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.

Bryan’s Best of 2021

We’ve come to the end of another year, and what a horrible year it has been. Really the only positive thing I can think of from this year is the music. In addition to all the non-music nonsense that has gone on this year, we lost from legends in the prog world, none hurting more than the tragic and completely unexpected death of David Longdon. That one will hurt for a long time.

I usually write my best of lists in no particular order, with my top pick(s) at the end. So without further ado…

Robby Steinhard Not in Kansas AnymoreRobby Steinhardt – Not In Kansas Anymore

Robby Steinhardt was another prog legend we lost unexpectedly earlier this year. He hadn’t been active in music for quite some time, but that was about to change as he was finishing up his first solo album and had plans for a tour. Sadly the latter was not to be, but we did end up getting his solo album in the fall. It’s a great record, and it shows what a key player he was in Kansas. His vocals are stellar, and his violin playing is second to none. This record has a bit of the magic that I think Kansas lacks without Steinhardt. There are more musical influences at work than just Kansas on this record. It’s not a solid 10/10 throughout, but it is a very good record. Check out my review and my tribute to Robby.

Devin Townsend Galactic QuarantineDevin Townsend – Devolution Series #2 – Galactic Quarantine

Devin Townsend has been a busy bee this year. In addition to working on three new records this year, he released two minor releases of live material. The first is an acoustic album (see my glowing review) from a show he did in Leeds in 2019. It’s a raw and emotional take on his music. The Galactic Quarantine album is one of his live-streamed albums from 2020 with the musicians playing live on green screens across the world. The music is blisteringly great, with a surprising amount of Strapping Young Lad material played. Devin humorously engages with his virtual audience, which makes the music come to life a bit more. This has been one I’ve returned to quite a bit this year. Perhaps an unorthodox release, but it would make a really good entrance point for the uninitiated to the heavier side of Devin’s music. Check out my review.

8250379_e4a1fc34c7Soen – Imperial

It turns out we never reviewed Soen’s latest album, which was released in January. The Swedish prog-metal supergroup can do no wrong. Their songs are catchy, memorable, and thoughtful. They can be both heavy and contemplative, and in my book they rank in the upper echelon of progressive metal. This record has been on repeat all year.

Atravan - The Grey LineAtravan – The Grey Line

Sticking with the progressive metal theme, Atravan was a pleasant surprise at the beginning of the year. This is the first Iranian band we’ve ever reviewed here at Progarchy, and they’re fantastic. I’m so glad the band reached out to us. They make metal in the vein of Riverside – heavy, spacey, wall of sound. Definitely a band that deserves recognition, although I worry what too much recognition could do for them with the repressive Iranian regime. Check out my review.

Continue reading “Bryan’s Best of 2021”

Big Big Train Release New Track: “The Connection Plan”

Hot off the release of their most recent album, Common Ground, Big Big Train released another new track today: “The Connection Plan.” Why? Greg Spawton comments,

In the lead-up to our tours in 2022, we wanted to share a series of single  streaming releases. The ‘Stay Tuned’ streaming series will feature newly recorded compositions, we hope listeners will enjoy them”.

It sounds like this track, and presumably future ones, will only be available on streaming sites for now. I wouldn’t be surprised if they end up as either a special download for the Passengers Club or on a future record or EP.

Big Big Train – The Connection Plan – YouTube

Check out Progarchy’s interview with David Longdon about Common Ground: https://progarchy.com/2021/06/29/big-big-trains-david-longdon-the-progarchy-interview/

Check out my review of Common Ground: https://progarchy.com/2021/07/18/big-big-train-common-ground-2/

And see this page for more Progarchy reviews of Big Big Train’s music: https://progarchy.com/album-reviews/review-index/b/big-big-train/

Big Big Train Release Acoustic Version of “Common Ground” – New Album Out Now

Today Big Big Train released a special live-in-studio acoustic version of their song “Common Ground” off their new album of the same name. The album was released on Friday, and it’s the top release of the year thus far, in my opinion.

Check out Progarchy’s interview with David Longdon about the album: https://progarchy.com/2021/06/29/big-big-trains-david-longdon-the-progarchy-interview/

And check out my review: https://progarchy.com/2021/07/18/big-big-train-common-ground-2/

https://youtu.be/M2eu2SPjdb4

Also check out the band’s release day video, which features not one, not two, not even three – but four Nick D’Virgilios.

https://youtu.be/XmY3IU8NBBc

Big Big Train’s “Common Ground” – Album of the Year?

big big train common groundBig Big Train, Common Ground, July 30, 2021
Tracks: The Strangest Times (5:08), All The Love We Can Give (8:06), Black With Ink (7:23), Dandelion Clock (4:14), Headwaters (2:27), Apollo (7:50), Common Ground (4:54), Atlantic Cable (15:06), Endnotes (6:59)

I love writing about Big Big Train. In fact, they’re one of the reasons I was drawn into reviewing progressive rock on a more regular basis. They are also one of the reasons this website was founded back in 2012. Our founders understood that Big Big Train wasn’t your ordinary rock band, and the band deserved a more intellectual approach to reviews. I don’t know if I’ve been able to live up to the standard Dr. Brad Birzer set for us, but I try my best. Big Big Train makes it easier by providing such solid material to write about. Common Ground is no different. In fact it may be the best album they have released since I began writing for Progarchy. It is certainly the best record released thus far in 2021.

Common Ground gets off to a rousing start in the best way possible. I’ve never enjoyed the opening of a Big Big Train album this much. While I don’t dislike Big Big Train’s more mainstream pop-like tracks (“Make Some Noise,” “Folklore,” “Wassail”), they aren’t my favorite in the band’s catalog. While “The Strangest Times” might fall into that aspect of the band’s repertoire, I absolutely love this. The piano at the beginning is so bright and upbeat, reminding me a bit of some of the more popular artists the band site as influences on this record. However I think it reminds me more of the band’s work back in the days of English Electric. The guitar work is phenomenal, proving right away that even though brilliant guitarist Dave Gregory may have left the group, the group haven’t abandoned the unique sound he brought to the table. I imagine lots of credit should go to Rikard Sjöblom for maintaining that tone. 

https://youtu.be/i35_HcKjR18

Nick D’Virgilio absolutely hits a home run with his lead vocal sections on “All the Love We Can Give.” I was hoping we would get to hear more of his vocals on this record, and we do. Of course there is also his brilliant drumming throughout the album, which we probably take for granted at this point. This song has some blistering instrumental passages with heavy guitars and some face melting Hammond keyboards. We also get to hear a different side to David Longdon’s glorious voice, featuring the lower end of his register. The vocal harmonies at points in the song remind me of Gentle Giant and the Neal Morse Band, although this is nothing new for Big Big Train. They seem to have utilized it a bit more though throughout Common Ground than they have in the past.

As a matter of fact, the next track, “Black With Ink,” allows that to shine. We get a lead vocal from Rikard, Nick, and Carly Bryant, who joined the band for live shows, providing backing (and apparently lead) vocals, keyboards, and guitars. It’s a nice touch that the band included her on the recording, as well as Dave Foster (guitars on two tracks) and Aidan O’Rourke on violin throughout the record. 

Lyrically “Black With Ink” is somewhat close to my heart, since Greg Spawton was influenced by a trip to a museum (I work in the collections department of a history museum). After a BBT show in Birmingham, England, in 2019, Greg visited the local art museum and saw a label about the history of the collection, which suffered from a bombing raid during World War II. Spawton talks more about that song at the official Big Big Train blog for the album, but in summary it grew out of a frustration with the destruction of knowledge (book burning, destroying art, etc.). The song specifically looks at the destruction (many centuries and millennia ago) of texts at libraries in Alexandria and Baghdad. 

On the other side of the lyrical spectrum, Longdon keeps the band grounded in the present. “The Strangest Times” and “Common Ground” are influenced by the insanity the world has been going through over the last year and a half. In a recent interview, Longdon admitted to Progarchy’s Rick Krueger recently that he cannot wait for these lyrics to no longer be relevant, since we are all sick of quarantines, lockdowns, and other assorted nonsense. 

“Apollo” is an almost eight-minute-long instrumental track, and it is glorious. The song was contributed by Nick, and it grew out of material he had created at his day job at Sweetwater, a music gear retailer and production studio in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He describes this track as Big Big Train’s “Los Endos,” which I believe they achieved. It’s a beautiful song, and I can see them either closing a first set or closing a live show with it before an encore. The inclusion of Longdon’s flute was a really nice touch, which will most definitely be a hit live. It’s pure BBT, brass band and all. 

https://youtu.be/88HHhbD1vFE

“Atlantic Cable” has all the grandiosity of “East Coast Racer.” I don’t think I have enjoyed a Big Big Train song this much since ECR. Spawton’s booming bass is at Squire-esque levels of brilliance. The interplay of the guitars, violin when it is used, the myriad voices, the long instrumental passages – this is Big Big Train’s “sound” at its absolute finest. I hope when they play it live, they extend that guitar solo as it peaks toward the end.

Lyrically the track tells the story of laying the first telegraph cable across the Atlantic, formally linking the old world with the new. This song is much grander than that story, though. The story serves as a metaphor representing the commonality we all share, which supports the overall theme of the album. The track has calmer passages, but it still has the hard rocking sections that feature on the rest of the record and also hearken back to The Underfall Yard and English Electric

A song about laying a steel cable across the ocean floor was never going to be a pastoral piece of music. It needed some stormy moments, some grandeur. And it needed to be long enough to tell an epic tale. 
Greg Spawton

The video the band shared for this song in the blog for the album is hilarious. It’s a video of Nick trying to figure out how to play the complicated time signatures. It was only a matter of time before the expletives were directed at Greg (all in good humor, of course), but it’s quite entertaining. It also goes to show how technically complicated this music is and how good these musicians are that they can (eventually) play it.

The Dave Desmond brass band shines bright as ever on “Endnotes,” the final track. The hint of violin reminds us of where the band has been, but in a more subdued light.

The pastoral elements and folk elements in the band’s arsenal are pulled back throughout Common Ground in favor of a heavier rock sound, but it’s undeniably Big Big Train. It’s exactly what I wanted from the band moving forward. I never complained about the pastoral direction the band moved into because I enjoyed it, but I’ll admit that I was beginning to miss certain elements that were more prevalent on The Underfall Yard and English Electric. I don’t think any of us wanted them to start copying themselves, though. Instead they have progressed into slightly different waters, pulling together all of those elements into a truly astounding whole. The hard rock, the atmosphere added by the violin and Longdon’s flute, and those stunning vocal harmonies create a pure sound. 

Existing fans will almost assuredly love Common Ground. If you are new to Big Big Train, then this is as good a place to start as any. The album displays everything the band does so well.

Thanks Big Big Train. You’ve made a crappy year a little brighter. 

https://www.bigbigtrain.com
https://www.bigbigtrain.com/common-ground/
Album out July 30, 2021.

https://youtu.be/wIQnhCcI4gA

 

Big Big Train Release Instrumental Track Off Upcoming Album

Ah, this is more like it. Great stuff from the mighty Big Big Train:

https://youtu.be/88HHhbD1vFE

Press release:

Big Big Train Apollo“Apollo” is the second track to be taken from Big Big Train’s forthcoming album ‘Common Ground’ due out on July 30th, 2021 on English Electric Recordings. The new album, recorded during the worldwide pandemic, sees the band continue their tradition of dramatic narratives but also tackles issues much closer to home, such as the Covid lockdowns, the separation of loved ones, the passage of time, deaths of people close to the band and the hope that springs from a new love.

“Apollo” is a seven-minute plus instrumental written by Big Big Train drummer Nick D’Virgilio and will be an undoubted highlight when the band tour in 2022.

When the time came to start coming up with ideas for the next BBT album, I felt very strongly that we should include a quintessential instrumental track. I wanted to write the band’s version of Genesis’s Los Endos and to make a track that really showed off the talent of all the amazing musicians in this band. I knew that the team could totally play anything I threw at them, and boy, did they prove me right! I thought about the unique instrumentation of BBT. We have so many wonderful ‘voices’ to play with and I wanted every one of them in this song. In the big end bit, I can totally envisage the crowd with their hands in the air going back n forth, all of the lights and haze on the stage, the band just absolutely slamming, the crowd singing along with the melody the BBT brass ensemble is playing, until we reach a glorious end.

Watch the video for “Apollo” here:
https://youtu.be/88HHhbD1vFE

Tracklisting:

1. The Strangest Times
2. All The Love We Can Give
3. Black With Ink
4. Dandelion Clock
5. Headwaters
6. Apollo
7. Common Ground
8. Atlantic Cable
9. Endnotes

‘Common Ground’ is available for pre-order now as Double Vinyl, CD, and Bandcamp Download at these sites:
https://burningshed.com/store/bigbigtrain
https://bigbigtrain.bandcamp.com

‘Common Ground’ sees the band taking in wider musical and lyrical inspiration from artists such as Elbow, Pete Townshend, Tears For Fears, Elton John and XTC, as well as acknowledging their more progressive roots. As ever, Big Big Train will take listeners on a journey, be it waiting for the UK 5pm pandemic press conferences (’The Strangest Times’) to the library of Alexandria (‘Black With Ink’) to the bottom of the ocean (‘Atlantic Cable’).

For the ‘Common Ground’ tour, which will be their most extensive to date and which will culminate in the UK with a show at the prestigious London Palladium, Greg Spawton (bass), David Longdon (lead vocals, flute), Nick D’Virgilio (drums, vocals) and Rikard Sjöblom (guitars, keyboards, vocals) will be joined by Carly Bryant (keyboards, guitars, vocals), who contributes vocals to ‘Common Ground’, Dave Foster (guitars), who plays on two tracks on the new album, Clare Lindley (violin, vocals) and by a five piece brass ensemble. The band expect to announce North American tour dates shortly.

BIG BIG TRAIN UK TOUR 2022

TUE, MARCH 15TH – YORK, BARBICAN
WED, MARCH 16TH – CAMBRIDGE, CORN EXCHANGE
FRI, MARCH 18TH – BIRMINGHAM, SYMPHONY HALL
SAT, MARCH 19TH – BATH, FORUM
MON, MARCH 21ST – GLASGOW, ROYAL CONCERT HALL
TUE, MARCH 22ND – MANCHESTER, BRIDGEWATER HALL
WED, MARCH 23RD – LONDON, PALLADIUM

TICKETS ON SALE HERE:
https://myticket.co.uk/artists/big-big-train