Earlier this year, I questioned whether or not 2018 was going to be a poor year for prog. It seemed like the the progressive rock community took a few months to stop and take a collective breath… but that was only the breath before the plunge. The second half of the year saw many excellent new releases. The following are some of my favorites from 2018, in no particular order (my top two at the bottom of this list are tied for first place).
2016 has been a pretty horrible year: terrorism, deaths of way too many musical heroes, the recent loss of Prog magazine and the total screwing of all Team Rock employees, personal inability to find a job… Yeah, this year has sucked.
Thankfully, despite these trials, progressive rock has continued to be the most creative and innovative genre in the music business. I always enjoy writing a “best of” list, mainly because it gives me a chance to look over the best music of the year. We prog fans really are spoiled.
Like last year, my 2016 list will be pretty big, and the order is completely arbitrary. I have a numbered top 4, but my top 3 picks for this year are essentially tied for first place. Without further ado, my favorite albums of 2016:
Mike Kershaw – What Lies Beneath (Bad Elephant Music, 2016)
Tracks: Gunning for the Gods (9:30), In Floods the Light (4:20), Dice (4:42), The City Revealed (6:53), Two Eyes (4:20), Wounds (4:45), Another Disguise (5:23), The City of My Dreams (7:04)
I’ve been following Mike Kershaw’s work for a few albums now, and I’m truly impressed with how he has grown as an artist over the past few years. His earlier music, while displaying excellent insightful lyrical content, wasn’t the easiest music to get into. It required a lot of effort on the part of the listener, although that effort was rewarded. What Lies Beneath, however, finds Kershaw at his best to date. Fans of Fractal Mirror will find this music remarkably familiar, yet more upbeat than FM’s music. Featuring a diverse, yet progressive sound, Kershaw’s music sounds fresh and unique.
The similarities between Kershaw and Fractal Mirror exist because FM contributed to this album, much as they did on Kershaw’s previous EP, Departure. In addition to providing lead vocals, backing vocals, and playing keyboards, Kershaw collaborated with quite a number of people on this album:
- Gareth Cole – electric and acoustic guitars, piano
- Leopold Blue-Sky – bass, pedal steel, keys, drums
- Leo Koperdraat – guitar, keys, backing vocals
- Tom Slatter – vocals (track 6), acoustic guitar
- Frank Urbaniak – drums
- Rohan Jordan-Shah – drums
- Joshua Leibowitz – drums
- Marco Vàsquez – keys
- Allyson Blue-Sky – backing vocals
- Stuart Stephens – backing vocals
- Clare Stephens – backing vocals
These collaborations have brought a breath of fresh air and diversity to Kershaw’s wonderful lyrics. This spark of energy shines clear in every aspect of the music, including Kershaw’s vocals. While I believe he still underestimates his vocal abilities, this album showcases his best vocal work to date. One of the best examples of this is on the upbeat track, “Two Eyes,” one of my favorites from the album. The lyrics to this song find the narrator searching through old family photos trying to figure out where he came from in order to find his purpose in life. The drums, courtesy of Urbaniak, set a wonderful rhythm for the song.
“Wounds” features lead vocals from Tom Slatter, whose voice reminds me of Andy John Bradford. Kershaw’s backing vocals work perfectly here, and the change up adds a nice variety to the music. Kershaw’s keyboard solo in the middle of the song is a great high point, as well, bringing back some of the sounds of his earlier albums.
While often keyboard oriented, What Lies Beneath does have its more rock-oriented elements. Throughout the album, the bass guitar keeps a steady, yet complex, flow. Excellent guitar work appears throughout, with some of the best coming at the end of the album with “Another Disguise” and “The City of My Dreams.” The instrumentation is solid throughout, although these songs are definitely lyric oriented.
“The City of My Dreams” builds wonderfully through both the music and the lyrics, and they meld together perfectly, with Kershaw’s vocals taking the spotlight towards the middle. Kershaw ends the album by contemplating on the passage of time through a city, yet it is so much more than that. The beauty of Kershaw’s lyrics is their depth – the more you listen, the more you get out of the music. Indeed, Kershaw is one of the most thought provoking lyricists of the last few years, and he is someone deserving of attention.
This album marks a wonderful step forward for Kershaw, and any fans of Fractal Mirror (whose recent album was also magnificent) should particularly take notice. Fans of prog in general should also take note, for Kershaw’s lyrics continue to impress. Now, with excellent musical collaborations, these lyrics can be appreciated by a more diverse crowd.
