Have a Very Merry Prog Christmas

I’d like to strike the next person who says “Christmas this year will look a bit different.” Well it doesn’t have to sound different. If you find yourself alone this Christmas Eve/Christmas (like me), there’s plenty of Christmas-related prog to keep you entertained.

Devin Townsend’s Christmas livestream
A couple hours ago Devin Townsend released a Christmas-themed live stream. If you’ve ever wanted to see the mad genius imitate a crooner, you’re in luck. Mostly he plays his own music spanning his career, and his whole demeanor is incredibly calming. It’s an acoustic set and a one-man show, so if you’re not as big a fan of the extreme side of his career, then this is the show for you. Ok it’s Devin so there are a few screams, which are almost comical considering he’s playing an acoustic guitar. The acoustic version of Strapping Young Lad’s “Love” is pure gold in that regard. The man has a golden voice no matter how he’s using it.

Dream Theater’s “The Holiday Spirit Carries On”
The mighty Dream Theater released a Christmas medley track a couple weeks ago to raise money for their live crew. It’s $2.99, and all the proceeds go to their crew. If you’ve ever wanted to hear James LaBrie sing “Fa-la-la-la-la la la-la la, then you had better buy the track soon because it’s only available during the month of December: https://dreamtheaterofficial.bandcamp.com. Here’s a brief sample:

Neal Morse’s “Last Minute Christmas Album”
Neal Morse decided to write a Christmas album over the last couple weeks, and it is available for download over at his label, Radiant Records. It’s his singer-songwriter side of things rather than his prog side, but it’s still Neal Morse. https://www.nealmorse.com/2020/12/19/download-now-neal-morse-last-minute-christmas-album/

Big Big Train’s “Merry Christmas” and “Snowfalls”
Big Big Train released the single “Merry Christmas” along with the even-better B-side “Snowfalls” back in 2017. They’ve become two of my favorite tracks of the season, and I would love to hear a whole album of original Christmas music from them, along with their take on some classic Christmas carols.

Jethro Tull’s Christmas Album
“The Jethro Tull Christmas Album” has been a favorite of mine for several years now. I listen to it every Christmas season.

LEAH’s “Ancient Winter”
It’s been a while since we’ve heaped praises upon the head of Canadian Leah McHenry. Last year she released “Ancient Winter,” a wonderful album celebrating the winter season. This album leans more into her Celtic influences than her metal influences, which fits the season. Definitely worth a listen or two.

There’s other Christmas prog out there, but I don’t want to overwhelm you. May you have a blessed holiday in spite of everything going on in the world. Christmas is a time when we remember that God humbled Himself to be born as one of us so that He could live like us before sacrificing His very life so that we might live forever if we follow Him. His burden is light when compared to the weight of our sin, and if 2020 has taught us anything, it is that we’d all be better off bearing that burden than the weight of the world. There’s always hope in the world, no matter what’s going on. This music is just a little glimpse of the goodness available to us even in the darkest moments.

Merry Christmas.

The Ground Collapses

Sludge and death metal, both evolved from hardcore/punk and electric blues, but a sludge-death cross-over is so much more than their shared roots. Fifty years of metal evolution, hundreds of sub-genres and here Disbelief simply continues that very captivating trend of mutations. In this case – strands of hardcore, New Orleans sludge and death metal crafts an unusual atmospheric blend. The Ground Collapses is quintessential extreme metal – in other words it encodes those long running lineage of influences, but still manages to sound novel.

It’s that familiar doom like aesthetics, that essential low, but uniquely fueled by deathly compositions rooted somewhere in late 80s Florida or Sweden. A hardcore wall-of-sound, often severed by meandering leads, and layered with cross-over vocals, creating an atmosphere so dank, deathly and gloomy. In metal, cross-genre sound is not uncommon, but this elegant cross-over aesthetic is. This subtle blend of aggression and grief makes for an essential listen, ironically one of those pockets of bliss in a rather morbid year.

Dimitri Toonen’s “Leave My Mind Sometimes” – Album Review

Dimitri Toonen, Leave My Mind Sometimes, November 20, 2020
Tracks:
 1. Shameless (6:41), 2. Not Home Today (4:01), 3. Ganges Story Part I: Tragedy (9:49), 4. The Destruction of You (2:27),  5. Leave My Mind Sometimes (5:43), 6. Us (4:16), 7. Ganges Story Part II: The Other Place (2:23), 8. The Day I Stopped (9:56), 9. Desolation Suite I: Early Days (2:12), 10. Desolation Suite II: Choices (7:45), 11. Desolation Suite III: A Dark Chapter (9:27)

Dutch artist Dimitri Toonen’s new album Leave My Mind Sometimes was a pleasant surprise as we start to wrap up the year in music here at Progarchy. It ended up being one of the best releases of 2020. Toonen’s main instrument is guitar, but this isn’t a “guitar album.” Rather the music supports the stories the songs tell. The album is structured in a way similar to Steven Wilson’s The Raven that Refused to Sing. The music also happens to be in that vein of progressive rock. 

Apart from the drums, Toonen plays all the instruments on the record, and he wrote all the lyrics. Acoustic and electric guitar are prominent, but synths, bass, and drums play an important role as well. Toonen is an excellent guitarist with a fantastic electric tone. His acoustic work is also exceptional, adding a warmness and richness to the overall sound. Toonen’s vocal delivery provides an emotional touch to his lyrics, and the frequent vocal harmonies add depth.  

The biggest musical influence I notice is Porcupine Tree/Steven Wilson, although his music isn’t quite as dark as Wilson’s can be. There are also similarities to the work of someone like Bjørn Riis and Bruce Soord (The Pineapple Thief). Despite those similarities, Toonen clearly makes his music his own. He isn’t copying anyone. Rather he’s expressing his stories in a way that bears the influence of the music he finds moving.

Toonen’s lyrical content can be pretty heavy, but I don’t find that Leave My Mind Sometimes leaves me emotionally drained after listening to it. I love Porcupine Tree and Steven Wilson’s solo work, but a close listen to those albums requires a lot from the listener. Nevertheless Toonen brings passion to the album both through the lyrics and the music. In particular, that punch into the soaring “home” in the lyrics “why didn’t you come home?” brings a powerful emotional impact to “Not Home Today.” The feelings of loss, loneliness, and rejection build over the course of that track to a beautiful crescendo.

A longer track like “Ganges Story Part I: Tragedy” has the chance to grow and mature with various musical movements. The music effortlessly moves in and out of heavy and calm moments in a way mastered by Porcupine Tree. Toonen has similarly mastered that effect, and it makes Leave My Mind Sometimes an interesting album on repeated listens. The final track, “Desolation Suite III: A Dark Chapter,” is a prime example of it. There’s a wonderful build-up to a really heavy moment that brings the album to completion before a brief calm ending. Over the entire album I find that Toonen inserts instrumental sections, often with a soulful electric or acoustic guitar solo, right when the listener needs a moment to reflect. 

The album has a cohesive flow, making the shorter tracks blend into the whole. “Ganges Story Part II: The Other Place” acts as a sort of brief reprise to “Ganges Story Part I: Tragedy,” thus helping to knit the album together. The similar musical themes helps move the listener along on a journey through these stories. 

Overall Leave My Mind Sometimes is a mature and full-sounding album. The fact Toonen did everything but the drums himself on the record is a testament to his talent. There’s a wonderful balance to the music and the vocals that can often be lost in purely solo endeavors. Toonen avoided that pitfall and created a beautiful album filled with excellent music and compelling stories. I highly recommend you give this record a listen. I found it to be the best release of the final months of the year, and I’ll definitely keep it on frequent rotation. 


The album is available now on streaming sites and Bandcamp, and you can pre-order a CD or vinyl directly from Toonen: https://www.dimitritoonen.com/shop/

https://www.dimitritoonen.com
https://www.facebook.com/dimitritoonenmusic


Silent Waters

Folk and some epic poetry can make for more than a few exquisite moments. And even with all that doom undertones, melody seems omnipresent. That’s not it – Finnish mythology, picturesque choruses, and deathly bass-lines – all layered in harmony. In other words, it’s rich, unmistakable, and Amorphis.

Music often complements that romanticism in lyrics — “Louhi spoke in riddled tones of three things to achieve, find and catch the devil’s moose and bring it there to me” – elegantly transitions to segments more appropriate for melodic-death. But, this is just one of those many instances of stunning coherence, on how their compositions accommodate hues, vibrant and diverse.

Elegant and melancholic, album does justice to the literature it adapts. “Pulled under the raging waters, my child, sank in the drowning currents, my son” — Amorphis unmistakably recreates Lemminkäinen’s tale. But now with compositions as sorrowful and gallant as his mythology, and with a “River of Death” Artwork as that fitting cover. Needless to say, exquisite and epic Silent Waters.

Stefan Bollmann, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons

Kruekutt’s 2020 Favorites: New Albums

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.

— Rick Krueger

Stefan Elefteriu’s “Quantum Gates” – Electronic Music Has Never Sounded So “Prog”

Editor’s note: Today we are happy to bring you a guest review of Stefan Elefteriu’s album, Quantum Gates, by Chloe Mogg, a UK-based singer/songwriter and music journalist. Typically electronic-style music might be considered on the fringes of what we cover here at Progarchy, but Stefan’s music is anything by typical.

Stefan has a fascinating story. He began studying violin at a young age in Communist Romania, but he ended up in a rock band called Blitz in the late 1970s. With communism forbidding privately owned businesses, Stefan built his own synthesizers, speakers, and other equipment so he could make theatrical soundtracks. With the fall of communism his career expanded into the film and advertising realms. Those influences are clear on Quantum Gates, but the album also features ethereal vocals at points. There are some heavier rock moments, while the rest of the album definitely has traits common with the more psychedelic side of prog. This isn’t techno dance music, which is what I usually think of when I think “electronic music.” This is serious music worthy of serious attention. It’s also very good. Since I clearly have much to learn about this kind of music, I’m happy to turn the rest of the review over to someone more knowledgeable:


Review by Chloe Mogg:

A journey through space, time and numerous musical genres, Stefan Elefteriu is an artist not afraid to think outside of the box. Progressive and electronic based, “Quantum Gates” is the latest release from the genius behind the music. An experience not for the faint hearted, “Quantum Gates” soars through realms of sci-fi based music straight from the soul. With quite the story behind his music, Stefan’s journey began by building his own synthesisers in Communist Romania to scoring a science fiction film. A multi-instrumentalist that creates music without boundaries, the truly immersive experience is suited for fans of classical, rock and electronic elements fused together. 

On the album, Stefan mentioned, “Twelve portals open to twelve different worlds awaiting discovery through imagination, fantasy and feelings… Go beyond the Quantum Gates and, with each re-listening, you will perceive new territories of musical expression. Let the evolution and permanent dialogue of the melodic lines – based on symphonic counterpoint – take you through a new multidimensional sound universe.”

Touching familiar ground that Vangelis, Pink Floyd, Enigma and Kraftwerk have been upon, Stefan’s album introduces parallel worlds of hope during the world’s current climate. Like something you’d hear on the Interstellar score, the vibrant journey is accessible yet armed with complexity. An escapism for fans across the globe, the talent that Stefan has is clear in the near release.

https://www.stefansound.com

The White Stripes: Greatest Hits

Looking for a great last minute musical gift idea?

Want to pass on the old-school values — the musical essence of rock and roll — to the next generation? This greatest hits package is a killer choice.

In the wake of the ‘90s alternative boom, mainstream rock music had become largely disconnected from its roots in the blues—that is, until The White Stripes hooked it up to some rusty jumper cables and jolted it back to life.

Emerging from the Detroit garage-rock trenches in 1997, the duo of Jack and Meg White embraced a vision of the blues that was equal parts John Lee Hooker and Jon Spencer, projecting a raw primitivism through their minimalist guitar/drums formation, yet also displaying a healthy appreciation for artifice by constructing their own media-trolling mythology.

A married couple at the time, they instead presented themselves as a brother/sister act, wrapping themselves in a childlike white/red color scheme that reflected the perpetual battle between innocence and fury playing out in their music.

While the Stripes were initially right at home among the garage-punk miscreants on the Sympathy for the Record Industry label, their latent appreciation of classic pop songcraft—as evinced by their aching cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” on a 2000 B-side—proved to be their ticket out of the underground.

Alongside The Strokes’ Is This It, 2001’s White Blood Cells became a bellwether for the 21st-century garage-rock renaissance thanks to equally thrashy and catchy nuggets like “Fell in Love With a Girl.”

But with 2003’s double-album behemoth Elephant (and its eternal sports-arena stomper, “Seven Nation Army”), the Stripes transcended the garage realm entirely and entered the echelon of rock’s most omnipotent bands.

They continued to expand the sonic possibilities of a two-piece group up until 2007, at which point Meg’s intensifying battles with anxiety forced them off the road, before they officially disbanded in 2011.

But as a prolific solo artist and the impresario behind the Third Man Records empire, Jack has continued the Stripes’ mission of upholding old-school values in a modern world.

Kruekutt’s 2020 Favorites: Not Necessarily New Albums

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 . . .

— Rick Krueger

Premiere: The Crown Remnant Launch “The Fall” Video

Los Angeles, CA’s melodic metal one-man band The Crown Remnant, formed by singer and multi-instrumentalist Will Ash, is launching a music video for “The Fall,” taken from the upcoming studio album “The End of Days.” Watch it below.

Speaking about the upcoming full-length release Ash said: “This record was written with extreme expedition, I think due to how seamless the themes came together. For me, writing isn’t forced – I don’t start a project unless I have a really good idea, or a good collection of musical ideas to begin with. ‘The End of Days‘ was no exception. Musically, I’m constantly experimenting. Ideas that started even after writing the previous record ‘The Wicked King’ in 2017 came into play. I had been working on chunks of songs since then, little inspirations and outlines of a melancholic, vintage inspired something.

That expanded into the major theme of the new album – endings (and innately, beginnings), Ash continues. “With 2020 bringing real senses of loss to millions of people through the global pandemic, endings were on my mind. The world in chaos, and a shift in political mandates worldwide made a theoretical end of the world interesting to postulate about. As the ideas developed, I ended up writing the album in a way that observed a 3 act ‘story arc’ – with each act bringing a new piece of the story of the world ending, and each with its own theme and musical direction.

The underlying message of “The End of Days” is a sense of hope, but also warning. Ash goes on saying, “Continuing down the path of extreme nationalism, exclusion, and selfishness will bring about a certain type of apocalypse – whether ideologically, economically, or literally. This whole big rock that we have to live on only functions when we realize that we all have to live together. When we do that, we achieve great things. But when we promote isolation, or tribalism, we end up tearing each other – and the world we live in – apart.

Watch a music video for the new single “The Fall” below.

Follow The Crown Remnant on Facebook and Instagram.

Metal Mondays: Vultress’ “Hypnopompia”

Vultress, Hypnopompia, 2020
Tracks:
1. Hypnopompia (0:35), 2. Cmdr Hall and wherewithal (4:56), 3. Tether (5:57), 4. Fall Into Then (4:13), 5. L’appel Du Vide (5:07), 6. New Sun (9:51)

It isn’t everyday that I get to feature a band from America’s great Midwest – much less a prog metal band from the Midwest. They hail from Valparaiso, Indiana, a mid-sized town on the far southeastern edge of what could be considered the greater Chicagoland area. The band is comprised of Jordan Gaboian (guitar), Paul Uhrina (drums) and Anthony Capuano (vocals/keys). Hypnopompia is their second album, following 2014’s Distance.

At just over a half-hour long, perhaps Hypnopompia would have been better billed as an EP rather than an album, especially since the album is rather inconsistent. “Tether” and “L’appel Du Vide” are from completely different genres, and “Tether” alone has multiple genres intermingling – some of which work and some which don’t. I also noticed a strong Dream Theater influence on their first album that I don’t notice in their new album.

Someone commented on Bandcamp that Capuano’s voice is reminiscent of both Claudio Sanchez (Coheed and Cambria) and Serj Tankian (System of a Down). This is a pretty fair assessment. Sanchez’s influence is most prevalent on “L’appel du Vide,” while the latter influence can be heard on “Tether.” There is a moment on their first album where it’s clear that he is channeling James Labrie circa 1994 – specifically the distortion Labrie used on “6:00.” Capuano doesn’t do that at all on this album, preferring instead more of a death metal growl in the brief moments when he does decide to use distortion. Most of his singing is clean, and it is pretty good, although it might take a few listens to adjust to it. However I think the music would be best served if he added the warmth from “L’appel du Vide” to their metal moments, like Claudio Sanchez does, and he should go with the mid-90s Labrie-style distortion rather than the growling, since it matches the music better.

I really wanted “Tether” to be my favorite track because it had a unique playfulness and heaviness that fits well with today’s prog-metal scene. It opens with heavy acoustic strumming before pounding into a deep metal riff. All good so far. Capuano mixes up the vocal styling a bit, which works when it’s the Tankian-style high-pitched notes, but it doesn’t work as well with the growls. The middle of the song does a hard shift into a traditional jazz section with saxophone, which the band performs extremely well. This brief section was one of my favorite parts on the album, in fact. However after that they go back into a really heavy drop-tuned section that includes saxophone playing in a less-orderly way than it was during the jazz section. To my ear this doesn’t work as well.

The fifth track, “L’appel du Vide,” is a bit of a surprise. It’s a ballad, which feels out of place on the album. However, Capuano’s voice shines. It has a warmth that could help on the metal tracks. Perhaps if the song morphed into a heavier chorus it wouldn’t feel so out of place, but it’s really a pop ballad without the rock that Dream Theater usually infuse into their ballads. The chorus could shine with electric guitar and drums, kind of like Dream Theater’s “Wither” or Coheed and Cambria’s “Here To Mars.” The song even builds up to that kind of moment, so it is a bit of a letdown when the calm acoustic guitar remains. About 2:45 in we get an electric guitar playing clean highs in the background, but the drums and bass are still playing as if it is a quiet ballad. Yes what I’m proposing is formulaic, but it is a formula that works for prog-metal ballads (see the aforementioned DT and C&C tracks). With a build up to a heavier wall of sound the song would fit a lot better in the album.

“Fall Into Then” is the most consistent song on the album musically and vocally. The style stays the same, and it keeps a heavy tone throughout.  It has a really strong driving guitar groove, with some Hammond-style organ highlights thrown in for good measure. Turn this one up – you won’t be disappointed. There is some really good bass drum pedaling along with a thundering bassline.

“New Sun” follows along a similar track, but it includes some weird electronic vocal distortions in the middle that don’t really work. The heavy synth section in the middle works well, even though it slows the pace, but the electronic vocals are really jarring. Apart from that it is an excellent longer-form prog metal song with some nice guitar moments. The keyboard work on this one is a nice touch as well.

Overall I’d have to say I enjoyed the track “A Chord From Heaven” off their first album a lot more than anything off Hypnopompia. Looking at both albums it is abundantly clear that all the pieces are here for something truly special. I think this album detoured a bit from the trajectory the band created with their first album. They could take elements from Hypnopompia and apply it to new music made more in the vein of their first album, and they’d be in great shape. With that said I still recommend you give this a listen.

https://www.facebook.com/vultress
https://vultress.bandcamp.com/

Check out their first album, as well: