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).
After failing to post any “Favorite Music of 2015…” lists last year, I’ve decided that I should avoid elaborate explanations for my choices, but simply note a thing or two about each release that captured my ears and held my attention. I’ve also decided to post three separate but fairly short lists: Prog/Rock, Jazz, and Everything Else. In short, I’m trying to kill my propensity for overkill. I suspect I’ll fail! Here, first, are my picks for favorite prog & rock albums of the past year (give or take a few months):
• “The Prelude Implicit” by Kansas | This is, I think, one of the best feel-good stories in prog of 2016. After all, Kansas could have just kept touring and playing the same old—ranging from good to great to classic—tunes. Instead, they produced a very good, even great, album. As I wrote in my Progarchy.com review: “In short, the band has found a commendable and impressive balance between old and new, with plenty of prog-heavy, classic Kansas-like passages, but with an emphasis on ensemble playing over solos. … Kansas is to be commended for embracing their past while clearly moving forward with a confident and often exceptional collection of songs. Highly recommended for both longtime Kansas fans and for those who like melodic, well-crafted prog that puts the emphasis on memorable songs and musical cohesion over theatrics and solos.”
• “Secrets” by Ian Fletcher Thornley | I was initially flummoxed by this album, expecting a variation on the hard-rocking, high energy music of Big Wreck and Thornley, both fronted, of course, by the prolific Canadian singer, guitarist, writer, and producer. I finally listened to it late one night, in the dark, and I finally heard it on its own terms: acoustic, reflective, mellow, mournful, defiant, sad, and yet shot through with a sense of cautious hope. Thornley demonstrates that his remarkable writing skills are equal to his vocal prowess, which is an aural wine bearing hints of Big Country (“Frozen Pond”), Chris Cornell (“Feel”), Peter Gabriel (“Stay”), Bruce Springsteen (“Just To Know I Can”), and Jeff Buckley (“Blown Wide Open”). In the end, this is a modern blues record featuring every shade and hue of sadness, longing, and loss.
In the process of putting together an end-of-the-year book list for CWR, I came upon my 2004 post on my favorite books and music of 2004. The music list is quite interesting, with just one overtly prog album (Pain of Salvation’s “Be,” which is, in hindsight, one of my least favorite POS releases), and a fair amount of jazz (no surprise) and country (some surprise). I’m glad to say I still listen to much of the music on that list.
This year, I’ve decided to break my music picks from 2014 into three categories: prog/rock, jazz, and the kitchen sink (country, electronica, weirdness). I want to emphasize “favorite” here because there were so many releases I simply didn’t get to, despite uploading over 6500 songs in the past 12 months. Ah well!
And I’m going to try to keep it short and simple, with the exception of my thoughts on my #1 pick in prog, which is also my Favorite Album of the Year. What is it? Read on!
Favorite Prog and Rock Albums of 2014:
12. “Live at Rome Olympic Stadium” by Muse and “Tales from the Netherlands” by Mystery. Muse is about as proggy as a mega-selling, world-famous band can be, known for putting on live performances that are equally energetic and well played. This July 2013 performance is no exception, with the trio ripping through nineteen of their eclectic songs, ranging from from electro-tinged funk (“Panic Station”) to Queen-ish pomp (“Knights of Cydonia”) to Floyd-ish slyness (“Animals”). The DVD is very impressive, not only because it was filmed with HD/4K cameras but also because the band is at the top of their game.
Mystery is fronted by Benoit David, who was lead singer for Yes for a short time a few years ago, before illness led to his firing. David never seemed comfortable with Yes, but his work with Mystery is of the highest caliber. The Montreal-based group is lead by multi-instrumentalist Michel St-Père (guitars, keyboards, bass, production) and has an epic, soaring sound built on fabulous melodies and exquisitely structured songs. The production, for a live album, is excellent, and David (who has since left the group) is in top form; this is not easy music to navigate vocally, yet he nails it at every twist and turn.
11. “Magnolia” by Pineapple Thief. Bruce Soord has more talent in his toes than most alt-bands have in their entirety, whether it be as a writer, producer, player, or singer. I’ve enjoyed everything from Pineapple Thief, but this collection of incisive, beautifully burnished tunes is Soord’s best work yet, the sort of intelligent, catchy, and detailed modern rock that deserves to be all over the airwaves. Classic Rock magazine sums it nicely: “Small but perfectly formed pockets of 21st century prog.”
10. “The Ocean At the End” by Tea Party. I was thrilled that this Canadian trio (now based in Australia) got together again after several years apart; I still listen to their early albums (“Splendor Solis”, “Edges of Twilight”) which feature an overt Led Zep vibe with a brooding, even epic, melancholy, rooted in Jeff Martin’s powerful voice and bluesy guitar playing. The latter quality is more in evidence here, and the rocking cuts (“Brazil” and “The Cass Corridor”) are the least enjoyable for me. The highlights are the dark cover of “The Maker,” the aching “Black Roses”, and the tour de force “The Ocean at the End”. Distinctive, powerful, emotive rock.
9. “Beyond the Visable Light” by Ovrfwrd. This album made a late charge on my playlist, as each listen revealed deeper layers of detail, melody, and interplay. The four-man group from Minneapolis is instrumental only, with an emphasis on group dynamics and song structures that are complex but very accessible. There is a lot of territory covered in the 5-song, 48-minute-long album, with grungy, propulsive passages melting into subtle, jazz-ish sections, and then giving way to Deep Purple-ish organ, and so forth. Great use of piano throughout, which brings a distinctive detail to the entire, enjoyable affair. Continue reading “From Carl’s Critical Kitchen: A Baker’s Dozen of Tasty Prog/Rock from 2014”
I’ll skip my usual apologia attempting to explain my long absence from this fine blog and instead spend my limited, if not valuable time, remarking on four recent prog and proggy albums that have been found a home on my regular iTunes rotation. I may write longer reviews of a couple of these albums, but some short remarks are better than none.
• Asia — Resonance (The Omega Tour, 2010; released 2012): After Kansas, Asia was the group that first introduced me into the world of prog, back in the early to mid-1980s, when I was an innocent small town Montana boy making my way through high school. I recall seeking out books and magazines that explained the musical pedigree of Downes, Howe, Palmer, and Wetton, and thus being introduced to early King Crimson, ELP, Yes, and more. I know that Asia has been a source of debate among prog fans, some of whom dismiss and even deride the group; I’ll just say that I really liked and still do like the first two albums, Asia and Alpha, and make no excuses for the warm and gratifying nostalgia they bring to the surface whenever I play them. And, truth be told, I’m partial to the third album, Astra, which marked the first of two billion line-up changes (Mandy Meyer took over guitar from Howe, who had departed), as it is actually a good, hook-heavy example of what might be call “arena prog” or “pop prog” or something similar. Anyhow, the original line-up has been back for a while—and getting solid to excellent reviews—and this live album documents the group’s 2010 tour. I’ve heard cuts from earlier live albums by Asia, and have found most of them disappointing, especially in the vocal department. But this album, dare I say it, is rather stunning, both in terms of the outstanding sound quality and the amazing power and clarity of Wetton’s voice. Wetton, to my ear, sounds just as good as he did on the studio cuts from the early and mid ’80s, which is saying something. The playing is excellent, of course; my only small beef is that the drums seem a bit back in the mix, although there is an extended and fine drum solo on “The Heat Goes On”. Otherwise, a great mix of cuts, with some nice acoustic-oriented variations of old hits such as “Don’t Cry” and “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes”.
• Proto-kaw: Forth (2011): Speaking of Kansas, the group Proto-kaw was the second of three early incarnations of what eventually became simply “Kansas” in 1973. The key constant in those groups was songwriter, lyricist, guitarist, and keyboardist Kerry Livgren, who conquered the world with Kansas in the 1970s (“Dust in the Wind”, anyone?), had a run of contemporary Christian rock albums in the 1980s (both solo and with the group AD), and then reformed Kansas and Proto-kaw in the 1990s. (Fun fact: metal legend Ronny James Dio sang lead on two songs on Livgren’s first solo album, “Seeds of Change”, in 1980.) All three of the newer Proto-kaw albums are worth checking out, and that is especially true of Forth, the most cohesive and fully realized album yet by the group. What strikes me, as a longtime fan of Kansas, is how much classical influence there is in Livgren’s writing, as his songs often have a suite-like quality that builds on either strings or keyboards/guitars that act as a strings section. Proto-kaw, like all Livgren-led bands, has dual lead singers (yes, Steve Walsh was a the primary singer in Kansas, but Robby Steinhardt sang lead or co-lead on numerous songs), and features excellent and often complex harmonies, masterfully constructed arrangements, and strong songwriting. One distinctive element is the presence of saxophone and flute (John Bolton), used to great affect in song such as “Pilgrim’s Wake”, one of my favorite cuts on Forth. A must listen for anyone with a soft spot for 1970s Kansas. And, speaking of Kansas (again!), this year marks the 40th anniversary of the group’s founding; I plan a couple of posts about the group and some of my favorite Kansas albums and songs.
• Mystery: The World Is a Game (2012): How embarrassing it is to admit that prior to the Yes album, Fly From Here (2011), I had no idea who Benoît David was. Having replaced Jon Anderson and toured with Yes—and then having himself been replaced due to his own respiratory issues—the talented vocalist worked on his third album with veteran Canadian proggers Mystery, a group he had joined in 1999. Having not heard any of his work with Mystery (which my iTunes annoyingly tagged as “The Mystery”), I was surprised—in a good way—that David did not sound like Anderson and that the group does not sound much like Yes, although the influence is present. In fact, at times David sounds more like another great Canadian singer, Geddy Lee. The two words that keep coming to mind after repeated listens of this exceptional album are “melodic” and “soaring”. The vocals soar, the guitars (by band founder, guitarist, lyricist, and producer Michel St-Père) soar, and the songs soar with a wonderful sense of discovery, melancholy, joy, and introspection, a not-so-easy mixture to navigate. And then there is the drumming of Nick D’Virgilio, who is rightly revered as one of the finest drummers in the prog/rock world. His drumming is, in a word, orchestral, and it is reason alone for buying this fine release. But, for me (a vocalist junkie), it is David who is the revelation here, especially after hearing his solid but rather emotionless performance on Fly From Here. In the words of a reviewer on ProgArchives.com, “Finally vocalist Benoit David proves what a versatile and commanding singer he is, a million miles away from the Yes/Jon Anderson clone dismissals. It’s also great to hear his voice so full of human feeling and compassion again after being so over-produced and rendered mostly lifeless on the Yes album `Fly From Here’!” Exactly right.
• Godsticks: The Envisage Conundrum (2013): Here is a group (from South Wales) I knew nothing about a week ago, but has captured my attention in a way that only a few groups have on first listen. Explaining why is a bit difficult; the difficulty arises, in part, from the most enjoyable fact this is a group that is very hard to describe or label or situate in the universe of prog/rock music. Nearly every review I’ve read says the same, and rightly so. One of those reviews, by Adrian Bloxham, puts it well: ” The world of Godsticks is not straightforward; they seem to have baffled other reviewers trying to pigeon hole them. They make their own brand of what they describe as ‘progressive rock/pop, but it is very much their own take on the sound. You get the idea that this is exactly the music they have inside their heads trying to get out and if you like it they will be pleased but that’s not why they do what they do.” The one influence I hear is later King Crimson, but even that is hard to pinpoint, although the angular, often astonishing guitar work by guitarist/singer Darran Charles brings it to mind in several places. None of the songs are longer than seven minutes in length, but some of them pack in more twists, turns, veers, swerves, and surprises in five or six minutes than many bands can pack into songs three times as long. The title cut is a perfect example. It begins with a chugging, almost “boogie” riff out of which emerges a spider-like flurry of notes, leading into a wall of harmonized vocals over a heavy, grunge-like riff backed by the tight, slightly funky, never quite straight forward rhythm section of Steve Roberts (drums, keys) and Dan Nelson (bass). Charles’ voice is part of the mystery here, a strong, clear instrument that manages to be intense, detached, soulful, and slyly humorous (and occasionally darkly smirking) all at once. There is an abundance of odd chords, meters, notes, and harmonies, sometimes, to my ear, sounding like a Robert Fripp-inspired space alien sibling of Soundgarden. And did I mention the album features a 3:49 piano solo by Roberts that could easily have made it onto one of Keith Jarrett’s solo albums? Followed by a three-part suite—”Borderstomp”, parts 1-3—that sometimes calls to mind Steve Vai? Not straightforward, indeed!