Here are the reissues and live albums from 2019 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. Links to previous reviews or purchase sites are embedded in the album titles. But first, a graphic tease …
More new music, live albums, reissues (regular, deluxe & super-deluxe) and even books about music heading our way between now and Christmas? Yep. Following up on my previous post, it’s another exhaustive sampling of promised progressive goodies — along with other personal priorities — below. Click on the titles for pre-order links — whenever possible, you’ll wind up at the online store that gets as much money as possible directly to the creators.
Andrew Keeling, Musical Guide to In the Court of the Crimson King, 10/50 Edition: composer/musicologist/online diarist Keeling’s revision of his 2009 book (the first of a series acclaimed by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp).
Marillion with Friends from the Orchestra: 9 Marillion classics re-recorded by the full band, the string quartet In Praise of Folly, flautist Emma Halnan and French horn player Sam Morris. Available on CD.
A Prog Rock Christmas: Billy Sherwood produces 11 holiday-themed tracks from the typical all-star cast (members of Yes, Utopia, Flying Colors, Renaissance, District 97, Curved Air and more). Download and CD available now; LP available November 1.
King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King (50th Anniversary Edition): featuring brand new stereo and surround mixes in 24/96 resolution by Steven Wilson. Available in 3 CD + BluRay or 2 LP versions. (Note that the new mixes will also be included in the Complete 1969 CD/DVD/BluRay box set, which has been delayed until 2020.)
Van Morrison, Three Chords and the Truth: 14 new songs from Van the Man, available in digital, CD or LP versions.
Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Colorado: the first Young/Horse collaboration since the 2012 albums Americana and Psychedelic Pill, available in CD or 2LP versions.
Mark Hollis, 1955-2019
Scott Walker, 1943-2019
One of Robert Fripp’s “devil bugs” caught up with the Krueger household on February 24 — the same day a “bomb cyclone” hit West Michigan, causing a 30-degree temperature drop in 24 hours, along with whiteout snowstorms. It’s taken this long for us (and the region) to emerge from hibernation — but through the depths of winter to the cusp of spring, music has taken sad songs and made them better.
That very day late last month, I trekked across the state to catch The Neal Morse Band’s Great Adventour stop in suburban Detroit; Neal and his merry crew (including son Will and daughter Jayda at the merch table) didn’t disappoint. As I anticipated, The NMB’s live take on The Great Adventure was even tighter, more driven and more finely honed than the fine studio album (first half glitches to Morse’s keyboard rig notwithstanding).
Hearing all of TGA in one go brought home how thoroughly integrated the new effort is. The key musical themes (as well as flashbacks to The Similitude of A Dream) aren’t just repeated, they’re developed in near-symphonic ways: transposed, transformed rhythmically and harmonically, recapped in unexpected contexts throughout the work. Kaleidoscopic contrasts of rhythm, instrumental color, vocal textures (mainly from Morse, guitarist Eric Gillette, keyboardist Bill Hubauer) and tonality meshed smoothly with drummer Mike Portnoy and bassist Randy’s George’s badass forward propulsion, ably mirroring the lyrical highs and lows of another journey to the Celestial City.
In sum, TGA is a genuinely impressive concept work, marked by ambition, intelligence, technique and sentiment in just the right proportions. The result at the end of each set (and the encore medley that covered Morse’s entire solo career, ending the night where it began) was sustained, extended, unforced ecstasy in the audience — a feeling that, I believe, couldn’t have been manufactured or manipulated into existence. I couldn’t help think that, consciously or not, Morse’s recent work fully embodies the ongoing ideal of American revivalist religion — an ideal, whatever its flaws, that’s been a cultural constant from the Puritan theologizing of Jonathan Edwards to the rough-hewn democratic juggernaut of today’s Pentecostalism.
And, in the inspired, paradoxically complex simplicity of its drive to the finish, The Great Adventure live reminded me of nothing so much as Gustav Mahler’s massive Resurrection Symphony. Like Mahler, Morse and band embraced everything that came to hand, running the risk of grandiosity to shape a new musical world — a payoff acknowledged by the heartfelt, fervent applause of the 300 souls in attendance.
As I exited the CTA Green Line on a crisp, clear Chicago Sunday, Reggie’s Rock Club and Music Joint beckoned with the promise of Progtoberfest’s final day: twelve hours of sixteen bands on two stages. Constantly unfolding delight or endless endurance test? Only one way to find out.
(Notes for after the jump: links are provided to bands’ online presence — website, Facebook or Bandcamp pages — wherever possible. An asterisk [*] by a band’s name means I bought one or more of their CDs at the event; A cross [+] means the band didn’t have CDs for sale — but their music is now on my want list. Here we go …)
Continuing the saga of Soft Machine, currently on a 50th anniversary world tour (coming to North America this fall). Click here for Part One, covering the band’s psychedelic years of 1966-69; Click here for Part Two, covering the jazz-rock years of 1970-1973. The Softs’ new album Hidden Details can be ordered at Bandcamp.
Seven albums on, Soft Machine was stuck. Founding organist Mike Ratledge was still around, but his contributions had diminished to an ongoing flow of “cosmic tinkles” — minimalist electric piano patterns enhanced by tape delay effects. Keyboardist/reed player Karl Jenkins had taken up the compositional slack, but the music was edging into blandness onstage, no matter how much oomph bassist Roy Babbington and drummer John Marshall kicked up. At Marshall’s suggestion, the Softs decided to freshen their palette with a different solo voice — namely, Allan Holdsworth on guitar.
Recruiting a guitarist for a band that hadn’t had one since 1968 seemed a drastic move, but the gamble paid off handsomely. The young Holdsworth brought guts and brio back to Soft Machine’s sound, digging deep to play off Babbington and Marshall, spitting out energetic improvisations that channeled his idols John Coltrane and John McLaughlin. Equally fired up, Jenkins and Ratledge composed extended suites with plenty of space for blowing, and the Softs hit the road with a completely new set. Archive releases from that year’s world tour such as Cuneiform’s Switzerland 1974 and MoonJune’s Floating World Live (recorded in England in early 1975) amply display the impressive results.
The excitement carried over to 1975’s Bundles, the Softs’ first album for EMI’s Harvest label. The side-long epic “Hazard Profile” is the perfect introduction to the new sound: Holdsworth’s light-speed melodicism nicely complements Jenkins’ classically tinged ruminations; Babbington and Marshall groove relentlessly; Ratledge even provides a skittering synthesizer solo that nods at his salad days. The players are in full flight throughout, locking in over a variety of backgrounds and moods; there’s new room for acoustic interludes (Holdsworth’s “Gone Sailing”) and multi-sectioned proggy workouts (the Jenkins/Holdsworth mashup “Bundles/The Land of the Bag Snake”). Even the “cosmic tinkles” get a shot of adrenalin in Ratledge’s unstoppable crescendo “The Man Who Waved at Trains/Peff” and Jenkins’ lush, spacious “The Floating World.” The future looked bright again.
But, predictably for those who know both Soft Machine and Holdsworth history, it wasn’t that simple; Holdsworth left just as Bundles was released, joining Miles Davis alumni Tony Williams’ New Lifetime. With more touring already booked, the group quickly tapped up-and-coming guitarist John Etheridge (Holdsworth’s suggestion) for the open slot. Etheridge fit the bill, with his spare, muscular style leaving more space for his bandmates to shine onstage.
Recording the next album brought further changes: Alan Wakeman (Rick’s cousin!) joined on hard-charging solo sax, so Jenkins could focus on keys and composing; the new tunes drew sharper lines between tightly arranged prog/classical movements and vamps to improvise over; and Mike Ratledge’s long exodus from Soft Machine culminated in contributions to just two tracks. Despite all these shifts, 1976’s Softs had plenty of energy and appeal, a striking variety of well-crafted textures, space for free blowing on Side Two (dig “The Camden Tandem” and the end of “One Over the Eight”), and first-class playing throughout.
Still, poor record sales and precarious finances took their toll. Wakeman bailed on the eve of another tour, replaced by Ray Warleigh; afterwards, Warleigh and Babbington left, with the bass chair taken first by Brand X’s Percy Jones, then by Steve Cook; violinist Ric Saunders became the second soloist, lending a Mahavishnu Orchestra tinge to the proceedings. By 1977, the band was actively splintering, with members taking lucrative side gigs to make ends meet and a variety of live substitutes (even Holdsworth!) filling in as necessary.
