2021: My Favorite Albums, Six Months In

As life in these United States opens up, my life finally seems to be settling down — at least for the summer. Which means it’s time to make up for the backlog of excellent albums (new and old) that I’ve heard since January, but haven’t written about here! Links to listen (to complete albums or samples) are included whenever possible.

New Albums: The Art of Losing (The Anchoress’ rich meditation on endurance) and the multi-version adrenalin rush of Transatlantic’s The Absolute Universe notwithstanding, most of the new albums I’ve loved so far have migrated towards jazz and classical — frequently with pianists at their center. Vijay Iyer’s Uneasy, made with bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, is a state of the art piano trio effort; blues and abstraction suspended in perfect balance and caught in an intimate, tactile recording. Canadian Bach and Mozart specialist Angela Hewitt shows off her range with Love Songs, a gorgeous confection of orchestral and art song transcriptions assembled in lockdown and performed with undeniable panache. The same goes for Danny Driver’s phenomenal rendition of Gyorgy Ligeti’s hypermodern 18 Etudes — virtuoso pieces whose serene surfaces turn out to be rooted in super-knotty counterpoint and off-kilter rhythmic cells. My favorite new album of 2021 to date? Promises by electronica artist Floating Points, spiritual jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, and The London Symphony Orchestra, which manages to bring all of the above (well, except for the piano!) together in one glorious, 40-minute ambient epic.

Reissues: Big Big Train’s double-disc update of The Underfall Yard has definitely had its share of listening time, between Rob Aubrey’s rich remix/remaster and the welcome bonus disc (featuring fresh recordings of the title track and “Victorian Brickwork” by the full band and brass quintet). With My Bloody Valentine’s catalog back in print, their masterpiece Loveless sounds as incredible as ever; crushing distortion and lush romanticism collide to channel the sublime. And Pete Townshend has masterminded a comprehensive Super Deluxe edition of The Who Sell Out, the band’s pre-Tommy high point. But my favorite reissues thus far have been It Bites’ The Tall Ships (especially the title track — what a power ballad!) and Map of the Past (a favorite of mine since its original release). With the then-unknown John Mitchell taking over from Francis Dunnery, IB sailed into the 21st century with their 1980s pomp intact, killer hooks, head-spinning riffs and all.

Live Albums: Beyond the visceral thrills of Fanfare for the Uncommon Man: The Official Keith Emerson Tribute Concert, I’ve had a blast hearing krautrock legends Can conjure up spellbinding group improvisation on Live in Stuttgart 75, an initial dip into their voluminous concert archives. I’ve been giddy to hear Kansas, bolstered by keyboardist Tom Brislin, get their mojo working on Point of Know Return Live & Beyond. (They’ll be my first post-lockdown rock show next month.) And my journey back into soul music (see below) set me up nicely for the razor-sharp, precision funk of Tower of Power: 50 Years of Funk and Soul Live at the Fox Theater, a deliriously exciting reunion show recorded in 2018.

From the Catalog: All the good new stuff above aside, this is where some of my most fruitful listening has been happening this year — frequently inspired by other media. Watching the movie One Night in Miami led me back to Sam Cooke’s Portrait of a Legend: 1951-1964; the resulting dive into soul music ultimately brought me to Marvin Gaye’s classic concept album What’s Going On — 50 years old in 2021! Perusing various “best of 2020” lists turned me on to the avant-garde jazz of trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusere’s on the tender spot of every calloused moment and Maria McKee’s art-pop song cycle La Vita Nuova (inspired by Dante, no less). Jazz/fusion legend Chick Corea’s death prompted a deep dive into his catalog; new favorites included Return to Forever’s Where Have I Known You Before and the fabulous Five Peace Band Live, Corea’s long-delayed collaboration with guitarist John McLaughlin. And after long years of the album doing nothing for me, Radiohead’s The Bends finally clicked when I read Steven Hyden’s fine band biography This Isn’t Happening. (Curt Bianchi’s wonderful new book, Elegant People: A History of the Band Weather Report, is prompting a similar deep dive into that quintessential jazz/rock band’s catalog; I highly recommend their cutting edge debut album from 1971 and their 1976 masterpiece of groove, Black Market.)