Don’t miss James Turner’s interview with Mike Kershaw: https://progarchy.com/2016/08/28/what-lies-beneath-bad-elephant-special-part-2-an-interview-with-mike-kershaw/
Hello Progarchists, welcome back to the second part of my look at the current releases from our friends over at the naughty pachyderm, today I have a review and an interview with Mike Kershaw.
Self taught singer songwriter Mike Kershaw has been working solo for several years now putting out releases that have got better and better, and more acclaim with each release, and his latest album What Lies Beneath (the follow up to 2014s critically acclaimed Ice Age) is Mikes first full length album since signing to Bad Elephant, and Mike was kind enough to chat to me about the album, before we hear from the man himself, lets see what I thought of What Lies Beneath.
This is the second release that Mike has made using guest musicians, and like the previous EP (Departure) signposts a new direction of Mikes working, instead of being fully solo, he has opened the doors and invited in a list of talented musical collaborators and label mates, including the inimitable Tom Slatter, who adds his unique sound to Wounds, whilst Leopold Blu-Sky of Unto Us adds his bass,guitars,keys and drum programming to the mix as well as producing the record, Gareth Cole plays guitar on the album whilst Fractal Mirrors Frank L Urbaniak drums on a few tracks and Leo Koperdraat co-wrote and guests on Two Eyes.
Hey everyone, my apologies for taking so long to get episode 7 recorded. Still, I hope you enjoy it–over two hours of prog and New Wave. This episode features new songs from Big Big Train, Frost*, Mike Kershaw, Airbag, and Ayreon.
In addition, songs from Neal Morse, The Tangent, Salander, The Reasoning, New Model Army, New Order, Foo Fighters, Catherine Wheel, Echo and the Bunnymen, and The Cure.
Ok, I think I’m finally starting to get a little more comfortable with the mic. At least, I’m hoping. . . .
Lots of great tracks today. Music from [Headspace], Mike Kershaw, Kinetic Element, Third Voice, Notice Grace, Cosmograf, Glass Hammer, Yes, Signal to Noise Ratio, Kevin McCormick, Tears for Fears, Sixpence None the Richer, Theaudience.
Having had a chance to listen to a stream (a review copy from the fine folks B/W/R PR) of the new Steven Wilson, I’m very glad to write that it’s profound and good and true and wonderful. I wasn’t so taken with the last album (the RAVEN one), though I thought the first two solo albums quite astounding. And, I pulled out my Chicago DVD show of Porcupine Tree. Sheesh, when Wilson wants to be, he’s incredible. The last solo album I thought a poor mimicry of the work of that ever-wonderful genius, Andy Tillison.
This new album pays homage to late 1970s Rush, but it does so in a way that honors Rush. All to the good.
As the Grammy’s are happening as I write this, I remember how utterly disappointed I was with Wilson a few years ago when he tweeted how sad he was not to have won a Grammy. I responded in my own tweet: “Dear Lord, you are so much better than that!” Or something akin to this.
I meant it.
A Grammy is an albatrossian weight, not a mark or a sign of anything other than bland, tapioca conformity on a corporate scale.
Not watching the Grammy’s, I can happily report that I’m listening to the brand new, deluxe version of Galahad’s EMPIRES NEVER LAST. Let me offer another “sheesh.” What a great album, made even better through remixing and editing. Glorious.
Yesterday, my family and I devoured the new Neal Morse, THE GRAND EXPERIMENT. We are all rather smitten.
Today, I listened to all of Dave Kerzner’s NEW WORLD (deluxe edition) as I made Sunday evening pizza. Again, I’m a rather happy fan.
I also read Bryan Morey’s insightful review of Mike Kershaw’s latest EP, DEPARTURE, featuring lots of FRACTAL MIRROR talent. This got me to thinking about Greg Spawton and his ability to form communities–not only around himself immediately in BBT, but also through the internet. Kershaw, Urbaniak, Kull. . . what a crazy bunch of proggers we all are. And, that Morey. He’s a natural.
And, now, I patiently await the arrival of the new Glass Hammer.
I’m sorry–what awards show is going on tonight? Yeah, I’ve got much better things to listen to, thank you very much.
Way back at the end of August, in my review of Mike Kershaw’s Ice Age, I said I was looking forward to future releases from Mike. Well, here we are! And Departure is even better than Ice Age!
