We’ve come to the end of another year, and what a horrible year it has been. Really the only positive thing I can think of from this year is the music. In addition to all the non-music nonsense that has gone on this year, we lost from legends in the prog world, none hurting more than the tragic and completely unexpected death of David Longdon. That one will hurt for a long time.
I usually write my best of lists in no particular order, with my top pick(s) at the end. So without further ado…
Robby Steinhardt – Not In Kansas Anymore
Robby Steinhardt was another prog legend we lost unexpectedly earlier this year. He hadn’t been active in music for quite some time, but that was about to change as he was finishing up his first solo album and had plans for a tour. Sadly the latter was not to be, but we did end up getting his solo album in the fall. It’s a great record, and it shows what a key player he was in Kansas. His vocals are stellar, and his violin playing is second to none. This record has a bit of the magic that I think Kansas lacks without Steinhardt. There are more musical influences at work than just Kansas on this record. It’s not a solid 10/10 throughout, but it is a very good record. Check out my review and my tribute to Robby.
Devin Townsend – Devolution Series #2 – Galactic Quarantine
Devin Townsend has been a busy bee this year. In addition to working on three new records this year, he released two minor releases of live material. The first is an acoustic album (see my glowing review) from a show he did in Leeds in 2019. It’s a raw and emotional take on his music. The Galactic Quarantine album is one of his live-streamed albums from 2020 with the musicians playing live on green screens across the world. The music is blisteringly great, with a surprising amount of Strapping Young Lad material played. Devin humorously engages with his virtual audience, which makes the music come to life a bit more. This has been one I’ve returned to quite a bit this year. Perhaps an unorthodox release, but it would make a really good entrance point for the uninitiated to the heavier side of Devin’s music. Check out my review.
Soen – Imperial
It turns out we never reviewed Soen’s latest album, which was released in January. The Swedish prog-metal supergroup can do no wrong. Their songs are catchy, memorable, and thoughtful. They can be both heavy and contemplative, and in my book they rank in the upper echelon of progressive metal. This record has been on repeat all year.
Atravan – The Grey Line
Sticking with the progressive metal theme, Atravan was a pleasant surprise at the beginning of the year. This is the first Iranian band we’ve ever reviewed here at Progarchy, and they’re fantastic. I’m so glad the band reached out to us. They make metal in the vein of Riverside – heavy, spacey, wall of sound. Definitely a band that deserves recognition, although I worry what too much recognition could do for them with the repressive Iranian regime. Check out my review.
Bantamweight – Sounds + Haptics
Sticking with a theme here, we have another metal band from a land with an oppressive governmental regime. This time California. Bantamweight sent me their all-too-brief CD earlier this year, and it blew me away. It’s two guys – a drummer/keyboardist (who does both at the same time!) and a bassist/vocalist/keyboardist. They make enough noise for a band with twice as many members, and their sound is incredibly unique. They have a Devin Townsend wall-of-sound influence, but their music is all their own. This short EP keeps bringing me back for more, and I hope the guys see tons of success. Check out my review.
Frost* – Day and Age
This record stuck with me quite a bit around the time it came out, although I’ll admit I haven’t listened to it very much lately. With that said the almost twelve-minute long title track is one of the best songs released this year. Frost* have their own unique sound and take on progressive rock, and Day and Age isn’t to be missed.
The Neal Morse Band – Innocence & Danger
The Neal Morse Band’s latest is their best album to date. After back to back concept albums telling one story, this feels like a breath of fresh air. The guys continue to form their own unique sound, and this record sounds more like the product of a band than a Neal Morse record. The 31 minute “Beyond The Years” is the best track of the year. It draws deeply from the history of progressive rock, but it’s a brilliant epic that stands alone. “Not Afraid Pt. 2,” at almost 20 minutes, is another excellent epic. In fact every song on the record is great, with influences drawn from all over the map. Check out the interview I did with the wonderful Randy George. Our long discussion ranged from in depth talk about the album to prog history and the genre as it stands today. https://progarchy.com/2021/07/27/the-neal-morse-bands-randy-george-the-progarchy-interview/
Nad Sylvan – Spiritus Mundi
Nad Sylvan took things in a different, more subdued direction with his latest solo album, which finds him singing the poetry of William Butler Yeats. It’s a pleasant album with a laid-back peaceful approach. Sylvan’s voice is haunting, and his talent as a musician shines, along with the list of excellent guest musicians. Check out my review and Rick Krueger’s interview with Nad about the album.
Reflection Club – Still Thick As A Brick
This was an unexpected submission for review from Germany earlier this year. It’s obviously trying to sound like vintage Jethro Tull, but it also doesn’t pretend like it’s trying to be something else. It knows what it wants to be, and in that regard it is quite good. The band create a sound that is true to the 1970s Tull sound, and it is a very enjoyable album. Check out my review.
Rhapsody of Fire – Glory For Salvation
Now we’re getting into power metal territory. I recently reviewed this record for the Dutch Progressive Rock Page, giving it a 9/10. The only reason I didn’t rate it higher is because I’m becoming a bit stricter with my grading, and I’m not giving out as many 10s any more. Nevertheless this record absolutely slays. The Italian band have undergone quite the lineup shift in recent years, but their new singer knocks it out of the park. Founding member and keyboardist Alex Staropoli has done a great job keeping the band tied to its roots, and this album reflects that. It’s heavy, it’s soaring, and it’s epic in every sense of the word. This high fantasy concept works really well, and the songs are really catchy. Guitar riffing abounds, and it’s just a really fun album. Highly recommended.
Kansas – Point of Know Return Live & Beyond
Kansas’ latest live album breathes fresh life into some of the best music ever made. The band play music from across their catalog, with the second set featuring all of Point of Know Return. This recording has more energy than you would imagine an almost 50 year old band could muster. Check out my review: https://progarchy.com/2021/06/19/almost-50-years-in-kansas-still-carries-on/
Glass Hammer – Skallagrim Into The Breach
Admittedly I haven’t given Glass Hammer’s latest album the attention it deserves, partly because of when it was released and constraints on my personal life at the time of issue and the months since. Nevertheless it is a great album, perhaps their heaviest to date. Glass Hammer are one of the greatest bands in American progressive rock today, although they don’t get the recognition they deserve.
Steve Hackett – Under A Mediterranean Sky
I’ve been wanting a Hackett acoustic record for a little while now, and he finally provided. He and keyboardist Roger King sat down during lockdown and cranked out this beautiful tour through the Mediterranean Sea. It’s a gorgeous record filled with beautiful guitar, lovely orchestral tones, and the sounds of the various cultures of that mighty sea. If you can’t travel, turn on this gem and enjoy a brief vacation. Check out Rick Krueger’s review.
Steve Hackett – Surrender Of Silence
For the first time in his extensive solo career, Hackett released two solo albums in one year, and they’re both great. Surrender of Silence is a beautiful mix of rock with world music and classical. My friend Rick thought it leaned too heavily on its influences, but I’m not familiar with the music he cited, so that went a bit over my head and didn’t spoil things for me. I especially enjoyed the tracks that featured his full touring band. Nad Sylvan sings lead on “The Devil’s Cathedral,” and the full band really brings it on some other tracks. There are even some instrumental bits that I remembered them jamming during their live show in 2019. Hackett’s vocals sound better than ever, as well. I would love to hear a Hackett band album with Nad Sylvan and Hackett sharing lead vocals and with the whole band contributing to the writing. I think they could make something truly spectacular, because the talent in his current live lineup is off the charts.
Tesseract – Portals
This isn’t a studio record, but rather it’s a live stream album the band did during lockdown. I’ve been familiar with Tesseract for a while now, but I never really dived into their music. Portals really grabbed my attention, though. It features music from across their albums. Maybe it’s the energy they have in a live setting minus the roaring crowds, but this record really blew me away and has been on constant repeat. It has been a fantastic introduction to the band. They’re unlike anyone else in progressive metal, as a listen to Portals will clearly show. If like me you never really gave Tesseract the attention they deserve, then check out Portals and prepare to be amazed.
And now for my favorite album of the year…
1. Big Big Train – Common Ground
Big Big Train rebounded from the departure of three band members to create what may be their best album since English Electric: Full Power. The influences are slightly broader on this record, but they created music as only they can. The vocal harmonies are wonderful, and Greg Spawton has some incredible storytelling, as he always does. As David told Progarchy in an interview with Rick Krueger, David Longdon’s lyrics reflect the frustrations of living apart in the age of Covid-19, as well as emphasizing how much we need each other. Sadly we said goodbye to David a few weeks ago with his untimely and absolutely tragic passing, which hit me like a freight train. My favorite band… my favorite vocalist – gone, to exist only in memory and in the beautiful music he gave us. My tribute to David might have been the most difficult thing I’ve written for this site over my eight years here. Thankfully we have another Big Big Train album to look forward to one month from now, but its release will be bittersweet. Rest in peace, David.
Check out my review of Common Ground: https://progarchy.com/2021/07/18/big-big-train-common-ground-2/
I want to thank all the bands and record labels who sent us music for review this year. We received a flood of music from both big record labels and a ton of physical CDs and downloads from independent bands. I’m sorry if we never got around to reviewing it. That doesn’t reflect on the music, because it seems like everything we get sent is really good. I think I’ve reviewed more music this year than any before, and I can honestly recommend everything I’ve reviewed… except Steven Wilson’s The Future Bites. Take a pass on that.
I also want to thank you, the reader, for reading this and anything else you may have read at Progarchy this year. We had one of our better years in a while here, with our top ten most-read posts of the year all published this year. I was hoping we would accomplish that this year (last year only two of our top ten most read posts were written in 2020). So thanks for reading, sharing, commenting, and for listening to such great music.
Here’s hoping 2022 is better than 2021.