Round-Up of Progarchy’s 10th Anniversary Celebration

For your ease and reading pleasure, I decided to compile all the links to Progarchy’s 10th anniversary posts into one post. We had a lot of fun writing them, and I hope you have enjoyed this look back at the last ten years in prog. Here they are in the order they appeared:

Intro – Progarchy Celebrates 10 Years

A Note From Our Founding Father – Brad Birzer

Progarchy’s Artists of the Decade: Steve Hackett

Progarchy’s Artists of the Decade: Steven Wilson

Progarchy’s Artists of the Decade: Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy (This one had the most views over the course of a couple days that we’ve had in years, thanks to Mr. Portnoy sharing it on his social media. It’s a great rundown at the sheer volume of music these gentlemen have produced over the last ten years.)

Bryan’s Best of the Decade, 2012-2022

Rick’s Best of the Decade

Connor’s Best of the Obscure (A highlight of the top 10 albums from Connor’s ongoing series on the best prog bands you’ve never heard of.)

Progarchy’s Resident Drummer (Time Lord) on the Top Ten Albums of 2012-2022

Progarchy’s Band of the Decade – Big Big Train!

Progarchy’s Band of the Decade – Big Big Train!

As we wind down our month-long celebration of Progarchy’s tenth birthday, we bring you our pick for the band of the decade – Big Big Train. For long term readers, this pick should come as no surprise. The original inspiration for this website came from a love and appreciation for Big Big Train and what they were doing.

To celebrate this Big Big Band, Progarchy’s editors (Chris Morrissey, myself, and Rick Krueger) have each written short essays that we hope touch on the band’s brilliance and importance in the progressive music scene today.

Chris Morrissey
A Grand Decade of Big Big Train: Reflections from Progarchy’s Resident Time Lord

It was the band’s freely offered download of “The Underfall Yard” that exercised a magnetic pull on so many potential listeners to Big Big Train. And then, once the track was downloaded and digested, those explorers were hooked for life. 

That was back in 2009. For me, it was the magic of David Longdon, now added to the band, that pushed their work into the upper echelon of prog artistry. 

And then, for me especially, “The Wide Open Sea” track on the Far Skies, Deep Time EP (2010) offered further proof that this was a band destined for eternal greatness.

And then the grand decade of Big Big Train ensued, from 2012 to 2022, which saw them soar ever higher. No wonder, then, that came into co-existence, and rode along as prog passengers, chronicling this glorious time in prog music history

Big Big Train has been the engine drawing us all forward. It’s been an honor to track their musical arc here at for the past ten years of glory. 

Thank you, everyone, for celebrating this, during our site’s anniversary month of Progtober, which has included celebration of the decade’s top albums, and also its top artists: HackettWilson; and Morse & Portnoy

I urge you now to kick back, take time off, and play through BBT’s back catalogue.

To help further your enjoyment of these happy musical memories, I point you to the wide collection of commentary which I have authored that resides here in the Progarchy archives:

Virtual liner notes for English Electric—Part 1 (2012)

Virtual liner notes for English Electric—Part 2 (2013)

My controversial commentary on English Electric Full Power (2013)

Virtual liner notes for Folklore (2016)

My ★★★★★ album review of Folklore (2016)

My ★★★★★ album review of Grimspound (2017)

My reflections on BBT, analog/vinyl, and Grimspound (2017)

As you can infer from the above, The Underfall Yard (2009), Far Skies Deep Time (2010), English Electric Part One(2012), English Electric Part Two (2013), Folklore (2016), and Grimspound (2017) are the six albums that will always be my favorite BBT albums. 

I was mildly annoyed when BBT again reworked material on The Second Brightest Star (2017) since it seemed to confirm some of my earlier misgivings. In retrospect, I see my complaints did not adequately take into account the sheer generosity of the band, a band which was being kind enough to admit us into the inner sanctum of the artist’s musical process. Musical excellence is always a work in progress—by constantly being workshopped and refined. I see now that BBT’s superabundant dynamism was something to celebrate, rather than quibble too much about.

I confess I took them for granted in the past few years, only to be shocked by David Longdon’s untimely death. Now I find myself returning to their superb recent albums that I didn’t appreciate enough to write about adequately on Grand Tour (2019), Common Ground (2021), and Welcome to the Planet (2022).

Over the past decade, if I had to pick a “top ten” list of ten albums that we editors of Progarchy could collectively designate as our officially designated and editorially endorsed canon, then I would simply gesture to the ten BBT albums I have just named above. I suspect my bandmates would agree.

—Chris “Time Lord” M. (on drums), who dedicates these BBT-focused musings on the grand decade (2012–2022) with gratitude to: Bryan M. (on lead guitar); Rick K. (on organ and keyboards)

Bryan Morey
“Following a Dream of the West”

I discovered Big Big Train back in 2013 with English Electric: Full Power. I was blown away, and I still am. A bit later I dug into The Underfall Yard, and then Folklore came out and I was really hooked. Ever since, their albums – both live and studio – have been at or near the top of my yearly best-of lists. They have always remained true to the nature of progressive music by mixing in splashes of folk, pastoral themes, haunting brass, and even pop.

We’ve talked about all that at length over the years here at Progarchy. I want to talk briefly about why I think Big Big Train matters so much, beyond merely the brilliance of their music and lyrics.

Big Big Train stand for something much bigger. They stand, to steal from their own lyrics, for “science and art / And beauty and music / And friendship and love.” In a world that shuns anything connected to the past or tradition, Big Big Train have managed to embrace both that and hope for the future. They recognize the need for both, which is what the Western tradition has always been about. We take what is good from the past and use it to guide our steps forward. And we also learn from the mistakes of the past to influence our way forward.

Big Big Train recognize that “The poets and painters and writers and dreamers” matter. Without them, the world becomes a dull, dreary, and despotic place. Big Big Train represent the poets, painters, writers, and dreamers in their work.

The lyrics of Gregory Spawton and David Longdon are poetry of the finest order. The paintings of Jim Trainer and Sarah Louise Ewing have been some of the finest album artwork of the last twenty years.

As writers, of course their lyrics, but also the liner notes they have included with some of their albums. The original issue of English Electric: Full Power is particularly wonderful in this regard, in addition to having some of the finest packaging of any CD released in the last decade. They showed us how even the humble CD could be presented in a beautiful form one would be proud to display on their shelf.

And dreamers… how could a band that writes about everything from King Alfred the Great to a hero carrier pigeon be anything but dreamers of the highest order?

In doing all this, Big Big Train have inspired us listeners to do the same. I’m inspired to be a better writer when writing about them or any other band. I’m inspired to practice watercolor painting. I’m inspired to dream about the good, true, and beautiful. Few other bands draw me into the sublime the way Big Big Train routinely does. For that, I name them the finest band of not just the decade, but this century.

Rick Krueger

Despite Prog Magazine’s consistent championing of Big Big Train, I managed to resist their appeal until 2016.  Searching for a musical mood enhancer one afternoon at work, I came across From Stone and Steel on Spotify.

Any number of things about that set were appealing: the bracing tightness of the band, David Longdon’s adventurous vocals, the scenarios and soundscapes BBT conjured up.  But it was the brass that got me.  When they slammed into the choruses of “The Underfall Yard” and the lead trumpet soared heavenward at the end of “Victorian Brickwork”, I was hooked!  I had to hear more.

Folklore was just out, so I grabbed it ASAP and loved it.  Ditto for the back catalog, including my favorite to this day, English Electric: Full Power.  And to cap it all off, I ordered the Stone and Steel Blu-Ray via BBT’s website.

Only when I got it, the thing wouldn’t play – due to technical issues with my Blu-Ray player that had already caused fellow fans in the USA headaches aplenty.  What to do?  Enter Big Big Train’s amazing Facebook group, better known as the Passengers.  With an enthusiastic welcome and all the kindness in the world, they steered me toward both a downloadable version of the video and a Blu-Ray player that would play S&S.  I was so moved, I figured out how to burn the download version to DVD and shared instructions for doing so with the group – gathering kudos even from band members!  

This was a band and a fandom where you could feel at home, and I started proclaiming the wonders of BBT to anyone who would listen.  When a friend saw Sarah Ewing’s Folklore-era band portrait functioning as my laptop’s background screen, he said, “I need to introduce you to another friend of mine – he writes for this website called Progarchy.”

Which is how I started here, five years ago.  Since then, I’ve followed the ups and downs of Big Big Train’s career with all of you. I’ve delighted in hearing them break new musical ground with every release; my wife and I were thrilled to get BBT tickets in early 2020, then disappointed when that trek became The Tour That Never Was; I had the privilege of interviewing the late David Longdon in the summer of 2021, as he touted Common Ground and eagerly anticipated the long-delayed Stateside tour.  In the wake of his death, even as that interview reached a worldwide audience via a link from The Guardian, all of these thrills , ever so briefly, seemed completely hollow.

But in line with Longdon’s wishes, Big Big Train perseveres, and we are the better for it.  Their unique blend of pastoral atmosphere, historical narrative, mellifluous harmony and hypermodern groove is moving forward, with Alberto Bravin fronting the band onstage this fall and new music promised for 2023.  Saluting them as Progarchy’s Band of the Decade, I can only say, long may their journey continue!

Progarchy’s Resident Drummer (Time Lord) on the Top Ten Albums of 2012-2022

Commemorating Progarchy’s anniversary month in Progtober, we have seen Bryan’s celebration of the decade’s best discs, as well as Rick’s top albums.

At the same time, too, we have been debating who the top artists of the past ten years are. Check out Bryan’s case for Steve Hackett; Rick’s case for Steven Wilson; and my case for Neal Morse & Mike Portnoy

Soon to follow (on the last day of October) will be our collective editorial vote for Big Big Train as being Progarchy’s defining band of the decade.

But, for today, allow me to name my ten favorite albums of the past ten years.

Revisiting my top ten lists from years past, I was surprised to see that my #1 albums were usually not the ones that I returned to in subsequent years. Instead, here are the idiosyncratic picks that give you a good idea of my most permanent musical taste. These are the albums that I have returned to more often than not, as the years have slipped by.

2021—Arc of Life, Arc of Life: As I said in my review of Dave Kerzner’s The Traveler (2022), Kerzner here collaborated on the best Yes album of the past decade, despite the ABWH-like absurdity whereby the musicians creating the masterpiece don’t call themselves Yes.

2020—Unleash the Archers, Abyss: Unleash the Archers puts the prog storytelling back into prog metal on this amazing release, which includes “Through Stars” (nicely taking us all the way back to the 80s), “The Wind That Shapes the Land” (a sprawling prog-metal masterpiece), and “Carry the Flame” (an absolutely killer duet). Unleash the Archers did a livestream concert during the pandemic that was so fantastic I watched it twice, as my ticket allowed me to do over the weekend. I would love to see it again. Maybe the band can offer a digital copy for sale?

2019—Tool, Fear Inoculum: This disc blew me away with its devastating sonic blast. There is so much happening here that must be celebrated. It is not only the greatest thing Tool has ever done, it attains the heights of the greatest and most compelling prog metal of all time. I agree with Rick K. that Tool has indeed here given us the album of the year for 2019.

2018—Brass Camel, Daniel James’ Brass Camel: Brass Camel rented space in our local planetarium to put on one of the greatest tribute concerts to the glory days of prog that I have ever seen. I wrote a review of this once-in-a-lifetime experience for Progarchy. That same year they released this CD, which I had to track down in a local vinyl record store that announced to the world their talent. Now, in this anniversary year of 2022 for Progarchy, Brass Camel has released Brass, which is currently in the running for the best prog album of the year. Check out “Last Flight of the Vulcan” if you want proof that this is a band to be reckoned with: While you’re on their Bandcamp page, give “King for a Day” and “Easy” and “Only Love” a spin. But take note: their prog supernova started back here with this hard-to-find disc, back in 2018. Don’t wait too long to let it reach your ears.

2017—Schooltree, Heterotopia: Adam Sears of Lobate Scarp, an impeccable musician with impeccable taste, tipped me off to this stunningly brilliant epic album. You can tell from my rapturous review what ecstasy it imparts. Also, thanks to that review, the mighty Rick K. found his way to write for Progarchy, if you have ever heard his origin story.

2016—Headspace, All That You Fear Is Gone: Damian Wilson is an incredible talent and this disc is the perfect prog metal venue for his gifts to shine at their brightest. But everyone on the album is amazing. This uplifting record never gets old for me.

2015—The Gentle Storm, The Diary: Anneke van Giersbergen does unbelievable work on this masterpiece. Teamed up with her metalhead pal Arjen Anthony Lucassen, the story is nonetheless told best on the disc marked as “The Gentle Version.” Check out Anneke’s work with Vuur if you want a harder-edged metal experience. But here, it’s her acoustic side that works best, especially as beautifully complemented by Arjen’s classical and exotic instrumentation.

2014—Sloan, Commonwealth: Sloan is one of my favorite bands of all time. They are essentially Canada’s version of the Beatles, but with an ability to rock even harder when appropriate. Back in 2014, they did this double album, where each member (similar to the unrestrained experimentation of the Pink Floyd of the early years) gets a whole album side devoted to their individual compositions. As Mike Portnoy has recognized, Sloan has released in 2022 a blast of power pop perfection that is an undisputed contender for album of the year (Steady), but back in 2014 I noted their turn to a prog aesthetic with that 17:40 song.

Note that Sloan only stole the 2014 album slot from Haken because Restoration was an EP, even though it has one of my favorite Haken songs, “Crystallized.” I’ll never forget seeing Haken perform that song live.

2013—Steven Wilson, The Raven That Refused to Sing and other stories: There’s not much I can say about Steven Wilson that Rick or Bryan has left unsaid. But I have to admit that Wilson and Porcupine Tree did nothing for me until this Raven album came out. It master the idioms of my favorite prog bands. Thus, Wilson has had my attention forever after. So, even though Hand Cannot Erase (I choose to erase the dopey periods) is the Wilson album I have probably listened to the most (and I loved the concert tour for that album which I was lucky enough to see live here in Vancouver and then review), I still choose Raven as the Wilson disc for my decade-long list of 10.

2012—Flying Colors, Flying Colors: As I have already noted, “Infinite Fire” is the track that sealed the deal to make me inescapably devoted to Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy. It’s a nice bonus, too, that Steve Morse adds his signature guitar stylings to this album, since I had been a big fan of that other Morse since his Dixie Dregs and Steve Morse Band days. But wow, with BBT on the other side of the Atlantic, and Morse and Portnoy and pals on this side, it is clear that, after decade, prog rock has achieved, if not world domination, at least residence in the hearts of all the citizens of Progarchy, our everlasting republic of musical freedom.

Connor’s Best of the Obscure

Much to my shame, I have listened little to the latest offerings from the eclectic world of prog. I am currently working on changing this bad habit of mine, but I confess it has been difficult, as I still have many obscure gems to unearth (and I will continue my list soon – I promise!). Anyway, in no particular order, here are my top ten obscure prog artists (out of an ongoing list currently standing at thirty-four):

  1. CathedralStained Glass Stories: the first album review I ever wrote for Progarchy just so happened to concern one of the better obscure gems I have discovered thus far, a symphonic masterpiece evocative of Yes or Genesis.
  2. UniverseUniverse: psychedelia mixed with a dash of Christianity makes for a rare but beautiful bird of an album in the rich world of 1970s music.
  3. Alloy NowTwin Sister of the Milky Way: space prog at its finest. Major Tom would have been better off if he had this album on his final journey through the heavens.
  4. Jan Dukes de GreyMice and Rats in the Loft: Nursery Cryme‘s obscure cousin, an album both comical and horrifying at the same time. Also, Derek Noy shreds on twelve-string guitar. Shreds.
  5. IslandPictures: a cover designed by Giger and music blending the darkness of Van der Graaf Generator with the dexterity of Gentle Giant? These chaps certainly offer one of the more complex obscurities out there.
  6. HandsHands: America’s answer to Gentle Giant. But these chaps are no copy cats: they are top notch musicians who gave to the world their own idiosyncratic sound.
  7. LiftCaverns of Your Brain: a superb effort by a group of young American musicians. Aficionados of symphonic and space prog will love this gem.
  8. FruuppThe Prince of Heaven’s Eyes: as a chap of Irish descent, I suppose I have a soft spot for young Mud Flanagan and his adventures. And if this band were talented enough to open for Queen and King Crimson back in the day, they’re probably worth a listen or two.
  9. TouchTouch: one of those groups that could have been a contender: Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger were fans. Alas, it was not to be. But thanks to YouTube, you can listen for free to some incredible vocals and even more impressive work on the keyboards.
  10. CircusCircus: Mel Collins in the days before he was cool (I joke of course; Mel Collins has always been cool). But it is Mel Collins in the days before King Crimson – and his band, although not entirely original, was really good.

Rick’s Best of the Decade

I’ve kept a spiral-bound notebook titled “Core Discs: The Honor Roll” since the mid-1990s, when I was deeply into a classical music binge at the height of that genre’s last recording boom. Over the years, as I migrated through jazz (courtesy of the Ken Burns documentary) and country/folk (blame Johnny Cash & Leonard Cohen) back into my earlier love of rock, I find it intriguing that my picks started shifting in tandem with the prog revival of the 21st century, long before I started writing for this site in 2017. But unlike Bryan’s methodology for finalizing his excellent list, when I sat down to pick my ten favorite albums of the last ten years, I looked at my top favorite for each year and said, “yeah, those are all still up there.” Which is why I also decided to just list them by the year of their release (not always the year I first heard them) instead of ranking them from 10 to 1. (Oh, and links to my original reviews are embedded in the artist/album listing from 2017 onward.)

It’s true that, in more recent years, my picks have been busting out of genre boundaries — but, if you’ve been generous enough to sample my wares before, you’ve probably figured that out. And hey, if such a tendency isn’t progressive, then what is? Whether the following list confirms or challenges your preconceptions of “what’s prog”, I fervently believe that every one of these albums is worth checking out — but be warned, your mileage may vary!

So, without further adieu:

2012 – Flying Colors: gotta agree with Time Lord here — this one’s a total winner from start to finish. Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy had captivated me long before this with the first three Transatlantic releases and Morse’s two Testimony albums, but Flying Colors showcased an even broader stylistic range, from the Beatlesque “Fool In My Heart” through the retro-80s prog-pop vibe of “Blue Ocean” and “Kayla” to the cutting-edge Museings of “Shoulda Coulda Woulda” and “All Fall Down”. The album also proved that Morse and Portnoy know how to pick collaborators! Guitarist Steve Morse applied his unique mix of Southern-fried chicken pickin’, fusion a la Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and Purpleish power riffs to winning effect (solidly supported by his longtime bassist Dave LaRue), and vocalist Casey McPherson proved he could run with the big boys, stirring fresh melodic and lyrical flavors into every track, including more familiar constructions like the inspirational “The Storm” and the epic finale “Infinite Fire”. This one also gets nostalgia points for being available at Best Buy stores back in the day (remember when you could get CDs there?).

2013 – Big Big Train, English Electric Full Power: OK, I actually didn’t discover this one until 2016, when the BBT bug finally bit me — more on this in a future post. And while I sort of wish I had done so earlier, maybe hearing EEFP on the British trip my wife and I took the year it was released would have been too much of a good thing! Steeped in a love of their native land and affectionate empathy for its people, Greg Spawton and David Longdon doubled down on the longform approach of 2009’s The Underfall Yard to probe forgotten milestones of British history (“The First Rebreather”, the heart-stopping “East Coast Racer”) and portray unforgettable characters (“Uncle Jack”, “Curator of Butterflies”) against a bucolic landscape (“Upton Heath”, “The Permanent Way”), along with the perennial challenges of the heart (“The Lovers”) and the soul (“A Boy in Darkness”, “Judas Unrepentant”). All in a style that recalled original prog touchstones (looking at you, Gabriel-era Genesis) but blended in the dizzying guitar of Dave Gregory and the wicked drum grooves of Nick D’Virgilio to awesome effect. The two separate volumes of English Electric and the Make Some Noise EP certainly have their charms, but in the scope and sequence of this complete package, Spawton, Longdon and company touched on perfection.

2014 – Dave Kerzner, New World: another late arrival in my collection, this is the album that convinced me a genuine prog-rock revival was afoot beyond the continuing efforts of Morse/Portnoy and Steven Wilson. Kerzner’s mastery of cinematic soundscapes was evident from the first Floydian flourish of “Stranded” to the closing upward spiral of “Redemption”; his ability to involve guest stars like Steve Hackett and Keith Emerson, as well as quality players like guitarist Fernando Perdomo and Nick D’Virgilio (him again!), bore impressive results; and his intuitive grasp of pop hooks proved a solid foundation for irresistible shorter songs like “The Lie” and “Nothing”. Stir in longer, brooding tracks “Into the Sun”, “Under Control” and “My Old Friend” (in memory of performer/producer/polymath Kevin Gilbert), and you had a consistently gripping effort. Whether in its single-disc or deluxe double-disc format, New World aimed high and hit every target that a latter-day concept album could — thoroughly immersive, richly compelling and a breakthrough kick-off for Kerzner’s ongoing solo career.

2015 – Steven Wilson, Hand. Cannot. Erase: speaking of latter-day concept albums . . . Seems like *everyone*, especially the ex-SW fans who think he lost the plot with To The Bone and The Future Bites now cite this as his best effort; me, I remember the online ruckus when “Perfect Life” became the pre-release single. (“IT’S! TOO! POP!” As I’ve said before, if only they had known . . .) But as Bryan mentions in his article, Wilson struck conceptual paydirt with the true story of Joyce Carol Vincent’s lonely death, unearthing both the bleakness and the beauty inherent in a life of urban isolation. His sharp, highly committed writing met its match in the blistering playing of his band: guitarist Guthrie Govan (“Regret #9), keyboardist Adam Holzman (“Home Invasion”) and singer Ninet Tayeb (“Routine”) all have some of their best recorded moments featured here. HCE’s enduring appeal does partially stem from its similarity to Porcupine Tree in their prime — but both Wilson’s musical growth in the intervening years and his return to a humane lyrical vision after the voyeurism of Insurgentes and Grace for Drowning were what made the difference then, and now. The melancholy inherent in the final track “Happy Returns” still feels like we’re mourning a life, lived and lost, for real.

2016 – Marillion, FEAR: that rare example of a band hitting a creative and commercial peak simultaneously. Marillion as a band got even more serious about musical substance here, with lush, detailed sonic backdrops adding depth and resonance to their smash-cut collages. All of which fused seamlessly with Steve Hogarth’s lyrical concerns — for example, the opener “El Dorado” built from self-satisfied, affluent peace to twitchy paranoia, as the lyrics and music stewed in the pressure cooker of an over-connected, unsettled world. The heartfelt road narrative of “The Leavers” made a consummate live epic that captured the special relationship between the band and its fans, while ominous closer “The New Kings” (capped by H’s heartbroken refrain, “Why is nothing ever true?”) still seems way too spooky — and way too relevant six years later. Since its release, FEAR’s success has enabled Marillion to go from strength to strength both live (as I witnessed in 2018) and with their equally powerful follow-up, this year’s superb An Hour Before It’s Dark. Which testifies to its ongoing impact, then and now.

Continue reading “Rick’s Best of the Decade”

Bryan’s Best of the Decade, 2012-2022

As we here at Progarchy continue to celebrate our tenth anniversary, we’re moving from talking about our favorite artists of the decade to our favorite albums. Since 2014 I’ve compiled a “best of” list highlighting my favorite music of the year. Looking back, I still stand behind my lists because they represent where I was with music at the time. But now as I look back and try to compile a top ten for 2012-2022, my list looks a little bit different. The following list reflects my views and tastes regarding the last ten years as they sit right now. It’s all very fluid and subjective.

But enough blathering. On with my top ten. The only limit I put on myself was I didn’t want to repeat artists, because otherwise it would all be Big Big Train or Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy. Limiting myself to one album from each of those artists was difficult, but I’ll steer you back to my yearly best of lists at the end of the article, for those artists abound in those lists.

[Headline links, for those that have them, link to Progarchy reviews, articles, or interviews associated with the album.]

10. Pain of Salvation – In The Passing Light Of Day (2017)Pain of Salvation - Passing Light of DayI missed this album when it came out, although I remember reading about it in Prog magazine. I came to appreciate Pain of Salvation with their 2020 album, Panther, which was my top album of the year. I finally started to dig into their back catalog this summer, and I’ve been blown away. In The Passing Light Of Day is a brilliant tour-de-force of emotions. Some of the lyrics I think are too sexually explicit, which is primarily why I rank it at number 10 and why I almost kicked it off my top ten. But the music and melodies are so good, and most of the lyrics are incredibly profound. I also think Ragnar Zolberg brought a lot to the table and was a great balance to Daniel Gildenlöw.

9. The Neal Morse Band – Innocence and Danger (2021)
The Neal Morse Band Innocence & DangerIt was hard to pick one of the MANY albums made by Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy  over the past decade. They’re all just so good, so I took the easy way out and picked the most recent. I think this is the most well put-together of all the Neal Morse Band albums. “Beyond the Years” is one of the finest pieces of music to come out of the last several years.

8. TesseracT – Portals (2021)
tesseract-portalsPortals is a brilliant album. It is unique on this list for being a live release, but it is also unique for being a live-in-studio release – a product of the pandemic. I suppose that’s why I don’t rank it higher on this list, but I’ve been listening to it a ton since it came out. I even broke down recently and bought the fancy deluxe CD/DVD/Blu-ray edition. I think most of the tracks on here sound better than they do on the original albums. The album also introduced me to the band, as well as to the world of djent. The way the band blends djent riffs with Floydian spacey motifs is just perfect. One of the finest bands in the world right now.

7. Haken – The Mountain (2013)
haken mountainI go in spurts when listening to Haken (like I do with many bands). The Mountain has a magnificent blend of metal with splashes of 70s golden age prog. Songs like “Atlas Stone,” “The Cockroach King,” “Falling Back to Earth,” and “Pareidolia” have become prog metal classics, in my book. I’ve come to think Haken isn’t as compelling in their quiet tracks as bands like Riverside of TesseracT, but this entire album is still very listenable nine years later.

6. Marillion – F.E.A.R. (2016)
arton33729Marillion’s F.E.A.R. was my introduction to the band, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed diving back into their catalog. I’d have to say I think this is one of their best with Hogarth. Their latest album, “An Hour Before It’s Dark,” comes very close to it, but “Reprogram the Gene” knocks it down a peg for me. F.E.A.R. combines musical prowess with cultural critique to wonderful effect, even if I may disagree with Hogarth at points.

5. Riverside – Shrine of New Generation Slaves (2013)
riversideI had a hard time deciding which of Riverside’s three studio albums from the past decade to choose. Love, Fear and the Time Machine and Wasteland are both brilliant, and if I had allowed myself to choose multiple albums from the same artist in a top ten, Wasteland would probably be here too, but I think Shrine edges both of them out. It’s heavy, both musically and lyrically. Several of the songs turn into real earworms for me, and I’m never disappointed when I return to this record. And it’s another one on this list that I discovered several years after its release.

4. Oak – False Memory Archive (2018)
Oak false memory archiveOak is my favorite new band of the last decade. Both their 2013 (2016 release on CD) album Lighthouse and 2018’s False Memory Archive are brilliant albums, if not perfect. This record was my top album of 2018, and Lighthouse was my top album of 2016 (I didn’t realize at the time it had been released digitally earlier). The Norwegian melancholic aesthetic is dripping from both albums. It was hard to pick one of the two, but the closing track on False Memory Archive, “Psalm 51,” is one of the finest album closers I’ve ever heard. I think that gives this record the edge.

3. Devin Townsend – Empath (2019)
Devin Townsend - EmpathI was blown away by Devin Townsend’s Empath when it came out – so much so that I bought the 2CD deluxe version that year and the super deluxe version when Inside Out funded that project the next year. The record masterfully blends all the aspects of Devin’s career into a truly unique and truly Devin experience. It has the heavy bombast of Strapping Young Lad at points, yet it’ll soar into orchestral and even operatic highs elsewhere – or even at the same time. Pure musical theater in the best way. Devin’s vocal performance on “Why?” is stunning, and the message of hope on “Spirits Will Collide” is always a pleasant reminder that life is worth living. The production side of things, with Devin’s famed “wall of sound,” is unmatched in his career, or anyone else’s for that matter.

2. Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase. (2015)

Steven_Wilson_Hand_Cannot_Erase_coverHere we come to one of the truly great albums of our time. I would certainly rank this in a top 10 best albums of all time. Back in 2015, this album was my number 3 pick, with The Tangent’s “A Spark in the Aether” coming in at number 1. Now I still think that’s a great record, and I wrestled with whether or not to include it in my top 10, but I think over time Wilson’s masterpiece has proven to be a generational album. Both the music and the story sound fresh, even seven years and many listens later. The themes of isolation and loneliness in city life (or life in general) will always be relatable. Someone 100 years from now could listen to this record, and while they may miss some of the references (even I still miss some of them), the underlying theme will still connect. That’s what places this record up there with the likes of Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

1. Big Big Train – English Electric: Full Power (2013)
Big Big Train English Electric Full PowerThe defining band and defining album for the last decade of prog. Looking back, this record was the one that got me into the contemporary progressive rock scene. Returning to it today is a special treat, as I hope it always will be. It contains everything you might want out of a quintessentially “English” progressive rock band. It has the rock, the folk elements, the complex musicality, the well-told stories. And then there’s David Longdon’s voice, showing us his command of the material and his command of the upcoming several years in the prog scene. When I traveled to England in 2015 (which to me felt like a longer distance between its release than it feels between now and that visit – it’s weird how your perception of time changes as you grow older) I really wanted to listen to this album while being out in the hedgerows and fields. I can still remember sitting on a bus traveling between towns listening to English Electric (I wrote more about this in a piece back in 2016). There are a lot of good emotions connected to this record for me. But beyond that, Big Big Train showed us all that they were THE powerhouse in the new generation of prog bands. They were who all the younger bands were going to look up to for the next decade, and they did it all themselves. Sure, the journey began when Longdon boarded back in 2009 for The Underfall Yard, but English Electric was where they really picked up steam. Every album since has been magnificent, with many topping my best of lists in the ensuing years, but this one will always be the quintessential Big Big Train album for me.

As a coda to this review of the past decade in the best of prog, I want to give you the albums I picked as my favorites for the years 2014-2021 (I didn’t start my best of lists until ’14). I’ll include links to those lists as well. I find it interesting how I’ve “discovered” albums and bands even within the last year that have soared up my list, even if I missed them when they came out. Better late than never.

  • 2014Flying Colors – Second Nature  – I saw them live right after this was released. It’s a great record and a great band, but the poppier edge doesn’t stick with me as much as the records on my list above do.
  • 2015 – The Tangent – A Spark in the Aether – I shared above how Wilson’s Hand. Cannot. Erase. has grown in my estimation. I still think this is one of The Tangent’s finest records.
  • 2016 – Oak – Lighthouse – Even if its original release was 2013, this record still dominated my listening in 2016 and was my album of that year.
  • 2017Big Big Train – Grimspound, The Second Brightest Star, London Song, Merry Christmas EP – Enough said. Brilliant band. Brilliant music. Brilliant year for them.
  • 2018 – Oak – False Memory Archive
  • 2019 – Devin Townsend – Empath
  • 2020 – Pain of Salvation – Panther – I still think this is a great album. I listened to it yesterday at work, in fact. It was my intro to the band, and maybe I was shocked by how different it was from everything else I had been listened to in the genre. I’d still rank this record extremely highly, but I don’t know if I would put it at the top of the list if I were making a 2020 list today.
  • 2021 – Big Big Train – Common Ground – What can I say? I like Big Big Train.

Thanks for reading through all this. If you’ve been a prog fan throughout this past decade, I hope this brought back some good memories. If you’re new to prog, consider every album mentioned in this post as your homework over the coming weeks. Prepare to be blown away.

Here’s to hoping the next decade is even better.

Progarchy’s Artists of the Decade: Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy

Neal Morse & Mike Portnoy: Prog Artists of the Decade (2012-2022)

Progarchy has been here for a decade now. So, we’re celebrating in this October anniversary month by looking back at the past ten years.

Already in this series, “Progarchy’s Artists of the Decade,” we’ve had two strong cases made for Steve Hackett and Steven Wilson. Undeniably, two guys named Steve loom large over the past ten years of prog.

Indeed, those are two eminent artists. Hackett looks back to the golden age of prog’s birth. He draws upon the best of Genesis to make new music and also to keep the Genesis legacy alive. Wilson is a next generation prog polymath whose creativity has exploded over the last decade and given us all many hours of ecstatic listening.

All the same, I am going to have vote for the dynamic duo of Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy as the team whose energy has been unmatched in productivity and prog excellence. The two Steves, prolific as they are, are still no match for the dazzling output from the two men who, ever since they respectively left Spock’s Beard and Dream Theater, have delivered an astonishing stream of recordings for our enjoyment.

I myself have spent more hours over the past decade listening to the many albums that Morse and Portnoy have been involved in—more hours of albums than the two Steves combined. And I have no hesitation in ranking them together as my ten-year pick, despite the mighty works (both concerts and albums) of the Steves of prog.

Two decades ago, Morse left Spock’s Beard. But it was with Momentum (2012), a decade ago, that his output began to dominate my playlists. It was a decade ago that Progarchy started up, as we founders rallied around a shared love of Big Big Train in order to get the word out online about the new birth of prog happening with a new generation after Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Rush, and all the other greats who shaped our formative years.

That Morse solo album included Portnoy on drums. I couldn’t get enough of it, and the solo section on the powerful title track will be forever burned into my mind with its dazzling keyboards by Morse—and Paul Gilbert’s mind-blowing guitar solo. For me, it definitely announced the dawn of a new interstellar age of prog glory, with Portnoy’s kick drums propelling us forward at warp speed overdrive.

But that Morse and Portnoy dominance of my playlists was foreshadowed by the release in that same year, just a couple months earlier than Momentum, of the stunning supergroup debut of Flying Colors’ Flying Colors (2012). That entire album is a masterpiece. My two favorite tracks are “The Storm” and “Infinite Fire,” the latter of which ranked right up there for me with the greatest of Yes. Yes, “Infinite Fire” was reminiscent of Yes because it induced the same ecstatic prog experience when listening to it. And with the Steve power of another Morse adding his guitar into the music, the cathartic axe-work on “The Storm” delivered prog positivity to the max, with a song capable of turning any bad day around on a dime.

Morse and Portnoy went on to apply their indispensable talents to powering Transatlantic’s Kaleidoscope (2014) and The Absolute Universe (2021) into new galaxies of prog. What’s truly amazing is that these two albums could stand on their own to rule the past decade. But sandwiched between them we have an incredible series of albums exhibiting unmatched creativity.

Indeed, Flying Colors itself gave us two more stunning albums, with Second Nature (2014) and Third Degree (2019). But the Neal Morse Band, under another dynamic duo pseudonym, gave Morse and Portnoy another pretext to record albums together. And these NMB albums arguably overshadow the two Transatlantic and the three Flying Colors albums, because Morse and Portnoy shine even brighter, as they step to the forefront even more than they would otherwise do within the supergroup dynamics of the Transatlantic and Flying Colors.

The NMB albums are four in number: The Grand Experiment (2015), The Similitude of a Dream (2016), The Great Adventure (2019), and Innocence & Danger (2021). Stepping back and looking at the sweeping ambition of these four albums, it is unbelievable how much they draw upon the epic prog heritage of epic-length tracks, while still further taking that classical genre to new levels of excellence. Again, just these four lengthy albums could lay claim to dominance of the prog achievement of the past decade of music. But placed alongside Transatlantic and Flying Colors, I think they supply definitive proof that Morse and Portnoy deserve the title of Prog Artists of the Decade (2012-2021).

Morse and Portnoy have a shared love and mastery of the greatest music of decades past. Proof positive may be found on their Cover to Cover albums. Check out their Cov3r to Cov3r Anthology (vols. 1-3), which includes the exuberantly playful discs Cover 2 Cover (2012) and Cov3r to Cov3r (2020) added to the joyous original.

Once upon a time, I would argue for Neal Peart as the GOAT. But listen to all of the above albums, and then you will realize how Portnoy extends that noble heritage of the savvy prog group drummer into an unmatched variety of ensemble collaborations.

Over the past decade, Portnoy is apparently the hardest working drummer in show business. Of course, he always has time for working with Neal, as when the two of them snuck in their work on Sola Gratia (2020). This shows us again, Portnoy’s humility is pretty much the archetype of the drummer’s Platonic form. He seemingly has no ego, always willing to play on what is officially called a Neal Morse solo album or a Neal Morse Band collaboration. But Portnoy is clearly the indispenable other half of Morse’s past decade of output. What’s amazing is that Portnoy is happy just to play drums and let his playing speak for itself.

Let Portnoy’s discography of collaborations conclude the case I am making in this post. Consider his unmistakable sound as part of Adrenaline Mob (three albums: 2011, 2012, and 2013); as part of Metal Allegiance (three albums: 2015, 2016, and 2018); as part of Sons of Apollo (two albums: 2017 and 2020); as part of BPMD, American Made (2020); with John Petrucci, Terminal Velocity (2020); with Liquid Tension Experiment 3 (2021); and as part of The Winery Dogs (three albums: 2013, 2015, 2017).

That’s fourteen more albums of Portnoy added to the fourteen I already mentioned above! 28 albums over a decade? Sounds like we have a winner here, an equal partner with Morse who more than carries his weight in every collaboration.

Morse and Portnoy have been the dominant artists in my past ten years of listening. The stats from my Apple Music app tell me so. So here’s my Progarchy salute to congratulate them both. Other bands and other artists come and go. But these two have left a permanent mark of excellence. And I get the feeling that they are working away together on even more new music. Excelsior!

Progarchy’s Artists of the Decade: Steven Wilson

Back at the end of 2012, when I was compiling my year’s-end list of favorites (then a solitary pursuit, mostly for personal reflection), Steven Wilson’s Get All You Deserve was the only concert video that made the cut. Recorded in Mexico City at the end of Wilson’s initial solo tour, it’s still a ferociously intense — though oddly chilly — set, with tracks from Insurgentes and Grace for Drowning snarled by the glowering artist and meticulously brought to life by an all-star band of players. I had begun following Porcupine Tree when they hit Grand Rapids on 2005’s Deadwing tour, glomming onto them as The Great Progressive Hope and seeing them twice more that decade. So the video struck me as Wilson’s declaration of intent; the Tree was no longer bearing fruit for him, and it was time to make a name and a way for himself.

My thesis here is that, in the last ten years, Steven Wilson has done exactly that. And from the birthday of Progarchy through its tenth anniversary, Wilson’s next moves have consistently captured the attention of the subculture this website serves. As reflected in the frequent coverage of his projects here — whether we loved ’em, loathed ’em, or wound up somewhere in between! That’s why when the Progarchy editoral braintrust bantered about who to consider as our Artists of the Decade, I claimed SW.

Look at the man’s track record these last ten years, kicking off with 2013’s The Raven That Refused to Sing. So many genre boxes ticked here: a thematic album of ghost stories (!) cut live in the studio with Alan Parsons as engineer (!!), its jazz-rock leanings unmistakably influenced by Wilson’s remastering/surround mixing work for historic giants like King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Marillion, Gentle Giant and two or three et ceteras. Impressive writing, great playing, immaculate sound. When I caught that tour at Chicago’s Park West, though, it gave me an uneasy feeling; all too often, it felt like the onstage Wilson was peering into the lives of the damaged (“Harmony Korine,” “Luminol”) and disturbed (“Index,” “Raider II”) with no purpose beyond voyeuristic giggles and lurid thrills.

But then came 2015’s Hand. Cannot. Erase., Wilson’s rock opera portraying a young woman’s inexorable disappearance into the maw of the big city. Not only was this his most fully integrated album musically (reminiscent of his conceptual work with PT, with plenty of intense instrumental fireworks), but his latent empathy came forward again in his treatment of the “based on a true story” subject matter and his lyrics, to the benefit of both the album and the ensuing tour. Live again at Park West, an obviously proud Wilson played the whole thing, engaging with the audience instead of hiding behind transparent scrims and long hair, and even indulged in multiple Porcupine Tree tunes. If a bus had hit SW that year, at least a slice of retro-prog fandom might still be clamoring for him to join Rush and Genesis in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Continue reading “Progarchy’s Artists of the Decade: Steven Wilson”

Progarchy’s Artists of the Decade: Steve Hackett

In pondering ways to celebrate Progarchy’s tenth anniversary, Steve Hackett was one of the first names that came to mind when thinking about top solo artists in the progressive rock world over the past decade. Of all the artists and bands from the “golden age” of progressive rock still hitting the touring circuit, Steve Hackett and Yes stand out in terms of output and the quality of live performances. What pushes Hackett into the lead, in my opinion, is the stellar solo material he has released over the past ten years in addition to the magnificent “Genesis Revisited” live tours and live albums. Other artists in the contemporary scene may have more of a direct influence on the prog scene today (I’ll leave it to my friends here at Progarchy to talk about some of them), but Hackett has been a shining example of someone who both embraces his musical past while still exploring new musical territory in an engaging way. 

It all started back in 2012 with the release of Genesis Revisited II, a double album of Genesis songs and a few Hackett solo tracks re-recorded by Hackett and a revolving cast of top-tier progressive rock artists. The subsequent live tours and live albums (Live at Hammersmith, 2013; Live at the Royal Albert Hall, 2014) showed that audiences were hungry to hear Genesis’ classic catalog in a live setting with an original member of the band. The following years have seen five more live albums and as many solo albums.

The icing on the cake for the live shows was Nad Sylvan, a phenomenal Swedish singer whose voice bears an uncanny resemblance to both Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins while still retaining its own signature tone. The closer you listen, the more you realize he has his own voice, as his brilliant solo records have shown, but in a live setting, it doesn’t get much closer to the real thing than Hackett’s touring band with Sylvan on vocals. Collins can’t sing like that anymore, and Gabriel won’t touch the material with a ten-foot pole. Thankfully Hackett and company have no such restrictions or reservations. 

Roger King and Rob Townsend have been the other two stalwarts of this touring band over the past decade, with both (particularly King) playing prominent roles in Hackett’s solo material as well. King is an underrated wizard on the keyboards, matching Tony Banks note for note. Townsend’s arsenal of blown instruments adds extra layers to the Genesis music, as well as offering a fresh and unique take on some of the tracks with the inclusion of saxophone. Even purists have to admit that Hackett’s subtle tweaks to the songs don’t take away from the magic of the performance. 

Hackett’s band has also featured a rotating cast of bassists, all of whom have been phenomenal. Whether it was Nick Beggs, Roine Stolt, Lee Pomeroy, or now (my favorite) Jonas Reingold, they’ve all blown the roof off.

Steve Hackett

Continue reading “Progarchy’s Artists of the Decade: Steve Hackett”

A Note From Our Founding Father

This afternoon I received a lovely email from Brad Birzer, one of Progarchy’s founders, and he gave his permission for me to post it for you all to read:

I just want to offer—for what it’s worth—my sincere thanks and congratulations to Progarchy on its tenth anniversary.  I am very proud to have been one of the founders of the website.  We—that is, the first five editors—originally formed to promote the work of Big Big Train (to be the ultimate fan site!), but we decided almost immediately to promote the best of prog.  We wanted to explore prog lyrics and philosophy, and we also wanted to be a website that sought the good, the true, and the beautiful in progressive rock (and related) music.  Specifically, we wanted to praise what we loved, rather than criticize what we disliked.  I’m so glad to know that Progarchy is in such good hands, ten years after its founding.

– Brad Birzer