Six months in, 2022 is already shaping up as a banner year for new music. My own positive bias prevents me from objectively reviewing The Bardic Depths’ brand new album (though modesty doesn’t seem to prevent me mentioning it; I’m still stoked that I got to participate) — but there are still plenty of fresh releases to cover this time around! As usual, purchasing links are embedded in each artist/title listing; where available, album playlists or samples follow each review. But first, the latest installment in what’s becoming Progarchy’s Book of the Month Club . . .
Big Big Train – Between The Lines: The Story Of A Rock Band: when Greg Spawton and Andy Poole started a band, it didn’t stand out at first; one early concert promoter called the nascent Big Big Train “fairly mediocre” in retrospect. How BBT became a prog powerhouse — through sheer bloody-mindedness, growth in their craft and a keen ear for what world class musicians like Nick D’Virgilio, David Longdon and so many others could contribute — is the tale at the core of this passionately detailed band bio/coffee table book. Standout features include lavish design, with a overflow of revelatory photos; fully rounded portraits of major and minor participants, mostly unfolded through Grant Moon’s thorough interview work; and remarkable candor, especially in a self-published effort, about the human costs of BBT’s rise to genre prominence and mainstream media attention. (Moon’s portrayal of Spawton and Poole’s gradual estrangement, even as their joint project finally gathers speed, is both sensitive and haunting.) Between The Lines covers all of Big Big Train’s great leaps forward and forced backtracks through Longdon’s untimely death, leaving the reader with Spawton and his fellow survivors determined as ever to continue. Not shy about celebrating the beauty and ambition of the music the group has made, on record and in person, it also doesn’t flinch from portraying the price paid to scale those heights.
The Pineapple Thief, Give It Back: on which Gavin Harrison gives his new band’s vintage repertoire a kick up the backside with his stylish stick work, and Bruce Soord willingly “rewires” his own songs with new sections, verses and narrative closures. The results probe further into the moody motherlode that new-era TPT mines and refines: dramatic vignettes simmering with emotional turmoil; lean, mean guitar riffs arching over roiling keyboard textures; and always, those simultaneously airy and propulsive grooves. But while Soord and Harrison take the creative lead, this is a marvelously tight unit at work; Steve Kitch (keys) and Jon Sykes (bass and backing vocals) are indispensable contributors throughout. All of which makes Give It Back another enticing entry in the Thief’s discography — deceptively low-key on first impression, it blossoms into a compelling combination of tenderness and grit. (With plenty of headroom in the mastering to pump up the volume!)
Porcupine Tree, Closure/Continuation: The big news is that this is recognizably a Porcupine Tree album — that’s why, over repeated listens, it works so well. Steven Wilson is as happy and carefree as ever, cutting loose about fraught relationships (“Harridan”), nihilism in high places (“Rats Return”, “Walk the Plank”) and, of course, the inevitability of death (“Chimera Wreck”); plus there’s a spooky take on a Lovecraftian invasion (“Herd Culling”), a compassionate portrait of a man with nothing (“Dignity”) and a drop-dead gorgeous ballad that looks forward in hope and back in regret at the same time (“Of the New Day”). Still, it’s the reconstituted band, mostly writing the music in team formation, that gives the record its core integrity and guts. Wilson’s angular guitar and bass work, seemingly effortless songcraft and vocals that often climb to a wordless falsetto (a legacy of The Future Bites?) are perfectly swaddled in Richard Barbieri’s squelchy sound design and ineffably eerie synth solos, then hurtled forward by Gavin Harrison’s consummate percussive drive — whether he’s cruising the straightaways or leaning into jaw-dropping polyrhythmic curves. Of a piece if not conceptual, Closure/Continuation is never less than well-wrought and frequently awesome, worthy to stand alongside Porcupine Tree’s catalog as either a next or a final chapter in their saga. Now floating like a butterfly, now stinging like a bee, with commitment evident in every note, it may well knock you out.
The Smile, A Light for Attracting Attention: Let’s face it – when Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood tackle a side project, what comes out can’t help but sound like Radiohead. But in this instance, that’s a good thing! Yorke is overflowing with apocalyptic dread and existential anxiety as always, his ear for melody razor sharp, his singing leaning into a vocal serenity that offsets his frequently appalled lyrics. Greenwood’s off-kilter instincts for the perfect guitar lick, the perfect orchestral or electronic texture is keener than ever, fortified by recent forays into classical and jazz via the arthouse film soundtracks for Spencer and The Power of the Dog. On drums, Sons of Kemet’s Tom Skinner weaves loose, skittering beats that perfectly capture the neurotic stasis of “The Smoke” and “Waving a White Flag”, the uneasy musical seesaws of “Speech Bubbles” and “A Hairdryer”, the lunging drive of “You Will Never Work in Television Again” and “We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings”. Confronted by life today, The Smile step back in horror, shocked at the madness of it all; the seductive thrill of this album is in how its grim, lush sound world pulls us into their frame, absorbing the shock with them.
The Tangent, Songs from the Hard Shoulder: Bryan Morey goes into much more depth in his review, but to sum up: this is Andy Tillison and his merry men unleashed! Reflective and exuberant by turns, “The Changes” progs its way through lyrical meditations on road trips past, pandemics present and visions of what might come. “The GPS Vultures” is a full-on fusion delight, featuring riveting solo work by Theo Travis on woodwinds, Tillison on organ and Luke Machin on acoustic and electric guitars as Jonas Reingold and Steve Roberts hold down the low end with drive and panache (and plenty of cool band breakdowns along the way as well). With its darker sound, its unexpected soul music callbacks and Tillison’s pungent take on personal and cultural complicity in everyday tragedies, “The Lady Tied to the Lamp Post” rivets us, moves us — and even jolts us as it fades out. From which the brilliantly brief closer “Wasted Soul” offers a way forward, evoking joy just around unforseeable corners over its energized homage to Motown. Eclectic and restless in the best sense of both those words, Songs from the Hard Shoulder is a kaleidoscopic panorama caught in sound and song, thoroughbred music from a group at the peak of their powers. Oh, and get the version with the stunningly creative cover of UK’s “In the Dead of Night” as a bonus track.
Wilco, Cruel Country: after Wilco perversely crashed the rock mainstream with the avant-garde moves of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (to be reissued in multiple formats later this year), A Ghost Is Born and the live classic Kicking Television, what followed was a stream of thoughtfully detailed dad rock, tracking with Jeff Tweedy’s newly mature musings on life, family and art. While this double album certainly evokes Nashville and Bakersfield more than previous efforts, it’s not a real musical stretch from what’s gone before. What elevates it above Wilco’s recent work is the tactile interplay of the entire band live in the studio; on extended jams like “Bird Without A Tail/Base of My Skull” and “Many Worlds”, utility players Mikael Jorgenson and Pat Sansone step up and shine, with guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Glenn Kotche muting their typical spikiness in favor of a warm, sparkling group sound. And even though he’s confronted with the same societal brutality and anomie as The Smile, Tweedy’s songs opt for quizzical, empathetic exploration instead of caricature and disdain. Weaving around John Stirratt’s richly rounded bass lines, he invites one and all to “sing in the choir/With me” on the title track, calls out to a community of the disoriented with “All Across The World”, mocks his own pessimism throughout “Story to Tell” (“The world is always on the brink/And hearts are smarter than you think”) and inverts classic tropes for the backhanded confessional “Falling Apart (Right Now)” and the strangely chipper chat with Death “A Lifetime to Find.” Settle in for this one; it’s a record of genuine tenderness and subtlety that gathers strength and heart as it goes. Recommended without hesitation. (Currently available digitally and as a “Pre-Release Limited Edition” CD prepped for June’s Record Store Day drop; mass market vinyl & CD to follow.)
— Rick Krueger