I thought I didn’t have a big list of favorites from this year’s listening — until I revisited my six-month survey from back in June and added in the good stuff I’ve heard since then! The listing below incorporates links to full or capsule reviews, or other relevant pieces on Progarchy and elsewhere; albums I haven’t written about yet get brief comments, along with my Top Favorites of the year. Most of these are available to check out online in some form; if you find yourself especially enjoying something, use that Christmas cash and support your choice with a purchase! And the winners are . . .Continue reading “Kruekutt’s 2021 Favorites!”
As life in these United States opens up, my life finally seems to be settling down — at least for the summer. Which means it’s time to make up for the backlog of excellent albums (new and old) that I’ve heard since January, but haven’t written about here! Links to listen (to complete albums or samples) are included whenever possible.
New Albums: The Art of Losing (The Anchoress’ rich meditation on endurance) and the multi-version adrenalin rush of Transatlantic’s The Absolute Universe notwithstanding, most of the new albums I’ve loved so far have migrated towards jazz and classical — frequently with pianists at their center. Vijay Iyer’s Uneasy, made with bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, is a state of the art piano trio effort; blues and abstraction suspended in perfect balance and caught in an intimate, tactile recording. Canadian Bach and Mozart specialist Angela Hewitt shows off her range with Love Songs, a gorgeous confection of orchestral and art song transcriptions assembled in lockdown and performed with undeniable panache. The same goes for Danny Driver’s phenomenal rendition of Gyorgy Ligeti’s hypermodern 18 Etudes — virtuoso pieces whose serene surfaces turn out to be rooted in super-knotty counterpoint and off-kilter rhythmic cells. My favorite new album of 2021 to date? Promises by electronica artist Floating Points, spiritual jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, and The London Symphony Orchestra, which manages to bring all of the above (well, except for the piano!) together in one glorious, 40-minute ambient epic.
Reissues: Big Big Train’s double-disc update of The Underfall Yard has definitely had its share of listening time, between Rob Aubrey’s rich remix/remaster and the welcome bonus disc (featuring fresh recordings of the title track and “Victorian Brickwork” by the full band and brass quintet). With My Bloody Valentine’s catalog back in print, their masterpiece Loveless sounds as incredible as ever; crushing distortion and lush romanticism collide to channel the sublime. And Pete Townshend has masterminded a comprehensive Super Deluxe edition of The Who Sell Out, the band’s pre-Tommy high point. But my favorite reissues thus far have been It Bites’ The Tall Ships (especially the title track — what a power ballad!) and Map of the Past (a favorite of mine since its original release). With the then-unknown John Mitchell taking over from Francis Dunnery, IB sailed into the 21st century with their 1980s pomp intact, killer hooks, head-spinning riffs and all.
Live Albums: Beyond the visceral thrills of Fanfare for the Uncommon Man: The Official Keith Emerson Tribute Concert, I’ve had a blast hearing krautrock legends Can conjure up spellbinding group improvisation on Live in Stuttgart 75, an initial dip into their voluminous concert archives. I’ve been giddy to hear Kansas, bolstered by keyboardist Tom Brislin, get their mojo working on Point of Know Return Live & Beyond. (They’ll be my first post-lockdown rock show next month.) And my journey back into soul music (see below) set me up nicely for the razor-sharp, precision funk of Tower of Power: 50 Years of Funk and Soul Live at the Fox Theater, a deliriously exciting reunion show recorded in 2018.
From the Catalog: All the good new stuff above aside, this is where some of my most fruitful listening has been happening this year — frequently inspired by other media. Watching the movie One Night in Miami led me back to Sam Cooke’s Portrait of a Legend: 1951-1964; the resulting dive into soul music ultimately brought me to Marvin Gaye’s classic concept album What’s Going On — 50 years old in 2021! Perusing various “best of 2020” lists turned me on to the avant-garde jazz of trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusere’s on the tender spot of every calloused moment and Maria McKee’s art-pop song cycle La Vita Nuova (inspired by Dante, no less). Jazz/fusion legend Chick Corea’s death prompted a deep dive into his catalog; new favorites included Return to Forever’s Where Have I Known You Before and the fabulous Five Peace Band Live, Corea’s long-delayed collaboration with guitarist John McLaughlin. And after long years of the album doing nothing for me, Radiohead’s The Bends finally clicked when I read Steven Hyden’s fine band biography This Isn’t Happening. (Curt Bianchi’s wonderful new book, Elegant People: A History of the Band Weather Report, is prompting a similar deep dive into that quintessential jazz/rock band’s catalog; I highly recommend their cutting edge debut album from 1971 and their 1976 masterpiece of groove, Black Market.)
