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.
A few notes before I dive in: items I’ve reviewed here are linked to the relevant Progarchy article via the artist/album title; If I didn’t review an item here or elsewhere, it’s marked with an asterisk (*) — but I hope the capsule description and listening/order links will encourage you to check it out!
Big Big Train, Welcome to the Planet: what turned out to be BBT’s final effort with the late David Longdon consolidates the widened horizons of Grand Tour and the intimate subjects of Common Ground, casting an epic light on the everyday glory of family, community, joy and loss.
Cosmograf, Heroic Materials: Elegiac in its evocation of past achievements, urgent in its contemporary call to action, breathtaking in its poised blend of fragility and strength, Robin Armstrong’s latest is a riveting listen.
The Flower Kings, By Royal Decree: TFK’s third double album in a row, this is the sound of Roine Stolt and company refreshed and revisiting their optimistic roots, soaring on the wings of one marvelous melody after another. As much a joy to hear as it must have been to create.
Mary Halvorson, Amaryllis & Belladonna: free jazz guitarist Halvorson hits a major label with two albums — teaming with a boisterously simpatico sextet on Amaryllis, then dancing atop and around modern classical textures from the Mivos Quartet on Belladonna. Audacious and engrossing, this music will open your ears real good!
Dave Kerzner, The Traveller: confident, appealing songwriting with hooky yet sophisticated melodies and structures, Kerzner’s best, widest ranging vocals to date and perfectly judged contributions from a stellar guest list. Letting his new songs sell themselves and keeping proceedings to the point, he both satisfies us and leaves us wanting more.
The Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio, Cold As Weiss: An immediately accessible reboot of a classic jazz trio format. Organist Lamarr, guitarist Jimmy James and drummer Daniel Weiss are thrilling players who never fail to make their instruments sing. Funky, catchy bite-size tracks with great individual playing and razor sharp ensemble.
Marillion, An Hour Before It’s Dark: The front half of Los Marillos’ latest has more swagger than they’ve mustered in a while; the back half’s meditative downshift climaxes with the sweeping smashcut finale “Care,” as power chords and massed choirs climb heavenward. Unique as anything in their catalog, and another thoroughbred winner.
Pure Reason Revolution, Above Cirrus: this fifth album reveals PRR at their best, consistently upping their game to the next level. For every moment of blissful harmonies and glidepath atmospherics, there’s an equal and opposite moment of feral guitar/drum slammin’ — and when they layer the two together, look out! Well worth buckling up for the ride.
The Smile, A Light For Attracting Attention: A Radiohead side project worth your while. Thom Yorke overflows with apocalyptic dread; Jonny Greenwood’s off-kilter instrumental instincts are keener than ever; Tom Skinner’s skittering beats relentlessly drive the grim, lush soundscapes forward. Music for our contemporary dystopia, irresistibly sucking you in.
Tears For Fears, The Tipping Point: Roland Orzbaal & Curtis Smith’s catchy-as-always comeback goes for catharsis via unstoppable rhythms, unforgettable choruses and naked vulnerability on every single track, Devastatingly gorgeous, uncompromising art-pop that will haunt you long after every listen.
And my Top Favorite of the year — Wilco, Cruel Country. A double set that detours from Jeff Tweedy’s thoughtful dad-rock toward Nashville and Bakersfield, the tactile interplay of the band and Tweedy’s quizzical, empathetic probes of societal alienation elevate this to an album of genuine tenderness and subtlety, gathering strength and heart as it unrolls. After a digital-only release this year, it’s finally coming out on LP and CD January 20!
My favorite reissues of 2022:
The Beatles, Revolver Special Edition*: No Revolver, no Sergeant Pepper — no prog? Regardless of what ifs, the Fabs’ great leap forward of 1966 was brilliant in its own right, dragging pop headlong toward the avant-garde. Here it gets a subtle yet effective remix, with fascinating studio outtakes framing the cutting-edge results.
Tim Bowness & Giancarlo Erra, Memories of Machines: an irresistible mix of unflinchingly intimate art-rock and lowering ambient backdrops. Ten years on, original arrangements and track lengths are restored, Erra’s textural work is inched forward — and as always, Bowness breaks your heart with his ringing couplets and his stoic voice.
My Top Favorite Reissue of the year: Robert Fripp, Exposure/Exposures. The guitarist’s 1979 return to active duty after a post-King Crimson sabbatical, binding together a disparate set of songs and guest artists with his innovative ambient Frippertronics. Whether by itself or as part of a gargantuan box set that chronicles Fripp’s entire “Drive to 1981,” it’s a wild, worthwhile listen in and of itself, while providing distinctive previews of coming attractions.
Marillion, Holidays in Eden Deluxe Edition*: my introduction to the band (I first saw them live on the US tour promoting the album), Holidays was partially a product of record company pressure for hit singles, but it also has plenty of Marillion’s trademark ambition, power and lyricism. A fresh remix complemented by exciting live shows on both audio and video.
Soft Machine, Bundles*: Add blazing young guitarist Allan Holdsworth to one of the pioneering British jazz-rock bands, stir in quirky compositions by keyboardists Karl Jenkins and Mike Ratledge, and stand by for fireworks! This fresh reissue also includes a hot live set featuring Holdsworth’s successor John Ethridge (still active with the Softs today).
Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Super Deluxe Edition*:The album that put Wilco on the map (after they were dropped by their label), YHF mutated from Americana through dream-pop to electronica-tinged folk-rock as band members and producers came and went. Eight discs that copiously chronicle the recording process, plus blistering two live sets.
Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life & Original Musiquarium I: On his groundbreaking 1970s albums, Wonder blended heavenly melodies, sophisticated chord structures, groundbreaking synthesizer work and heaping helpings of funk rhythms for one innovative, irresistible breakthrough after another. Songs in the Key of Life remains Wonder’s most expansive, fascinating and welcoming classic; Musiquarium is a double-disc highlights compilation from that golden decade.
My favorite live album of 2022: Big Big Train, Summer Shall Not Fade*. Equal parts power and grace, BBT’s 2018 headlining gig at Germany’s Night of the Prog may be their best live release yet. Playing to their largest crowd ever, David Longdon commands the stage; Greg Spawton and Nick D’Virgilio provide a muscular foundation; Dave Gregory, Rikard Sjobom, Danny Manners and Rachel Hall serve up one delightful moment after another. Bryan Morey’s review nails it; this is indispensable.
My favorite rock documentary of 2022: In The Court of the Crimson King: King Crimson at 50*.The most unconventional band of the last five decades gets the most unconventional documentary possible. Crims past and present weigh in on “living, dying, laughing, playing and rocking out”, with Robert Fripp providing the ever-present focal point in a particularly puckish fashion. There’s also a deluxe edition with live Crimson video (both in the studio and at 2019’s Rock in Rio festival) and four bonus CDs of soundtrack cuts, rarities, etc.
My favorite books about music of 2022:
Vashti Bunyan, Wayward: Just Another Life to Live. Singer-songwriter Bunyan’s unlikely late-60s odyssey from Swinging London to the Hebrides forms the heart of this evocative narrative. Laboriously traversing the heart of England, she gains understanding of the natural world, of human kindness and cruelty — and of her own sturdy inner core.
Robert Fripp, The Guitar Circle*. More a philosophical tome than a how-to book, though still remarkably practical, Fripp’s highly conceptual explanation of his process (as unfolded in Guitar Craft courses and Guitar Circles) won’t be for everyone. But those who dig in will grasp where this eternally questing musician is coming from better than ever before.
Devin Townsend, Lightwork, 2022, Inside Out Music/Hevy Devy Records
Lightwork Tracks: Moonpeople (4:44), Lightworker (5:29), Equinox (4:39), Call of the Void (5:53), Heartbreaker (7:00), Dimensions (5:23), Celestial Signals (5:12), Heavy Burden (4:23), Vacation (3:10), Children of God (10:06)
Nightwork Tracks: Starchasm, Pt. 2 (4:34), Stampys Blaster (0:38), Factions (5:13), Yogi (3:57), Precious Sardine (10:14), Hope is in the World (4:16), Children of Dog (6:45), Sober (4:37), Boogus (3:33), Carry Me Home (4:04)
Devin Townsend seems to be the most eclectic artist operating in what could broadly be called the progressive music scene. He’s most well known for his work as a metal artist, having some of the finest clean and distorted vocals in the business. He’s also a stellar guitarist and an even better producer. Beyond the metal, he’s long dabbled in ambient music, and as of late he’s been blending the two together to marvelous effect. 2019’s Empath was a masterpiece demonstrating that extreme metal, musical theater, opera, and ambient music can blend into a powerful and moving epic.
Last year he released The Puzzle, a minor release that is primarily ambient with vocals serving more of an instrumental role, meaning it was more about the sound than the actual lyrics. That record reflected Devin’s mind as he processed the Covid-19 pandemic, especially the early phases of it. At the same time he released Snuggles, a shorter ambient album whose goal was to calm and soothe the listener. I can state from personal experience that it does just that. It’s a great antidote to anxiety and depression.
Last month found Devin releasing his latest “major” release, Lightwork, along with its slightly heavier companion album, Nightwork. His intention was to go lighter on this record, although the metal elements still pop up now and again, especially in the vocals, which vary from clean to distorted depending on what the songs need. It’s a very different record than Empath. I hesitate to call it “pop,” as that might conjure up images of Steven Wilson’s The Future Bites. I think there are some interesting parallels between Townsend and Wilson that are worth exploring in a future article, but Townsend’s approach to pop (for lack of a better word) is far more introspective than Wilson’s. Wilson often wears his influences on his sleeve, while still creating a signature sound. Townsend creates his own sound, incorporating elements from myriad genres to make music that sounds like no one else. If Lightwork can be called pop, it is because it is more accessible than some of Townsend’s other work. It still remains complex in its layering, lyrical themes, and overall sound.
Lightwork has less of a flow to it, with the focus being more on the actual songs. With the wall of sound approach Devin is known for, there is some blending together between tracks, so it never feels disjointed. There is a loose overall theme to the record of love and light – a port in the storm, as it were. Musically it ebbs and flows. “Lightworker” has some epic soaring vocal moments with orchestral layers and backing vocals, not dissimilar from bits of Empath. Devin holds nothing back vocally.
“Equinox” sees Devin delving into his more atmospheric rock side while incorporating memorable melodies. The use of distorted vocals in parts of the song is a contrast to the spacier elements of the music, but since Devin’s distorted vocals are easy to understand (one of the reasons he’s my favorite metal vocalist), it works really at conveying the emotion of the lyrics.
