Kruekutt’s 2020 Favorites: Not Necessarily New Albums

This year, I’m starting off my “best of” retrospective with albums that aren’t technically “new” — compilations, live albums, reissues and (re)discoveries from previous years — that grabbed me on first listen, then compelled repeated plays in 2020. I’m not gonna rank them except for my Top Pick, 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!) Where available, listening opportunities are linked in the album title or included below my summary via Bandcamp, YouTube or Spotify.

Big Big Train, Summer’s Lease (compilation) and Empire (live): This year, I’ve bought music from even more far-flung corners of the world than usual — including Big Big Train’s Japanese-only retrospective. Disc 1 features various rarities on CD for the first time: re-recordings old and new (including excerpts from my intro to the band, the Stone and Steel Blu-Ray), plus the “London Song” sequence from Folklore in all its sprawling glory. Disc 2 leans into the post-Underfall Yard era with a solid mix of epics and, um, shorter epics, plus an unreleased instrumental as dessert. It’s all impeccably curated, and (in retrospect) a fitting capstone to the work of recently departed Train crew Dave Gregory Rachel Hall and Danny Manners. In a similar fashion, Empire is a fond farewell — the last concert played by this incarnation of the band (including Cosmograf’s Robin Armstrong) before COVID-19 killed off their first-ever North American tour. Which makes the entire show, brilliantly performed as always, even more poignant, from the rocket-fueled opener “Alive” to the romantic, spiraling coda for the best version of “East Coast Racer” yet. Sorry, there’s something in my eye . . .

The Firesign Theatre, How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All (rediscovery): This spring, my big brother Bob pointed me back to this 1969 classic — quite possibly the single most insane comedy album ever recorded. The half-hour long title track’s surrealistic road trip morphs into a wickedly irreverent (yet oddly touching) patriotic pageant, with stopover cameos from Lewis Carroll and James Joyce; “The Further Adventures Of Nick Danger,” memorized and mimed to by me and my roommates back in college, is a hallucinogenic smoothie of hardboiled detective drama, time travel and the Beatles’ White Album. “Wait a minute — didn’t I say that line on the other side of the record?” Believe me, you need to find out.

Pat Mastelotto and Markus Reuter, FACE (discovery): My New Year’s resolution was to become a MoonJune Music subscriber through Bandcamp; twelve months later, it’s still one of the best musical decisions I made. In recent years, touch guitarist Reuter has become a major contributor to Leonardo Pavkovic’s ongoing quest to “explore and expand boundaries of jazz, rock, ethnographic, avant, the unknown and anything between and beyond,” frequently joined by King Crimson drummer Mastelotto (his partner with Tony Levin in Stick Men). The 2017 FACE (not actually on MoonJune) stands out in the duo’s catalog: a single, 35-minute instrumental travelogue that swiftly spans the globe and its myriad rhythms, aided and abetted by Steven Wilson and associates of David Lynch, Tool and the Rembrandts. Blink with your ears and you’ll miss the transitions from theme to theme and place to place; this one both demands and thoroughly rewards my attention every time. Hopefully, the excerpts linked above will convince you — don’t hesitate to hop on board!

The Neal Morse Band, The Great Adventour Live in Brno (live): every bit as impressive as when I saw this show in Detroit the same year, the NMB’s concert take on The Great Adventure is even tighter, more driven and more finely honed than the studio version. Kaleidoscopic contrasts of rhythm, instrumental color, vocal textures (mainly from Morse, guitarist Eric Gillette and keyboardist Bill Hubauer) and tonality mesh effortlessly with drummer Mike Portnoy and bassist Randy’s George’s badass forward propulsion, mirroring the lyrical highs and lows of the journey to John Bunyan’s Celestial City. The result is sustained, extended, unforced ecstasy in the Czech audience, capturing how Morse’s recent work embodies the ongoing ideal of American revivalist religion. A journey worth taking, whether you caught this in person or not.

Jaco Pastorius, Truth, Liberty and Soul: Live in NYC (live, archival, discovery): 2020 was the year I came across Resonance Records, where “jazz detective” Zev Feldman has been unearthing incredible archival treasures for nearly a decade. Jaco Pastorius single-handedly revolutionized electric bass playing in the 1970s; this 2017 release captures him in 1982, fresh from his boundary-busting stint in jazz-rock titans Weather Report. Fronting a big band of great players — the best New York horns, the drum/percussion duo of Peter Erskine and Don Alias, Othello Molineaux on steel pans and harmonica virtuoso Toots Thielmanns — Pastorius mixes classic tunes with his own soulful writing. It’s a mighty, bubbling noise — jazz, funk, rock, reggae, swing and more, with a groove that never stops and heart behind the flash. Irresistible for anyone with a pulse!

Porcupine Tree, In Absentia (deluxe reissue): Not the Porcupine Tree album that hooked me (that was Deadwing, promised its own deluxe box next year) but, looking back, my firm favorite of the band’s late period. Freshly signed to the American label that brought us Trans Siberian Orchestra, Steven Wilson and company made the polar opposite of a sentimental holiday album, focusing on the inner motivations of — serial killers? What makes that work? Well, how about: the full-on debut of Gavin Harrison’s stylish, rhythmically slippery drumming; Richard Barbieri’s off-center, arresting synth textures and solos; Colin Edwin’s relentless, incomparably steady bass workouts; Steven Wilson’s reignited love of metal slamming up against the songcraft developed on Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun, as well as a fixation with Beach Boys-tinged harmonies? Oh, and a clutch of superior tunes that became perennial favorites, both on the main album (“Blackest Eyes,” “Trains,” “The Sound of Muzak”) and the bonus disc (“Drown With Me,” “Futile”). Add in subtle yet superb remastering and you have a near-perfect example of how these boxes should be done.

Pure Reason Revolution, The Dark Third (reissue): At a time when progressive rock’s troops were thin on the ground, PRR provided reinforcements — and a breath of fresh air. It’s still hard to believe a major label released The Dark Third back in 2006; the effortlessly evolving long-form suites, the sweet-and-sour pairings of lush soundscapes and jacked-up beats were a vivid variant on Pink Floyd’s classic palette that turned the bass and drums up to 11. Jon Courtney, Chloe Alper and their cohorts weave the webs of melody and harmony; Paul Northfield’s co-production brings out the cavernous bottom end. The new bonus disc includes both the intriguing student work that led to Sony signing PRR and outtakes that showed up in different forms on later albums. Always an booming, blissed-out listen, now more inviting than ever.

Tears for Fears, The Seeds of Love (reissue): A marvelously all-over-the-place, widescreen record. Unabashedly pop but also fearlessly expanding the TFF sound into psychedelia (the title track was everywhere back in 1989), soul (big shout-out to Oleta Adams and Tessa Niles, who pushed Roland Orzbaal and Curt Smith to new vocal heights on “Woman in Chains” & “Swords & Knives”), jazz (Nicky Holland & Adams serve up stunningly tasty piano), world music (Jon Hassell’s superlative trumpet on “Standing on the Corner of the Third World” & “Famous Last Words”) and even a touch of prog-funk on “Year of the Knife.’ The squeaky-clean remaster (plenty of headroom and dynamic range) is dandy, but if you need more, the super-deluxe set linked above includes some dynamite rehearsal recordings.

and my Top Pick . . .

Ella Fitzgerald, The Lost Berlin Tapes (live, archival): My recent listening has tacked in the direction of mainstream jazz; if I had to speculate as to why, I’d say I might be looking for less tension and more release during my unobligated time. But what’s on offer is a factor as well. Instead of baking sourdough bread or taking up acoustic guitar during the time of COVID, it’s as if jazz musicians and aficionados have all dug deep in their closets and simultaneously unearthed long lost vintage recordings — which record companies eager to fill their distribution pipelines have snapped up and launched into the wider world. 

This, in my view, is the best of that harvest: an astounding, life-affirming 1962 concert buried in the archives of Ella Fitzgerald’s manager until now. Ella and her fellas (Paul Smith on piano, Wilfred Middlebrooks on bass, Stan Levey on drums) are at their absolute peak, in tune with each other and with an extroverted, enthralled Berlin audience. Every note of this concert radiates warmth and inner joy, even when the mood darkens on torch songs like “Cry Me A River” and Billie Holiday’s “Good Morning Heartache.” And when Ella swings on “Jersey Bounce,” jumps on “Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie,” digs into Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah, I Love Him So” (resulting in an immediate, complete encore!), then breaks into her trademark scatting on “Mack the Knife,” well, she is unstoppable. I have had no finer feeling listening to music this year; whatever may ail your soul, I believe that The Lost Berlin Tapes are good medicine for it.

But wait, there’s more! Watch for my “new album” favorites from 2020 coming soon . . .

— Rick Krueger

Prog More, Spend Less: Radiant Records 3-Day Sale

radiant recordsRadiant Records–the company founded and owned by Neal Morse–is having a three-day sale, with the wonderful tagline, “Prog more, spend less.”

The sales are on cds/DVDs/ and/or blu-rays of MORSEFEST2015, SNOW LIVE, SIMILITUDE OF A DREAM, ALIVE AGAIN, KaLIVEoscope, TESTIMONY 2, MOMENTUM, GOD WON’T GIVE UP, and SO MANY ROADS.

Frankly, all specular releases.

