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

Glass Hammer’s Dreaming City

Little did Glass Hammer masterminds Fred Schendel and Steve Babb know the uphill climb their new effort Dreaming City would face.  Not only has the album’s release taken a hit from the coronavirus pandemic’s overall toll on the music industry— Schendel and Babb have also been dealing with the aftermath of a 1500-yard wide tornado that hit Chattanooga, Tennessee on Easter Sunday.

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.

Dreaming City is available directly from Glass Hammer.

 

-Rick Krueger

Kinetic Element, The Face of Life

I first encountered Kinetic Element at 2017’s Progtoberfest III in Chicago:

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.

For more on Kinetic Element and the new album, check out this article at (of all places) Broadway World.  The Face of Life is released on February 28, when physical and digital versions will be available from BandcampMelodic Revolution Records, CD Baby, and Syn-Phonic Music.  Or, to pre-order the new album (along with previous albums and t-shirts) direct from the band, message Mike Visaggio on Facebook.  I did!

— Rick Krueger

kinetic element

Bryan’s Best of 2018

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).

Continue reading “Bryan’s Best of 2018”

kruekutt’s 2018 Favorites: Reissues

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 …

 

Continue reading “kruekutt’s 2018 Favorites: Reissues”

kruekutt’s 2018 Favorites: New Albums

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 …

Continue reading “kruekutt’s 2018 Favorites: New Albums”

Glass Hammer Smashes Time

A Hole In The Sky

Do you long for the days when listening to FM rock radio meant hearing classic Todd Rundgren, early Chicago, ELO, ELP, Pink Floyd, and maybe a little Autobahn courtesy of Kraftwerk? Do you miss watching Rockford Files and Barney Miller on TV? If so, then you will love Glass Hammer’s new album, Chronomonaut. It is a trip back in time to those heady days of the 1970s when DJs thought nothing of playing an entire album side in the middle of an afternoon.

Brad Birzer has already written an impossible-to-improve-upon review of Glass Hammer’s latest, but I am so captivated by this album that I had to add my voice to the chorus of praise it is garnering. While Valkyrie was a beautiful and sympathetic examination of the horrors of WWI trench warfare and the toll it took on soldiers, Chronomonaut is a much lighter affair, at least in its brilliant mix of styles of music. Tongues are firmly in cheek throughout this update on the hapless protagonist, Tom Timely, whom we first met in 2000’s Chronometree.

Tom’s still convinced he’s receiving secret messages via prog music, and he is not a happy inhabitant of the 2010s. He is sure that he can travel back in time to the 1970s and fix whatever it was that made his life go off the rails. Where Chronometree was pretty much all in fun, though, this new chapter has some deeper messages lurking beneath the surface.

The music is all over the place, and I mean that in a good way. I hear snatches of early Chicago in the horns, some Houses of the Holy – era Led Zep, some early-80s new waviness, and a heavy dollop of Something/Anything? – era Todd Rundgren. Babb and Schendel put it all in a blender and it comes out sounding pretty glorious. Susie Bogdanowicz is still on board, thankfully, contributing her trademark angelic vocals. Aaron Raulston is solid as a rock throughout. He is the most adaptable drummer I’ve heard – regardless of the musical style, his percussion is a perfect fit. Steve Babb is now my favorite bassist – he is endlessly inventive and melodic without dominating the proceedings. And of course, Fred Schendel is marvelous on guitar and keyboards, pulling all kinds of vintage sounds out of his instrumental arsenal.

In the end though, amidst the sheer pleasure of listening to all of this ear candy, there is a sobering message: nostalgia for its own sake can be dangerous. As they sing in the album’s final and finest song, “Fade Away”,

“If you could truly travel back

You’d still not find the things you lack.

The glories you seem to recall

Were not glory after all.”

Tom, it turns out, is searching for Truth, and in the end he finds it. It’s a deeply moving moment in the arc of the album’s trajectory. There are not many bands who could pull off such a mix of engaging melodies with such a serious message. Glass Hammer, however, are not your typical band. They make it look easy, which is all the more impressive. Long may they run!

Glass Hammer Video Release: “Melancholy Holiday”

Progarchy thoughts: Stunning and haunting.

***

Glass Hammer Release Chronomonaut Video – Melancholy Holiday

Glass Hammer premiers their Melancholy Holiday video from the new concept album Chronomonaut.

Chronomonaut tells the story of “the ultimate prog-fan” Tom, who, according to bassist Steve Babb, “has reached middle-age and wants to time travel back to the early 70’s to relive the glory days of progressive rock. We first introduced fans to Tom with our 2000 release Chronometree, an album which proved to be a turning point for us.”

Babb has been releasing videos of his character Tom, supposedly filmed in 1983, where viewers have learned about Tom’s failed prog rock band, The Elf King, and his preoccupation with time travel. “In the Melancholy Holiday video we find Tom late for a meeting with his girlfriend,” explains Babb. “Tom is convinced he’s traveled back in time to find her. She informs him otherwise and things just get weirder.”

