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!”
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.
Robby Steinhardt, Not In Kansas Anymore, 2021
Tracks: Tempest (1:41), Truth 2 Power (Only Truth Can Change The World) (3:48), Mother Earth (Is Calling You) (4:42), Rise Of The Phoenix (5:22), The Phoenix (4:06), Prelude (1:54), Dust In The Wind (5:43), Pizzacato (A Slice For Baby Boy Flynn) (2:37), Tuck Tuck (6:10), Not In Kansas Anymore (4:40), A Prayer For Peace (Bonus Track) (3:15)
It was only a few months ago that we mourned the loss of Robby Steinhardt, but out of that sadness we found out that his very first solo album was just about finished. The album release was delayed because of his death, but Not In Kansas Anymore was released a week ago. It is far better than I could have imagined. In many ways it sounds more like Kansas than Kansas does these days. The hard rock, the unique touch Robby had on the violin, the beautiful vocal harmonies – Not In Kansas Anymore has it all.
The album was produced by Michael Thomas Franklin, who produced Jon Anderson’s 1000 Hands a few years ago, for which Steinhardt played violin on one song. Franklin pulled together a cast of literal rock stars for this record, including Ian Anderson (flute on Pizzacato), Steve Morse of Deep Purple/Dixie Dregs/Kansas/Flying Colors, Billy Cobham of Mahavishnu Orchestra, Bobby Kimball of Toto, Chuck Leavell of The Rolling Stones, Liberty Devitto (Drummer on Billy Joel’s hits), Jim Gentry, Pat Travers, Billy Ashbaugh (Moody Blues/Pat Benatar), Lisa Fischer (longtime vocalist for The Rolling Stones), and more.
The record opens with a brief instrumental before pounding into a classic Kansas sound with “Truth 2 Power.” It has a glorious intro of vocal harmonies that screams late 70s Kansas. The lyrics deliver a message of, well, truth about the necessity of speaking truth even when it is derided. The line “only truth can change the world” seems Livgren-esque in a lot of ways, seeing as the world-changing power of truth as personified in Jesus is central to Christianity and the Bible. I don’t know what Steinhardt’s spiritual background was or whether or not he was a Christian, but these lyrics certainly spoke to me in that regard.
The album features an ode to the earth, which is another theme that ran through Kansas’ lyrics back in the day. Musically and lyrically “Mother Earth” reminds me a little bit of “Cheyenne Anthem.” We get a bit of western imagery in the middle of the album, and there or subtle lyrical nods to the Wizard of Oz, which is most blatant in the beautiful cover art by Tom Lupo. “Rise of the Phoenix” is an instrumental track that is pure Kansas. The guitar, bass, drums, and violin all blend perfectly in a driving track that sets the stage for “The Phoenix,” which is another track reminiscent of Kansas.
I was surprised to hear something that reminded me of Big Big Train on this record. The sixth track, “Prelude,” is a brief introduction to a beautiful cover of Kansas’ “Dust In The Wind.” The prelude blends aspects of the Kansas sound with distinctly Big Big Train movements, including a brass band towards the end and the way the musical action steps down towards the end before morphing into “Dust In The Wind.” Perhaps it wasn’t intentional, but it sounds great all the same. “Dust In The Wind” is mostly true to the original, with the song building into harder rock territory as it goes along. It also adds more symphonic elements to the track. All along it retains the Kansas sound.
Ian Anderson’s flute stands out immediately on “Pizzacato (A Slice For Baby Boy Flynn),” which is a folk instrumental rather than a rock piece. Robby’s violin blends well with Anderson’s flute, and it makes you wonder what an entire album of their collaborations could have given us. Both men strike me as being rather similar in a lot of ways, at least when it came to their stage presence back in the 70s.
“Tuck Tuck” is a rather touching ode to the forgotten people of society – the hookers, beggars, and downtrodden of the cities. Steinhardt reminds us that those who have absolutely nothing matter just as much as anybody else. He reminds us that they all have stories – backgrounds of where they came from. He calls them “a royal family / lords and ladies of the evening.” He tells us of Nancy, a girl who excelled in her youth but had to leave home at 17 because of abuse at home, and sadly now she is on the streets. He tells of a young man who came back home from serving in the military and who couldn’t find any work. Now Joey is living in a cardboard box on the streets. Both are “downtown royalty.” Musically the song is a blend of styles with elements of a laid-back country song mixed with more a more traditional ballad. Lyrically I find the song quite moving.
The losers and twenty-four hour girls
The street corner boys and the underworld
Holding court in city streets
Everyone’s seen downtown royalty
Steinhardt’s vocals really shine on the album. I wasn’t sure how he would sound after so many years on the road as well as so many years away from the industry and the health issues he dealt with over the last decade. But he sounds just like you would remember, albeit with a bit deeper tone. It’s a warm and comforting voice that I have missed in the milieu of modern prog.
Robby Steinhardt’s Not In Kansas Anymore is one of the first albums in a little while that made me sit up and take notice. I wasn’t sure which direction this record would go – if it would be more rock, more classical, folk, or what. Robby had been mostly retired for a long time, but that time away clearly didn’t impact his talent as a musician. The most tragic part of this record is how it now represents a new beginning cut short. It was Steinhardt’s first, and sadly last, solo album. He was excited to get on the road and tour starting this past August, but unfortunately he got sick in May and never fully recovered. Thankfully we will have this record by which to remember him, in addition to his years of brilliant work with Kansas.
This album is definitely one to check out, especially if you’re a Kansas fan. It has the special touches that I think have been missing from the last two Kansas records.
After decades of work and contributions from 18 vocalists, including Robby Steinhardt and John Elefante as well as many musicians, Kerry Livgren’s cantata, The Resurrection of Lazarus, is now available to order at his website: http://www.numavox.com/cd.htm. This album has taken 35 years for Livgren to complete, and I for one am excited to hear it. I believe I first heard about this project about a decade ago, so even my young self has been waiting a long time.
Details are a little vague, since to my knowledge no music from it has been released. I assume they’ll be shipping CDs soon after you order them. I wish I could tell you more about it, but I will once I receive my CD. It doesn’t appear to be for sale on Amazon yet (a website I loathe), but I imagine it will be soon since his other music is for sale there.
In case you missed it, Kerry Livgren released a new book last year, which you can also purchase on his website (see link above). Check out my review: https://progarchy.com/2020/11/01/a-life-of-miracles-kerry-livgren-and-the-art-of-storytelling/
By now I’m sure you’ve heard that Robby Steinhardt passed away a week ago at age 71 after complications from acute pancreatitis and sepsis. I wanted to write something sooner, but it’s been a busy week. Since Robby Steinhardt is a far more important figure in progressive rock than he is given credit for, I thought I’d share a few thoughts. The timing of his death is doubly tragic since he was in the final phases of finishing a new solo album, and he had plans to tour the country in the future. I hope that album still gets released.
More so than any other band member, Steinhardt is arguably the one person who set Kansas apart from any other rock band in the 1970s. His violin created an entirely new sound. Sure there were other rock and progressive rock bands incorporating violins into their music, but no one else came close to touching Kansas. Pretty much every other rock band that incorporates a violin does it in a way that allows the violin to shine in a more traditional symphonic way. The violin tends to add a folk element to a rock band’s sound. That isn’t a critique against violinists in rock bands who play that way, but Robby didn’t play that way. Even though he was classically trained, he was able to take that background and apply it to a rock sound, creating something entirely new in the process.
Steinhardt’s violin had this magnificent ability to supplement Steve Walsh’s and Kerry Livgren’s keyboards in some parts of songs while carefully interplaying with Livgren’s and Rich Williams’ electric guitar riffs at other parts. He played a hard a fast violin for those rock moments, but he could play the gentler, smoother sounds when needed too. “Song For America,” one of Kansas’ best tracks, displays both methods. Without the violin, that song just wouldn’t have the power that it has. It’s pure Americana, and it’s pure progressive rock at it’s finest. Arguably a top ten track in the genre.
Like many people, I was initially drawn to Kansas’ music by the violin, as was my Dad, who saw the band play at Six Flags in Missouri in the early 1970s before the band released their first album. As a kid, he was struck by a rock band using a violin. I had the same reaction as a kid. I was exposed to Kansas’ music about the same time I first heard Rush’s music, and both bands ended up playing an enormous role in my life, so much so that I wrote an academic essay on Kerry Livgren for one of Dr. Brad Birzer’s (Progarchy’s founding father) classes in college. But it was that violin that first grabbed my attention and pulled me in for a closer listen.
If being a whiz on the violin wasn’t enough, Steinhardt also had a golden voice that elevated Kansas’ sound. In his prime, Steve Walsh had the finest voice in rock music, but Steinhardt added a grit to their sound. Walsh was capable of that heavier blues singing, which can be heard on their first couple of albums. Steinhardt didn’t add a blues flair, though. His voice had a natural deepness and tone, and the harmonies the two vocalists made were glorious. His voice had a distinctive sound, and it was backed by a lot of power.
Together Walsh and Steinhardt made a sound that was unique. Just listen to “The Devil Game.” When they harmonize, Walsh takes the highs and Steinhardt takes the lows, providing a well-balanced sound that reflects the lyrics. How many bands would have a secondary singer open up their album, as Kansas did with “Down the Road” off Song For America? That shows how vital Steinhardt’s vocals were to the band’s sound.
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
Recently legendary prog band Kansas released their latest live album, Point of Know Return Live & Beyond. The album features performances taken from various shows during their 2019 and 2020 fortieth anniversary tour of Point of Know Return, one of the finest albums in rock history.
I’ve seen Kansas live only once, and that was back around 2008 or so. It was a free show at my town’s annual week-long Independence Day festival. The lineup featured Steve Walsh on keyboards and vocals, Phil Ehart on drums, Rich Williams on guitar, David Ragsdale on violin, and Billy Greer on bass and vocals. I enjoyed the show, and in fact that show launched me into Kansas’ music. But there was no denying that at the point Walsh’s voice was long past its prime, and it was no surprise when he decided to retire from Kansas in 2014.
Kansas’ new lineup formed, and they have since taken the world by storm with their 2016 album The Prelude Implicit and 2020’s The Absence of Presence. Their recent live lineup (as heard on this live record) features Ronnie Platt on vocals. His voice has its own sound, but he’s absolutely phenomenal singing this music, kind of like Nad Sylvan singing for Steve Hackett’s Genesis Revisited shows. The band’s rendition of “Nobody’s Home” sounds almost identical to the original record.
Combine Platt’s voice with the winning combo of Phil Ehart on drums, Rich Williams and Zak Rizvi on guitars, David Ragsdale on violin, Billy Greer on bass, and Tom Brislin on keyboards, and you’ve got an unstoppable prog rock powerhouse. The energy levels on this live record remind me of the energy Kansas had in the 70s. I imagine Platt isn’t dancing like a maniac at the keyboards the way Walsh used to, but the audio has that same intensity.
In addition to playing all of Point of Know Return, the band include a few newer tracks as well as some other hits and deep cuts. It’s great to hear “Song For America” and “People of the South Wind” (Monlith is an underrated album). “Two Cents Worth” was a surprise, but it’s cool to hear that blues element that appeared in Kansas’ early work. From beginning to end this live record is a must-listen. I’m so glad the band continues to carry on and bring this music to old and new fans. Kerry Livgren’s lyrics are some of the best out there, and they deserve to be heard for years to come.
Order the album: https://kansas.lnk.to/PointofKnowReturn-LiveBeyond
1. Cold Grey Morning
2. Two Cents Worth
3. The Wall
4. Song for America
7. Taking in the View
8. Miracles Out of Nowhere
1. Point of Know Return
3. The Spider
4. Portrait (He Knew)
5. Closet Chronicles
6. Lightning’s Hand
7. Dust in the Wind
8. Sparks of the Tempest
9. Nobody’s Home
10. Hopelessly Human
11. Carry On Wayward Son
12. People of the South Wind
14. Lonely Wind
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/
Here are the albums of new music from 2020 that grabbed me on first listen, then compelled repeated plays. I’m not gonna rank them except for my 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 previous reviews or listening/purchase sites like Bandcamp are embedded in the album titles.
Nick D’Virgilio, Invisible: No echoes of Big Big Train or even Spock’s Beard to be heard here. D’Virgilio’s long-awaited latest focuses on classy, soulful rock and pop with R&B undercurrents, reminiscent of nothing so much as the pre-Nirvana mainstream; the progginess is in the extended structures, the virtuoso playing and the overall concept. The down to earth storyline, a redemption narrative with some nifty twists, definitely helps make Invisible appealing and relatable. But it’s the musical means D’Virgilio uses to build out the story — emotive singing, consistently powerful drum work, polished electric piano, loops, bass, bass synth and guitars — that seal the deal. As a result, every single track grabs on tight from the start — not just revealing more depth and emotional resonance with every repeat, but also relentlessly propelling the album forward.
I Am the Manic Whale, Things Unseen: I remain blown away by the energy, humor and sheer delight these young British proggers bring to their story-songs; this third album sounds like their best yet, with crystal clear production by Rob Aubrey. There’s wickedly cheery satire in “Billionaire” and “Celebrity”, a brooding, atmospheric trip to Narnia in “The Deplorable Word” and unbounded delight in the gift of children in “Smile” and “Halcyon Days”. Not to mention IAtMW’s very own train song, “Valenta Scream”, laying down a challenge to Big Big Train with (in my opinion) the best lyrical simile of 2020: “Making it look so very easy/Eating up the distance like a cheese sandwich.” Really. (Check out their free compilation of covers and live-in-studio tracks, Christmas Selection Box on Bandcamp, too.)
Kansas, The Absence of Presence: A real leap forward for a revitalized band; appealing melodies, heady complexity and breathtaking power unite for maximum impact, and it’s a joy to hear all the way through. Each band member has upped his game multiple notches — David Ragsdale, Zak Rivzi and Rich Williams peel off one ear-catching riff and solo after another, Ronnie Platt sings with smooth, soaring power and commitment (evoking Steve Walsh while being utterly himself), and I could listen to Billy Greer and Phil Ehart’s rolling, tumbling thunder all day. New keyboardist Tom Brislin is the perfect match for this line-up, dishing up just the right lick no matter what’s required — pensive piano intros, crushing organ and synth riffs, lush textures, wigged-out solos, you name it. Stir in a new level of collaboration in the writing, and you get Kansas unlocking a new level of achievement, making excellent new music more than 40 years after their initial breakthrough. Recommended without hesitation.
Lunatic Soul, Through Shaded Woods: The perfect Hero’s Journey for this frustrating year. Mariusz Duda’s latest holiday from Riverside’s post-prog heads straight for Mirkwood — ominous, lowering music, echoing the colors and contours of Slavic and Scandinavian folk. Playing all the instruments (frenetic acoustic strums; decorative baroque keys; tasty metallic riffs and electronica accents; unstoppable primal percussion) Duda penetrates the heart of his melancholy, only to discover his greatest obstacle: himself. At which point “Summoning Dance” pivots, echoing Dante lyrically as it turns toward the soul-easing finale of “The Fountain.” Imagine Bela Bartok and Jethro Tull collaborating on a sequel to Kate Bush’s “The Ninth Wave,” and you’ll have some idea of how unique and special this album is. (The bonus disc — currently only available as a Bandcamp download link above and as a Polish import — is essential listening too, especially the hypnotic minimalist epic “Transition II.”)
Pat Metheny, From This Place: State of the art jazz composed and performed at the highest level, this is a unified work of formidable emotional range and intelligence: instantly accessible, inescapably substantial — and above all, incredibly moving. Metheny, pianist Gwilym Simcock, bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Antonio Sanchez ride the exhilarating ebb and flow of ten new tunes, their rich interplay locking together with sumptuous orchestral overdubs for awe-inspiring, high-intensity results. From This Place communicates like mad; confronting knotty, pensive questions of culture, identity and hope, it’s also a deeply satisfying culmination to Metheny’s career-long pursuit of transcendence — music both of its time and potentially timeless, gripping at first acquaintance, deepening its impact with every further listen.
Hedvig Mollestad, Ekhidna: The Norwegian guitarist takes her incandescent blend of heavy rock and avant-garde jazz to the next level, triumphantly meeting the challenges inherent in writing for a bigger band and a broader sonic palette. Ekhidna is a bracing blend of tumbling rhythms, killer riffs and brain-bending improv that goes down remarkably smooth, but leaves a fiery aftertaste. Writing for an accomplished sextet of players, Mollestad’s new music doesn’t avoid the expectations raised by its evocation of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, sometimes confronting classic genre strategies head-on, sometimes blithely subverting them. Named for the she-dragon of Greek mythology (also called “the mother of all monsters”), this album is monstrous in the best sense — a musical rollercoaster ride suffused with heat, light and heart, recombining the raw materials of jazz-rock and extending its reach into realms of vast new potential. A real breakthrough, and Mollestad’s best effort to date.
Markus Reuter, Fabio Trentini and Asaf Sirkis, Truce: Utterly bracing, a cold slap in the face that kicked off 2020 in the best way possible. Recorded live in the studio on a single day by touch guitarist Reuter, bassist Trentini and drummer Sirkis, this is the unfiltered, mind-boggling sound of three virtuosos throwing caution to the winds and just going for it. From start to stop, the music they make is unbeatably heavy, head-snappingly varied, and vividly compelling — whether on the searing stomp of a title track, the brutal mid-tempo funk of “Bogeyman”, the abstract balladry of “Be Still My Brazen Heart”, or the Police-ified dub freak-out of “Let Me Touch Your Batman”. Listening to Truce is an hour-long thrill ride with tons of substance to chew on — one you need to experience for yourself, more than once.
Sanguine Hum, A Trace of Memory: Rarely does eccentricity sound so graceful as in the hands of Joff Binks, Matt Baber and Andrew Waismann. Sequenced as a seamless whole, the seven tracks on A Trace of Memory trace a playful trajectory; no matter the giddy succession of off-kilter riffs, the complex counterpoint of Binks’ guitar and Baber’s keys, or the intensity of the musical climaxes, the ebb and flow is consistently welcoming, yet always subtly stimulating. Freed from the broadly goofy, conceptual conceit of Now We Have Light and Now We Have Power, Binks can explore a more allusive lyrical style and spare melodic lines that soar instead of patter; less is definitely more in this context. Sanguine Hum has hit new heights here; listening to this album is like watching clouds travel unhurriedly across a clear sky, and it makes me smile every time. In 2020, this may be the closest you can come to hearing the harmony of the spheres.
Maria Schneider Orchestra, Data Lords: There’s no question in my mind that composer Maria Schneider (based in jazz but embracing musical terrain beyond category) and her orchestra have reached a new artistic pinnacle on this album. Conveying both the bleak potential of online life blindly lived and the bounteous beauty of the life around us we take for granted, Schneider conjures up slow-burning tone poems that, as they catch fire, blaze with fear and dread — but also with hope and joy. Throughout there’s a symphonic sweep, a supple rhythmic foundation and a seamless flow of inexhaustible melody; Schneider’s compatriots inhabit and animate her music with dedicated unity and thrilling improvisational daring; and the high-definition sound lovingly unfolds all of the music’s sophisticated, profoundly moving beauty with breathtaking clarity.
