Rick’s Quick Takes for January

Starting out with a burner from 2022 that just arrived due to the ongoing vagaries of overseas shipping: Norwegian guitarist Hedvig Mollestad connects with the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra for the conceptual Maternity Beat. As on her previous collaborative jazz-rock projects Ekhidna and Tempest Revisited, Mollestad’s writing runs the gamut, from thrusting dash through tribal fusion getdowns and chamber interplay to a glorious finale that ratchets up to a blazing climax. And her playing is as creative and involving as ever, ranging from the gutbucket blues and skronky feedback of “Do Re Mi Ma Ma” to the gliding, Jeff Beck-ish boogie of “All Flights Cancelled” and beyond. Another winner from this impressive musician that grows more immersive the more you listen.

Even with his relocation from New York City to Toledo, Spain this year, impresario Leonardo Pavkovic has kept MoonJune Records churning out first rate albums that consistently ride the cutting edge of possible musics. In the most recent batch of MoonJune releases, Sonar guitarist Stephan Thelen returns with Fractal Guitar 3, another winning album of intriguing compositions that create harmony and structure via the interaction of cyclic time and minimalist melodies; touch guitarist Markus Reuter teams with multi-instrumentalist Tim Motzer and drummer Kenny Growhoski for Bleed, a bold, grungy set of abstract pieces drawn from free improvisation; Anchor & Burden (Reuter’s “European supergroup” featuring drummer extraordinaire Asaf Sirkis) weighs in with Kosmonautik Pilgrimage, monumentally turbulent full improv with Lovecraftian artwork and titles to match its swirling, heavy vibe; and Duo Atanatovski (a Slovenian father and son on guitar/cello and winds) team with a rhythm section for the radiant Liberté Toujours, an album of soaring, propulsive jazz that I guarantee will lift your spirits. The best way to catch all the action on MoonJune is a yearly subscription at Bandcamp.

On a whim (admittedly nudged by a recommendation from allmusic.com), I checked out Guided by Voices’ brand new La La Land and was instantly captivated. The brainchild and main musical vehicle of Dayton Ohio guitarist and singer Robert Pollard, the band is known for its insanely prolific output (the current lineup has released 14 albums in the last 5 years), slamming home musical earworms laced with whimsical, elusive lyrics aplenty in a devil-may-care blend of the British invasion, low-fi punk-pop and just the right amount of psych-prog garnish. In the past, GbV’s releases lacked a certain quality control, but recent albums seem to be all killer, no filler: here the air-tight riffs lodge directly in your pleasure centers; Pollard reels off irresistible chorus after irresistible chorus in a delightfully mannered, indeterminate accent; and expansive efforts like the pretty acoustic tune “Queen of Spaces” and the off-kilter, multi-part build of “Slowly On the Wheel” offset the short, sharp shocks of the opening “Another Day to Heal” and the Beatlesque “Ballroom Etiquette”. Well worth exploring, but mind stepping too far into the whirlpool …

I’ve got to agree with Bryan that Riverside’s latest, ID.Entity, is a strong contender for “best of the year” status, even this early in the game. This is hooky, hard art-rock (metallic around the edges) with a compelling sense of ebb and flow — not to mention plenty of high-power guitar and keyboard heroics. What makes the blend especially savory here is Mariusz Duda’s vocals; wistfully edgy, drily sardonic and bluntly dismissive by turns, his melancholy meditations on a divided world with no place left to hide grab and shake you, whether you want to see the pictures he’s painting or not. Definitely up to Progarchy’s favorite Polish proggers’ high standards, with the potential to rope in fans of a recent vintage — like me — as well. (Need to catch up on Duda and company? The 2021 online compilation 20 – The Shorts and the Longs might be your ticket.)

Always ready to bring a bit of reconfigured retro flash into here and now, Andy Tillison has opened wide The Tangent’s vaults for an old-school “triple-live” album, Pyramids, Stars and Other Stories. The release kicks off with a soul-stirring 2004 set, as the original lineup (including Roine Stolt) powers through early classics like “The World That We Drive Through” and “The Music That Died Alone”. Add a substantial serving of later songs and instrumentals performed by equally gifted lineups on the 2012 UK and the 2017 US tours (the last of which I was privileged to see at Chicago’s Progtoberfest), and you have 2 1/2 hours of back-catalog gems delivered in grand style. I gleefully gulped down the whole thing in one sitting; Tillison’s non-stop compositional eclecticism and his unquenchable penchant for speaking (well, singing) his mind delight from beginning to end, and his compatriots step up to match his commitment throughout. On their game, The Tangent’s devotion to music and their appeal to our consciences point us to the best of what we are and what we can be; here, they hit peak form throughout, with any rough edges only adding to their appeal. This generous set is both a first-rate introduction for new listeners and an essential item for hard core fans. In addition to purchasing the album through the usual outlets, you can still support the band directly and pre-order a limited number of signed copies here.

— Rick Krueger

In Concert: A Night of Michigan Prog Metal

Entransient Album Release Party with Imminent Sonic Destruction and Paradigm Shifter, The Pyramid Scheme, Grand Rapids Michigan, January 14, 2023

I gotta admit, it was first-class fun to reconnect with fellow members of the (extremely informal) West Michigan Prog Posse, checking out three homegrown bands at this local 400-capacity venue.

