20 in 2020: My Highlights So Far

It’s been a grim old half-year, hasn’t it?

If you were to hunt for any positives to come out of lockdown, one of the few might be the increased opportunities it has afforded many of us to sit down and listen to music, in lieu of social or outdoor activities. Indeed, this simple act seems more important than ever as a means of raising spirits and maintaining one’s mental health in these troubled times.

The pandemic has wrecked the live music scene for the moment, and made the business of recording new material much more challenging, but it doesn’t seem to have stemmed the flow of new releases too much just yet, thankfully. So here’s a round-up of twenty things that have particularly caught my ear over the past six months.

Note: wherever possible, links in this piece are to the relevant Bandcamp page (or, failing that, to sites like Burning Shed or Music Glue).

Let’s start with stuff that might be regarded as ‘mainstream prog’. The epitome of this has to be The Red Planet by Rick Wakeman – an album that ploughs a much proggier, Moog-laden furrow than the maestro’s other recent, piano-based work. It’s a delight from start to finish, and my only regret is that I opted for the digital release rather than the CD or vinyl with their distinctive cardboard pop-up covers.

The Red Planet, by Rick Wakeman (Pop-up vinyl version)

Also firmly and squarely in the ‘mainstream prog’ camp lie Pendragon‘s latest, Love Over Fear, and Masters Of Illusion by Magenta. The former is easily the band’s best work for quite a while and features gorgeous aquatic-themed cover art (see below-left). The latter is an intriguing concept album paying tribute to Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Christopher Lee and other stars of classic horror movies. Even better than both of these is the splendid Things Unseen, by I Am The Manic Whale, an album that is uplifting and light in tone yet also satisfyingly intricate. Highlights are the 19-minute epic Celebrity and the touching paean to a newborn infant, Smile.

I’ve avoided lumping new Glass Hammer album Dreaming City in with the aforementioned ‘mainstream prog’ releases, only because this album has a pleasing, harder-than-expected edge to it. I’ll admit that Glass Hammer’s output hasn’t always clicked for me, but I’ve very much enjoyed the heavier tone here, as well as the forays into electronica. Heavier still, and just as engrossing, are Inescapable by Godsticks, and Jupiter Hollow‘s latest, Bereavement.

What else has grabbed my attention? Pure Reason Revolution‘s comeback album Eupnea stands out, as does Celexa Dreams by Kyros – an even better album than 2016’s impressive Vox Humana, I reckon. Earworm Rumour and the dramatic In Vantablack are especially noteworthy. If you enjoy slap bass and plenty of synths, you should definitely check this one out!

Rumour by Kyros, from Celexa Dreams

The pop and contemporary music influences that have shaped Celexa Dreams are even more prevalent in another couple of this year’s quality releases: The Empathy Machine by Chimpan A, and Valor by The Opium Cartel. Chimpan A is a side-project of Magenta’s Rob Reed which has been dormant since a 2006 debut album. This long overdue follow-up is a slick, smooth, highly palatable mix of prog, pop, electronica and dance beats, with excellent vocal performances. Valor, meanwhile, is a more straightforward homage to the pop music of the 1980s, but is no less elegant or enjoyable for all that. Elegance is also the watchword in Modern Ruins, by Tim Bowness & Peter Chilvers. This is minimalist art rock at its finest, with Bowness as soothing and seductive as he’s ever been.

In The Streets by The Opium Cartel, from Valor

Instrumental albums have very much been on my radar this year: not just Rick Wakeman’s aforementioned offering, but also material from younger, less established acts. Zopp’s eponymous debut release is a superb slice of jazz-tinged, Canterbury-inspired prog, featuring guest appearances from Andy Tillison and Theo Travis (Andy also engineered and co-produced this one). Much more squarely in jazz territory lies the Jazz Sabbath project, from Rick’s son Adam Wakeman. This imagines an amusing alternate history in which Black Sabbath made their name by ripping off the songs of jazz pianist Milton Keanes! The version of Iron Man on here is especially entertaining. Finally, I can’t leave the Instrumental category behind without mentioning Final Quiet, from the gloriously-named Flies Are Spies From Hell. This is post-rock, but with more delicacy and subtle variation than is generally found in that particular sub-genre.

Before The Light by Zopp, from Zopp

Funnily enough, my favourite releases of 2020 so far would mostly not be categorised as prog. Chief amongst these is Darkness Brings The Wonders Home by Smoke Fairies – a moody, mesmeric album in which minor keys, intertwined guitar parts and vocal harmonies combine to bewitching effect. Stand out tracks are Coffee Shop Blues, Chocolate Rabbit and Chew Your Bones. Equally compelling is Jonathan Hultén‘s acoustic solo album Chants From Another Place, a haunting, mysterious work that taps into obscure folk and choral traditions.

Chew Your Bones by Smoke Fairies, from Darkness Brings The Wonders Home

Folk influences also permeate two other 2020 releases that are particularly dear to my heart: Let It All In by Baltimore band Arbouretum, and The Life Of The Honeybee And Other Moments Of Clarity, from Glasgow-based Abel Ganz. The former deftly blends americana, psych and even krautrock, courtesy of the pulsating, hypnotic 11-minute title track. The latter is a majestic and beautiful prog album that somehow improves upon the mood-enhancing, sunny, summery feel of its 2014 predecessor. I guarantee it’ll lift your spirits if you give it a spin. It’s hard to pick a favourite track, but the epic Sepia And White is truly spectacular.

I’ll finish with a shout-out for KOYO, a band local to me, whose new album You Said It has been on constant rotation at home. This is more direct and punchy, and less psychedelia-influenced, than its 2017 predecessor. Overall, it’s not especially proggy, though album closer Against All Odds definitely leans in that direction, while Out Of Control wouldn’t sound out of place on Steven Wilson’s To The Bone. In fact, it’s easy to imagine Wilson producing an album like this, were he to opt for a grungier, more alt rock direction on some future release. However you want to label it, this is a hugely engaging, lively and enjoyable listen, and one of my favourites of the year so far.

Out Of Control by KOYO, from You Said It

Magenta (Live Concert at Real World Studios) — “Metamorphosis”

We need more Magenta!

Rob Reed and Christina Booth of Magenta teamed up in April 2015 with David Longdon, Nick D’Virgilio, Nick Beggs, and Steve Hackett on the sundry remakes of Hackett’s 1979 track “Spectral Mornings” (with lyrics added for the first time to Hackett’s instrumental music by David Longdon).

More, please!

In the meantime…

Classic Rock Society Awards Night 2014

As a lover of Progressive Music for many years now – from the days when I simply knew it as ‘good music’ back in my school days in the 1970s – I have been delighted to see the recent resurgence of the genre. This has been in no small measure down to the efforts of groups like the Classic Rock Society, who have been striving to keep the flame burning, particularly during the dark days when ‘Prog’ was considered by many to be a word not spoken aloud. This striving, though, happened (sadly) under my radar for a large number of years, but I recently came across them, and was delighted to discover that they functioned in my own neck-of-the-woods in South Yorkshire.

Once I’d made this discovery, I ventured out to a few of their gigs in the humble surroundings of the Wesley Centre in Matlby, near Rotherham – interestingly for me the site of a former Methodist Chapel – and when I heard that their awards night was on the horizon I decided to go along (taking my younger son with me, as a fellow traveller). These are my personal reflections on the event.

The venue – the Montgomery Hall in Wath-upon-Dearne – is similar to the Wesley Centre in lay-out, though it has a larger capacity and a larger stage, which proved helpful for the evening’s entertainment. We began with a short solo set from the brilliant Andy Tillison, who coped seamlessly with a keyboard malfunction shortly before the off which left him having to rely on someone else’s equipment for his performance. There didn’t appear to be any problems caused, and Andy gave us around 20 minutes of magic – one man and his keyboards performing without the aid of backing tracks, loops or a safety net and giving us stunning renditions of ‘GPS Culture’ and ‘Perdu Dans Paris’. As a recent ‘convert’ to his work, particularly with The Tangent, I found it sublime and wonderful.

The ‘business’ of the evening was the awards themselves, and after suitable lubrication with ‘Big Big Train’ beer, on sale at the bar, we settled down to find out who had topped the polls at the end of what many have called a classic year for Prog. The awards were presented this year by none other than Fish, who brought his own laconic wit to the proceedings. The awards went to:

Best Male Vocalist – David Longdon
Best Female Vocalist – Christina Booth
Best Keyboard Player – Rob Reed
Best Bass Player – Lee Pomeroy
Best Drummer – Henry Rogers
Best Guitarist – Steve Hackett
Best Album – The Twenty Seven Club – Magenta
Best Track – East Coast Racer- Big Big Train
Best Lyricist – Fish (presented by Andy Tillison)
Best CRS Live Act – Moon Safari
Best UK Band or Artist – Big Big Train
Best Overseas Band or Artist – Moon Safari
CRS Newcomer – Hekz
Unsung Hero – Summer’s End

Amusing incident of the night has to go to Steve Hackett, who having picked up the Best Bassist award on Lee Pomeroy’s behalf, disappeared and was nowhere to be found when his own award was announced. He did eventually return, but we were deprived of what would, I’m sure, have been a great acceptance speech!

The business done, we returned to the music, with a 2-hour performance, with numerous singers and a full band as well as visual images and a virtual choir, of Clive Nolan’s epic rock opera, ‘Alchemy’. This was not a piece with which I was familiar, but it carried you along with a good narrative, well-told and performed: I shall no doubt return to it in the future.

So, five hours after arriving, we set off back home, thrilled by a great evening of rock in the fabulous company of fellow fans and ‘passengers’. Three highlights for me: seeing Andy Tillison perform – an absolute treat; meeting Dave, David & Danny from Big Big Train – real, genuine guys who seem at times quite bemused by their much-deserved recent accolades; and seeing my young son, James, ask Steve Hackett if he would take a photo of James with Fish (he’d already got one with Steve when he came to Sheffield last year!)

All in all, a wonderful night, and a fitting celebration of another classic year for lovers of Progressive Rock!

 

TrinityLive–May 2014

Matt Cohen.  Shamelessly stolen from Matt's Facebook Page.  Unless progarchy gets a letter from Matt's lawyer, it will remain the image for this post.
Matt Cohen. Shamelessly stolen from Matt’s Facebook Page. Unless progarchy gets a letter from Matt’s lawyer, it will remain the image for this post.

One of our progarchy favorites, Matt Cohen–the Welsh Odysseus of the rock world–posted something quite intriguing today.  The TrinityLive show, forthcoming in May, 2014.  The trinity in question–no, not that Trinity!–The Reasoning, Magenta, and Touchstone.

This is where being an American is a real limitation.  Jealous of our British and European friends who can attend.  Plan now to enjoy.

http://www.trinitylive.co.uk

HRHProg In Pictures

So much to do, so little time…

With half-finished reviews of recent releases from Amplifier and Cosmograf still vying for my attention, I’ve not been feeling much enthusiasm for the idea of writing about my experiences at the recent HRHProg festival at Magna in Rotherham. Thankfully, Alison has spared me the trouble with her excellent account, leaving me free to try something different.

So here it is, in the form of Images Not Words (to misquote Dream Theater). Clicking on any of these photographs takes you to the Carousel, where you can view it at higher resolution and move between photos using the left and right arrow keys. Just a few of my photographs are included here; the full set can be viewed on Flickr.

Beneath The Waves

Cover art for Kompendium's "Beneath The Waves"Fellow Progarchists, may I commend to you the newly-released Beneath The Waves, by Kompendium? I’ve had this on pre-order for a while. The CD/DVD arrived this weekend and it’s truly wonderful.

Kompendium is a side-project of Magenta’s Rob Reed. Beneath The Waves has been under development for three years – which comes as little surprise when you consider the ‘cast of thousands’ involved in making it. Amongst the players, we have: Steve Hackett, Francis Dunnery, John Mitchell, Nick Barrett and Jakko Jakszyk on guitar; Gavin Harrison and Nick Beggs providing the rhythm section; Mel Collins, Troy Donockley and Barry Kerr on sax, pipes and whistles; and Dave Stewart providing string arrangements for the London Session Orchestra.

Vocal contributions are no less impressive: the English Chamber Choir; Synergy Voices; Magenta’s Tina Booth; soprano Shan Cothi and tenor Rhys Meirion; Angharad Brinn and Steve Balsamo filling the lead vocal roles.

So what’s it like?

If you are familiar with Magenta, you will recognise Rob Reed’s handiwork, but Magenta’s classic prog sound has been blended very successfully with symphonic and celtic/folk elements. At times, it feels almost as if Mr Reed has been channelling Mike Oldfield – not a bad thing if, like me, you are an Oldfield fan. There are big, dramatic soundscapes here, worthy of a film score. The vocal and choral work is very fine indeed. There are many layers to explore, and I’m going to enjoy peeling them back over the coming weeks!

There are several tracks up on Youtube that will give you a good feel for the music, but a good place to start is the EPK video: