Hello Prog Pickers, happy 2016, where the hell did last year go?
It feels a bit bittersweet really sitting here and compiling this, as I am writing this the same day that I heard that David Bowie died, and I am sure that by the time I am writing next years review that Blackstar will be up there amongst the releases of 2016.
Time to reflect on a year full of personal changes and successes as well as the loss of a close friend that hit me hard.
Throughout the highs and lows and in-between bits that make up life in the 21st century music has been one of my constant companions, and trying to whittle down the best (in my humble opinion) albums of the last twelve months is no easy business, with such a slew of strong releases from new names and existing bands, trying to get this list into shape has been like trying to herd cats, and there have been some great albums by artists like Steven Wilson, Guapo, District 97, Dave Sturt, John Hackett, Jeff Lynne’s ELO, Tim Bowness and Guy Garvey that didn’t make the cut, not to mention releases by artists like Bruce Soord and Arcade Messiah that I haven’t even heard yet.
The only criteria for this list is that the album had to be a new release from the last year, so the wonderful 5.1 Yes remasters, the 5.1 Jethro Tull boxes, Esoterics excellent Anthony Phillips reissues, King Crimsons Thrak box and the Steve Hackett Premonitions set and David Bowies Five Years (1969-1973) all fall by the wayside.
Maybe when I get to the point where in one year I’ve listened to more new old music than new music I may redefine the criteria, but as the joy of experiencing new music is one of lifes pleasures I hope that year is a long way off.
So, this here list is it A) chronological? No. B) Alphabetical? No. C) All my own personal opinion? Totally and irrefutably.
So any typos, artists missing or albums you think should have been included, that’s all the authors fault!
Lets dive in and see what 2015 left me with…
A new name to me, UK prog duo Napiers Bones released their second album, and Nathan Jon Tillett and Gordon Midgley have a definite vision of storytelling, that fits comfortably in the classic prog mould.
With its roots in Cornish Folklore, the album has lots in common with folk rock operas like Fairport Conventions Babbacombe Lee or Peter Bellamys The Transports whilst neatly slotting into the prog storytelling genre occupied by artists like Ayreon or Rick Wakeman.
The mood from start to finish mirrors the story as it mixes it blends of folk themes, with some fantastical musical highs as it runs the gamut of classical prog, heavier guitar based tracks, and beautiful piece of guitar soloing over some of the most atmospheric keyboards I have heard for a long time. This is musical double hander as the story drives the music, and the songs are more performed rather than sung. I think that this epic performance would work wonders as a musical.
The way the music, the story and the vocals pull you into the record are a testament to the vision of Napiers Bones, and both Tillet and Midgley should rightly be proud of this musical achievement.
This Raging Silence: Isotopes and Endoscopes
Bristol based progressive quartet, This Raging Silence released their debut album earlier this year, and the 6 epic tracks on here are just sublime to listen to.
Formed by Jeff Cox, John Tyrer, Dave Appleford and Garry Davies the sound is very much towards the darker end of the prog sound as heavy riffs and driving bass flow through the album. In fact this album is beautifully performed as whole, the mood changes deftly and intricately and the way the band bounce off each other throughout is a delight to listen to. Sitting at the more atmospheric and darker end of the prog spectrum, this is a rare old treat and an album that anyone who gives houseroom to Porcupine Tree, District 97 or Trojanhorse will enjoy.
The Fierce and the Dead: Magnet
Bad Elephant Music
I know it’s an EP but there are more musical ideas crammed onto these 4 tracks than some bands have in a lifetime and astonishingly it’s been two years since experimental instrumental noiseniks The Fierce and the Dead released the acclaimed Spooky Action album, having seen them live several times in that period, the new music here on the Magnet EP shows how far they have travelled and evolved musically since then.
Magnet in Your Face is just short of two minutes worth of intense guitar duels hooked on a mighty riff that takes your breath away and as an introduction almost leaps out and says ‘Hello, did you miss us??’ the four piece of Kevin Feazey, Matt Stevens, Steve Cleaton and Stuart Marshall never stand still, they’re sound is continuously evolving over every release, whilst remaining true to their ethos. The interplay between all four members here is key to their success, they are in the truest form a group, there is no one dominant member, and that’s what makes this music work so well, they know each other so well that they can bounce off each other and drive the music on. There is no ego here, there is only art. If you haven’t joined the Fierce and the Dead cult yet, then you need to buy Magnet, its pull is irresistible.
Halo Tora: Omni/One
Another band I hadn’t heard of before this year this is Halo Toras debut album, and having heard good things about them from other friends I was intrigued as to what they would sound like. They have worked hard on the road and as a result their debut is as strong a piece of atmospheric post prog that I have had the pleasure to listen to.
The band, Chris Alexander (guitar/vocals) Ian McCall (guitar/vocals) Mark Young (bass) Chris McKeown (drums) and Ryan Connery (keyboards) use all the musical tools and skill at their disposable to intricately layer dense and subtle musical soundscapes, which like on Permanent revolution build and build as their vocals and guitars intertwine. This is a fantastically well-written debut album, and works on so many levels from the music, the lyrics and the deft interplay between the band.
Dodson & Fogg: Warning Signs
Warning Signs, is one man musical revolutions Chris Wades strongest musical statement to date, hinting at a very different approach, gone are the striking paintings and images that normally adorn the albums, instead the cover is a moody photo of Chris, showing for the first time on the album cover the man behind the music. The songs are more intimate and feel more like a singer/songwriter album of the early 70’s, than a psychedelic project.
More personal and with a wonderful production, that sounds like Chris is singing in your front room and the album is imbued with warmth and charm, from the Beatle esque title track to the wonderfully guitar heavy Following the Man, with its great lyrics and chord driven sound its another wonderful slice of 70’s rock, with a great solo, reminding us how great a guitarist Chris is. This is an exciting and interesting slight change of direction for Chris, and adds so much more to the Dodson and Fogg sound, being a superb example of the singer songwriter genre.
Sanguine Hum: Now We Have Light
Esoteric Records EANTCD21042
Third album in and Sanguine Hum are continuing to fulfil their musical promise that last studio album the Weight of the World delivered, and not only that they have delivered us a genuine contemporary prog magnum opus in the process.
Now We Have Light, with it’s startlingly eye-catching artwork that is intrinsic to the story is a double album of majestic proportions.
Running the whole gamut of classic prog, via rock, jazz and some beautifully layered sounds, amazing vocal harmonies, and intense musical sections like on Bubble Trouble that will blow your mind, this is an astonishing album.
From the introduction of Desolation Song, nicely setting the musical scene, and carried through tracks like Getting Warmer, and the brilliantly titled ‘Shit!’ the Hum are a musical powerhouse, welding their influences together to create a coherent, immersive whole.
Add in the driving rock and funk of Cat Factory with it’s array of real synths, and superb musical interplay with a propelling bass and a great big crunchy riff is an instrumental highlight, whilst the sublime End of the Line carries through the narrative into the centrepiece of Disc 2, the 5 part Spanning the Eternal Abyss, which pulls in so many musical styles, and weaves them together beautifully, that by the time that Settle Down with its great synth work has finished, you are blown away by the power of Sanguine Hum.
This multi-layered and exciting record proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Sanguine Hum are one of the best progressive bands on the planet.
Lonely Robot: Please Come Home
This is John Mitchells latest musical project, having contributed to Frost*, Arena, It Bites and many other projects over the years Johns talents as a guitarist, vocalist and producer are undisputed. This album reaffirms the stamp of quality that John brings to any album he works on, and is a fantastic piece of work from the opening instrumental power of Airlock, featuring the unique talents of Jem Godfrey to the closing The Red Balloon; this is a powerful album of amazing musical moments and haunting beauty. Dealing with alienation, loneliness and the human condition the lyrics are never short of genius, and the music is atmospheric, haunting and elegiac throughout.
As albums go this is a stunningly original record, with some majestic songwriting from John Mitchell, and like all great producers he knows how to cherry pick the best collaborators to bring something of themselves to his album, and still maintain his overall identity.
Grand Tour Heavy on the Beach
This wonderfully evocative concept album is the culmination of years of work from former Abel Ganz man Hew Montgomery, and is based around his fascination with all things Cold War and Nuclear, and seems unnervingly contemporary with the challenges the world is facing today with a resurgent Russia and the rise of Islamic State. Joined by the vocal talents of Joe Cairney, and Mark Spalding on guitar and Bruce Levick on drums, this is a band of no mean talent, and this album delivers the goods time after time.
With swathes of vast Floydian keyboard work, and real epic movements, this is a slice of classic concept prog, with wonderfully direct lyrics from Cairney that reference the beach time after time, and with motifs that crop up throughout the album, this is a piece of art that has to be listened to all the way through.
Like all the best concepts from Dark Side of the Moon, to Le Sacre du Travail, this isn’t an album to dip into. It’s all or nothing, and with the devastatingly powerful instrumental Little Boy and the Fat Man, referencing the two nuclear devices that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the two part track The Grand Tour which almost bookends the album, and the superb title track that is classic prog given a contemporary twist, this album is magnificent in every sense of the word.
The hard work that Hew has put into this pays off magnificently and I would say this is his crowning musical achievement so far.
Public Service Broadcasting The Race for Space
English musical duo Public Service Broadcastings raison D’Etre is creating musical soundscapes based around old film footage. Taking as their concept for album number 2 is the Space Race between the USSR and the USA and their starting point is setting John F Kennedy’s speech about The Race for Space to haunting choral music, (with motifs that reoccur throughout the album) and ending with the last manned moon landing.
The artwork for this album is wonderful, two different covers on either side of the record showing either the American or the Russian perspective, and a beautiful booklet in the vinyl edition, which I had to have.
From the driving Sputnik, the jazz funk of Gagarin and then the haunting tribute to the astronauts killed in the Apollo 1 disaster (Fire in the Cockpit) and the celebration of Valentina Tereshkova who became the first woman in space (Valentina, with guest vocals from the Smoke Fairies) and the elegiac closing Tomorrow (when Apollo 17 became the last manned flight to leave the Moon), this album sets itself as referencing a specific period in time, when, with space flight anything seemed possible.
The beauty of Public Service Broadcasting is their use of archive recordings, and matching the music to the mood to evoke a golden era of interstellar travel when everything seemed possible, and it’s 43 minutes plus brings that period back to life and reminds us musically of a time when we spent looking at the stars in optimism, instead of gazing down at our feet.
The Dead Astronaut
Hi-Fiction Science guitarist and songwriter James McKeown recently released his latest solo album under the sobriquet The Dead Astronaut, a hauntingly beautiful and occasionally uncomfortably personal record, it s a triumph of the songwriting craft.
From it’s haunting and sparse artwork by highly regarded designer Carl Glover, to the musical contents, the album is as different from Hi Fiction Science as is possible to get, and has a loose narrative written around some highly personal and emotional issues experienced by James.
With a small core of collaborators, including HFS band mates Aidan Searle and Jeff Green and guitarist Paul Bradley, one of the sounds that is at the heart of this record, and believe me, this is a record that is full of heart and soul, is the cello of Charlotte Nicholls, which, when coupled with the emotionally raw and confessional style of songs that James presents here, adds so much to the texture and the tone of the record, and yes, I am talking about a record as I opted for the vinyl edition, which is a pure immersive experience to listen to.
The word bleak comes up again and again when describing the themes on this album, and this shouldn’t ever put you off, there is beauty in this darkness, and whilst James is pouring out his heart, the production and the music adds warmth, almost like the song is giving him a big hug as he’s singing it.
This album has a very English sound to it, and the pared back sound allows the songs to breath and the lyrics to shine, it’s like the difference between early Pink Floyd records and Syd Barrett solo records.
You can hear the humanity and the raw emotions on display throughout this album, and again you can feel it, through the music, the lyrics and the sparse packaging, this isn’t an album that can be ignored.
Once it’s in your heart and in your head it takes over the room you are listening to it, and it’s one of those albums that demands your attention, and rewards your listening time and time again.
We Are Kin: Pandora
Bad Elephant Music
Every so often a record drops through the door (or in this case on email) from a label who are kind enough to let us review their latest offerings, and you know nothing of the band, nothing of what to expect from the album, and you put it on with a sense of anticipation, and excitement (as I still get a massive buzz from hearing new music, and hope I always do) and then as you immerse yourself in the record, and listen to it, you find you’ve found the sort of record that stays with you forever.
This is one of those records. I listened to it once, then again, and again, and again each time getting more and more out of it.
Manchester based band We are Kin (Dan Zambas and Gary Boast, now fleshed out by newer members Lee Braddock, Lauren Smith and Adam McCann) are purveyors of the sort of atmospheric prog rock that grows layer on layer, subtly and intelligently. Pandora is a very specific sound and style, and the overall concept is that of artificial intelligence, and its uses, and this is what drives the sound along, with original vocalist Hannah Cotterill in fine form on opener Home Sweet Home, and the music here has space to breathe and grow. Nothing is forced, nothing jars, everything ebbs and flows like a good story or album should do. As Soul builds and builds to a magnificent climax, then we head deep into concept territory as Scottish poet Alex Dunedin guests on the impassioned and exceptional The Speech, which leads into the magnificent The Hard Decision, whilst Zambas vocals shine throughout the album, especially on The Weight of the World, whilst the closing Breathe Out is as fine a piece of music as you are likely to hear anywhere this year.
This record from start to finish, from concept to execution, and from production to performance is as close to perfection as you are going to get. The music, the lyrics, the story all flows together and it transcend genre and sound to become something timeless and original and new. If I were to nominate a record that sums up 2015 for me, this would be it, it’s become part of the fabric of my musical life and a record that I can’t recommend enough to everyone.
Tom Slatter: Fit The Fourth
Bad Elephant Music
Tom Slatter is a unique beast in the world of contemporary music, in that he doesn’t, in any way sound like anyone else, or fit neatly into a pigeonhole or pre-determined genre. This makes my job a little harder, but his music a lot more exciting.
This is Tom’s fourth full-length release, and his first under the wings (or trunk) of the Bad Elephant boys, whose musical taste is set to eclectic, and whose first vision is do we like it? And then, if we like it, someone else will!
Tom is considered steam punk prog, and is probably the only one in that genre, he’s one on his own this lad, not just a multi-instrumentalist, but also a weaver or worlds and teller of tales, Toms narrative comes from the dark nights round the campfire where you would try to scare each other, or weave more fantastically intricate stories into your narrative. The brilliant opener Some of the Creatures have Broken the Locks on the door to Lab 558 sets the imagination racing with just the title, and the post apocalyptic science fiction story that evolves is reminiscent of early Doctor Who or Quatermass, and sets the tone for the rest of this darkly compelling album. Seven bells John is to the fore on The Steam Engine Murders and the trial of Seven-Bells, which is gothic noir, mixed with music hall and penny dreadfuls, With his mix of Victoriana, steam punk, prog and narrative drive, this is a wonderful album that deserves to be listened to and appreciated, as a record unlike any other you’ll hear this year.
Theo Travis Double Talk: Transgression
Esoteric Antenna EANTCD1052
British saxophonist, flautist and clarinettist Travis is the go to man for many artists including and this new album produced by Steven Wilson, showcases why Travis is the premier jazz rock saxophonist of his generation. With his taut band Mike Outram (guitar) Pete Whittaker (organ) and Nic France, Transgression showcases the versatility of the man himself, with a mixture of new material and reinterpretations of classic pieces (like Robert Wyatt & Phillip Catherine’s Maryam). The line between the type of jazz that Travis is proficient at, and progressive rock is a very fine one, and this crosses those borders with style and aplomb. A particular highlight and stand out track here is the reworking of Travis and Tangent main man Andy Tillison’s co-write (and title track of 2006 Tangent album) A Place in the Queue, with the subtle reworking of Travis sax, the organ of Pete Whittaker and the deft and intricate interplay between the band, it takes the original and goes somewhere new and exciting with it, and I have no doubt that Andy Tillison would approve. Elsewhere the co-write with Dave Sturt the fantastic Everything I Feared, and the epic title track that showcases the best of Theo Travis and his tight band, his versatility, his power and his dextrous musical performances are a joy to behold. I find, as I am getting a little older I am starting to really get into the grooves and the places that well played sax jazz takes you, and this album is wonderful. In fact I would go so far to say its probably more progressive than most of the progressive releases I have heard all year.
Stephen W Tayler: Ostinato
Esoteric Antenna EANCT1054
Not a name many will be familiar with, however Stephen W Tayler is a versatile and talented producer, engineer, sound designer and mixer who has worked with such talents as Peter Gabriel, Underworld, Howard Jones, Rush and most recently Kate Bush (on her latest records and her recent live performances).
Here, his musical vision unfolds through an intense, exciting and beautiful journey, mixing the minimalism of Terry Riley or Phillip Glass with the electronica of John Foxx or Tangerine Dream. With powerful metronomic rhythms, subtle and haunting electronics and distorted electronic voices, the album starts with the powerful trance like Euro Star (reminiscent of the more ambient stylings of Rob Duggan), whilst the percussive power of Peripherique is an astonishing musical tour de force, the driving percussion, the electronic sounds, the pulsing beat throughout, propel the track into your mind, and it’s not hard to imagine chilling out to this in a club scene.
Drawing on his 40 years of experience in the music industry and experience working with many great artists, this album is full of beautiful sonic sounds, and the tracks insinuate themselves into your head and take you on a musical journey, the pulsating Metro is like taking a ride on the ubiquitous train, whilst the wonderful final track The Boy Who Said Yes features a sample of the 13 year old Stephen W Tayler performing Breet/Weills Der Jasager, and works beautifully in the context of the album.
This is a refreshing, exciting and absorbing piece of contemporary electronica.
Gavin Harrison: Cheating the Polygraph
The effect of Gavin Harrison’s rather spectacular new album is an astonishing, intelligent reinterpretation of Porcupine Tree songs, and whilst the song remains the same, the sound really doesn’t.
Instead of the sonic experimentations and haunting undertones that you get from a great Steven Wilson song, this is the pinnacle of the art of reinvention (and one other artists can learns from) because Harrison (who I assume everyone knows – if not, he’s one of the finest drummers in the world today, heir apparent to Bill Brufords jazz prog throne) and collaborator Lawrence Cottle have skilfully and adeptly produced a damn fine jazz album. And man, does it swing!
This covers the whole gamut from Porcupine Tree’s mighty back catalogue, and the skilful swing driven funk adaptation of The Pills I’m Taking (from Fear of Blank Planets Anaesthetize suite) is mighty to hear, and takes the track so far from the original, that you do have to jump back and listen and compare. It’s like the Baz Luhrman Romeo and Juliet film, the original source material is there, you just have to dig a little deeper to find it.
The sinewy bass drives the inspired combination of Lightbulb Suns Hatesong with Deadwings Halo, and it’s like the two were meant to be together, as the sinister undertones and the brass mix together to create a piece that could have fallen off a 1970’s film noir soundtrack, and then the funk kicks in. With a skilful jazz orchestra and of course Harrisons taut powerful drumming underpinning the whole affair, it allows Cottle and Harrison to go out there in reinterpreting and rearranging these classic songs, as trumpet, trombone and sax duel with each other as familiar riffs appear and sneak off into the ether, as the full band kicks in with some mighty power, and of course Harrisons glorious drumming and some amazing bass work.
This is a covers album like no other, and with the way these Porcupine Tree songs have been remained and so expertly dissected and reassembled, it is one of the most progressive releases (and the most enjoyable) you’ll hear so far this year!
The Tangent A Spark in the Aether
On this epic release Andy has swapped the realism of Le Sacre du Travail for escapism, and the sometimes-introverted imagery of Le Sacre for what can only be described as a full on prog rock album, with the emphasis firmly on rock.
Instead of the view from the windscreen, this is far more the view from the widescreen.
Starting with the wonderful title track with its mammoth keyboard riff, and lyrics looking at the current state of the prog scene (in rude health currently) the lyrical theme of this (and several other songs) is a musical equivalent of those TV documentaries that revisits communities after a period of time to see where they are now, and is revisited as a coda on the album as a gargantuan keyboard based musical celebration, with the wonderfully catchy chorus rounding the record off.
This revisitation of themes from The Music that Died Alone is continued on the unashamedly prog Codpieces and Capes, covering musical bases from Yes to Tull and all points in betweens, it reflects on themes originally riffed on during Suppers Off, about the fact that there are many fantastic bands including the Tangent who are out there still making relevant albums, whilst 5.1 reissues get more sales and coverage.
This opening quartet is closed off by the epically Floydian Aftereugene, with its epic slow build, and then a barely muttered “careful with that sax, Eugene”, before Theo Travis is let loose on his Saxes in a manic jazz explosion.
The centrepiece of the album, the 21 minutes plus The Celluloid Road, is an Andy Tillison Disk drive-through that takes us travelling through mythical America as seen on the big screen. Really letting loose and rarely letting up it covers more genres than your average HMV, with the band firing on all cylinders as the Tangent V8 drives us coast to coast, and finishes in the brilliantly funky pounding rock of San Francisco.
As evocative as the movies and shows that are name checked it makes me want to go on a stateside road trip, with Andy as my tour guide. This album is big, bold, and loud and demands to be played live.
Hope you enjoyed my list and a big thank you to all the artists and creative types who helped brighten up 2015 with some amazing records, concerts and videos, here’s to 2016.