Capsule reviews of what I’ve listened to since the last installment follow the jump. Albums are reviewed in descending order on my Personal Proggyness Perception (PPP) scale, scored from 0 to 10.
Rikard Sjöblom‘s Gungfly, Friendship: Building on last year’s brilliant On Her Journey to the Sun, Sjöblom’s done it again! Lyrically, Friendship is a heartfelt reflection on how time and change forge, then dissolve even the deepest relationships; musically, it’s an engrossing, organically grown listen. Assisted by bass and drum brothers Rasmus & Petter Diamant, with David Zackrisson providing occasional lead guitar, Sjöblom shines throughout on vocals, guitars and keys; without breaking a sweat, he patiently shapes bibs and bobs of folk, rock, jazz and prog into homespun suites — rootsy, spacey, gutsy — that effortlessly carry and reflect the poignant narrative of love and loss. Genuinely moving and thrilling by turns, one listen made Friendship a major contender for my album of the year.
PPP Scale: 10/10 (a genuine concept album/labor of love; tracks ranging from 5 to 14 minutes; Sjoblom’s well-earned prog credentials with Beardfish and Big Big Train). First Listen Rating: 10/10. Check out the bonus tracks version of Friendship here:
Rush, Hemispheres (40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition): Alex, Geddy and Neil bid farewell to side-long science-fantasy epics, parachuting the lost astronaut of “Cygnus X-1” into a battle between Greek gods — or are they Nietzschean sides of the brain? Since I didn’t hop aboard the Rush bandwagon until Permanent Waves, I’m probably not the best judge of “Hemispheres'” effectiveness; but the rest of the album is all gravy, with the ominous build of “The Trees'” and the dada jumpcuts of “La Villa Strangiato” (including Looney Tunes soundtrack quotes!) sounding particularly tasty on this new remaster. The bonus disc is a sturdy uptempo Dutch festival show from 1979, paired with a live “2112” from the year before.
PPP Scale: 10/10 (do I really have to justify this?). First Listen Rating: 6/10. Listen here:
Sonar, Live at Moods: This Swiss quartet bills itself as “the Minimal Groove Band”; this fine Zurich concert captures them at their immersive best. With guitars tuned in tritones (three whole steps between strings) for unique harmonic resonance, Sonar’s music spins long arcs of interweaving melodic cycles, undergirded by equally repetitive (usually deliberately off-kilter) drum polyrhythms. The overall effect is spacious, hypnotic, obsessively engaging — think King Crimson’s 1980s sound, stripped to bare essentials and honed to a razor’s edge. Guitarist David Torn (David Bowie, Bill Bruford, etc.), who produced and collaborated with Sonar on their latest album Vortex, floats in and around the band’s constructions with atmospheric loops and skronky solos (as well as an entire improvised solo piece, “For Lost Sailors”). I thought Vortex was an admirable, Apollonian achievement, but Live at Moods is more immediate; it relentlessly builds to Dionysian frenzy — then pulls you onto the dance floor to party like it’s 2099.
PPP Scale: 10/10 (the band is conceptual in and of themselves, Torn is an utterly unique musical voice, and the album’s out on Crimson alumnus Trey Gunn’s label). First Listen Rating: 7/10. Hear and buy Live at Moods and the rest of Sonar’s catalog on Bandcamp.
Steven Wilson, Home Invasion Live at the Royal Albert Hall: After a year, I still dig To The Bone. However, Wilson and his crack ensemble come off a bit flat tackling its shorter tunes here, even with the incandescent Ninet Tayeb pitching in on vocals and a capacity crowd cheering them on. Ah, but the longform stuff … “Refuge” and “Detonation” (plus “Home Invasion”, “Ancestral” and Porcupine Tree’s “Arriving Somewhere But Not Here” from the back catalog) stretch out and sizzle, with vivid playing and unstoppable momentum. The video version is the best option, capturing Wilson’s droll stagecraft, the ambitious efforts of his video collaborators, and the jittery energy of the night.
PPP Scale: 10/10 (the genre’s most famous current face; a great multi-media show; a virtuoso band; all at the iconic British concert venue). First Listen Rating: 8/10. Check out the audio here:
Muse, Simulation Theory: I’ve listened to this compulsively for a week, partially because I was trying to figure out if I actually liked it. Matt Bellamy, Chris Wolstenhome and Dom Howard aim straight for mainstream success, adding EDM bass growls and percussive stomps (“Propaganda”, “Dig Down”) to their usual superfuzzed rock riffs (“Pressure”) and bedrock prog cliches (the synth drone that kicks off “Algorithm,” then morphs into full-blown strings). The lyrics aim for the top 40 too, abandoning Bellamy’s barmy conspiracy theories in favor of good old relationship-based paranoia. Still, the whole thing is deliriously catchy — less rocky and challenging than Black Holes and Revelations, The Resistance or Drones, but with gleaming sonics and grandiose pop appeal.
PPP Scale: 6/10 (as noted above, widescreen eclecticism throughout; Chopinesque piano and Queen-y harmonies icing the cake. Plus, art by a Stranger Things designer – nearly as good as getting Roger Dean!) First Listens Rating: 6/10. Hear the Super Deluxe Edition here:
Fernando Perdomo, Zebra Crossing: You’re Dave Kerzner’s live guitarist (and his right-hand man on the New World and Static albums). What to do with your day off on Kerzner’s British tour? Lay down basic tracks for your next album at Abbey Road’s historic Studio One, of course! (Full disclosure: I chipped in on Perdomo’s GoFundMe campaign for the project.) And, following up: make sure your new batch of songs evoke the best intelligent pop across the decades (The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Big Star, ELO, multiple et ceteras); collaborate with fine young songwriters and players from Britain and America’s West Coast; sing your heart out from start to finish — with both your warm, casually inviting baritone voice (“I’m Here”, the delightful “We Were Raised with Headphones On”) and spacious, thoroughly tasty lead guitar work (“Not Meant to Be”, “Zebra Crossing”). Smile after smile crossed my face hearing this one!
PPP Scale: 5/10 (great Phil Spector/Brian Wilson production; the extended, Abbey Road-channeling title instrumental) First Listens Rating: 7/10. Hear it and buy it at Bandcamp, and watch the video for “We Were Raised with Headphones On”:
— Rick Krueger