The world is gonna turn without you baby Don’t worry about a thing it’s all a game
Just as it’s falling apart, I’ve fallen for you Just as I tear it apart, I’ve fallen for you
Though we try to pretend that it’s not the end It keeps us calm now babe
This is easily my favorite song on the record. It’s relatively simple, but the intricate layers and vocal work draw me in every time. I feel like I’m standing in a giant open space surrounded by stars and a dancing aurora as the music swells over my head. Perhaps that’s a testament to Devin’s unmatched skill on the mixing board.
From the very beginning going back to his Strapping Young Lad days, Townsend has always been blisteringly brutal and honest in his lyrics. Those lyrics reflected his emotional state at the time. His lyrics today are equally emotional and honest, but they’re so much more uplifting and hopeful. “Call of the Void” calls the listener to maintain composure in the face of the world’s insanity. Devin’s voice leads the charge with soulful grit.
Cause whеn you see the world’s insane reaction
To follow your hеart, the worst reaction is to freak out
So don’t you freak out
Cause when you feel the urge to feign reaction
Just follow your heart, the worst reaction is to freak out
So don’t you freak out
You want them to see the world the same as you and
To feel the pain the same as you
But everybody in the world’s different point of view
Can never see the world the same
“Call of the Void”
“Dimensions” is a heavier track with an industrial sound. The bass, courtesy of Jonas Hellborg, dominates. The song is metal, but not in a traditional sense. It’s closer to a band like Rammstein than Iron Maiden. The screamed section is sung over a quieter section of music, and when his vocals step into the background, the music gets louder. An interesting back and forth. The song also features a guitar solo from Mike Keneally.
“Celestial Signals” follows it with a much larger and more open sound, flinging us back amongst the stars in swirling guitars and swelling vocals from both Devin, the choir and Ché Aimee Dorval and/or Anneke van Giersbergen (both sing on both records, and usually it’s easy to tell the difference, but the backing vocals on this track are set pretty deep into the mix).
The final track, “Children of God,” is the longest at just over ten minutes. It also has a large and open sound with lyrics dancing on a cliff of blended sounds, with drums being the most distinct.
Lightwork is hard to nail down as any one “thing.” There’s so much going on. “Vacation” is in direct opposition to “Heavy Burden,” and yet somehow it works. Devin’s quirkiness keeps you on your toes.
While Nightwork may be a companion album, it’s every bit as good, or maybe better. As the name may imply, the album is heavier than Lightwork. It opens with a more straightforward “Devin” metal track. Blasting drums (thanks Morgan Ågren), crunching guitars, and both Devin and Anneke on vocals. Steve Vai also contributes “additional instrumentation” to “Starchasm, Pt. 2.” For those curious about “Pt. 2,” “Starchasm” is a track on last year’s The Puzzle. “Stampys Blaster” picks right up with a 38 second bit of uplifting heavy metal bordering on extreme metal with intense blast beats, all while Devin sings “I love you all.”
“Factions” is another blistering metal track with brilliantly complex drumming and Devin’s signature crunchy guitars and vocals. It’s lightyears away from Lightwork, yet it’s right at home in the Devin universe. The atmospheric screams of “Sorry… I’m sorry…” over a wall of drums is eminently relatable. The song has two neoclasslical style shredding guitar solos that sound different from Devin’s playing, but the album notes don’t say they were played by anyone else, so…
Nightwork does bounce around in style, though, with “Yogi” being a different animal entirely. Quirky, bouncy, not metal at all, but still definitely Devin. “Precious Sardine” reminds me of The Puzzle, with various musical styles and vocals acting more like background instruments. “Hope is in the World” and “Children of Dog” (a reworking of “Children of God”) are more upbeat tracks like Lightwork. They retain metal elements, but they’re brighter songs.
“Sober” is my favorite track off both albums. It is atmospheric, spacey, and intensely emotional. The backing sound of waves add to the ebb and flow of the song. The lyrics are profoundly moving, reflecting the confusion and desperation of addiction as it relates to relationships:
How can you want me, if I can’t stay sober? And how could you leave me in this state?
I can’t help these feelings that have come into my life I can’t seem to be the one I used to want to fight
How can you want me, if I can’t stay over? And how could you leave me in this place?
Time is falling into silence I’m already tired All the dreams we had are dying You’re not even trying
How can you want me, if I can’t stay sober? And how could you leave me in this state?
How could you leave me?
It’s a very reflective song, which is slightly disturbed by the next song, “Boogus.” “Boogus” is a very fun song made in a distinctly 1960s style reminding me of The Munsters sound track. It’s very fun, and not a style you hear much anymore. But, I think it should have been placed somewhere else on the album, with “Carry Me Home” following “Sober” to close the record. “Carry Me Home” is a peaceful track reflecting the realities of a couple’s love after many years into a relationship:
But oh, I hope you understand I still love you now the way I did back then
“Carry Me Home”
Mental health has been a prominent theme in Devin’s lyrics in the past, especially in more recent years with his positivity seemingly meant to uplift his listener’s spirits.
‘Cause it’s so hard to give when it’s hard enough to live And you wanna die, defeat flat on the floor Well, the nights go by, and still we try to keep some sense of this Give me hope Home, on the way home And I wonder why I ever left at all Carry me home, all the way home Let’s simplify and get right back to it all Carry me home…
“Carry Me Home”
Sometimes life is just hard, and we need someone to carry us home.
In many ways, Nightwork is my favorite of the two records, despite it being a companion. Perhaps the heaviness of the first few tracks is more my speed, or the atmospheric brilliance and honesty of “Sober” and “Carry Me Home” keep running through my head. I find it hard to separate the two albums. I bought the fancy special edition in a vinyl gatefold-sized package (2 CDs, 1 blu-ray) with colorful artwork for days, and my iTunes automatically put Nightwork as disc two of the deluxe edition of Lightwork, rather than a separate album.