Coming Soon: In addition to Big Big Train’s Common Ground (take it from me, it’s a humdinger), I highly recommend MoonJune Records’ latest release, Indonesian fusion guitarist Dewa Budjana’s incandescent Naurora. I’m also eagerly anticipating new music from the Neal Morse Band (oops, NMB now), Steve Hackett and Isildur’s Bane & Peter Hammill; reissues of BeBop Deluxe’s Live in the Air Age and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass; and comprehensive box sets from The Beach Boys and Van Der Graaf Generator. Plus live shows from Kansas, Emmylou Harris and Los Lobos, King Crimson with The Zappa Band, and opening night of Genesis’ USA tour.
So, yeah, it’s taken a while — but at least from my point of view, 2021 has already been a solid year for music — and the prospects for it getting even better are looking up!
— Rick Krueger
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:
- The Bardic Depths (as well as the Birzer Bandana back catalog)
- Pat Metheny’s gorgeous From This Place
- Fernando Perdomo’s Out to Sea 3 (as well as the first two albums in the series)
- Markus Reuter’s devastating Truce
Then move on to other artists well loved on this blog:
- Big Big Train
- John Holden
- Dave Kerzner
- Stick Men
- Bent Knee lead vocalist/keyboardist Courtney Swain
- Tiger Moth Tales
- Andy Tillison/The Tangent
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
I live with several people and many things: my wife, our three children, a dog, two cats, five chickens, numerous fish, a dated wardrobe, and countless delusions. Among those delusions is an unwarranted—irrational!—belief that I will write long, detailed reviews of every album I deem worthy of such. Reality smirks at such excessive dreams, but I continue to harbor them. Still, I sometimes relent to reality, with gritted teeth and a fleeting snarl. So, what follows are short reviews of seven recently released albums (mostly downloads, actually) that share two qualities: they are not prog, and they are excellent. I should note that although the main focus of Progarchy.com (which I conceived and Brad birthed—ooh, that sounds a bit, uh, strange) is obviously prog, it is open to all forms of good music. Genre is of far lesser importance than quality. That said, let’s push “Play”.
• “Until The Quiet Comes” by Flying Lotus. This is my sort of electronica: richly detailed, sumptuous, quirky, edged with darkness, possessing a jazzy flair, and endlessly inventive. The jazzy element has a genealogy, as Steven Ellison (who is Flying Lotus) is the great-nephew of Alice Coltrane, wife of the late, legendary ‘Trane. Includes a track, “Electric Candyman”, with a certain Thom Yorke. A near perfect late night album, this rewards repeated listens.
• “3 Pears” by Dwight Yoakam. His music has always been lean and his lyrics dry, but the new twist is subtle: a warmth in both content and sound. An example of the first is “Waterfall”, which is playful, with a wry and wistful sense of joy. The second comes through in Yoakam’s superb vocals, set in arrangements that are fat-free and feature just the right amount of twang and reverb, with tasty touches of organ and piano. The man is a superior songwriter and this set is further proof that country music can be twangy and contemporary without being shallow and trendy.
• “Long Wave” by Jeff Lynne. A part of me was prepared to dislike this because it is a covers album and is quite short (barely 28 minutes). Yes, this is a rather nostalgic homage to songs Lynne grew up on (standouts include “She” and “Beyond the Sea”), but the wizard of ELO brings such an obvious love to the project, I was won over. It doesn’t hurt that it is impeccably sung, played and produced, with lush Lynne-harmonies and ELO-like arrangements that are all about the songs. Besides, if there is one thing Lynne’s music has always had, it was a sense of nostalgic melancholy and romantic regret. Short, bittersweet, and stellar.
• “Manu Katché” by Manu Katché. Who hasn’t this phenomenal drummer played with? Notable names include Peter Gabriel, Sting, Jeff Beck, Tears for Fears, Tori Amos, and about a billion others. This is Katché’s fourth disc for ECM, and each has been fabulous; this newest release is notable for its propulsive approach. As one reviewer noted (I’ve lost the link), this is perhaps the funkiest ECM album ever, the sort of playful, soulful jazz album that gives an assured nod to modern sounds (read: synths and loops), but is rooted in acoustic bliss, with plenty of warm horns and shimmering organ. Recommended for anyone who loves great jazz and anyone who needs an entry point for modern jazz that is equally brainy and passionate.
• “Albatross” by Big Wreck. I was oblivious to this fine group (a “neo-prog hard-rock outfit” according to AllMusic.com) until I stumbled upon this new release on emusic.com. Singer Ian Thornley brings Chris Cornell to mind with his powerful, expressive vocals, but is hardly a clone, nor does he try to be. Three successive songs—”Wolves”, “Albatross”, and “Glass Room”—are worth the price of admission. “Wolves” (see YouTube video), especially, is a dynamite track, a perfect four-minute modern rock song, with top-notch playing and subtle melody. One of my favorite releases of 2012.
