Collaborating as Three Colours Dark, vocalist Rachel Cohen and keyboardist/guitarist Jonathan Edwards made one of my favorite albums of last year. The Science of Goodbye remains a subtle, broodingly elegant debut, spinning a harrowing narrative of escape from both a toxic relationship and inner captivity. TCD’s welcome follow-up, Love’s Lost Property, doesn’t hesitate to ask the obvious questions: what now? How to deal with lingering pain? How to move forward? And in what direction?
The opener/title track sets up the premise. Standing with a ex-lover in the rubble of their broken relationship, Cohen wonders whether things could be different: “Versions of us/Love’s lost property is now in safer hands/Laws of motion proved/Let the light in, let the light in.” Kicking off with bittersweet lines from violinist Kate Ronconi and featuring stinging guitar solos from Tim Hammill and Dave Gregory, “Love’s Lost Property” looks back on the road taken and the damage done in a deliberate, leisurely unrolling musical arc.
“Dark Before Dawn” kicks into an uptempo, acoustic-driven shuffle, complete with countrified Gregory solo work and supple vocal harmonies, as Cohen encourages herself to move on, though the way is still uncertain. Pulled up short by the bitter memories of “Requiem” (beautifully cradled in a soundscape featuring Edwards on piano, Catherine Tanner-Williams on oboe and Andrew Coughlan on double bass), Cohen elegizes love lost in the soaring chorus of “Last Day on Earth” — then pivots to the reluctant but adamant kiss-offs “Wish I Wished You Well” (with more standout violin work) and “The Circus” (a masterclass in the art of the endless Floydian build-up).
As on The Science of Goodbye, it’s a cover that snaps Love’s Lost Property into sharp focus — in this instance, Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World.” Resplendent with Gregory’s 12-string and Ronconi’s lead work, it’s elevated by Cohen’s steely determination as she bites into the chorus (“But I won’t cry for yesterday/There’s an ordinary world somehow I have to find/And as I try to make my way to the ordinary world/I will learn to survive”) then soars into vocalese over violin licks. Then Gregory takes the whole thing even higher, and Edwards caps it off with a lyrical synth solo as the track fades. Whew!
Her journey’s path set, Cohen can move on at last in the emotional tour de force “Eye for An Eye.” Accepting herself, her former partner, the pain given and caused, and all the consequences, her vocals constantly grow in power and focus, feeding off and setting up Steve Simmons’ emotive saxophone work, Edwards’ cinematic synths backing and a wrenching Hammill solo. The whole thing builds to a shattering climax — then gracefully collapses into a “Reprise” of the title track, a perfect bookend to the album.
The shock of the new may have worn off for fans of Three Colours Dark, but the deep emotional content and musical gravity of this second effort are more than adequate compensation; Love’s Lost Property is another marvelously coherent song cycle that gets stronger as it unfolds. Cohen, Edwards and friends get full marks for their vivid, heartfelt portrayal of the comforting, wounding, uniting, dividing magnificence and terror of fallible love in a fallen world.
Echo Us, The Windsong Spires, June 22, 2021 Tracks: We Seek the Descending Levers, (8:06), If You Can Imagine… (5:29), The Night Sky (3:19), When the Windsong Spires, (5:49), Squals (3:53), (Fly You Home) (4:41), And When They Dance At Dusk, (4:16), I’ll Wave You In (4:54), (And Acquiesce) (5:41), If We Can Breathe Again… (3:39), Under the Smallest Sky (11:40)
Electronic. Atmospheric. Ethereal. These are just a few of the words I could use to describe Portland, Oregon, music project Echo Us. The band was founded by composer and multi-instrumentalist Ethan J. Matthews 20 years ago. He is joined on the record by drummer Andrew Greene and vocalist Charlotte Engler. Matthews provides vocals, guitars, hammered dulcimer, glockenspiel, percussion, and synthesizers.
Just based upon the variety of instruments Matthews plays, you might guess that his music has a rather eclectic mix, and you’d be right. Their sound ranges from atmospheric to classical and folk, all within a subtle rock context. I even picked up what sounded a bit like a Pacific Northwestern Native American influence in the opening moments of the album. Piano plays a prominent role on the record, along with clean electric guitar.
The vocals contribute to the ethereal tone of much of the music, but the drums keep the music grounded here on earth without allowing the album to get too heady. In that way there’s a nice balance between the various sounds. The mix of male and female vocals also contributes to the balance of the sound on the record. Matthews’ voice reminds me of Tim Bowness, and Engler’s voice reminds me a bit of Kate Bush or Amanda Lehman.
The music helps tell a story. “The Night Sky” is primarily piano with synth sounds swirling around it and ghostly vocals at times throughout the brief track. The listener is left picturing a calm, cool night sky away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Greene’s drums and percussion on the record might sound relatively straightforward at first notice, but when you dig in you notice there’s a lot going on. One moment it might be a simple drum part, but the next might have a military-style snare drumming, such as on a portion of “When the Windsong Spires.” This conjures up new images in the mind, adding to the musical tapestry Echo Us create.
I’m not positive that this is intentional, but I get the feeling that the names of the tracks are meant to be read together as you might read an imagist poem. Since the names of the songs include punctuation, I suspect I’m right.
We Seek the Descending Levers, If You Can Imagine… The Night Sky When the Windsong Spires, Squals (Fly You Home) And When They Dance At Dusk, I’ll Wave You In (And Acquiesce) If We Can Breathe Again… Under the Smallest Sky
This is a pretty cool way to add texture to a record. You have the poetry of the lyrics, but to use the very names of the songs to create another poem is unique.
One might classify The Windsong Spires as ambient music, but there’s a lot more going on than just ambient sounds. The drums and guitars bring in elements of rock, although I don’t know if I can call this outright rock ‘n roll. At the end of the day genres can be rather meaningless categories to which we assign music. What really matters is whether or not the music is good, and Echo Us is very good. Their music has had a calming effect on me, which has been much appreciated and needed lately. When everything else seems to be crashing and burning, it’s nice to settle back into something that slows you down and makes you think.
As previously promised, a look at the big reissues landing in the next few months — especially those available in one or more box set formats. Ordering links are embedded in the artist/title listings below.
The Beach Boys, Feel Flows – TheSunflower and Surf’s Up Sessions, 1969-1971: between their initial impact and their imperial phase as timeless purveyors of fun fun fun, Brian Wilson and his family pursued heaviness and relevance in a market that thought it had outgrown them — at least for the moment. This slice of the Boys’ catalog features less slick, more homespun takes on their timeless concerns (the same amount of girls, less cars, more daily life), with Wilson brothers Dennis (on Sunflower) and Carl (on Surf’s Up) taking the lead. The brilliant moments — “This Whole World,” “Forever,” “Long Promised Road,” “Til I Die” for starters — outweigh the embarrassingly dated ones, and music to make you smile is never too long in coming. Available from The Beach Boys’ webstore as 2 CDs, 5 CDs, 2 LPs or 4 LPs (colored vinyl).
BeBop Deluxe, Live in the Air Age:when Bill Nelson’s avant-glam guitar heroics didn’t generate bigger record sales, a live album was the next obvious move for this sterling British quartet. Better chart positions weren’t forthcoming, but 1977’s Live in the Air Age is an exquisite slab of BBD at work — Chuck Berry updated for the Apollo era, with a bit of Bowie/Mercury panache in Nelson’s vocals and blazing solos aplenty. Available from Esoteric Recordings as 3 CDs (adding the complete 1977 London concert) or 15 CDs/1 DVD (adding all surviving recordings from the 1977 British tour and a live television special).
George Harrison, All Things Must Pass: the quiet Beatle exploded on his first album after the Fabs’ breakup, immersing his radiant devotional compositions in Phil Spector’s patented Wall of Sound and drafting Ringo, Badfinger and the embryonic Derek and the Dominoes as his rock orchestra. The new remix scales back the symphonic swirl, brings forward George’s vocals, and gives the rhythm section a kick in the pants; just right to these ears. A serious contender for the single best solo Beatle album, well worth an immersion course. Available from the Harrison webstore in Standard (2 CDs or 3 LPs — limited colored vinyl available as well), Deluxe (3 CDs or 5 LPs), Super Deluxe (5 CDs/BluRay or 8 LPs) and Uber Deluxe (5 CDs/BluRay/8 LPs/various bespoke gimcracks/”artisan wooden crate” — you don’t wanna know what it costs) editions.
The Elements of King Crimson – 2021 Tour Box: the 7th annual compilation of tidbits from the Discipline Global Mobile archives, doubling as a concert program. This year’s selection of rarities focuses on the nine drummers that have called King Crimson their musical home (sometimes two or three of them at once). Studio snippets – like the one with Fripp, John Wetton on bass and Phil Collins on drums – live tracks, oddities, previews of coming attractions, and more. Available from Burning Shed or on Crimson’s current USA tour.
Lee Morgan, The Complete Live at the Lighthouse: never a mass media superstar, Morgan was nonetheless a jazz icon — one of the finest trumpeters of his day who played with heroes of the music like Art Blakey and John Coltrane, recorded more than 20 albums as a leader for Blue Note Records, and even managed to score a Top 25 pop hit with his funky “The Sidewinder.” This box (another product of jazz archivist Zev Feldman’s boundless energy) sets forth an entire weekend’s worth of recordings by Morgan and his dedicated, powerful 1970 band. Bennie Maupin on reeds, Harold Mabern on piano, Jymie Merritt on bass and Mickey Roker on drums bring the sophisticated, challenging compositions and spirited solos and backing; Morgan takes it from there, lyrical and fiery in turn. This is a great potential entry point if you want to explore jazz as a newbie, and a serious desert island possiblility for those already into the music. Available from Blue Note’s webstore as 8 CDs or 12 LPs.
Clive Nolan and Rick Wakeman, Tales by Gaslight: keyboardists Nolan (Pendragon, Arena) and Wakeman (Yes, Strawbs) box up their out-of-print concept albums Jabberwocky (with dad Rick W. reciting Lewis Carroll’s nonsense verse) and The Hound of the Baskervilles, adding a bonus disc collecting rough drafts of a 3rd album based on Frankenstein. Separate booklets and art prints for each of the 3 CDs included. Theatrical as all get out, and surprisingly good fun if you’re in the mood for Victorian-flavored melodrama. Available from Burning Shed.
Marillion, Fugazi: the band’s 1984 album, perceived as a “sophomore slump” at the time, is much more than a bridge between the feral debut Script for A Jester’s Tear and the early masterwork Misplaced Childhood, with plenty of gripping moments to recommend it. A new remix by Andy Bradfield and Avril Mackintosh compensates handily for the production nightmares recounted in this deluxe edition’s copious notes. Also includes a complete live set from Montreal; the CD/BluRay version adds bonus tracks, documentaries, and a Swiss television concert. Out September 10; pre-order from Marillion’s webstore as 4 CDs/BluRay or 4 LPs.
Van der Graaf Generator, The Charisma Years, 1970-1978: VDGG may have shared the stage with Genesis in each band’s formative years, but they were a thoroughly different beast. Peter Hammill’s desperate existential narratives and the wigged out instrumental web woven by David Jackson, Hugh Banton and Guy Evans made for a unique, highly combustible chemistry — bonkers dystopian sci-fi narrative over free jazz one moment, serenely soaring hymns to human potential the next. This 17 CD/3 BluRay set collects the band’s 8 studio albums from the Seventies, adding extensive BBC sessions, a live show from Paris, all surviving television appearances “and more.” Now available from Burning Shed; the four newly remastered albums in this box (H to He Who Am the Only One, Pawn Hearts, Godbluffand Still Life) are available as separate CD/DVD sets for those wanting a lower priced introduction to this underrated band’s indescribably stirring music.
