Kruekutt’s 2022 Favorites

A few notes before I dive in: items I’ve reviewed here are linked to the relevant Progarchy article via the artist/album title; If I didn’t review an item here or elsewhere, it’s marked with an asterisk (*) — but I hope the capsule description and listening/order links will encourage you to check it out!

My favorite new music of 2022:

  • Dave Bainbridge, To The Far Away: A thrilling, ravishingly beautiful album about love, longing, hope and a future. Lyrics of rich simplicity cradled in a lush orchestral blend of rock, prog and Celtic folk. My interview with Bainbridge is here.
  • Big Big Train, Welcome to the Planet: what turned out to be BBT’s final effort with the late David Longdon consolidates the widened horizons of Grand Tour and the intimate subjects of Common Ground, casting an epic light on the everyday glory of family, community, joy and loss.
  • Cosmograf, Heroic Materials: Elegiac in its evocation of past achievements, urgent in its contemporary call to action, breathtaking in its poised blend of fragility and strength, Robin Armstrong’s latest is a riveting listen.
  • The Flower Kings, By Royal Decree: TFK’s third double album in a row, this is the sound of Roine Stolt and company refreshed and revisiting their optimistic roots, soaring on the wings of one marvelous melody after another. As much a joy to hear as it must have been to create.
  • Mary Halvorson, Amaryllis & Belladonna: free jazz guitarist Halvorson hits a major label with two albums — teaming with a boisterously simpatico sextet on Amaryllis, then dancing atop and around modern classical textures from the Mivos Quartet on Belladonna. Audacious and engrossing, this music will open your ears real good!
  • Dave Kerzner, The Traveller: confident, appealing songwriting with hooky yet sophisticated melodies and structures, Kerzner’s best, widest ranging vocals to date and perfectly judged contributions from a stellar guest list. Letting his new songs sell themselves and keeping proceedings to the point, he both satisfies us and leaves us wanting more. 
  • The Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio, Cold As Weiss: An immediately accessible reboot of a classic jazz trio format. Organist Lamarr, guitarist Jimmy James and drummer Daniel Weiss are thrilling players who never fail to make their instruments sing. Funky, catchy bite-size tracks with great individual playing and razor sharp ensemble. 
  • Marillion, An Hour Before It’s Dark: The front half of Los Marillos’ latest has more swagger than they’ve mustered in a while; the back half’s meditative downshift climaxes with the sweeping smashcut finale “Care,” as power chords and massed choirs climb heavenward. Unique as anything in their catalog, and another thoroughbred winner.
  • Pure Reason Revolution, Above Cirrus: this fifth album reveals PRR at their best, consistently upping their game to the next level. For every moment of blissful harmonies and glidepath atmospherics, there’s an equal and opposite moment of feral guitar/drum slammin’ — and when they layer the two together, look out! Well worth buckling up for the ride.
  • The Smile, A Light For Attracting Attention: A Radiohead side project worth your while. Thom Yorke overflows with apocalyptic dread; Jonny Greenwood’s off-kilter instrumental instincts are keener than ever; Tom Skinner’s skittering beats relentlessly drive the grim, lush soundscapes forward. Music for our contemporary dystopia, irresistibly sucking you in.
  • Tears For Fears, The Tipping Point: Roland Orzbaal & Curtis Smith’s catchy-as-always comeback goes for catharsis via unstoppable rhythms, unforgettable choruses and naked vulnerability on every single track, Devastatingly gorgeous, uncompromising art-pop that will haunt you long after every listen.
  • And my Top Favorite of the year — Wilco, Cruel Country. A double set that detours from Jeff Tweedy’s thoughtful dad-rock toward Nashville and Bakersfield, the tactile interplay of the band and Tweedy’s quizzical, empathetic probes of societal alienation elevate this to an album of genuine tenderness and subtlety, gathering strength and heart as it unrolls. After a digital-only release this year, it’s finally coming out on LP and CD January 20!

My favorite reissues of 2022:

  • The Beatles, Revolver Special Edition*: No Revolver, no Sergeant Pepper — no prog? Regardless of what ifs, the Fabs’ great leap forward of 1966 was brilliant in its own right, dragging pop headlong toward the avant-garde. Here it gets a subtle yet effective remix, with fascinating studio outtakes framing the cutting-edge results.
  • Tim Bowness & Giancarlo Erra, Memories of Machines: an irresistible mix of unflinchingly intimate art-rock and lowering ambient backdrops. Ten years on, original arrangements and track lengths are restored, Erra’s textural work is inched forward — and as always, Bowness breaks your heart with his ringing couplets and his stoic voice.
  • My Top Favorite Reissue of the year: Robert Fripp, Exposure/Exposures. The guitarist’s 1979 return to active duty after a post-King Crimson sabbatical, binding together a disparate set of songs and guest artists with his innovative ambient Frippertronics. Whether by itself or as part of a gargantuan box set that chronicles Fripp’s entire “Drive to 1981,” it’s a wild, worthwhile listen in and of itself, while providing distinctive previews of coming attractions.
  • Marillion, Holidays in Eden Deluxe Edition*: my introduction to the band (I first saw them live on the US tour promoting the album), Holidays was partially a product of record company pressure for hit singles, but it also has plenty of Marillion’s trademark ambition, power and lyricism. A fresh remix complemented by exciting live shows on both audio and video.
  • Soft Machine, Bundles*: Add blazing young guitarist Allan Holdsworth to one of the pioneering British jazz-rock bands, stir in quirky compositions by keyboardists Karl Jenkins and Mike Ratledge, and stand by for fireworks! This fresh reissue also includes a hot live set featuring Holdsworth’s successor John Ethridge (still active with the Softs today).
  • Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Super Deluxe Edition*: The album that put Wilco on the map (after they were dropped by their label), YHF mutated from Americana through dream-pop to electronica-tinged folk-rock as band members and producers came and went. Eight discs that copiously chronicle the recording process, plus blistering two live sets.

My favorite (re)discoveries of 2022:

My favorite live album of 2022: Big Big Train, Summer Shall Not Fade*. Equal parts power and grace, BBT’s 2018 headlining gig at Germany’s Night of the Prog may be their best live release yet. Playing to their largest crowd ever, David Longdon commands the stage; Greg Spawton and Nick D’Virgilio provide a muscular foundation; Dave Gregory, Rikard Sjobom, Danny Manners and Rachel Hall serve up one delightful moment after another. Bryan Morey’s review nails it; this is indispensable.

My favorite rock documentary of 2022: In The Court of the Crimson King: King Crimson at 50*. The most unconventional band of the last five decades gets the most unconventional documentary possible. Crims past and present weigh in on “living, dying, laughing, playing and rocking out”, with Robert Fripp providing the ever-present focal point in a particularly puckish fashion. There’s also a deluxe edition with live Crimson video (both in the studio and at 2019’s Rock in Rio festival) and four bonus CDs of soundtrack cuts, rarities, etc.

My favorite books about music of 2022:

  • Vashti Bunyan, Wayward: Just Another Life to Live. Singer-songwriter Bunyan’s unlikely late-60s odyssey from Swinging London to the Hebrides forms the heart of this evocative narrative. Laboriously traversing the heart of England, she gains understanding of the natural world, of human kindness and cruelty — and of her own sturdy inner core.
  • Dan Charnas (with musical analysis by Jeff Peretz), Dilla Time: The Life And Afterlife Of J Dilla, The Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm*. In Charnas’ telling, Dilla emerges as an innovator who laid down new paths for neo-soul and conceptual hip-hop, via his subtle yet unsettling variations on previously straight-up rhythms. Peretz’s equally innovative graphic depictions of rhythmic innovations across the decades buttress the page-turning narrative.
  • Robert Fripp, The Guitar Circle*. More a philosophical tome than a how-to book, though still remarkably practical, Fripp’s highly conceptual explanation of his process (as unfolded in Guitar Craft courses and Guitar Circles) won’t be for everyone. But those who dig in will grasp where this eternally questing musician is coming from better than ever before.
  • David Leaf, God Only Knows: The Story of Brian Wilson, The Beach Boys And The California Myth*. The third edition of Leaf’s lifework chronicles The Beach Boys’ journey from surf-rock through eccentric art-pop to the dead end of nostalgia, then sidesteps to Wilson’s solo comeback, culminating in the completion of his masterwork Smile. Not in the least objective, but comprehensive, even-handed toward the rest of The Beach Boys, and heartfelt.
  • Grant Moon, Big Big Train – Between The Lines: The Story Of A Rock Band. How BBT became a prog powerhouse — through sheer bloody-mindedness, growth in craft and a keen ear for musical contributors — is the tale told in this richly detailed bio/coffee table tome. Both a celebration of the music made and an unflinching look at the price paid for a dream.

And in closing . . .

If you’re interested, check out these recordings I played or sang on that were released in 2022:

— Rick Krueger

Rick’s Best of the Decade

I’ve kept a spiral-bound notebook titled “Core Discs: The Honor Roll” since the mid-1990s, when I was deeply into a classical music binge at the height of that genre’s last recording boom. Over the years, as I migrated through jazz (courtesy of the Ken Burns documentary) and country/folk (blame Johnny Cash & Leonard Cohen) back into my earlier love of rock, I find it intriguing that my picks started shifting in tandem with the prog revival of the 21st century, long before I started writing for this site in 2017. But unlike Bryan’s methodology for finalizing his excellent list, when I sat down to pick my ten favorite albums of the last ten years, I looked at my top favorite for each year and said, “yeah, those are all still up there.” Which is why I also decided to just list them by the year of their release (not always the year I first heard them) instead of ranking them from 10 to 1. (Oh, and links to my original reviews are embedded in the artist/album listing from 2017 onward.)

It’s true that, in more recent years, my picks have been busting out of genre boundaries — but, if you’ve been generous enough to sample my wares before, you’ve probably figured that out. And hey, if such a tendency isn’t progressive, then what is? Whether the following list confirms or challenges your preconceptions of “what’s prog”, I fervently believe that every one of these albums is worth checking out — but be warned, your mileage may vary!

So, without further adieu:

2012 – Flying Colors: gotta agree with Time Lord here — this one’s a total winner from start to finish. Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy had captivated me long before this with the first three Transatlantic releases and Morse’s two Testimony albums, but Flying Colors showcased an even broader stylistic range, from the Beatlesque “Fool In My Heart” through the retro-80s prog-pop vibe of “Blue Ocean” and “Kayla” to the cutting-edge Museings of “Shoulda Coulda Woulda” and “All Fall Down”. The album also proved that Morse and Portnoy know how to pick collaborators! Guitarist Steve Morse applied his unique mix of Southern-fried chicken pickin’, fusion a la Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and Purpleish power riffs to winning effect (solidly supported by his longtime bassist Dave LaRue), and vocalist Casey McPherson proved he could run with the big boys, stirring fresh melodic and lyrical flavors into every track, including more familiar constructions like the inspirational “The Storm” and the epic finale “Infinite Fire”. This one also gets nostalgia points for being available at Best Buy stores back in the day (remember when you could get CDs there?).

2013 – Big Big Train, English Electric Full Power: OK, I actually didn’t discover this one until 2016, when the BBT bug finally bit me — more on this in a future post. And while I sort of wish I had done so earlier, maybe hearing EEFP on the British trip my wife and I took the year it was released would have been too much of a good thing! Steeped in a love of their native land and affectionate empathy for its people, Greg Spawton and David Longdon doubled down on the longform approach of 2009’s The Underfall Yard to probe forgotten milestones of British history (“The First Rebreather”, the heart-stopping “East Coast Racer”) and portray unforgettable characters (“Uncle Jack”, “Curator of Butterflies”) against a bucolic landscape (“Upton Heath”, “The Permanent Way”), along with the perennial challenges of the heart (“The Lovers”) and the soul (“A Boy in Darkness”, “Judas Unrepentant”). All in a style that recalled original prog touchstones (looking at you, Gabriel-era Genesis) but blended in the dizzying guitar of Dave Gregory and the wicked drum grooves of Nick D’Virgilio to awesome effect. The two separate volumes of English Electric and the Make Some Noise EP certainly have their charms, but in the scope and sequence of this complete package, Spawton, Longdon and company touched on perfection.

2014 – Dave Kerzner, New World: another late arrival in my collection, this is the album that convinced me a genuine prog-rock revival was afoot beyond the continuing efforts of Morse/Portnoy and Steven Wilson. Kerzner’s mastery of cinematic soundscapes was evident from the first Floydian flourish of “Stranded” to the closing upward spiral of “Redemption”; his ability to involve guest stars like Steve Hackett and Keith Emerson, as well as quality players like guitarist Fernando Perdomo and Nick D’Virgilio (him again!), bore impressive results; and his intuitive grasp of pop hooks proved a solid foundation for irresistible shorter songs like “The Lie” and “Nothing”. Stir in longer, brooding tracks “Into the Sun”, “Under Control” and “My Old Friend” (in memory of performer/producer/polymath Kevin Gilbert), and you had a consistently gripping effort. Whether in its single-disc or deluxe double-disc format, New World aimed high and hit every target that a latter-day concept album could — thoroughly immersive, richly compelling and a breakthrough kick-off for Kerzner’s ongoing solo career.

2015 – Steven Wilson, Hand. Cannot. Erase: speaking of latter-day concept albums . . . Seems like *everyone*, especially the ex-SW fans who think he lost the plot with To The Bone and The Future Bites now cite this as his best effort; me, I remember the online ruckus when “Perfect Life” became the pre-release single. (“IT’S! TOO! POP!” As I’ve said before, if only they had known . . .) But as Bryan mentions in his article, Wilson struck conceptual paydirt with the true story of Joyce Carol Vincent’s lonely death, unearthing both the bleakness and the beauty inherent in a life of urban isolation. His sharp, highly committed writing met its match in the blistering playing of his band: guitarist Guthrie Govan (“Regret #9), keyboardist Adam Holzman (“Home Invasion”) and singer Ninet Tayeb (“Routine”) all have some of their best recorded moments featured here. HCE’s enduring appeal does partially stem from its similarity to Porcupine Tree in their prime — but both Wilson’s musical growth in the intervening years and his return to a humane lyrical vision after the voyeurism of Insurgentes and Grace for Drowning were what made the difference then, and now. The melancholy inherent in the final track “Happy Returns” still feels like we’re mourning a life, lived and lost, for real.

2016 – Marillion, FEAR: that rare example of a band hitting a creative and commercial peak simultaneously. Marillion as a band got even more serious about musical substance here, with lush, detailed sonic backdrops adding depth and resonance to their smash-cut collages. All of which fused seamlessly with Steve Hogarth’s lyrical concerns — for example, the opener “El Dorado” built from self-satisfied, affluent peace to twitchy paranoia, as the lyrics and music stewed in the pressure cooker of an over-connected, unsettled world. The heartfelt road narrative of “The Leavers” made a consummate live epic that captured the special relationship between the band and its fans, while ominous closer “The New Kings” (capped by H’s heartbroken refrain, “Why is nothing ever true?”) still seems way too spooky — and way too relevant six years later. Since its release, FEAR’s success has enabled Marillion to go from strength to strength both live (as I witnessed in 2018) and with their equally powerful follow-up, this year’s superb An Hour Before It’s Dark. Which testifies to its ongoing impact, then and now.

Continue reading “Rick’s Best of the Decade”

Rick’s Quick Takes for April

Short, sharp shocks this month: all albums and EPs reviewed below come in under the old school LP limit of 45 minutes! Purchasing links are embedded in each artist/title listing; album playlists or samples follow each review.