First up was the Grand Rapids-based Paradigm Shifter, self-described as “an instrumental Metal band taking influences from Hardcore and Progressive metal.” This young trio had chops galore and plenty of decent ideas packed into titles like “Hammer Down” and “Primal Fear”. To this old-codger-in-training, it reminded me (in a good way!) of surf music like “Wipe Out” and “Pipeline” — though played with droptuned, heavily distorted 7-string guitars. The band’s current limitations (computerized drums, extended re-tuning covered by pre-recorded interludes) certainly aren’t impossible to overcome, and if they took their guitar hero posing a trifle too seriously — well, haven’t we all at one time or another? Changing pace for “Leap of Faith”, a rap-rock finale with guest vocalists that sounded like a Linkin Park comeback, Paradigm Shifter was a solid opener, offering something for everyone in a remarkably youthful crowd.

Imminent Sonic Destruction, a Detroit progressive metal band of 15 years vintage, was up next, with the melodramatic oratory of British sci-fi author Michael Moorcock ringing in our ears. Gleefully self-aware as they took the stage, ISD quickly cued us in that their music is completely over the top, and that they’re in on any potential silliness right along with us. Ping-ponging between extravagant, multi-part headbangers, complete with cookie monster vocals (“With Death This Story Ends”, “The Fog”) and tightly harmonized, symphonic power ballads (“Solitude” and the title track from their latest album The Sun Will Always Set) guitarists Tony Piccoli (also a game lead vocalist) and Scott David Thompson (a key harmonizer), bassist Bryan Paxton (doing the growls), keyboardist Pete Hopersberger (pleasingly prominent in the mix vocally and instrumentally) and drummer Pat DeLeon (also of Motor City proggers Tiles) provided one pile driving good time!

And then there was the evening’s hosts Entransient, who I’ve written about previously, both live (opening for Thank You Scientist and Bent Knee at the Pyramid Scheme) and on record (their fine new album Ghosts in the Halls) Tonight, they opted for a slow build, starting with an acoustic mini-set — complete with cello — before firing the big guns. Their consistently sharp songwriting had the broadest range of the night’s bands, as guitarists Nick Hagen and Doug Murray, bassist Matt Schrauben and drummer Jeremy Hyde whipped up a compelling blend of light & shade. And while it took vocalist Scott Martin a few tunes to get the measure of the room, he swiftly hit peak form, belting out new tracks like “Parasite” and “Synergize” along with setlist standbys like “The Weight of Things”. Plus, in the night’s coolest moment, the band played “Take What’s Left” from their debut album — featuring Hagen’s dad Tom, on the most metal clarinet solo I am ever likely to hear.

In between bands, the talk at our table turned to that evergreen topic, the future of progressive music in general and progressive rock in particular. One of my friends made two points: 1) the genre has to take root amongst younger generations for it to prosper, and; 2) the heavier edge that Fate’s Warning and Dream Theater brought into the mix is probably a core component in that future prosperity. Based on the strong performances by all three of the night’s bands and the demographics of the 150-175 people at the show, I have to agree; the heavy is here to stay!

— Rick Krueger

Kruekutt’s 2022 Favorites

A few notes before I dive in: items I’ve reviewed here are linked to the relevant Progarchy article via the artist/album title; If I didn’t review an item here or elsewhere, it’s marked with an asterisk (*) — but I hope the capsule description and listening/order links will encourage you to check it out!

My favorite new music of 2022:

  • Dave Bainbridge, To The Far Away: A thrilling, ravishingly beautiful album about love, longing, hope and a future. Lyrics of rich simplicity cradled in a lush orchestral blend of rock, prog and Celtic folk. My interview with Bainbridge is here.
  • Big Big Train, Welcome to the Planet: what turned out to be BBT’s final effort with the late David Longdon consolidates the widened horizons of Grand Tour and the intimate subjects of Common Ground, casting an epic light on the everyday glory of family, community, joy and loss.
  • Cosmograf, Heroic Materials: Elegiac in its evocation of past achievements, urgent in its contemporary call to action, breathtaking in its poised blend of fragility and strength, Robin Armstrong’s latest is a riveting listen.
  • The Flower Kings, By Royal Decree: TFK’s third double album in a row, this is the sound of Roine Stolt and company refreshed and revisiting their optimistic roots, soaring on the wings of one marvelous melody after another. As much a joy to hear as it must have been to create.
  • Mary Halvorson, Amaryllis & Belladonna: free jazz guitarist Halvorson hits a major label with two albums — teaming with a boisterously simpatico sextet on Amaryllis, then dancing atop and around modern classical textures from the Mivos Quartet on Belladonna. Audacious and engrossing, this music will open your ears real good!
  • Dave Kerzner, The Traveller: confident, appealing songwriting with hooky yet sophisticated melodies and structures, Kerzner’s best, widest ranging vocals to date and perfectly judged contributions from a stellar guest list. Letting his new songs sell themselves and keeping proceedings to the point, he both satisfies us and leaves us wanting more. 
  • The Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio, Cold As Weiss: An immediately accessible reboot of a classic jazz trio format. Organist Lamarr, guitarist Jimmy James and drummer Daniel Weiss are thrilling players who never fail to make their instruments sing. Funky, catchy bite-size tracks with great individual playing and razor sharp ensemble. 
  • Marillion, An Hour Before It’s Dark: The front half of Los Marillos’ latest has more swagger than they’ve mustered in a while; the back half’s meditative downshift climaxes with the sweeping smashcut finale “Care,” as power chords and massed choirs climb heavenward. Unique as anything in their catalog, and another thoroughbred winner.
  • Pure Reason Revolution, Above Cirrus: this fifth album reveals PRR at their best, consistently upping their game to the next level. For every moment of blissful harmonies and glidepath atmospherics, there’s an equal and opposite moment of feral guitar/drum slammin’ — and when they layer the two together, look out! Well worth buckling up for the ride.
  • The Smile, A Light For Attracting Attention: A Radiohead side project worth your while. Thom Yorke overflows with apocalyptic dread; Jonny Greenwood’s off-kilter instrumental instincts are keener than ever; Tom Skinner’s skittering beats relentlessly drive the grim, lush soundscapes forward. Music for our contemporary dystopia, irresistibly sucking you in.
  • Tears For Fears, The Tipping Point: Roland Orzbaal & Curtis Smith’s catchy-as-always comeback goes for catharsis via unstoppable rhythms, unforgettable choruses and naked vulnerability on every single track, Devastatingly gorgeous, uncompromising art-pop that will haunt you long after every listen.
  • And my Top Favorite of the year — Wilco, Cruel Country. A double set that detours from Jeff Tweedy’s thoughtful dad-rock toward Nashville and Bakersfield, the tactile interplay of the band and Tweedy’s quizzical, empathetic probes of societal alienation elevate this to an album of genuine tenderness and subtlety, gathering strength and heart as it unrolls. After a digital-only release this year, it’s finally coming out on LP and CD January 20!

