Benjamin Croft, Far and Distant Things, Ubuntu Music, 2021 Tracks: Overture (1:13), Far and Distant Things (6:13), Brock (4:47), S.A.D. (Spatial Awareness Disease) (6:21). Tudor Job Agency (6:25), S&R Video (5:07), The War Against Loudness (6:17), How Not To Win The Nobel Peace Prize (6:17), Than You, That’s What I Wanted To Know… (5:35), St Gandalf’s (1:55), The Cashectomy (6:25)
I don’t listen to as much jazz as I should, probably because it is such a diverse genre that I barely know where to begin. I’ve always enjoyed jazz music in live settings. I think the genre excels when played live because it is a highly experimental genre, allowing room for improvisation. When I was in college I loved attending the concerts put on by the faculty jazz band. They were always so much fun. I think I enjoy jazz for some of the same reasons I enjoy progressive rock, which obviously is heavily influenced by jazz. At its most basic, the technical musicality in jazz keeps me interested.
UK musician Benjamin Croft’s Far and Distant Things has been such an enjoyable CD to listen to over the past month and a half. Croft wrote and arranged all the tracks on the album, and he also played all of the keyboards. In addition to Steinway and Yamaha grand pianos, Croft plays a whole list of various synthesizers and keyboards, thus bringing in a bit of a prog texture to his jazz record. Perhaps those elements are why he sent us his CD for review, but regardless of why, this is an excellent album. At any rate, the artwork is certainly prog, featuring cover art (and other artwork on the CD and in the packaging) by Hugh Syme.
Beyond Croft on keyboards, the songs have a revolving cast of characters, with Tristan Mailliot or Laurie Lowe playing drums on most of the tracks, except for “St. Gandalf’s,” which features Chad Wackerman. Flo Moore and Henry Thomas share bass guitar duties on the record. Guitars and on the album are played by a few guests, as are the wind instruments. Garthe Lockrane’s flutes on “Overture” and “Brock” are really quite something. It brings in that element of classic progressive rock as well as a fresh classical texture.
As is typical in jazz, there’s a lot of soloing on each track – keyboards, guitar, bass, trumpets, flute. Not each one of those on every track, but you get my meaning. The playing is smooth and easy to absorb. Some jazz can be overpowering, but Far and Distant Things sets you right at ease. The drumming and bass create a smooth yet complex rhythm throughout the entire album. The interplay between piano, keyboards, and the various wind instruments is quite pleasant.
“How Not To Win The Nobel Peace Prize” is an interesting piece in the way it shifts over the course of the track. It starts off as a more typical jazz song before speeding up and morphing at the end of the song into more experimental territory before fading out. It’s a shame it fades out, because I wanted to hear where they were going. The title of the track, along with others on the album, hints at a bit of sarcasm, which I can always appreciate.
There are some rock moments on the record. “Far and Distant Things,” featuring Frank Gambale on electric guitar, is perhaps more rock than it is jazz, especially when you take the synths into account. “Tudor Job Agency” has its jazz moments, but the guitar, played by Barry Finnerty, has a Clapton-esque vibe to it. There is also a passage of some incredibly fast drum beats that add a rock element to the song.
Give Benjamin Croft’s Far and Distant Things a listen for a laid back Sunday afternoon or evening. Or for any day of the week. The music is exceptionally well-written and equally well-performed. It brings me back to simpler times when I could enjoy a live jazz show without worrying about… well all the things we seem to worry about these days. This instrumental album will take you a world away, if only for an hour.
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).
As life in these United States opens up, my life finally seems to be settling down — at least for the summer. Which means it’s time to make up for the backlog of excellent albums (new and old) that I’ve heard since January, but haven’t written about here! Links to listen (to complete albums or samples) are included whenever possible.
