After failing to post any “Favorite Music of 2015…” lists last year, I’ve decided that I should avoid elaborate explanations for my choices, but simply note a thing or two about each release that captured my ears and held my attention. I’ve also decided to post three separate but fairly short lists: Prog/Rock, Jazz, and Everything Else. In short, I’m trying to kill my propensity for overkill. I suspect I’ll fail! Here, first, are my picks for favorite prog & rock albums of the past year (give or take a few months):
• “The Prelude Implicit” by Kansas | This is, I think, one of the best feel-good stories in prog of 2016. After all, Kansas could have just kept touring and playing the same old—ranging from good to great to classic—tunes. Instead, they produced a very good, even great, album. As I wrote in my Progarchy.com review: “In short, the band has found a commendable and impressive balance between old and new, with plenty of prog-heavy, classic Kansas-like passages, but with an emphasis on ensemble playing over solos. … Kansas is to be commended for embracing their past while clearly moving forward with a confident and often exceptional collection of songs. Highly recommended for both longtime Kansas fans and for those who like melodic, well-crafted prog that puts the emphasis on memorable songs and musical cohesion over theatrics and solos.”
• “Secrets” by Ian Fletcher Thornley | I was initially flummoxed by this album, expecting a variation on the hard-rocking, high energy music of Big Wreck and Thornley, both fronted, of course, by the prolific Canadian singer, guitarist, writer, and producer. I finally listened to it late one night, in the dark, and I finally heard it on its own terms: acoustic, reflective, mellow, mournful, defiant, sad, and yet shot through with a sense of cautious hope. Thornley demonstrates that his remarkable writing skills are equal to his vocal prowess, which is an aural wine bearing hints of Big Country (“Frozen Pond”), Chris Cornell (“Feel”), Peter Gabriel (“Stay”), Bruce Springsteen (“Just To Know I Can”), and Jeff Buckley (“Blown Wide Open”). In the end, this is a modern blues record featuring every shade and hue of sadness, longing, and loss.
• “The Last Hero” by Alter Bridge | Is it possible for an album to be epic and intimate, muscular and subtle, heavy and effortless, loud and singable all at once? Yes. This isn’t prog, but no one can doubt the chops and skills of Tremonti, Kennedy, and Company, who seem incapable of writing or playing a boring or bland tune. Part of the attraction, at least for me, is hearing the incredible range of tones; these guys don’t just use the entire hard rock/melodic metal palette, they constantly introduce and utilize entirely new colors, all at the service of big, soaring songs. A great example is “This Side of Fate”, which runs nearly 7 minutes long: it opens with a huge blast of guitar, slides into an acoustic verse, then ebbs and flows between waves of acoustic and electric guitar, then breaks into a Muse-like bridge with Kennedy’s vocal soaring effortlessly over the top before a sudden slow, soft passage and then a searing solo and … well, heck, this might actually be prog!
• “Known-Learned” by Arcane and “Bloom” by Caligula’s Horse | These two albums (the first being an ambitious two CD release) are bound together in many ways: they are both by Aussie bands, they both came out in late 2015, and they both feature the outstanding vocals of Jim Grey. In many ways, these are my two favorite prog albums of the past year, as I find them far more engaging, challenging, visceral, and remarkable than nearly everything else that is overtly prog. I’d go so far as to submit that Arcane’s swan song—the band ended after this remarkable effort—is one of the best double album prog releases ever. Period. The range, dynamics, musicianship, lyrics, singing, and production are all impeccable, and the album rewards multiple listens—I’ve heard it over 60 times and have never tired of it. Simply listen to “Selfsame” and tell me you don’t want to hear more. Caligula’s Horse, meanwhile, continues to cement its growing reputation as one of the better prog bands around, with a sound understandably similar to Arcane but often more aggressive, blunt, abrupt, and even a bit funky, as evidenced by the catchy and rousing “Turntail”. If Arcane’s “Known-Learned” is both epic and introspective, “Bloom” is more restless and edgy. This August 2015 interview with Grey offers some insights into both the similarities and differences.
• “The Madness of Many” by Animals As Leaders | By all rights, I shouldn’t really like the highly technical, all-instrumental progressive metal offerings of Tosin Abasi and crew—but I do. Part of the attraction, I think, is the combination of intricate, even severe, musical logic and glittering moments of emotional outbursts that emerge; in many ways, this is a sort of jazz as performed by progressive metal musicians, with all sorts of crazy time changes, weird chords, subtle interplay, and moments of unexpected improvisation. And then, as with Alter Bridge and Ian Thornley, there is the breadth of tone. A song such as “Private Visions of the World” really does sound like an articulation of metaphysical wondering about the nature of reality; “The Brain Dance” is perhaps the most outrightly beautiful song the band has yet produced. A must hear for any fan of prog and electric guitar.
• “The Rain” by Kristoffer Gildenlöw | The immediate reference point for this hypnotic album is Pain of Salvation as bassist and vocalist Kristoffer is the brother of Daniel Gildenlöw and was a member of the renowned Swedish group for 11 years, joining at the age of 16. Gildenlöw has toured with Neal Morse and Damien Wilson, among others, and is known as a “musician’s musician” for his wide-ranging and impressive talents. This album might be described as Scandinavian soul music for a winter’s night, with a deceptively languid approach that only partially obscures a deep and focused intensity, befitting a set of songs about “the struggles and life of a man with dementia (Alzheimer’s disease).” The melodies reveal themselves like shadows, wrapped in layers of vocals set in largely acoustic instrumentation. Kristoffer, like his brother, has a striking, gripping voice with many shades of emotion. Fans of Pain of Salvation’s more mellow songs and Opeth’s “Damnation” should enjoy this excellent effort.
• “Delusion Rain” by Mystery | When I first heard this follow-up to the fine 2012 album “The World is a Game” I didn’t realize that I was not hearing longtime vocalist Benoît David but new singer Jean Pageau, who apparently headed a number of tribute bands (apparently a feature of the Quebec-based band). Multi-instrumentalist, producer and writer Michel St-Père, who founded the band as a teenager in the late ’80s, has again crafted a lush, expansive sound that is less about technical flash (although St-Père is a gifted guitarist) than structures and chords that are quite symphonic in nature, sometimes bearing echoes of late ’70s and ’80s Pink Floyd, but with a more positive feel, with some instrumental passage that evoke Moody Blues and Yes. A very enjoyable album from start to finish.
• “Say So” by Bent Knee | Is this Boston band “prog”? I’m not sure, but I think the Bent Knee site isn’t exaggerating much when it describes Bent Knee as “a band without frontiers … [which] … seamlessly connects the worlds of rock, pop and the avant-garde into its own self-defining statement.” Keyboard magazine proffers: “think Jeff Buckley meets Rush meets Edith Piaf”. There is certainly an art-rock “thing” going on, with moments of dissonance juxtaposed with soft, waif-like movements, as in the 9-minute-plus “Eve”. Other songs, such as “Hands Up”, are cleverly disguised pop songs, with full-throated singalong choruses. The music is not always easy, but it is always fascinating; the band creates a world of swirling hurricanes and calm eyes of the storms, usually centered on the paint-blistering vocals of keyboardist Courtney Swain, which range from banshee wail to coaxing murmur.
• “Lighthouse” by iamthemorning | Think Tori Amos meet classical meets rock. In fact, one half of this Russian duo—pianist Gleb Kolyadin—is conservatory trained, and the album was recorded and mixed by Marcel van Limbeek, who has worked with Amos. Kate Bush is also lurking at the edges (as she is in many of Amos’ albums), but self-taught singer Marjana Semkina clearly has a strong personality and her own distinct sound. There is, not surprisingly, a strong northern European element—due in no small part to Kolyadin’s distinctive work on the keyboard—that conjures up images of frozen vistas and lonely walks by a fjörd. A bit haunting, quite sophisticated, and altogether lovely.
• “Act V: Hymns with the Devil in Confessional” by The Dear Hunter | Jay Watson nails it in his Progarchy.com take on this wildly eclectic album by the prolific Casey Crescenzo: “Again, we find a perfect melding of dream-pop & power-prog stirred up in a stew of vaudevillian show-tune melodies, Queen/Muse-like anthemic oratorios, with a dash of steam-punk attitude.” To be perfectly honest, I’ve enjoyed every single one of the five “Acts” and I’ve yet to really understand the byzantine story line of this ambitious concept project. The immediate marvel is simply, “How does one guy write and perform so flawlessly in so many different genres? And make it all sound as natural and organic as green grass growing by the sea?” A particular favorite is “The March”, which captures a chunk of the manic magic involves in the Acts of The Dear Hunter. (The entire album is currently online on YouTube.)
• “Weir Keeper’s Tale” by Damian Wilson & Adam Wakeman
• “Your Wilderness” by Pineapple Thief
• “Sorcerer” by Opeth
• “Renaissance”by Polyphia
• “Polaris / Errai” by TesserAct
• “All That You Fear Is Gone” by Headspace
• “Falling Satellites” by Frost*
• “Stranger Heads Prevail” by Thank You Scientist