My favorite reissues of 2022:

  • The Beatles, Revolver Special Edition*: No Revolver, no Sergeant Pepper — no prog? Regardless of what ifs, the Fabs’ great leap forward of 1966 was brilliant in its own right, dragging pop headlong toward the avant-garde. Here it gets a subtle yet effective remix, with fascinating studio outtakes framing the cutting-edge results.
  • Tim Bowness & Giancarlo Erra, Memories of Machines: an irresistible mix of unflinchingly intimate art-rock and lowering ambient backdrops. Ten years on, original arrangements and track lengths are restored, Erra’s textural work is inched forward — and as always, Bowness breaks your heart with his ringing couplets and his stoic voice.
  • My Top Favorite Reissue of the year: Robert Fripp, Exposure/Exposures. The guitarist’s 1979 return to active duty after a post-King Crimson sabbatical, binding together a disparate set of songs and guest artists with his innovative ambient Frippertronics. Whether by itself or as part of a gargantuan box set that chronicles Fripp’s entire “Drive to 1981,” it’s a wild, worthwhile listen in and of itself, while providing distinctive previews of coming attractions.
  • Marillion, Holidays in Eden Deluxe Edition*: my introduction to the band (I first saw them live on the US tour promoting the album), Holidays was partially a product of record company pressure for hit singles, but it also has plenty of Marillion’s trademark ambition, power and lyricism. A fresh remix complemented by exciting live shows on both audio and video.
  • Soft Machine, Bundles*: Add blazing young guitarist Allan Holdsworth to one of the pioneering British jazz-rock bands, stir in quirky compositions by keyboardists Karl Jenkins and Mike Ratledge, and stand by for fireworks! This fresh reissue also includes a hot live set featuring Holdsworth’s successor John Ethridge (still active with the Softs today).
  • Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Super Deluxe Edition*: The album that put Wilco on the map (after they were dropped by their label), YHF mutated from Americana through dream-pop to electronica-tinged folk-rock as band members and producers came and went. Eight discs that copiously chronicle the recording process, plus blistering two live sets.

My favorite (re)discoveries of 2022:

My favorite live album of 2022: Big Big Train, Summer Shall Not Fade*. Equal parts power and grace, BBT’s 2018 headlining gig at Germany’s Night of the Prog may be their best live release yet. Playing to their largest crowd ever, David Longdon commands the stage; Greg Spawton and Nick D’Virgilio provide a muscular foundation; Dave Gregory, Rikard Sjobom, Danny Manners and Rachel Hall serve up one delightful moment after another. Bryan Morey’s review nails it; this is indispensable.

My favorite rock documentary of 2022: In The Court of the Crimson King: King Crimson at 50*. The most unconventional band of the last five decades gets the most unconventional documentary possible. Crims past and present weigh in on “living, dying, laughing, playing and rocking out”, with Robert Fripp providing the ever-present focal point in a particularly puckish fashion. There’s also a deluxe edition with live Crimson video (both in the studio and at 2019’s Rock in Rio festival) and four bonus CDs of soundtrack cuts, rarities, etc.

My favorite books about music of 2022:

  • Vashti Bunyan, Wayward: Just Another Life to Live. Singer-songwriter Bunyan’s unlikely late-60s odyssey from Swinging London to the Hebrides forms the heart of this evocative narrative. Laboriously traversing the heart of England, she gains understanding of the natural world, of human kindness and cruelty — and of her own sturdy inner core.
  • Dan Charnas (with musical analysis by Jeff Peretz), Dilla Time: The Life And Afterlife Of J Dilla, The Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm*. In Charnas’ telling, Dilla emerges as an innovator who laid down new paths for neo-soul and conceptual hip-hop, via his subtle yet unsettling variations on previously straight-up rhythms. Peretz’s equally innovative graphic depictions of rhythmic innovations across the decades buttress the page-turning narrative.
  • Robert Fripp, The Guitar Circle*. More a philosophical tome than a how-to book, though still remarkably practical, Fripp’s highly conceptual explanation of his process (as unfolded in Guitar Craft courses and Guitar Circles) won’t be for everyone. But those who dig in will grasp where this eternally questing musician is coming from better than ever before.
  • David Leaf, God Only Knows: The Story of Brian Wilson, The Beach Boys And The California Myth*. The third edition of Leaf’s lifework chronicles The Beach Boys’ journey from surf-rock through eccentric art-pop to the dead end of nostalgia, then sidesteps to Wilson’s solo comeback, culminating in the completion of his masterwork Smile. Not in the least objective, but comprehensive, even-handed toward the rest of The Beach Boys, and heartfelt.
  • Grant Moon, Big Big Train – Between The Lines: The Story Of A Rock Band. How BBT became a prog powerhouse — through sheer bloody-mindedness, growth in craft and a keen ear for musical contributors — is the tale told in this richly detailed bio/coffee table tome. Both a celebration of the music made and an unflinching look at the price paid for a dream.

And in closing . . .

If you’re interested, check out these recordings I played or sang on that were released in 2022:

— Rick Krueger

The Progarchy Interview: Aaron Emerson and Chris Welch on Keith Emerson

Rocket 88’s new biography of prog pioneer keyboardist Keith Emerson has been getting a lot of attention in these parts. Last week it was my privilege to talk with Chris Welch (the venerated British music journalist who assembled the new book) and Keith’s oldest son Aaron. Their reminiscences of the man and their insight into putting together a unique kind of biography made for an animated, engaging, enjoyable conversation! A full transcription follows the video.

So, it’s great to talk to Chris Welch, legendary music journalist, and Aaron Emerson, son of the even more legendary keyboardist Keith Emerson, regarding the new book that Rocket 88 is putting out!  I’m waiting for my hard copy, but I’ve also seen a preview copy, and it’s just a sumptuous book, with so much wonderful insight and information.  So, my first question is: how did this new book come about, and where did each of you become involved in the process of putting it together?

Chris Welch [CW]: Shall I start, Aaron?

Aaron Emerson [AE]: Go ahead, yeah.

CW: Great.  I was approached by the publisher last year, Rocket 88, and they told me about – they do some wonderful other books on rock music; you’ve probably seen them.  And the format they wanted was interviews with all the family and fellow musicians.  And the idea was to do a real portrait of Keith’s life.  And that was the best way to do it, in the words of the people that knew him best.  My job was to assemble the interviews, do all the talking and recording the interviews, and that took a long time, actually.

And of course, it’s quite emotional talking to family members about their loss, about their husband, their father, grandfather and friend.  So was quite an emotional process, I have to say.  But I was glad I did it; I was very proud and pleased to see the result, actually.

Aaron, do you have anything to add to that?

AE: Many years ago, my dad released a biography called Pictures of An Exhibitionist.  And it was up to that point.  And I know he was always wanting the story to continue.  And when we were going through, selling things like  – in the attic there was so much of pictures and newspaper clippings that he’d kept all these years, and all stored up.  And when the idea was brought up, I thought it was a great idea to put it all together like a coffee table book.  So, it’s like a biography, but everyone gets a chance to talk about their experience with Dad, and how his life effected them.

So, you hear many stories, and put together with many pictures not seen before, which I thought was a nice thing to do.

Yes, the results, as I said – it’s a gorgeous book.  Aaron, you and I talked a bit about who you talked to, and who you may have inadvertently missed talking to.  But my other question is, what was the range of reactions when you asked people about Keith Emerson?

AE:  Everyone jumped to do it!  Everybody wanted to join; everybody wanted to have a chat and talk.  There was just too many people; we got everyone in there, and everyone’s got lovely things to say. Go ahead, Chris.

CW: I was very surprised to talk to Jeff “Skunk” Baxter in particular, who obviously was famous for his work with Steely Dan.  I remember interviewing him years ago.  And it was great to know that he formed a friendship, a relationship with Keith when they formed a band [The Best] that played — only in Tokyo, I think it was.  A great sort of a supergroup that they’d got together. 

And he was full of praise for Keith, and called him the greatest keyboard player in the world!   Coming from someone from his background, his reputation, that was a great tribute, I thought.  It was great to hear an American musician praising a British musician, because American musicians tend to be the groundsetters, the pacesetters, and the best in the world anywhere.  But for him to say Keith was one of the best is really nice!  I was very impressed.

I remember at the tribute concert I have the video of, and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter did this amazing chicken-pickin’ solo on “Hoedown”, which was absolutely perfect for the context!   But as you say, the worldwide respect [Keith] had as a musician is so core to, I think, his long-lasting appeal. 

Chris, you got to know Keith beginning in the 1960s as I understand, just as the progressive tendencies on that British rock scene were accelerating.  What, in your view, was his ultimate influence on that scene?  What kind of role did he carve out for himself?

CW: In that era, the early rock scene in the 60s — there were a lot of keyboard players in that stage in London, where I was based.  There were bands like the Graham Bond Organisation and Brian Auger’s Trinity, Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames.  So, the Hammond organ was very popular, but mainly as a kind of jazz instrument, rhythm and blues.  When Keith came along, he introduced so many different facets to using the Hammond organ to introduce classical music.  He was a master of all of that!

So, the combination of his feeling for rock and roll, jazz, blues and classical music, this was quite new and refreshing, I thought.  And it came to a head with The Nice, which I saw in its very early days, actually.

I could tell you a quick story about the first time I met Keith.  Whenever you’d meet Keith, he always had a piano somewhere near him!  Surrounded by keyboards and pianos.  The piano was the central point of his life.  When I first met him, it was in a flat in Earls Court in London — in David O’List’s flat, he wasthe guitar player in The Nice.  The first time I met him, he didn’t say anything; he just sat down at the piano and played [Dave Brubeck’s] “Blue Rondo a La Turk”.  That was the introduction; that’s the way he talked to people was through the piano!

Of course, he was quite shy, actually, a quite shy person.  Hard to believe when you saw him leaping about onstage.  But he could be quiet.  But we always got so very well!  That was our first meeting; he played me the piano.

Let me ask one more quick follow-up.  From The Nice, he moved on to Emerson, Lake and Palmer, which was probably, at least in terms of worldwide fame and impact – I guess to call it the height of his career is the best I can come up with, though I don’t think it’s adequate.  Did that period, especially the early 70s where it seemed like ELP could do no wrong – did that period change him at all?  How did he cope with what I imagine was a great deal of added pressure?