Entransient, Ghosts in the Halls: My hometown’s very own prog-metal band lays out the cards for all to see on their Facebook page: “Melodic neo/post-prog rock from Michigan. Influenced by Anathema, Alcest, and Porcupine Tree.” The good news is that guitarists Matt Schrauben & Doug Murray, bassist Nick Hagen, drummer Jeremy Hyde and vocalist/keyboardist Scott Murray refine those influences into a distinctive blend, marked by rich atmosphere and a towering core sound. The opening epic “Parasite” grabs hold immediately with its games of acoustic/electric musical chairs; “Synergize” and “Last Strawman” drive forward without mercy, as Murray testifies fiercely over bare grooves and fuzzed chords alike. More reflective moments like the title track, “Misplaced” and “Where the Shadows Lie” dial down the tempos and the lyrical angst while keeping the edge intact as the band prowls lush, more aerated soundscapes. (Kudos for Hagen’s mixing and engineering, as well as for the mastering work of The Pineapple Thief’s Steve Kitch; the band’s dynamic and textural range is captured with crystalline clarity throughout.) Entransient has an open, readily appealing touch to their music; as they blaze a fresh trail in a style that easily collapses into cliché, they’re well worth a listen.

Envy of None: No, this sounds nothing like Rush, even with Alex Lifeson’s guitar work in the mix. (If that’s what you want, the new anniversary edition of Moving Pictures is now available — and getting glowing reviews from unlikely sources like Pitchfork, for pete’s sake.) Lifeson does provide satisfying crunch, acoustic contrast, and creative lead work in spades, bedding in seamlessly with fellow core players Andy Curran (bass & guitar) and Alfio Annibalini (guitar and keys). They weave a darkly enticing aural mesh that cradles the understated, seductive singing of Maiah Wynne; her breathily fragile volleys, playing off the sticky minimalist hooks embedded in EoN’s web, are what might really ensnare you. Musically, this is all about basic song forms deployed in ambient/industrial/goth/post-rock styles; the seasoned instrumental interplay and Wynne’s preternaturally mature vocal work are what elevate the album above the obvious genre markers. So it’s old-fashioned chemistry and star quality, from veterans and newcomer alike, that turn out to be key to Envy of None’s appeal. Try it on that basis and see if it grabs you.

Continue reading “Rick’s Quick Takes for April”

The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Thirty-Two): Rainbow Theatre

How does this strike your fancy? King Crimson (RIP, Mr. McDonald) + Australia + a string ensemble + jazz rock + opera = Fantasy of Horses. Sound interesting? If so, then you may enjoy the music of the somewhat divisive Rainbow Theatre. Based upon other reviews I have read, even proggers find this album difficult to categorize: is it an obscure masterpiece? An unjustly maligned effort? Or a cheap imitation of King Crimson? I’m not sure where I stand on this at the moment, so I’ll leave it to you to decide. Hailing from the Land Down Under, Rainbow Theatre released two albums in the mid-70s, Fantasy of Horses being the second of the two. Here’s a brief review of this polarizing album:

The album opens with the instrumental “Rebecca.” In what sounds like an homage to In the Court of the Crimson King, Rainbow Theatre begins with a beautiful mellotron and horn-driven sound. Bassist Ferg McKinnon is the focal point on this piece, however: his thunderous hammering drives this track along.

“Dancer” is perhaps the strongest track on the album. Like many a great progressive track, there are several notable melodic and sonic shifts throughout this piece: gentle organ and horns introduce the song before we first hear Keith Hoban’s dramatic vocals. Unlike Freddie Mercury, however, Hoban does not pull off the operatic style he is trying to capture, resulting in what may charitably be described as a “forced” sound. Despite the underwhelming vocals, this piece benefits from its dynamic character: after a flourish of horns and bass we are treated to some impressive work on the trumpet courtesy of Frank Graham and a solid guitar solo from Julian Browning (who doubles as a keyboardist). A sudden transition to piano and flute caresses our ears with pleasant harmonies before we return to horns and mellotron toward the conclusion of the piece.

Drummer Graeme Carter (who shines throughout the album) leads a frenetic opening charge in “Caption for the City Night Life,” which captures the attitude of King Crimson’s “Pictures in a City” fairly well. Carter’s drum solo is an especial standout on this track.

The title song (see below) transitions from a soft piano melody to pounding bass and horns to a spacey, Tangerine Dream-like sequence to more enjoyable interplay between horns, bass, and percussion. Like “Dancer,” this is a dynamic piece that would qualify as excellent if it were not for the operatic vocals. Overall, however, it’s a fitting conclusion to this album.

Is Fantasy of Horses worth a listen? Without a doubt. I cannot say it will appeal to all tastes, but those of you who find yourselves hooked will appreciate the interplay between the bass, percussion, and horns, all of which are played with a passion and skill comparable to some of the classic progressive artists.

Stay tuned for number thirty-three!

Ian McDonald, Progressive Rock Pioneer, 1946-2022

From Rolling Stone:

“Ian McDonald, a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter best known for his co-founding roles in both King Crimson and Foreigner, died Wednesday at the age of 75. A rep for McDonald confirmed the musician’s death, adding that McDonald “passed away peacefully on February 9, 2022 in his home in New York City, surrounded by his family.” His son reported on Facebook that the cause was cancer.

” McDonald was known as one of the key architects of progressive rock, playing both saxophone and keyboards in King Crimson and co-writing its iconic 1969 debut, In the Court of the Crimson King. The record’s opening track, “21st Century Schizoid Man,” featured McDonald’s wild double-tracked alto-sax solo, which he performed the same year at a famous concert in London’s Hyde Park. He left King Crimson before the year was over, moving on to a duo project with Crimson drummer Michael Giles. He would also appear as a session musician on King Crimson’s 1975 classic, Red.”

“Later, McDonald co-founded rock outfit Foreigner with guitarist Mick Jones, playing various instruments and singing on their first three LPs — all of which cracked the Top 10.”

Our condolences go out to McDonald’s colleagues, friends and family.

— Rick Krueger

Kruekutt’s 2021 Favorites!

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!”

The Fall 2021 Box Set Bonanza

As previously promised, a look at the big reissues landing in the next few months — especially those available in one or more box set formats. Ordering links are embedded in the artist/title listings below.

Out Now:

The Beach Boys, Feel Flows – The Sunflower and Surf’s Up Sessions, 1969-1971: between their initial impact and their imperial phase as timeless purveyors of fun fun fun, Brian Wilson and his family pursued heaviness and relevance in a market that thought it had outgrown them — at least for the moment. This slice of the Boys’ catalog features less slick, more homespun takes on their timeless concerns (the same amount of girls, less cars, more daily life), with Wilson brothers Dennis (on Sunflower) and Carl (on Surf’s Up) taking the lead. The brilliant moments — “This Whole World,” “Forever,” “Long Promised Road,” “Til I Die” for starters — outweigh the embarrassingly dated ones, and music to make you smile is never too long in coming. Available from The Beach Boys’ webstore as 2 CDs, 5 CDs, 2 LPs or 4 LPs (colored vinyl).

BeBop Deluxe, Live in the Air Age: when Bill Nelson’s avant-glam guitar heroics didn’t generate bigger record sales, a live album was the next obvious move for this sterling British quartet. Better chart positions weren’t forthcoming, but 1977’s Live in the Air Age is an exquisite slab of BBD at work — Chuck Berry updated for the Apollo era, with a bit of Bowie/Mercury panache in Nelson’s vocals and blazing solos aplenty. Available from Esoteric Recordings as 3 CDs (adding the complete 1977 London concert) or 15 CDs/1 DVD (adding all surviving recordings from the 1977 British tour and a live television special).

George Harrison, All Things Must Pass: the quiet Beatle exploded on his first album after the Fabs’ breakup, immersing his radiant devotional compositions in Phil Spector’s patented Wall of Sound and drafting Ringo, Badfinger and the embryonic Derek and the Dominoes as his rock orchestra. The new remix scales back the symphonic swirl, brings forward George’s vocals, and gives the rhythm section a kick in the pants; just right to these ears. A serious contender for the single best solo Beatle album, well worth an immersion course. Available from the Harrison webstore in Standard (2 CDs or 3 LPs — limited colored vinyl available as well), Deluxe (3 CDs or 5 LPs), Super Deluxe (5 CDs/BluRay or 8 LPs) and Uber Deluxe (5 CDs/BluRay/8 LPs/various bespoke gimcracks/”artisan wooden crate” — you don’t wanna know what it costs) editions.

The Elements of King Crimson – 2021 Tour Box: the 7th annual compilation of tidbits from the Discipline Global Mobile archives, doubling as a concert program. This year’s selection of rarities focuses on the nine drummers that have called King Crimson their musical home (sometimes two or three of them at once). Studio snippets – like the one with Fripp, John Wetton on bass and Phil Collins on drums – live tracks, oddities, previews of coming attractions, and more. Available from Burning Shed or on Crimson’s current USA tour.

Lee Morgan, The Complete Live at the Lighthouse: never a mass media superstar, Morgan was nonetheless a jazz icon — one of the finest trumpeters of his day who played with heroes of the music like Art Blakey and John Coltrane, recorded more than 20 albums as a leader for Blue Note Records, and even managed to score a Top 25 pop hit with his funky “The Sidewinder.” This box (another product of jazz archivist Zev Feldman’s boundless energy) sets forth an entire weekend’s worth of recordings by Morgan and his dedicated, powerful 1970 band. Bennie Maupin on reeds, Harold Mabern on piano, Jymie Merritt on bass and Mickey Roker on drums bring the sophisticated, challenging compositions and spirited solos and backing; Morgan takes it from there, lyrical and fiery in turn. This is a great potential entry point if you want to explore jazz as a newbie, and a serious desert island possiblility for those already into the music. Available from Blue Note’s webstore as 8 CDs or 12 LPs.

Clive Nolan and Rick Wakeman, Tales by Gaslight: keyboardists Nolan (Pendragon, Arena) and Wakeman (Yes, Strawbs) box up their out-of-print concept albums Jabberwocky (with dad Rick W. reciting Lewis Carroll’s nonsense verse) and The Hound of the Baskervilles, adding a bonus disc collecting rough drafts of a 3rd album based on Frankenstein. Separate booklets and art prints for each of the 3 CDs included. Theatrical as all get out, and surprisingly good fun if you’re in the mood for Victorian-flavored melodrama. Available from Burning Shed.

September:

Bob Dylan, Springtime in New York – The Bootleg Series, Volume 16, 1980-1985: Outtakes, alternate versions, rehearsals, live performances and more from the era that yielded Dylan’s albums Shot of Love, Infidels and Empire Burlesque. Out September 17; pre-order from Dylan’s webstore and elsewhere in the following formats: 2 LP Highlights, 2 CD Highlights or 5 CDs complete. (There’s also a subscriber-only 4 LP set from Jack White’s Third Man Records.)

Marillion, Fugazi: the band’s 1984 album, perceived as a “sophomore slump” at the time, is much more than a bridge between the feral debut Script for A Jester’s Tear and the early masterwork Misplaced Childhood, with plenty of gripping moments to recommend it. A new remix by Andy Bradfield and Avril Mackintosh compensates handily for the production nightmares recounted in this deluxe edition’s copious notes. Also includes a complete live set from Montreal; the CD/BluRay version adds bonus tracks, documentaries, and a Swiss television concert. Out September 10; pre-order from Marillion’s webstore as 4 CDs/BluRay or 4 LPs.

Van der Graaf Generator, The Charisma Years, 1970-1978: VDGG may have shared the stage with Genesis in each band’s formative years, but they were a thoroughly different beast. Peter Hammill’s desperate existential narratives and the wigged out instrumental web woven by David Jackson, Hugh Banton and Guy Evans made for a unique, highly combustible chemistry — bonkers dystopian sci-fi narrative over free jazz one moment, raggedly soaring hymns to human potential the next. This 17 CD/3 BluRay set collects the band’s 8 studio albums from the Seventies, adding extensive BBC sessions, a live show from Paris, all surviving television appearances “and more.” Now available from Burning Shed; the four newly remastered albums in this box (H to He Who Am the Only One, Pawn Hearts, Godbluff and Still Life) are available as separate CD/DVD sets for those wanting a lower priced introduction to this underrated band’s indescribably stirring music.

October:

The Beatles, Let It Be: the Fab Four’s star-crossed attempt to return to their roots – recording live in front of movie cameras – ultimately became their first post-break-up release, drenched with Phil Spector’s orchestral overdubs to cover the rough spots. With a new 6-hour Peter Jackson documentary on the sessions hitting Disney Plus Thanksgiving weekend, Apple unleashes a fresh stereo remix (the 4th in the series that kicked off with Sgt. Pepper’s 50th anniversary). Super Deluxe versions also include 27 sessions tracks, a 4-track EP and a test mix of Get Back, the proposed original version of the album. Out October 15th; pre-order from the Fabs’ webstore in Standard (1 CD or 1 LP), Deluxe (2 CDs with selected bonus tracks) and Super Deluxe (4 CDs/1 BluRay or 4 LP/1 EP) editions. (The companion book of photos and transcribed conversations from the sessions, Get Back, is released on October 12.)

Emerson Lake and Palmer, Out of This World – Live (1970-1997): a compilation of key live shows in ELP’s history: their 1970 debut at the Isle of Wight Festival; a career peak show at the 1974 California Jam; the 1977 full-orchestra extravaganza at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium; 1992’s comeback concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall; and a previously unreleased 1997 show from Phoenix, Arizona. Out October 29; pre-order from ImportCDs as 7 CDs or 10 LPs.

Joni Mitchell, Archives , Volume 2 – The Reprise Years (1968-1971): more archival recordings from the early days of Mitchell’s recording career. Home and studio demos, outtakes, unreleased songs, her Carnegie Hall debut and much more — a complete acoustic set recorded by a enraptured Jimi Hendrix, anyone? Out October 29; pre-order from Mitchell’s webstore on 5 CDs or 10 LPs (4000 copies only), The Carnegie Hall concert is available separately on 3 LPs (black or white vinyl).

Pink Floyd, A Momentary Lapse of Reason (Remixed and Updated): the 2019 remix of Floyd’s post-Roger Waters comeback from the opulent The Later Years box, now available on its own. “Sounds less like the 1980s, more like classic Floyd” is the party line here. Out October 29; pre-order from Floyd’s webstore in 1 CD, CD/DVD, CD/BluRay or 2 LP formats.

November:

Genesis, The Last Domino? Yet another compilation of Genesis’ greatest hits, fan favorites and core album cuts, released just in time for their first US tour in 14 years. No real surprises in the track selection, but the blurbed promise of “new stereo mixes” of four Gabriel-era classics is intriguing. Out November 19; pre-order from Genesis’ webstore on 2 CDs or 4 LPs. (The UK version of this compilation, out September 17, sports a slightly different track list.)

Elvis Presley, Back in Nashville: the King’s final sessions in Music City, stripped of overdubs a la last year’s From Elvis in Nashville box, that yielded material for three years worth of albums. 82 tracks encompassing country/folk, pop, religious music and Christmas music. Out November 12; pre-order from the Presley webstore on 4 CDs or 2 LPs.

In the Works (release date forthcoming):

Robert Fripp, Exposures: another exhaustive (and potentially exhausting) set from Discipline Global Mobile. This one promises to cover Fripp’s “Drive to 1981,” including his guest-star-heavy solo debut Exposure, the ambient Frippertronics of God Save the Queen and Let the Power Fall, and the egghead dance music of Under Heavy Manners and The League of Gentlemen. Tons of live gigs promised to supplement rarities and studio outtakes.

