Big Big Train, Summer Shall Not Fade: Big Big Train Live At Loreley, 2022 (concert recorded July 13, 2018), Blu-Ray/2CD Tracks: The First Rebreather, Folklore, A Mead Hall In Winter, Kingmaker, Summer’s Lease, Brave Captain, Prelude and Fugue, Judas Unrepentant, The Transit of Venus Across the Sun, The Permanent Way, East Coast Racer, Drums and Brass, Wassail
Big Big Train never cease to amaze me. While this release has been out for a couple weeks now, I’ve just gotten time to sit down and enjoy the band’s latest live recording, Summer Shall Not Fade. The live show marks the band’s first time playing in Europe, at the prestigious Night of the Prog festival in Loreley, Germany on July 13, 2018. It also marks a closing of the curtain for what I consider to be the band’s “classic” lineup. Sadly, David Longdon passed away just under a year ago, and Dave Gregory, Danny Manners, and Rachel Hall all left the band in 2020. With everyone present, this show really finds the band at their peak.
Musically, this show sounds good enough to be a studio recording. There may be a few hiccups, but they are indeed few and far between. Be it Nick D’Virgilio’s intricate and soulful drumming, Rikard Sjöblom’s rocking Hammond and guitar, Dave Gregory’s shredding… I could go on. They all sound great.
One of the things that really stands out to me in this performance is how David Longdon really came into his own as a frontman. Since the show was at an outdoor festival, the stage was pretty big, allowing this Big Big Band to spread out more than in their other live recordings. There is also a small runway, which allowed Longdon to get out closer to the audience. Rachel Hall even used it at one point during “A Mead Hall In Winter.”
An example of Longdon’s showmanship appears during the first track, “The First Rebreather,” when he breaks into maniacal laughter after the lyrics, “This man will walk into darkness / Without fear of what lurks in the shadows.” The editor of the Blu-Ray zooms the view in on David’s face, which is lit with red light. It also appears like his head gets bigger, exaggerating the impact of his disturbing laughter. It’s a small moment, but it brought a whole new element to the song, bringing the terror of the darkness to the forefront.
The performances themselves are stellar. D’Virgilio is ever the champ on the drum kit, as well as with his backing vocals. Danny Manners shined on the instrumental “Prelude & Fugue” leading up to “Judas Unrepentant.” It’s a nice way to remember his time in the band. Dave Gregory, who also left the band in 2020, shines throughout with his guitar-work. His work will certainly be missed moving forward, although I have full faith in Rikard Sjöblom and Dave Foster.
Speaking of Rikard, he was so much fun to watch. His Hammond solo in “A Mead Hall in Winter” demonstrates his importance in this band, and watching him headbang during “East Coast Racer” was total fun. Since Longdon’s tragic passing, I’ve come to see that the new core of the band moving forward is Greg Spawton, Nick D’Virgilio, and Rikard. Obviously the others will (and already have) contribute, but these will be the mainstays (I hope).
Rachel Hall also really came into her own as a performer in this show. She was connecting really well with the audience, and her vocals and violin added a lot to the overall sound.
The visuals on the recording are quite good. At the beginning of the show, the stage was poorly lit by the passing light of day (I know, I know, wrong band reference), causing the camera-work and editing to look somewhat amateurish. This went away a few minutes in after the sun fully set, allowing the stage lighting to bring a professional feel to the performance. The editor also made good use of cuts and split screens without making the show feel overworked. It all felt natural, especially with how they were able to include shots of the large screen of images behind the band.
The audio is stellar, especially for an outdoor venue. That’s either a credit to the mixing crew during the show or to Rob Aubrey in the mixing booth in preparation for this release – or both as I believe Aubrey handles mixing for their live shows as well. I haven’t heard the 5.1 mix since I sadly don’t have that setup, but the stereo mix sounds great. Both Gregory Spawton’s intricate deep end and the crystal-clear high end of the brass sound wonderful, and most importantly, they sound clear.
Summer Shall Not Fade is an excellent performance from the definitive and now lost lineup of one of the most important bands in the progressive music scene today. Any progressive rock fan should certainly give this a look, but fans of well-composed and expertly performed music should also take note. While it’s sad to say goodbye to Longdon, as well as the other members of the band who have left, I’m happy we get this live album to remember this chapter in the band’s memorable history.
Big Big Train – Welcome to the Planet, January 28, 2022
Tracks: Made From Sunshine (4:05), The Connection Plan (3:55), Lanterna (6:29), Capitoline Venus (2:27), A Room With No Ceiling (4:52), Proper Jack Froster (6:38), Bats in the Belfry (4:54), Oak and Stone (7:12), Welcome to the Planet (6:41)
Perhaps it’s a strange quirk of fate that the album Big Big Train releases after the tragic death of David Longdon is one of their most upbeat albums to date. It’s a very positive album, much like 2021’s Common Ground. Welcome to the Planet sounds even more hopeful, more full of life, and more accessible than ever. It’s a more than welcome antidote to the insanity of the world today – insanity amplified by David’s death.
“Made From Sunshine” is a beautiful opening to the album, giving us a jolt of energy to start us off. It isn’t a Big Big Train anthem like past album openers, but it has a similar upbeat feel. Come to think of it, none of the tracks on this album fall into the anthem category. “Made From Sunshine” is about the joy of parents as they look at their newborn child and enjoy that child’s early years. The name of the song and the accompanying lyric was inspired by guitarist Dave Foster. In a track-by-track overview of the album made in October, David Longdon commented that when he first met Foster in studio in November 2020, he commented to him that he was a ball of energy. Foster told him that his parents told him when he was a child that he was “made from sunshine.” The song features a vocal duet with Longdon and new member Carly Bryant, pointing to new developments in the band as they grow with new musicians in the fold.
Fans of Nick D’Virgilio’s vocals will love “The Connection Plan,” which features him singing both backing vocals and lead on the bridge. I think I can hear Rikard singing on the bridge too, as well as what I assume is Rikard’s Hammond organ swirling around.
“Lanterna” sounds like it could have been on any of the band’s albums with Longdon, or at least any after The Underfall Yard. This song was originally supposed to be part of “Atlantic Cable” on Common Ground, but Greg Spawton decided to split it into a separate track. The song is about an historic lighthouse, with the lyrics about the idea of lighthouses shining light into the dark. It brings in the history element Big Big Train is known for, but it’s more subtle this time around. Rikard has some stellar guitar licks, which really pump the song up starting about two minutes in. Greg’s bass brings a booming deep end over Nick’s drums, with piano and violin periodically popping up. Carly’s piano matches the theme of the song really well.
By now you’ve probably heard “Proper Jack Froster,” which the band released several months ago in advance of Christmas. It has everything Big Big Train is known for. It’s pastoral and nostalgic with a warm feel throughout. Longdon’s vocals are emotional, with his delivery really stealing the spotlight. The vocal harmonies add to the overall mood, but David is the star here. We also get a solo vocal from new band member Carly Bryant, whose warm and bluesy voice fits the song rather well. The guitar work and of course Greg’s bass also get their opportunity to shine. While this might be considered a Christmas song, it isn’t overtly connected to the holiday, meaning it can be listened to all year.
Some might call this album pop, but calling something “pop” has the same problems with calling something “prog.” People never seem to define the word. For a progressive rock band or artist to “go pop,” they have to give up the soul of their sound. Becoming more accessible doesn’t necessarily mean a band is going pop. In that regard, I don’t think Welcome to the Planet is pop at all. It’s pure Big Big Train, with the only track that sounds drastically different being the title track.
By accessible, I mean the songs are all on the shorter side, and they take on a more traditional song format. For the most part, the lyrics depart from the band’s storytelling, but that isn’t new for the band. They’ve written these kinds of songs before, although they’ve never really made a whole album of them. The storytelling is still there, but as I mentioned about “Lanterna,” it is more subtle. I expect Welcome to the Planet will reach a wider audience because in many ways the record sounds more traditional. I don’t think that makes it pop, though.
Just listen to an instrumental like “Bats in the Belfry” and try to tell me that’s pop. D’Virgilio pulled out all the stops in writing this track. It may be short at under five minutes, but it has both slow and quick sections. Greg’s bass is front and center in the mix, as well it should be. Close listeners will pick up on elements that Nick used in his drum solo tracks in their last tour. The album actually features multiple instrumental tracks, so while there may not be any long epics, there’s still a healthy sprinkling of Big Big Train’s proggiest moments.
The album has its more sedate moments, such as “Capitoline Venus” and “A Room With No Ceiling.” The former is a love song Greg wrote for his wife. It originally appeared as a demo in the Passengers Club with Greg on vocals. I remember thinking when they first released it how good of a track it was, and I’m very happy to hear a completed version of it with David on vocals. It’s a smooth, touching track that David’s voice breathes brilliant light into. I actually rather like the raw honesty that Greg’s voice has in the demo, but David had the best voice in the business. Nothing can compare to that. The song features just David on vocals and Greg on acoustic guitar and synths. I can just imagine the rest of the band leaving the stage and the two of them playing this track front and center stage. It would have been beautiful.
“Oak and Stone” is another calmer track dripping with Big Big Train nostalgia. There’s a piano moment that takes me back to “East Coast Racer.” The opening bass to the instrumental “A Room With No Ceiling” is a great reminder that in addition to being the greatest lyricist in prog today, Greg Spawton is also one of the finest bassists out there.
The biggest deviation, or progression, in the Big Big Train sound comes from the title track, placed at the end of the album. “Welcome to the Planet” is Carly Bryant’s debut song for Big Big Train. She wrote both the music and the lyrics, and it’s unlike anything the band has ever made. It’s a great song, but if you’re a longtime fan of the band, it will stand out quite a bit. I don’t know if I would have liked an entire album from Big Big Train made in this style, but it’s a pleasant change that still features the BBT flair, including the brass band. David begins the vocals, but Carly quickly takes over and sings for the rest of the track. She even brings a bit of blues grit in at one point. The smooth section with vocal harmonies singing “welcome to the planet” is a beautiful moment on the album. I think the song would have been better served ending with a fadeout of this rather than the somewhat abrupt ending it has, especially since they chose it to close the album. It’s a bit of an odd ending, with the line “Aunty Carly’s singing lullabies to all the children that she never made,” and ending with Carly sighing. Clearly a personal note, and a bit sad all the same. The lyrics are somewhat dark, but they’re honest, something Big Big Train has always been. In hindsight, with David’s passing, this song might better be served elsewhere on the album, since David takes a back seat on this one. But aside from that, it’s a bold choice for the band to mix up their sound and to end the album with this song. Overall it does work, and I find it ends up being the most memorable song on the album.
The band released this live acoustic duet version with David and Carly yesterday, although the album track has a much fuller sound. If you’d rather go into the song hearing the original first, then watch this after you’ve had a chance to listen to the album.
While overall the album sounds more accessible than Big Big Train’s past records, I find when you break it down song-by-song the tracks could each fit on any of the band’s albums from the last decade, except perhaps the title track, which brings with it the influences and tastes of a new band member. Simply put, Welcome to the Planet is another excellent album by Big Big Train. It has a very different feel from Common Ground, which I think adds to my enjoyment of it. This isn’t just an album of b-sides that didn’t make it onto that record. I like every song on the album, and I know it will make my best-of list come the end of 2022. Whatever the future may hold for Big Big Train, they can be proud of this album.
A few days ago Nick D’Virgilio, Neal Morse, and Ross Jennings released a single, “Julia,” off their upcoming record, Troika. Based off this single and the personnel involved, I’m guessing the album is going to focus heavily on the vocals and feature many vocal harmonies.
Ross Jennings comments on the track,
With my original demo clocking in at around the 8-minute mark and possibly leaning too close to ‘prog epic’ than the singer/songwriter vibe we were attempting to present on this record, Neal arranged my lengthy ballad into something more concise, in-keeping with the album’s essence and writing in a powerful new chorus in the process!
“This one was all about the 3-part vocal harmony interplay and ‘pull-at-the-heartstring’ lyrics which deals with themes of regret and forgiveness in the context of a broken father-daughter relationship.
Recorded during lockdown, the process began with Neal Morse writing some acoustic songs that he thought would be enhanced by strong vocal harmonies. He already knew how well his voice blended with former Spock’s Beard band-mate and Big Big Train drummer/ vocalist, Nick D’Virgilio who came on board and, considering a third man, the Americans sought out Haken’s Ross Jennings from the UK to complete the trio. All three found they had songs that would benefit from the three part harmonic blend, and so they pooled their resources, inputting creatively into each others compositions.
Neal comments: “What a great pleasure it’s been to work on this album with these amazing artists! It was kind of funny… We had been working on the songs remotely for several months before I finally heard all of us singing together at the same time. The first time I brought the faders up, I knew we had the magic!“
Nick adds: “I’ve known and worked with Neal for over 30 years and I’ve been a big fan of Ross and the music he makes for a long time. I felt confident right away that this would be a fun project to be a part of. I was so right.”
Ross comments: “Receiving ‘The Call’ from Neal to participate in this project was somewhat of a prayer answered… As a long time fan of their work, I’ve been singing along to Neal’s & Nick’s records for years, so it felt really natural for my voice to slot right in.”