• “Born to Sing: No Plan B” by Van Morrison. No need for a Plan B for the Belfast Cowboy because he is the supreme Celtic synthesist, so soaked in jazz, blues, roots, and early rock, he can sing about grass growing and it is magical (and, in that regard, reminds me of G.K. Chesterton). This jazz-oriented album, on the Blue Note label, is arguably his best in a decade; he sounds refreshed, focused, and even happy. The horn arrangements are special and the songs are leisurely without ever wandering, mellow without ever dragging. The real revelation here are Morrison’s horn-like vocals, which are strong, elastic, and restless. Great album by one of my favorite musicians.
• “Now Here This” by John McLaughlin and The 4th Dimension. Some fans of McLaughlin’s legendary projects from the 1960s and ’70s aren’t too taken with his recent albums, which often feature guitar-synth and other modern devices. But while this album is occasionally frenetic and has a very modern (and crisp) sound, the adjective that keeps coming to mind is “soulful.” This comes through more obviously when things slow down, as on the lovely “Wonderfall”. The guitar solos are technically brilliant of course, but also have passionate, hungry logic that cannot be denied. This is music for the mind and the soul, which is about the highest praise I can give it. Fantastic effort from the legendary axe man.
My introduction to jazz was through Weather Report in the late ‘70s, and I couldn’t have made a more fortunate choice. Led by Josef Zawinul on keyboards and Wayne Shorter on saxophone, my love for that group’s music opened the door for me to the mother lode of jazz: Miles Davis.
Miles’ 1969 album, In a Silent Way, is a cornerstone of progressive music. Consider this – it contains just three songs: “Shhh/Peaceful” (18:16), “In a Silent Way” (4:11), and “It’s About That Time” (11:27). These songs don’t follow any typical structure; they are mostly jams, albeit within a strictly controlled atmosphere. Hearing the album gives the listener a sense of time being suspended, while gifted musicians at the top of their game improvise with each other. Also, as with many prog classics, the studio was an integral part of the finished result.
In 1969, Miles’ group was in transition. Pianist Herbie Hancock was itching to go solo, drummer Tony Williams was starting up his fusion band Lifetime, and bassist Ron Carter was tired of touring. Miles recruited British bassist Dave Holland for the sessions, guitarist John McLaughlin, and electric pianist Chick Corea. At the last minute, he invited keyboardist Josef Zawinul to join them. So the sessions began with a unique lineup never before seen in jazz: three keyboards (Hancock, Corea, and Zawinul), bass (Holland), electric guitar (McLaughlin), soprano sax (Shorter), drums (Williams), and trumpet (Davis). Teo Macero, Miles’ long-time producer, was again at the controls.
Apparently there was very little actual composition written out beforehand. However, that doesn’t mean the songs are aimless noodling. Tony Williams is a master of restraint, playing a steady pulse on his cymbals almost the entire album. Here is how Ian Carr, in his biography of Miles Davis, describes the music:
There is great delicacy and finesse in the solos, great subtlety in the keyboards (everybody is listening to everyone else), and the music is pervaded by Miles Davis’ unique atmosphere of buoyant though melancholy reflection. Perhaps paradoxically, the total impression is powerful and seductive because the steady time with its occasional pauses (as if the music were actually breathing) creates the non-western climate of timelessness – and in a sense, it is music which should be inhabited rather than merely listened to.
Some of Miles’ greatest solos are in these sessions, as well as Wayne Shorter’s. By this time, they had played together so long they seemed to be one mind with their improvised interplay. When the sessions were over, they had about two hours of material. Teo Macero had learned to just let the tapes roll as soon as Miles began, and not stop until everyone quit.
Macero used editing to cut and paste together the final album, and he deserves most of the credit for making it such a satisfying listen. In “Shhh/Peaceful”, he includes a trumpet solo at 1:35 that states the theme, then he lets everyone trade solos for the next twelve minutes. At 13:31, he brings back the same solo to close out the piece.
“In A Silent Way”, which opens side two, begins with John McLaughlin alone on guitar. Miles famously suggested to McLaughlin that he “Play it like you don’t know how to play guitar”, and the result is a beautiful and simple tune that is charming yet challenging to listen to. It then segues immediately into “It’s About That Time”. Again, Tony Williams sets up a steady pulse over which the others can vamp and solo. Holland plays a repeated riff on bass that slowly builds tension while McLaughlin, Shorter, Corea, and Davis take turns soloing. The keyboards and guitar join Holland playing the bass riff until finally, at 9:00, Tony cuts loose and flails away on the drums while Miles solos. Then the exact same take of “In A Silent Way” that began the side brings the listener back to earth. No one had used tape editing in such a radical fashion before, but Macero makes it work.
It would be hard to overstate the influence In A Silent Way has had on music. Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa, King Crimson, Brian Eno, Joni Mitchell – all display hints of this music. Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden is heavily indebted to it, as well as a lot of Steven Wilson’s latest work (Grace For Drowning and Storm Corrosion). Practically anything that has “space” in it can trace its roots to this album.
Once again, Miles proved himself to be a visionary artist, building the bridge between traditional jazz and the newborn genre that would soon be known as progressive rock.
Listen to a stream of Side Two: