Rick’s Best of the Decade

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

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

So, without further adieu:

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading “Rick’s Best of the Decade”

Progarchy’s Artists of the Decade: Steven Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

Rick’s Quick Takes for July

In addition to this month’s new music, I’ve taken a few column inches to double back on “Blasts from the Past” — albums that I missed the first time around or haven’t heard in a while, but have become firm favorites as I discovered (or rediscovered) them during the first six months of this year. For new releases, purchasing links are embedded in each artist/title listing, with playlists or samples following each review as available; Blasts from the Past have listening links embedded in each album title.

Tim Bowness, Butterfly Mind: As Bowness mentioned in his latest Progarchy interview, the concept of his 2020 album Late Night Laments‘ was of a fragile refuge, however imperfect, from current societal storms. Butterfly Mind drops those defenses, confronting protest (“We Feel”), polemics (“Only A Fool”), fear of the future (the album frame “Say Your Goodbyes”) and, yes, death (“About the Light That Hits the Forest Floor”) with Bowness’ typically thoughtful, allusive lyrics and rich, warmly delivered melodies. But there’s also a gritty energy welling up from the roots of the music (bassist Nick Beggs and drummer Richard Jupp are a fabulous rhythm section), toughening the musical tendrils nurtured by soloists like Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, Magazine’s Dave Formula, Big Big Train’s Greg Spawton and former No-Man bandmate Ben Coleman. Urgent art-rock that compels multiple listens, as beauty takes on today’s ugliness without flinching. Preorder now for August 5th release.

The Dear Hunter, Antimai: having cleansed their palette with 2017’s relatively straightforward All Is As All Should Be, Casey Crescenzo and his crew of emocore/musical theater/prog rockers settle in for some serious world-building. Exploring the dystopian culture that underlies Crescenzo’s short film The Indigo Child from bottom (“Ring 8 – Poverty”) to top (“Ring 1 – The Tower”), his lyrics portray the variations of despair, complacence, and self-deception each imagined caste falls prey to. Honestly, it’s the music that provides sharper differentiation between social strata, with surprising amounts of sonorous brass — plus jazz/funk, R&B and even hip-hop — snuggling alongside TDH’s trademark power chords, mallet percussion riffs and singalong choruses stacked with Beach-Boys-meet-Queen harmonies. It feels a bit like an aural version of a cinematic trilogy’s middle installment — lots of set-up, with the ultimate payoff beyond the horizon — but with TDH’s sonic and structural ambition clicking so often, Antimai is quite a dazzling trip.

Fernando Perdomo, Out To Sea 4: Even with this year’s return of Cruise to the Edge (the series’ initial impetus), this fresh installment of nautically-themed prog instrumentals comes as a surprise — but then it did to Perdomo as well! Written in the heat of inspiration, his new compositions are sure-footed and energized from first to last, immediately appealing while packed with depth. Playing all the instruments, Perdomo lays down powerful, propulsive grooves on bass and drums and sets up sparkling, jangly chordal textures and fires off his arresting themes on guitar with confidence and aplomb. And his guitar solos! Never pat or predictable, always heartfelt and daringly executed, each solo is a ravishing song in itself. The only reason I haven’t mentioned any standout tracks: every single one is equally excellent. If you’ve heard Out To Sea 1, 2 and 3, you’ll definitely want this; if Fernando Perdomo’s name is new to you, you won’t regret giving OTS 4, the high water mark of a really fine run of albums, a spin.

Robert Berry’s 3.2 Alive at Progstock: Berry’s recent posthumous collaboration with Keith Emerson (an extension of his work with Emerson and Carl Palmer in the 1980s band 3) gave him renewed exposure and the chance to command prog festival stages in 2019. Surrounded by chops-heavy compadres Paul Keller, Andrew Colyer and Jimmy Keegan, he delivers with a thrilling mix of 3 and 3.2 highlights, prog classics as reimagined for 1990s tribute albums, solo tracks and even “Deck the Halls” a la 1980s Rush! Plus, Berry’s unpretentious spoken introductions, peaking behind the curtain to reveal how the music came to be, are nearly as riveting as the performances themselves. All in all, this CD/DVD set is a worthy showcase for a remarkably underrated musician, finally in the spotlight after decades behind the scenes. (Watch for a Progarchy interview with Berry about his next project, SiX By SiX, coming soon.)

Blasts From The Past:

  • Battles caught my ear opening for Primus back in May; their first two albums, 2007’s Mirrored & 2011’s Gloss Drop, turned out to be especially exciting. Glitchy electronica that defies predictability with every asymmetric loop, candy-coated melody, whipsaw rhythmic shift, and whomping backbeat, with each album meant to be experienced in one extended go. As proggy as dance music gets!
  • Tears For Fears’ The Tipping Point inspired a deep dive into the lesser known corners of their catalog. Roland Orzbaal and Curtis Smith’s 2004 reunion, Everybody Loves a Happy Ending (which I never heard at the time), lives up to the same high standards as their latest; unstoppable riffs and hooks abound in killer songs like “Call me Mellow”, “Who Killed Tangerine?” and the delectable “Ladybird”.
  • Andy Tillison’s reflections on soul music in his recent Progarchy interview sent me back to Stevie Wonder’s masterful 1970s albums, where Wonder blended soaring melodies, sophisticated chord structures, groundbreaking synthesizer work and heaping helpings of funk rhythms for one innovative, irresistible breakthrough after another. 1976’s Songs in the Key of Life remains Wonder’s most expansive, fascinating and welcoming classic, ranging from the swing of “Sir Duke” to the drive of “I Wish” and “Isn’t She Lovely” to the sardonic classical gas of “Pastime Paradise”. And the songs you don’t know from this double album are just as good — or often better! Sheer genius at its peak.

— Rick Krueger

New Muse Album “Will of the People” Out August 26

Muse recently announced their upcoming album, “Will of the People,” will be released on August 26. Musically the singles released thus far are a mixed bag, with “Won’t Stand Down” being by far the best. Parts of it are some of the best hard rock the band has ever made – even approaching metal at points. “Compliance” has more of the electronic edge the band has dabbled with in the past, especially on Simulation Theory. The title track has a typical Muse power ballad groove, but there are elements that sound like they were ripped straight from Marilyn Manson’s “Beautiful People.” 

With all that said, I’m cautiously excited about the record. The anti-establishment anti-tyranny concept for the album is right up my alley. The band has long been known for such themes, and now is certainly the time for more music in that vein while it’s still legal in the west. Matt Bellamy comments, 

Will of the People’ is fictional story set in a fictional metaverse on a fictional planet ruled by a fictional authoritarian state run by a fictional algorithm manifested by a fictional data centre running a fictional bank printing a fictional currency controlling a fictional population occupying a fictional city containing a fictional apartment where a fictional man woke up one day and thought ‘f*** this.’
 
You can pre-order the album from the band’s store: https://usstore.muse.mu. The album will be available on vinyl, CD, and even cassette. No 8-track? Bummer. 
 
Check out the singles.

A Tribute to Kings: Primus and Battles in Concert

Primus: A Tribute to Kings with Battles, GLC Live at 20 Monroe, Grand Rapids, Michigan, May 31, 2022

Having been sucked in to seeing this show by the sheer audacity of the concept — Primus covering Rush’ complete album A Farewell to Kings — I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of the audience. On the night, GLC Live hosted what was by no means a typical “progressive rock” crowd. With all the restrooms equally busy at the usual break points, I saw pierced youth, middle-aged mullet wearers, date night couples, Gen X parents with their Millennial kids and the occasional fan in costume (from silk kimonos to the hat pictured here, depicting the album cover of Primus’ Sailing the Seas of Cheese) packing the standing-room-only main floor. So I got as close to the soundboard as I could and awaited the night’s developments.

Making their Grand Rapids debut, New York City’s Battles got the crowd moving with a ecstatic blend of electronica, funk and rock, mostly from 2019’s stellar Juice B Crypts album. Ian Williams set the mood with his genial dad-dancing — triggering loops and laying down riffs on synth, garnishing the resulting blend with effects-laden guitar riffs and the odd solo in the moment. John Stanier, a hard-hitting drummer in the John Bonham vein, drove the tunes and cued one whiplash rhythm change after another, triggering new beats and repeatedly bashing his elevated crash cymbal along the way. The grooves were relentless but refreshingly unpredictable and airy; the interlocking melodic lines ranged from punky ferocity to video-game-soundtrack campiness; and the occasional pre-recorded guest vocal (like Jon Anderson adding some Yes-style sunshine to “Sugar Foot”) always seemed to furnish a cherry on top the sweet sonic sundae. Williams and Stanier have forged an impressively interactive relationship with their electronics in real time, bringing an artsy asymmetry and freshness to their music that gathered thrilling momentum as the set progressed. After 45 minutes of Battles, I felt like I’d already got my money’s worth. (And I can’t recommend their recorded catalog highly enough — if there’s such a thing as dance music for prog heads, this is it!)

Battles onstage at GLC Live: L to R, John Stanier and Ian Williams.