Departure basically picks up where Ice Age left off. The first track, “Farewell,” is a goodbye to the long winter spoken of at length in the previous album (sounds great right about now in the frozen tundra of southern Michigan). This song is my favorite on the album. It is very upbeat, and it features Progarchy’s very own Frank Urbaniak (Fractal Mirror) on drums, as well as Gareth Cole on guitar. I believe the collaboration took Mike Kershaw’s musical ideas to the next level. The song is reminds me very much of Fractal Mirror. Interestingly enough, when I first heard Fractal Mirror, it reminded me of Mike Kershaw’s music. I was really excited when I saw that Mike collaborated with them on this EP.
Thematically, Departure is not as structured as Ice Age, presumably because it is a shorter EP, and because not every song here is new. The song “Origami” was recorded during the Ice Age sessions, and “An Ordinary Poison,” which was recorded with Fractal Mirror, is a re-recording of an older song Mike Kershaw made. This is also especially good. Overall, the EP is heavily synth driven, just like Mike’s earlier work. It seems like there is a little more guitar work here as well, which I think is a nice improvement. Frank Urbaniak’s drums are fantastic, bringing a smooth rhythm and driving beat to the music. The added vocals from Fractal Mirror’s Leo Koperdraat, among others, was a nice added touch. As always, Mike’s deep, quiet vocals add a wonderful sense of contemplation to the music.
The songs on Departure do a wonderful job of combining Mike’s creative talent with his collaborations. The songs that are strictly Mike Kershaw are more like his older work, with a darker, brooding sense to them. The collaborated pieces have a more upbeat and fuller sound to them. Overall, there is a good balance of styles on this EP. For those that couldn’t quite get into Ice Age, I’m sure you will find Departure to be more accessible. I believe that this EP marks a definite step forward for Mr. Kershaw, and I am excited to see what else he has forthcoming in the months ahead.
In a world of true justice, Flying Colors would be blaring from every car stereo tuned to album rock radio across North America. Not only does SECOND NATURE have the single best album cover of the year, but the album is absolutely riveting. It’s not quite prog, though, as with the best of AOR, it contains great prog elements. Everything fits perfectly here. The lyrics are solid, the vocals are superior. The final two songs—Peaceful Harbor and Cosmic Symphony (sort of a gospel prog)—alone are worth the entire album. But, the entire album is, thankfully, worth the entire album. For me, every time I listen to this album, I’m transported back to 1985. This would have sounded great next to Power Windows. And, unquestionably, Peaceful Harbor would easily outdo almost any contemporary worship song should churches look for some good new music.
Largely unsung in the press, Mike Kershaw offers a rare noir beauty, a kind of moody deepness rare in almost all popular art, on 2014’s major release, ICE AGE. Kershaw’s music reminds me quite a bit of another profound prog act, Fractal Mirror. Each looks to the Bauhaus of the early 80s, progging it up, making it relevant in the modern age. Kershaw offers us a rather dark Narnia.
One of America’s greatest gems is Cailyn Lloyd, though too few Americans know of her. In every way, Cailyn is a wonder. She arranges and writes her own music, plays all of her own instruments, and records and engineers her albums. Her specialty—bringing classical music and blues (think Stevie Ray Vaughn)—to the rock world. Reading this, you might first think of ELP. And, there’s a connection. But, whereas ELP was always “over the top,” Cailyn is as tasteful as tasteful can be. Her latest release, VOYAGER, is a must own for any lover of music, whatever the genre.
America’s newest and coolest immigrant, Simon Godfrey, has taken up residence in the City of Brotherly Love. For whatever reason, though, Philadelphia seems to have made him even more English, especially in his unrelenting wit. Godfrey’s latest, MOTHERLAND, is more in the “singer-songwriter” camp than prog, but it matters not. His voice drips with conviction, and this very warm album will enliven the soul of any listener. The best song of a great album is “The Inaccurate Man.”
America is doing quite well in 2014. Everyone’s favorite Kerry Kompost (FB name) is back with Heliopolis and the new album, CITY OF THE SUN, a stunning work of art that has taken several years to make. And, the time was well worth it. Of all prog releases this year, this is one of the two or three most unapologetically prog in the traditional sense. Quite heavy and eccentric, it builds and builds throughout the album, taking the listener on a psychedelic ride. Mix Black Sabbath, The Doors, and King Crimson, and you start to get a sense of what Heliopolis is. Whether Heliopolis takes its name—band and/or album title—from the famous Renaissance poem of the same name or not, I’m not sure. But, I do know that these guys have delivered something well worth adoring.
