Glass Hammer seem to get better with age. Their most recent album, Skallagrim, is phenomenal. Now Steve Babb has released the first of four fantasy albums to go along with the fantasy story created in that album and in 2020 record Dreaming City.
From Babb’s website: “Stephen R. Babb’s novel, Skallagrim – In the Vale of Pagarna, is a deep dive into a world of epic fantasy. The book is a tale steeped in all of the classic elements of the Sword and Sorcery genre and will no-doubt delight fans of the work of Robert E. Howard, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis (with maybe even a hint of H.P. Lovecraft for good measure).”
And those monsters saw not a young man with a sword but a scarred and screaming horror with the rising red doom of the sun at his back and a hellishly shrieking, flashing, living sword in his hands.
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 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 – 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.
Soen – 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 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.
Glass Hammer, Skallagrim – Into the Breach: Fred Schendel, Steve Babb and company return with the second installment of their multi-part “sword and sorcery” epic, begun on 2020’s Dreaming City. The music rocks hard and heavy, evoking everyone from Deep Purple to Mastodon (and yes, a fair amount of Rush), with just enough moody, ambient keyboard work to cleanse your aural palate before the next round of crunchy power chords. All this marvelously matches the grimdark vibe of the titular hero’s melodramatic quest for his lost love. (And a surprise lyrical callback to an earlier GH album sets up tantalizing possibilities regarding just who that lost love is.) To top it all off, new vocalist Hannah Pryor proves a major discovery, surfing Schendel and Babb’s gargantuan riffs with zest, grace and power to spare. Every bit as involving as Dreaming City, this fine album is a blast in every sense of the term. Order signed CDs, downloads and merch direct from Glass Hammer’s webstore.
Steve Hackett, Surrender of Silence: enter one legendary guitarist, shredding! Hackett lets himself off the leash here, laying down both his wildest compositions and his most hardcore playing in quite some time. The tunes can actually be a bit undercooked, their influences not always fully assimilated (‘Hmm, Prokofiev . . . wait, Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo A La Turk”!?! . . . good grief, is that lick really “Theme from Exodus”???’). Nonetheless, Hackett’s swashbuckling solos atop Roger King’s widescreen orchestrations are irresistible as always; he and wife Jo serve up fresh sonic travelogues such as “Wingbeats” and “Shanghai to Samarkand”; and full-on burners like “Relaxation Music for Sharks” and “The Devil’s Cathedral” (featuring Hackett’s full band, including Nad Sylvan on vocals) never fail to thrill. Perhaps it’s not up to the towering heights ofAt the Edge of Light and Under A Mediterranean Sky, but Hackett’s latest is well worth your while. Order signed albums (CD, CD+BluRay combo, LP or LP+CD combo) direct from his webstore.
Isildur’s Bane& Peter Hammill, In Disequilbrium: Mats Johansen’s expandable international ensemble (including King Crimson’s Pat Mastelotto on drums this time) reconnects with Van der Graaf Generator visionary Hammill; two sprawling multi-movement suites result. The three-part title piece careens between hard-driving rock, off-kilter electronica, spastic percussion interludes and haunting chamber textures, as Hammill decries a post-pandemic world that was already primed for chaos. (“There’s no choreography, dance the Tarantella./In disequilibrium round and round forever we’ll go.”) In the four-part “Gently (Step by Step)”, Hammill supplies winningly vulnerable encouragement to face whatever the future holds; the band drapes his incantatory vocals in dizzying sonic collages that somehow always sound forlorn, no matter the timbre or tempo at a particular moment. This one definitely requires multiple plays to unfold its secrets, but it’s well worth the effort; the way IB’s devastatingly precise, multilayered processes track with the unpredictable contours of Hammill’s apocalyptic meditations must be heard to be believed. Order CDs and LPs (plus previous collaborations with Hammill and Marillion’s Steve Hogarth)at Burning Shed’s Isildur’s Bane store.
Tillison Reingold Tiranti, Allium – Una Storia: Perhaps Andy Tillison’s most light-hearted effort ever. Back in 1976, a teenage Tillison encountered (and sat in with) the obscure Albanian prog group of the album’s title at an Italian holiday camp — and it changed his life for the better. This lockdown-inspired “homage to a band whose day never came” easily goes beyond a mere tribute to Seventies Europrog, capturing the sheer joy and the heady freedom both Allium and the fledgling Tillison must have felt in those moments. Collaborating with Jonas Reingold (bass and guitars), Roberto Tiranti (vocals) and Antonio DeSarno (Italian lyrics), Tillison contributes some of his best, boldest keyboard work ever on three long, appealingly involved, frequently funky tracks — and plays all the drums! And you get both Tillison’s “Original Mix” (effortlessly conjuring up the period — I was roughly his age at the time) and Reingold’s “Respectful Remix” (which, bourgeois Philistine that I now am, I actually prefer). If you’re interesting in hearing the Tangent’s mainman just having fun, this is your ticket. Order CDs from Reingold Records.
Yes, The Quest: I’d argue that Yes, in any formation, hasn’t made an essential album since 90125. I’d also argue that, when Geoff Downes’ keys and Steve Howe’s sublime guitar really lock together, as on the opening “The Ice Bridge”, the results sound more like upper-mid-level Asia than the band they’re supposed to be in here. But if Yes fans can get past these discontents (as well as the numerous others they’ve accumulated over the decades), they may enjoy The Quest’s estimable (though not overwhelming) charms. Singer Jon Davison brings the requisite lyrical themes of self-actualization and environmental issues to the party; Billy Sherwood does his manful best to channel the spirit of Chris Squire on bass and vocals; and in the studio Alan White can still summon his classic drive, if not the power he had in his prime. The FAMES Orchestra add a dash of Time and A Word/Symphonic Tour luxury to the proceedings as well. While everything’s downshifted multiple gears from Yes’ most rambunctious, energetic — and it has to be said, creative — years this is an unquestionable step up from the appallingly bland Heaven and Earth, with its own modest appeal. I can see a track or two from this fitting nicely into the setlist when Yes finally can bring their long-promised Relayer tour to the Western Hemisphere. Order the album (in CDs, red LPs + CDs, CDs + BluRay combo, and CDs+LPs+BluRay deluxe boxset formats) from Burning Shed.
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/
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.
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, areInescapable 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!
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.
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.
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 albumChants From Another Place, a haunting, mysterious work that taps into obscure folk and choral traditions.
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.
Nevertheless, they’re persisting — and well they should. Dreaming City is another fine, fine Glass Hammer album; its thrilling musical voyages mesh marvelously with an unexpectedly apropos narrative, and the result is surprisingly suited for these unprecedented times.
The big news here (and the big hook for me) is how Dreaming City’s concept channels a very specific vibe — the vintage fantasy paperbacks that glutted newsstands and drugstores in prog rock’s golden era. No, not the thick multi-part epics that sprouted like kudzu after The Lord of the Rings’ mass market breakout — I’m talking about the 200-pagers (frequently mash-ups of short stories) that leaned toward the grittier “sword and sorcery” end of the genre. Steve Babb’s story steers directly for the classic archetypes of Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga and Robert E. Howard’s Conan tales: an alienated adventurer battling beastly creatures and fiendish wizards, racing against time to save a damsel in distress from a horrific fate — and armed with a mystical sword, no less. Books like these were a major thrill of my middle school years (and still provide the occasional pleasurable re-read) , so I’m delighted by Babb’s tapping into them for inspiration here.
The varied musical palette pairs perfectly with the ups and downs of the story; especially compared to the winning, poppy sheen of 2018’s Chronomonaut, Dreaming City is a moodier, more ferocious beast. The core team of Babb (bass, keys, lead and backing vocals) Schendel (keys, guitars and backing vocals) and Aaron Raulston (drums) rock hard from the start, summoning the ghosts of synth-heavy Rush (the title track, “Cold Star”) and Hydra-era Toto (“Terminus”) but giving each multi-sectioned tune an up-to-date spin. The menacing drone of “The Lurker Beneath,” the monstrously heavy “Pagarna” and the Floydian soundscape “At the Threshold of Dreams” downshift into the spacious mid-tempo reveries “This Lonely World” and “October Ballad” (the latter featuring yet another standout Susie Bogdanowicz vocal). Ramping up via the tangerine-dreamy “The Tower” and the menacing doom-synth crescendo of “A Desperate Man”, the stage seems set for a stereotypical final confrontation. But the riff-go-round of “The Key” doesn’t just upend musical expectations (check out Barry Serroff’s stunning flute work), it serves up a deft, unlooked-for plot twist, leaving the protagonist bereft in a way you’d least expect.
And that’s where the final, towering epic “The Watchman on the Wall” builds from. Musically, it pulls off another nifty Rush tribute — kicking off as a long-lost Moving Pictures outtake, but somehow winding up in 2112/A Farewell to Kings territory before its big finish. Lyrically, it’s a classic Glass Hammer closer, retconning the hero’s adventure into an ongoing spiritual quest: heading into an uncertain future, but ready to “Find hope in the morning/Even in the dark of night”.
There are plenty of other cool moments to enjoy on Dreaming City — guest shots from vocalists Reese Boyd, John Beagley and Joe Logan, guitar work by Brian Brewer and James Byron Schoen, Schendel’s delightfully spindly organ and synth solos. All these details slot into a powerful portrait of determination and hope in the face of adversity and devastation. That’s what makes Glass Hammer’s latest not just another winning album, but — just maybe — a work of art to inspire everyone with ears to hear during this strange season.
As I entered Reggie’s Rock Club on the final day of Progtoberfest, the Virginia band Kinetic Element were winding up their set … their take on classic prog, spearheaded by keyboardist Mike Visaggio, sounded accomplished and intriguing; I wished I could have arrived earlier and heard more. Plus, you gotta love a band with a lead singer in a kilt!
I’m still working on arriving earlier; fortunately, Kinetic Element has stepped up with more to hear. Forged in the crucible of key personnel changes, KE’s new The Face of Life is a sturdy album of ambitious, appealing prog from the grassroots. Visaggio, longtime drummer Michael Murray, bassist Mark Tupko, vocalist Saint John Coleman (he of the kilt), and new guitarist Peter Matuchniak rise to a tricky challenge — shaping music that’s steeped in the “founding proggers” while striving for fresh sonic territory and aptly framing the cultural and spiritual musings of Visaggio’s lyrics.
Album opener “Epistle” lays out Kinetic Element’s approach; seven minutes of space-age blues melded with a modernized take on 1 Corinthians 13, it’s a driving showcase for Tupko and Murray’s grounded groove, Visaggio and Matuchniak’s timbral variations and upbeat solo flights, and Coleman’s forthright delivery. The epic “All Open Eyes” admittedly kicks off in familiar Yes Album territory, as a cappella vocals trade off with wistful guitar/mellotron licks. But KE quickly heads their own way, building from a ear-catching symphonic overture through dramatic piano-led balladry (which Coleman aces) into an exciting instrumental with hot licks aplenty from Matuchniak, Tupko and Visaggio, as tempos, textures and the players’ roles constantly shift. The return to the ballad for the big finish is a classic prog move (just ask Neal Morse), but Coleman’s portrayal of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting is utterly committed, and Tupko’s “Heart of the Sunrise” tribute toward the end tastes like a delicious cherry on top, not like half-baked leftovers.
Similarly, the title track’s opening can’t help but recall Going for the One’s “Awaken” to my ears. But again, there’s a swift upshift to a more aggressive vibe, as Matuchniak and Visaggio push hard atop Tupko and Murray’s steamrolling riffs, Coleman testifies over gospel-inflected piano, and the band cycles through an organic, consistently surprising rotation of related ideas. “Last Words” is an affecting coda to the album, a two-verse meditation sung first to Visaggio’s digital string quartet, then to a full band backing that floats to a serene conclusion. Throughout, the mix by Glass Hammer’s Fred Schendel and Steve Babb is full, present and warm.
So if you want meat and potatoes prog that’s more than a hackneyed rehash of the past, Kinetic Element’s proudly blue collar efforts fill the bill. The Face of Life is a satisfying listen and a genuine achievement, splendidly realizing the latent potential of a fine band.
Earlier this year, I questioned whether or not 2018 was going to be a poor year for prog. It seemed like the the progressive rock community took a few months to stop and take a collective breath… but that was only the breath before the plunge. The second half of the year saw many excellent new releases. The following are some of my favorites from 2018, in no particular order (my top two at the bottom of this list are tied for first place).
Following the jump, the reissues and compilations from this past year that:
For one reason or another, I absolutely had to buy (whether I previously had a copy or not), and
That grabbed me on first listen and haven’t let go through repeated plays. Except for my Top Favorite at the end of the post, I haven’t ranked them — in my opinion, they’re all worth your time. But first, a graphic tease …
Here are the albums of new music from 2018 that grabbed me on first or second listen, then compelled repeated plays. I’m not gonna rank them except for those that achieved Top Favorite status, 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!) Links to the ones I’ve previously reviewed are embedded in the album titles. But first, a graphic tease …