(A quick note: for new releases, order links are embedded in album titles; online playlists/previews/etc. follow reviews when available. For catalog albums, playlists are linked with titles.)
Once again, I get to second a positive review from Bryan — this time of Fauna, the new release from prog-metallers Haken. Wildly creative, I found this to be the British sextet’s most appealing effort since 2016’s Affinity, stirring in flavors of fusion, postmodern pop, funk, reggae, electronica and even opera alongside one heavy yet tuneful chorus after another. Whether on the short, sharp shocks of “Taurus” and “Lovebite” or the extended journeys of “Sempiternal Beings” and “Elephants Never Forget”, Ross Jennings’ vocals soar, Charlie Griffiths and Richard Henshall’s guitars crunch, Peter Jones’ keys fill what few sonic crevices remain, and rhythm section Conner Green and Raymond Hearne thunder. Play it loud — but look out for multiple, exciting curveballs on every track!
Last month also saw the release of two live albums from veteran bands who’ve made it through the pandemic back to the stage:
Van der Graaf Generator’s The Bath Forum Concert(a CD/DVD/BluRay set) documents the venerable trio’s 2022 return to action; tackling an ambitious setlist that spans their entire career, guitarist/pianist/singer Peter Hammill is as declamatory and vehement as ever, organist Hugh Banton covers the aural spectrum between cathedral and crypt, and drummer Guy Evans locks into or disrupts the grinding soundscapes as the spirit moves him. The beautifully filmed video shows VDGG working hard and watching each other, opting for the flow as they feel it rather than relying on clinical precision; warts and all, this is refreshingly in the moment, a strong show that captures the band’s existential angst and humanistic idealism in full.
Two years after their 2020 Far Eastern tour collapsed around them, King Crimson satellite band Stick Men returned to Japan and blew away any cobwebs that might have accumulated at Osaka’s BB Live venue. The resulting album Umedashowcases avant guitarist Markus Reuter, multi-bassist Tony Levin and percussionist Pat Mastelotto at their aggressive, angular best; whether on long-standing improvisational frameworks “Cusp”, “Schattenhaft” and “Swimming in Tea”, newer compositions “Ringtone”, “Tentacles” and “Danger in the Workplace” or Crimson classics “Red”, “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Pt. II” or “The Sheltering Sky”, these guys are frighteningly good, whether working up a hair-raising din or backing off for spacey, unexpectedly lush interludes. A great introduction for newbies and a must for fans.
Plus, in February and March the recorded music industry resumed cranking out deluxe box set reissues and compilations — apparently the market of Boomers (like me) with more money than sense isn’t tapped out yet:
Transatlantic’s The Final Flight: Live at L’Olympia is a worthy souvenir of the latest — and last? — tour by our favorite “more never is enough” classic-prog supergroup. Over three hours, Neal Morse, Roine Stolt, Pete Trewavas, Mike Portnoy and sidekick Ted Leonard play every possible note of their ultra-epic The Absolute Universe, plus generous chunks of the band’s first three albums (sorry, Kaleidoscope fans). You might notice some rough edges in Morse’s singing despite a few preemptive downward key shifts, but Transatlantic still delivers the goods without fail — the jaw-dropping ensemble work, knockout solos, choral counterpoint, head-spinning transitions and heart-stopping climaxes just keep coming. And if this is their swan song, thanks for 20+ years of over-the-top thrills and spills are well past due!
Rick Wakeman’s latest album, A Gallery of the Imagination, is less a conceptual effort (like The Six Wives of Henry VIII or even the recent The Red Planet) than an impressionist suite based on a overall musical approach (as on his Piano Portraits releases). As such, Wakeman’s strong suit — spacious melodies decorated with arpeggios aplenty, then rocked up via finger-busting solo work — is here in abundance, with appropriately sturdy backing by The English Rock Ensemble. But be prepared — the line between prog and middle-of-the-road pop is remarkably thin at times, especially when sentimental lyrics like “A Day Spent on the Pier” are declaimed with stagey brio by vocalist Hayley Sanderson. If you can deal with that, there’s plenty to enjoy here.
Simon Collins and Kelly Nordstrom (best known in the prog world for the Sound of Contact album Dimensionaut with Dave Kerzner and Matt Dorsey) veer in a heavier direction with their new project, eMolecule’s The Architect. The initial blasts of electronica-laced prog-metal, amped up with gusto by Nordstrom, slot in beautifully with the dystopian sci-fi narrative, but it takes a while for Collins’ trademark vocal inflections to peek through the robotic audio processing. Ultimately, the light and shade of “Beyond Belief” and “Awaken” (a ballad in the Phil-to-Simon family tradition) and a building sense of Floydian atmospherics provide the contrast needed for eMolecule’s well-executed sound and fury to fully connect.
