21’s 12: The Top 12 Albums of 2021

Here are my top dozen picks for the year.

Think of them as 21’s 12 (Rush pun intended):

Transatlantic, The Absolute Universe

Arc of Life, Arc of Life

Anneke von Giersbergen, The Darkest Skies Are the Brightest

Greta Van Fleet, The Battle at Garden’s Gate

Styx, Crash of the Crown

Big Big Train, Common Ground

Iron Maiden, Senjutsu

Yes, The Quest

Dream Theater, A View from the Top of the World

Damian Wilson, From Limehouse to Lechlade

The Darkness, Motorheart

Crown Lands, Odyssey Vol. 1

Crown Lands had quite the year. First, these Rush superfans paid tribute with “Context—Fearless Part 1”, and its B-side “Right Way Back”, back in March.

In May, they offered live versions of the same, recorded as jaw-dropping proof that they were not merely wizards in the studio, but also a dynamic live duo, the likes which we have not seen before.

Then, they unleashed the killer single “White Buffalo” (in 7/8 time, no less) and the 13-minute epic “The Oracle” back in July.

The creativity kept on coming, as September saw the addition of “Inner Light” and “The Witching Hour (Electric Witch)” to the previous two tracks on the stunning White Buffalo EP.

Crown Lands has beautiful vinyl editions of everything, but you can also get the latter four songs on a nifty White Buffalo CD.

The year ended with a grand-slam live performance of all their new 2021 music, plus select gems from earlier years, on Odyssey Vol. 1, which you can also view online.

Sarah Ewing ♥ David Longdon

Sarah Ewing’s Nov 23 FB post:

“I almost wish we were butterflies and lived but three Summer days. Three such days with you, I could fill with more delight than 50 common years could ever contain”~ John Keats

I am not sure where to begin or what to write. Or even if I should write at all. But the out-pouring of grief has been profound and deeply moving. So I wanted to say something.

To put pay to the rumours, speculation, inaccurate reporting and perhaps to help some of you with your own questions and sense of loss, I can tell you that David had a traumatic fall at our cottage during the early hours of Friday morning. I am not going to share everything which took place. Those intimate details are just for band members, David’s beautiful girls, his Mum and me. But I will tell you that David left this life being held in my arms on Saturday 20th November. I told him how much I loved him, that he was safe and that it was time to take the next step on his great adventure. To be with him during his very last moments is the greatest tragedy and greatest privilege of my life.

I waited all my life for David. He filled up my heart. He was inspirational, thoughtful, kind, generous, gentle, loving and funny. Goodness me, was he funny. We would laugh and laugh every day. He was the best of all men.

He leaves an enormous legacy behind. Not only in terms of his creative output but also the many lives he has touched, the friends he has made and the strong unshakeable brotherhood he shared with Danny, Dave G, Rikard, NDV and of course his dearest Greg.

I know David will always be right by my side. But if I ever feel I need that extra connection, I can always reach for the music. And so can you. Because even though he told us that we will find him in the hedgerow, let me tell you a secret : it’s not true. He’s in the music. That is where you will find him.

Good bye my beautiful boy – until we meet again one day.

X

Big Big Train EP welcomes us to the planet ahead of schedule…

Big big BBT surprise: 4-track EP of 4 songs from Welcome to the Planet

WOW!

A big big surprise from Big Big Train today, as suddenly they have released four tracks from their surprise forthcoming album (Jan 28, 2022), Welcome to the Planet.

You can now immediately enjoy four tracks in advance: viz., tracks 1, 2, 3, and 6 from the forthcoming 9-track LP.

I purchased and downloaded the four tracks as an EP from Apple Music. So exciting!

I also noticed that Apple Music immediately applied the purchase as a credit to the future purchase (or pre-order) of the forthcoming album. Very nice!

The tracks are excellent. Enjoy, my friends.

Prog on, BBT! Thanks for the early early Xmas gift.

Album Review: Dream Theater — A View from the Top of the World

Our readers know that here in the Republic of Progarchy, we call ’em like we hear ’em.