CW:  In a funny way, I think ELP gave Keith more confidence.  He was growing frustrated with The Nice, because he had all these ideas.  And they were great musicians and all friends.  Keith hated the idea of breaking up The Nice, but it was something he felt he had to do, if only to express all the ideas.  He wanted to be a composer as well as a man famed for jumping about with knives and a dagger! [Laughs]

That wasn’t Keith at all really – he was really into composing, writing, creating music, tackling ideas that other people had.  He had great respect for the great classical composers.  Eventually they accepted him, the ones that were still alive!  Living composers like Aaron [Copland], the man who wrote “Fanfare [For the Common Man]”.

Yes, to have the respect of Copland and [Alberto] Ginastera, I’m sure was incredibly fulfilling for him.

CW: Yes, so, that’s what Keith wanted.

AE: “Creole Dance” [by Ginastera] is one of my favorites.  When I saw him play that, it was a fantastic song!

Yes, I heard him do that live with [Greg] Lake and [Cozy] Powell and it was mind-blowing.  Aaron, you had a very different experience.  Your first impression of your dad, well, was as your dad!  I guess I have to ask you overall, what was he like as a father?

Continue reading “The Progarchy Interview: Aaron Emerson and Chris Welch on Keith Emerson”

Rocket 88’s “Keith Emerson”: Man and Myth in Images and Words

Keith Emerson was one of my most lasting musical heroes. His swashbuckling performance style, his virtuosic playing and his remarkable compositional mix of aggression and lyricism turned my head at the tender age of 16, sending me headlong into the vintage highlights of Emerson Lake and Palmer’s catalog, along with their numerous attempts to recapture lightning in a bottle over the decades. So when Emerson committed suicide on the eve of a Japanese tour in early 2016, it hurt — and none of the tributes to the musician and the man that followed could completely take away the sting.

Emerson’s career in and contributions to ELP have been well served in print throughout the years – there’s the fan-based band bio The Show That Never Ends, Edward Macan’s in-depth musical analysis Endless Enigma and Emo’s own bawdy, devil-may-care memoir Pictures of an Exhibitionist. Now, the British publishers Rocket 88 (who issued an “as-told-by” ELP book last year) are about to release Keith Emerson, “A lavish, fully illustrated book in which family, friends, colleagues, and fans talk to author Chris Welch about [his] life, work, and legacy.”

Rocket 88, whose fine books on Porcupine Tree and Talk Talk already grace my shelves, have done a first-class job. Scoff at the coffee table book format if you choose, but the mouthwateringly rich treasury of images — ranging from family and early professional snaps of a young Keith to widescreen shots of him in his pomp onstage — turns out to be utterly essential to the story told here. Long-standing rock journalist Welch, who knew Emerson throughout his career, proves a strong enough focal figure for the narrative to hold its own; without putting himself forward, he’s consistently able to coax out both the outline of Emo’s life and the raw material behind his myth through interviews with his partners, children and grandchildren (two of whom have followed in his footsteps as piano players), relatives, colleagues and peers in the music industry.

The tale told here is one of a life lived with bracing gusto and deep devotion to the muse — but also a life into which shadows fell, then gathered. In the wake of ELP’s late-1970s meltdown, Emerson bounced from project to project — solo albums, film soundtracks, a joint project with Greg Lake and drummer Cozy Powell (who I caught live in 1986), the trio 3 with Carl Palmer and Robert Berry — none of which gained lasting traction. The ELP reunion in the early 1990s (which I saw in concert in 1993) showed promise; but brought down by the rise of grunge and cumulative nerve damage to Emerson’s right hand from years of driven playing, it shrank to opening act status for Jethro Tull and Dream Theater, with the plug pulled after the trio disagreed on production credits for a comeback album.

Here’s where the book becomes most revealing, especially as Emerson’s later partners, guitarist/vocalists Dave Kilminster and Marc Bonilla, detail their experiences. Briefly reviving his innovative late-60s band The Nice, then manfully working to re-establish himself as a solo artist, Emerson’s stars refused to align; first Kilminster (who I saw with Emerson opening for Scorpions and Tesla in 2004) was poached by Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, then Emo’s follow-up tour with Bonilla (promoting an excellent 2008 album) was cut short by focal dystonia in his right hand. From out of the blue, ELP pulled together one more time for a London festival show in 2010, winning acclaim despite Emerson’s physical problems and growing stage fright. But in the wake of Palmer’s refusal to continue and unexpected major illness for Emerson, nothing further followed.

There were alternatives afoot, as Emerson began an intriguing transition to orchestral conducting. And he continued to be loved and valued by the musical community in Los Angeles, where he’d settled with longtime partner Mari Kawaguchi. His spontaneous sense of fun, his love for his family, and his constant flow of new musical ideas all remained. But growing depression poorly treated, an increasing aversion to demanding Internet-based fans, and a hectic schedule with little to show for it all took their toll — and on March 11, 2016, a final spiral of despair led to tragedy in the classic sense. Keith Emerson, brought low by the thought of the heights he’d once scaled and his inability to live up to the standards he’d previously set, took his own life.

The impact of that tragedy still lingers, and it undeniably colors the final chapter of Keith Emerson, as his family and friends struggle to make sense of life without Emerson and remember the joy he brought into their lives as a musician and a human being. Their reminiscences and their mourning, as much as anything in this compelling book, bring the man out from behind the shadows of the myth, where he ultimately wins our respect and empathy. In the end, it’s this eyewitness testimony of Emerson’s triumphs and struggles — the highs and lows of a regular guy thrust into a larger than life story — that make the book well worth reading for fans of ELP in particular and of progressive rock in general.

Classic and limited Signature Editions of Keith Emerson can be purchased directly from Rocket 88, with November delivery currently expected.

— Rick Krueger

Rick’s Best of the Decade

I’ve kept a spiral-bound notebook titled “Core Discs: The Honor Roll” since the mid-1990s, when I was deeply into a classical music binge at the height of that genre’s last recording boom. Over the years, as I migrated through jazz (courtesy of the Ken Burns documentary) and country/folk (blame Johnny Cash & Leonard Cohen) back into my earlier love of rock, I find it intriguing that my picks started shifting in tandem with the prog revival of the 21st century, long before I started writing for this site in 2017. But unlike Bryan’s methodology for finalizing his excellent list, when I sat down to pick my ten favorite albums of the last ten years, I looked at my top favorite for each year and said, “yeah, those are all still up there.” Which is why I also decided to just list them by the year of their release (not always the year I first heard them) instead of ranking them from 10 to 1. (Oh, and links to my original reviews are embedded in the artist/album listing from 2017 onward.)

It’s true that, in more recent years, my picks have been busting out of genre boundaries — but, if you’ve been generous enough to sample my wares before, you’ve probably figured that out. And hey, if such a tendency isn’t progressive, then what is? Whether the following list confirms or challenges your preconceptions of “what’s prog”, I fervently believe that every one of these albums is worth checking out — but be warned, your mileage may vary!

So, without further adieu:

2012 – Flying Colors: gotta agree with Time Lord here — this one’s a total winner from start to finish. Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy had captivated me long before this with the first three Transatlantic releases and Morse’s two Testimony albums, but Flying Colors showcased an even broader stylistic range, from the Beatlesque “Fool In My Heart” through the retro-80s prog-pop vibe of “Blue Ocean” and “Kayla” to the cutting-edge Museings of “Shoulda Coulda Woulda” and “All Fall Down”. The album also proved that Morse and Portnoy know how to pick collaborators! Guitarist Steve Morse applied his unique mix of Southern-fried chicken pickin’, fusion a la Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and Purpleish power riffs to winning effect (solidly supported by his longtime bassist Dave LaRue), and vocalist Casey McPherson proved he could run with the big boys, stirring fresh melodic and lyrical flavors into every track, including more familiar constructions like the inspirational “The Storm” and the epic finale “Infinite Fire”. This one also gets nostalgia points for being available at Best Buy stores back in the day (remember when you could get CDs there?).

2013 – Big Big Train, English Electric Full Power: OK, I actually didn’t discover this one until 2016, when the BBT bug finally bit me — more on this in a future post. And while I sort of wish I had done so earlier, maybe hearing EEFP on the British trip my wife and I took the year it was released would have been too much of a good thing! Steeped in a love of their native land and affectionate empathy for its people, Greg Spawton and David Longdon doubled down on the longform approach of 2009’s The Underfall Yard to probe forgotten milestones of British history (“The First Rebreather”, the heart-stopping “East Coast Racer”) and portray unforgettable characters (“Uncle Jack”, “Curator of Butterflies”) against a bucolic landscape (“Upton Heath”, “The Permanent Way”), along with the perennial challenges of the heart (“The Lovers”) and the soul (“A Boy in Darkness”, “Judas Unrepentant”). All in a style that recalled original prog touchstones (looking at you, Gabriel-era Genesis) but blended in the dizzying guitar of Dave Gregory and the wicked drum grooves of Nick D’Virgilio to awesome effect. The two separate volumes of English Electric and the Make Some Noise EP certainly have their charms, but in the scope and sequence of this complete package, Spawton, Longdon and company touched on perfection.

2014 – Dave Kerzner, New World: another late arrival in my collection, this is the album that convinced me a genuine prog-rock revival was afoot beyond the continuing efforts of Morse/Portnoy and Steven Wilson. Kerzner’s mastery of cinematic soundscapes was evident from the first Floydian flourish of “Stranded” to the closing upward spiral of “Redemption”; his ability to involve guest stars like Steve Hackett and Keith Emerson, as well as quality players like guitarist Fernando Perdomo and Nick D’Virgilio (him again!), bore impressive results; and his intuitive grasp of pop hooks proved a solid foundation for irresistible shorter songs like “The Lie” and “Nothing”. Stir in longer, brooding tracks “Into the Sun”, “Under Control” and “My Old Friend” (in memory of performer/producer/polymath Kevin Gilbert), and you had a consistently gripping effort. Whether in its single-disc or deluxe double-disc format, New World aimed high and hit every target that a latter-day concept album could — thoroughly immersive, richly compelling and a breakthrough kick-off for Kerzner’s ongoing solo career.

2015 – Steven Wilson, Hand. Cannot. Erase: speaking of latter-day concept albums . . . Seems like *everyone*, especially the ex-SW fans who think he lost the plot with To The Bone and The Future Bites now cite this as his best effort; me, I remember the online ruckus when “Perfect Life” became the pre-release single. (“IT’S! TOO! POP!” As I’ve said before, if only they had known . . .) But as Bryan mentions in his article, Wilson struck conceptual paydirt with the true story of Joyce Carol Vincent’s lonely death, unearthing both the bleakness and the beauty inherent in a life of urban isolation. His sharp, highly committed writing met its match in the blistering playing of his band: guitarist Guthrie Govan (“Regret #9), keyboardist Adam Holzman (“Home Invasion”) and singer Ninet Tayeb (“Routine”) all have some of their best recorded moments featured here. HCE’s enduring appeal does partially stem from its similarity to Porcupine Tree in their prime — but both Wilson’s musical growth in the intervening years and his return to a humane lyrical vision after the voyeurism of Insurgentes and Grace for Drowning were what made the difference then, and now. The melancholy inherent in the final track “Happy Returns” still feels like we’re mourning a life, lived and lost, for real.