The Beatles, Let It Be: the Fab Four’s star-crossed attempt to return to their roots – recording live in front of movie cameras – ultimately became their first post-break-up release, drenched with Phil Spector’s orchestral overdubs to cover the rough spots. With a new 6-hour Peter Jackson documentary on the sessions hitting Disney Plus Thanksgiving weekend, Apple unleashes a fresh stereo remix (the 4th in the series that kicked off with Sgt. Pepper’s 50th anniversary). Super Deluxe versions also include 27 sessions tracks, a 4-track EP and a test mix of Get Back, the proposed original version of the album. Out October 15th; pre-order from the Fabs’ webstore in Standard (1 CD or 1 LP), Deluxe (2 CDs with selected bonus tracks) and Super Deluxe (4 CDs/1 BluRay or 4 LP/1 EP) editions. (The companion book of photos and transcribed conversations from the sessions, Get Back, is released on October 12.)
Emerson Lake and Palmer, Out of This World – Live (1970-1997): a compilation of key live shows in ELP’s history: their 1970 debut at the Isle of Wight Festival; a career peak show at the 1974 California Jam; the 1977 full-orchestra extravaganza at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium; 1992’s comeback concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall; and a previously unreleased 1997 show from Phoenix, Arizona. Out October 29; pre-order from ImportCDs as 7 CDs or 10 LPs.
Joni Mitchell, Archives , Volume 2 – The Reprise Years (1968-1971): more archival recordings from the early days of Mitchell’s recording career. Home and studio demos, outtakes, unreleased songs, her Carnegie Hall debut and much more — a complete acoustic set recorded by a enraptured Jimi Hendrix, anyone? Out October 29; pre-order from Mitchell’s webstore on 5 CDs or 10 LPs (4000 copies only), The Carnegie Hall concert is available separately on 3 LPs (black or white vinyl).
Genesis, The Last Domino? Yet another compilation of Genesis’ greatest hits, fan favorites and core album cuts, released just in time for with their first US tour in 14 years. No real surprises in the track selection, but the promise of “new stereo mixes” of four Gabriel-era classics is intriguing. Out November 19; pre-order from Genesis’ webstore on 2 CDs or 4 LPs. (The UK version of this compilation, out September 17, sports a slightly different track list.)
Elvis Presley, Back in Nashville:the King’s final sessions in Music City, stripped of overdubs a la last year’s From Elvis in Nashville box, that yielded material for three years worth of albums. 82 tracks encompassing country/folk, pop, religious music and Christmas music. Out November 12; pre-order from the Presley webstore on 4 CDs or 2 LPs.
In the Works (release date forthcoming):
Robert Fripp, Exposures: another exhaustive (and potentially exhausting) set from Discipline Global Mobile. This one promises to cover Fripp’s “Drive to 1981,” including his guest-star-heavy solo debut Exposure, the ambient Frippertronics of God Save the Queen and Let the Power Fall, and the egghead dance music of Under Heavy Manners and The League of Gentlemen. Tons of live gigs promised to supplement rarities and studio outtakes.
Marillion, Holidays in Eden: the new Marillion album (now officially titled An Hour Before It’sDark) may push this further back on the release schedule, but Steve Hogarth’s second effort with the boys (an intriguing effort that tried and failed to go commercial) is next up for the deluxe reissue treatment.
Porcupine Tree, Deadwing:a promised deluxe set in the vein of 2020’s In Absentia. Internet gossip flared up when Steven Wilson, Steve Barbieri and Gavin Harrison were rumored to have reset the band’s legal partnership earlier this year; who knows how or when the Tree may blossom again?
Renaissance, Scheherezade and Other Stories: coming from Esoteric Recordings, the folk-prog quintet’s finest hour in the studio, melding orchestral grace with an Arabian Nights theme for the half-hour title track. If this is in the vein of other recent Renaissance issues, hope for a multi-disc set with a bonus live set and a surround remix.
What new music and archival finds are heading our way in the next couple of months? Check out the representative sampling of promised progressive goodies — along with a few other personal priorities — below. (Box sets based on reissues will follow in a separate article!) Pre-order links are embedded in the artist/title listings below.
Amanda Lehmann, Innocence and Illusion:“a fusion of prog, rock, ballads, and elements of jazz-blues” from the British guitarist/vocalist best known as Steve Hackett’s recurring sidekick. Available direct from Lehmann’s webstore as CD or digital download.
The Neal Morse Band, Innocence and Danger: another double album from Neal, Mike Portnoy, Randy George, Bill Hubauer and Eric Gillette. No overarching concept this time — just everything and the kitchen sink, ranging from a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to brand-new half-hour epics. Available from Inside Out as 2CD, 2CD/DVD or 3 LPs/2 CDs
Trifecta, Fragments: what happens when Steven Wilson’s rhythm section turns his pre-show sound checks into “jazz club”? Short, sharp tracks that mix the undeniable chops and musicality of Adam Holzman on keys, Nick Beggs on Stick and Craig Blundell on drums with droll unpredictability and loopy titles like “Clean Up on Aisle Five” and “Pavlov’s Dog Killed Schrodinger’s Cat”. Available from Burning Shed as CD or LP (black or neon orange).
As life in these United States opens up, my life finally seems to be settling down — at least for the summer. Which means it’s time to make up for the backlog of excellent albums (new and old) that I’ve heard since January, but haven’t written about here! Links to listen (to complete albums or samples) are included whenever possible.
New Albums:The Art of Losing (The Anchoress’ rich meditation on endurance) and the multi-versionadrenalin rush of Transatlantic’sThe Absolute Universenotwithstanding, most of the new albums I’ve loved so far have migrated towards jazz and classical — frequently with pianists at their center. Vijay Iyer’s Uneasy, made with bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, is a state of the art piano trio effort; blues and abstraction suspended in perfect balance and caught in an intimate, tactile recording. Canadian Bach and Mozart specialist Angela Hewitt shows off her range with Love Songs, a gorgeous confection of orchestral and art song transcriptions assembled in lockdown and performed with undeniable panache. The same goes for Danny Driver’s phenomenal rendition of Gyorgy Ligeti’s hypermodern 18 Etudes — virtuoso pieces whose serene surfaces turn out to be rooted in super-knotty counterpoint and off-kilter rhythmic cells. My favorite new album of 2021 to date? Promises by electronica artist Floating Points, spiritual jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, and The London Symphony Orchestra, which manages to bring all of the above (well, except for the piano!) together in one glorious, 40-minute ambient epic.
Reissues: Big Big Train’s double-disc update of The Underfall Yardhas definitely had its share of listening time, between Rob Aubrey’s rich remix/remaster and the welcome bonus disc (featuring fresh recordings of the title track and “Victorian Brickwork” by the full band and brass quintet). With My Bloody Valentine’s catalog back in print, their masterpiece Loveless sounds as incredible as ever; crushing distortion and lush romanticism collide to channel the sublime. And Pete Townshend has masterminded a comprehensive Super Deluxe edition of The Who Sell Out, the band’s pre-Tommy high point. But my favorite reissues thus far have been It Bites’ The Tall Ships (especially the title track — what a power ballad!) and Map of the Past (a favorite of mine since its original release). With the then-unknown John Mitchell taking over from Francis Dunnery, IB sailed into the 21st century with their 1980s pomp intact, killer hooks, head-spinning riffs and all.
The Weever Sands – Stylobat’s Travels, 2020 Tracks: 1. Intro/The Breakout Session (3:29), 2. And Aphrodite Took The Veil (7:03),3. Stylobat’s Travels (25:27), 4. Acropolis (The Big Wave) (6:12)
Cologne, Germany’s The Weever Sands combine the album format and experimental playfulness of the early 1970s with what could be considered post-rock or ambient rock. To be honest, I didn’t quite get it at first, but then the other day I was listening to Gentle Giant and it hit me. The synth and organ sounds that predominate in Gentle Giant’s music are very similar to what I hear on Stylobat’s Travels, The Weever Sands’ sophomore album. Add in some flute and strong bass and you have the makings of a classically inspired progressive album. But this is stripped back. The music isn’t as heavily layered as you might get on a Gentle Giant or Jethro Tull record, and that’s by design. The band are also heavily influenced by Mike Oldfield’s idea of a “powerful miniature,” where the songs aren’t as heavily developed yet still stretch out into varying sounds.
The album opens with some spoken word that sets the stage for a concept that is told primarily through music, the wonderful cover artwork and other artwork included with the CD, and promo notes telling me what the story is about. The band describe the concept as a story about a bat (Stylobat) in Ancient Greece who goes on a quest to find his sweetheart. Most of the album is instrumental, so you’ll have to use your imagination, with some help from the artwork, to see Stylobat searching for his beloved.
The first two tracks most closely resemble what we would call progressive rock, but the 25 minute “epic” is most certainly post-rock, with all of the elements that might make up a layered prog song spread out and played individually. A splash on the high hat here, a symphonic tone there, a synthesized beep. Four minutes in and I’m beginning to wonder what’s going on. The first five minutes of that track are subtitled “Flatlined,” so the musical scene is apparently meant to be at a hospital bedside. Things pick up after that with the next section, “Stereobat,” but I would still label it experimental. There’s melody, but the combination of different synth sounds keeps it sounding unique, although it still references the gentlest of giants.
The third section, “Ah! These Ionic Beams!” nicely builds to a combination of keyboard combined with a rock riff that’s a lot more traditional. An electrical guitar finally comes in, elevating the music by leaps and bounds. Not that there was anything wrong with the music before, but the guitar solo is quite nice and certainly welcome. This section of the song is the best music on the album.
This is the point where I notice that the song has built gradually to this moment. The song began with disparate sounds, but they have gradually been brought together and build upon each other. The fourth section, “Introducing Fire Ghosts,” returns to some of the disparateness of “Flatlined,” but it never becomes that sparse again. It soon returns to the musical complexity of the previous section. The final section, “Underwater,” winds down with a synth sound that fills the musical space, perhaps suggesting being covered by water. The final song, “Acropolis (The Big Wave),” continues that nautical theme, but it builds and morphs into more of a rock song with heavier drums and heavier keyboards with a vintage 70s sound.
Stylobat’s Travels isn’t your typical instrumental prog album. Usually instrumental albums feature a lot of musical noodling, but this record seems to focus more on telling a story through music. Personally I would’ve preferred a bit more guitar and fewer moments of sparseness in the long track. Some more spoken word sections beyond the opening track would’ve helped move the story along as well. The opening spoken word passage reminded me a bit of a radio drama, and I think a few more instances of that on the record could have helped tell the story more clearly and coherently.
The Weever Sands are quite unlike most of what you’re going to find in progressive rock these days. They don’t seem to be copying any particular sound, even though I made that Gentle Giant connection earlier. Rather they start with a more ambient base and build that up until it’s no longer ambient… if that makes sense at all. It isn’t quite rock, even though it does have rock moments (which I wish were more numerous). It’s a fun little journey that has a few bumps in the road, but it’s worth checking out if you’re looking something inspired by classic progressive rock that isn’t symphonic prog.
A prayer of the afflicted, when he is overwhelmed, and poureth out his complaint before the Lord.
Ascription for Psalm 102, King James Version
The Art of Losing, the second album by Catherine Anne Davies working as The Anchoress, hits where the listener lives. Lyrically erudite? You bet; Davies borrows the title from American poet Elizabeth Bishop, quotes a roster of literary titans from Julian of Norwich and C.S. Lewis to Margaret Atwood and Jorge Luis Borges in the liner notes, then depicted herself exhaling (vomiting?) her contribution to the conversation on the album sleeve. Musically sophisticated? Again, a slam dunk; beyond her compelling writing and powerful, nuanced singing, Davies plays most of the instruments with gusto, creates the unique sound world only a virtuoso producer could, and pulls influences from Depeche Mode to modern classicist Max Richter into the mix.
But that’s all secondary, picked up on repeated listens, trailing in the wake of this music’s overwhelming initial impact. Davies’ keenly honed portrayals of mayhem, trauma, loss and grief (reflections of her recent life) suck you into a maelstrom where happiness is barely a consideration. The question she seems to insistently ask on The Art of Losing is: how to endure?
How to endure being treated like a possession — by responding in kind? (“The Exchange”, duetting with Manic Street Preachers’ James Dean Bradfield) How to endure in a world where the wicked and unjust prosper and even gain greater influence (“Show Your Face,” rocking like a truck full of bricks as Davies snarls the chorus)? How to endure the ache of separation, the innumerable endings that life inevitably brings (the uneasily propulsive title track and “Unravel”)? The preternaturally quiet “5 AM” arrives at the abyss: just piano, cello and Davies’ unflinching vocal, recounting incidents of domestic abuse, sexual assault and baby loss, implacably inventorying the damage that comes for no reason, beyond what others think you are or owe them.
Groping for a path forward, Davies broods on the nature of sacrifice in “The Heart Is A Lonesome Hunter”, then explodes on the fierce incantation “My Confessor”. “With the Boys” brings another hushed, apocalyptic reckoning, as Davies tallies up the price of her choices– and concludes the outcome has been worth it:
All of my life I’ve been waiting for something I might call my own And learn to hold something inside A voice unworn that gets a little louder when you laugh at me And tell me not to speak
And she goes round and round Chasing circles with the palm of her hand She got to be good got to be certain if she wants to play With the boys . . .
But I can’t and I won’t shut my mouth this time Can’t control what you don’t know What was it you were hoping for guarding all the doors? Guarding all the doors?
The Anchoress’ answers to the inherent ache of life — of embodiment in a broken world where, seemingly beyond redemption, we choose to love things and use other people — aren’t cheap, easy or sentimental. But they are bracing and genuinely moving. At the end of The Art of Losing, endurance is the only viable solution (and quite possibly its own reward); the acceptance of time’s passage and the willingness to continue is the only possibility worth pursuing. Where the strength to do it comes from — yourself? Others? Someone you pour out your complaint to? — may remain a mystery. But by channeling her (and our) dilemma into 40 minutes of ambitious, unforgettable art-pop, Catherine Anne Davies has given us an undeniable gift. Open it for yourself and listen below:
Here are the albums of new music from 2020 that grabbed me on first listen, then compelled repeated plays. I’m not gonna rank them except for my Top Favorite status, which I’ll save for the very end. The others are listed alphabetically by artist. (Old school style, that is — last names first where necessary!) Links to previous reviews or listening/purchase sites like Bandcamp are embedded in the album titles.
Nick D’Virgilio, Invisible: No echoes of Big Big Train or even Spock’s Beard to be heard here. D’Virgilio’s long-awaited latest focuses on classy, soulful rock and pop with R&B undercurrents, reminiscent of nothing so much as the pre-Nirvana mainstream; the progginess is in the extended structures, the virtuoso playing and the overall concept. The down to earth storyline, a redemption narrative with some nifty twists, definitely helps make Invisible appealing and relatable. But it’s the musical means D’Virgilio uses to build out the story — emotive singing, consistently powerful drum work, polished electric piano, loops, bass, bass synth and guitars — that seal the deal. As a result, every single track grabs on tight from the start — not just revealing more depth and emotional resonance with every repeat, but also relentlessly propelling the album forward.
I Am the Manic Whale, Things Unseen: I remain blown away by the energy, humor and sheer delight these young British proggers bring to their story-songs; this third album sounds like their best yet, with crystal clear production by Rob Aubrey. There’s wickedly cheery satire in “Billionaire” and “Celebrity”, a brooding, atmospheric trip to Narnia in “The Deplorable Word” and unbounded delight in the gift of children in “Smile” and “Halcyon Days”. Not to mention IAtMW’s very own train song, “Valenta Scream”, laying down a challenge to Big Big Train with (in my opinion) the best lyrical simile of 2020: “Making it look so very easy/Eating up the distance like a cheese sandwich.” Really. (Check out their free compilation of covers and live-in-studio tracks, Christmas Selection Box on Bandcamp, too.)
Kansas, The Absence of Presence: A real leap forward for a revitalized band; appealing melodies, heady complexity and breathtaking power unite for maximum impact, and it’s a joy to hear all the way through. Each band member has upped his game multiple notches — David Ragsdale, Zak Rivzi and Rich Williams peel off one ear-catching riff and solo after another, Ronnie Platt sings with smooth, soaring power and commitment (evoking Steve Walsh while being utterly himself), and I could listen to Billy Greer and Phil Ehart’s rolling, tumbling thunder all day. New keyboardist Tom Brislin is the perfect match for this line-up, dishing up just the right lick no matter what’s required — pensive piano intros, crushing organ and synth riffs, lush textures, wigged-out solos, you name it. Stir in a new level of collaboration in the writing, and you get Kansas unlocking a new level of achievement, making excellent new music more than 40 years after their initial breakthrough. Recommended without hesitation.
Lunatic Soul, Through Shaded Woods: The perfect Hero’s Journey for this frustrating year. Mariusz Duda’s latest holiday from Riverside’s post-prog heads straight for Mirkwood — ominous, lowering music, echoing the colors and contours of Slavic and Scandinavian folk. Playing all the instruments (frenetic acoustic strums; decorative baroque keys; tasty metallic riffs and electronica accents; unstoppable primal percussion) Duda penetrates the heart of his melancholy, only to discover his greatest obstacle: himself. At which point “Summoning Dance” pivots, echoing Dante lyrically as it turns toward the soul-easing finale of “The Fountain.” Imagine Bela Bartok and Jethro Tull collaborating on a sequel to Kate Bush’s “The Ninth Wave,” and you’ll have some idea of how unique and special this album is. (The bonus disc — currently only available as a Bandcamp download link above and as a Polish import — is essential listening too, especially the hypnotic minimalist epic “Transition II.”)
