In case you hadn’t noticed, the last quarter of 2018 has put paid to any perceived drought of new releases & reissues. Capsule reviews of what I’ve been listening to since the first of this month follow the jump; albums are reviewed in descending order on my Personal Proggyness Perception (PPP) scale, scored from 0 to 10.
Steve Hackett, Broken Skies, Outspread Wings: Between his years with Charisma (documented in the Esoteric box Premonitions) and the InsideOut era that started with Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth, Steve Hackett self-released his music, mostly on his own Camino label. Gathering deluxe editions of six solid albums (plus surround mixes of selected tunes and a live DVD recorded in South America), this box captures Hackett at his most wildly eclectic and experimental. Whether collaborating with South American percussionists on Till We Have Faces, shooting for hit singles with vocalists Manfred Mann’s Chris Thompson and Bonnie Tyler on Feedback 86 or providing gems like “Rise Again” (from Darktown) and “Serpentine Song” (from To Watch the Storms) for his future setlists, he takes chances aplenty, plays with seraphic brilliance on acoustic and electric guitar, gains confidence and control as a singer, and never fails to aim for excellence. A very cool listen overall, and a reasonably price way to fill the gaps in your collection.
PPP Scale: 10/10 (everything from horror movie music to flamenco, laced with Hackett’s distinctive, soaring lead work. Plus, a Roger Dean cover!). First Listens Rating: 7/10.
King Crimson, Meltdown Live in Mexico: Some fans are already lamenting the overkill of a sixth live set from the current Crimson; me, I’m reveling in the continued growth and increased intensity every new release brings. Building on the great leap forward of 2017’s Live in Chicago, this CD/Blu Ray box showcases Crimson in full flight, caught during a Mexico City residency a few weeks after the Chicago gig, where the band played up to three hour sets for five nights. The Eight-Headed Beast (think a chamber quintet with a drum corps up front) is on point and pin-sharp throughout, roaring like a lion or purring like a kitten as required. “Fracture,” oddly clunky just two years back on Live in Vienna, is blindingly precise and powerful, “Neurotica” swings like Poe’s pendulum, “Easy Money” collapses and resuscitates before your very ears — and those are just three highlights from a set with too many to detail. Watching Gavin Harrison, Jeremy Stacey and Bill Rieflin trade complex drum licks with the greatest of ease, hearing Jakko Jakzsyk crush the vocals on selections from multiple eras of Crimson, seeing Robert Fripp smile (multiple times!) at the creativity and passion of backline colleagues Tony Levin, Mel Collins and Bill Rieflin — the whole package (with bonus audio tracks, including songs new to the setlist from 2018’s European tour) is simply tremendous.
PPP Scale: 10/10 (the pioneers of the form, making music from across five decades new — whenever it was written). First Listen Rating: 9/10. Hear it here:
Procol Harum, Live with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Esoteric’s Procol Harum reissue series heads into the home stretch. Gary Brooker and his cohorts pioneered working live with an orchestra at Stratford, Ontario’s Shakespeare Festival in 1969 — weeks before similar efforts by Deep Purple and Keith Emerson’s Nice. Three years later, they returned to Canada for another shot at it. Despite tense rehearsals, baffling technical difficulties and an ambivalent conductor, Procol’s team-up with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and Chorus yielded a surprise hit single in “Conquistador,” which pushed the album and the band to new heights of sales and popularity. But there’s plenty more beyond the single here — “A Salty Dog” is sweeping and utterly majestic, “Whaling Stories” and “All This Is More” vivid dramas of musical light and shade, and the side-long “In Held ‘Twas In I” yields theatrical thrills and spills — and even a great unintentional spoonerism (“And though the cloud crapped furiously, they could not see the joke”). If you want to hear what Procol Harum was all about, this is their defining moment.
PPP Scale: 10/10 (arguably the best rock band/orchestra collaboration of the 1970s). First Listens Rating: 10/10. Hear it here:
Opeth, Garden of the Titans: Despite Steven Wilson’s seal of approval (and production assistance), I didn’t cotton to Mikael Akerfeldt and company until they slipstreamed from death metal and cookie monster growls into hard prog-tinged rock, fronted with reedier vocals. Filmed at Denver’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre (available on CD, DVD, Blu Ray or combo pack), Opeth serves up a half-metal, half-prog set to an enthusiastic capacity crowd. Heavy, dark and doomy as the tunes are, there’s a sense of cool in the performance, sometimes verging on the blasé; Martin Axenrodt on drums and Joakim Spalberg on keys provide most of the musical goosebumps, while Akerfeldt and his fellow guitarist thrash with blithe efficiency and strike requisite poses. Even the death metal growling’s not all that chilling. Still, this is a strong live show and an excellent introduction to what Opeth do best.
PPP Scale: 8/10 (whether leaning toward prog or metal, Opeth consistently leans into the epic vibe — even on the shorter tracks). First Listen Rating: 6/10. Hear it here:
Haken, Vector: It took a spin in my car to truly appreciate this album; in my usual listening space, Haken’s new emphasis on concussive blastbeats (seriously in your face throughout the mix) slightly obscured their typically creative blend of prog, metal, pure vocal counterpoint and distorted, marvelously shreddy riffs. Vector also gets bonus points for its creepy medicine-gone-mad scenario, and every track is finely tuned for maximum tension and impact; none of the music outstays its welcome. To my mind, this album doesn’t quite match the heights of The Mountain and Affinity, but it’s still an first-class effort from one of today’s best bands.
PPP Scale: 7/10 (multi-sectional tunes, whacked out time signatures, vocal pyrotechnics). First Listens Rating: 7/10. Hear it here:
Elvis Costello and The Imposters, Look Now (Deluxe Edition): This is Costello’s best album in a decade or more, blending the expansive orchestration of the Beatlesque Imperial Bedroom with the sophisticated songcraft of his Burt Bacharach collaboration Painted from Memory. Further writing with Bacharach (who plays piano on his three co-writes) and Carole King brings fresh melodic contours to Costello’s palette, The Impostors lay down one silky, propulsive groove after another, and EC inhabits his characters with imagination, empathy and sensitive use of his unique voice. Seductive uptown pop, spiked with the classic Costello edge.
PPP Scale: 5/10 (songs from a never-produced Broadway musical, a song in French on the bonus disc). First Listens Rating: 10/10. Hear it here:
Greta Van Fleet, Anthem of the Peaceful Army: The pride of Frankenmuth, Michigan disappoint — at least a bit — on their full-length debut. As on their previous EPs, their Led Zeppelin knock-offs (“You’re the One,” “Brave New World”) are the best tracks; efforts to plow new furrows like opener “Age of Man” come off as half-baked early Rush outtakes. (When he’s on, singer Joshua Kiszka channels Robert Plant; when he’s off, he sounds like an uncontrolled young Geddy Lee at maximum nasality.) Still enough choogling grooves and hard rock power to provide some straightforward fun, and I bet this music takes off in concert — but file under “unrealized potential.”
PPP Scale: 4/10 (vague, undercooked mysticism throughout the lyrics, expansive track lengths). First Listens Rating: 5/10. Hear it here:
And next up in the listening room — hmm, what’s that I’m hearing?
“This is number 9 … number 9 … number 9 …”
— Rick Krueger