So, it should be no shock if we hold nothing back, as when we discovered Dream Theater had dropped a deuce (see The Astonishing Pile of Crap), or, more recently, when Steven Wilson’s hand erases the raven and bites the fans that feed him.

In the same vein, we have to give credit where credit is due. And with A View from the Top of the World, the muscular and mighty Dream Theater serves up a grand-slam prog metal comeback.

This is a solid album and every track pummels home the undeniable truth that Dream Theater on a good day is a force to be reckoned with and can blow away almost any band on Earth.

Heck, I am convinced Mike Mangini could beat the crap out of any drummer on the planet. His enfilading fire over the drumkit carries me back to that adolescent wonder at hearing Neil Peart do things that you never knew a human could do with the sticks. Drummers of the world need to give this album some kind of special award for his performance alone.

But of course every musician in Dream Theater is top tier, and John Petrucci is a standout, not just for his masterclass in shredding faster than the speed of light, but also for his excellent lyrics on this album.

When you give this disc a first listen, don’t give up in exhaustion when Dream Theater’s dream team of musical prodigies overwhelms you with the Mozart school of “too many notes” musicality (the unofficial Progarchy motto). Wait patiently for those magical moments when you are hooked in and happily surrender, knowing that you can’t wait to return and hear the album again.

For me, it happened as soon as I heard “Transcending Time,” which is a truly glorious track that manages to combine the sound of the Steve Morse Band with that of classic Rush. The first line of the lyrics should immediately transport you to the metrical pattern of the first line of Rush’s “Red Barchetta.” This song alone should cement your purchase of the CD, as it did for me.

I can’t remember the last time I was this excited by a Dream Theater song. (Actually, I can. It was “The Enemy Inside,” and then the Limelight-laden “The Looking Glass.”)

The other track that knocked me off my complacent critic’s chair was the title track. Clocking in at twenty minutes, I have to admit that every minute of it is enthralling, and every time it ends I find myself wishing it would stop the fade and simply continue. It’s just so cool.

All hail Dream Theater for their most amazing comeback on this track and on this album.

It is right and just that the legendary Hugh Syme adorns this magnificent album with his most excellent art work.

Dream Theater FTW!

Album Review: Amanda Lehmann — Innocence and Illusion

Progarchists will know Amanda Lehmann from her work with Steve Hackett. Perhaps they’ve even been lucky enough to see her onstage with Hackett, both side-by-side wailing away on their guitars.

Now she’s out with a solo album, and I know what you’re thinking: Is it any good? Or is she just one of those musicians who best functions doing side work in service of a more famous talent?

Let me answer that question right away. The album is excellent. It’s proof why prog lovers should be open to new musicians and new experiences and not just spend their time buying bloated box sets of the greatest artists of yesteryear.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with owning and collecting all of Steve Hackett, because he is amazing, and he’s total prog royalty. But we have to realize that there are so many other talented (but lesser-known) artists out there who also deserve our passionate support.

To his credit, Hackett obviously recognizes Lehmann’s talent. By happy circumstance, he surely knows her thanks to his wife. That’s great. Likewise, by happy circumstance, you know Hackett only thanks to your fan-marriage to Genesis. That’s exactly how we meet one other and discover new things.

Next question: should you buy this album? Yes, absolutely. It is worthy to be added to your prog collection. If you need a quick excuse, let me point out Hackett himself appears on track 6, “Forever Days”, and deploys a wicked guitar solo that alone is worth the price of admission.

So, if you need an appearance from prog royalty to justify the adoption of a physical CD into your collection, this is it. Thanks be to Hackett for dropping this solo onto Lehmann’s album and giving us all an excuse to get to know her better.

Hackett also co-wrote a nice little song with Lehmann that closes the album: track 9, “Where the Small Things Go”, which at 1:42 shows us that small little songs do indeed go well at the end of an album. It’s a nice finish, showcasing the artistic bond between the two artists with a gentle acoustic departure using classical guitar.

Lehmann wrote the rest of the album’s material herself and it’s all superb. The album kicks off with “Who Are the Heroes?” as we first get to hear her singing voice along with her guitar work. I was pleased to find myself making analogies to Kate Bush right away. Lehmann’s vocal phrasing and general sensibility (marking both her vocals and arrangements) call to mind Bush quite remarkably.

Lehmann’s voice is different in timbre, so don’t go listening and expect a soundalike. It sounds more like an alternative universe where Kate Bush smoked three packs a day. So, Lehmann is truly her own voice, but she’s still hugely talented like Bush and longtime fans of Bush will understand what I mean about their shared artistic sensibilities.

Further proof of my analogy is “Tinkerbell” (track 2, 4:52), which includes orchestral arrangements, and “Only Happy When It Rains” (track 3, 3:47), which has a swinging jazzy arrangement that would not be out of place on an early Kate Bush album. Here, the mischievous Hackett plays harmonica. And Rob Townsend plays sax; he also appears on “Memory Lane” (track 5, 4:49), a poignant personal reflection about dementia by Lehmann inspired by her mother.

“The Watcher” (track 4, 7:25) is an epic prog extravaganza that is well placed. After introducing her range of musical abilities on the first three tracks, Lehmann hits us with a prog experience that makes us happy we came on this journey. The title made me think of “Watcher of the Skies” immediately, but that obvious association aside, this track illustrates why I hope Lehmann keeps composing and putting out albums. She’s got what it takes and she makes great unknown music that stands well next to the best known of our favorites.

“Childhood Delusions” (track 8, 4:46) consolidates the Kate Bush comparison for me, with its jazzy whimsy. I can easily imagine Bush singing this song. Lehmann’s own unique voice is great on it too. Who knows, maybe they can do a duet of it sometime for charity. I’d totally pay to hear that. Kate Bush is one of my all time favorites, but I am most pleased to discover this album thanks to the nifty introduction that the generous Steve Hackett has arranged for us all.

The album credits don’t say who plays sax here, but maybe we should assume it’s Townsend a third time. The album credits also fail to tell us who the drummer on the album is, so I’m going to go right ahead start a rumor and say it’s Phil Collins, just to get more people out there buying this excellent album.

Nick Magnus and Roger King between the two of them offer impressive support, contributing keyboards and engineering and mixing on different tracks, thereby helping to keep everything throughout the album running smoothly at the highest levels of musical excellence.

“We Are One” (track 7, 4:56), which precedes “Childhood Delusions”, is also highly reminiscent for me of the sort of Kate Bush song I love, and it is another prog extravaganza standout (like “The Watcher”). If you haven’t already paused during this review to order a copy of this CD, let me just stop now so you can go do it. I hope you will enjoy this music as much as I do.

Album Review: Frame 42 — “Undercroft” (EP)

Frame 42 proves it’s always a good life choice to cut class and jam with your band. Send us to detention? Nay, we shall be avenged sevenfold! Verily, here’s our seven-track EP…

Every now and then we get an album submission over here at Progarchy that blows our minds. This month it is the hot new EP from Frame 42.

When Bryan told me to check this disc out, I was skeptical. I looked at the promo photos as I loaded the audio files onto my computer. These cats looked so young! I was prepared for some kind of amateur-hour, cringeworthy poseur nonsense. But was I ever wrong!

Frame 42 has a very cool and unique sound. I don’t know how to describe it, because it’s a wild blend of hard rock heaviness and often country radio-style vocal harmonies.

Ava Morris and Arianna Smith lead the pack with a dual female vocal assault that has to be heard to be believed. So much raw power, it’s a real thrill to hear them! I get why people compare this band to early Heart or Fleetwood Mac. These two are such a killer duo.

Michael Farmer has a really sweet guitar tone that totally stands out on his lead guitar work. I’m always in search of bands that unleash the full power of the electric guitar, and trust me it’s hard to find satisfaction these days. But Frame 42 satisfies, because Ben Delgleish adds his rhythm guitar work to perfectly complement Michael’s work. Just as the doubling-up of female vocalists gives the band an up-front unique sound, Michael and Ben leave their stereo stamp on the band’s unique wall-of-power sound with rockin’ riffs that inspire instant air guitar play-alongs.