I stumbled across the British post-rockers Plank via 2014’s excellent Hivemind. After tackling animals and insects as their previous subjects, the trio widen their horizons here, returning after 9 years for their new concept opus The Future of the Sea. This is a stunning set of limpid, gorgeous instrumentals, weaving elements of psychedelia, prog and math-rock into textures of massive breadth and heft (whether the big guns are being held in reserve or out on parade at any given moment). The closing 6-part suite “Breaking Waves” is a full-on, monolithic delight that mounts to a shattering, satisfying climax. Give this one a try!
The ongoing passing of rock legends tends to direct me toward their most recent releases, especially if I’d dismissed them on initial notice. Thus, when David Crosby died in January, I bit the bullet and picked up his Lighthouse Band’s CD/DVD Live at the Capitol Theatre. Ignoring this beauty, released late last year, was a mistake; it’s a thoroughly enjoyable, even moving document of Crosby’s late career renaissance, here shown in collaboration with Snarky Puppy bassist Michael League and singer/songwriters Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis. Yes, the man’s voice is a shadow of its former self here — but so is his legendary ego; this lovely set may be more of a team effort than Crosby, Stills and Nash (& Young) ever was. The jazz-inflected songwriting, the hushed vocal blend, the lovely sense of understatement and space all make this delicate music blossom and take root in the heart. This tour came to West Michigan on Thanksgiving weekend of 2018; hearing this set, I’m sorry I missed the show! Yes, it’s that good.
I wish I could say the same about 18, the collaboration with Johnny Depp that turned out to be guitar legend Jeff Beck’s swan song; even putting aside Depp’s recent notoriety, there’s a mismatch of tone that makes the album a puzzling listen. Though Beck’s rich melodicism is as compelling as ever, his soaring aesthetic keeps bouncing off the consistently lugubrious song selection and morose vocals from Depp. Usually I’d be all over an album that ricochets from Motown and the Everly Brothers to Killing Joke and The Velvet Underground, but the eclectic selection simply refuses to cohere. Some glorious moments (instrumental takes on the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Talk” and “Caroline, No”, the John Lennon cover “Isolation” that closes the album on a solid footing), but Beck’s light and Depp’s dark cancel each other out far too often for the music to take wing.
In the meantime, the past month has seen multiple first-rate releases in the jazz (and jazz-related) world:
From out of left field, Lake Street Dive singer Rachael Price teams with guitarist/songwriter Vilray Blair Bolles for I Love A Love Song! This second duo effort pairs Price’s well-honed jazz and pop sensibilities with whimsical Vilray originals in the Great American Songbook tradition. Well-upholstered arrangements from a finely tuned large combo and a boxy yet lush recorded sound set up the retro feel; but ultimately it’s Price’s subtle, in-the-pocket sense of swing that sells the music, often breezy and melancholy at the same time.
Piano legend Brad Mehldau has never hesitated to incorporate rock songs into the jazz canon; with Your Mother Should Know, he makes a program of Beatles tunes (plus David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” — it originally featured Rick Wakeman on piano!) sound not just obvious, but inevitable in the idiom. Above all, this is fun, albeit often of a serious stripe; from the headlong boogie woogie of “I Saw Her Standing There” through the thickened harmonies of “I Am the Walrus” and hovering balladry of “Here There and Everywhere” to the stretched-out gospel of “Baby’s in Black” and the ecstatic extended solo of “Golden Slumbers”, Mehldau’s instincts for where to take these songs by Lennon, McCartney and Harrison are unerring, his invention refreshing and often astonishing, his technique impeccable. Absolutely worth a listen, whether you’re a Fabs fan or not.
Are improvisational Australian trio The Necks “jazz”? Hard to say; but while their music resists categorization (or even description), their latest release Travelis as attractive a summation of what they do as anything. Four pieces of music, each one made from scratch at the start of a day in the studio, building from a minimal idea that gains momentum, complexity and impact through repetition and variation of ideas, dynamics and sounds. “Signal” rambles, “Forming” smolders, “Imprinting” shimmers and “Bloodstream” flares up for a riveting double-album journey. Is it world-inflected rock? Ambient jazz? Something else? I frankly don’t care; I just know that after an online listen, I had to buy it. (And kudos to Vertigo Music of Grand Rapids for having it in stock!)