New Albums:The Art of Losing (The Anchoress’ rich meditation on endurance) and the multi-versionadrenalin rush of Transatlantic’sThe Absolute Universenotwithstanding, most of the new albums I’ve loved so far have migrated towards jazz and classical — frequently with pianists at their center. Vijay Iyer’s Uneasy, made with bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, is a state of the art piano trio effort; blues and abstraction suspended in perfect balance and caught in an intimate, tactile recording. Canadian Bach and Mozart specialist Angela Hewitt shows off her range with Love Songs, a gorgeous confection of orchestral and art song transcriptions assembled in lockdown and performed with undeniable panache. The same goes for Danny Driver’s phenomenal rendition of Gyorgy Ligeti’s hypermodern 18 Etudes — virtuoso pieces whose serene surfaces turn out to be rooted in super-knotty counterpoint and off-kilter rhythmic cells. My favorite new album of 2021 to date? Promises by electronica artist Floating Points, spiritual jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, and The London Symphony Orchestra, which manages to bring all of the above (well, except for the piano!) together in one glorious, 40-minute ambient epic.
Reissues: Big Big Train’s double-disc update of The Underfall Yardhas definitely had its share of listening time, between Rob Aubrey’s rich remix/remaster and the welcome bonus disc (featuring fresh recordings of the title track and “Victorian Brickwork” by the full band and brass quintet). With My Bloody Valentine’s catalog back in print, their masterpiece Loveless sounds as incredible as ever; crushing distortion and lush romanticism collide to channel the sublime. And Pete Townshend has masterminded a comprehensive Super Deluxe edition of The Who Sell Out, the band’s pre-Tommy high point. But my favorite reissues thus far have been It Bites’ The Tall Ships (especially the title track — what a power ballad!) and Map of the Past (a favorite of mine since its original release). With the then-unknown John Mitchell taking over from Francis Dunnery, IB sailed into the 21st century with their 1980s pomp intact, killer hooks, head-spinning riffs and all.
You wouldn’t have had your Chick Coreas five years ago. Chick Corea doesn’t have to really dress up in blazer gear to get a wide following. It just goes to show you that it’s not a question of image these days. It’s more a question of the actual music.
Keith Emerson, Keyboard Magazine interview, October 1977
In late 1976, my older brother changed my life by giving me a copy of Keyboard Magazine. It was a pretty amazing periodical: in those days before digital sounds, computers and then-undreamt-of technology became the prevailing medium of modern music, Keyboard focused on the serious fun of playing and listening, mostly in interviews with pianists, organists and synthesists across a broad spectrum of genres, as well as in how-to columns and record reviews. That’s where Chick Corea, who cranked out a monthly “Keyboards & Music” column and whose remarkably frequent albums merited equally frequent cover stories, first caught my eye. And through the album My Spanish Heart, reviewed in that issue my brother gave me, he caught my ear as well.
More than a decade into his career, Corea had unquestionably paid his dues by the mid-1970s. Born into a musical family, gigging professionally in high school, and briefly pursuing classical studies at Columbia and Julliard, Corea jumped into the jazz world of New York City as both a sideman and a leader of striking originality (as on the seminal 1968 trio date Now He Sings, Now He Sobs). Which is when Miles Davis came calling: playing on Davis’ trailblazing In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, then launching the avant-garde quartet Circle, Corea consistently sought the cutting edge of the music. But an encounter with L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology movement abruptly shifted his perspective. As he said looking back,
The concept of communication with an audience became a big thing for me at the time. The reason I was using that concept so much at that point in my life – in 1968, 1969 or so – was because it was a discovery for me. I grew up kind of only thinking how much fun it was to tinkle on the piano and not noticing that what I did had an effect on others. I did not even think about a relationship to an audience, really, until way later.
