Looking back at 2020, it’s hard to believe that we lost Neil Peart at the beginning of the year. That loss hit me pretty hard, since Rush’s music has been central to my life from an early age. I talk more about that in my tribute to Peart: https://progarchy.com/2020/01/12/neil-peart-a-misfits-hero/. I start off my year-end review list with a reminder of the loss of Neil because it seems like a fitting way to remember 2020. Peart’s loss represents what so many people have lost this year, whether it be family members and friends due to the virus or jobs lost due to draconian forced business closures that haven’t actually accomplished anything in slowing the viral spread. Not to mention the emotional distress that physical separation is causing many people.
Another thing we lost this year was live music from our favorite bands. Big Big Train had their first North American tour planned for late spring this year. Canceled. Devin Townsend was in the middle of a glorious North American tour with Haken when everything blew up. Canceled. Obviously this list could be expanded to every band that tours. Losing live music makes it even more difficult for bands in a niche genre to spread their music to more people.
But enough lamenting. We still got a lot of great music this year. The following list is in no particular order apart from my number one album at the end. I include both new albums and live records.
Haken – Virus I was a little surprised that I was the only person over at the Dutch Progressive Rock Page to include this one in my top ten list for their annual list. Maybe people were really sensitive about the name of the album, but it was clear that the album was written and completed before the novel coronavirus was a known entity. The music is fantastic. It’s probably their heaviest album to date, but it still has some of their calmer moments. It’s Haken through-and-through, and it makes a wonderful companion to 2018’s Vector. We also get to hear some more about our old nemesis, the cockroach king. It’s pretty cool how they worked in some of those themes. Fantastic album that should’ve received more attention than it did. Check out my review: https://progarchy.com/2020/07/23/haken-goes-viral-virus-album-review-haken_official/
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:
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.
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 . . .
From the very beginning, Progarchy has been a huge supporter of Big Big Train, and we’ll continue to support them come what may. I think the band is making by far the most interesting music in the music industry. You’d be hard-pressed to find another band or artist making such high quality music with such profound lyrics. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better vocalist than David Longdon.
At the beginning of the year the band released The Passengers Club, a subscribers-only site that gives hardcore fans an inside look at the past, present, and future of the band. Content seems to be provided primarily by Greg Spawton and David Longdon, as well as the band’s manager, Nick Shelton. We get demo track downloads, exclusive video content (including live footage from the earliest days of the band), blog articles, and photo albums. As a fan I’ve absolutely loved The Passengers Club. It’s been worth every penny, and it has brought some much-needed joy to an absolutely awful year.
From an announcement on Big Big Train’s Facebook group:
A copy of the BBT newsletter which is being sent out later today is posted below. However, we wanted to write a more personal note about the last few months. This has, of course, been a tough year for everyone. People have lost family, friends and livelihoods. Activities that we all took for granted have been impossible. The music industry has been one of many that have suffered from the restrictions on normal life. In the last few months, BBT has lost two tours. Alongside the loss of the tours, three valued band members have chosen to leave BBT. At times it has felt that the most sensible approach would be to accept that we had reached the end of the line and to call an end to the band. However, we believe that we have lots of music left in us and we have decided to accept the changing circumstances and work hard to sustain BBT and to try to maintain the progress that we have made in recent years. We are looking forward to forming close musical partnerships with our exceptionally talented new live band members Carly and Dave, and we can’t wait to perform some shows as soon as circumstances permit. In the meantime, ahead of live performances, we will be recording a new album and releasing a newly re-mixed re-issue of The Underfall Yard album (with plenty of bonus tracks.) Thank you for sticking with us.
David, Greg, Nick and Rikard
Big Big Train
Big Big Train newsletter October 2020
We hope that all BBT listeners, families and friends are ok in these challenging times.Like most recording artists, the pandemic has caused BBT many challenges. Over the last six months, we have lost two tours and have undergone a number of line-up changes. However, we have been working hard behind-the-scenes to keep the train on the rails and we are looking forward to playing concerts again in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, we have a number of announcements to make:
Empire: a new concert film and album
A new concert film and live album (filmed and recorded at the Hackney Empire, London in 2019) will be released on the 27th November. To watch the full length performance of Winkie from the Blu-Ray, please go here: https://www.loudersound.com/…/big-big-train-release…For full details of the Blu-Ray and two CD release and for a preview of the concert film please go to our website here: https://www.bigbigtrain.com
Band line-up changes
Danny and Rachel have decided to leave Big Big Train; we wish them every success in the future, both personally and musically. The band will continue as a core four piece for studio recordings. We are pleased to announce that Carly Bryant and Dave Foster will be joining the live line-up of BBT. For full details of the line-up changes, please go here: https://www.bigbigtrain.com/#announce
New studio album
During the enforced break from touring, we have written a new studio album which we are recording in November. More news on this in 2021.
Our official store, Burning Shed, have imported 500 copies of the Summer’s Lease compilation album which was originally released by the Belle Antique label in Japan. This double album, featuring new artwork from Sarah Louise Ewing, includes a previously unreleased track called Don’t Forget the Telescope, the full 30 minute song-cycle called London Song (never before available on CD) and a number of other re-worked songs, alongside a selection of the band’s back catalogue. To purchase Summer’s Lease, please follow this link: https://burningshed.com/store/bigbigtrain
Over the summer and autumn, there have been solo albums from Nick D’Virgilio, Rikard Sjöblom’s Gungfly and from David Longdon who recorded an album with Judy Dyble shortly before she passed away earlier this year.All of these albums are now available on CD and vinyl from Burning Shed and other good record shops, and on streaming and download platforms.
Whilst the situation concerning live shows is extremely uncertain, we currently have two performances scheduled in July 2021. For full details of our live shows, please see our website:
As always seems to be the case, there’s tons of great music coming out between now and Black Friday, November 27. Below, the merest sampling of upcoming releases in prog and other genres below, with purchase links to Progarchy’s favorite online store Burning Shed unless otherwise noted.
Simon Collins, Becoming Human: after 3 solo albums and Sound of Contact’s acclaimed Dimensionaut, Phil Collins’ oldest son returns on vocals. keys and drums; his new effort encompasses rock, pop, prog, electronica and industrial genres. Plus an existential inquiry into the meaning of life! Available on CD from Frontiers Records.
John Petrucci, Terminal Velocity: the Dream Theater guitarist reunites with Mike Portnoy on drums for his second solo set of instrumentals. Plus Dave LaRue of the Dixie Dregs and Flying Colors on bass. Expect lotsa notes! Available on CD or 2 LP from Sound Mind Records/The Orchard.
The Pineapple Thief, Versions of the Truth:Hot on the heels of their first US tour, Bruce Soord and Gavin Harrison helm TPT’s latest collection of brooding, stylized alt/art rock, honing in on the post-truth society’s impact on people and relationships. Available on CD, BluRay (with bonus track plus alternate, hi-res and surround mixes), LP or boxset (2 CDs/DVD/BluRay) – plus there’s a t-shirt!
Rikard Sjöblom’s Gungfly, Alone Together:Sjöblom spearheads a thoroughly groovy collection on vocals, guitar and organ, with Petter and Rasmus Diamant jumping in on drums and bass. Heartfelt portraits of daily life and love that yield extended, organic instrumental jams and exude optimism in the midst of ongoing isolation. Available on CD and LP (black or deep blood red vinyl).
Judy Dyble, whose crystalline vocals were key contributions to the early days of folk-rock legends Fairport Convention and progressive pioneers King Crimson, has died at the age of 71, following a late-life musical renaissance as a solo artist.
Dyble, who titled her 2016 memoir An Accidental Musician, grew up in North London. Drawn to the ferment of the Smoke’s music scene, she fell in with Ashley Hutchings, Simon Nicol, Martin Lamble, fellow singer Ian Matthews and Richard Thompson, who eventually became Fairport Convention. Their kick-off single “If I Had a Ribbon Bow”, a oddball update of a 1940s big band shuffle, was a prime example of the early Fairport’s wildly eclectic style:
The band’s first self-titled album from 1968 featured a vivid mix of originals and covers (of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell among others), but Dyble was shuffled out of the band soon after, briefly joining an embryonic version of King Crimson (then trading as Giles, Giles and Fripp):
Following a final stint with cult duo Trader Horne, Dyble drifted away from singing, marrying music critic/record shop owner Simon Stable, then moving to the country and raising a family. Invited to the occasional Fairport Convention reunion at the Cropredy Festival, she began singing in public again after her husband’s death. A trilogy of electronica-based collaborations with Australasia’s Marc Swordfish eased Dyble back into songwriting — which led to 2009’s marvelous Talking with Strangers, co-produced by Tim Bowness of No-Man and Alistair Murphy (aka the Curator) and featuring contributions from Nicol, Fripp, and a starry host of other guests on the acoustic-prog epic “Harpsong.”
Further solo albums and guest appearances followed, including a vocal on Big Big Train’s “The Ivy Gate” from the Grimspound album. Her latest effort Between a Breath and a Breath, a collaboration with David Longdon featuring contributions from the rest of BBT, has just been announced as a late September release. While fighting her final illness, Dyble penned these reflections on the new album, showing both her unquenchable spirit and her wickedly impish sense of humor:
The lyrics for these songs virtually wrote themselves, with minor tweaks, as music grew around them. All were written before I was diagnosed and before the dreadful virus stamped its footprint on our world.
“Quite a few of my lyrics have a touch of sadness about them but always with an optimism for the future and a desire to know what happens next. France, Whisper and Obedience tell stories suggested in conversations and Between A Breath And A Breath is sheer magic. Astrologers was a simple ‘Hmmpph! Stop it!, while Heartwashing and Tidying Away were just poems which wrote themselves.
Oddly enough, I’d been celebrating the upcoming release of Between a Breath and a Breath last night, listening to Talking with Strangers again and re-reading An Accidental Musician. So Dyble’s final words in her memoir have an uncanny resonance today:
There may be trouble ahead, but while there’s poetry and starlight and mellow autumn colour in the woods and a dog at my side, I’ll face the music and slightly dance. To be continued. I expect …
For all those who sorrow at Judy Dyble’s passing, I wish them comfort as they remember her life with gratitude, as well as continued delight in the beautiful music she made.
Back on March 20, Bandcamp waived its share of all sales, in order to support artists whose livelihoods were effected by the COVID-19 pandemic (especially because of cancelled live shows and tours). The results were astonishing: $4,300,000 in sales of downloads, CDs, LPs and merch, 15 times a normal Friday’s take.
On May 1, June 5, and July 3 (the first Friday of each month), we’re waiving our revenue share for all sales on Bandcamp, from midnight to midnight PDT on each day.
(Over 150 artists and labels are offering discounts, exclusive items, merch bundles, and more this Friday.)
It may sound simple, but the best way to help artists is with your direct financial support, and we hope you’ll join us through the coming months as we work to support artists in this challenging time.
And, in case you’re wondering, there’s tons of recorded goodness available at Bandcamp from these Progarchy-favored artists:
In the era of Napoleon, the Prussian diplomat Klemens Wenzel Furst von Metternich coined the phrase, “When France sneezes, the whole of Europe catches a cold.” Like all good clichés, it’s been re-purposed endlessly since the 1800s. Which leads to today’s question: when the music industry of 2020 catches COVID-19, what does the progressive music scene come down with?
In the last few weeks, the toll of the current pandemic has been steadily mounting, with the postponement or cancellation of tours by Yes, Steve Hackett, Tool and Big Big Train (plus this year’s Cruise to the Edge) at the tip of the iceberg.
The tale of Leonardo Pavkovic, impresario of MoonJune Records and MoonJune Music (Bookings and Management) is all too grimly typical; since the outbreak of coronavirus, eight MoonJune-booked tours have been cancelled at a loss of about $250,000 to the artists, with many more tours now in jeopardy. MoonJune artists Stick Men lost 8 of 9 concerts in Asia, plus their US spring tour; touch guitarist Markus Reuter resorted to GoFundMe in order to make up for the loss of six months’ income.
To raise even more awareness around the pandemic’s impact on musicians everywhere, we’re waiving our revenue share on sales this Friday, March 20 (from midnight to midnight Pacific Time), and rallying the Bandcamp community to put much needed money directly into artists’ pockets.
So (if your situation allows it), who can you support via downloads, CDs, LPs and merch bought on Bandcamp this Friday? Well, you could start with four fine new albums I’ve reviewed this year:
Best of all, the music keeps on giving. Leonardo Pavkovic is already sharing details about his next MoonJune albums: a live set from Stick Men’s only uncancelled Asian concert, plus an album of improvisational duets by Markus Reuter and pianist Gary Husband recorded during down time in Tokyo. And jazz-rock master John McLaughlin has made his most recent album (Is That So with vocalist Shankar Mahadevan and tabla player Zakir Hussain) available as a free download.
Whither the music industry in time of pandemic? As with everything else, it’s way too soon to tell. But, if all of the above is any indication, progressive music — due to the indefatigable, awe-inspiring musicians who make it — will survive.