Following the openers’ clean lines and summery vibe, the headliners’ full-on first set was initially bewildering to a newbie like me. Bypassing their long-ago radio hits for the most part, Primus conjured up a thick, hypnotic pulse to jam on extended, deep catalog tracks like opener “Harold of the Rocks” and “American Life”, as well as new music from their Conspiranoid EP. While that approach grabbed the already-primed crowd from the start, I had to get my bearings. Still, it was quickly evident that Les Claypool’s circular, polyphonic bass riffs are the heart of Primus’ sound (with his outsider sensibility every bit as evident instrumentally as in his carnival barker voice and Zappaesque lyrics); that drummer Tim “Herb” Alexander not only locks in with Claypool’s grooves, but that he pretty much fills the remaining space in the soundfield; and that their tight connection allows Larry “Ler” LaLonde the freedom to play guitar in a completely lateral fashion, with blindingly off-angle solos that seem to defy not only the laws of tradition, but possibly the laws of physics. Add in a full-on light show and quirkily-cued screen projections, and you had an undeniably appealing set, connecting with the audience via its eccentricities, not despite them. But one question remained for me: how well could Primus, who opened for Rush back in their own early days, possibly recreate the operatic metal sound of their heroes in the 1970s?

Primus onstage at GLC Live: left to right, Larry LaLonde, Tim Alexander (behind drums), Les Claypool)

The answer: better than anyone had a right to expect. Primus had unquestionably done their homework; “A Farewell to Kings'” chiming classical intro and lumbering riffs plus “Xanadu’s” double-neck duet and bell tree accents proved the opening shots of an awe-inspiring re-creation, with all of Rush’s instrumental bells and whistles delightfully present and correct. All three players were stretching themselves to hit their marks, and you could tell how the effort had strengthened their overall bond as a band. And I’ll give the kimono-clad Claypool full credit for giving Geddy Lee’s utterly impossible vocals his best shot; generally sticking to a lower octave, occasionally letting loose with appropriate Plant-y screams, inviting the obvious singalong on “Closer to the Heart”, he was obviously having the time of his life nearly a year into this tour. By the time “Cygnus X-1, Book 1: The Voyage” (complete with Captain Smiler onboard the good ship Rocinante onscreen) gathered speed and dove into its climactic black hole, I was sold — even though my aching back meant I didn’t stay for what turned out to be an extended encore. Along with Battles’ marvelous opening set, my introduction to Primus’ weird world of pure imagination and their well-done “tribute to kings” proved to be an appropriately titled evening: a first-rate, full-on musical experience. If the above strikes your fancy and you get the chance, this tour is well worth your time and cash!

— Rick Krueger

Battles Setlist:

  • The Yabba
  • Hiro 3
  • IPT-2
  • Summer Simmer/Ice Cream (featuring Matias Aguayo)
  • A Loop So Nice . . .
  • Titanium 2 Step (featuring Sal Principato)
  • Fort Greene Park
  • Sugar Foot (featuring Jon Anderson and Prairie WWWW)
  • TRAS
  • Ambulance
  • Atlas

Primus Setlist:

  • Harold of the Rocks
  • Fisticuffs
  • The Pressman (quickly abandoned because, to quote Claypool, “I can’t remember the words. We’ll play something else!”)
  • American Life
  • Conspiranoia
  • Professor Nutterbutter’s House of Treats
  • Del Davis Tree Farm
  • Erin on the Side of Caution
  • Welcome to This World
  • Jerry Was a Race-Car Driver
  • A Farewell to Kings
  • Xanadu
  • Closer to the Heart
  • Cinderella Man
  • Madrigal
  • Cygnus X-1, Book 1: The Voyage
  • Too Many Puppies/Sgt. Baker/Too Many Puppies
  • Follow the Fool
  • Southbound Pachyderm

Cleaning the Outhouse: The Gong Farmers’ “Guano Junction”

The Gong Farmers -The Gong Farmers, Guano Junction, Spaceward Records, November 5, 2021
Tracks: As Sunlight Falls 1 (2:26), Drive (6:14), Pip, Squeak and Wilfred 1 (3:56), Guano Junction 3 (2:43), Evergreen (4:24), As Sunlight Falls 2 (2:42), Vista de Toledo (3:22), Guano Junction 2 (3:52), Wednesday Afternoon (4:42), SHAVE! (1:41), Winter Hill (3:32), Dark Skies (4:19), Pip, Squeak and Wilfred 2 (3:28)

I have to start off this review talking about the best band name I’ve heard in a while. Before today I was blissfully unaware of what a gong farmer was, having not heard the term before receiving this CD for review. It’s kind of funny, actually, considering one of my main focuses as a history major in undergrad was early modern Europe, but there’s always more to learn. I looked it up, and a gong farmer was someone in Tudor England tasked with cleaning excrement from outhouses. While that might lead you to believe that Guano Junction is a steaming pile of… gong, nothing could be further from the truth. The album is quite good, with a mature sound and a delightful array of influences.