The tracks took shape with the musicians recording all of the music and vocals separately, yet the eclectic performances burst with the energy and excitement of the collaboration. Acoustic anthems, charged rockers and sensitive ballads are all part of the mix, and the unique blend of Ross, Neal and Nick’s voices and styles have created an album in which you will encounter these musicians in a way you’ve never heard before.
Hot off the release of their most recent album, Common Ground, Big Big Train released another new track today: “The Connection Plan.” Why? Greg Spawton comments,
”In the lead-up to our tours in 2022, we wanted to share a series of single streamingreleases. The ‘Stay Tuned’ streaming series will feature newly recorded compositions, we hope listeners will enjoy them”.
It sounds like this track, and presumably future ones, will only be available on streaming sites for now. I wouldn’t be surprised if they end up as either a special download for the Passengers Club or on a future record or EP.
Big Big Train, Common Ground, July 30, 2021 Tracks: The Strangest Times (5:08), All The Love We Can Give (8:06), Black With Ink (7:23), Dandelion Clock (4:14), Headwaters (2:27), Apollo (7:50), Common Ground (4:54), Atlantic Cable (15:06), Endnotes (6:59)
I love writing about Big Big Train. In fact, they’re one of the reasons I was drawn into reviewing progressive rock on a more regular basis. They are also one of the reasons this website was founded back in 2012. Our founders understood that Big Big Train wasn’t your ordinary rock band, and the band deserved a more intellectual approach to reviews. I don’t know if I’ve been able to live up to the standard Dr. Brad Birzer set for us, but I try my best. Big Big Train makes it easier by providing such solid material to write about. Common Ground is no different. In fact it may be the best album they have released since I began writing for Progarchy. It is certainly the best record released thus far in 2021.
Common Ground gets off to a rousing start in the best way possible. I’ve never enjoyed the opening of a Big Big Train album this much. While I don’t dislike Big Big Train’s more mainstream pop-like tracks (“Make Some Noise,” “Folklore,” “Wassail”), they aren’t my favorite in the band’s catalog. While “The Strangest Times” might fall into that aspect of the band’s repertoire, I absolutely love this. The piano at the beginning is so bright and upbeat, reminding me a bit of some of the more popular artists the band site as influences on this record. However I think it reminds me more of the band’s work back in the days of English Electric. The guitar work is phenomenal, proving right away that even though brilliant guitarist Dave Gregory may have left the group, the group haven’t abandoned the unique sound he brought to the table. I imagine lots of credit should go to Rikard Sjöblom for maintaining that tone.
Nick D’Virgilio absolutely hits a home run with his lead vocal sections on “All the Love We Can Give.” I was hoping we would get to hear more of his vocals on this record, and we do. Of course there is also his brilliant drumming throughout the album, which we probably take for granted at this point. This song has some blistering instrumental passages with heavy guitars and some face melting Hammond keyboards. We also get to hear a different side to David Longdon’s glorious voice, featuring the lower end of his register. The vocal harmonies at points in the song remind me of Gentle Giant and the Neal Morse Band, although this is nothing new for Big Big Train. They seem to have utilized it a bit more though throughout Common Ground than they have in the past.
As a matter of fact, the next track, “Black With Ink,” allows that to shine. We get a lead vocal from Rikard, Nick, and Carly Bryant, who joined the band for live shows, providing backing (and apparently lead) vocals, keyboards, and guitars. It’s a nice touch that the band included her on the recording, as well as Dave Foster (guitars on two tracks) and Aidan O’Rourke on violin throughout the record.
Lyrically “Black With Ink” is somewhat close to my heart, since Greg Spawton was influenced by a trip to a museum (I work in the collections department of a history museum). After a BBT show in Birmingham, England, in 2019, Greg visited the local art museum and saw a label about the history of the collection, which suffered from a bombing raid during World War II. Spawton talks more about that song at the official Big Big Train blog for the album, but in summary it grew out of a frustration with the destruction of knowledge (book burning, destroying art, etc.). The song specifically looks at the destruction (many centuries and millennia ago) of texts at libraries in Alexandria and Baghdad.
On the other side of the lyrical spectrum, Longdon keeps the band grounded in the present. “The Strangest Times” and “Common Ground” are influenced by the insanity the world has been going through over the last year and a half. In a recent interview, Longdon admitted to Progarchy’s Rick Krueger recently that he cannot wait for these lyrics to no longer be relevant, since we are all sick of quarantines, lockdowns, and other assorted nonsense.
“Apollo” is an almost eight-minute-long instrumental track, and it is glorious. The song was contributed by Nick, and it grew out of material he had created at his day job at Sweetwater, a music gear retailer and production studio in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He describes this track as Big Big Train’s “Los Endos,” which I believe they achieved. It’s a beautiful song, and I can see them either closing a first set or closing a live show with it before an encore. The inclusion of Longdon’s flute was a really nice touch, which will most definitely be a hit live. It’s pure BBT, brass band and all.
“Atlantic Cable” has all the grandiosity of “East Coast Racer.” I don’t think I have enjoyed a Big Big Train song this much since ECR. Spawton’s booming bass is at Squire-esque levels of brilliance. The interplay of the guitars, violin when it is used, the myriad voices, the long instrumental passages – this is Big Big Train’s “sound” at its absolute finest. I hope when they play it live, they extend that guitar solo as it peaks toward the end.
Lyrically the track tells the story of laying the first telegraph cable across the Atlantic, formally linking the old world with the new. This song is much grander than that story, though. The story serves as a metaphor representing the commonality we all share, which supports the overall theme of the album. The track has calmer passages, but it still has the hard rocking sections that feature on the rest of the record and also hearken back to The Underfall Yard and English Electric.
A song about laying a steel cable across the ocean floor was never going to be a pastoral piece of music. It needed some stormy moments, some grandeur. And it needed to be long enough to tell an epic tale. – Greg Spawton
The video the band shared for this song in the blog for the album is hilarious. It’s a video of Nick trying to figure out how to play the complicated time signatures. It was only a matter of time before the expletives were directed at Greg (all in good humor, of course), but it’s quite entertaining. It also goes to show how technically complicated this music is and how good these musicians are that they can (eventually) play it.
The Dave Desmond brass band shines bright as ever on “Endnotes,” the final track. The hint of violin reminds us of where the band has been, but in a more subdued light.
The pastoral elements and folk elements in the band’s arsenal are pulled back throughout Common Ground in favor of a heavier rock sound, but it’s undeniably Big Big Train. It’s exactly what I wanted from the band moving forward. I never complained about the pastoral direction the band moved into because I enjoyed it, but I’ll admit that I was beginning to miss certain elements that were more prevalent on The Underfall Yard and English Electric. I don’t think any of us wanted them to start copying themselves, though. Instead they have progressed into slightly different waters, pulling together all of those elements into a truly astounding whole. The hard rock, the atmosphere added by the violin and Longdon’s flute, and those stunning vocal harmonies create a pure sound.
Existing fans will almost assuredly love Common Ground. If you are new to Big Big Train, then this is as good a place to start as any. The album displays everything the band does so well.
Thanks Big Big Train. You’ve made a crappy year a little brighter.
A sign of Spring’s awakening? Two rather special sounding streamed concerts are coming our way:
The Pineapple Thief have decamped to a top sound stage studio and recorded, in drummer Gavin Harrison’s words, “the show that we were meant to do in Covid times (but had to cancel).” Nothing But The Truth will be available on demand from 6 pm this Thursday, April 22 to 6 pm on Monday, April 26. Since I was boneheaded enough to miss the Thief’s late 2019 tour of the States, I’m eagerly anticipating this one! Tickets are dirt cheap (under $25 US), with a variety of merch (including crew support t-shirts) also available. Details and ordering at TPT’s website.
Next month, Nick D’Virgilio mounts a livestream performance of his solo album Invisible (one of my faves of 2020) from his homebase of Fort Wayne’s Sweetwater Studios on Friday, May 14 at 4 pm. Virtual packages with prices ranging from $15 to $65 are available at Mandolin.
And looking ahead to the fall, Neal Morse’s annual Morsefest has already sold out its limited live seats — but virtual options for the two night festival on Friday-Saturday, October 8-9 (featuring the upcoming fourth album from the Neal Morse Band) are still available at Radiant Records.
Looking back at 2020, it’s hard to believe that we lost Neil Peart at the beginning of the year. That loss hit me pretty hard, since Rush’s music has been central to my life from an early age. I talk more about that in my tribute to Peart: https://progarchy.com/2020/01/12/neil-peart-a-misfits-hero/. I start off my year-end review list with a reminder of the loss of Neil because it seems like a fitting way to remember 2020. Peart’s loss represents what so many people have lost this year, whether it be family members and friends due to the virus or jobs lost due to draconian forced business closures that haven’t actually accomplished anything in slowing the viral spread. Not to mention the emotional distress that physical separation is causing many people.
