Looking back at 2020, it’s hard to believe that we lost Neil Peart at the beginning of the year. That loss hit me pretty hard, since Rush’s music has been central to my life from an early age. I talk more about that in my tribute to Peart: https://progarchy.com/2020/01/12/neil-peart-a-misfits-hero/. I start off my year-end review list with a reminder of the loss of Neil because it seems like a fitting way to remember 2020. Peart’s loss represents what so many people have lost this year, whether it be family members and friends due to the virus or jobs lost due to draconian forced business closures that haven’t actually accomplished anything in slowing the viral spread. Not to mention the emotional distress that physical separation is causing many people.
Another thing we lost this year was live music from our favorite bands. Big Big Train had their first North American tour planned for late spring this year. Canceled. Devin Townsend was in the middle of a glorious North American tour with Haken when everything blew up. Canceled. Obviously this list could be expanded to every band that tours. Losing live music makes it even more difficult for bands in a niche genre to spread their music to more people.
But enough lamenting. We still got a lot of great music this year. The following list is in no particular order apart from my number one album at the end. I include both new albums and live records.
Haken – Virus
I was a little surprised that I was the only person over at the Dutch Progressive Rock Page to include this one in my top ten list for their annual list. Maybe people were really sensitive about the name of the album, but it was clear that the album was written and completed before the novel coronavirus was a known entity. The music is fantastic. It’s probably their heaviest album to date, but it still has some of their calmer moments. It’s Haken through-and-through, and it makes a wonderful companion to 2018’s Vector. We also get to hear some more about our old nemesis, the cockroach king. It’s pretty cool how they worked in some of those themes. Fantastic album that should’ve received more attention than it did. Check out my review: https://progarchy.com/2020/07/23/haken-goes-viral-virus-album-review-haken_official/
Steve Hackett – Selling England By The Pound & Spectral Mornings: Live At Hammersmith
Steve Hackett’s latest live album is fantastic. His band, featuring Craig Blundell on drums, knocked Genesis classic Selling England By The Pound out of the park. They make a few additions to the music, such as Rob Townsend’s saxophone playing some of the keyboard parts, but nothing detracts from the brilliance of the original. The Hackett solo tracks are also handled extremely well, although I would have loved it if they had included “Peace” off his most recent solo album. Jonas Reingold’s bass, along with Blundell’s drums, really stand out to me. Check out my review at the DPRP: https://www.dprp.net/reviews/2020-088
The Tangent – Auto Reconnaissance
This was my favorite Tangent album since 2015’s A Spark in the Aether. Andy Tillison pumped the brakes on the overt political ranting in favor of a more philosophical approach. Lots of jazz in this one, as there is on every Tangent album. I also got to interview Andy for you, our fine readers, back in August. That was a lot of fun, and Andy was very open about his writing process as well as the general history of the band. Check it out if you haven’t already: https://progarchy.com/2020/08/19/thinking-of-england-a-conversation-with-andy-tillison-of-the-tangent/
Glass Hammer – Dreaming City
Glass Hammer is a fantastic band with a long history in the prog world. Sadly they don’t receive the type of notoriety that other bands do in the prog world. I’ll admit that some of their albums run together for me, but I found myself drawn back Dreaming City all year long. It’s immersive, which provides plenty of content on repeated listens. Definitely worth your time. Check out Rick Krueger’s review: https://progarchy.com/2020/04/24/glass-hammers-dreaming-city/
Testament – Titans of Creation
I was a latecomer to Testament’s latest album. I finally bought it from iTunes this month, and I wasn’t surprised when I instantly loved it. I’m not very familiar with Testament’s early output, but their albums over the last decade have been outstanding. Titans of Creation fits right in with those albums. Gene Hoglan is an absolute beast on the drums – one of the best in the world. His playing makes Testament’s music so interesting. Chuck Billy’s voice is also one of my favorites. He’s intense without being overbearing.
Kansas – The Absence of Presence
Call me a snob, but I’ll always miss Kerry Livgren’s touch on Kansas’ music and lyrics. I’m a big fan of his (check out my review of his new book: https://progarchy.com/2020/11/01/a-life-of-miracles-kerry-livgren-and-the-art-of-storytelling/). With that said I’m really glad Kansas is making new music again. I enjoyed 2016’s The Prelude Implicit, and this new album is arguably better. It ended up being the DPRP’s top album of the year (based upon all the writers’ top ten lists), which says a lot. Check out Rick Krueger’s review: https://progarchy.com/2020/07/24/kansas-the-absence-of-presence/
Caligula’s Horse – Rise Radiant
Rise Radiant was my first real introduction to Caligula’s Horse, and I liked what I heard. Heavy yet quirky like so much contemporary prog metal. If you like Haken you’ll like this.