The Gong Farmers

The Gong Farmers are primarily Mark Graham (vocals, synthesizers) and Andrew Keeling (classical guitar, flute, piano, organ), but they are joined by a very talented cast of supporting musicians, including David Jackson, the saxophonist for Van Der Graaf Generator. Here’s a list of everyone else who played on the album:

  • Alex Che (vocals, synthesizers)
  • Cliff Hewitt (drums, percussion)
  • René van Commenée (drums, percussion)
  • Ricardo Odriozola (violins)
  • Ben Keeling (electric guitar)
  • Martin Walker (electric guitar)
  • Brian Taylor (electric guitar and textures)
  • Noko 440 (viola and string arrangements)

The array of musicians should give you a hint of the variety found in their music, which bears elements of 1960s psychedelic rock (could be why they are on a label called Spaceward Records). Their sound expands beyond that, though, incorporating electronic, symphonic, jazz, and, of course, prog elements.

“Pip, Squeak and Wilfred 1” and “Pip, Squeak and Wilfred 2” are my favorite tracks on the album. They simultaneously have a strong Moody Blues influence and a huge Muse influence. The vocal effects on the song really bring in the Muse sound, reminding me a lot of “Exogenesis,” the three part symphony that ends Muse’s brilliant 2009 album, Resistance. The lyrics on these two tracks are short and simple, but they make you think.

Today I found my father’s medals in a drawer
And I thought of all the sacrifice,
All the sufferings of war

As you can see from the tracklisting, these songs are on the shorter side. They work together to form a cohesive sound, although the songs stand by themselves. “SHAVE!” is a strange track, being more a collection of various sounds and textures, which would be the psychedelic side of things. I suppose it reminds me a bit of the beginning of “The Waiting Room” off Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Speaking of Genesis, the inclusion of flute throughout Guano Junction reminds me a bit of them, although “Guano Junction 3” also has some Jethro Tull to it.

Classical guitar plays a fairly prominent role on the album. At times it reminds me of some of Steve Hackett’s more recent solo work. “Evergreen,” for instance, has that world and classical influence, although I hear some Muse-style sounds towards the end. The gentle and melancholic Spanish-style guitar on “Vista de Toledo” has a very warm and contemplative feel. Lyrically the track is a love song reflecting on lovers apart from each other. The melancholy in the music reflects those lyrics rather well.

“Dark Skies” has a sparse Floydian guitar solo that is played over simple plucked strings with vocal effects swirling around. It’s a simple way to frame a guitar solo, but it works in the context of The Gong Farmers’ music.

For me “Pip, Squeak and Wilfred” parts 1 and 2 are worth the price of admission. They stand out on the album with a compelling symphonic melody and atmospheric vocal effects that take you to another dimension. The flute playing in the background makes it that much better. If you listen to anything off this album, make it those two tracks. But do yourself a favor and check out the rest of the record while you’re at it. It has a compelling blend of psychedelic spaciness with symphonic overtones.

https://thegongfarmers.bandcamp.com/releases
https://www.gong-farmers.co.uk
https://www.facebook.com/GongFarmers/

Kruekutt’s 2021 Favorites!

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 . . .

Continue reading “Kruekutt’s 2021 Favorites!”

Rick’s Quick Takes for October

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 of At 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.

— Rick Krueger

2021: My Favorite Albums, Six Months In

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-version adrenalin rush of Transatlantic’s The Absolute Universe notwithstanding, 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 Yard has 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.

Live Albums: Beyond the visceral thrills of Fanfare for the Uncommon Man: The Official Keith Emerson Tribute Concert, I’ve had a blast hearing krautrock legends Can conjure up spellbinding group improvisation on Live in Stuttgart 75, an initial dip into their voluminous concert archives. I’ve been giddy to hear Kansas, bolstered by keyboardist Tom Brislin, get their mojo working on Point of Know Return Live & Beyond. (They’ll be my first post-lockdown rock show next month.) And my journey back into soul music (see below) set me up nicely for the razor-sharp, precision funk of Tower of Power: 50 Years of Funk and Soul Live at the Fox Theater, a deliriously exciting reunion show recorded in 2018.