The variety of musical sounds on these albums might not be for everyone, but I appreciate the art Townsend is making. He’s making the music he feels like making, even if he knows (and worries) that it may upset some people. His sensitivity shines through, and if you keep an open mind, you’ll find a lot to enjoy while broadening your musical horizons. For those turned off in the past to Devin’s heavier side, Lightwork is a must-listen. I think you’ll find it much more accessible, and perhaps you too can come to more fully appreciate the brilliance of Devin Townsend. He is, after all, one of the most interesting artists in music. Everything he makes is worth paying attention to. As such, I recommend you get one of the editions that includes both albums, rather than just Lightwork.
Another month of thoroughly enjoyable releases across the progressive spectrum from quiet to loud, from controlled to anarchic — often all in the same album! As always, order links are included in the artist/album title listing, and streaming audio or samples follow the review.
Cosmograf, Heroic Materials: Robin Armstrong’s latest concept album speaks softly and hits home hard. As a World War II fighter pilot recalls the challenge he rose to as a young man and laments the passing of his golden era, he also sounds the alarm about the challenges the generations who’ve followed have inherited. Throughout, Armstrong’s lyrics are simply stated yet deeply affecting, sung with real gravity and soul. And as the music patiently unreels, it becomes impossible to pick out a standout track; each brooding acoustic interlude, each stinging electric solo, each cinematic ebb and flow leaves its indelible mark. Elegiac in its evocation of past glories, urgent in its call to action today, breathtaking in its poised blend of fragility and strength, Heroic Materials is a riveting listen and a thing of beauty, already on my list of favorites for this year.
Dim Gray, Firmament: a Norwegian band that’s getting a broader push courtesy of Kingmaker Management, with an opening slot on Big Big Train’s recent tour (to say nothing of Oskar Holldorf’s filling BBT’s keyboards/backing vocals slot live) and their second effort released through the English Electric label. Kingmaker knows how to pick ’em; Holldorff, guitarist Hakon Høiberg and drummer Tom Ian Klungland whip up a mighty noise on Firmament’s 12 succinct tracks, with Holldorff and Høiberg’s ethereal, evocative singing launched above one swirling, quasi-orchestral crescendo after another. From opener “Mare” to finale “Meridian”, middle-aged farts like me might hear echoes of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, Brian Wilson’s pocket symphonies and Avalon-era Roxy Music, while younger listeners may catch hints of Fleet Foxes’ seamless, potent vocalises and Sigur Ros’ relentless ensemble builds. Whatever Dim Gray’s influences, the trio’s pin-sharp ensemble and pacing, thrilling sense of dynamics and undeniable gift for melody make for an arresting sound, with impressionistic lyrics that complement the sweep and yearning of the music. Here’s an album that not only dreams big, but actually delivers.
Steve Hackett, Genesis Revisited Live – Seconds Out & More: by my count, this is Hackett’s sixth live set since the Genesis Revisited concept revived his worldwide touring mojo a decade ago, beating out even Rush’s late career live output. Too much of a good thing? Arguably — but on the other hand, both Bryan Morey and I raved about this tour when it hit the Midwest this past spring, so I can also argue that more is better! With Amanda Lehmann complementing his usual merry men on second guitar, Hackett and band rip through a set of solo classics (and I wholeheartedly include Surrender of Silence tracks “Held In the Shadows” and “The Devil’s Cathedral” in that description) that climax with Lehmann’s floating vocals and Craig Blundell’s jaw-dropping drum workout on the vintage “Shadow Of The Hierophant”. Then it’s nirvana for Hackett-era Genesis fans, with the entirety of their 1977 live masterwork reprised (and sometimes gently, sometimes deliriously reimagined) in one go. Gorgeous sound whatever the format, and nicely hi-def visuals on the BluRay; it all does what it says on the cover, with Hackett’s usual flair and panache. See you next year for the Foxtrot At Fifty set?
King’s X, Three Sides of One: “Calling all saviors/And I’m shouting at God/Oh won’t you come and save us/Don’t you think we need you now/So let it rain, to wash the fear away.” dUg pinnick’s vocal testifies while his bass thunders, Ty Tabor’s guitars chime and howl like lightning, Jerry Gaskill’s drums crack open the earth and sky. And the apocalyptic “Let It Rain” is only the start for a trio that’s lost none of its power. King’s X’s first album in fourteen years, Three Sides of One’s rock is thick, gnarly, punchy and unbelievably tough no matter the tempo or texture, always locked into a sweet groove that carries you along. With Pinnick’s gospel-rooted shouts complemented by Tabor and Gaskill’s spindly, psychedelic harmonies, the band prowls the waterfront of life today, calling out the hucksters of “Festival” and the digital overlords of “Swipe Up”, commiserating with “all the lonely people” of “Give It Up” and “Holidays”. Stir in the drained cynicism of “Flood Pt. 1” and the dystopian parable “All God’s Children” and you have a compelling vision of societal despair. Human love (“Take the Time”, “She Called Me Home”) offers respite, but there’s no closure in sight; as pinnick preaches on the final track, “The whole world is crying for love/Every everywhere.” Lighting candles and cursing the darkness with alternate breaths, King’s X rocks on regardless — and I consider that heartening in and of itself.