Starting out with a burner from 2022 that just arrived due to the ongoing vagaries of overseas shipping: Norwegian guitarist Hedvig Mollestad connects with the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra for the conceptual Maternity Beat. As on her previous collaborative jazz-rock projects Ekhidna and Tempest Revisited, Mollestad’s writing runs the gamut, from thrusting dash through tribal fusion getdowns and chamber interplay to a glorious finale that ratchets up to a blazing climax. And her playing is as creative and involving as ever, ranging from the gutbucket blues and skronky feedback of “Do Re Mi Ma Ma” to the gliding, Jeff Beck-ish boogie of “All Flights Cancelled” and beyond. Another winner from this impressive musician that grows more immersive the more you listen.
Even with his relocation from New York City to Toledo, Spain this year, impresario Leonardo Pavkovic has kept MoonJune Records churning out first rate albums that consistently ride the cutting edge of possible musics. In the most recent batch of MoonJune releases, Sonar guitarist Stephan Thelen returns with Fractal Guitar 3, another winning album of intriguing compositions that create harmony and structure via the interaction of cyclic time and minimalist melodies; touch guitarist Markus Reuter teams with multi-instrumentalist Tim Motzer and drummer Kenny Growhoski for Bleed, a bold, grungy set of abstract pieces drawn from free improvisation; Anchor & Burden (Reuter’s “European supergroup” featuring drummer extraordinaire Asaf Sirkis) weighs in with Kosmonautik Pilgrimage, monumentally turbulent full improv with Lovecraftian artwork and titles to match its swirling, heavy vibe; and Duo Atanatovski (a Slovenian father and son on guitar/cello and winds) team with a rhythm section for the radiant Liberté Toujours, an album of soaring, propulsive jazz that I guarantee will lift your spirits. The best way to catch all the action on MoonJune is a yearly subscription at Bandcamp.
On a whim (admittedly nudged by a recommendation from allmusic.com), I checked out Guided by Voices’ brand new La La Land and was instantly captivated. The brainchild and main musical vehicle of Dayton Ohio guitarist and singer Robert Pollard, the band is known for its insanely prolific output (the current lineup has released 14 albums in the last 5 years), slamming home musical earworms laced with whimsical, elusive lyrics aplenty in a devil-may-care blend of the British invasion, low-fi punk-pop and just the right amount of psych-prog garnish. In the past, GbV’s releases lacked a certain quality control, but recent albums seem to be all killer, no filler: here the air-tight riffs lodge directly in your pleasure centers; Pollard reels off irresistible chorus after irresistible chorus in a delightfully mannered, indeterminate accent; and expansive efforts like the pretty acoustic tune “Queen of Spaces” and the off-kilter, multi-part build of “Slowly On the Wheel” offset the short, sharp shocks of the opening “Another Day to Heal” and the Beatlesque “Ballroom Etiquette”. Well worth exploring, but mind stepping too far into the whirlpool …
I’ve got to agree with Bryan that Riverside’s latest, ID.Entity, is a strong contender for “best of the year” status, even this early in the game. This is hooky, hard art-rock (metallic around the edges) with a compelling sense of ebb and flow — not to mention plenty of high-power guitar and keyboard heroics. What makes the blend especially savory here is Mariusz Duda’s vocals; wistfully edgy, drily sardonic and bluntly dismissive by turns, his melancholy meditations on a divided world with no place left to hide grab and shake you, whether you want to see the pictures he’s painting or not. Definitely up to Progarchy’s favorite Polish proggers’ high standards, with the potential to rope in fans of a recent vintage — like me — as well. (Need to catch up on Duda and company? The 2021 online compilation20 – The Shorts and the Longsmight be your ticket.)
Always ready to bring a bit of reconfigured retro flash into here and now, Andy Tillison has opened wide The Tangent’s vaults for an old-school “triple-live” album, Pyramids, Stars and Other Stories. The release kicks off with a soul-stirring 2004 set, as the original lineup (including Roine Stolt) powers through early classics like “The World That We Drive Through” and “The Music That Died Alone”. Add a substantial serving of later songs and instrumentals performed by equally gifted lineups on the 2012 UK and the 2017 US tours (the last of which I was privileged to see at Chicago’s Progtoberfest), and you have 2 1/2 hours of back-catalog gems delivered in grand style. I gleefully gulped down the whole thing in one sitting; Tillison’s non-stop compositional eclecticism and his unquenchable penchant for speaking (well, singing) his mind delight from beginning to end, and his compatriots step up to match his commitment throughout. On their game, The Tangent’s devotion to music and their appeal to our consciences point us to the best of what we are and what we can be; here, they hit peak form throughout, with any rough edges only adding to their appeal. This generous set is both a first-rate introduction for new listeners and an essential item for hard core fans. In addition to purchasing the album through the usual outlets, you can still support the band directly and pre-order a limited number of signed copies here.
Riverside, ID.Entity, InsideOut Music, January 20, 2023 Tracks: Friend or Foe? (7:29), Landmine Blast (4:50), Big Tech Brother (7:24), Post-Truth (5:37), The Place Where I Belong (13:16), I’m Done With you (5:52), Self-Aware (8:43)
It’s been a long four and a half years since Riverside gave us their brilliant Wasteland, an album we seem to have been living in the years since its release. In 2019 I saw the band live for the first time, and I was blown away. It may have been the best concert I’ve ever attended. I was a fan before, but after that I became a FAN. I’m even a member of their fan club, Shelter of Mine, and I rank them up with Big Big Train as one of the finest bands in the progressive rock scene.
Perhaps you’re thinking there goes all objectivity in this review, and perhaps you’re right. Or perhaps Riverside really can do no wrong. I can think of very few bands that have never put out a bad album, especially over two decades of writing and touring. And yet here we are – their eighth album, multiple EPs, a few live albums (including one only available to fan club members), and they’re still putting out winners. Whether they’re heavy, quiet and atmospheric, or somewhere in the middle, Riverside have mastered all aspects of their sound.
Upon first listen, ID.Entity struck me as being a slightly new direction. I thought I remembered the band saying a couple years ago that their next album would be heavier, which made me think it might be more like Anno Domini High Definition, arguably their heaviest album to date. ID.Entity isn’t that heavy, but it’s heavier than Wasteland, which was, to be sure, a different album for Riverside. An excellent album, but different. Their first record without Piotr Grudziński on guitar, after his tragic passing in 2016, but before Maciej Meller joined them as a full member (he toured with them from 2017-2020, joining them as a full member in 2020). This album sounds like a more traditional Riverside album, with guitars taking a more prominent role again.
The more I listen to it, the heavier it sounds. The guitar riffing towards the end of “Big Tech Brother” is brilliantly headbangable. Michał Łapaj’s keyboards come in on top of that at the end, but it doesn’t lighten the sound at all. Łapaj’s touch on Riverside’s sound may be more recognizable than any other keyboardist in progressive metal, besides Jordan Rudess, of course. Łapaj’s signature Hammond along with his other synth sounds have long set Riverside apart from more generic progressive metal crunchers. I was especially impressed when I saw them live. He brings a real tube-powered Leslie speaker (or some similar speaker) to get an authentic Hammond sound out of his modern keyboard.
As usual, Mariusz Duda demonstrates why he’s one of the best bassists in the business. His crunchy bassline to open “I’m Done With You” is extremely satisfying, and it sets the stage for some grittier vocals in the chorus. Much of the song is stripped back a little, with pretty basic drums and a relatively simple bassline, but the guitar and keyboard lines are distinctly Riverside with a very catchy melody. Taken together, the song is actually pretty heavy.
You are not my judge You are not my God You are not my own CEO Why don’t you simply shut your mouth And take your poison from my soul Far away
I’m Done With You
Some of the vocal lines on “The Place Where I Belong” are a bit crowded in the quieter parts of the song – a lot of words condensed into a smaller musical space. But it’s a long song – their longest since “Second Life Syndrome,” in fact. And yet the song delights in the final third with this heartfelt lyrical passage:
I don’t have to be the best Feel pressure all the time The ‘winner takes it all’ is not my thing Stop comparing me to someone else’s dreams Let me stay in the place where I belong For your bar is set to high I’m sorry, I’m getting out of this race Don’t want to take my part For your bar is set to high I’m sorry ,I’m checking out of this race Don’t want to share my part For your bar is set to high I’m sorry, I’m getting out of this race Don’t want to take my part…
The Place Where I Belong
I suppose the ironic thing here is Riverside really are the best.
Lyrically this album touches on themes of disconnection from others via social media and the associated polarization, as well as themes of big tech and government overreach. Considering the band members grew up in the waning days of communism in Poland, their words of warning on “Big Tech Brother” should wake all of us up.
