20 in 2020: My Highlights So Far

It’s been a grim old half-year, hasn’t it?

If you were to hunt for any positives to come out of lockdown, one of the few might be the increased opportunities it has afforded many of us to sit down and listen to music, in lieu of social or outdoor activities. Indeed, this simple act seems more important than ever as a means of raising spirits and maintaining one’s mental health in these troubled times.

The pandemic has wrecked the live music scene for the moment, and made the business of recording new material much more challenging, but it doesn’t seem to have stemmed the flow of new releases too much just yet, thankfully. So here’s a round-up of twenty things that have particularly caught my ear over the past six months.

Note: wherever possible, links in this piece are to the relevant Bandcamp page (or, failing that, to sites like Burning Shed or Music Glue).

Let’s start with stuff that might be regarded as ‘mainstream prog’. The epitome of this has to be The Red Planet by Rick Wakeman – an album that ploughs a much proggier, Moog-laden furrow than the maestro’s other recent, piano-based work. It’s a delight from start to finish, and my only regret is that I opted for the digital release rather than the CD or vinyl with their distinctive cardboard pop-up covers.

The Red Planet, by Rick Wakeman (Pop-up vinyl version)

Also firmly and squarely in the ‘mainstream prog’ camp lie Pendragon‘s latest, Love Over Fear, and Masters Of Illusion by Magenta. The former is easily the band’s best work for quite a while and features gorgeous aquatic-themed cover art (see below-left). The latter is an intriguing concept album paying tribute to Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Christopher Lee and other stars of classic horror movies. Even better than both of these is the splendid Things Unseen, by I Am The Manic Whale, an album that is uplifting and light in tone yet also satisfyingly intricate. Highlights are the 19-minute epic Celebrity and the touching paean to a newborn infant, Smile.

I’ve avoided lumping new Glass Hammer album Dreaming City in with the aforementioned ‘mainstream prog’ releases, only because this album has a pleasing, harder-than-expected edge to it. I’ll admit that Glass Hammer’s output hasn’t always clicked for me, but I’ve very much enjoyed the heavier tone here, as well as the forays into electronica. Heavier still, and just as engrossing, are Inescapable by Godsticks, and Jupiter Hollow‘s latest, Bereavement.

What else has grabbed my attention? Pure Reason Revolution‘s comeback album Eupnea stands out, as does Celexa Dreams by Kyros – an even better album than 2016’s impressive Vox Humana, I reckon. Earworm Rumour and the dramatic In Vantablack are especially noteworthy. If you enjoy slap bass and plenty of synths, you should definitely check this one out!

Rumour by Kyros, from Celexa Dreams

The pop and contemporary music influences that have shaped Celexa Dreams are even more prevalent in another couple of this year’s quality releases: The Empathy Machine by Chimpan A, and Valor by The Opium Cartel. Chimpan A is a side-project of Magenta’s Rob Reed which has been dormant since a 2006 debut album. This long overdue follow-up is a slick, smooth, highly palatable mix of prog, pop, electronica and dance beats, with excellent vocal performances. Valor, meanwhile, is a more straightforward homage to the pop music of the 1980s, but is no less elegant or enjoyable for all that. Elegance is also the watchword in Modern Ruins, by Tim Bowness & Peter Chilvers. This is minimalist art rock at its finest, with Bowness as soothing and seductive as he’s ever been.

In The Streets by The Opium Cartel, from Valor

Instrumental albums have very much been on my radar this year: not just Rick Wakeman’s aforementioned offering, but also material from younger, less established acts. Zopp’s eponymous debut release is a superb slice of jazz-tinged, Canterbury-inspired prog, featuring guest appearances from Andy Tillison and Theo Travis (Andy also engineered and co-produced this one). Much more squarely in jazz territory lies the Jazz Sabbath project, from Rick’s son Adam Wakeman. This imagines an amusing alternate history in which Black Sabbath made their name by ripping off the songs of jazz pianist Milton Keanes! The version of Iron Man on here is especially entertaining. Finally, I can’t leave the Instrumental category behind without mentioning Final Quiet, from the gloriously-named Flies Are Spies From Hell. This is post-rock, but with more delicacy and subtle variation than is generally found in that particular sub-genre.

Before The Light by Zopp, from Zopp

Funnily enough, my favourite releases of 2020 so far would mostly not be categorised as prog. Chief amongst these is Darkness Brings The Wonders Home by Smoke Fairies – a moody, mesmeric album in which minor keys, intertwined guitar parts and vocal harmonies combine to bewitching effect. Stand out tracks are Coffee Shop Blues, Chocolate Rabbit and Chew Your Bones. Equally compelling is Jonathan Hultén‘s acoustic solo album Chants From Another Place, a haunting, mysterious work that taps into obscure folk and choral traditions.

Chew Your Bones by Smoke Fairies, from Darkness Brings The Wonders Home

Folk influences also permeate two other 2020 releases that are particularly dear to my heart: Let It All In by Baltimore band Arbouretum, and The Life Of The Honeybee And Other Moments Of Clarity, from Glasgow-based Abel Ganz. The former deftly blends americana, psych and even krautrock, courtesy of the pulsating, hypnotic 11-minute title track. The latter is a majestic and beautiful prog album that somehow improves upon the mood-enhancing, sunny, summery feel of its 2014 predecessor. I guarantee it’ll lift your spirits if you give it a spin. It’s hard to pick a favourite track, but the epic Sepia And White is truly spectacular.

I’ll finish with a shout-out for KOYO, a band local to me, whose new album You Said It has been on constant rotation at home. This is more direct and punchy, and less psychedelia-influenced, than its 2017 predecessor. Overall, it’s not especially proggy, though album closer Against All Odds definitely leans in that direction, while Out Of Control wouldn’t sound out of place on Steven Wilson’s To The Bone. In fact, it’s easy to imagine Wilson producing an album like this, were he to opt for a grungier, more alt rock direction on some future release. However you want to label it, this is a hugely engaging, lively and enjoyable listen, and one of my favourites of the year so far.

Out Of Control by KOYO, from You Said It

Abel Ganz – a Mini-Review

Cover art

Veteran Scottish proggers Abel Ganz, Alan Reed’s alma mater, released an album this month – their first since 2008’s Shooting Albatross.

The eponymous Abel Ganz is a whopping 72 minutes of new music and marks a deliberate attempt to move in a new direction, absorbing new influences. But the key thing you need to know is that it’s utterly splendid. Just a single listen was enough to put it squarely on my ‘Albums Of The Year’ shortlist and have me staying up late to share my excitement with you here in the hallowed pages of Progarchy.

I can’t offer much beyond some basic impressions after spending such a short time with this music, but here they are, for what they’re worth:

Delusions of Grandeur is a short instrumental opener that starts with delicate piano and oboe, then a crescendo of strings – just an orchestral appetiser for what is to follow.

Obsolescence is up next – an epic in five parts, totalling nearly 22 min. Part 1 is fleetingly reminiscent of Steve Hackett’s Narnia in a couple of places, but the acoustic guitar and harmonies are mostly of the Crosby, Stills & Nash sort, setting up the lovely summery vibe that pervades the album. Part 2 layers drums, synth and recorders on top of that acoustic loveliness, yielding some up-beat pop that is sure to have you tapping your feet and singing along. Bass guitar comes to the fore in Part 3, before some classic prog synth soloing. Part 4 returns us to largely acoustic territory initially, augmenting guitar with flute, before building to a crescendo of church organ sounds. Part 5 closes the suite with some electric guitar that starts somewhat wistfully and then develops into a more epic solo.

Spring is another short instrumental track, this time played entirely on acoustic guitar, serving as a bridge to subsequent more substantial pieces.

Recuerdos takes a leaf out of Big Big Train’s book and brings a brass band into play. Brass and acoustic guitar interweave over the soft chirrup of cicadas in this delicate and rather beautiful song, one of the highlights of the album.

As Heartland begins, the sound of insects morphs into the noises of a children’s playground and then the song develops a distinctly eastern flavour, both rhythmically and melodically, the latter due largely to some heavily treated female vocals that sound like they are being played backwards.

The album’s third instrumental track, End Of Rain, has a repeating acoustic guitar motif at its core but surrounds this with more conventionally proggy sounds, Mellotron included. The outro is unusual, played solely on bass and drums.

By way of contrast, Thank You has a warm and very traditional feel, even to the point of having lyrics that are partly in gaelic. It’s part folk and part country (complete with slide guitar), but the mash-up is surprisingly effective.

The oddly-titled A Portion of Noodles is the last and best of the album’s four instrumentals. It’s a purely acoustic track, like Spring, but is melodically more interesting.

Clocking in at over 14 minutes, penultimate track Unconditional is the longest single piece on the album (the five parts of Obsolescence being identified as separate tracks). It’s a good solid prog epic that flirts with jazz for a brief period, 4 minutes in.

Brass is at the forefront in closing track The Drowning, adding a tinge of melancholy to this understated piece.

In summary: this is gorgeous, summery, acoustic prog – and you really need it in your life. Head over to Bandcamp now to listen and buy.