Chick Corea, Artist Interviews.eu, 1994
That shift was palpable by 1972; in addition to the meditative Crystal Silence(an outstanding duet effort with vibraphonist Gary Burton), Corea was checking out more directly populist idioms. Teaming with bassist and lifelong musical compadre Stanley Clarke, he formed Return to Forever in 1972, traveling with lightning speed from the laid-back Brazilian vibe of Light As A Feather to the audacious jazz-rock suites of 1976’s Romantic Warrior. This version of RTF, also featuring Lenny White’s funky drumming and the flamenco-metal of guitar phenom Al DiMeola, even crossed over to the still prog-immersed shores of Great Britain:
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.
This year, I’m starting off my “best of” retrospective with albums that aren’t technically “new” — compilations, live albums, reissues and (re)discoveries from previous years — that grabbed me on first listen, then compelled repeated plays in 2020. I’m not gonna rank them except for my Top Pick, 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!) Where available, listening opportunities are linked in the album title or included below my summary via Bandcamp, YouTube or Spotify.
Big Big Train, Summer’s Lease (compilation)and Empire (live): This year, I’ve bought music from even more far-flung corners of the world than usual — including Big Big Train’s Japanese-only retrospective. Disc 1 features various rarities on CD for the first time: re-recordings old and new (including excerpts from my intro to the band, the Stone and Steel Blu-Ray), plus the “London Song” sequence from Folklore in all its sprawling glory. Disc 2 leans into the post-Underfall Yard era with a solid mix of epics and, um, shorter epics, plus an unreleased instrumental as dessert. It’s all impeccably curated, and (in retrospect) a fitting capstone to the work of recently departed Train crew Dave Gregory Rachel Hall and Danny Manners. In a similar fashion, Empire is a fond farewell — the last concert played by this incarnation of the band (including Cosmograf’s Robin Armstrong) before COVID-19 killed off their first-ever North American tour. Which makes the entire show, brilliantly performed as always, even more poignant, from the rocket-fueled opener “Alive” to the romantic, spiraling coda for the best version of “East Coast Racer” yet. Sorry, there’s something in my eye . . .
The Firesign Theatre, How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All(rediscovery): This spring, my big brother Bob pointed me back to this 1969 classic — quite possibly the single most insane comedy album ever recorded. The half-hour long title track’s surrealistic road trip morphs into a wickedly irreverent (yet oddly touching) patriotic pageant, with stopover cameos from Lewis Carroll and James Joyce; “The Further Adventures Of Nick Danger,” memorized and mimed to by me and my roommates back in college, is a hallucinogenic smoothie of hardboiled detective drama, time travel and the Beatles’ White Album. “Wait a minute — didn’t I say that line on the other side of the record?” Believe me, you need to find out.
Pat Mastelotto and Markus Reuter, FACE (discovery): My New Year’s resolution was to become a MoonJune Music subscriber through Bandcamp; twelve months later, it’s still one of the best musical decisions I made. In recent years, touch guitarist Reuter has become a major contributor to Leonardo Pavkovic’s ongoing quest to “explore and expand boundaries of jazz, rock, ethnographic, avant, the unknown and anything between and beyond,” frequently joined by King Crimson drummer Mastelotto (his partner with Tony Levin in Stick Men). The 2017 FACE (not actually on MoonJune) stands out in the duo’s catalog: a single, 35-minute instrumental travelogue that swiftly spans the globe and its myriad rhythms, aided and abetted by Steven Wilson and associates of David Lynch, Tool and the Rembrandts. Blink with your ears and you’ll miss the transitions from theme to theme and place to place; this one both demands and thoroughly rewards my attention every time. Hopefully, the excerpts linked above will convince you — don’t hesitate to hop on board!
The Neal Morse Band, The Great Adventour Live in Brno (live): every bit as impressive as when I saw this show in Detroit the same year, the NMB’s concert take on The Great Adventure is even tighter, more driven and more finely honed than the studio version. Kaleidoscopic contrasts of rhythm, instrumental color, vocal textures (mainly from Morse, guitarist Eric Gillette and keyboardist Bill Hubauer) and tonality mesh effortlessly with drummer Mike Portnoy and bassist Randy’s George’s badass forward propulsion, mirroring the lyrical highs and lows of the journey to John Bunyan’s Celestial City. The result is sustained, extended, unforced ecstasy in the Czech audience, capturing how Morse’s recent work embodies the ongoing ideal of American revivalist religion. A journey worth taking, whether you caught this in person or not.
Jaco Pastorius, Truth, Liberty and Soul: Live in NYC(live, archival, discovery): 2020 was the year I came across Resonance Records, where “jazz detective” Zev Feldman has been unearthing incredible archival treasures for nearly a decade. Jaco Pastorius single-handedly revolutionized electric bass playing in the 1970s; this 2017 release captures him in 1982, fresh from his boundary-busting stint in jazz-rock titans Weather Report. Fronting a big band of great players — the best New York horns, the drum/percussion duo of Peter Erskine and Don Alias, Othello Molineaux on steel pans and harmonica virtuoso Toots Thielmanns — Pastorius mixes classic tunes with his own soulful writing. It’s a mighty, bubbling noise — jazz, funk, rock, reggae, swing and more, with a groove that never stops and heart behind the flash. Irresistible for anyone with a pulse!
Porcupine Tree, In Absentia(deluxe reissue): Not the Porcupine Tree album that hooked me (that was Deadwing, promised its own deluxe box next year) but, looking back, my firm favorite of the band’s late period. Freshly signed to the American label that brought us Trans Siberian Orchestra, Steven Wilson and company made the polar opposite of a sentimental holiday album, focusing on the inner motivations of — serial killers? What makes that work? Well, how about: the full-on debut of Gavin Harrison’s stylish, rhythmically slippery drumming; Richard Barbieri’s off-center, arresting synth textures and solos; Colin Edwin’s relentless, incomparably steady bass workouts; Steven Wilson’s reignited love of metal slamming up against the songcraft developed on Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun, as well as a fixation with Beach Boys-tinged harmonies? Oh, and a clutch of superior tunes that became perennial favorites, both on the main album (“Blackest Eyes,” “Trains,” “The Sound of Muzak”) and the bonus disc (“Drown With Me,” “Futile”). Add in subtle yet superb remastering and you have a near-perfect example of how these boxes should be done.
Pure Reason Revolution, The Dark Third (reissue): At a time when progressive rock’s troops were thin on the ground, PRR provided reinforcements — and a breath of fresh air. It’s still hard to believe a major label released The Dark Third back in 2006; the effortlessly evolving long-form suites, the sweet-and-sour pairings of lush soundscapes and jacked-up beats were a vivid variant on Pink Floyd’s classic palette that turned the bass and drums up to 11. Jon Courtney, Chloe Alper and their cohorts weave the webs of melody and harmony; Paul Northfield’s co-production brings out the cavernous bottom end. The new bonus disc includes both the intriguing student work that led to Sony signing PRR and outtakes that showed up in different forms on later albums. Always an booming, blissed-out listen, now more inviting than ever.
Tears for Fears, The Seeds of Love (reissue): A marvelously all-over-the-place, widescreen record. Unabashedly pop but also fearlessly expanding the TFF sound into psychedelia (the title track was everywhere back in 1989), soul (big shout-out to Oleta Adams and Tessa Niles, who pushed Roland Orzbaal and Curt Smith to new vocal heights on “Woman in Chains” & “Swords & Knives”), jazz (Nicky Holland & Adams serve up stunningly tasty piano), world music (Jon Hassell’s superlative trumpet on “Standing on the Corner of the Third World” & “Famous Last Words”) and even a touch of prog-funk on “Year of the Knife.’ The squeaky-clean remaster (plenty of headroom and dynamic range) is dandy, but if you need more, the super-deluxe set linked above includes some dynamite rehearsal recordings.
and my Top Pick . . .