Brock Morris on bass and Lucas Jacobs on drums add to the huge heavy rocking vibe of this band by laying a solid foundation that grooves with unexpected energy. Everything on this album goes beyond tasteful and restrained and competent into the rare realm of upper echelon hard rock madness. You gotta love it!

It’s hard to pick a favorite track because there are seven songs on this EP, and it’s over in 26 minutes, leaving you wanting to play it again. This debut rocks so hard and strong, it truly makes me happy to be part of this Web site where we continually get exposed to amazing new talent. Frame 42 has been playing together for four years, and it shows. We’re so happy to finally meet them. They play so tight and awesome, we look forward to whatever they do next. But get this EP now, because it rips apart the room and slays!

The Progarchy Interview: Anneke van Giersbergen

Thank you to Anneke van Giersbergen for speaking today with Progarchy.com about her new album, The Darkest Skies Are The Brightest.

Listen above to our conversation about the genesis of the album, each one of its magnificent tracks, and also Anneke’s musical plans going forward. We even ask her about future work with her metal band Vuur

Top 10 Albums of 2020

Here are my picks for the best of the year. I started with a list of thirty, and then cut it down to twenty by creating a list of ten pairs. Then I brutally cut that list of twenty down to ten, by jettisoning the member of the pair that had the lesser number of listens (according to my music playback software, Apple Music). Therefore, here are the ten best, ranked by my highest number of listens for 2020:

#1 — Unleash the Archers, Abyss

This long-form storytelling concept album is the sci-fi sequel to 2017’s Apex and it is unquestionably the most awesomely epic release unleashed this year. Unleash the Archers also gave the best pandemic live-stream performance of the year. If you missed it, then you can at least play this album on repeat. Favorite tracks include “Through Stars” (all the way back to the 80s), “The Wind That Shapes the Land” (a sprawling prog-metal masterpiece), and “Carry the Flame” (a killer duet).

#2 — Pallbearer, Forgotten Days   

It’s hard to believe they could top their 2017 masterwork, Heartless, but all the same Pallbearer totally delivered the doom metal goods this year with this slow-growing, richly-textured slab of excellence. It will take multiple listens for you to appreciate all the complex nuances of this underappreciated release. Those who haven’t given it due honor have simply failed to invest the requisite time of listens required for this album to show itself fully. “Stasis” is the shortest track, so you may find access through it first, but “Silver Wings” is the longest track and sheer sonic proof of Pallbearer’s upper-echelon prog status.

#3 — Wytch Hazel, III: Pentecost  

The noble tradition of classic metal is alive and well. Wytch Hazel rode atop our top ten list this year with their unstoppable momentum on III: Pentecost. Grab your sword and mount your horse as Wytch Hazel leads you into battle by setting scripture to music. They conquer all, galloping out of the gate with killer tracks like “Spirit and Fire”, “Archangel”, and “Dry Bones”.

#4 — The Night Flight Orchestra, Aeromantic     

Climb aboard and get ready for a voyage in an aerial time machine, flying back to the time when radio actually played good music. These cats have mastered all the pop and rock idioms of Planet Earth’s golden age. On this disc, they perform the virtuoso trick of writing all the best songs of an era that they never actually existed in. Until now, by flying back to it this year. Start charting your own course with “Transmissions” (as you taxi a groove down the runway), “Aeromantic” (a totally exhilarating liftoff), and “Golden Swansdown” (a heavenly-perfect audio icon of falling in love).

#5 — Kelsy Karter, Missing Person

Rock and roll will never die as long as each new generation keeps producing truly talented and suitably demented offspring like Kelsy. “God Knows I’ve Tried” to be good, she sings. And she’s certainly achieved it on this debut disc. This is proof positive why artists should follow the maxim, “Stick to Your Guns”. Kelsy accordingly took her time to produce this fine album, and it’s a total blast from start to finish, all the way to the “Liquor Store On Mars” and beyond.

Missing Person [Explicit]

#6 — Pure Reason Revolution, Eupnea     

Returning to their prog roots, Pure Reason Revolution pull off their best album since their stunning debut, The Dark Third. This album will become your “New Obsession”, because it was carefully crafted during a “Silent Genesis”, in order to give us a musical guide through the “Maelstrom” of 2020. Absolutely brilliant, this disc is a shining star in the prog firmament. Welcome back, PRR.

