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.
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.
As always seems to be the case, there’s tons of great music coming out between now and Black Friday, November 27. Below, the merest sampling of upcoming releases in prog and other genres below, with purchase links to Progarchy’s favorite online store Burning Shed unless otherwise noted.
Simon Collins, Becoming Human: after 3 solo albums and Sound of Contact’s acclaimed Dimensionaut, Phil Collins’ oldest son returns on vocals. keys and drums; his new effort encompasses rock, pop, prog, electronica and industrial genres. Plus an existential inquiry into the meaning of life! Available on CD from Frontiers Records.
John Petrucci, Terminal Velocity: the Dream Theater guitarist reunites with Mike Portnoy on drums for his second solo set of instrumentals. Plus Dave LaRue of the Dixie Dregs and Flying Colors on bass. Expect lotsa notes! Available on CD or 2 LP from Sound Mind Records/The Orchard.
The Pineapple Thief, Versions of the Truth:Hot on the heels of their first US tour, Bruce Soord and Gavin Harrison helm TPT’s latest collection of brooding, stylized alt/art rock, honing in on the post-truth society’s impact on people and relationships. Available on CD, BluRay (with bonus track plus alternate, hi-res and surround mixes), LP or boxset (2 CDs/DVD/BluRay) – plus there’s a t-shirt!
Rikard Sjöblom’s Gungfly, Alone Together:Sjöblom spearheads a thoroughly groovy collection on vocals, guitar and organ, with Petter and Rasmus Diamant jumping in on drums and bass. Heartfelt portraits of daily life and love that yield extended, organic instrumental jams and exude optimism in the midst of ongoing isolation. Available on CD and LP (black or deep blood red vinyl).
In the 1997 movie Men in Black, Agent K (aka Tommy Lee Jones) spoke truer than he knew:
This is a fascinating little gadget. It’s gonna replace CDs soon. Guess I’ll have to buy ‘The White Album’ again.
Fast forward to the 50th anniversary Super Deluxe edition of The Beatles — my copy is #0112672, if you’re interested — my fifth purchase of the 1968 album. Following the first CD release in 1987, Agent K’s prophecy was swiftly fulfilled, with 1998’s “30th anniversary limited edition” (CD #0438243), then 2009’s mono and stereo remasters each promising better sound and a more complete listening experience. So does this new box provide anything previous versions haven’t? And does it shed any new light on the “White Album’s” ultimate stature, both in the Fabs’ catalog and in rock history ?
In case you hadn’t noticed, the last quarter of 2018 has put paid to any perceived drought of new releases & reissues. Capsule reviews of what I’ve been listening to since the first of this month follow the jump; albums are reviewed in descending order on my Personal Proggyness Perception (PPP) scale, scored from 0 to 10.
MC50 at 20 Monroe Live, Grand Rapids, Michigan, September 22, 2018.
Brothers and sisters, I wanna see a sea of hands out there … I want everybody to kick up some noise, I wanna hear some revolution … Brothers and sisters, the time has come for each and every one of you to decide whether you are going to be the problem or you are going to be the solution! You must choose, brothers, you must choose. It takes five seconds, five seconds of decision, five seconds to realize your purpose here on the planet. It takes five seconds to realize that its time to move, it’s time to get down with it. Brothers, it’s time to testify. And I want to know – are you ready to testify? Are you ready!! I give you a testimonial. THE MC5!!
As Brother J.C. Crawford’s ghostly, prerecorded invocation echoed in our ears, Wayne Kramer welcomed his audience (including me, my older brother, and my friends from high school and college) with a giant grin, a wicked riff from his Stars and Stripes Stratocaster, and the unmistakable, hyped-up grind of “Ramblin Rose.” Surfing a bone-shaking wave of sound, Kramer joyously belted out a raucous vocal, reeling off exhilarating solo licks on the Strat between verses. Almost 50 years after Detroit’s original punks recorded their live debut album Kick Out the Jams, the evening already promised to live up to the MC5’s formidable legend.
“Kick Out the Jams” itself quickly followed, with Zen Guerrilla’s Marcus Durant taking over on vocals, channeling MC5 singer Rob Tyner’s throaty, soulful delivery, stoking us up to dance and shout along. On this and “Come Together”, Kramer locked in with Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil for a meaty twin guitar punch a la Fred “Sonic” Smith; meanwhile, Faith No More bassist Billy Gould and Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty laid down deep irresistible grooves, vibrating human bodies and rattling the concrete floor. This was hard rock honed to a keen point — recklessly idealistic, the barbaric yawp of youth refined by decades of hard knocks, dearly bought wisdom, revived dedication to craft and killer instinct. Plus the obvious determination to give the crowd a good time.
Wayne Kramer, leader of Detroit’s proto-punk/hard rock band MC5, announces 35 North American dates for “Kick Out the Jams: The 50th Anniversary Tour.” Touring with the MC50 — which includes guitarist Kim Thayil (Soundgarden), drummer Brendan Canty (Fugazi), bassist Dug Pinnick (King’s X), and frontman Marcus Durant (Zen Guerrilla) — Kramer will be celebrating the landmark anniversary of the MC5’s incendiary debut album Kick Out the Jams and the release of his memoir The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5, and My Life of Impossibilities, to be published August 14 by Da Capo Press.
The North American tour begins in early September, after several European summer festivals, and culminates with an October 27th concert back where it all began: in Detroit in 1968, where Kick Out the Jams — recently cited by Pitchfork as one of the 50 best albums of the 1960s—was recorded live in front of a raucous home town audience at the Grande Ballroom on Halloween night. On the MC50 tour, Kramer and the band will play the album Kick Out the Jams in its entirety followed by an encore of MC5 material that will change each night …
“Well it’s 1969 OK all across the USA It’s another year for me and you Another year with nothing to do” — 1969, The Stooges
I was 7 going on 8 in 1969. But my brother was ten years older — and Detroit was a prime location to explore rock as it turned psychedelic, then progressive, still with plenty of punk attitude. Our cousin from Lansing was about the same age as my brother — so they did a fair amount of concertgoing together.
The other day, out of the blue I got a letter from our cousin, reproduced below with my random thoughts interspersed:
Dear Cousin Rick,
I’m sending along a copy of the program from the festival I attended in the south of England summer of 1969. I thought you might it interesting.
(Hmmm … The 9th National Jazz and Blues Festival. Waitaminute: Pink Floyd? King Crimson? Peter Hammill performing solo before the first Van Der Graaf Generator album? Yes? The Who? Keith Emerson with The Nice? Not to mention Soft Machine and Pentangle? And he was there? Doggone straight I find it interesting. Please continue, cousin!)
I’d seen both The Who and The Nice at the Grande Ballroom in the spring before. The Who played the entire Tommy opera both times. The Nice as I remember had some kind of revolving organ at the Grande. At the Plumpton fest they closed the show on Sunday backed by a large orchestra. At the final song the stage opened and a regiment of bagpipers marched off the stage and into the crowd. Those were heady times.
There’s also a copy of the Isle of Wight festival flier which I missed as it was the weekend which we were heading home. Such fond memories.
(Bob Dylan & The Band? The Moody Blues? More from King Crimson, The Who and Pentangle? Stop torturing me, cousin!!! Actually, no — please continue as I wrestle with envy and wish Doctor Who’s TARDIS was real.)
The day we arrived in London the Rolling Stones played in Hyde Park celebrating the life of Brian Jones who had just passed.Couldn’t quite get there but almost. (Another King Crimson show!!)
I’d like to hear more about your music blogging/reviews. P.S. We didn’t arrive at the fest until Saturday so we missed all the Friday acts. Booo!
The dark end of late 70s rock culture makes for strange bedfellows on the weekly infinite linear mixtape. One week after Judas Priest released Unleashed in the East in September 1979, a career milestone kickstarting broad commercial success, the Eagles issued The Long Run, a (mostly) career-ending album that took too long to make, wore on too many nerves in a group of too many egos, and while feeling generally sapped of energy was still a giant hit. Go figure. They were a beloved band at the end of their (Seven Bridges) road. But while the album may not have been as strong as its predecessor, 1976’s Hotel California, pieces of it shared qualities with those other California-centric, dark star rock albums of the era, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours (1977) and Steely Dan’s Gaucho (1980). The party goes unexpectedly wrong, and as night sets in the sparks that fly leave an even darker fringe.
The Long Run’s spark is “Those Shoes.” As an airtight funk backs a story parallel to Judas Priest’s “Victim of Changes” — delivered with icy remove by Don Henley — Joe Walsh and Don Felder twine their talk-boxed guitars together in a dual attack as hard-hitting, in its way, as anything delivered by K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton. It’s the swing of it, still in the late 70s a rock’n’roll staple embraced by blues to punk, country to metal, and too soon largely abandoned by the harder end of rock, that moves both songs forward. Just as Priest’s rhythm section, with Les Binks drumming, made you pump your fist and shake your butt, when the Eagles got down to business they were masters of the hard groove. But this is no good times, party-on disco boogie. The song’s power is multiplied by its downer lyric, a troubling view of the predator-prey club hookup scene, ringing at once with compassion, cynical chauvinism, and studious intention. If it’s revealing of the seamier side of the west coast lifestyle as the 70s limped to an end, in it also is the last flash of a band who commanded the era.
soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here:soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.