Pat Metheny, From This Place: State of the art jazz composed and performed at the highest level, this is a unified work of formidable emotional range and intelligence: instantly accessible, inescapably substantial — and above all, incredibly moving. Metheny, pianist Gwilym Simcock, bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Antonio Sanchez ride the exhilarating ebb and flow of ten new tunes, their rich interplay locking together with sumptuous orchestral overdubs for awe-inspiring, high-intensity results. From This Place communicates like mad; confronting knotty, pensive questions of culture, identity and hope, it’s also a deeply satisfying culmination to Metheny’s career-long pursuit of transcendence — music both of its time and potentially timeless, gripping at first acquaintance, deepening its impact with every further listen.
Hedvig Mollestad, Ekhidna: The Norwegian guitarist takes her incandescent blend of heavy rock and avant-garde jazz to the next level, triumphantly meeting the challenges inherent in writing for a bigger band and a broader sonic palette. Ekhidna is a bracing blend of tumbling rhythms, killer riffs and brain-bending improv that goes down remarkably smooth, but leaves a fiery aftertaste. Writing for an accomplished sextet of players, Mollestad’s new music doesn’t avoid the expectations raised by its evocation of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, sometimes confronting classic genre strategies head-on, sometimes blithely subverting them. Named for the she-dragon of Greek mythology (also called “the mother of all monsters”), this album is monstrous in the best sense — a musical rollercoaster ride suffused with heat, light and heart, recombining the raw materials of jazz-rock and extending its reach into realms of vast new potential. A real breakthrough, and Mollestad’s best effort to date.
Markus Reuter, Fabio Trentini and Asaf Sirkis, Truce: Utterly bracing, a cold slap in the face that kicked off 2020 in the best way possible. Recorded live in the studio on a single day by touch guitarist Reuter, bassist Trentini and drummer Sirkis, this is the unfiltered, mind-boggling sound of three virtuosos throwing caution to the winds and just going for it. From start to stop, the music they make is unbeatably heavy, head-snappingly varied, and vividly compelling — whether on the searing stomp of a title track, the brutal mid-tempo funk of “Bogeyman”, the abstract balladry of “Be Still My Brazen Heart”, or the Police-ified dub freak-out of “Let Me Touch Your Batman”. Listening to Truce is an hour-long thrill ride with tons of substance to chew on — one you need to experience for yourself, more than once.
Sanguine Hum, A Trace of Memory: Rarely does eccentricity sound so graceful as in the hands of Joff Binks, Matt Baber and Andrew Waismann. Sequenced as a seamless whole, the seven tracks on A Trace of Memory trace a playful trajectory; no matter the giddy succession of off-kilter riffs, the complex counterpoint of Binks’ guitar and Baber’s keys, or the intensity of the musical climaxes, the ebb and flow is consistently welcoming, yet always subtly stimulating. Freed from the broadly goofy, conceptual conceit of Now We Have Light and Now We Have Power, Binks can explore a more allusive lyrical style and spare melodic lines that soar instead of patter; less is definitely more in this context. Sanguine Hum has hit new heights here; listening to this album is like watching clouds travel unhurriedly across a clear sky, and it makes me smile every time. In 2020, this may be the closest you can come to hearing the harmony of the spheres.
Maria Schneider Orchestra, Data Lords: There’s no question in my mind that composer Maria Schneider (based in jazz but embracing musical terrain beyond category) and her orchestra have reached a new artistic pinnacle on this album. Conveying both the bleak potential of online life blindly lived and the bounteous beauty of the life around us we take for granted, Schneider conjures up slow-burning tone poems that, as they catch fire, blaze with fear and dread — but also with hope and joy. Throughout there’s a symphonic sweep, a supple rhythmic foundation and a seamless flow of inexhaustible melody; Schneider’s compatriots inhabit and animate her music with dedicated unity and thrilling improvisational daring; and the high-definition sound lovingly unfolds all of the music’s sophisticated, profoundly moving beauty with breathtaking clarity.
Secret Machines, Awake in the Brain Chamber: Way back in 2004, Secret Machines’ Now Here Is Nowhere was one of that year’s most compelling albums, a ferocious collage of droning space-rock riffs, rampaging Zeppelinesque grooves and unsettling, dystopian lyrics. A stalled major-label career and a revolving door of personnel dissolved the band’s momentum, capped by guitarist Benjamin Curtis’ passing in 2013 — but somehow, this magnificent beast is back. On Awake in the Brain Chamber, brother Brandon Curtis writes the songs and supplies keys, guitar and bass (as well as his patented, heartbroken vocal sneer) while drummer Josh Garza fills all available frequencies with his customary thunder. Whether they’re uptempo sprints (“Dreaming Is Alright, “Everything’s Under”), widescreen ballad-paced crawls (“3, 4, 5 Let’s Stay Alive,” “So Far Down”), or determined drives into the middle distance (“Talos’ Corpse,” “Everything Starts”), these eight taut, sharp tracks hit the sweet spot between hard rock and modern-day psychedelia — tight, mesmerizing, absolutely exhilarating. This one will get your blood flowing.
Bruce Springsteen, Letter to You: As his career trajectory flared, climbed, peaked, then settled into the long tail of legacy-rock stardom, Springsteen never really stopped exploring his core concerns: the ins and outs of freedom and community, their costs and their consolations. The good news here is that Letter to You digs deeper, pondering the price of escape, love, friendship, loss, grief and jubilation, remembering friends now dead, reviving songs once abandoned. When Bruce has something big to write about, he can cut straight to your heart, even from a secluded home studio in deepest New Jersey, and he’s done it again here. With the E Street Band on fire behind him, Letter to You could be the basis of a tour to top them all for Springsteen; but even if that never comes to pass, this album is something special, a hard-rocking reminder that yes, our days on this earth are numbered — but also that love is strong as death.
Three Colours Dark, The Science of Goodbye: This new collaboration between vocalist Rachel Cohen (Karnataka, The Reasoning) and keyboardist/guitarist Jonathan Edwards (Karnataka, Panic Room) proves elegant, introspective and strangely irresistible; there’s brooding power to the music and a darkly compelling lyrical vision to match. Lured by Edwards’ lush, disconcerting settings into Cohen’s brave, quietly harrowing narratives of pain, bewilderment, and self-doubt, you wonder how you’ll make it out — which makes the album’s cathartic finale even more delicious. From claustrophobic onset to the inspiring end, The Science of Goodbye rings true as both testimony and art, as Three Colours Dark follow the light that seeps through the cracks in everything to a new day.
and my favorite new album of 2020 . . .
Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, Songs of Yearning/Nocturnes: I have never before heard anything quite like this album, and found myself returning to it all year. This loose creative collective from Liverpool has pursued “echoes of the sacred” across three decades, striving to access sonic space where transcendence can invade a stiflingly measured-out world. Songs of Yearning and the limited bonus album Nocturnes (still available as a pair at Bandcamp) both stake out new territory where rumors of glory can run; brimming with rough-hewn beauty and deep mystery, pairing audacious scope with quiet, insistent appeal, this music is primal and postmodern in the same eternal instant. As the idols of prosperity and progress continue to totter around us, RAIJ’s latest feels like genuinely good news — a sacramental transmission from, then back to, the heart of creation.
This year, I’m starting off my “best of” retrospective with albums that aren’t technically “new” — compilations, live albums, reissues and (re)discoveries from previous years — that grabbed me on first listen, then compelled repeated plays in 2020. I’m not gonna rank them except for my Top Pick, which I’ll save for the very end. The others are listed alphabetically by artist. (Old school style, that is — last names first where necessary!) Where available, listening opportunities are linked in the album title or included below my summary via Bandcamp, YouTube or Spotify.
Big Big Train, Summer’s Lease (compilation)and Empire (live): This year, I’ve bought music from even more far-flung corners of the world than usual — including Big Big Train’s Japanese-only retrospective. Disc 1 features various rarities on CD for the first time: re-recordings old and new (including excerpts from my intro to the band, the Stone and Steel Blu-Ray), plus the “London Song” sequence from Folklore in all its sprawling glory. Disc 2 leans into the post-Underfall Yard era with a solid mix of epics and, um, shorter epics, plus an unreleased instrumental as dessert. It’s all impeccably curated, and (in retrospect) a fitting capstone to the work of recently departed Train crew Dave Gregory Rachel Hall and Danny Manners. In a similar fashion, Empire is a fond farewell — the last concert played by this incarnation of the band (including Cosmograf’s Robin Armstrong) before COVID-19 killed off their first-ever North American tour. Which makes the entire show, brilliantly performed as always, even more poignant, from the rocket-fueled opener “Alive” to the romantic, spiraling coda for the best version of “East Coast Racer” yet. Sorry, there’s something in my eye . . .
The Firesign Theatre, How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All(rediscovery): This spring, my big brother Bob pointed me back to this 1969 classic — quite possibly the single most insane comedy album ever recorded. The half-hour long title track’s surrealistic road trip morphs into a wickedly irreverent (yet oddly touching) patriotic pageant, with stopover cameos from Lewis Carroll and James Joyce; “The Further Adventures Of Nick Danger,” memorized and mimed to by me and my roommates back in college, is a hallucinogenic smoothie of hardboiled detective drama, time travel and the Beatles’ White Album. “Wait a minute — didn’t I say that line on the other side of the record?” Believe me, you need to find out.
Pat Mastelotto and Markus Reuter, FACE (discovery): My New Year’s resolution was to become a MoonJune Music subscriber through Bandcamp; twelve months later, it’s still one of the best musical decisions I made. In recent years, touch guitarist Reuter has become a major contributor to Leonardo Pavkovic’s ongoing quest to “explore and expand boundaries of jazz, rock, ethnographic, avant, the unknown and anything between and beyond,” frequently joined by King Crimson drummer Mastelotto (his partner with Tony Levin in Stick Men). The 2017 FACE (not actually on MoonJune) stands out in the duo’s catalog: a single, 35-minute instrumental travelogue that swiftly spans the globe and its myriad rhythms, aided and abetted by Steven Wilson and associates of David Lynch, Tool and the Rembrandts. Blink with your ears and you’ll miss the transitions from theme to theme and place to place; this one both demands and thoroughly rewards my attention every time. Hopefully, the excerpts linked above will convince you — don’t hesitate to hop on board!
The Neal Morse Band, The Great Adventour Live in Brno (live): every bit as impressive as when I saw this show in Detroit the same year, the NMB’s concert take on The Great Adventure is even tighter, more driven and more finely honed than the studio version. Kaleidoscopic contrasts of rhythm, instrumental color, vocal textures (mainly from Morse, guitarist Eric Gillette and keyboardist Bill Hubauer) and tonality mesh effortlessly with drummer Mike Portnoy and bassist Randy’s George’s badass forward propulsion, mirroring the lyrical highs and lows of the journey to John Bunyan’s Celestial City. The result is sustained, extended, unforced ecstasy in the Czech audience, capturing how Morse’s recent work embodies the ongoing ideal of American revivalist religion. A journey worth taking, whether you caught this in person or not.
Jaco Pastorius, Truth, Liberty and Soul: Live in NYC(live, archival, discovery): 2020 was the year I came across Resonance Records, where “jazz detective” Zev Feldman has been unearthing incredible archival treasures for nearly a decade. Jaco Pastorius single-handedly revolutionized electric bass playing in the 1970s; this 2017 release captures him in 1982, fresh from his boundary-busting stint in jazz-rock titans Weather Report. Fronting a big band of great players — the best New York horns, the drum/percussion duo of Peter Erskine and Don Alias, Othello Molineaux on steel pans and harmonica virtuoso Toots Thielmanns — Pastorius mixes classic tunes with his own soulful writing. It’s a mighty, bubbling noise — jazz, funk, rock, reggae, swing and more, with a groove that never stops and heart behind the flash. Irresistible for anyone with a pulse!
Porcupine Tree, In Absentia(deluxe reissue): Not the Porcupine Tree album that hooked me (that was Deadwing, promised its own deluxe box next year) but, looking back, my firm favorite of the band’s late period. Freshly signed to the American label that brought us Trans Siberian Orchestra, Steven Wilson and company made the polar opposite of a sentimental holiday album, focusing on the inner motivations of — serial killers? What makes that work? Well, how about: the full-on debut of Gavin Harrison’s stylish, rhythmically slippery drumming; Richard Barbieri’s off-center, arresting synth textures and solos; Colin Edwin’s relentless, incomparably steady bass workouts; Steven Wilson’s reignited love of metal slamming up against the songcraft developed on Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun, as well as a fixation with Beach Boys-tinged harmonies? Oh, and a clutch of superior tunes that became perennial favorites, both on the main album (“Blackest Eyes,” “Trains,” “The Sound of Muzak”) and the bonus disc (“Drown With Me,” “Futile”). Add in subtle yet superb remastering and you have a near-perfect example of how these boxes should be done.
Pure Reason Revolution, The Dark Third (reissue): At a time when progressive rock’s troops were thin on the ground, PRR provided reinforcements — and a breath of fresh air. It’s still hard to believe a major label released The Dark Third back in 2006; the effortlessly evolving long-form suites, the sweet-and-sour pairings of lush soundscapes and jacked-up beats were a vivid variant on Pink Floyd’s classic palette that turned the bass and drums up to 11. Jon Courtney, Chloe Alper and their cohorts weave the webs of melody and harmony; Paul Northfield’s co-production brings out the cavernous bottom end. The new bonus disc includes both the intriguing student work that led to Sony signing PRR and outtakes that showed up in different forms on later albums. Always an booming, blissed-out listen, now more inviting than ever.
Tears for Fears, The Seeds of Love (reissue): A marvelously all-over-the-place, widescreen record. Unabashedly pop but also fearlessly expanding the TFF sound into psychedelia (the title track was everywhere back in 1989), soul (big shout-out to Oleta Adams and Tessa Niles, who pushed Roland Orzbaal and Curt Smith to new vocal heights on “Woman in Chains” & “Swords & Knives”), jazz (Nicky Holland & Adams serve up stunningly tasty piano), world music (Jon Hassell’s superlative trumpet on “Standing on the Corner of the Third World” & “Famous Last Words”) and even a touch of prog-funk on “Year of the Knife.’ The squeaky-clean remaster (plenty of headroom and dynamic range) is dandy, but if you need more, the super-deluxe set linked above includes some dynamite rehearsal recordings.
and my Top Pick . . .
Ella Fitzgerald, The Lost Berlin Tapes (live, archival): My recent listening has tacked in the direction of mainstream jazz; if I had to speculate as to why, I’d say I might be looking for less tension and more release during my unobligated time. But what’s on offer is a factor as well. Instead of baking sourdough bread or taking up acoustic guitar during the time of COVID, it’s as if jazz musicians and aficionados have all dug deep in their closets and simultaneously unearthed long lost vintage recordings — which record companies eager to fill their distribution pipelines have snapped up and launched into the wider world.
This, in my view, is the best of that harvest: an astounding, life-affirming 1962 concert buried in the archives of Ella Fitzgerald’s manager until now. Ella and her fellas (Paul Smith on piano, Wilfred Middlebrooks on bass, Stan Levey on drums) are at their absolute peak, in tune with each other and with an extroverted, enthralled Berlin audience. Every note of this concert radiates warmth and inner joy, even when the mood darkens on torch songs like “Cry Me A River” and Billie Holiday’s “Good Morning Heartache.” And when Ella swings on “Jersey Bounce,” jumps on “Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie,” digs into Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah, I Love Him So” (resulting in an immediate, complete encore!), then breaks into her trademark scatting on “Mack the Knife,” well, she is unstoppable. I have had no finer feeling listening to music this year; whatever may ail your soul, I believe that The Lost Berlin Tapes are good medicine for it.
But wait, there’s more! Watch for my “new album” favorites from 2020 coming soon . . .
Since the initial installment of our fall preview, deluxe box set announcements are coming thick and fast. This article includes those mentioned in the preview, plus new announcements that may appeal to our readers. I’ve included approximate list prices in USA dollars (not including shipping), as well as lower-cost options for those who want to hear and support the music without breaking their personal bank. Links are to the ever-ready folks at Burning Shed unless otherwise noted.
King Crimson, Complete 1969 Recordings: 20 CDs, 4 BluRays and 2 DVDs include every surviving note Crimson played in their first year — the seminal debut In the Court of the Crimson King plus the complete studio sessions, extant live bootlegs and BBC recordings. The crown jewels here are new stereo, surround and Dolby Atmos mixes of Court by Steven Wilson. Available October 23 ($210 – $240 list price, depending on your vendor); slimmed-down versions of In the Court on 2 CDs + BluRay (with the new stereo and surround mixes, alternate versions and additional material ; $40) or 2 LPs (with alternate versions and additional material; $35) are already available.
Joni Mitchell, Archives Vol. 1 – The Early Years (1963-1967): Nearly six hours of recordings from before Mitchell released her first album — home recordings, radio broadcasts, and live shows, including 29 songs not previously released with her singing them! Available from Mitchell’s website October 30 as follows: complete on 5 CDs ($65); Early Joni 1 LP (1963 radio broadcast; $25, black or clear vinyl) and Live at Canterbury House 1967 3 LPs (3 sets recorded in Ann Arbor, Michigan; $60, black or white vinyl).
More from Porcupine Tree, Tangerine Dream, Tears for Fears and others after the jump!