#7 — White Crone, The Poisoner

Here’s metal in the traditional style to make you stand up and take notice. If you need a prog awakening, check out the nifty musical intricacies on “Interment”, and then as it morphs into “Edge of Gone”. Every track rocks hard, but my favorite is “The Seven Gates of Hell”, which sports haunting vocals showing what Dio would have sounded like if he were a woman.

#8 — Kansas, The Absence of Presence     

Kansas showed up in 2020 with a prog achievement beyond all expectation. This wonderful album proves that the greatest bands never go on past their prime. They just keep showing in new ways: why they are so remarkable, with no need to recycle their glory days. There’s maturity, vigor, and wisdom all here, with stunning tracks like “Memories Down the Line”, “The Absence of Presence”, and “Animals on the Roof”. Carry on, Kansas; carry on…

#9 — The Tangent, Auto Reconnaissance

The Tangent demonstrate yet again why they cannot be vanquished by any critics, because they simply cannot be reduced to any musical category and critiqued in a box. Instead they transcend all attempts to comprehend, and simply dazzle you with musical excellence. “Jinxed in Jersey” is jazzy storytelling that will have you laughing your head off. But the track of the year may very well be the amazing “Lie Back and Think of England” which is definitive proof that if you have ever objected to The Tangent’s “politics” on any release, you are foolishly missing the point. The Tangent’s vision is nothing but the finest humanism.

#10 — Smashing Pumpkins, Cyr    

This surprise late entry stormed our top ten list with its unexpected synth rock unfolding atop a full flower of brilliant songwriting. Repeated listens are richly repaid, but you may hold onto early favorites, as I did, that also stand up over time: “Dulcet in E”, “Wyttch”, “Black Forest, Black Hills”, and “Haunted”. Billy Corgan’s immense talent for songcraft is on full display, but perhaps the most wonderful surprise is the radiant female background vocalists, Katie Cole and Sierra Swan, who stand out and shine as if they were fronting the band, making the Smashing Pumpkins now sound like an ideal Platonic form of pop/rock: a Pumpkin mashup with Metric.

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The White Stripes: Greatest Hits

Looking for a great last minute musical gift idea?

Want to pass on the old-school values — the musical essence of rock and roll — to the next generation? This greatest hits package is a killer choice.

In the wake of the ‘90s alternative boom, mainstream rock music had become largely disconnected from its roots in the blues—that is, until The White Stripes hooked it up to some rusty jumper cables and jolted it back to life.

Emerging from the Detroit garage-rock trenches in 1997, the duo of Jack and Meg White embraced a vision of the blues that was equal parts John Lee Hooker and Jon Spencer, projecting a raw primitivism through their minimalist guitar/drums formation, yet also displaying a healthy appreciation for artifice by constructing their own media-trolling mythology.

A married couple at the time, they instead presented themselves as a brother/sister act, wrapping themselves in a childlike white/red color scheme that reflected the perpetual battle between innocence and fury playing out in their music.

While the Stripes were initially right at home among the garage-punk miscreants on the Sympathy for the Record Industry label, their latent appreciation of classic pop songcraft—as evinced by their aching cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” on a 2000 B-side—proved to be their ticket out of the underground.

Alongside The Strokes’ Is This It, 2001’s White Blood Cells became a bellwether for the 21st-century garage-rock renaissance thanks to equally thrashy and catchy nuggets like “Fell in Love With a Girl.”

But with 2003’s double-album behemoth Elephant (and its eternal sports-arena stomper, “Seven Nation Army”), the Stripes transcended the garage realm entirely and entered the echelon of rock’s most omnipotent bands.

They continued to expand the sonic possibilities of a two-piece group up until 2007, at which point Meg’s intensifying battles with anxiety forced them off the road, before they officially disbanded in 2011.

But as a prolific solo artist and the impresario behind the Third Man Records empire, Jack has continued the Stripes’ mission of upholding old-school values in a modern world.