Another thing we lost this year was live music from our favorite bands. Big Big Train had their first North American tour planned for late spring this year. Canceled. Devin Townsend was in the middle of a glorious North American tour with Haken when everything blew up. Canceled. Obviously this list could be expanded to every band that tours. Losing live music makes it even more difficult for bands in a niche genre to spread their music to more people.
But enough lamenting. We still got a lot of great music this year. The following list is in no particular order apart from my number one album at the end. I include both new albums and live records.
Haken – Virus I was a little surprised that I was the only person over at the Dutch Progressive Rock Page to include this one in my top ten list for their annual list. Maybe people were really sensitive about the name of the album, but it was clear that the album was written and completed before the novel coronavirus was a known entity. The music is fantastic. It’s probably their heaviest album to date, but it still has some of their calmer moments. It’s Haken through-and-through, and it makes a wonderful companion to 2018’s Vector. We also get to hear some more about our old nemesis, the cockroach king. It’s pretty cool how they worked in some of those themes. Fantastic album that should’ve received more attention than it did. Check out my review: https://progarchy.com/2020/07/23/haken-goes-viral-virus-album-review-haken_official/
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.
From the very beginning, Progarchy has been a huge supporter of Big Big Train, and we’ll continue to support them come what may. I think the band is making by far the most interesting music in the music industry. You’d be hard-pressed to find another band or artist making such high quality music with such profound lyrics. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better vocalist than David Longdon.
At the beginning of the year the band released The Passengers Club, a subscribers-only site that gives hardcore fans an inside look at the past, present, and future of the band. Content seems to be provided primarily by Greg Spawton and David Longdon, as well as the band’s manager, Nick Shelton. We get demo track downloads, exclusive video content (including live footage from the earliest days of the band), blog articles, and photo albums. As a fan I’ve absolutely loved The Passengers Club. It’s been worth every penny, and it has brought some much-needed joy to an absolutely awful year.
My copy of Nick d’Virgilo’s Invisible was still in the mail when I read Bryan’s first impressions of it. Following its arrival and repeated listens, here are my two cents.
I honestly didn’t know what to expect from this release, and was pleasantly surprised as a result; it gets better every time I hear it. As Bryan says, Invisible doesn’t sound much like Big Big Train (though it puts d’Virgilio’s jazz-rock flavored compositions for BBT in context), or even middle-period Spock’s Beard. And it only dabbles in the hyper, clattery alt-pop NDV tackled with Randy McStine and Jonas Reingold on The Fringe. Mostly, this is an album of 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 Alan Parsons Project with a lot more horsepower” might be a good thumbnail description.
(Invisible is a pretty cool example of creative entrepreneurship in today’s music industry, too. By leveraging his gig at Fort Wayne’s Sweetwater Studios, d’Virgilio managed to play ten different drum kits in exchange for promotional considerations — i.e. the drool-worthy “Drum Gear” booklet included with each copy — and draw on a bevy of guest stars from studio master classes, with Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen as the wildest card in his deck.)
The down to earth storyline, a solid redemption narrative with some nifty twists, definitely helps make Invisible appealing and relatable. But I would argue that the musical means d’Virgilio uses to build out his concept seal the deal. Beyond his emotive singing and consistently brilliant drum work, Nick’s polished efforts on electric piano, loops, bass, bass synth and guitars provide a sturdy chassis for each track; his fellow Sweetwater pros, guest stars and prog buddies lovingly customize the power trains and bodies; and the strings and brass of the Orchestra at Abbey Road furnish plush aural upholstery (along with a recurring musical theme based on the chorus of “Where’s the Passion”).
As a result, every single track of this album grabs on tight from the beginning — not just revealing more depth and emotional resonance with every repeat, but also relentlessly propelling the overall narrative forward. The desolation of the title track and the downbeat cover of “Money (That’s What I Want)”; the defiance of “Turn Your Life Around” and “Overcome”; the devastation of “Waiting for No One” and “Not My Time to Say Goodbye”; the cathartic deliverance of the finale “I Know the Way” — this is outright sonic cinema, pictures vividly created in your head by state of the art, high quality music.
So, yeah, I’m sold on Invisible; it’s already in contention for my end-of-the-year favorites list. And I think you might dig it too. So order it from NDV’s website or Burning Shed; heck, listen on Spotify if you can’t wait for it to arrive. Whatever. You really shouldn’t miss this one.