Marillion, Holidays in Eden: the new Marillion album (now officially titled An Hour Before It’s Dark) may push this further back on the release schedule, but Steve Hogarth’s second effort with the boys (an intriguing effort that tried and failed to go commercial) is next up for the deluxe reissue treatment.

Porcupine Tree, Deadwing: a promised deluxe set in the vein of 2020’s In Absentia. Internet gossip flared up when Steven Wilson, Steve Barbieri and Gavin Harrison were rumored to have reset the band’s legal partnership earlier this year; who knows how or when the Tree may blossom again?

Renaissance, Scheherezade and Other Stories: coming from Esoteric Recordings, the folk-prog quintet’s finest hour in the studio, melding orchestral grace with an Arabian Nights theme for the half-hour title track. If this is in the vein of other recent Renaissance issues, hope for a multi-disc set with a bonus live set and a surround remix.

— Rick Krueger

King Crimson in Concert: A Love Letter on the Occasion of – A Final Hot Date?

Robert Fripp, resplendent with mohawk, at August 28th’s Royal Package presentation.

A studio album is a love letter. And I enjoy love letters, especially when they’re from my wife. But live music … (looking to the heavens with a sigh) I’ll always go for the clinches.

Robert Fripp, King Crimson Royal Package presentation

King Crimson, Meadow Brook Amphitheatre, Rochester Hills, Michigan, August 28, 2021

Following an opening set from The Zappa Band that showcased Frank Zappa’s lifelong trademarks — smug, satirical vignettes enfolded in gleefully virtuosic workouts — King Crimson went straight for the clinches. The rock (as in the opener “Pictures of A City” and “Radical Action II”) rocked hard; the metal (including “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part Two” and “Level Five”) was remorselessly heavy; the out there material (“Neurotica” and “Indiscipline,” played back to back) went waaaaay out there; the more intricate music (the opening multi-part drum trio, along with “Discipline,” a welcome surprise in the setlist) shone with both precision and passion.

Left to right: Mel Collins, Tony Levin, and Jakko Jakszyk groove on “Neurotica,” as Jeremy Stacey and Gavin Harrison wait to pounce. Photo by King Crimson manager David Singleton. Click here to access Singleton’s online diary for the show.

To be fair, the genres — along with the era a song may have come from — are never that clear cut with this Crimson, even within individual pieces. The mid-section of “Pictures of A City” saw Mel Collins pushing at the boundaries of tonality with his sax solo, egged on by Robert Fripp’s banjo-from-hell guitar chords. Tony Levin’s inventive bass lines on “The Court of the Crimson King,” “Red” and “Larks Two” honored the original work of Greg Lake and John Wetton while adding his own spin to spur on Collins and Fripp. And the drum battle that opens “Indiscipline” turned into a comedic cutting contest, as Pat Mastelotto, Jeremy Stacey and Gavin Harrison moved from flashing their chops to cracking up each other with their contributions. (Harrison’s deadpan disco snippet got the audience laughing too.) By treating everything as brand new, the band gracefully transcends the multiple eras in which these varied musics were birthed.

With a shorter setlist than recent tours and fewer surprise choices in the mix, what stood out for me this evening were the ballads — “The Court of the Crimson King,” “Islands,” “Epitaph” and “Starless”. Even the two guys sitting in back of me who talked through a good chunk of the show shut up for them! Vocalist/guitarist Jakko Jakszyk stood and delivered, drawing old emotions and new insights from the lyrics as he sang. And the ensemble coalesced around him with palpable intensity, cradling the vocals, then conjuring up the ironic circus of “Court,” the serene seascape of “Islands” (kudos to Stacey for his luscious piano work), the bleak cultural devastation of “Epitaph.” The endlessly mounting tension of “Starless” was, as always, a high point — melancholy and uplifting at the same time, grabbing for the audience’s heart as it built and cracking psyches wide open as the double time finale took flight. After that, what could be the encore but a slamming “21st Century Schizoid Man,” complete with Levin prodding Fripp and Collins to even greater extremes and a kit-spanning drum excursion by Harrison?

The band takes a bow following “Starless.” Photo by King Crimson manager David Singleton.

I make no secret of my admiration for King Crimson; Robert Fripp and his various co-conspirators have formed my ideal of the questing musician’s life and work since I stumbled into a Frippertronics record store show back in 1979. And I’ve never hesitated to sing the praises of the current Crimson incarnation; their 2017 and 2019 tours yielded two of the best rock concerts I’ve ever attended. So it moved me that, with the COVID-19 pandemic delaying this show for a year and throwing numerous obstacles in their path, Crimson could return to the States and provide another genuinely awe-inspiring evening for the thousands gathered in this Detroit-area amphitheatre. Never say never; but if (as Crimson’s management has stated) this may the final time the band plays North America, I’m convinced that we shall not see their like again.

Band and audience seen in 360 degrees at the final bow. Photo by Tony Levin; click here to access his online diary for this show.

Setlist (as assembled by Robert Fripp):

  • Drumsons – Bish! The Way to Universal Peace and Amity
  • Pictures of A City
  • Red
  • The Court of the Crimson King (with coda)
  • Tony (Levin bass) Cadenza’s Wernacious Slitheriness
  • Discipline
  • Neurotica
  • Indiscipline
  • Islands
  • Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part Two
  • Epitaph
  • Radical Action II
  • Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part Five (Level Five)
  • Starless
  • 21st Century Schizoid Man (including Gavin Harrison drum solo)

— Rick Krueger

The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Twenty-Two): Island

If the album cover looks familiar to you, that’s because it was designed by the same man responsible for Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery and Ridley Scott’s Alien: H. R. Giger. Island may be the strangest thing to come out of Switzerland since that eccentric creator of biomechanical horrors. That small, idyllic mountain country may not come to mind when one thinks of avant-garde, but, like Giger, Island certainly does not fit the Swiss mold – or any mold, for that matter. Pictures is easily one of the bolder, more original releases that I have ever heard. Like Van der Graaf Generator, Island relied not on bass or guitar (in fact, they feature not a single guitar on the entire album), but rather on percussion, keys, and woodwinds. Like Gentle Giant, Island’s free jazz-style approach offered the band opportunities for some incredibly complex improvisation. And like King Crimson and Peter Gabriel, Island wasn’t afraid to add a dash of black humor to their lyrics, providing the album with a (somewhat) lighter tone than is suggested by that horrifying album cover. Now to the music itself:

The album opens with the appropriately titled “Introduction,” which sounds like Ligeti’s Requiem or something out of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. This brief piece ends with some eerie words whispered over a cacophony of sound before it transitions rapidly to…

The dynamic “Zero,” which opens with a flourish of keyboards. The interplay between keyboardist Peter Scherer, drummer Guge Jurg Meier, and woodwind wunderkind Rene Fisch is impressive and will probably remind most listeners of King Crimson or Gentle Giant. But we do not hear the vocals of Benjamin Jager until…

The title track. Jager, who sounds a bit like Peter Gabriel, has some fun on this song (it takes a quirky fellow to sing about “gastric juices”), but the focus remains on the instruments, and Jager himself is no slouch on percussion. In the middle of this complex piece we are entertained to both a gentle clarinet solo and smooth sax work courtesy of Fisch. These mad scientists of music continue to experiment on…

“Herold and King / Dloreh,” a fitting title for such an odd piece. After some three minutes of beautiful but somewhat dark piano melodies, we get a good half minute of silence before Jager’s vocals fade in…singing the lyrics in reverse, of course (look again at the title of the song). Once again, we are treated to some fascinating interplay between keys, sax, and percussion, and at one point the ominous sound of a drone provides an additional layer of eeriness. To up the weirdness factor, the track includes some whispered vocals (reminiscent of Goblin or VDGG) and scat (or something like it) throughout. The strange brew continues to satisfy on…

“Here and Now,” the closing track. This piece features (briefly, alas) a gorgeous and textured organ sound, and the percussion and sax shine as they have throughout. The drone effect is again put to good use, adding a haunting layer to what is otherwise the most “upbeat” track on the album.

This is a challenging album that may not initially appeal to your tastes. In fact, it may take three or four spins before you can appreciate it, and it is certainly worth more than one listen: this is top-notch musicianship with a healthy dose of dark humor. Anyone who appreciates Gentle Giant, Van der Graaf Generator, or King Crimson will be impressed by this little-known avant-garde masterpiece. Just don’t let Giger’s monster scare you off.

Stay tuned for number twenty-three!

The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Twenty): Gracious

An album cover designed by Roger Dean. A mellotron sound inspired by In the Court of the Crimson King. An opening suite reminiscent of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. this is…Gracious!! had many of the key ingredients needed for a superior prog album, but it didn’t sell, and the band broke up not long after their sophomore effort. Perhaps Gracious tried to be too much at once: prog, psych, hard rock, blues, space rock, etc. Sometimes this eclectic blend works; sometimes it does not. this is…Gracious!! lands somewhere in the middle. Here are some of my thoughts:

Unlike most of the albums I have reviewed, this is…Gracious!! includes a true prog epic, the four-part suite “Supernova,” which takes up the entire first side of the album. Clocking in at just under twenty-five minutes, “Supernova” had the potential to be a classic prog epic, but it suffers from some shortcomings. The first two parts of the song – the Floydian instrumental “Arrival of the Traveler” and the Crimsonian “Blood Red Sky” – are fine examples of prog’s “classic” era (although Paul Davis’s vocals may be an acquired taste for some). Anchored by drums and mellotron, the latter would have fit nicely on King Crimson’s debut album. Unfortunately, “Blood Red Sky” transitions rather awkwardly into “Say Goodbye to Love,” a romantic guitar ballad with saccharine lyrics that just feels out of place on this epic piece. The fourth and final part, “Prepare to Meet Thy Maker,” thankfully returns to the Floydian/Crimsonian sound.

“C. B. S.” opens with a catchy guitar riff courtesy of Alan Cowderoy, and stays anchored by Martin Kitcat’s clavinet and piano.

“Blue Skies and Alibis” also opens with a catchy riff and is by far the strongest and most upbeat track. Kitcat and Cowderoy share centerstage on mellotron and guitar, respectively. The rhythm section also holds its own: drummer Robert Lipson anchors the song with his pacing, and Tim Wheatley’s nimble fingers produce a hopping bass line.

It’s too bad Gracious never had a chance to develop their sound, as they may have ended up among the prog elite of the early 1970s. Alas, they are now instead part of the long but colorful list of obscure prog artists. this is…Gracious!! may be a diamond in the rough, but it’s certainly worth a listen: you may find it more polished than I did.

Stay tuned for number twenty-one!