(A quick note: for new releases, order links are embedded in album titles; online playlists/previews/etc. follow reviews when available. For catalog albums, playlists are linked with titles.)
Once again, I get to second a positive review from Bryan — this time of Fauna, the new release from prog-metallers Haken. Wildly creative, I found this to be the British sextet’s most appealing effort since 2016’s Affinity, stirring in flavors of fusion, postmodern pop, funk, reggae, electronica and even opera alongside one heavy yet tuneful chorus after another. Whether on the short, sharp shocks of “Taurus” and “Lovebite” or the extended journeys of “Sempiternal Beings” and “Elephants Never Forget”, Ross Jennings’ vocals soar, Charlie Griffiths and Richard Henshall’s guitars crunch, Peter Jones’ keys fill what few sonic crevices remain, and rhythm section Conner Green and Raymond Hearne thunder. Play it loud — but look out for multiple, exciting curveballs on every track!
Last month also saw the release of two live albums from veteran bands who’ve made it through the pandemic back to the stage:
Van der Graaf Generator’s The Bath Forum Concert(a CD/DVD/BluRay set) documents the venerable trio’s 2022 return to action; tackling an ambitious setlist that spans their entire career, guitarist/pianist/singer Peter Hammill is as declamatory and vehement as ever, organist Hugh Banton covers the aural spectrum between cathedral and crypt, and drummer Guy Evans locks into or disrupts the grinding soundscapes as the spirit moves him. The beautifully filmed video shows VDGG working hard and watching each other, opting for the flow as they feel it rather than relying on clinical precision; warts and all, this is refreshingly in the moment, a strong show that captures the band’s existential angst and humanistic idealism in full.
Two years after their 2020 Far Eastern tour collapsed around them, King Crimson satellite band Stick Men returned to Japan and blew away any cobwebs that might have accumulated at Osaka’s BB Live venue. The resulting album Umedashowcases avant guitarist Markus Reuter, multi-bassist Tony Levin and percussionist Pat Mastelotto at their aggressive, angular best; whether on long-standing improvisational frameworks “Cusp”, “Schattenhaft” and “Swimming in Tea”, newer compositions “Ringtone”, “Tentacles” and “Danger in the Workplace” or Crimson classics “Red”, “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Pt. II” or “The Sheltering Sky”, these guys are frighteningly good, whether working up a hair-raising din or backing off for spacey, unexpectedly lush interludes. A great introduction for newbies and a must for fans.
Plus, in February and March the recorded music industry resumed cranking out deluxe box set reissues and compilations — apparently the market of Boomers (like me) with more money than sense isn’t tapped out yet:
Transatlantic’s The Final Flight: Live at L’Olympia is a worthy souvenir of the latest — and last? — tour by our favorite “more never is enough” classic-prog supergroup. Over three hours, Neal Morse, Roine Stolt, Pete Trewavas, Mike Portnoy and sidekick Ted Leonard play every possible note of their ultra-epic The Absolute Universe, plus generous chunks of the band’s first three albums (sorry, Kaleidoscope fans). You might notice some rough edges in Morse’s singing despite a few preemptive downward key shifts, but Transatlantic still delivers the goods without fail — the jaw-dropping ensemble work, knockout solos, choral counterpoint, head-spinning transitions and heart-stopping climaxes just keep coming. And if this is their swan song, thanks for 20+ years of over-the-top thrills and spills are well past due!
Rick Wakeman’s latest album, A Gallery of the Imagination, is less a conceptual effort (like The Six Wives of Henry VIII or even the recent The Red Planet) than an impressionist suite based on a overall musical approach (as on his Piano Portraits releases). As such, Wakeman’s strong suit — spacious melodies decorated with arpeggios aplenty, then rocked up via finger-busting solo work — is here in abundance, with appropriately sturdy backing by The English Rock Ensemble. But be prepared — the line between prog and middle-of-the-road pop is remarkably thin at times, especially when sentimental lyrics like “A Day Spent on the Pier” are declaimed with stagey brio by vocalist Hayley Sanderson. If you can deal with that, there’s plenty to enjoy here.
Simon Collins and Kelly Nordstrom (best known in the prog world for the Sound of Contact album Dimensionaut with Dave Kerzner and Matt Dorsey) veer in a heavier direction with their new project, eMolecule’s The Architect. The initial blasts of electronica-laced prog-metal, amped up with gusto by Nordstrom, slot in beautifully with the dystopian sci-fi narrative, but it takes a while for Collins’ trademark vocal inflections to peek through the robotic audio processing. Ultimately, the light and shade of “Beyond Belief” and “Awaken” (a ballad in the Phil-to-Simon family tradition) and a building sense of Floydian atmospherics provide the contrast needed for eMolecule’s well-executed sound and fury to fully connect.
I stumbled across the British post-rockers Plank via 2014’s excellent Hivemind. After tackling animals and insects as their previous subjects, the trio widen their horizons here, returning after 9 years for their new concept opus The Future of the Sea. This is a stunning set of limpid, gorgeous instrumentals, weaving elements of psychedelia, prog and math-rock into textures of massive breadth and heft (whether the big guns are being held in reserve or out on parade at any given moment). The closing 6-part suite “Breaking Waves” is a full-on, monolithic delight that mounts to a shattering, satisfying climax. Give this one a try!
The ongoing passing of rock legends tends to direct me toward their most recent releases, especially if I’d dismissed them on initial notice. Thus, when David Crosby died in January, I bit the bullet and picked up his Lighthouse Band’s CD/DVD Live at the Capitol Theatre. Ignoring this beauty, released late last year, was a mistake; it’s a thoroughly enjoyable, even moving document of Crosby’s late career renaissance, here shown in collaboration with Snarky Puppy bassist Michael League and singer/songwriters Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis. Yes, the man’s voice is a shadow of its former self here — but so is his legendary ego; this lovely set may be more of a team effort than Crosby, Stills and Nash (& Young) ever was. The jazz-inflected songwriting, the hushed vocal blend, the lovely sense of understatement and space all make this delicate music blossom and take root in the heart. This tour came to West Michigan on Thanksgiving weekend of 2018; hearing this set, I’m sorry I missed the show! Yes, it’s that good.
I wish I could say the same about 18, the collaboration with Johnny Depp that turned out to be guitar legend Jeff Beck’s swan song; even putting aside Depp’s recent notoriety, there’s a mismatch of tone that makes the album a puzzling listen. Though Beck’s rich melodicism is as compelling as ever, his soaring aesthetic keeps bouncing off the consistently lugubrious song selection and morose vocals from Depp. Usually I’d be all over an album that ricochets from Motown and the Everly Brothers to Killing Joke and The Velvet Underground, but the eclectic selection simply refuses to cohere. Some glorious moments (instrumental takes on the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Talk” and “Caroline, No”, the John Lennon cover “Isolation” that closes the album on a solid footing), but Beck’s light and Depp’s dark cancel each other out far too often for the music to take wing.
In the meantime, the past month has seen multiple first-rate releases in the jazz (and jazz-related) world:
From out of left field, Lake Street Dive singer Rachael Price teams with guitarist/songwriter Vilray Blair Bolles for I Love A Love Song! This second duo effort pairs Price’s well-honed jazz and pop sensibilities with whimsical Vilray originals in the Great American Songbook tradition. Well-upholstered arrangements from a finely tuned large combo and a boxy yet lush recorded sound set up the retro feel; but ultimately it’s Price’s subtle, in-the-pocket sense of swing that sells the music, often breezy and melancholy at the same time.
Piano legend Brad Mehldau has never hesitated to incorporate rock songs into the jazz canon; with Your Mother Should Know, he makes a program of Beatles tunes (plus David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” — it originally featured Rick Wakeman on piano!) sound not just obvious, but inevitable in the idiom. Above all, this is fun, albeit often of a serious stripe; from the headlong boogie woogie of “I Saw Her Standing There” through the thickened harmonies of “I Am the Walrus” and hovering balladry of “Here There and Everywhere” to the stretched-out gospel of “Baby’s in Black” and the ecstatic extended solo of “Golden Slumbers”, Mehldau’s instincts for where to take these songs by Lennon, McCartney and Harrison are unerring, his invention refreshing and often astonishing, his technique impeccable. Absolutely worth a listen, whether you’re a Fabs fan or not.
Are improvisational Australian trio The Necks “jazz”? Hard to say; but while their music resists categorization (or even description), their latest release Travelis as attractive a summation of what they do as anything. Four pieces of music, each one made from scratch at the start of a day in the studio, building from a minimal idea that gains momentum, complexity and impact through repetition and variation of ideas, dynamics and sounds. “Signal” rambles, “Forming” smolders, “Imprinting” shimmers and “Bloodstream” flares up for a riveting double-album journey. Is it world-inflected rock? Ambient jazz? Something else? I frankly don’t care; I just know that after an online listen, I had to buy it. (And kudos to Vertigo Music of Grand Rapids for having it in stock!)