Secret Machines, Awake in the Brain Chamber: Way back in 2004, Secret Machines’ Now Here Is Nowhere was one of that year’s most compelling albums, a ferocious collage of droning space-rock riffs, rampaging Zeppelinesque grooves and unsettling, dystopian lyrics. A stalled major-label career and a revolving door of personnel dissolved the band’s momentum, capped by guitarist Benjamin Curtis’ passing in 2013 — but somehow, this magnificent beast is back. On Awake in the Brain Chamber, brother Brandon Curtis writes the songs and supplies keys, guitar and bass (as well as his patented, heartbroken vocal sneer) while drummer Josh Garza fills all available frequencies with his customary thunder. Whether they’re uptempo sprints (“Dreaming Is Alright, “Everything’s Under”), widescreen ballad-paced crawls (“3, 4, 5 Let’s Stay Alive,” “So Far Down”), or determined drives into the middle distance (“Talos’ Corpse,” “Everything Starts”), these eight taut, sharp tracks hit the sweet spot between hard rock and modern-day psychedelia — tight, mesmerizing, absolutely exhilarating. This one will get your blood flowing.
Bruce Springsteen, Letter to You: As his career trajectory flared, climbed, peaked, then settled into the long tail of legacy-rock stardom, Springsteen never really stopped exploring his core concerns: the ins and outs of freedom and community, their costs and their consolations. The good news here is that Letter to You digs deeper, pondering the price of escape, love, friendship, loss, grief and jubilation, remembering friends now dead, reviving songs once abandoned. When Bruce has something big to write about, he can cut straight to your heart, even from a secluded home studio in deepest New Jersey, and he’s done it again here. With the E Street Band on fire behind him, Letter to You could be the basis of a tour to top them all for Springsteen; but even if that never comes to pass, this album is something special, a hard-rocking reminder that yes, our days on this earth are numbered — but also that love is strong as death.
Three Colours Dark, The Science of Goodbye: This new collaboration between vocalist Rachel Cohen (Karnataka, The Reasoning) and keyboardist/guitarist Jonathan Edwards (Karnataka, Panic Room) proves elegant, introspective and strangely irresistible; there’s brooding power to the music and a darkly compelling lyrical vision to match. Lured by Edwards’ lush, disconcerting settings into Cohen’s brave, quietly harrowing narratives of pain, bewilderment, and self-doubt, you wonder how you’ll make it out — which makes the album’s cathartic finale even more delicious. From claustrophobic onset to the inspiring end, The Science of Goodbye rings true as both testimony and art, as Three Colours Dark follow the light that seeps through the cracks in everything to a new day.
and my favorite new album of 2020 . . .
Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, Songs of Yearning/Nocturnes: I have never before heard anything quite like this album, and found myself returning to it all year. This loose creative collective from Liverpool has pursued “echoes of the sacred” across three decades, striving to access sonic space where transcendence can invade a stiflingly measured-out world. Songs of Yearning and the limited bonus album Nocturnes (still available as a pair at Bandcamp) both stake out new territory where rumors of glory can run; brimming with rough-hewn beauty and deep mystery, pairing audacious scope with quiet, insistent appeal, this music is primal and postmodern in the same eternal instant. As the idols of prosperity and progress continue to totter around us, RAIJ’s latest feels like genuinely good news — a sacramental transmission from, then back to, the heart of creation.
— Rick Krueger
Kerry Livgren has long been one of my favorite guitarists and lyricists. Next to Rush, Kansas was one of the first prog bands I ever heard. I think my first prog concert may have been Kansas (minus Livgren). I was so fascinated by Livgren and his conversion-to-Christianity-story that I wrote a paper about him for Dr. Brad Birzer’s Christian Humanism course in college in the fall of 2015. Besides Livgren’s magnificent lyrics, I also drew heavily from his autobiography, Seeds of Change, for that paper.
Back in August of this year, Livgren self-published, via his Numavox label, a new book entitled Miracles Out of Somewhere. It isn’t a typical memoir or autobiography. It does not follow a chronological structure. Rather it is a collection of 40+ short personal stories that demonstrate examples of miraculous events in Livgren’s life. Most chapters are dedicated to one story, but there are some that contain multiple brief stories centered around one theme.
Stories range from what might be considered coincidences all the way to full-blown “only God could have done this” miracles. I had known about Livgren’s 2009 stroke, but I never knew how serious it was. The doctors told him it was as bad a stroke as a human could have. The initial brain scans after the stroke showed that half his brain tissue died. Brain scans taken two years later showed the majority of that tissue was alive and perfectly healthy. Even the doctor didn’t believe the medical explanation he came up with to explain it to fellow medical professionals. Livgren still struggles with some issues related to the stroke (he had to find a new way to play “Dust in the Wind” for an appearance with Kansas last year), but for the most part he made a miraculous recovery.
The book ends with excerpts from the last few years of his journal entries as his wife dealt with an equally serious health crisis: breast cancer and heart failure caused by the cancer treatment. The surgeries and treatments worked for the cancer, but her heart was initially left in very poor shape. But, just eleven months ago they found out her heart is now completely normal after she almost needed a heart transplant eight months earlier.
Stories range to the more lighthearted as well, such as Kerry’s first time driving the Kansas tour bus after he joined the band in their early days. The steering barely worked, and the brakes were almost non-existent. After cresting a hill they found themselves hurtling towards a freight train, forcing Kerry to stand on the brake pedal with all his weight. The bus stopped a mere three feet from the tracks. Robby Steinhardt caught the whole thing on audio recording, but sadly that tape is gone.
The story about Livgren being reunited with his “Dust in the Wind” guitar a few years back, after selling it decades ago, is also a fun story, as is the one about Kansas’ first LA party with industry bigwigs. Dave Hope decided to jokingly mock a girl with a Farrah Fawcett hairdo, so he shouted “Hey Farrah.” The girl turned around, and she turned out to be Farrah Fawcett.
Miracles out of Somewhere is hard to put down. Livgren’s writing is so inviting. I felt like I was having a conversation with him. Since the stories are arranged in no particular order, the book jumps around a lot. As such it helps to have a basic knowledge of Livgren’s life and the history of Kansas. Even so that isn’t required to make this an enjoyable read. The storytelling is so good that the reader is quickly drawn in and taken back in time.
Livgren’s faith is intimately embedded in these stories, but I wouldn’t call this a religious book. He’s just telling the stories from his perspective, and his faith is inseparable from that perspective. As a Christian myself I can’t help but appreciate that aspect of the stories, but even if you’re not a Christian, don’t let that stop you from reading this book. If you’re a fan of Kansas and Livgren, you’ll enjoy it.
The book itself is just a simple paperback, likely printed by a print shop near Livgren’s home in Kansas (it’s also available as an ebook). Perhaps it lacks from some grammatical editing that a publisher’s editor could’ve added, but we’re talking about a periodic missing apostrophe and a run-on sentence here and there. As it is, the book has the charm of someone writing these stories out as-is and sending them to you. In a way it made Livgren feel closer than if the book was highly polished by a big-name publisher.
For less than $15 (a little more if you live outside the US – for international shipping) this book is a bargain. It’s only $4 for the ebook. With everything going on I found it to be a welcome escape to a seemingly simpler time (no era is ever as simple as it can seem in hindsight). Some of the stories are heavy, but the miracles God has worked in Kerry’s life bring a smile to my face and peace to my heart. If you’re sick of the negativity and want rest for your soul… well, Kerry would be the first one to tell you to turn to Jesus. But after you’ve done that, give Miracles Out of Somewhere a go. It’s a must-read for Kansas fans, and it’ll brighten your day.
Buy a physical copy from Numavox: https://www.numavox.com/cd.htm