It’s been another excellent month for new music. So let’s just cut to the chase, shall we? Purchase links are embedded in the artist/title listing; playlists or video samplers follow each review.
Dave Kerzner, The Traveler: A third concept album from Kerzner, continuing the through line of New World and Static (with nods to In Continuum’s Acceleration Theory lurking about as well). The opener “Another Lifetime” sets out this record’s remarkable strengths: confident, appealing songwriting with hooky yet sophisticated melodies and structures; Kerzner’s best, widest ranging vocals to date; and the perfectly judged contributions of Fernando Perdomo on guitar, Joe Deninzon on violin, Ruti Celli on cello and Marco Minneman on drums (only a smattering of the stellar guest list here). The dry, forward sound and the copious use of vintage keyboards on tunes like “A Time In Your Mind” evokes early-80s Genesis at times (since Kerzner got those keyboards from Tony Banks, no real surprise there), but the power ballad “Took It For Granted” and the closing suite framed by the two parts of “Here and Now” show Kerzner moving his character’s story forward while striking out in fresh musical directions like the sunshine guitar pop of “A Better Life”. Overall, Kerzner exhibits a lighter touch here, and The Traveler is the better for it; by letting his new songs sell themselves and keeping proceedings to the point, he both satisfies us and leaves us wanting more. After repeated listens, this one’s already on my “favorites of ’22” list!
Lonely Robot, A Model Life:John Mitchell has had a rough last few years, and he doesn’t care who knows it. In the wake of a global pandemic, the collapse of a long-term relationship, and a confrontation with his deepest doubts and fears, Mitchell’s done what he does best: slip into his Lonely Robot persona and pour it all out in a fine set of laterally structured, elegantly crafted, fearlessly emotional songs. Writing, singing and playing (especially in his rekindled relationship with the guitar solo) at peak inspiration, Mitchell lays the ghost of his former love (the nervy “Recalibrating”, the forlorn “Mandalay”), skewers our mad world (“Digital God Machine” and “Island of Misfit Toys”), mourns ways of lives and times now in the rearview mirror (the breathtaking ballad “Species in Transition”, the crunching elegy “Starlit Stardust”), and ponders how and why he became who he is (the brilliant final run of “Rain Kings”, “Duty of Care”, “In Memoriam”). Easily his best work under the Lonely Robot banner, Mitchell wears his heart on his sleeve and plays to the gallery at the same time; this is an outright spectacular effort that’s got both all the feels and all the chops. (Check out our latest interview with John Mitchell here.)
Motorpsycho, Ancient Astronauts: the kings of Norwegian drone-prog continue their enviable hot streak on their fifth album in six years. “We’re all a little bit insane,” Bent Saether chirps on the opener “The Ladder”, and as the track spirals upward, mingling the howl of Hans Magnus Ryan’s guitar and Saether’s darkly glimmering Mellotron, you believe him. The edgily abstract interlude “The Flower of Awareness” cleanses the palette for a Crimsonesque workout on “Mona Lisa/Azrael”; Ryan builds towering edifices of distortion over a trademark Saether riff, as drummer Tomas Jarmyr matches their ebb and flow all the way through the shuddering climax and the slo-mo collapse. Astonishingly, all this just serves as prologue to the “Chariot of the Sun: To Phaeton on the Occasion of the Sunrise (Theme from an Imagined Movie)” It’s as if Motorpsycho’s brief for this 22-minute finale was to rival “La Villa Strangiato” in both range and focus; gentle strumming and wordless vocals give way to more menacing bass riffs, fuzz guitar deployed in duet and counterpoint, feral percussive cross-rhythms. It all mounts to multiple climaxes (a mighty unison riff, ominous post-rock minimalism) that circle back to end with the melancholy lyricism that kicked it all off. Ancient Astronauts is a genuinely thrilling ride; strap in and brace yourself for liftoff.
Muse, Will of the People: they’re baaack!!!!!! And as usual, Matt Bellamy, Chris Wolstenholme and Dominic Howard earn every one of those exclamation points. The guitars and drums are turned up to 12, the classical keyboard licks pack double the bombast (including a Bach “Toccata and Fugue” steal), the electronica wallows in creepshow kitsch, the vacuum-packed harmonies are piled even higher, and the gang chants are bellowed louder than ever. All this sound and fury portrays a world on the brink, an elite obsessed with control, and a populace angry that the game is rigged. Still, it’s hard to know who Bellamy is rooting for; at times, his lyrics and driven singing seem equally repulsed by both the leaders (“Compliance”, Kill or Be Killed”) and the led (the title track and “Euphoria”). But in the end, this is quite the slamming album; if you’re in the mood for existential desperation set to one badass, air-guitarable riff and singalong chorus after another — and these days, who isn’t? — this just may be your ticket. Might want to only play that obscenity-laden final track when no one else is around, though.
When we last talked with singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/prog man-about-town John Mitchell back in 2020, he said that the songs on his 4th Lonely Robot album Feelings Are Good were about “very down to earth things,” in contrast to the outer space trappings of his three previous efforts. The new Lonely Robot effort, A Model Life (released on August 26th), burrows even further into inner space, as Mitchell grapples with recent experiences of loss, loneliness, frustration, conflict and even death. But as heavy as the subject matter is, this album is by no means a downer. Preview tracks like the driving opener “Recalibrating” and the quirky “Island of Misfit Toys” once again reveal Mitchell’s gift for memorable melodies and hooks, his empathetic lyrical journeys from crisis to closure, and his instantly recognizable way with a cathartic guitar solo. Confronting a world in the grip of obsessions, searching for a way through life’s challenges, and emerging at peace with himself, on A Model Life Mitchell invites us to discover what does and doesn’t really matter, charming and comforting us with his remarkable gifts all the way.
In the middle of a busy day filming the video for A Model Life’s “Digital God Machine”, John Mitchell took the time to have a wide-ranging, candid and remarkably humorous chat with us about the new album. Watch the complete interview (including sundry musings and digressions on Netflix documentaries, Phil Collins’ memoir, the forcible learning of Rush songs, changing flat tires near blind curves, grass clipping collection fees and much more) below; a transcription of highlights follows.
The last time we talked, it was about 5 or 6 months into the pandemic – which was right before Feelings Are Good came out. So, my first question for you is a two-parter.How does A Model Life chart a different path from that album? But also, what might the two albums have in common?
The things that they do have in common — I do think of them as quite brother-and-sister albums in a way. I think that in hindsight, I’m much happier with the production on this latest record.
The main difference is, at the time that I did Feelings Are Good, I was still in a relationship, but writing songs about not being in a relationship! But by the time I did A Model Life, the whole thing was over; I was into the whole recovery period of what I was writing about. I approached the songs very differently from that perspective.
And from a production point of view, they are very different. I wanted Feelings Are Good to be a tiny bit more rough around the edges. So, the drum sound on Feelings Are Good is deliberately a bit more trashy; the guitar sounds aren’t quite as refined as they are on this latest record.
They do have a lot in common in terms of that they’re more personal. I’m writing about much more personal subject matter. And who knows what happens next! I might go back to writing about otherworldly things of which I do not know! [Laughs]
I see! It’s true; lyrically, I feel like you really dug deeply this time around. There’s a lot of frustration that comes through, and the emotions you’re singing about are right there, they’re up front. You mentioned the end of a relationship. Are you OK with talking about some of the other things you might have been drawing on as well?
Yeah, of course; I’ll talk about anything. That’s the whole point of this – it’s been very cathartic for me to address certain things. The way that I view things in life – my background is quite complicated. I was adopted by a family, by two people who were considerably older than they would have been had they been my biological mother’s age, who was 17 when she had me.
I find it fascinating that, at the same time in equal measure, I can chart that fact that a lot of my traits as a human being I have inherited, I think, from my [adoptive] mother – a lot of very good traits. They always say, is it nurture or nature? Well, I think largely it’s nurture . . .
A lot of what troubles me over the years has been this strange phenomenon of, whilst having [laughs] unfeasibly vast Impostor Syndrome, I think at the same time I am fascinated by the fact that a lot of the good parts of my makeup are from my [adoptive] mum’s kindness! When you’re adopted by somebody who ultimately – my dad, he basically killed himself when I was 12. Somebody I didn’t really know, but I felt some great duty to live up to in some strange way, whereas I think the opposite is true. Being adopted you don’t have the same sort of genetics. I never have been an academic in the way that he was; my skill set is completely opposite to what his would have been. So, I’m very interested by those things – why it’s taken me this long to realize it’s a fool’s errand to try and chase somebody’s ghost, as it were.
[Tracks] like “Starlit Stardust”, “Rain Kings”, “In Memoriam” – those sound like you’re putting grief on record.
Yeah, pretty much. Certainly “Duty of Care” and “In Memoriam”. “Duty of Care” is pretty much about the twin nature of the relationship with my dad and with my mom. I think it’s been really helpful for me.
I know that [laughs] not everybody’s gonna want to – what did Phil Collins say? He kind of retired from music didn’t he, in the early 90s. And he pretty much said, no one wants to hear another Phil Collins divorce record. [Laughs] And I thought, “well, Phil, you could be right”! But Phil, whether you like him playing drums in early Genesis, or whatever you like or don’t like about Phil Collins, you can’t deny that he’s very good at tickling the emotional buttons that people relate to.
I think a lot of things I’m writing are relatable subjects. And it’s not just me that has gone through these things in life. I have found it cathartic to write about it. And if I find it cathartic to write about it, I’m sure somebody might find it cathartic. But the next time around I might write a completely cheery reggae record, so who knows? . . .
You’ve mentioned not fitting in and not wanting to be part of any cool kids ‘club that would have you as a member. Is “Digital God Machine” part of that as well?
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?
Tim Bowness’ sterling new album Butterfly Mind — to be released after last-minute supply delays on August 5th — isn’t just his latest for InsideOut Music/Sony, it’s also his 40th anniversary release! Since 1982, Tim has made his mark in the music industry as a contributor to bands such as Plenty (2 albums of recently re-recorded material from their 1980s heyday) and No-Man (7 albums, including 2019’s comeback Love You to Bits), as the co-founder of the record label and online music shop Burning Shed, and as co-host of the podcast The Album Years with No-Man collaborator and long-time friend Steven Wilson. Oh, and he’s also released five of his six previous solo albums on InsideOut since 2014, all chock-full of thoughtful, provocative art-rock brought to life by the cream of today’s progressive musicians. Butterfly Mind continues Bowness’ hot streak while striking out in fresh, arresting directions.
This is also at least Tim’s fifth interview with us at Progarchy. This time around, as well as revealing how “shed envy”, George Orwell, and flavored milk drinks played into the creation of Butterfly Mind, Tim unpacks his philosophy of lyric writing, reacts to Steven Wilson’s memoir and brings us up to date on the latest challenges of running Burning Shed. A complete transcription follows the video below!
So, when last we spoke, and I think that was in 2020, you joked about doing nothing and emptying out your Hard Drive of Doom over the next couple years. But here we are, in the run-up to yet another new album. So, what was the impetus behind the songs that have become your new album, Butterfly Mind?
Well, I did actually have nine months of not writing anything; the same before Late Night Laments as well. Basically, I didn’t write for about eight and nine months, and then I suddenly felt compelled to write. Because before Late Night Laments, I’d been working on No-Man’s Love You to Bits, and that had taken us about a year. That was a case of rewriting an existing piece and adding to it. And Late Night Laments came out very much as an album in opposition to Love You to Bits, cause Love You to Bits had been this quite electronic, pummeling, beat-oriented work. And I desperately wanted to do something quieter, more reflective.
And when I’d finished Late Night Laments, I really did have no ideas! All I did for about nine months was record cover versions of songs for fun. As you say, I got my Hard Drive of Doom out, I re-recorded some very old Plenty songs, and about nine months after that, I wrote a piece called “Lost Player”. And the floodgates opened once again!
So, within about four months, I’d written four or five pieces, several of which didn’t end up on the album. Two were with Richard Barbieri, who is in Porcupine Tree, as I’m sure many of you might know. And another was a track with [Plenty member] Brian [Hulse], which is ending up on the Japanese version of the album. But it really kickstarted again, sort of October 2020, and I just suddenly felt the desire to write. And if there was any motivation, it was again to do something different from what I’d done.
So, whereas Late Night Laments as an atmospheric album and it was quite consistently quiet, with this album I wanted to surprise myself and surprise the listener.
And I think you did! Because it’s true; when I heard Butterfly Mind, it immediately seemed harder-edged – there’s experimental sonics; you’ve got some songs with multiple sections; there’s almost a sort of muted hysteria in terms of the subject matter. But we can get to that in a bit.
On this album, instead of using that variety of players that you used on Flowers at The Scene and Late Night Laments, you’re building out from this core band – Brian Hulse on guitars and keys, Nick Beggs on bass and Stick, and Richard Jupp on drums. How did that unit come together?
It came together in a variety of ways, really. With Richard Jupp, I’d long been a fan of Elbow, and with him it was a case of shed envy! I’d seen an article on him and his home studio, and he had this magnificent shed and home studio. So, I contacted him, and obviously mentioned how much I liked his drumming as well. I particularly liked it on the first couple of Elbow albums, where he’s a very versatile player who can do dynamic, and he can do quiet. And luckily his teenage son, it turned out, was a fan of No-Man, Porcupine Tree and The Album Years, so he knew my work.
So that’s how Richard got involved; I said, “would you be interested in playing with me?” The session with Richard was great, because it was the first session after all the lockdowns in the UK. And so we were in the studio together, working in real time on the music. So, it’s very exciting! And he definitely went above and beyond what I’d expected. Because originally, he was planned to be on maybe half the album. But he heard certain tracks like “Always the Stranger” and said, “I’ve got to play on this; let me play on this!” So, it was really good!
Nick Beggs came about because as much as I love the players I’d been using on my previous albums — Colin Edwin, John Jowett, they’re both incredibly gifted. And I’ll continue to work with them; in fact, I’ve worked with Colin since I completed this album. I wanted something different; I wanted a different kind of energy. I mentioned this to Steven Wilson and he said, “Nick Beggs would be my choice.” So, then I approached Nick Beggs, and luckily he agreed.
So, yeah, it comes from a core group working on the song, then finding the right solo instrumentalists. People like Ian Anderson and Dave Formula, who are on the album.
Yes, and I noticed that here are plenty of cameos – you mentioned Ian Anderson; Peter Hammill comes in on guitar and vocals for a couple of tracks again; Greg Spawton plays bass pedals that don’t sound like bass pedals, so that’s kind of fun.
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s true!
But the biggest news that I saw in terms of guest shots was Ben Coleman playing some violin. What led the two of you to team up again? As I understand it, it’s the first time you’ve been in the studio together since No-Man’s initial heyday.
Yeah, it’s the first time since 1993, so 29 years! I think in the case with a lot of the players, such as Ian Anderson, it’s because I felt like it required that flute solo voice. And Ian plays on three tracks; one of them isn’t on the album, it’s on the outtakes CD, which is the second disc of the CD version.
And so really, it was finding the players I thought were appropriate for the piece. And Dave Formula is somebody whose music I’ve loved for many years. He was in a band called Magazine, who were very big when I was at school, and then he was also in a band Visage, who were also very big as well. But he’s a tremendous Hammond organ and synth player, who has been around actually since the mid-60s. He’s the same age as Ian Anderson, even though his heyday was in the early 1980s, with people like Visage and Magazine!
So generally speaking, I found people whose music I felt resonated with mine, and I felt they’d be able to bring something out of the material. And the same goes for younger artists. Like Martha Goddard, who sings backing vocals on three tracks, and Mark Tranmer, who is a wonderful guitarist who’s in a band called The Montgolfier Brothers.
And with Ben Coleman, it was because I could hear violin on two of the track; I could suddenly hear that classic No-Man sound! I just got in touch with him, and luckily, he was interested. He contributed to three or four of the tracks on the album in the end. And it was glorious – as soon as he started playing, it was that sound!
Yes, yes it is! It’s absolutely unmistakable! So let’s dig into subject matter a little bit more. The first time I heard “We Feel” and “Only A Fool” they were genuinely scary to me! And I also know that you never want to connect all the dots for us; you want us to take away our own meaning. Or our own perception of what you’re trying to say in these songs. But what clues are you leaving for us to decipher?
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.
The latest album from that stalwart institution The Tangent, Songs from the Hard Shoulder, will be released — or perhaps I should say unleashed — on June 10th. Boasting three extended tracks (“The Changes,” “GPS Vultures” and “The Lady Tied to the Lamp Post”), the short, sharp retro-anthem “Wasted Soul” and a head-turning cover of UK’s “In the Dead of Night”, it’s a brilliant collection from a first-class band at the peak of its powers. And beyond the formidable talents of guitarist Luke Machin, woodwind specialist Theo Travis, bassist Jonas Reingold and drummer Steve Roberts, the group’s remarkable collaborative chemistry is firmly rooted in the eclectic musical appetite and deeply humane vision of its founder, keyboardist and singer Andy Tillison.
It was serious fun for me to spend an hour talking with Andy, going into detail about the album — including some of the real life experiences behind the songs — and heading down other delightful rabbit trails besides: why he goes out of his way to hear other groups at prog festivals, our respective experiences of radio in our formative days, his favorite band (which may surprise you), and much, much more! Throughout, Andy answered every question candidly and put up with my schoolboy goofs/fanatical excesses, exuding his wonderfully unique mixture of curiosity, passionate commitment and dry humor. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I did! The video is immediately below, with a complete transcript of the interview following (and continuing over the jump). But why were we both looking to our right??
Alright! Well, first of all, congratulations on the new Tangent album! I’ve heard it and I really enjoy it. I’ve been a fan since the Le Sacre [du Travail] album, and have very much enjoyed – I saw you live in 2017 actually, in Chicago.
Right, yeah! That was a great night; really enjoyed that one! Some good experiences that night for me; I’ll never forget that one.
And that was a great weekend overall.
It was, yes.
To put you on the spot right away, if you had to describe Songs from the Hard Shoulder to someone who had never heard The Tangent, what kind of a pitch would you make?
[Laughs] I would say it’s a difficult album, actually! We haven’t made this as an easy sort of pigeonhole-able album. Obviously, we do make albums where we try to put our case and make a beautifully constructed record. But on this one – we just did what we wanted to do. And we do that from time to time, you know? We don’t always try to write to fit the need; we sometimes write from the point of view of what we want to write! And we ended up with this slightly imbalanced record; it’s got three epic tracks and one short one! [Laughs] How many other albums are quite like that?
And of course, the fact that all the three main tracks are completely different from one another! I’ve been saying in other interviews that it’s almost like three different bands made three different tracks! [Both laugh]. The first one being very much like The Tangent, the second being a jazz-fusion band, the third one being dark and electronica influenced. And then a Tamla-Motown song!
I think it’s probably best to understand what the band have been doing before! This is not necessarily a first album to hear by a band; it’s one of a sequence.
It works better in context is what you’re saying.
I think it’s a contextual album. To be fair, if you’re looking at classic progressive bands of the past, most people who came into the world of Yes did not enter from the point of view of Tales from Topographic Oceans. They came in with Fragile or The Yes Album or maybe even Close to the Edge is where they came in. I say “maybe even Close to the Edge” cause that’s where I came in!
And the same with Genesis: most people who came in didn’t arrive with The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway; they came in at some other point. And the sort of deeper albums are the ones they go back to and help develop their relationship with a group.
OK! I think that what I heard in your pitch is that it’s very much “you guys” – the band that you are right now.
So, definitely not a snapshot, more like a short video at least! [Both laugh]
I think that being in a progressive rock band, if you’re serious about it, and this is more than just a commercial label you use to make things more convenient for markets – you have to be able to make the developments, to take the risks, to do the non-commercial things! Because that’s what the audience wants of us! Sure, everybody likes Asia, for example, but they always want something more meaty than that, if you get what I’m saying. They want something that’s a bit more out there, more adventurous.
So, the fact is that this great progressive arc can take in everything from pop songs, rock songs, pop-rock songs if you like, through to massive great big sinfonias! Everything from an acoustic guitar being bashed on the stage by Peter Hammill right through to massive symphony orchestras. There’s so much available to us in the power – every so often you have to use it! And this means on this occasion, we didn’t write much short-form material for this record.
So that kind of answers my next question, because as you mentioned, three of the four tracks on the main album plus the bonus track are all over 15 minutes; they’re definitely what you would call “of epic length.” Did you feel like, in terms of the songs with lyrics, that the subject matter demanded that? How do you develop these longer pieces?
I think that it’s just something that happened. To me, I grew up listening to rock music, but the first rock music I heard was long! [Laughs]
I was listening to Yes age 12, Van der Graaf Generator age 12, Genesis 14 perhaps. Picking up on Pink Floyd and finding that, because of my history in classical music, I tended to be more interested in the longer pieces. Because the classical upbringing I’d had – and I’m talking about classical listening, because there was so much music in my house when I was a boy. And so, I’d get to hear all this stuff!
Consequently, when I first heard things like the Beatles, I always used to be disappointed that the songs were over so quickly. I thought, “I was just getting into it, what’s happened?” [Both laugh] So it just seemed a natural way. In me it’s writing to how I always like listening to music! I like music that goes on for a bit.
[Laughs] As I’ve said, many times, “this music is not epic at all!” 20 minutes is not epic at all; it’s an episode of Friends!