Longtime Glass Hammer vocalist Susie Bogdanowicz sings this track, though Discipline front-man Matthew Parmenter also provides some lead vocals on Chronomonaut.

The seventy-minute long Chronomonaut releases on October 12th, but fans can pre-order autographed copies of Chronomonaut and limited edition t-shirts at the band’s website. http://glasshammer.com/official-store/

  1. The Land Of Lost Content 1:54
  2. Roll For Initiative 7:43
  3. Twilight Of The Godz 8:13
  4. The Past Is Past 9:56
  5. 1980 Something 5:51
  6. A Hole In The Sky 4:49
  7. Clockwork 2:17
  8. Melancholy Holiday 4:27
  9. It Always Burns Sideways 5:49
  10. Blinding Light 6:01
  11. Tangerine Meme 3:05
  12. Fade Away 10:27

And, without further delay, here it is.

The Big Fall Prog Preview!

What new music, live albums, and reissues (deluxe and otherwise) are heading our way between now and Black Friday?  Check out the exhaustive (and possibly exhausting) sampling of promised progressive goodies — along with a few other personal priorities — below.  Pre-order links are for CDs or combo packages; vinyl editions are frequently available from the same website.

  • September 21:
    • Marillion, Happiness is Cologne and Popular Music.  Limited edition live reissues from Racket Records and earMusic.  Pre-order at Amazon or other online retailers.
    • Nosound, Allow Yourself.  Pre-order from Burning Shed.
  • September 28:
    • Blackfield, Open Mind (The Best of Blackfield).  Pre-order from Burning Shed.
    • Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin, Star Clocks.  Pre-order from Burning Shed.
  • October 5:
    • Steve Hackett, Broken Skies – Outspread Wings (1984-2006).  Esoteric Recordings reissue box set (6 CDs + 2 DVDs).  Pre-order autographed copies from Hackettsongs.
    • King Crimson, Meltdown: Live in Mexico.  3 CDs + 1 BluRay.  Pre-order from Burning Shed.
  • October 12:
    • Glass Hammer, Chronomonaut.  Pre-order autographed copies or the deluxe bundle from Glass Hammer’s webstore.  Pre-order deadline: October 11.
    • Sanguine Hum, Now We Have Power.  Pre-order from Bandcamp.
  • October 19:
    • Greta Van Fleet, Anthem of the Peaceful Army.  The first full-length album from Frankenmuth, Michigan’s young Zepheads.  Pre-order at GvF’s webstore.
    • iamthemorning, Ocean Sounds.  Live in the studio; audio/video bundle.  Pre-order at Burning Shed.
    • In Continuum, Acceleration Theory.  With Dave Kerzner and an all-star line-up.  Pre-order bundles from Bandcamp. Pre-order deadline for special bundles: September 30.
    • Frank Sinatra, Only the Lonely: 60th Anniversary Edition.  Yes, really.  The greatest concept album of the pre-rock era, with Sinatra and arranger Nelson Riddle at their most gorgeous and devastating.  “Make it one for my baby … and one more for the road.” More info at Super Deluxe Edition.
  • October 26:
    • Anathema, Internal Landscapes.  The best of the band’s Kscope albums.  Pre-order from Burning Shed.
    • Haken, Vector.  Pre-order from Burning Shed.
    • Procol Harum, Live In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.  Esoteric Recordings reissue with bonus tracks.  Pre-order from Burning Shed.
  • November 2:
    • Opeth, Garden of the Titans: Live at Red Rocks Amphitheatre.  Various audio & video formats/bundles available.  Pre-order from Burning Shed.
    • Steven Wilson, Home Invasion: In Concert at the Royal Albert Hall.  Various audio & video formats/bundles available.  Pre-order from Burning Shed.
  • November 9:
    • Jethro Tull, This Was — The 50th Anniversary Edition. Steven Wilson remix included, on 3 CDs + DVD.  Pre-order from Burning Shed.
    • Rikard Sjöblom’s Gungfly, Friendship.  Pre-order from Rikard’s webstore.
  • November 16:
    • Marillion, Brave Live and Live in Glasgow.  Limited edition live reissues from Racket Records and earMusic.  Pre-order at Amazon or other online retailers.
    • The Tangent, Proxy.  Pre-order special bundles from The Tangent webstore.
  • November 23:
    • Marillion, Clutching at Straws Special Edition.  4 CDs + 1 BluRay.  Pre-order autographed copies from Marillion or Fish.
  • TBA:
    • The Beatles, White Album 50th Anniversary Edition?
    • Big Big Train, Merchants of Light Blu-Ray
    • King Crimson, The ReConstruKction of Light (40th Anniversary reissue) and Heaven and Earth (Crimson ProjeKcts box set)

— Rick Krueger