Kruekutt’s 2020 Favorites: New Albums

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

Watson’s Best Prog Albums of 2017: Part 1 — The “Honorable Mentions”

This year has seen a bonanza of quality progressive music. I have probably listened to more great albums this calendar go-round then in any recent year. This list is, of course, totally subjective and based on my own predispositions towards symphonic, orchestral, and melody-hooked prog.  There was such a plethora of wonderfully creative work in 2017 that I am increasing the list from the usual Top Ten or Top Twenty to a whopping 40 best.

And though ## 40 – – 21 are being categorized as only “honorable mentions” they still deserve your attention.  All of the following releases are so good that on any given day (just not today) they might well “crack the ceiling” and wind up on my official TOP TWENTY (coming later this week).   And now, in descending order from number 40 to number 21 are this years:

“Honorable Mentions”

40) SACRED APE/Sacred Ape

sacredape

Continue reading “Watson’s Best Prog Albums of 2017: Part 1 — The “Honorable Mentions””

iamthemorning’s Lighthouse: Neoclassical Beauty

lighthouse_cover

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

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

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

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

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

 

Our 2001st Post: Celebrating the Book of Riverside and Mariusz Duda

Riverside's latest album, LOVE, FEAR, AND THE TIME MACHINE (InsideOut, 2015).
Riverside’s latest album, LOVE, FEAR, AND THE TIME MACHINE (InsideOut, 2015).

Erik Heter’s grand interview with Mariusz Duda this past summer, The Duda Abides, reawakened (or least reminded me of) much of my love of Riverside.  And, that love is and never has been a shy love.  I first heard Riverside sometime between 2005’s SECOND LIFE SYNDROME and 2007’s RAPID EYE MOVEMENT.  I was immediately riveted by their music.  Not only do I love the Polish people and culture, I love prog and rock—so what a perfect mix of things.

Frankly, if you measure Poland’s prog and art rock output through Riverside and Newspaperflyhunting, it’s hard not to think of Poland as one of the most important countries in the world when it comes to producing modern music.

Continue reading “Our 2001st Post: Celebrating the Book of Riverside and Mariusz Duda”

Is 2014 Over Already?

Time flies when you’re having fun listening to great music! 2014 brought in a bumper crop of excellent music in general, and prog in particular. Here are my favorites of the year:

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10. Robert Plant: Lullaby And …The Ceaseless Roar

Mr. Plant returns to his folk roots of Britain, and delivers a thoroughly enjoyable set of songs. A couple rock out, but this is mostly an acoustic tour de force that transcends any musical trends of the day.

WOAFB-cover

  1. Lunatic Soul: Walking On A Flashlight Beam

This album didn’t garner the rave reviews of his first two, but I still think anything Mariusz Duda produces is far better than 90% of anything else out there. “Treehouse” may be my favorite song he’s ever recorded.

So much greater than a muppet.

  1. John Bassett: Unearth

This album opened my eyes to entirely different side of Mr. Bassett’s talent, and I love it. I hope he does more music in this vein – thoughtful, melodic, acoustic pearls.

Disconnect-cover

  1. John Wesley: Disconnect

Mr. Wesley has been Porcupine Tree’s secret weapon when they play live, and on the side he has been quietly making extraordinary music of his own. Disconnect is his best ever, and it features the inimitable Alex Lifeson on “Once A Warrior”.

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  1. Gazpacho: Demon

It took me awhile to get into this album, but it was definitely worth the effort. It is a beautiful package, from the artwork and lyrics to the music itself. The subject matter is very dark, but listening to the entire album is a cathartic experience. It also has Jan-Henrik Ohme’s strongest vocals to date.

nao cover THE THIRD DAY

  1. North Atlantic Oscillation: The Third Day

Their third album, and the third one to make one of my best-of-the-year lists. Soaring vocals, gorgeous string arrangements, a wall of sound that is indescribably exhilarating. If Brian Wilson produced Catherine Wheel, it might sound as good as this.

Stunning album cover.  A progged-out version of Dolby's GOLDEN AGE OF WIRELESS.  Brilliant.

  1. Cosmograf: Capacitor

A marvelous steampunk trip through metaphysical dimensions. Robin Armstrong’s imagination knows no bounds, and his musical talent matches it.

Second Nature

  1. Flying Colors: Second Nature

Wow. No “sophomore slump” for this band. One of the many Neal Morse/Mike Portnoy projects that are active these days, Second Nature is an outlet for the more melodic side of their talents. Throw in the genius guitar work of Steve Morse, and this is an irresistible set of songs.

Restorations_by_Haken

  1. Haken: Restoration

Their Mountain album was my favorite of last year, and the only reason this isn’t number one is because it’s only 34 minutes long. I admit it – I’m greedy for more Haken music!

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  1. Transatlantic: Kaleidoscope

With Kaleidoscope, Stolt, Morse, Portnoy, Trewavas finally become a real group. On earlier works, you could tell which bits were Neal’s, which were Roine’s, etc. Every song on Kaleidoscope is stamped with Transatlantic’s distinctive sound, and it is a glorious one.

Review: Lunatic Soul, Walking on a Flashlight Beam

Review of Lunatic Soul, Walking on a Flashlight Beam (Kscope, 2014).

Birzer Rating: (6/10)

WOAFB-coverLet me begin by offering my Mariusz Dudas streetcred. I love Duda’s voice as well as his compositional skills. He possesses a profound sense of flow, allowing his music to move seamlessly from emotion to sentiment to feeling and back again. His voice is the kind that pulls one in, calling for full immersion. I’ve also always appreciated his lyricism, especially given that he’s not a native English speaker. He always seems to know the perfect lyric for the music and the perfect music for the lyric.

For a decade, I’ve been following his work. For a while, I thought I saw a continuity in all of his work: First Three Riverside Albums—Lunatic Soul—ADHD—Lunatic Soul.  Lunatic Soul, beautiful and gorgeous in its own way, seemed the perfect interlude to accompany the drama of Riverside. For better or worse, this scheme has broken down almost completely now, especially after Shrine (Riverside) and Impressions (Lunatic Soul).

For any of you who have heard Riverside or Lunatic Soul (and I assume it’s all of you), you know have very captivating the music is. Walking on a Flashlight Beam is a reviewer’s purgatory. It’s quite good and well worth owning—a must for any fan of Riverside and Lunatic Soul—but it doesn’t captivate in the way that the first two Lunatic Soul albums did or the first four Riverside albums. Duda’s lyrics are as good as always—despite the weird pedestrian title of the album—as is his sense of flow. But, the flaw in this album is that it attempts to make the Lunatic Soul sound fresh by adding in a bizarre mixture of sound effects, many of which sound like old, recycled Depeche Mode noises from the early 80s. It’s not as extreme as, say, U2’s Pop, but it is leaning in that direction. So, a conundrum—all the things that make a Duda album here are great, but the attempt to experiment and innovate sounds false and clunky. Admittedly, Walking on a Flashlight Beam is sounding much less clunky after several listens.

Just to experiment, however, I played the first Lunatic Soul album immediately after listening to the new one. The first made my soul soar. This one made it want to soar, but it merely hovered.

Billy Reeves Strikes Again!

Kscope, Podcast 56, and Billy Reeves.
Kscope, Podcast 56, and Billy Reeves.

I must happily admit, every month I really look forward to iTunes informing me that a new Billy Reeves/Kscope Podcast has arrived in my podcast box (“area”? I have no idea what it’s called–something in iTunes).  This month’s–no. 56–is especially good.

http://www.kscopemusic.com/Podcasts/

Make sure you check it out.  It features music and news from Lunatic Soul, NAO, Iamthemorning, Anathema, and Steven Wilson.

Madness Returns: More From Lunatic Soul

A new release from Lunatic Soul, the solo side-project of Riverside’s Mariusz Duda, is due on 13 October, according to Kscope.

Mariusz regards the 64-minute new album, entitled Walking On A Flashlight Beam, as “dark and intense”, “very melodious” and “one of the best things I’ve ever written” – all of which has my prog salivary glands working overtime.

Here’s a very brief taste of what’s to come…

Label Spotlight: Kscope Music

One of my favorite labels in the current prog scene is Kscope Music. Its first release was The Pineapple Thief’s Tightly Unwound in 2008, and it has rapidly become a force to be reckoned with. Steven Wilson has released all of his solo work on Kscope, as well as Porcupine Tree’s The Incident, and several PT reissues.

Everything Kscope does is top-notch, both musically and visually. They favor quality over quantity, and as a result, prog fans eagerly anticipate their releases. Their site is one of the most informative on the web, incorporating minisites for new and upcoming releases, music videos, artist’s tour dates, Soundcloud samples, Twitter feeds, desktop and mobile wallpapers, and a monthly podcast.

They have put together an impressive stable of artists, promoting what they call “post-progressive” music. Here’s a quick rundown of my favorites (in alphabetical order):

Anathema began as a very dark and heavy metal band, but now they are full of light and beauty. Their songs grapple with issues of life, mortality, and spirituality. Here’s a sample from their latest album, Weather Systems:

Engineers are what would happen if Pink Floyd and Crosby, Stills, & Nash decided to team up with My Bloody Valentine. Lush vocal harmonies on a bed of multilayered guitars. Gorgeous stuff, in my opinion. Here’s a link to an audio stream of their album In Praise Of More.

Gazpacho are from Norway, and, like Anathema, they aren’t afraid to tackle serious topics in their music. Here’s the video to “What Did I Do”, a song about P.G. Wodehouse’s being accused of treason after he made some naïve German radio broadcasts during WWII:

Lunatic Soul is essentially a solo project of Mariusz Duda, bassist for the excellent Polish prog-metal band Riverside. Their two albums tell the story of a soul in limbo who is given a choice of returning as a reincarnated person with no memory of his past life and loves, or keeping his memories and remaining a shade (at least that’s what I think it’s about!). There is a third Lunatic Soul album consisting of instrumental tracks based on the first two albums’ songs. Duda’s music is mostly acoustic, very melodic, and has a world music feel. Here’s a sampler:

North Atlantic Oscillation is a duo from Scotland. Their latest album, Fog Electric, is one of my top 5 albums of 2012. Imagine Beach Boys mashed up with shoegazers. Here’s a montage from the album:

As I mentioned earlier, both Porcupine Tree and Steven Wilson’s solo music are now on Kscope. I love his work, and if you’re reading this blog, I probably can’t add anything to what you already about him!

Finally, we have The Pineapple Thief. Bruce Soord has been making wonderful music for more than ten years. As I wrote in a review of their album Variations on A Dream, “Depending on your listening temperament, his songs can either be maddeningly long and repetitious or seductively beautiful. I fall into the latter camp, and it might be because I enjoy the music of Philip Glass, Arvo Part, and Steve Reich – minimalist composers who write tonal pieces that rely upon a lot of repetition.”

Here’s “Last Man Standing” from their recently released album All The Wars:

Kscope is a label that is creating its own distinctive style, like ECM and Blue Note did with jazz, and 4AD did with, well, whatever you want to call 4AD’s music in the ’80s. By taking full advantage of social media, Kscope is spreading the word about post-progressive music worldwide.