If there’s a theme this month, it might be “musicians going for it” — whatever the era, whatever the wisdom they assimilate along the way. Another common factor: all of these are strong contenders for my end of the year favorites list! As usual, purchasing links are embedded in each artist/title listing; where available, album playlists or samples follow each review.
Bill Bruford, Making a Song and Dance: completists may go pale, but this isn’t another massive “collect ’em all” box a la Bruford: Seems Like A Lifetime Ago or Earthworks Complete. Rather, it’s a judiciously curated, career-spanning set targeted at a wider market and chosen by the man himself. Organized to reflect the creative roles Bruford posited for expert drummers in his doctoral dissertation Uncharted, discs 1 and 2 cover his years as a “collaborator” in ongoing bands, (mostly Yes and King Crimson), while discs 3 and 4 lay out his qualifications as a jazz-oriented “composing leader” in the above bands and other occasional combos. But if your listening experience is like mine, discs 5 (“The Special Guest”) and 6 (“The Improviser”) will provide the freshest material and perhaps the niftiest surprises; Bruford sits in with everyone from folk-rock iconoclast Roy Harper to speed-fusion guitarist Al DiMeola to the Buddy Rich Big Band, then contributes equal amounts of chops and space to music conjured from thin air with (among others) daringly lateral pianists Patrick Moraz and Michael Borstlap. When the man said he retired from performance because he couldn’t think of anything more to play, he wasn’t kidding — based on the evidence collected here, he’d already done it all. Not only does Making A Song and Dance give an ample picture of Bruford’s stylistic range, it brilliantly charts the growth of an essential artist down the decades.
Vashti Bunyan, Wayward – Just Another Life to Live: indirectly named after a Biblical queen, Vashti Bunyan’s thirst for meaning led from a middle-class childhood through Oxford art school to a London fling as a wannabe pop chanteuse (her debut single was a Mick Jagger/Keith Richards offcut). Adrift in the aftermath, Bunyan seized what seemed a golden opportunity: a journey with her paramour from the Big Smoke to a new life in the Hebrides, undertaken by horse-drawn wagon. That unlikely odyssey forms the heart of this evocative, compelling narrative; laboriously heading north through the heart of England, Bunyan gains understanding of the natural world, of the extremes of human kindness and cruelty — and of her own animating passions, her sturdy inner core. She also writes the deceptively simple, uncommonly rich songs that became her lovely 1970 album Just Another Diamond Day. The fulfillment (and dissolution) of Bunyan’s quest, her immersion in “lookaftering” children and stepchildren, and her artistry’s rebirth when the Internet rediscovered her music in the early 2000s provide the epilogue to this tale of a wandering soul’s coming to terms with the beauty and the beastliness of life. Highly recommended.
Robert Fripp, Exposure:After King Crimson “ceased to exist” in 1974, Fripp withdrew from the music industry, pursuing a spiritual sabbatical. Reinvigorated, he dipped his toe back in the water via guest shots with David Bowie and Blondie, then moved to New York City to get serious about returning to active service. Exposure was Fripp’s calling card for his “Drive to 1981,” self-described as research and development for what might come next; along with nods to his current production work with Peter Gabriel and Daryl Hall, ghosts of Crimson past (the metallic “Breathless”) and future (“NY3,” with ‘found vocals’ from Fripp’s argumentative neighbors draped over cyclical odd-time riffs) haunt the album. But there’s also New Wave 12-bar blues (“You Burn Me Up I’m A Cigarette,” with tongue-twister lyrics gamely tackled by Hall), furious punk energy (“Disengage,” featuring Peter Hammill’s improvised, gleefully atonal vocals cutting across Fripp’s proto-shred guitar and Phil Collins’ blunt, brutal drumming), and surprising amounts of gentle lyricism (Hall on “North Star”, Terre Roche on “Mary”, Gabriel on a gorgeous solo piano “Here Comes the Flood”). What binds these disparate tracks together is the innovation of Frippertronics — the solo guitar looping set-up that Fripp then took to concert halls, dance clubs, restaurants and record stores on a low-budget promotional tour — weaving in, out, between and behind it all to unify the album and give it a futuristic impetus. As strange and compelling a beast as any Fripp has brought us over the years, Exposure is a wild, worthwhile listen in and of itself, while providing distinctive previews of coming attractions. The new “Fourth Edition” features a discreetly energizing remix by Steven Wilson, plus previous versions (including an unreleased master with Hall as the primary vocalist) on a bonus DVD. For those with deeper pockets, the 32-disc box set Exposures exhaustively archives Fripp’s studio and live work from 1979-1981 — including the Frippertronics concert at Peaches Records in Detroit that completely exploded my own musical boundaries. (More of this boundary-breaking beauty can be found on the new release of 1981 Frippertronics, Washington Square Church.)
Brought to you (mostly) by the letter B! Purchasing links are embedded in the artist/title listing; a sample follows each review.
Dave Bainbridge, To The Far Away: put simply, a thrilling, ravishingly beautiful album. Separated from his fiancée on the eve of their wedding by the COVID pandemic, guitarist/keyboardist Bainbridge focused on the essentials — love and the longing it stirs, the beauty of the world and the changing seasons, the desire for hope and a future. Poet Lynn Caldwell’s words (movingly sung by Sally Minnear and Iain Hornal) capture these themes with rich simplicity, cradled in a lush orchestral blend of rock, prog and Celtic folk. Often evoking the palette of his breakthrough band Iona, Bainbridge and a stellar group of collaborators grab your attention and your heartstrings again and again, whether on the dramatic instrumental “Rain and Sun”, the epic paean to the creative spirit “Ghost Light”, the classically-tinged rhapsody “Infinitude (Region of the Stars)” or the yearning sprint of “Speed Your Journey”. Already one of my favorites of 2022, and recommended without hesitation. (And check out our extensive interview with Dave here.)
Big Big Train, Welcome to the Planet:Yet another stellar addition to BBT’s discography, their latest effort 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, love and loss. With Nick D’Virgilio, Rikard Sjöblom, new guitarist Dave Foster and new keyboardist Carly Bryant all involved in the writing, rockers like “Made of Sunshine” and “The Connection Plan” hit with maximum impact; ballads like “Capitoline Venus” and “Oak and Stone” are masterfully expressive; instrumentals like “A Room with No Ceiling” and “Bats in the Belfry” unleash the requisite nifty twists and turns — not forgetting less easily classified delights like the multi-sectioned “Lanterna” and the woozy dreamland wash of the title track. Throughout, Greg Spawton’s firm hand on the tiller and the late David Longdon’s vocal authority are rock solid, their partnership the beating heart of this music. In the wake of Longdon’s untimely passing, we can’t know if Welcome to the Planet is the last stop on Big Big Train’s journey or a way station before what might come next. But such considerations pale in the face of what we’ve been given; this one — easily my favorite BBT effort since the English Electric days — is a real thing of beauty, an album to be treasured and listened to again and again. (Check out Bryan Morey’s detailed review here.)
I thought I didn’t have a big list of favorites from this year’s listening — until I revisited my six-month survey from back in June and added in the good stuff I’ve heard since then! The listing below incorporates links to full or capsule reviews, or other relevant pieces on Progarchy and elsewhere; albums I haven’t written about yet get brief comments, along with my Top Favorites of the year. Most of these are available to check out online in some form; if you find yourself especially enjoying something, use that Christmas cash and support your choice with a purchase! And the winners are . . .
Discipline, Unfolded Like Staircase: a stone cold classic of late 1990s prog, freshly remixed by Rush producer Terry Brown. True, this Detroit quartet wore their influences (Gabriel-era Genesis, 1980s King Crimson, Peter Hammill and Van der Graaf Generator) on their sleeves here, but they also gave them a fresh, arresting spin. As Jon Preston Bouda’s guitar, Matthew Kennedy’s bass and Paul Dzendel’s drums weave grim, mesmeric webs of sound, Matthew Parmenter’s flamboyant vocals and literate scenarios drill deep into existential desperation. Lush, dramatic and riveting, the four twilit epics included here, kicking off with the Dante-influenced “Canto IV (Limbo)”, will get under your skin in a breathtaking way. In short, I believe you need this music; get it on CD or LP from The BandWagon USA or download it at Bandcamp. (Here’s hoping Discipline’s studio follow-up To Shatter All Accord and the live This One’s for England get similar treatment in the near future.)
Ross Jennings, A Shadow of My Future Self: a superbly accomplished, immensely appealing solo debut from Haken frontman Jennings. Recorded during (what else?) COVID lockdown, he spans and mixes genres with ease, diving headlong into folk (“Better Times”), funk with lashings of metal (“Violet”), power pop (“Rocket Science”), cinematic ballads (the moving elegy “Catcher in the Rye”) — oh, and even extended-song-form-verging-on-prog workouts (“Phoenix” and “Grounded”). Jennings is at the top of his game on vocals and guitar, backed by stellar players. And the songwriting is outright wonderful; on every single track, the riffs demand air guitar, the verses demand your attention, and the choruses demand a cathartic singalong. Yes, all of this raises my hopes for Jennings’ upcoming collaboration with Nick D’Virgilio and Neal Morse, but that can wait; this thrilling, eclectic album is a genuine treat in itself. Unquestionably my pick of the month. Get it on CD or LP (merch and bundles also available) at OMerch.