Ella Fitzgerald, The Lost Berlin Tapes (live, archival): My recent listening has tacked in the direction of mainstream jazz; if I had to speculate as to why, I’d say I might be looking for less tension and more release during my unobligated time. But what’s on offer is a factor as well. Instead of baking sourdough bread or taking up acoustic guitar during the time of COVID, it’s as if jazz musicians and aficionados have all dug deep in their closets and simultaneously unearthed long lost vintage recordings — which record companies eager to fill their distribution pipelines have snapped up and launched into the wider world.
This, in my view, is the best of that harvest: an astounding, life-affirming 1962 concert buried in the archives of Ella Fitzgerald’s manager until now. Ella and her fellas (Paul Smith on piano, Wilfred Middlebrooks on bass, Stan Levey on drums) are at their absolute peak, in tune with each other and with an extroverted, enthralled Berlin audience. Every note of this concert radiates warmth and inner joy, even when the mood darkens on torch songs like “Cry Me A River” and Billie Holiday’s “Good Morning Heartache.” And when Ella swings on “Jersey Bounce,” jumps on “Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie,” digs into Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah, I Love Him So” (resulting in an immediate, complete encore!), then breaks into her trademark scatting on “Mack the Knife,” well, she is unstoppable. I have had no finer feeling listening to music this year; whatever may ail your soul, I believe that The Lost Berlin Tapes are good medicine for it.
But wait, there’s more! Watch for my “new album” favorites from 2020 coming soon . . .
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).
Since 2010, Norwegian guitarist Hedwig Mollestad has been turning heads worldwide with her incandescent fusion of heavy rock and avant-garde jazz. The six albums by her eponymous trio (currently with Ellen Brekken on bass and Ivar Joe Bjørnstad on drums) recall Motörhead as readily as Mahavishnu John McLaughlin — crushing, distorted power chords tangled up with jagged shards of melody, furiously lurching ahead without regard for purist sensibilities of any stripe. Based on work commissioned by Norway’s Arts Council for the 2019 Vossajazz Festival, Mollestad’s latest album Ekhidna breaks fresh, fertile ground, triumphantly meeting the challenges inherent in writing for a bigger band and a broader sonic palette. It’s a bracing blend of tumbling rhythms, killer riffs and brain-bending improv that goes down remarkably smooth, but leaves a fiery aftertaste; this is masterful stuff.
Serious jazz-rock heads will immediately think of Miles Davis’ seminal Bitches Brew when they see this album’s lineup: Mollestad, Susana Santos Silva on trumpet, Marte Eberson and Erlend Slettevoll on electric pianos and synthesizers, Ole Mofjell on percussion and Torstein Lofthus on drums. To her credit, Mollestad’s new music doesn’t avoid expectations raised by that association, sometimes confronting classic fusion strategies head-on, sometimes blithely subverting them — and these players are impressively capable of tackling the challenges Mollestad mounts. Silva’s impressionistic tone and sense of line readily evokes Miles while forging her own path; Eberson and Slettevoll’s chunky chording and grumbling bass lines simultaneously thicken the midrange and sharpen the harmonic contours; Mofjell and Loftus’ churning beds of polyrhythms relentlessly propel the tunes forward while constantly shifting the ground under their collaborators’ feet.
“No Friends But the Mountains” kicks off the proceedings already simmering: Silva floats over clean Mollestad chords that morph into feedback, backed by sparse keys and atmospheric percussion. “A Stone’s Throw” ramps up the energy; the initial hard rock foundation gives way to a unison guitar/trumpet/synth head that struts atop cooking drums and percussion before slamming into an elegant melody that evokes, of all things, Pink Floyd. Then Eberson solos over Mollestad’s splintery, circular lick and the percussionists’ rhythmic curveballs — and when Slettevoll joins the fun with clustered chording, look out! The agitated rhythmic foundations of “Antilone” never quite settle, with change the only constant through slamming ensemble passages, Silva’s spiraling whorls of painterly color, Mollestad’s grinding breakdowns, and a taut, immense ensemble build to the final thematic restatement.