So what’s it like To stick your head in the sand To choose ignorance “I’ve nothing to hide,” you say “It’s all okay and fine” Being tracked Being parsed Being mined Modified Being used Being searched Being lied to Monetised All that we’ve got Is not for free at all
When this life for everyone becomes too hard What we must give in return is a bit too much Mass control
Big Tech Brother
“Post-Truth” deals with the frustrations of the constant news barrage designed to keep us all perpetually enraged. How do we go on living in a world like this?
In a constant lie In a constant lie I live Can no longer tell Days from nights
All these ideas, along with the other songs on the album, share common themes related to how we interact with and through the digital world. How we relate to each other, how media entities influence us, how companies and governments spy on and control us. Extremely relevant lyrics that aren’t pushy but remain a call to wake up to what’s happening. It’s a message pleasantly packaged in Riverside’s signature style of hard progressive rock. Lyrics have been an integral part of Riverside’s appeal to me since I first began listening to them. Thankfully that streak continues on ID.Entity.
This album contains everything I love about Riverside. Duda’s stunning vocals, his intricate bass, Floydian drums, synthy soundscapes and driving organ, and the Floydy guitars. Riffs abound, making it a very enjoyable listening experience to rock out to. With all that, is it too early to declare ID.Entity THE album of 2023? Maybe it is, but other bands are going to have to work awfully hard to top this.
After decades behind the scenes, Robert Berry has unquestionably stepped into the spotlight. In the late 1980s Berry hit the big time alongside Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer as vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and co-producer of the progressive-pop trio 3. Afterwards, he parleyed his new-found visibility into decades of fine work in both mainstream rock (Ambrosia, Greg Kihn, Sammy Hagar, his album-oriented rock band Alliance) and the prog scene (numerous tribute albums for the Magna Carta label, discs and tours by the holiday-themed collective The December People). Though Keith Emerson’s suicide in 2016 thwarted a planned reunion, Berry honored Emerson’s legacy with his deeply felt, impressively realized 3.2 project, releasing the posthumous collaborations The Rules Have Changed(2018) and Third Impression (2021) and mounting a career-retrospective tour in 2019.
But the Robert Berry I spoke with last month is focused on the future, not the past — namely, his brand new, very different trio SiX by SiX. Collaborating on songs with Saga’s guitarist Ian Crichton and anchored by Saxon’s drummer Nigel Glockler, Berry sounds like he’s having the time of his life. The new band’s self-titled album, released by InsideOut/Sony on August 19th, doesn’t really fit into any prog or progressive metal pigeonholes — and it’s all the better for it. One minute SiX by SiX is making an almighty, rifftastic noise; the next comes a killer singalong chorus; the next you’re reveling in a lush, impressionistic soundscape. Wrapping up our interview, Berry said, “we want a wide audience of all kinds of people that just like good music,” and this album has both the ambition and the substance to hit that sweet spot. There’s plenty here for your head, your heart and your guts to grab onto!
When I interviewed Robert Berry at his California homebase Soundtek Studios, he managed to be supremely casual, pumped about his new music (as well as about a graphic novel based on the album by Chicago artist J. C. Baez) and genuinely interested in what I thought of SiX by SiX’s debut, all at the same time! I think both of us had fun; join us by watching the video below or reading the transcript that follows.
So, first of all, tell us about the way SiX by SiX, this new project of yours, came together.
It’s sort of magical, really. My manager Nick [Shilton] who’s in the UK – we were talking, he goes, “well, what are you gonna do next? You’ve said that there’s gonna be three 3 albums, right?” The original one [made in] ’88, and we had The Rules Have Changed and we had Third Impression. I said, “yeah, I feel that’s all we had from Keith, material-wise. I don’t wanna do that on my own; it needs to feed off him.”
“Well, what are you gonna do?” I said, “I’m either gonna hang it up and tour with the past, or I’d like to find a guitar player to work with that was like Keith Emerson, that made up these incredible parts. But except for Steve Howe, who’s very busy, what guitar player makes up parts? Orchestrates a song, doesn’t just play power chords and a smokin’, rippin’ lead?” He goes, “Let me think about it.”
He called me back the next day; he says, “what about Ian Crichton from Saga?” I said, “why didn’t I think of that?” Now I didn’t know Ian at the time. I said, “he plays parts and you could almost sing his solos; they’re so great!” So he tracked him down, got us on the phone. Ian was, like everybody, having some down time with the COVID, not touring. And we decided to start sending some things back and forth – and it couldn’t have been better for me, inspiration-wise! I mean, if I could have written down, really thought about “I’d really like this, I’d like this.” Also, all these parts kept coming! He’s so prolific, making up that great stuff that I only thought of in my head, like “what guy does this?”
And the songs started coming out; we committed to this band once we found the right drummer. Which of course, it was an old friend of mine. I felt anyway; didn’t know if he’d say yes, cause he’s in a big band too, Saxon. And Nigel said yes and bang! It was organic, actually; just happened just like that! But it took a whole year to get it to the point of that now.
OK! What I’m hearing you say, and from what I’ve listened to of the album, I agree with you on what Ian brings to the table. Two or three great riffs on just about every single tune, plus that unique solo voice that, as you say, is so melodic.
Can you talk a bit more about what Nigel Glockler brings to the party?
Nigel and I were in GTR together, back [in] 1987. And Steve [Howe] brought him in to replace the guy that had done the first album with them. And I had said to Steve Howe, “the drums are kinda muddy; don’t we need something a little more solid?” They brought Nigel in; I didn’t know Nigel at all. And he was just the greatest drummer and the nicest guy, that we stayed friends, stayed in contact.
When he came through town here – I’m in Silicon Valley, San Jose, close to eBay and Apple and all that – I went to see him and we just chatted a bit and I said, “Man, the guy, he’s still in good form, still playin’ solid and hard.” And so, he was a top of the list choice for me! And Ian didn’t know him, but they had bumped heads on tours a little bit maybe, and seen each other but not really got to know each other. So once Nigel said “I’m really interested in this,” and then we got his drums on a couple of songs. And it was like having John Bonham in the band, you know? [Laughs] Really heavy hitter, solid! It was a little to me like Cozy Powell in ELP; it just cinched it up!
That comparison just had occurred to me as well; that when Powell was with E[merson] and L[ake], there was this rock-solid bottom. I heard them live. He’s so completely different from Carl [Palmer], but what he brings to the table is amazing.
And it was a good album they did too! Not that we need to talk about that . . . [Laughs]
That’s true! And you can tell that Nigel isn’t just a pounder.
He’s a big prog rock fan, which is probably why Steve Howe brought him in originally. He and Phil, the bass player for GTR, were pretty good friends, and they’d done a few things together before. So, Phil knew about the intricacy of what Nigel could bring. He just doesn’t get to expand that in Saxon, of course. He hit the fine line between “let’s do a few things” and “let’s keep the thing really solid”. So again, Ian’s guitar can do what it does, and if the power chords [makes guitar noises with his voice] aren’t always there, something has to keep it solid. And Nigel just made it happen, really.
And again, hearing what I’ve heard from the album, there’s a lot of elements going into what you do. But there’s also space for all of those elements. It doesn’t feel cluttered or crowded; it feels like everything just locks together.
And it’s mainly the guitar! The keyboards on this, I use them very sparingly, and it’s really just a sort of glue, a little background in there sometimes when the guitar’s gotta do other things. Even onstage, my thing is to once in a while, during a solo or something, I’ll change to the keyboards and left-hand bass and cover the fullness and the bass on keyboards, then get back to the bass guitar when Ian comes back into playing the full chord and whatever he’s doing.
So, you’ve described the creative process. You and Ian are working together and the songs come up out of his ideas; obviously you add to that. What was the recording process like?
Six months in, 2022 is already shaping up as a banner year for new music. My own positive bias prevents me from objectively reviewing The Bardic Depths’ brand new album (though modesty doesn’t seem to prevent me mentioning it; I’m still stoked that I got to participate) — but there are still plenty of fresh releases to cover this time around! As usual, purchasing links are embedded in each artist/title listing; where available, album playlists or samples follow each review. But first, the latest installment in what’s becoming Progarchy’s Book of the Month Club . . .
Big Big Train – Between The Lines: The Story Of A Rock Band: when Greg Spawton and Andy Poole started a band, it didn’t stand out at first; one early concert promoter called the nascent Big Big Train “fairly mediocre” in retrospect. How BBT became a prog powerhouse — through sheer bloody-mindedness, growth in their craft and a keen ear for what world class musicians like Nick D’Virgilio, David Longdon and so many others could contribute — is the tale at the core of this passionately detailed band bio/coffee table book. Standout features include lavish design, with a overflow of revelatory photos; fully rounded portraits of major and minor participants, mostly unfolded through Grant Moon’s thorough interview work; and remarkable candor, especially in a self-published effort, about the human costs of BBT’s rise to genre prominence and mainstream media attention. (Moon’s portrayal of Spawton and Poole’s gradual estrangement, even as their joint project finally gathers speed, is both sensitive and haunting.) Between The Lines covers all of Big Big Train’s great leaps forward and forced backtracks through Longdon’s untimely death, leaving the reader with Spawton and his fellow survivors determined as ever to continue. Not shy about celebrating the beauty and ambition of the music the group has made, on record and in person, it also doesn’t flinch from portraying the price paid to scale those heights.
