Rick’s Quick Takes for August

It’s been another excellent month for new music. So let’s just cut to the chase, shall we? Purchase links are embedded in the artist/title listing; playlists or video samplers follow each review.

Dave Kerzner, The Traveler: A third concept album from Kerzner, continuing the through line of New World and Static (with nods to In Continuum’s Acceleration Theory lurking about as well). The opener “Another Lifetime” sets out this record’s remarkable strengths: confident, appealing songwriting with hooky yet sophisticated melodies and structures; Kerzner’s best, widest ranging vocals to date; and the perfectly judged contributions of Fernando Perdomo on guitar, Joe Deninzon on violin, Ruti Celli on cello and Marco Minneman on drums (only a smattering of the stellar guest list here). The dry, forward sound and the copious use of vintage keyboards on tunes like “A Time In Your Mind” evokes early-80s Genesis at times (since Kerzner got those keyboards from Tony Banks, no real surprise there), but the power ballad “Took It For Granted” and the closing suite framed by the two parts of “Here and Now” show Kerzner moving his character’s story forward while striking out in fresh musical directions like the sunshine guitar pop of “A Better Life”. Overall, Kerzner exhibits a lighter touch here, and The Traveler is the better for it; by letting his new songs sell themselves and keeping proceedings to the point, he both satisfies us and leaves us wanting more. After repeated listens, this one’s already on my “favorites of ’22” list!

Lonely Robot, A Model Life: John Mitchell has had a rough last few years, and he doesn’t care who knows it. In the wake of a global pandemic, the collapse of a long-term relationship, and a confrontation with his deepest doubts and fears, Mitchell’s done what he does best: slip into his Lonely Robot persona and pour it all out in a fine set of laterally structured, elegantly crafted, fearlessly emotional songs. Writing, singing and playing (especially in his rekindled relationship with the guitar solo) at peak inspiration, Mitchell lays the ghost of his former love (the nervy “Recalibrating”, the forlorn “Mandalay”), skewers our mad world (“Digital God Machine” and “Island of Misfit Toys”), mourns ways of lives and times now in the rearview mirror (the breathtaking ballad “Species in Transition”, the crunching elegy “Starlit Stardust”), and ponders how and why he became who he is (the brilliant final run of “Rain Kings”, “Duty of Care”, “In Memoriam”). Easily his best work under the Lonely Robot banner, Mitchell wears his heart on his sleeve and plays to the gallery at the same time; this is an outright spectacular effort that’s got both all the feels and all the chops. (Check out our latest interview with John Mitchell here.)

Motorpsycho, Ancient Astronauts: the kings of Norwegian drone-prog continue their enviable hot streak on their fifth album in six years. “We’re all a little bit insane,” Bent Saether chirps on the opener “The Ladder”, and as the track spirals upward, mingling the howl of Hans Magnus Ryan’s guitar and Saether’s darkly glimmering Mellotron, you believe him. The edgily abstract interlude “The Flower of Awareness” cleanses the palette for a Crimsonesque workout on “Mona Lisa/Azrael”; Ryan builds towering edifices of distortion over a trademark Saether riff, as drummer Tomas Jarmyr matches their ebb and flow all the way through the shuddering climax and the slo-mo collapse. Astonishingly, all this just serves as prologue to the “Chariot of the Sun: To Phaeton on the Occasion of the Sunrise (Theme from an Imagined Movie)” It’s as if Motorpsycho’s brief for this 22-minute finale was to rival “La Villa Strangiato” in both range and focus; gentle strumming and wordless vocals give way to more menacing bass riffs, fuzz guitar deployed in duet and counterpoint, feral percussive cross-rhythms. It all mounts to multiple climaxes (a mighty unison riff, ominous post-rock minimalism) that circle back to end with the melancholy lyricism that kicked it all off. Ancient Astronauts is a genuinely thrilling ride; strap in and brace yourself for liftoff.

Muse, Will of the People: they’re baaack!!!!!! And as usual, Matt Bellamy, Chris Wolstenholme and Dominic Howard earn every one of those exclamation points. The guitars and drums are turned up to 12, the classical keyboard licks pack double the bombast (including a Bach “Toccata and Fugue” steal), the electronica wallows in creepshow kitsch, the vacuum-packed harmonies are piled even higher, and the gang chants are bellowed louder than ever. All this sound and fury portrays a world on the brink, an elite obsessed with control, and a populace angry that the game is rigged. Still, it’s hard to know who Bellamy is rooting for; at times, his lyrics and driven singing seem equally repulsed by both the leaders (“Compliance”, Kill or Be Killed”) and the led (the title track and “Euphoria”). But in the end, this is quite the slamming album; if you’re in the mood for existential desperation set to one badass, air-guitarable riff and singalong chorus after another — and these days, who isn’t? — this just may be your ticket. Might want to only play that obscenity-laden final track when no one else is around, though.

Ryo Okumoto, The Myth of the Mostrophus: Spock’s Beard keyboardist Okumoto brings his A-game to his first solo album in 20 years. And he’s got plenty of talented sidekicks — his ProgJect compatriots Jonathan Mover, Mike Keneally and Michael Sadler; all the current Beard members plus alumnus Nick D’Virgilio on vocals; freelance shredders from Randy McStine to Doug Wimbush of Living Colour. But the key contributor is lyricist/vocalist Michael Whiteman from BritLit proggers I Am The Manic Whale; his eccentric, didactic sci-fi narratives sparkle with a dry wit that’s a winning match for Okumoto’s high-spirited compositions and irrepressible solo flair. It all comes together on the extended title track, as the Beard spins out Whiteman’s gleefully overripe tale: confronted by an ancient, reawakened monster, the good people of Basingstoke, England have only a professor of archaeology and “a singer in a prog-rock band” standing between them and oblivion. (All set to the strains of Okumoto’s Hammond B-3, MiniMoog and occasional Genesis quotes on Mellotron.) A heaping helping of spirited melodrama served up with a wink or three, The Myth of the Mostrophus is a blast in every sense of the word.

SiX by SiX: What sheer fun this album is! Saga’s Ian Crichton peels off one tasty guitar lick after another; Robert Berry of 3 and 3.2 packs Crichton’s playing into accessible yet ambitious song forms, laying down a firm foundation on bass and keys while belting out heroic vocals; Saxon drummer Nigel Glockler keeps the beat rock solid while indulging in the occasional “did he really just do that?” fill. The name might be a bit gimmicky, but SiX by SiX have the musical and lyrical substance to back up any braggadocio that’s implied. The aspirational drive of “Yearning to Fly” and “The Upside of Down”, quieter moments like the evocative Highland fling of “Reason to Feel Calm Again” and the acoustic “Live Forever”, and full-bore rockers such as “China” and “Save the Night” show that this new group has talent, ideas and chemistry to burn. Much more than a throwback to hard rock’s heyday, Crichton, Berry and Glockler give the power trio format a wickedly enjoyable spin for the 2020s. Give this a try — and don’t be surprised if find yourself grinning while you listen. (And check out our interview with Robert Berry here.)

Sun’s Signature: Elizabeth Fraser, best known as the singer for the Cocteau Twins (though I first heard her on one of the Lord of the Rings soundtracks) has that rarest of gifts in the pop world — a genuinely beautiful voice, with an innate lyric sensibility to match. Working in tandem with partner Damon Reece (percussionist for Massive Attack), she’s crafted an EP’s worth of sheer delight, that owes as much to the world of film scores as it does to any of her past work. Five rich explorations of the sublime — lavishly detailed sonics and arrangements, collages of words that evoke both exalted inner states and the down-to-earth moments of magic stumbled across in daily life. For prog fans, the icing on the cake will be the unmistakable guitar work of Steve Hackett, whether he’s backing Fraser on 12-string (“Underwater” and “Apples”), duetting with her on Spanish guitar (“Make Lovely the Day”) or launching barrages of his trademark sustained electric leads (“Underwater”, “Golden Air”, “Bluedusk”, “Apples” — wait, that’s almost the whole thing!). Recommended without hesitation, whether you’re a lifelong Fraser fan or have never heard of her; this is life-enhancing, thoroughly exquisite stuff.

The Tedeschi Trucks Band, I Am the Moon: the TTB’s band potent fusion of Southern rock and the jam band ethos hasn’t featured in these parts before. But if following up their live recording of Derek and the Dominoes’ Layla with a 24-track concept album released in four “episodes” (based on the medieval poem that inspired Eric Clapton’s masterwork, no less) doesn’t merit a mention here, I don’t know what would! Beyond the sheer scope of the idea and the richly nuanced arc of Layla and Majnun’s star-crossed romance, there are acres of gorgeous sounds to explore here: the spacious workout of “Pasaquan” on Episode I, Crescent; the meditative drift of “All the Love” that gives Episode II, Ascension, breathing space; the soaring, rootsy songcraft that builds through Episode III, The Fall. And happily, the final Episode, Farewell, sticks its bittersweet landing, from the elegiac “Soul Sweet Song” to the lovely epilogue “Another Day”. Credit where it’s due: to Derek Trucks’ breathtaking slide work, Susan Tedeschi and Mike Mattison’s sensitive, soulful vocals, and the supple, dynamic punch of the thirteen piece band in full flight. A seriously fun musical trip, slightly off the beaten path — which means it could be right up your alley.

— Rick Krueger

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