“Slightly Lighter” clears the air with a tentative trio, Mollestad gracefully leading Eberson and Slettevoll through the changes. Then “Ekhidna” serves up more polyrhythmic metal balanced with a melancholy long-note theme, Silva unleashing her inner Miles, Eberson wailing on synth over Loftus’ lightning reactions, the whole thing ending with a satisfying crunch!
But Mollestad and her crew save the best for last: the gorgeous “One Leaf Left.” A muted duet between Mollestad and Eberson evoke Soft Machine’s cyclical, interlocking counterpoint over Slettevoll’s sparse, insinuating bass; then Mollestad and Silva unspool a seemingly endless chain of melody. Silva stretches out long notes like taffy; synth clouds from Slettevoll lead into a final, raging Mollestad tour de force over a grungy ensemble stomp. Juggling downbeats, building outrageous howls of dissonance, confessing the blues like one possessed, she rides the storm that mounts beneath her, ending both the piece and the album with a fiery, climactic cry.
Named for the she-dragon of Greek mythology (also called “the mother of all monsters”), Ekhidna is monstrous in the best sense — a musical rollercoaster ride suffused with heat, light and heart, recombining the raw materials of classic fusion and extending the genre’s reach into realms of vast new potential. This is a real breakthrough for Hedwig Mollestad, and her best effort to date; it shouldn’t be missed! So check it out below.
So (as your pocketbook permits), what’s worth your hard-earned cash on August 7, September 4, October 2, November 6, or December 4? From my Bandcamp collection and wishlist, a few suggestions:
I Am the Manic Whale, Things Unseen:I’m blown away by the energy, humor and sheer delight these young British proggers bring to their story-songs; this third album could be their best yet, with crystal clear production by Rob Aubrey. There’s wickedly cheery satire in “Billionaire” and “Celebrity”, an atmospheric trip to Narnia in “The Deplorable Word” and unbounded joy at the gift of children in “Smile” and “Halcyon Days”. Not to mention IAtMW’s very own train song, “Valenta Scream”, challenging 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.
McStine and Minnemann: left-field, shreddy art-pop to get your adrenalin flowing. Randy McStine (guitars, vocals, other stuff) and Marco Minnemann (drums, vocals, other stuff) prove steady hands on the steering wheel for wild rides like “Your Offenses” and “Activate”, as well as the stark ballad “The Closer”. Sure, the songs are short; they’re also stuffed to the gills with ethereal melodies and harmonies, woozily evocative lyrics, ear-grabbing riffs, impossible drum fills, freaky collages of sound and radical mood shifts. Don’t expect to focus on anything else while you’re listening to this — just hold on tight and have fun.
David Sancious, Eyes Wide Open: a charter member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, Sancious led the critically acclaimed trio Tone before tackling wingman duties for Peter Gabriel and Sting. The focus of Eyes Wide Open (finished before lockdowns and protests swallowed news feeds whole) on today’s cultural unrest proves eerily prescient; the vocal tracks “Urban Psalm #3” and “If” and the instrumental “War in Heaven” are ambitious statements on universal human dignity that can lay claim to the moody, magnificent heights of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Sancious sings on half the tracks and plays burning guitar and keys throughout, fusing jazz, rock and gospel into winning combinations, atop unbelievably funky drumming by Vinnie Colaiuta, Will Calhoun (Living Colour) and Michael Bland (Prince).
Spiraling, Transmitter: Back in the early 2000s, Tom Brislin (now tearing up the keys in Kansas) led this obscure, wonderful power-pop band in between side gigs with Meat Loaf, Yes and Camel. On this re-release from 2002, Brislin’s sardonic, appealing vocal delivery perfectly matches the bone-dry wit of “The Girl on Top (Of the Piano)”, “The L Word III” and “(Get Your Own) Holy Grail”. And the music is built to match: irresistible hooks, propulsive rhythms and riffs that take unexpected detours, every sonic crevice crammed full of nifty synth riffs, effects and solos. This is unbelievably catchy, unbelievably sharp stuff. (Check out Brislin’s new, punky public service announcement too!)
