Progressive Music in a Time of Pandemic

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.

So where’s the good news?

For one thing, the plight of progressive musicians has resonated strongly with their fans. Reuter’s GoFundMe goal was met in just over a day; Pavkovic has had a newly positive response to MoonJune’s digital subscription program and discount offers. (Full disclosure: I’m a digital subscriber and I love it!)  And now Bandcamp is getting into the act:

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:

Then move on to other artists well loved on this blog:

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.

— Rick Krueger

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”

Gleb Kolyadin: The Virtuoso We Need

Progressive rock has always attracted virtuoso keyboard players.  Parallel with Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page’s moves toward British blues and heavy music, classically trained pianists like Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman fired up Hammond organs, Mellotrons and prototype synthesizers, mashing up genres and grabbing attention with gleeful abandon.  From the maelstrom of psychedelia, jazz and modern classical, a new kind of rock emerged — and one of the unspoken standards of nascent prog was that you had to really be able to play.

That standard offered multiple paths forward for proggers: jaw-dropping shredfests by Emerson, Wakeman and disciples; seamless melds of improvisation and composition from King Crimson and Van Der Graaf Generator; long-form, ambitious suites by Yes and Genesis.  It’s also spawned countless wannabe virtuosos — sometimes trying their hardest, sometimes just following trends, but frequently lacking the compositional chops to give their playing maximum impact.  Even after prog’s fading from mass culture, the virtuoso standard keeps attracting musicians eager to prove themselves — especially keyboardists — to the genre, like moths to a No-Pest Strip.

The problem is this: when you have to prove yourself (especially to yourself),  it may come too easily to baffle with BS rather than to dazzle with brilliance — to play more notes, not necessarily the right ones, with space and taste going out the window.  And when the seemingly endless runs of 32nd notes stop, is there anything of substance behind the flash and the “oh, wows”?

That thorny dilemma is why Gleb Kolyadin is the young virtuoso progressive rock needs.

Continue reading “Gleb Kolyadin: The Virtuoso We Need”

iamthemorning’s Lighthouse: Neoclassical Beauty

lighthouse_cover

Imagine, if you will, a world where Aerial-era Kate Bush, Dumbarton Oaks-era Igor Stravinsky, and Sketches of Spain-era Miles Davis got together to compose a song cycle. They might come up with something to rival iamthemorning’s new album, Lighthouse, but it’s doubtful.

A work of astonishing beauty, Lighthouse is also deeply moving. The songs chronicle a young woman’s struggle to overcome mental illness, and her ultimate surrender to it. Heavy stuff, but fortunately the gorgeous musical arrangements make Lighthouse a work worth returning to again and again. iamthemorning takes the listener on this journey through the use of neoclassical music, prog, and classic jazz. Most of the songs feature a full chamber orchestra, while others are buttressed by the talents of Gavin Harrison and Colin Edwin – Porcupine Tree’s rhythm section. Mariusz Duda, of Riverside and Lunatic Soul fame, lends his distinctive vocals to the album’s centerpiece, “Lighthouse”.

Of course, the true stars of Lighthouse are the members of iamthemorning, vocalist Marjana Semkina, and pianist Gleb Kolyadin. Semkina’s vocals are heartbreakingly beautiful, moving from peak to peak as the songs unfold. Kolyadin’s piano work is perfectly simpatico with Semkina’s singing, providing graceful accompaniment. On “Harmony”, he takes center stage, leading a sextet through a swinging instrumental.

The mood of the album flows from the somber overture of “I Came Before the Water, Pt. 1” through the melodic “Clear Clearer”, to the relatively upbeat “Harmony” and “Matches”, before descending again with “Belighted”. “Chalk and Coal”, in the words of Semkina, “represents the final twist of the album story-line, the final breakdown”. The first half of “Chalk and Coal” features the most straight-ahead rock of the album before the band seamlessly shifts into chamber jazz for the second half. “I Came Before the Water” returns, with Semkina, unaccompanied, singing of accepting defeat while a gradually swelling string chorus provides solace. The tender and brief “Post Scriptum” is a final elegy, and Lighthouse is over.

Even though the album is almost entirely acoustic, it packs an enormous punch. It is a work that is best experienced by listening to it in its entirety. Everything, from the cover art to the extraordinarily high level of musicianship, combine to create a tasteful and sophisticated work. This is music that transcends categorization; it is music that is timeless and evocative. iamthemorning have come up with an album that is destined to be a classic of modern music, regardless of the genre.