by Rick Krueger
After the jump are the new albums and videos from 2017 that grabbed me on first or second listen, then compelled repeated plays. I’m not gonna rank them except for my Top Favorite, which I’ll save for the very end. The others are listed alphabetically by artist. (Old school style, that is — last names first where necessary!) Links to the ones I’ve previously reviewed are embedded in the album titles.
Barock Project — Detachment: Thanks to Jay Watson for his eloquent, persistent advocacy of this excellent album! I streamed Detachment when it came out and enjoyed it, especially the tracks with Peter Jones, but didn’t really give it a chance until recently. Repeated listens bring out the strength of Barock Project’s achievement: drawing from the best of both vintage and modern prog, they’re thrillingly creative with both melody & rhythm, and the results are compelling and richly emotional.
Big Big Train — Grimspound; The Second Brightest Star; London Song; Merry Christmas b/w Snowfalls: The Train kept a-rollin’ this year. My new favorite band of 2016 rose to the challenges of a bigger audience, reshaping unused and new material into two first-class albums (Grimspound was my “top favorite” for most of 2017) and a definitive version of Folklore’s London sequence. How to finish off the year? Obviously, with an uplifting holiday single that sweeps the British Christmas trifecta (bells, boychoirs and brass) and a b-side boasting grittily determined lyrics and a hi-octane instrumental playout. It is so much fun to watch BBT go from strength to strength; here’s hoping the momentum continues building.
Black Country Communion — BCCIV: Just the ticket for hard-rock fans missing their dose of Deep Black Led Purple Sabbath Zeppelin. Joe Bonamassa peels off multiple mighty guitar riffs on every tune; Glenn Hughes on bass and Jason Bonham on drums have the stutter-step grooves down cold; Derek Sherinian glues it all together with thick, grungy slabs of organ and mellotron. Add Hughes’ remarkable vocal range — cooing soulfully one moment, yowling like a man possessed the next — and you have a winning combo like they don’t make anymore. Air guitar heaven!
The Dear Hunter — All Is As All Should Be: What makes Casey Crescenzo and company’s music special — distilled into just 25 minutes and 6 “all killer no filler” tracks. Hard-driving, deeply textured, melodramatic and way cool, this is great progressive punk-pop, made with open-hearted craft and commitment.
Rikard Sjoblom’s Gungfly — On Her Journey to the Sun: Delicious, technicolor psychedelia for the here and now. Sjoblom casually deploys his considerable chops on guitar (“Of the Orb”) and keys (“Polymixia”), along with vocals that often remind me of The Band’s Richard Manuel at his most soulful. It simultaneously sounds homespun and highly ambitious, and it’s a complete delight.
King Crimson — Heroes: a stellar live EP from Crimson’s 2016 European tour. The Seven-Headed Beast is in fine fettle and ready for the clinches on a David Bowie cover, stylish updates of 1970s classics and a surprisingly enjoyable drumline solo.
Motorpsycho — The Tower: Lots of power, lots of drive, lots of super-hypnotic moments. Bassist Bent Saether is the once and future king of the one-chord riff, and his songwriting (with and without guitarist/keyboardist Hans Magnus Ryan) stirs prog, metal, surf music, folk, and classical ingredients into a heady, epic brew. A red-hot double album that pushes Motorpsycho’s trippy mash-up of Hawkwind, Kraftwerk and Yes to the limit — then goes way, way beyond.
Schooltree — Heterotopia: When I read Time Lord’s rave review of Heterotopia, I knew I’d found my prog-rock home online. Lainey Schooltree is unquestionably a major talent; her songwriting chops, keyboard skills and vocal versatility come through loud and clear on this thoroughly enjoyable concept album. Schooltree’s talented backing band bops right along all the way, giving the compelling narrative extra punch and working the numerous pop hooks for all they’re worth. They’re a great live act, too.
Spock’s Beard — Snow Live: Goosebump moments aplenty here, as the ultimate version of the Beard unite to play the only album they never showcased live. Just to see and hear Nick D’Virgilio harmonizing with Neal Morse on “Stranger in A Strange Land” is priceless — and every single person onstage rises to the occasion in the course of this intense, high energy concert. Definitive and essential, especially on DVD or Bluray.
White Willow — Future Hopes: unpretentious in presentation, wonderfully ambitious in scope and sonics. Future Hopes starts in darkness, then doggedly journeys toward the light — and sweeps you along effortlessly from beginning to end. Bonus points for the mischievously glacial cover of the Scorpions’ “Animal Magnetism,” complete with bonkers clarinet solo.
Steven Wilson — To the Bone: not a “prog goes pop” betrayal or Wilson’s masterwork — just an accessible yet ambitious set of songs that compels repeated plays. (And more air guitar!) An able showcase for Wilson’s immersive grounding in rock and pop of all stripes, his ongoing quest to extend that tradition, and his continued lyrical growth.
Hans Zimmer with Lorne Balfe, Sir Edward Elgar & Benjamin Wallfisch — Dunkirk (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack): Hearing this riveting soundtrack convinced me to see the viscerally involving, visually immersive movie, my top flick of 2017 and the best integration of score and screen I’ve experienced in ages. Still, the music grabs the listener all by itself, with a long, tense, desperate build to an incredibly satisfying release.
Honorable Mentions: I’ve been drawn to these three albums repeatedly since their release, but they come just shy of that “Favorites” magic. Great stuff, well worth your time, so Bandcamp and Spotify links are embedded in the titles:
And, without further ado …
My Top Favorite — King Crimson, Live in Chicago:
Given that I attended this concert and walked away convinced it was the finest rock show I’d ever heard, this album was a shoo-in for “best of the year.” This incarnation of Crimson can play it all, from the muted to the majestic to the metallic. And that night, they did — with results that were fluent, ferocious, daring and delicate by turns (and sometimes all at once). Mel Collins’ sax and flute work is especially out of this world, but each member of the band shines, absolutely in sync even when it sounds like they’re falling apart. The recording boasts gutsy, finely detailed sound; I was five seats to the right of the soundboard at this show, and hearing it again on CD is uncannily like being back there. If you have any interest at all in Crimson, get this and play it loud.