From the Catalog: All the good new stuff above aside, this is where some of my most fruitful listening has been happening this year — frequently inspired by other media. Watching the movie One Night in Miami led me back to Sam Cooke’s Portrait of a Legend: 1951-1964; the resulting dive into soul music ultimately brought me to Marvin Gaye’s classic concept album What’s Going On — 50 years old in 2021! Perusing various “best of 2020” lists turned me on to the avant-garde jazz of trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusere’s on the tender spot of every calloused moment and Maria McKee’s art-pop song cycle La Vita Nuova (inspired by Dante, no less). Jazz/fusion legend Chick Corea’s death prompted a deep dive into his catalog; new favorites included Return to Forever’s Where Have I Known You Before and the fabulous Five Peace Band Live, Corea’s long-delayed collaboration with guitarist John McLaughlin. And after long years of the album doing nothing for me, Radiohead’s The Bends finally clicked when I read Steven Hyden’s fine band biography This Isn’t Happening. (Curt Bianchi’s wonderful new book, Elegant People: A History of the Band Weather Report, is prompting a similar deep dive into that quintessential jazz/rock band’s catalog; I highly recommend their cutting edge debut album from 1971 and their 1976 masterpiece of groove, Black Market.)

Coming Soon: In addition to Big Big Train’s Common Ground (take it from me, it’s a humdinger), I highly recommend MoonJune Records’ latest release, Indonesian fusion guitarist Dewa Budjana’s incandescent Naurora. I’m also eagerly anticipating new music from the Neal Morse Band (oops, NMB now), Steve Hackett and Isildur’s Bane & Peter Hammill; reissues of BeBop Deluxe’s Live in the Air Age and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass; and comprehensive box sets from The Beach Boys and Van Der Graaf Generator. Plus live shows from Kansas, Emmylou Harris and Los Lobos, King Crimson with The Zappa Band, and opening night of Genesis’ USA tour.

So, yeah, it’s taken a while — but at least from my point of view, 2021 has already been a solid year for music — and the prospects for it getting even better are looking up!

— Rick Krueger

The Sound of Steven Wilson’s Muzak: Fifth Impressions of The Future Bites

[Sly and the Family Stone’s album ‘There’s a riot goin’ on’] is Muzak with its finger on the trigger . . . If you listen, you get sharper, and you begin to hear what the band is hearing; every bass line or vocal nuance eventually takes on great force.

Greil Marcus, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock’n’Roll Music

Steven Wilson’s The Future Bites didn’t click for me until I stopped listening to it. Let me explain.

It was when I was playing TFB for the fifth time, as I was doing something else, that I finally heard it — almost as if the album was designed to catch you by surprise when you’re focused elsewhere or distracted. I found myself drawn toward the interplay of backing textures instead of the spare surface detail, zooming in on the ambience of the foundational grooves and pads instead of the gyrating vocal and instrumental leads. Instead of missing the rock rhythms, the power riffs, the extended structures and the virtuoso musical moments of Wilson’s previous efforts, I started digging into what was actually there. The minimalism — maybe even the monotony Bryan Morey detected in his review — becomes the message.

Which, whatever you may think of the results, is a pretty neat trick. So the thought struck me: is this latest release meant to work as background music, as much or more than as a foreground listening experience? When you turn the frequently static norms of today’s electronic pop inside out, is this what you get?

If so, it fits with more of Steven Wilson’s catalog than later adopters might think — sample the extended trance trip of Porcupine Tree’s Voyage 34, the forlorn, scratched-up drones of his Bass Communion efforts, even the symphonic disco of 2019’s No-Man comeback Love You to Bits if you doubt me. (Not to mention his remastering of vintage efforts by German synth wizards Tangerine Dream.) And it seems to me his new sound — a postmodern British upgrade of Greil Marcus’ concept? — is not just purposeful, but channeled for a purpose. After all, the man knows (and has lyrically railed against) the sound of Muzak. By embracing it here, he’s planting depth charges beneath our buffed-up virtual lives, triggering both our individual delight as we succumb to the age of the algorithm and our creeped-out, collective unease with the results. We may be having a good time amusing ourselves into financial and spiritual bankruptcy, but Wilson’s depictions of lost, alienated souls (by turns ironic, empathetic, furious, blackly hilarious) hold up a mirror — one with the caption “Limited Edition Deluxe Box Set Purchaser” across the bottom — and dare us to study the reflection as we spiral downward.

Continue reading “The Sound of Steven Wilson’s Muzak: Fifth Impressions of The Future Bites”