2016 – Marillion, FEAR: that rare example of a band hitting a creative and commercial peak simultaneously. Marillion as a band got even more serious about musical substance here, with lush, detailed sonic backdrops adding depth and resonance to their smash-cut collages. All of which fused seamlessly with Steve Hogarth’s lyrical concerns — for example, the opener “El Dorado” built from self-satisfied, affluent peace to twitchy paranoia, as the lyrics and music stewed in the pressure cooker of an over-connected, unsettled world. The heartfelt road narrative of “The Leavers” made a consummate live epic that captured the special relationship between the band and its fans, while ominous closer “The New Kings” (capped by H’s heartbroken refrain, “Why is nothing ever true?”) still seems way too spooky — and way too relevant six years later. Since its release, FEAR’s success has enabled Marillion to go from strength to strength both live (as I witnessed in 2018) and with their equally powerful follow-up, this year’s superb An Hour Before It’s Dark. Which testifies to its ongoing impact, then and now.

Continue reading “Rick’s Best of the Decade”

Progarchy’s Artists of the Decade: Steven Wilson

Back at the end of 2012, when I was compiling my year’s-end list of favorites (then a solitary pursuit, mostly for personal reflection), Steven Wilson’s Get All You Deserve was the only concert video that made the cut. Recorded in Mexico City at the end of Wilson’s initial solo tour, it’s still a ferociously intense — though oddly chilly — set, with tracks from Insurgentes and Grace for Drowning snarled by the glowering artist and meticulously brought to life by an all-star band of players. I had begun following Porcupine Tree when they hit Grand Rapids on 2005’s Deadwing tour, glomming onto them as The Great Progressive Hope and seeing them twice more that decade. So the video struck me as Wilson’s declaration of intent; the Tree was no longer bearing fruit for him, and it was time to make a name and a way for himself.

My thesis here is that, in the last ten years, Steven Wilson has done exactly that. And from the birthday of Progarchy through its tenth anniversary, Wilson’s next moves have consistently captured the attention of the subculture this website serves. As reflected in the frequent coverage of his projects here — whether we loved ’em, loathed ’em, or wound up somewhere in between! That’s why when the Progarchy editoral braintrust bantered about who to consider as our Artists of the Decade, I claimed SW.

Look at the man’s track record these last ten years, kicking off with 2013’s The Raven That Refused to Sing. So many genre boxes ticked here: a thematic album of ghost stories (!) cut live in the studio with Alan Parsons as engineer (!!), its jazz-rock leanings unmistakably influenced by Wilson’s remastering/surround mixing work for historic giants like King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Marillion, Gentle Giant and two or three et ceteras. Impressive writing, great playing, immaculate sound. When I caught that tour at Chicago’s Park West, though, it gave me an uneasy feeling; all too often, it felt like the onstage Wilson was peering into the lives of the damaged (“Harmony Korine,” “Luminol”) and disturbed (“Index,” “Raider II”) with no purpose beyond voyeuristic giggles and lurid thrills.

But then came 2015’s Hand. Cannot. Erase., Wilson’s rock opera portraying a young woman’s inexorable disappearance into the maw of the big city. Not only was this his most fully integrated album musically (reminiscent of his conceptual work with PT, with plenty of intense instrumental fireworks), but his latent empathy came forward again in his treatment of the “based on a true story” subject matter and his lyrics, to the benefit of both the album and the ensuing tour. Live again at Park West, an obviously proud Wilson played the whole thing, engaging with the audience instead of hiding behind transparent scrims and long hair, and even indulged in multiple Porcupine Tree tunes. If a bus had hit SW that year, at least a slice of retro-prog fandom might still be clamoring for him to join Rush and Genesis in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Continue reading “Progarchy’s Artists of the Decade: Steven Wilson”

Rick’s Quick Takes for September

Another month of thoroughly enjoyable releases across the progressive spectrum from quiet to loud, from controlled to anarchic — often all in the same album! As always, order links are included in the artist/album title listing, and streaming audio or samples follow the review.

Cosmograf, Heroic Materials: Robin Armstrong’s latest concept album speaks softly and hits home hard. As a World War II fighter pilot recalls the challenge he rose to as a young man and laments the passing of his golden era, he also sounds the alarm about the challenges the generations who’ve followed have inherited. Throughout, Armstrong’s lyrics are simply stated yet deeply affecting, sung with real gravity and soul. And as the music patiently unreels, it becomes impossible to pick out a standout track; each brooding acoustic interlude, each stinging electric solo, each cinematic ebb and flow leaves its indelible mark. Elegiac in its evocation of past glories, urgent in its call to action today, breathtaking in its poised blend of fragility and strength, Heroic Materials is a riveting listen and a thing of beauty, already on my list of favorites for this year.

Dim Gray, Firmament: a Norwegian band that’s getting a broader push courtesy of Kingmaker Management, with an opening slot on Big Big Train’s recent tour (to say nothing of Oskar Holldorf’s filling BBT’s keyboards/backing vocals slot live) and their second effort released through the English Electric label. Kingmaker knows how to pick ’em; Holldorff, guitarist Hakon Høiberg and drummer Tom Ian Klungland whip up a mighty noise on Firmament’s 12 succinct tracks, with Holldorff and Høiberg’s ethereal, evocative singing launched above one swirling, quasi-orchestral crescendo after another. From opener “Mare” to finale “Meridian”, middle-aged farts like me might hear echoes of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, Brian Wilson’s pocket symphonies and Avalon-era Roxy Music, while younger listeners may catch hints of Fleet Foxes’ seamless, potent vocalises and Sigur Ros’ relentless ensemble builds. Whatever Dim Gray’s influences, the trio’s pin-sharp ensemble and pacing, thrilling sense of dynamics and undeniable gift for melody make for an arresting sound, with impressionistic lyrics that complement the sweep and yearning of the music. Here’s an album that not only dreams big, but actually delivers.