Nothing Matt Stevens does is unimportant in our world. His vocal-less music carries more voice and speaks more humanely than almost anything else in the music world. The man loves his guitar, and he love beauty, and he loves harmony. LUCID takes Matt’s voice a step further. He’s also had a King Crimson/Leo Kottke strain to him, but this album is even more Matt than Matt. It’s so incredible that no words I could employ right now could do justice to it. And, speaking of justice, Matt has received some huge accolades. But, he deserves so many more.
Who would have thought an EP would make it into a best of list? Well, Galahad already has. Now, it’s Haken’s turn. Unlike Galahad, though, Haken gives us three brand new songs with RESTORATION. I have to thank my great Facebook friend, Richard Thresh, for first introducing me to Haken. Chris Morrissey has already reviewed the EP here at progarchy, and I agree with every word. So, no need for me to blather more.
Finally, for part III of my best of, the band that Richard and I were discussing when he brought up Haken: Threshold. I really, really like these guys, though I’m generally not quite as metal as all of what’s to be found on their latest album, FOR THE JOURNEY. It’s as dark in its metal as MARCH OF PROGRESS was driving. There’s a lot in common between the two albums, especially thematically. Each deals with the fragility of life and social stability. The two albums seem to me to be two sides of the same thing, much in the way that it’s rather natural to listen to HEMISPHERES after listening to FAREWELL TO KINGS. If you like prog metal, it doesn’t get better than Threshold or Haken.
And, soon to come. . . Part IV.
Admittedly, Mike Kershaw’s music is new to me, and his style is not something I typically listen to. However, I have found Ice Age
to be a detailed and complex album, definitely worthy of attention. The lyrics are hauntingly beautiful, and the keyboard driven music draws upon music from the 1970s and 80s, yet it still strikes me as being mysterious and unique. The steady drums and the interplay of the soft guitar make it all the more enjoyable to listen to.
Interestingly enough, after listening to the album, it struck me as being very “northern European.” Being an American with strictly northern and northeastern European ancestry, this music seems vaguely familiar. It is cold, yet warm underneath. It seems unapproachable at first, but once you give it a listen, it draws you in. Ice Age is an album that I believe J.R.R. Tolkien’s character Túrin Turambar, from The Silmarillion, would have on his iPod. If you haven’t read the book, you have no idea what I’m talking about. If you have, I think you might agree that this album has a very dark, brooding, and foreboding nature to it, much like Túrin. The album questions the future while looking back to warmer and happier days.
Ice Age maintains a very serious tone throughout the album, yet it becomes steadily more upbeat as the album progresses. Lyrically, the album is more hopeful in the beginning, focusing on a remembrance of happier times, yet still acknowledging turmoil ahead. As the album moves on, the lyrics become darker and focus on mere survival in the impending ice age. Yet, through all of that, aurally the album becomes more upbeat beginning with the 7th (of 9) song, “Tomorrow’s Door.” There is a distinct turn in the album with that song. The pace of the music quickens, almost as if someone has turned a pleasant walk into a jog. By the end the jog turns into a run. I find it interesting that Mr. Kershaw chose to make the album lyrically darker as it became aurally brighter. It reminds me of a bright winter day in northern Illinois, where the sun is shining, yet the temperature is -30 degrees Fahrenheit. Things can seem bright and cheery, but they really aren’t.
With that said, the cover art for this album is perfect. You see remnants of civilization, with what I believe is a streetlamp, with glaciers rising behind it, and in the shadow of the ice age, you see a single, solitary individual. You see the brightness of the sun reflecting off the ice and snow, yet the lyrics remind you of the cold and despair. It isn’t often when the artwork for an album so perfectly depicts the point the music is trying to get across.
Interspersed throughout the lyrics of the album, I found a gem that I particularly like. In the 5th song, entitled “Blossom Falls,” Kershaw sings:
We give our lives to progress
We pour them down the drain
These lines could not be more true, and he echoes the same sentiment elsewhere in the album. So often people devote their lives to an Aristotelian ideal of progress without remembering the mistakes and consequences of the past. When we do that, we wage the risk of wasting our lives by making the same past mistakes. Well said Mr. Kershaw. The lyrics of this album, for me, are definitely the best part of the music.
In the end, Ice Age, I believe, may take some effort to enjoy. To appreciate the complexity of the album, one really needs to devote their whole attention to it for the duration of the album. Believe me, though, it is worth it. I look forward to future releases from Mike Kershaw. The haunting beauty of his deep voice, the keyboards, drums, and guitars makes for an enthralling album.