Tiger Moth Tales, Still Alive/A Visit to Rockfield: This isn’t the Tiger Moth Tales album Peter Jones planned to release this year — but it’s definitely one that fits the moment. His gift for melody and innate hopefulness gives these six new tracks (well, five plus a reprise) an effervescence and a glow that can warm the coldest heart. There’s a beautiful, broad range of expression here, from the optimistic fortitude of the title track and the epic sweep of “The Mighty Fallen” to the rhythm box-laden goofiness of “Whistle Along.” The bonus DVD features Jones and TMT in session at the legendary Rockfield Studios. Enjoy this love letter to the world from deepest Nottinghamshire.
MoonJune Records: Soft Machine’s Live at the Baked Potato is the latest release from global impresario Leonardo Pavkovic. On this beauty, the Softs’ explorations are every bit as daring and delectable as when I heard them live in 2018. Plus, there are plenty of other face-melting instrumental jazz/rock/avant/ethno albums coming soon from Stick Men, touch guitarist Markus Reuter, guitarist Mark Wingfield and a host of other international talents! Watch for more news at the MoonJune Bandcamp page, or do what I did; subscribe and get everything MoonJune releases for a year!
My copy of Nick d’Virgilo’s Invisible was still in the mail when I read Bryan’s first impressions of it. Following its arrival and repeated listens, here are my two cents.
I honestly didn’t know what to expect from this release, and was pleasantly surprised as a result; it gets better every time I hear it. As Bryan says, Invisible doesn’t sound much like Big Big Train (though it puts d’Virgilio’s jazz-rock flavored compositions for BBT in context), or even middle-period Spock’s Beard. And it only dabbles in the hyper, clattery alt-pop NDV tackled with Randy McStine and Jonas Reingold on The Fringe. Mostly, this is an album of 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 Alan Parsons Project with a lot more horsepower” might be a good thumbnail description.
(Invisible is a pretty cool example of creative entrepreneurship in today’s music industry, too. By leveraging his gig at Fort Wayne’s Sweetwater Studios, d’Virgilio managed to play ten different drum kits in exchange for promotional considerations — i.e. the drool-worthy “Drum Gear” booklet included with each copy — and draw on a bevy of guest stars from studio master classes, with Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen as the wildest card in his deck.)
The down to earth storyline, a solid redemption narrative with some nifty twists, definitely helps make Invisible appealing and relatable. But I would argue that the musical means d’Virgilio uses to build out his concept seal the deal. Beyond his emotive singing and consistently brilliant drum work, Nick’s polished efforts on electric piano, loops, bass, bass synth and guitars provide a sturdy chassis for each track; his fellow Sweetwater pros, guest stars and prog buddies lovingly customize the power trains and bodies; and the strings and brass of the Orchestra at Abbey Road furnish plush aural upholstery (along with a recurring musical theme based on the chorus of “Where’s the Passion”).
As a result, every single track of this album grabs on tight from the beginning — not just revealing more depth and emotional resonance with every repeat, but also relentlessly propelling the overall narrative forward. The desolation of the title track and the downbeat cover of “Money (That’s What I Want)”; the defiance of “Turn Your Life Around” and “Overcome”; the devastation of “Waiting for No One” and “Not My Time to Say Goodbye”; the cathartic deliverance of the finale “I Know the Way” — this is outright sonic cinema, pictures vividly created in your head by state of the art, high quality music.
So, yeah, I’m sold on Invisible; it’s already in contention for my end-of-the-year favorites list. And I think you might dig it too. So order it from NDV’s website or Burning Shed; heck, listen on Spotify if you can’t wait for it to arrive. Whatever. You really shouldn’t miss this one.