Steve Hackett, Genesis Revisited Live – Seconds Out & More: by my count, this is Hackett’s sixth live set since the Genesis Revisited concept revived his worldwide touring mojo a decade ago, beating out even Rush’s late career live output. Too much of a good thing? Arguably — but on the other hand, both Bryan Morey and I raved about this tour when it hit the Midwest this past spring, so I can also argue that more is better! With Amanda Lehmann complementing his usual merry men on second guitar, Hackett and band rip through a set of solo classics (and I wholeheartedly include Surrender of Silence tracks “Held In the Shadows” and “The Devil’s Cathedral” in that description) that climax with Lehmann’s floating vocals and Craig Blundell’s jaw-dropping drum workout on the vintage “Shadow Of The Hierophant”. Then it’s nirvana for Hackett-era Genesis fans, with the entirety of their 1977 live masterwork reprised (and sometimes gently, sometimes deliriously reimagined) in one go. Gorgeous sound whatever the format, and nicely hi-def visuals on the BluRay; it all does what it says on the cover, with Hackett’s usual flair and panache. See you next year for the Foxtrot At Fifty set?

King’s X, Three Sides of One: “Calling all saviors/And I’m shouting at God/Oh won’t you come and save us/Don’t you think we need you now/So let it rain, to wash the fear away.” dUg pinnick’s vocal testifies while his bass thunders, Ty Tabor’s guitars chime and howl like lightning, Jerry Gaskill’s drums crack open the earth and sky. And the apocalyptic “Let It Rain” is only the start for a trio that’s lost none of its power. King’s X’s first album in fourteen years, Three Sides of One’s rock is thick, gnarly, punchy and unbelievably tough no matter the tempo or texture, always locked into a sweet groove that carries you along. With Pinnick’s gospel-rooted shouts complemented by Tabor and Gaskill’s spindly, psychedelic harmonies, the band prowls the waterfront of life today, calling out the hucksters of “Festival” and the digital overlords of “Swipe Up”, commiserating with “all the lonely people” of “Give It Up” and “Holidays”. Stir in the drained cynicism of “Flood Pt. 1” and the dystopian parable “All God’s Children” and you have a compelling vision of societal despair. Human love (“Take the Time”, “She Called Me Home”) offers respite, but there’s no closure in sight; as pinnick preaches on the final track, “The whole world is crying for love/Every everywhere.” Lighting candles and cursing the darkness with alternate breaths, King’s X rocks on regardless — and I consider that heartening in and of itself.

Continue reading “Rick’s Quick Takes for September”

Porcupine Tree In Concert: Not Closed, Continuing

Porcupine Tree, Auditorium Theatre, Chicago, Illinois, September 20, 2022.

The kick-off of Porcupine Tree’s first Chicago show in twelve years was nothing if not dramatic: a deep drone booming out as automated stage lighting menacingly swept the 3,000+ plus audience, the house lights dimming at the point of maximum tension — then a full-on visual assault from lights and screen, tracking with the slashing hard rock riffs of In Absentia’s “Blackest Eyes”.

At stage left: Richard Barbieri, ensconced in his wraparound nest of keyboards, conjuring up fearsome sonic webs of mist, gloom and abrasive noise as required. At stage right: Gavin Harrison, similarly surrounded by an overwhelming array of drums, cymbals and percussive accessories — and somehow appearing to be able to hit them all at once. And at center stage: Steven Wilson, throwing shapes on guitar as the power chords crashed, scrambling toward the mike on bare feet to chime in with typically sunny lyrics about a serial killer making a move on his desired prey.

It was an impressive opening, but something seemed off, and Wilson quickly acknowledged the state of affairs — sickness had been running through the band, and tonight it was effecting his voice. Promising his best efforts on both the Tree’s back catalog and the whole of their new album Closure/Continuation, singer and band proceeded to a nimble, ominous reading of “Harridan” and a lilting take on “Of The New Day.” Here Wilson’s challenges for the evening became apparent, as congestion and pitching problems crept into passages sung with less than full power. By “Rats Return”, though, Wilson had his voice under control, excoriating the cowardice of political strongmen both at the top of his lungs and in chilling undertones, while vicious fuzzed riffs raged around him.

The rest of the first set was completely stunning, mixing new tracks with superbly chosen throwbacks like the Floydian angst of “Even Less” and the doomy drive of “Drown With Me”. A zesty “The Sound Of Muzak” had it all: a bitterly hilarious Wilson intro (“21 years ago, I wrote a song about how music was becoming commodified — something you picked up at the supermarket, or as part of a software application. Well, thank goodness that didn’t come to pass!”), one bewilderingly brilliant Harrison drum fill after another, and a spontaneous audience singalong to the choogling chorus. Then it was Barbieri’s turn to stoke the darkly atmospheric “Last Chance to Evacuate Planet Earth Before It Is Recycled”, its instrumental build eerily synced with the video suicide note of Heaven’s Gate cult founder Marshall Applewhite. And after senseless death, mourning: the new “Chimera’s Wreck” finally clicked into place for me as a survivor’s lament, Wilson diving into the depths of human experience, probing extremes in search of exorcism and catharsis. But after that emotional a ride, what do you do for the second half?

Continue reading “Porcupine Tree In Concert: Not Closed, Continuing”

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.

Continue reading “Rick’s Quick Takes for August”