In this, the first part of my round-up of 2013’s best releases, I highlight eleven superb albums that all made it onto my shortlist and managed to remain there – no mean feat given the incredible quality of the new music that appeared this year. Each of these has made a huge impression on me and yet, amazingly, none of them feature in my Top Ten. (We’d best not dwell on the excellent releases from Days Between Stations, Lifesigns, Spock’s Beard and others that eventually got pushed off the bottom of this shortlist, but what can you do when progressive music is enjoying a fecundity not seen since the early 70s?)
I won’t even attempt to rank this selection, but will instead list the albums by artist, alphabetically. Think of them all as being in a notional 11th place in my Best of 2013 list!
A word on criteria: I have considered only studio albums and I have ignored remasters, remixes and rereleases (whole or partial) of pre-2013 material. (In one case, this has had a significant impact on my choices.)
Ready? Off we go…
Amplifier – Echo Street
The masters of the heavy groove take a step back from the sprawling madness of 2011’s splendid The Octopus. The result is more reflective and refined but no less compelling. Echo Street is subtle rather than subdued, rich in atmosphere (‘matmosphere’?) and dreamy soundscapes but still with enough big riffs to get the blood pumping. The highlight is probably Where The River Goes, an epic that starts in delicate fashion with 12-string acoustic guitar before building to a thunderous conclusion.
Big Big Train – English Electric, Part 2
Part 1 was my Album of 2012, but don’t be fooled by the follow-up’s apparent lowly position this year, as the difference in quality really isn’t that huge. Like its predecessor, Part 2 is a paean to the landscapes, history and fading industrial heritage of England. There are excellent songs to be found here – Worked Out, The Permanent Way and Keeper Of Abbeys are probably the highlights for me – but the album doesn’t flow as smoothly as Part 1 (a minor defect that combined album English Electric: Full Power has since rectified though a reordering of tracks and the introduction of new material).
Glide – Assemblage One & Two
Who knew that Echo & The Bunnymen guitarist Will Sergeant was such a fan of 70s electronica pioneers like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream? Or that he could pay homage in such a respectful and skillful manner? Assemblage is wonderfully evocative of that classic era of electronic music without being derivative. Strongly recommended if you are a fan of TD or other artists of that ilk. Its hypnotic rhythms will transport you to other realms…
Guapo – History Of The Visitation
‘Guapo’ means ‘handsome’ in Spanish, but I’m not sure that’s an entirely appropriate term for the music that Dave Smith, Kavus Torabi, James Sedwards & Emmett Elvin have produced here. Visitation, Guapo’s first recorded output for five years, is a satisfyingly dense and complex slab of instrumental art rock, full of dark tones and edgy riffs. Intense 26-minute opener The Pilman Radiant dominates, providing all the shifting moods and time signatures that a prog fan craves, while Complex #7 provides a richly atmospheric interlude in which to catch the breath before the mayhem resumes with up-tempo closing number Tremors From The Future. Highly recommended.
Luna Rossa – Sleeping Pills & Lullabies
The glorious voice of Anne-Marie Helder continues to delight, this time in partnership with fellow Panic Room member Jonathan Edwards. Panic Room’s Skin was one of last year’s surprise hits for me, a powerful demonstration of the growing sophistication and maturity of their sound. Much of that improvement carries over to the efforts of this acoustic double-act (unsurprisingly, given they are the principal songwriters for the band). Sleeping Pills is a delicate and beautiful album, beguiling in its simplicity.
Midlake – Antiphon
Imagine what it must feel like to be stalled in the midst of a lengthy and difficult recording process for your fourth album, when suddenly you lose your vocalist and principal songwriter! Midlake certainly demonstrated the ‘courage of others’ in scrapping two years of work and starting again from scratch. Given these circumstances, new album Antiphon, written and recorded in only six months, is a triumph. Stand-out tracks from these champions of American prog folk are probably The Old And The Young and Ages, although the whole piece is immensely enjoyable, albeit without quite the same degree of melancholic elegance as its predecessor.
Sand – Sand
A magnificent solo effort from North Atlantic Oscillation’s Sam Healy. Sam has suggested that Sand serves as a ‘musical palette cleanser’ before work begins on new NAO material, and he has spoken of this album’s different feel – but in truth, Sand could easily be mistaken for a new NAO album. The characteristic NAO ingredients are all here – drum machines, samples, layered electronics and dreamy vocal harmonies – but Sand manages to eclipse 2012’s Fog Electric, feeling somewhat gentler and more refined. Stand-out tracks for me are Clay, Destroyer and Astray.
Shineback – Rise Up Forgotten, Return Destroyed
A bold statement from Tinyfish frontman Simon Godfrey, ably assisted by lyricist Rob Ramsay. With its strong pop, dance music and electronica influences it certainly won’t be to every proghead’s taste, but adventurousness such as this is surely necessary to evolve and reinvigorate the genre. Highlights are probably Passengers, the languid Faultlines – the “A paper doll in Scissorland” lyric is particularly memorable – and the ten-minute title track. The vocals are at times a little too thin and tend to get overwhelmed by the more forceful passages of music, else this might have made my Top Ten.
Solstice – Prophecy
I’ve always had a soft spot for Solstice. I saw them live many times during the mid 80s and the feel-good hippy vibe of their performances never failed to put a smile on the face. It was gratifying to see them return in 2010 with Spirit and even more gratifying to see them take further strides forward this year with Prophecy. The focal point, as ever, is the superb guitar playing of Andy Glass, but everyone plays their part and Jenny Newman’s violin playing contributes greatly to the overall feel of the album. Forget the new age lyrics if that kind of thing bothers you and just revel in the gloriously uplifting sounds that this band can produce. A most welcome bonus is a trio of Steven Wilson remixes of tracks from the band’s 1984 debut Silent Dance that greatly improve on the originals.
Sound Of Contact – Dimensionaut
The debut release from the new project of Simon Collins and Dave Kerzner is another of 2013’s unexpected pleasures. The underlying concept doesn’t really fire the imagination, to be honest, but the music most certainly does! Ironically, the album’s prog epic – the 19-minute Möbius Slip – is probably the weakest track, but that’s mainly because the rest of it is so melodic and catchy as hell. It is difficult to pick out highlights, but the five-track sequence from Pale Blue Dot through to Beyond Illumination is near-perfect. Simon Collins is excellent on vocals, with just the slightest hint of father Phil prompting a shiver of recognition here and there.
The Fierce & The Dead – Spooky Action
Matt Stevens & Co move from strength to strength with this, their second album. As before, it’s an unfailingly energetic and heady mix of King Crimson, math rock, punk and other influences – difficult to categorise adequately, but that is surely part of the attraction. This is the sound of a band charting new ground and growing in confidence as they do so. I can’t wait to hear what they come up with next.