Lots of great music has crossed the metaphorical Progarchy transom this month! Purchasing links are embedded in each artist/title listing; album playlists or samples follow each review.
The Flower Kings, By Royal Decree: Fun fact: this is the third double album in a row from king of Kings Roine Stolt and his merry band. And like 2019’s Waiting for Miracles (which started the streak) it’s compulsively listenable from start to finish. Fresh out of lockdown, Stolt, singer Hasse Fröberg, keyboardist Zach Kamins, drummer Mirko deMaio and alternating bassists Jonas Reingold & Michael Stolt laid down 18 songs in the studio, negotiating the twists and turns of wildly varied material (some of which dates back to the early 1990s) with energy, precision and evident delight. Not a trace of metal here, and I hear much more psychedelia, fusion and Eurofunk in the mix than stereotypical “prog” — but to my ears, that’s what makes goodies like the unpredictable opener “The Great Pretender”, the ravishing ballads “A Million Stars” and “Silent Ways”, and the off-kilter eccentricity “Letter” so fresh and fun. There are plenty of serious lyrical moments too, as in “The Soldier” and “Revolution”; but, by and large, By Royal Decree is the sound of Stolt and company refreshed and revisiting their optimistic roots, soaring on the wings of one marvelous melody after another. It’s as much a joy to hear as it must have been to create.
Marillion, An Hour Before It’s Dark: The front half of Los Marillos’ first album in six years has more power — even swagger — than they’ve mustered in a while. On “Be Hard On Yourself”, “Reprogram the Gene” and “Murder Machines”, Mark Kelly’s keyboards lunge forward to lead the way; Pete Trewavas and Ian Mosley lay down driving grooves; Steve Rothery comes up with one killer guitar lead after another; and Steve Hogarth takes us on a tour of every vocal color he’s got. There are even verses and choruses in the midst of the usual free-floating structures! How to top that? A meditative back half that downshifts through the Leonard Cohen tribute “The Crow and the Nightgale” to the ineffable calm of “Sierra Leone”. And then the sweeping smashcut epic “Care”, zooming in on the power and tragedy of love in the face of mortality, topped off by Rothers’ most emotional solos, Hogarth’s most moving lyrics, and a stunning finale that sends power chords and massed choirs spiraling heavenward. 2016’s FEAR was always going to be a hard act to follow; if An Hour Before It’s Dark doesn’t top it, the qualitative difference between the two is probably too close to call. What matters is that Marillion has another thoroughly unique winner on their hands.
Brad Mehldau, Jacob’s Ladder: If you’re expecting an album of reverently correct covers here, be warned! Jazz piano giant Mehldau probes the essence of the prog he grew up on, mixing key reference points with intriguing, diffuse originals to portray what his liner notes label “the search for God.” The results are all over the place in the most interesting way. There’s tons of Mehldau’s trademark Romanticism in the opener “maybe as his skies are wide” and the luscious “(Entracte) Glam Perfume”; then again, there are the aggressive, Emersonian polymeters of “Herr and Knecht,” complete with growling synths and screamed vocals — in German — quoting Hegel on the master/slave dialectic! Gentle Giant’s “Cogs in Cogs” nestles between switched-on Baroque variations on its theme; “Tom Sawyer” (delicately sung by progressive bluegrass mandolinist Chris Thile) veers off-script into a mean and moody solo section; Periphery’s “Racecar” makes a surprisingly touching, Brazilian-inflected ballad. The title track frames the mid-section of another Rush tune with spoken-word collages referencing the implied Scriptural story, landing in a place of unexpected shock and awe. And as for the closer “Heaven”? If Mehldau really thinks that the divine soundtrack will include excerpts of Yes’ “Starship Trooper”, the musical argument he’s made on this album earns our indulgence. By no means easy listening; expect to be challenged — and rewarded — here.
Tears for Fears, The Tipping Point: Roland Orzbaal and Curtis Smith have always confronted struggle and suffering with the ecstasy inherent in the best pop music — whether by the synth-based minimalism of The Hurting, the monster hooks of Songs from the Big Chair, or the rock history summation of The Seeds of Love. Their catchy-as-always new album, coming together in the wake of multiple personal and professional crises, goes for catharsis via unstoppable rhythms and unforgettable choruses on every single track — the spaghetti-western-meets-Zeppelin-rock of “No Small Thing”, the earworm-heavy funk of “Break the Man”, the throbbing electro-glam of “My Demons” and “End of Night” are merely random examples. And when Orzbaal and Smith get intimate on the immersive gospel vibe of “Rivers of Mercy” and the nakedly vulnerable ballads “Please Be Happy” and “Stay”, they break your heart and seduce your sensibilities to boot. This is a lush, devastatingly beautiful collection of committed, uncompromising art-pop that will haunt you long after every listen.
Tiger Moth Tales, A Song of Spring: it seems that the wider world (or at least the wider prog world — The Bardic Depths, Camel and Cyan, to name a few) is finally glomming onto the breathtaking talents of singer/multi-instrumentalist Peter Jones. But Tiger Moth Tales has always been Jones’ main creative outlet; here, as on 2017 The Depths of Winter, he balances the whimsical drolleries and giddily deployed musicianship of “Spring Fever” and “The Mad March Hare” with heartfelt sentiment in the gorgeous ballad “The Goddess and the Green Man” and the extended closer “Light” (which winds up with a delectably liquid guitar solo by Camel’s Andy Latimer). There’s also a intriguing edge to darker tracks like “Forester” and “Dance ‘Til Death” — a nod to Stravinsky on the latter’s subject matter, perhaps? — along with a pinch of wanderlust on the globally-inclined “Holi” and “Rapa Nui.” Fellow DIY Brit-proggers John and Elizabeth Holden lend helping hands with production and lyrics; otherwise it’s all Jones on vocals, keys, sax, winds, guitars and drums. In its expanded range and its open-hearted expression, A Song of Spring proves another engaging tour de force for Jones; if you haven’t checked out TMT before, I’d argue that now’s the time!
— Rick Krueger