To go to the sale (which ends this Friday), go here: http://www.radiantrecords.com/category/191735-bargain-bin.aspx

The Albums that Changed My Life: #6, Songs of Travel & On Wenlock Edge by Ralph Vaughan Williams

by Rick Krueger

In our casually audiophile age of 96 kHz/24 bit BluRays and 180-gram virgin vinyl, it may be hard to comprehend what a difference digital recording made when it came of age in the late 1970s.   I remember cueing up Keith Jarrett’s Concerts: Bregenz, München and being blown away as much by the background silence, the clarity and depth of the piano sound, and the extended dynamic range as by Jarrett’s freewheeling improvisations.  The compact disc was still in the future — but at that point, after suffering through muddy, distorted mass-produced pressings of way too many albums, it seemed like that future was all upside.

Classical record companies were the most fervent backers of digital recording from the beginning; the prospect of “perfect sound forever” made both corporate executives and their target demographic (single men with money or credit to burn — surprise!) salivate in anticipated ecstasy.  Certainly, as I built a classical collection during graduate school, the word “Digital” on the front cover of a record always counted in its favor.

That’s one reason I picked up the album pictured above.  Another reason: I’d already heard some fine Mahler recordings by the young conductor Simon Rattle, precociously helming the scrappy City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.  And there was one more burning question: was Benjamin Britten right about Ralph Vaughan Williams?

Continue reading “The Albums that Changed My Life: #6, Songs of Travel & On Wenlock Edge by Ralph Vaughan Williams”

Neal Morse Inner Circle Goes TOTALLY Digital. NOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!

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Not cool.

Over the last several weeks, Neal Morse has announced that his venerable INNER CIRCLE club is going exclusively digital.

To state that this infuriates me would be going way too far.  To state that I’m unhappy, however, would not be an exaggeration.

Not only have I been a proud INNER CIRCLE member for years, but I’ve also got my own Neal Morse display in my office–in all of its tangible (yes, TANGIBLE) and technicolor glory.

Do I want downloads?  No.  I don’t want downloads from Neal Morse or from Glass Hammer or from The Tangent or from Riverside or from NAO or from Big Big Train.

As far as I’m concerned, sadly, Neal Morse’s INNER CIRCLE is done.  Whatever it was (and, it was brilliant), it’s over.

I’m so tired of the world moving toward nothing but digital.  We (or, at least I) love prog because everything is so well done–the lyrics, the music, the playing, and the art.  I want an album or a CD or a DVD or a blu-ray.  A down load is just not cheap, but, frankly, tacky.

Mr. Morse, please, please, please reconsider this.

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Very cool.

 

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My Neal Morse Shrine.  Very, very cool.

 

Progarchy Radio–Mike Portnoy Special

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Michael Stephen Portnoy, b. 1967

As many of you probably already know, Mike Portnoy–drum and compositional demigod–turns 50 in April.  Mike, Happy Birthday!  We love you, man!!!

I’ve had the great privilege of seeing Portnoy live many, many times, and it’s never anything but an absolute treat.  For 25 years, Mike has been driving prog rock forward and bringing to the fans, delight after delight.  My wife (who has gone to all of the concerts with me) agrees completely.

This entire two-hour episode of Progarchy Radio is dedicated to the inspired genius of Mike Portnoy.  I play the entire twelve-step suite as well as music from Flying Colors, Big Elf, Transatlantic, the Neal Morse Band, Yellow Matter Custard, and the Morse-Portnoy-George Cover-to-Cover project.

Mike, happy birthday and thank you!  –Yours, Brad

 

Progarchy Radio, Episode 14

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Part I, 2010.

Our first show since Halloween!  Lots of great music on this one.  Four thirty-minute sets with only minimal talking on my part.  A restrained DJ am I!  Promise.

Set I

  • The Fierce and the Dead, Parts I-III

Continue reading “Progarchy Radio, Episode 14”

The Neal Morse Band Live – 2017 Tour Kickoff

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The Tour T-Shirt

A fired-up and ready-to-rock Neal Morse Band kicked off its 2017 Similitude Of A Dream Tour last night at RockeTown in Nashville, TN. They performed the entire album before an ecstatic crowd, most of whom knew every word of the 2-disc magnum opus.

This was a different kind of show than Neal and his band mates have performed before. It’s clear that they want the album as a whole to take center stage, and not the musicians themselves. For instance, Neal did not even address the audience until after Shortcut To Salvation, which was in the second half of the set. Mike spoke briefly before Freedom Song. Other than those breaks, the focus was entirely on the songs.

The performance began with a darkly cowled Neal singing Long Day off to the side, illuminated with a handheld light. Then the entire group exploded into Overture, and we were off on an adventure through all kinds of trials and tribulations. Throughout the show stunning videos complemented the songs, and Neal wore various masks and outfits.

As a group, Neal, Mike, Randy, Bill, and Eric have melded into a mighty musical force. When Randy George and Mike Portnoy lock into their groove, the result is ferocious thunder. Eric Gillette has matured into an extraordinary guitarist and vocalist (give him more lead vocals!), and Bill Hubauer’s keyboards and vocals are always rock-solid. Neal, of course, is the consummate showman – singing, pulling off amazing guitar solos, and mugging for the crowd before every keyboard showcase.

But the real star of the evening was The Similitude of a Dream. Everything was done in service to the tale of a pilgrim on a spiritual journey – one that went from the City Of Destruction through doubt, fear, confusion, sloth, and battle until he reaches the shining city on a hill. When I first heard TSOAD, I liked it, but I wasn’t knocked out – it was just too sprawling a work for me to take in. After last night’s performance, I get it now. It all holds together as a unified work of art, and it is a beautiful allegory.

Highlights of the show were So Far Gone, where everyone takes a turn on lead vocals; a very moving Breath of Angels, which ended the first half; Shortcut to Salvation; a heavy Man in the Iron Cage; an all-acoustic Freedom Song; and the concluding Broken Sky/Long Day. By the end, everyone was wrung out and happy.

For an encore, the band tore through rip-roaring renditions of Momentum, Agenda, and The Call. Lasting nearly three hours, it was a very satisfying evening. The boys travel to Seattle and other parts west before heading up to Canada and then over to Europe and Israel. If there is any way you can catch this show, do it – it’s an amazing visual and musical experience.

Tour details can be found here.

What I Liked This Year

I wasn’t too adventurous in my listening this year – maybe because artists I’m already familiar with released so much good music that they kept me busy!

Here’s what I liked in 2016 in the world of prog:

Tales_from_Topographic_Oceans_(Yes_album)10. Yes: Tales From Topographic Oceans (Blu-ray ed.)

Technically not a 2016 release, but with Steven Wilson’s 5.1 mix, this is a new album to my ears. This has everything a Yes fan could ask for – versions of TFTO that include the original mix, a radio promo, a “needle-drop” vinyl transfer, an instrumental version, in addition to Wilson’s new mixes – literally hours of music. A sometimes maligned work gets its proper release, and it really shines.

 

The Mute Gods9. The Mute Gods: Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me

I love Nick Beggs’ blend of 70s – era FM rock with snappy songwriting. Turns out he’s much more than one of the best bassists ever.

 

Continue reading “What I Liked This Year”

The Best Prog of 2016, Part I

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The best album of 2016: Glass Hammer’s VALKYRIE

What a year.  I would guess that when historians look back to 2016, they will see it as a year of extreme violence and angry populism.  Sadly, both the violence and the politics revealed themselves from time to time in the prog world, but not detrimentally so.

Life, dignity, and art remain, however, no matter what the politicians scream.  And, praise the Lord we have good music to heal so many hurts of this broken world.

Glass Hammer, VALKYRIE.  Not just the best GH album, but one of the greatest rock albums ever made.  Susie has never sounded better, and GH has gone well beyond their comfort level to explore a full-blown novel in this terribly moving story.  This album strikes that perfect—and all too elusive—via media, balancing beauty and innovation.  VALKYRIE is, undoubtedly, my favorite album of the year.

In the next several spots, I have to wrestle with myself.  Frankly, any ranking after VALKYRIE, would change day by day and, perhaps, even hour by hour.  So, I offer the following loves.

Continue reading “The Best Prog of 2016, Part I”

Neal Morse, Superstar: The Similitude of a Dream

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Radiant Records, 2016

Here’s the best way to sum up the new Neal Morse Band album.

  • If you loved SNOW, you might or might not love THE SIMILITUDE OF A DREAM.
  • If you loved SOLA SCRIPTURA, you’ll definitely love THE SIMILITUDE OF A DREAM.
  • If you loved THE GRAND EXPERIMENT, you’ll think THE SIMILITUDE OF A DREAM is good, but not great.
  • If you have not heard of any of the albums mentioned above, but you’d like to try some of Neal Morse’s music, you definitely DO NOT want to start with THE SIMILITUDE OF A DREAM.

Every one of Neal Morse’s post-Spock’s Beard album seemed to get better and better: TESTIMONY; ONE; ?; LIFELINE; TESTIMONY 2; and MOMENTUM.  With the exception of SOLA SCRIPTURA, Morse seemed incapable of making a mistake.  Though I dislike SOLA SCRIPTURA not only for its themes and lyrics and for its music being over-the-top bombast, I was certainly willing to forgive these problems — especially given the honest spirit in which the album was written, produced, and performed.

What about THE SIMILITUDE OF A DREAM, then?

Continue reading “Neal Morse, Superstar: The Similitude of a Dream”