Lots of great music has crossed the metaphorical Progarchy transom this month! Purchasing links are embedded in each artist/title listing; album playlists or samples follow each review.
The Flower Kings, By Royal Decree: Fun fact: this is the third double album in a row from king of Kings Roine Stolt and his merry band. And like 2019’s Waiting for Miracles (which started the streak)it’s compulsively listenable from start to finish. Fresh out of lockdown, Stolt, singer Hasse Fröberg, keyboardist Zach Kamins, drummer Mirko deMaio and alternating bassists Jonas Reingold & Michael Stolt laid down 18 songs in the studio, negotiating the twists and turns of wildly varied material (some of which dates back to the early 1990s) with energy, precision and evident delight. Not a trace of metal here, and I hear much more psychedelia, fusion and Eurofunk in the mix than stereotypical “prog” — but to my ears, that’s what makes goodies like the unpredictable opener “The Great Pretender”, the ravishing ballads “A Million Stars” and “Silent Ways”, and the off-kilter eccentricity “Letter” so fresh and fun. There are plenty of serious lyrical moments too, as in “The Soldier” and “Revolution”; but, by and large, By Royal Decree is the sound of Stolt and company refreshed and revisiting their optimistic roots, soaring on the wings of one marvelous melody after another. It’s as much a joy to hear as it must have been to create.
Brought to you (mostly) by the letter B! Purchasing links are embedded in the artist/title listing; a sample follows each review.
Dave Bainbridge, To The Far Away: put simply, a thrilling, ravishingly beautiful album. Separated from his fiancée on the eve of their wedding by the COVID pandemic, guitarist/keyboardist Bainbridge focused on the essentials — love and the longing it stirs, the beauty of the world and the changing seasons, the desire for hope and a future. Poet Lynn Caldwell’s words (movingly sung by Sally Minnear and Iain Hornal) capture these themes with rich simplicity, cradled in a lush orchestral blend of rock, prog and Celtic folk. Often evoking the palette of his breakthrough band Iona, Bainbridge and a stellar group of collaborators grab your attention and your heartstrings again and again, whether on the dramatic instrumental “Rain and Sun”, the epic paean to the creative spirit “Ghost Light”, the classically-tinged rhapsody “Infinitude (Region of the Stars)” or the yearning sprint of “Speed Your Journey”. Already one of my favorites of 2022, and recommended without hesitation. (And check out our extensive interview with Dave here.)
I thought I didn’t have a big list of favorites from this year’s listening — until I revisited my six-month survey from back in June and added in the good stuff I’ve heard since then! The listing below incorporates links to full or capsule reviews, or other relevant pieces on Progarchy and elsewhere; albums I haven’t written about yet get brief comments, along with my Top Favorites of the year. Most of these are available to check out online in some form; if you find yourself especially enjoying something, use that Christmas cash and support your choice with a purchase! And the winners are . . .
Rob Koral – Wild Hearts – 2021 Tracks: Show Me The Way (5:46), Funky “D” (7:14), Summer (8:12), Take Me Back (4:40), Saving Grace (7:18), The Showdown (5:17), The Beyond (5:00), Hold Tight (5:37)
Part jazz, part classic rock, part blues, and all with a sprinkling of prog over the top for good measure. That’s probably the best way to describe Rob Koral’s new album, Wild Hearts. Rob has played on over 30 records, and he is most well known for his work with the band Sketch. He is also a founding member of the band Zoe Schwarz Blue Commotion.
The songs on Wild Hearts are very upbeat, reminding me a little of the first Jethro Tull record and of Blodwyn Pig. The music is relatively simple – guitars by Rob Koral, Hammond organ by Pete Whittaker, and drums by Jeremy Stacey. The album sounds extremely fresh, which is likely due to the group recording the songs live in studio on one day in December 2020. I think that approach is best for this kind of jazz-blues instrumental music. It begs for improvisation. Rob wrote all the music, but he says that he didn’t tell Pete and Jeremy what to play. The result is music with form that still breathes. You can even hear the little hand movements on the guitar strings and the little natural noises you would get playing live. There’s even a sense of space from the room the recorded the music in. These elements add warmth to the recording, as well as bring a vintage feel to the music.
The Hammond organ really makes this record stand out for me. It adds such a rich atmosphere to the songs, even when the guitar is taking center stage. The drums have a jazzy improv feel that sets the perfect stage for the guitars and organ. My only really critique is perhaps a little bit of repetition throughout, but that also may be a result of the album being recorded live in a day. As such it’s quite an achievement. In a way it feels like a live jazz show. A song like “The Beyond” especially has that feel of anticipation as the soloing switches back and forth between guitar and organ. The longer guitar solo builds gradually over a very simple but effective drum beat. It’s smooth with a little bit of grit on the lower ends.
Wild Hearts’ strength as an album is it takes jazz and rock and strips them down to the basics. There’s nothing overly complicated here, but the extended jamming gives the songs room to grow and breath. It’s a solid album that has a positive and upbeat tone to it, sure to please on repeated listens.
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 . . .