The Pineapple Thief, Give It Back:on which Gavin Harrison gives his new band’s vintage repertoire a kick up the backside with his stylish stick work, and Bruce Soord willingly “rewires” his own songs with new sections, verses and narrative closures. The results probe further into the moody motherlode that new-era TPT mines and refines: dramatic vignettes simmering with emotional turmoil; lean, mean guitar riffs arching over roiling keyboard textures; and always, those simultaneously airy and propulsive grooves. But while Soord and Harrison take the creative lead, this is a marvelously tight unit at work; Steve Kitch (keys) and Jon Sykes (bass and backing vocals) are indispensable contributors throughout. All of which makes Give It Back another enticing entry in the Thief’s discography — deceptively low-key on first impression, it blossoms into a compelling combination of tenderness and grit. (With plenty of headroom in the mastering to pump up the volume!)
Porcupine Tree, Closure/Continuation: The big news is that this is recognizably a Porcupine Tree album — that’s why, over repeated listens, it works so well. Steven Wilson is as happy and carefree as ever, cutting loose about fraught relationships (“Harridan”), nihilism in high places (“Rats Return”, “Walk the Plank”) and, of course, the inevitability of death (“Chimera Wreck”); plus there’s a spooky take on a Lovecraftian invasion (“Herd Culling”), a compassionate portrait of a man with nothing (“Dignity”) and a drop-dead gorgeous ballad that looks forward in hope and back in regret at the same time (“Of the New Day”). Still, it’s the reconstituted band, mostly writing the music in team formation, that gives the record its core integrity and guts. Wilson’s angular guitar and bass work, seemingly effortless songcraft and vocals that often climb to a wordless falsetto (a legacy of The Future Bites?) are perfectly swaddled in Richard Barbieri’s squelchy sound design and ineffably eerie synth solos, then hurtled forward by Gavin Harrison’s consummate percussive drive — whether he’s cruising the straightaways or leaning into jaw-dropping polyrhythmic curves. Of a piece if not conceptual, Closure/Continuation is never less than well-wrought and frequently awesome, worthy to stand alongside Porcupine Tree’s catalog as either a next or a final chapter in their saga. Now floating like a butterfly, now stinging like a bee, with commitment evident in every note, it may well knock you out.
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.
To my astonishment, this appears to be the first Mastodon album reviewed on this website. How can this be? After all, this is a band that not only seasons their exceptionally math-y thrash metal with delectable flavors of sludge, stoner rock, prog and even hints of country. This is a band who came to my attention on David Letterman with the lead track from 2009’s Crack the Skye, an album-long narrative arguing the case for astral projection’s secret influence on the Russian Revolution. (And it wasn’t their first concept album, either — that was 2004’s Leviathan, based on — what else? — Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.)
After this — plus no-holds-barred follow-ups like 2011’s The Hunter and 2014’s Cthulvian Once More Round the Sun — I can’t help but ask again, where’s the love for Mastodon from Progarchy been all this time?
It’s not too late to hop on the bandwagon, though; Mastodon’s smoking new double disc effort, Hushed and Grim, is here to melt our minds and set our heads banging. Every single one of the fifteen tunes offer has at least two (and sometimes three) killer riffs pounded out by Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher on guitar and Troy Sanders on bass, with Brann Dailor adding multiple layers of mayhem on drums. Sounds like a potentially stagnant formula on the surface, but given that the Atlanta-based quartet can spin on a dime through multiple textures, tempos, and time signatures in the course of a single song, the approach never fails.
And you never know what ear candy may show up in the midst of the prevailing heaviness — there’s the finger-pickin’ Americana intro to “The Beast,” the impeccable synthesizer solo on “Skeletons of Splendor,” the dream pop verses of the otherwise grunged-up “Had It All.” Hinds digs deep for his full-tilt solos, with a Southern-fried touch of Duane Allman peaking through every so often; Dailor’s playing calls to mind an alternate-universe Keith Moon playing with Jimmy Page instead of Pete Townsend. And the combined vocals (Sanders, Hinds and Dallor split the leads, with Kelliher as a harmony voice) provide kaleidoscopic colors to match the range of the music, from heavenly harmonies complementing 12-string textures to raucous, full-throated bellows over odd-time gallops. Producer David Bottrill (whose other credits include King Crimson and Tool) pulls all the elements of this sonic maelstrom together; the end product is marvelously stylish, delightful to listen to even as it knocks you flat.
