indeed Bernstein with its extraordinary musical scoring and individual take on the world of work. As someone who now listens to Steve Wright in the Afternoon by design rather than choice, its meaning has taken on a whole new dimension!
7) The Man Left In Space – Cosmograf
There are many great storytellers in prog but Robin Armstrong is one of the best. He draws on his own personal influences such as David Bowie, Pink Floyd and Neil Armstrong to recount the ultimate double-edged tale of how success can lead to the ultimate sacrifice. The claustrophobia and loneliness are palpable throughout.
8) [REDACTED] – Also Eden
After a near-fatal motorcycle smash and two changes of personnel, Also Eden up their personal ante with an album of such dense atmospherics, it is akin to taking a walk down by the water on a warm misty evening and entering into a parallel universe. Rich Harding’s penetrating voice and Simon Rogers’ soaring guitar are your pathfinders into this rather ghostly new world which also draws on influences such as Rush, Marillion, Francis Dunnery and Steve Hackett.
9) Rise Up Forgotten, Returned Destroyed – Shineback
Always expect the unexpected with Tinyfish’s mainman Simon Godfrey whose songwriting is right up there with some of the best. Breathing fresh life into electronica, RUFRD is a deceptively clever album which uses samples from Bulgarian singer Danny Claire to build a story drawing on his vivid imagination during his childhood experiences of insomnia.
10) Fanfare & Fantasy – Comedy of Errors
After their excellent debut album Disobey, this album affirms Comedy of Errors as a growing force in prog, their brand of melodic prog echoing Marillion and Mystery but with a few surprises along the way such as Time’s Motet and Galliard.