The Pineapple Thief, Nothing but the Truth: whatever the substantial virtues of their studio efforts, The Pineapple Thief’s recent live albums have been where they’ve shone the brightest. Their latest is no exception; filmed for streaming in lieu of their cancelled tour for Versions of the Truth, this 90-minute set finds TPT as brooding, stylish and kickass as ever. Bruce Soord nurses his songs of disillusionment and division through the gathering angst, then opens fire on one blazing chorus after another; Gavin Harrison does the unexpected on drums with astonishing regularity — and yes, I bought the BluRay for the drumcam option! Steve Kitch’s atmospheric keys and Jon Sykes’ throbbing bass are essential ingredients here, not anonymous backing. The new songs gain heightened guts and strength; the dives into the back catalog aren’t just well-calculated, but passionately played, and essential to the set. This one makes me more eager than ever to see The Pineapple Thief when they return to North America next spring. Get it on CD, LP, Blu-Ray video and deluxe artbook box (CD/DVD/BluRay) at Burning Shed.
Radiohead, Kid A Mnesia: a band hard at work tearing down the sound that made them world famous, then rebuilding from scratch. Which somehow made them more famous, given that their first Number One album in America was the result. I’ve always found Kid A gripping stuff; with their wholesale shift to glitchy electronica beats, found-sound patchworks, soupy orchestral backing and sharp-edged noise, Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood and company achieved a genuine paradox — alienation embodied in music, that immediately connected with a mass audience. And when Radiohead walked backward into rock on Amnesiac, the success of their breakaway strategy made both guitar-based grooves like “I Might Be Wrong” and off-kilter art-pop like “Pyramid Song” even more effective. This triple-disc reissue pulls the era together with a bonus set of ear-tickling odds and sods: Yorke, the most deliberately unbeautiful of singers, reaches for actual purity of tone on the unreleased songs, while Greenwood scratches his avant-garde compositional itches, courtesy of a full string section. Get it on CD, LP, cassette or download from Radiohead’s webstore.
The War on Drugs, I Don’t Live Here Anymore: a recent immersion course in Adam Granduciel’s ongoing project — regrafting 1980s tropes like tick-tock rhythms and thick ambient textures onto the stock of classic rock — has proved enticing, though not consistently galvanizing. The War on Drugs’ latest slab of Big Rock Redux is their most organic album to date, integrating the blips and blobs with the rootsy muscle of a tight sextet. Whether a given track goes minimal or maximal, each musical backdrop is built in loving, precise detail, and the simple hooks become earworms before you know it. Granduciel’s vocals — his most individual to date — insistently ride the rhythms, his songs meditating on scenes of a dissatisfied youth (“Change”, “Victim”), then finding unanticipated serenity in the quiet victories and encroaching vulnerabilities of middle age (“Living Proof”, the widescreen title track, “Occasional Rain”). This one snuck up on me via multiple evening listens, and now it’s not letting go; see if it grabs you! Get it on LP, CD or cassette from TWoD’s webstore.
Glass Hammer, Skallagrim – Into the Breach: Fred Schendel, Steve Babb and company return with the second installment of their multi-part “sword and sorcery” epic, begun on 2020’s Dreaming City. The music rocks hard and heavy, evoking everyone from Deep Purple to Mastodon (and yes, a fair amount of Rush), with just enough moody, ambient keyboard work to cleanse your aural palate before the next round of crunchy power chords. All this marvelously matches the grimdark vibe of the titular hero’s melodramatic quest for his lost love. (And a surprise lyrical callback to an earlier GH album sets up tantalizing possibilities regarding just who that lost love is.) To top it all off, new vocalist Hannah Pryor proves a major discovery, surfing Schendel and Babb’s gargantuan riffs with zest, grace and power to spare. Every bit as involving as Dreaming City, this fine album is a blast in every sense of the term. Order signed CDs, downloads and merch direct from Glass Hammer’s webstore.
Steve Hackett, Surrender of Silence: enter one legendary guitarist, shredding! Hackett lets himself off the leash here, laying down both his wildest compositions and his most hardcore playing in quite some time. The tunes can actually be a bit undercooked, their influences not always fully assimilated (‘Hmm, Prokofiev . . . wait, Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo A La Turk”!?! . . . good grief, is that lick really “Theme from Exodus”???’). Nonetheless, Hackett’s swashbuckling solos atop Roger King’s widescreen orchestrations are irresistible as always; he and wife Jo serve up fresh sonic travelogues such as “Wingbeats” and “Shanghai to Samarkand”; and full-on burners like “Relaxation Music for Sharks” and “The Devil’s Cathedral” (featuring Hackett’s full band, including Nad Sylvan on vocals) never fail to thrill. Perhaps it’s not up to the towering heights ofAt the Edge of Light and Under A Mediterranean Sky, but Hackett’s latest is well worth your while. Order signed albums (CD, CD+BluRay combo, LP or LP+CD combo) direct from his webstore.
Isildur’s Bane& Peter Hammill, In Disequilbrium: Mats Johansen’s expandable international ensemble (including King Crimson’s Pat Mastelotto on drums this time) reconnects with Van der Graaf Generator visionary Hammill; two sprawling multi-movement suites result. The three-part title piece careens between hard-driving rock, off-kilter electronica, spastic percussion interludes and haunting chamber textures, as Hammill decries a post-pandemic world that was already primed for chaos. (“There’s no choreography, dance the Tarantella./In disequilibrium round and round forever we’ll go.”) In the four-part “Gently (Step by Step)”, Hammill supplies winningly vulnerable encouragement to face whatever the future holds; the band drapes his incantatory vocals in dizzying sonic collages that somehow always sound forlorn, no matter the timbre or tempo at a particular moment. This one definitely requires multiple plays to unfold its secrets, but it’s well worth the effort; the way IB’s devastatingly precise, multilayered processes track with the unpredictable contours of Hammill’s apocalyptic meditations must be heard to be believed. Order CDs and LPs (plus previous collaborations with Hammill and Marillion’s Steve Hogarth)at Burning Shed’s Isildur’s Bane store.
Tillison Reingold Tiranti, Allium – Una Storia: Perhaps Andy Tillison’s most light-hearted effort ever. Back in 1976, a teenage Tillison encountered (and sat in with) the obscure Albanian prog group of the album’s title at an Italian holiday camp — and it changed his life for the better. This lockdown-inspired “homage to a band whose day never came” easily goes beyond a mere tribute to Seventies Europrog, capturing the sheer joy and the heady freedom both Allium and the fledgling Tillison must have felt in those moments. Collaborating with Jonas Reingold (bass and guitars), Roberto Tiranti (vocals) and Antonio DeSarno (Italian lyrics), Tillison contributes some of his best, boldest keyboard work ever on three long, appealingly involved, frequently funky tracks — and plays all the drums! And you get both Tillison’s “Original Mix” (effortlessly conjuring up the period — I was roughly his age at the time) and Reingold’s “Respectful Remix” (which, bourgeois Philistine that I now am, I actually prefer). If you’re interesting in hearing the Tangent’s mainman just having fun, this is your ticket. Order CDs from Reingold Records.
Yes, The Quest: I’d argue that Yes, in any formation, hasn’t made an essential album since 90125. I’d also argue that, when Geoff Downes’ keys and Steve Howe’s sublime guitar really lock together, as on the opening “The Ice Bridge”, the results sound more like upper-mid-level Asia than the band they’re supposed to be in here. But if Yes fans can get past these discontents (as well as the numerous others they’ve accumulated over the decades), they may enjoy The Quest’s estimable (though not overwhelming) charms. Singer Jon Davison brings the requisite lyrical themes of self-actualization and environmental issues to the party; Billy Sherwood does his manful best to channel the spirit of Chris Squire on bass and vocals; and in the studio Alan White can still summon his classic drive, if not the power he had in his prime. The FAMES Orchestra add a dash of Time and A Word/Symphonic Tour luxury to the proceedings as well. While everything’s downshifted multiple gears from Yes’ most rambunctious, energetic — and it has to be said, creative — years this is an unquestionable step up from the appallingly bland Heaven and Earth, with its own modest appeal. I can see a track or two from this fitting nicely into the setlist when Yes finally can bring their long-promised Relayer tour to the Western Hemisphere. Order the album (in CDs, red LPs + CDs, CDs + BluRay combo, and CDs+LPs+BluRay deluxe boxset formats) from Burning Shed.
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.
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.
In his 2018 book Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century, Nate Chinen devoted his final chapter to guitarist Mary Halvorson, rightly declaring her “an original in every sense.” Her spiky, pick-driven timbre, sparse yet compelling use of effects, daring improvisational command and distinctly off-center compositions add up to a sound like no one else’s, effortlessly catching (then twisting) the ear regardless of context — from the radiant solo album of covers Meltframe to her head-spinning work with avant-garde trio Thumbscrew to the precise, conversational octet writing of 2016’s Away with You (my first, heady exposure to her music).
Also in 2018, Halvorson released Code Girl, her first extended foray into songwriting; the band she put together for the album boasted serious roots in jazz, but fearlessly mashed up genres and straddled extremes of expression, pivoting on a dime from a murmur to a scream and back again. On October 30, the revamped Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl (pictured below) returns with a second album, Artlessly Falling. Reconnecting with vocalist Amirtha Kidambi, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, Halvorson also welcomes new collaborators Adam O’Farrill (trumpet) and Maria Grand (tenor saxophone and voice). For the cherry on top, three of the new tracks are sung with gravity and grace by Soft Machine founder Robert Wyatt, one of Halvorson’s most profound influences.
It was an utter delight to speak with Mary Halvorson — a thoughtful musician and a serious music fan — about her approach to lyrics, songwriting, composition, collaboration, improvisation and more. The video of our conversation is below; a lightly edited transcript follows the jump!
Touch guitarist Markus Reuter’s new album Truceis utterly bracing, a cold slap in the face that boggles the mind and kicks off 2020 in the best way possible. Recorded live in the studio on a single day in collaboration with bassist Fabio Trentini and drummer Asaf Sirkis, this is the unfiltered sound of three virtuosos throwing caution to the winds and just going for it. Put simply, these seven instrumentals rock — hard, sharp and smart.
Reuter (best known for his partnership with King Crimson members Tony Levin and Pat Mastoletto in Stick Men) lets rip without a pause, now firing off astonishingly ballsy/brainy solos, now laying down pensive, brooding soundscapes — then layering the one atop the other! Trentini is stunningly melodic and stunningly powerful on fretless bass, always laying down a deep, unshakeable foundation for Reuter’s explorations. Sirkis (one of the subjects of Bill Bruford’s doctoral dissertation Uncharted) is a genuine revelation on drums — simultaneously disciplined and free, tight and loose, spinning out endlessly compulsive grooves, whether subtle or stomping. From start to stop, the music these three make is unbeatably powerful, 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 wig-out of “Let Me Touch Your Batman”. Listening to Truce is an hour-long thrill ride with tons of substance to chew on through multiple listens — one you need to experience for yourself.
Beyond its sheer brilliance, Truce is also a testament to one of progressive music’s unsung heroes — the 100th release masterminded by Leonardo Pavkovic. Since 2001, Pavkovic’s one-man operation MoonJune Records has been on a mission to “explore and expand boundaries of jazz, rock, ethnographic, avant, the unknown and anything between and beyond” with artists from across the globe. Whether relatively well-known (Tony Levin, Stick Men, Soft Machine) or criminally anonymous in the Western Hemisphere (Indonesian fusioneers Duwa Budjana and Dwiki Dharmann, Sirkis’ rewarding solo projects and marvelous International Quartet featuring vocalist Sylvia Bialas, masterful European musos like guitarist Mark Wingfield and drummer Xavi Reija), Pavkovic has believed in them, recorded them on their own and in exciting combinations (often at Spain’s La Casa Murada, where Truce was laid down), and helped them take their music to the people. Already this year, Pavkovic has mounted North American tours of The Levin Brothers (cool jazz with Tony and pianist brother Pete) and vintage English/German proggers Nektar; Stick Men dates in Asia and North America follow starting in February. Whew!
If all of the above intrigues you, MoonJune currently offers two in-depth ways to get in on the action. A subscription plan gets you everything released for a year as multiple format downloads plus bonus back catalog albums and samplers plus 25 percent off vinyl, CD and merch purchases. (I splurged on this with Christmas cash, and am already plotting what to get next.) Or the same amount ($100) gets you 19 album downloads from across MoonJune’s catalog or 19 CDs (selected catalog titles, with a minimal shipping charge added).
But if the above is too rich for your wallet, or you want to dip a toe in the water first, take my advice: listen to Truce. And buy Truce. Then dive deeper into what MoonJune Records has to offer. I think you’ll be glad you did!