But the music, as cool as it is, isn’t hanging out there on its own; the lyrics have a pungent bite as well. Mastodon are on a mission here, paying tribute to long time friend and manager Nick John, who died in 2018. Is the narrative here, kicking off with the vicious opener “Pain With An Anchor” and concluding with the epic “Gigantum,” a journey through the stages of grief? A depiction of dying from the inside out? Or yet another meditation on existence and mortality (for which I’ve proved a sucker time and again in the age of COVID-19)? Your mileage may vary with your interpretation — but boy, do Sanders, Hinds, Dallor and Kelliher bring the goods. The rage of “Sickle and Peace,” the devastated sorrow of “Teardrinker,” the desperate struggle of “Pushing the Tides” — all of it hits home. If you’re not cathartically drained after a listen to Hushed and Grim, you haven’t been paying attention.
As I think I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a big prog-metal head — but when it’s prog-metal as good as Mastodon, I surrender willingly. Check out Hushed and Grim for yourself below — and definitely catch them live if they come to your town! (I did back in 2015, and my ears might still be ringing.)
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).
There has been a lot of music to wade through thus far in 2021. Most good. Some not so much, depending on who you ask. Despite the title of this post, I don’t think my four favorite albums of the year thus far represent each month, but who cares. Let’s go!
Atravan – The Grey Line
This album was the biggest surprise of the year, so far. Out of the blue back in January, Shayan Dinati of Iranian prog-metal band Atravan contacted us about a review of their album. I gave it a listen and immediately discovered this was worth spending a lot of time with. They dwell in the area of prog metal perfected by Riverside – atmospheric and brooding with thoughtful lyrics. Sure, they’ve got room for improvement to reach the heights of Riverside, but this is a great album in its own right. I was hooked right away, and I highly recommend the album. The Dutch Progressive Rock Page had similar praise for Atravan: https://www.dprp.net/reviews/2021-032
Steve Hackett – Under A Mediterranean Sky
When I heard last year that Mr. Hackett was working on an acoustic album, I was very excited. I’ve really enjoyed his recent solo output. His last three rock albums are some of the best from his entire solo career. But I also really like his acoustic moments, and he doesn’t disappoint on Under A Mediterranean Sky. He takes us on a grand instrumental tour of the Mediterranean, something sorely needed in an age of travel restrictions. The combination of his stunning guitar work, Roger King’s masterfully arranged symphonic notes, and various world instrumentation make this a beautiful and contemplative album. It isn’t rock, but it’s gorgeous. Check out Rick Krueger’s review: https://progarchy.com/2021/02/02/steve-hackett-under-a-mediterranean-sky/
Nad Sylvan – Spiritus Mundi
Nad Sylvan’s latest solo album is a slight departure from his last three albums, but it’s just as good an album, if not better. Putting the poetry of William Butler Yeats to music may not be a new idea, but Nad has done a wonderful job with it. The album has its rock moments, but it also has pastoral tones that haven’t been as prevalent in his work. His voice is top notch with a versatility that shows he is so much more than a Gabriel or Collins sound-alike. Check out Rick Krueger’s recent interview with Nad, and check out my review.
And now for my favorite album of the first four months of 2021…
Soen – Imperial
Swedish prog metal supergroup Soen can do no wrong, it seems. I first became cognitively aware of Soen a couple years ago through one of the editors at the Dutch Progressive Rock Page, who frequently sang their praises in reviews and best-of lists. I quickly became a fan of their last couple of albums, and I was pleasantly surprised when I stumbled across their new release back in January. I was listening to their 2019 album, Lotus, one Friday evening when I wondered if they had any new music coming out soon. It just so happened that they released Imperial that very day, so I dowloaded it and have been happily enjoying it ever since. It’s heavy when it needs to be, but it can recede to quieter moments when necessary.
Joel Ekelöf has one of the best voices in metal, and he really sets Soen apart. They have a heavy guitar crunch that’s more typical of mainstream metal and hard rock bands, but the music is distinctly progressive. Their melodies and lyrics are catchy yet intelligent. My only complaint with the album is that it isn’t longer. It’s 43 minutes, but I could easily listen to much more. Great stuff.