Given the situation, recording Soft Machine’s 1977 Paris gigs was deemed the way forward to another album. Disaster ensued: equipment was held up at customs, safety officials limited attendance, an assistant recording engineer failed to turn up, and Etheridge and Cook’s instruments were stolen after the first night. And yet Alive and Well: Recorded in Paris comes off remarkably well: the new music is solid; the band interplay on “Huffin'” and “The Nodder” is stunningly on point, and even the Giorgio Moroder-style disco funk concoction “Soft Space” (complete with uncredited contributions from Ratledge) clicks. (Note that Esoteric Recordings’ 2010 reissue features an extra disc of live outtakes.)
And then — nothing. Well, nothing except 1981’s Land of Cockayne — in actuality, producer Mike Thorne’s invitation for Karl Jenkins to record with both rock and orchestral forces. Despite a stellar cast (including Softs alumni Marshall, Warleigh and Holdsworth, plus bass legend Jack Bruce) and echoes of past glories like “Panoramania” and “Sly Monkey,” Land of Cockayne is a completely different beast, the most mainstream music ever released under the Soft Machine name. Ultimately, it proved a marker toward the rest of Jenkins’ career, occasionally in collaboration with Mike Ratledge: advertising jingles (including the inescapable-for-a-time DeBeers Diamond music), then the 1990s classical crossover project Adiemus, then a full-blown career as an orchestral composer, culminating with a 2015 knighthood.
It had been a good run, but after one last week-long London residency in 1984, Soft Machine was no more. Still, the legacy of the band lived on in its recordings and in the work of its numerous alumni until …
But that’s an unlikely tale for another time.
— Rick Krueger
This summer saw the long-awaited second release from Melody’s Echo Chamber: Bon Voyage arrived after five stop-and-go and, at times, tortuous years. On its June 15 release date Melody Prochet (vocal, guitar, synthesizers, violin, viola) wrote on her Facebook band page,
Today is a day life forced me to give up waiting for… ‘Bon Voyage’ is a little monster I hope will find it’s home in some of your hearts and…if not soothe, will resonate somehow positively…
So it comes down to listeners interacting with this beast, a theme-park ride of a record, while the artist, one imagines, pulls the covers over her head. First off, it is little, clocking in at a compendious 33 minutes. But given its twists and turns, its density and scope, the brevity of the work allows repeat listens to work out its strange but satisfying logic.
As I told a friend: I can’t imagine a Syd Barrett or Brian Wilson or Todd Rundgren or Wayne Coyne not really liking this record.
Prochet (b. 1987, Puyricard, France) began working on her sophomore project and releasing tracks (e.g. “Shirim”) in 2013. Rumor has it she threw away some of the material. Then last year she was involved in an undisclosed accident resulting in serious injuries. Her fans despaired until Bon Voyage was dropped in time for the summer solstice.
Melody’s Echo Chamber (2012) was readily classified as “psych pop.” But for those who tire of musical taxonomies Bon Voyage is as open borders as they come. The opening track “Cross My Heart” begins with composite acoustic guitar chords followed by a swelling string arrangement, a mid ’60s Wilsonish verse, then a beat box section folding into a flute and percussion-driven jazz passage embellished with some fanatical bass lines. The lyrics here, as throughout the album, flow freely between English and French. We’re escorted back to the opening chords for a reprise of the main (?) verse and a riff-laden, cinematic flourish.
As soon as “Breathe In, Breathe Out” drops a power rock groove the listener’s head-bobbing is interrupted by a trance section before the track accelerates again to its finish, the opening themes reworked but almost unrecognizable in the sonic whiplash.
Prochet cites composer Olivier Messiaen (1908 – 1992) as a favorite, and perhaps what we catch on this record are flecks of his emphasis on color and unusual time signature.
The first of two foci on this record is “Desert Horse,” pairing a dark Middle Eastern groove (including on old Black Sabbath riff) with a bright but plaintive chorus,
So much blood
On my hands
And there’s not much left to destroy
I know I am better alone
…except the isolation that birthed this record finds its emotional epicenter in the epic “Quand Les Larmes D’un Ange Font Danser La Neige.” Ironically it’s among the more conventional and readily accessible tracks on the album, even at seven minutes. Imagine the Bee Gees not taking that disco detour…
[spoken word] …it comes through the window like a whistle or a whisper under the bed and little children think that the monster —
Ain’t no karma, only love
To punish those with rotten heart
Good to have Melody’s Echo Chamber back — and this creature on the loose.