Dimitri Toonen – Leave My Mind Sometimes
A brilliant album released by Dutch guitarist Dimitri Toonen about a month ago. The maturity of the music and the songwriting reminded me of Steven Wilson/Porcupine Tree. Excellent guitar work, but the album focuses on the songs, not the guitar. The guitar serves the stories. Highly recommended to everyone. Check out my review: https://progarchy.com/2020/12/20/dimitri-toonens-leave-my-mind-sometimes-album-review/
The Bardic Depths
Progarchy co-founder Brad Birzer and Progarchist Dave Bandana teamed up again for another album, this time under the band name The Bardic Depths. Birzer took another leap forward in his lyric-writing ability, and the addition of more guests on the musical side (handled by Dave) really helped their sound (they made two previous albums under the moniker Birzer Bandana). Gareth Cole and Robin Armstrong provide some fantastic guitar work, while Peter Jones adds brilliant saxophone work along with some backing vocals. Check out my review (https://progarchy.com/2020/03/15/the-bardic-depths-a-prescient-album/) as well as Rick Krueger’s review (https://progarchy.com/2020/03/06/sounding-the-bardic-depths/)
Dave Brons – Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost
Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien take note. This album by Dave Brons is absolutely fantastic. I bought the CD from his Bandcamp page (https://davebrons.bandcamp.com/album/not-all-those-who-wander-are-lost) after listening to a couple samples on a DPRP review. The album was a big undertaking, with many guests and a wide range of sounds. It’s a rock album, but it touches on stories from across Tolkien’s Middle Earth legendarium. As such it also has a lot of orchestral arrangements. Perhaps my only complaint is I wish the album was longer because it’s just so good, and it’s already over an hour long. I highly suggest you go buy the CD because it comes in a beautiful digipack with wonderful artwork. Brons certainly did justice to Tolkien’s work with this beautiful album. Furthermore Brons’ guitar work alone is worth the price of admission. I can’t recommend this album highly enough.
The Flower Kings – Islands
From Roger Dean’s artwork to the excellent music, the latest Flower Kings album may be my favorite by them. I’m no expert on their catalog, but I generally like what I’ve heard from them. The instrumental interplay is second to none. I have my beefs with some aspects of the record (which I explain in my review), but the high points outweigh the negatives. My review: https://progarchy.com/2020/10/24/the-flower-kings-islands-album-review/
Nick D’Virgilio – Invisible
Big Big Train drummer (just one of his many musical endeavors) Nick D’Virgilio’s new solo album is a thing of beauty. His time as Spock’s Beard lead vocalist made it clear he’s comfortable in the spotlight, and his live work with Big Big Train shows how he can command a presence even in a band. What I didn’t realize, though, was how much his time working for Cirque du Soleil had impacted him. Invisible has a theatrical element to it, perhaps most obviously through its grand scale. Definitely worth your time. Check out my initial thoughts on it (https://progarchy.com/2020/06/27/nick-dvirgilios-invisible-first-impressions/) along with Rick Krueger’s full review (https://progarchy.com/2020/07/14/further-thoughts-on-nick-dvirgilios-invisible-or-progging-in-the-pre-nirvana-mainstream/).
Dream Theater – Distant Memories Live in London
One of Dream Theater’s best live albums. The setlist includes tracks from their most recent studio album as well as all of Metropolis, Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory. “A Nightmare To Remember” is also done to perfection along with a few other tracks. Not a dud on this one.
Big Big Train – Summer’s Lease
Maybe it’s cheating to include a compilation album on a “best of” list, but when it’s Big Big Train it stands above the crowd. The band re-recorded some early material as well as added some elements to other tracks. There’s also a brand new track available only on this special Japan-issued release. The artwork is stunning, and the tracklist is an excellent introduction to Big Big Train’s music. If you weren’t able to get a copy of the limited Japanese-market release, never fear for the band just released it as a digital download on their Bandcamp page: https://bigbigtrain.bandcamp.com/album/summers-lease
Big Big Train – Empire
Live album of the year, ladies and gentlemen. Holy cow. I finally got the chance to watch this in its entirety the other night after listening to it several times. The band was absolutely on fire. It’s a wonderful farewell to Dave Gregory, Danny Manners, and Rachel Hall. Hall really shines throughout, showing how much her presence will be missed. They’ll all be missed, but we can be glad for their contributions to the band, and we can enjoy this stunning show. The production of the video is by far the best of the live shows BBT has released. The company did a phenomenal job in interweaving the footage being shown on the stage screen without blocking out the band. All around a great product. Highly recommended.
Neal Morse – Sola Gratia
Lockdown hit so Neal Morse hit the studio for his first solo prog album since Momentum (I think it is anyways). Sola Gratia is connected to Sola Scriptura through similar musical themes, but this album focuses on the Biblical story of the Apostle Paul’s conversion. It’s a single album rather than a double album, which I think is a big benefit. I love the music and the lyrics. It’s Neal Morse doing what he does best. Check out my interview with Neal from back in August: https://progarchy.com/2020/09/04/by-grace-alone-a-conversation-with-neal-morse/.
And now a drum roll (in an odd time signature, of course) for my number one album of the year…
1. Pain of Salvation – Panther
This album was my introduction to Pain of Salvation, and I was blown away. The music is rather jarring in a lot of ways, which is obviously intentional when you listen to the lyrics. The album is about what it’s like to be a social outcast (“I feel like a panther trapped in a dog’s world”), so the sometimes-disjointed feel to the drums and other instruments reinforces that theme. The result is rather stunning. Léo Margarit’s drumming is exceptional. There’s so much technicality to his playing, but it isn’t overpowering. Daniel Gildenlöw’s vocals are bested only by his lyrics, which really resonated with me. It’s a brilliant album by a brilliant band, and I’ve enjoyed digging into their back catalog. Check out my review of Panther: https://progarchy.com/2020/08/12/healing-our-time-pain-of-salvations-panther/
Another year in prog wrapped up for the history books. As we look into 2021, I’m most excited about the upcoming Transatlantic album, but I’m sure there will be plenty of other great albums. Here’s hoping we can get back to live shows sometime soon.
I wanted to take this opportunity to thank all the bands, record labels, and promoters who have sent us music to review and set up interviews with us this year. Without the music we’d have nothing to write about, and without people sending us music to review it would be difficult to do what we do here. Most importantly I want to thank everyone who took the time to read my year-end list and everyone who reads Progarchy regularly. I appreciate it so much. I sincerely hope you’ve all been well through this rough year, and I wish all of us a better 2021.