Coming Soon: In addition to Big Big Train’s Common Ground (take it from me, it’s a humdinger), I highly recommend MoonJune Records’ latest release, Indonesian fusion guitarist Dewa Budjana’s incandescent Naurora. I’m also eagerly anticipating new music from the Neal Morse Band (oops, NMB now), Steve Hackett and Isildur’s Bane & Peter Hammill; reissues of BeBop Deluxe’s Live in the Air Age and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass; and comprehensive box sets from The Beach Boys and Van Der Graaf Generator. Plus live shows from Kansas, Emmylou Harris and Los Lobos, King Crimson with The Zappa Band, and opening night of Genesis’ USA tour.

So, yeah, it’s taken a while — but at least from my point of view, 2021 has already been a solid year for music — and the prospects for it getting even better are looking up!

— Rick Krueger

Four Months, Four Albums – 2021’s Best Thus Far

There has been a lot of music to wade through thus far in 2021. Most good. Some not so much, depending on who you ask. Despite the title of this post, I don’t think my four favorite albums of the year thus far represent each month, but who cares. Let’s go!

Atravan - The Grey LineAtravan – The Grey Line 

This album was the biggest surprise of the year, so far. Out of the blue back in January, Shayan Dinati of Iranian prog-metal band Atravan contacted us about a review of their album. I gave it a listen and immediately discovered this was worth spending a lot of time with. They dwell in the area of prog metal perfected by Riverside – atmospheric and brooding with thoughtful lyrics. Sure, they’ve got room for improvement to reach the heights of Riverside, but this is a great album in its own right. I was hooked right away, and I highly recommend the album. The Dutch Progressive Rock Page had similar praise for Atravan: https://www.dprp.net/reviews/2021-032 

Steve Hackett Under A Mediterranean SkySteve Hackett – Under A Mediterranean Sky

When I heard last year that Mr. Hackett was working on an acoustic album, I was very excited. I’ve really enjoyed his recent solo output. His last three rock albums are some of the best from his entire solo career. But I also really like his acoustic moments, and he doesn’t disappoint on Under A Mediterranean Sky. He takes us on a grand instrumental tour of the Mediterranean, something sorely needed in an age of travel restrictions. The combination of his stunning guitar work, Roger King’s masterfully arranged symphonic notes, and various world instrumentation make this a beautiful and contemplative album. It isn’t rock, but it’s gorgeous. Check out Rick Krueger’s review: https://progarchy.com/2021/02/02/steve-hackett-under-a-mediterranean-sky/

Nad Sylvan Spiritus Mundi album_coverNad Sylvan – Spiritus Mundi 

Nad Sylvan’s latest solo album is a slight departure from his last three albums, but it’s just as good an album, if not better. Putting the poetry of William Butler Yeats to music may not be a new idea, but Nad has done a wonderful job with it. The album has its rock moments, but it also has pastoral tones that haven’t been as prevalent in his work. His voice is top notch with a versatility that shows he is so much more than a Gabriel or Collins sound-alike. Check out Rick Krueger’s recent interview with Nad, and check out my review.

And now for my favorite album of the first four months of 2021…

Soen - IMPERIALSoen – Imperial

Swedish prog metal supergroup Soen can do no wrong, it seems. I first became cognitively aware of Soen a couple years ago through one of the editors at the Dutch Progressive Rock Page, who frequently sang their praises in reviews and best-of lists. I quickly became a fan of their last couple of albums, and I was pleasantly surprised when I stumbled across their new release back in January. I was listening to their 2019 album, Lotus, one Friday evening when I wondered if they had any new music coming out soon. It just so happened that they released Imperial that very day, so I dowloaded it and have been happily enjoying it ever since. It’s heavy when it needs to be, but it can recede to quieter moments when necessary.

Joel Ekelöf has one of the best voices in metal, and he really sets Soen apart. They have a heavy guitar crunch that’s more typical of mainstream metal and hard rock bands, but the music is distinctly progressive. Their melodies and lyrics are catchy yet intelligent. My only complaint with the album is that it isn’t longer. It’s 43 minutes, but I could easily listen to much more. Great stuff. 

https://soenmusic.com

Hopefully the rest of 2021 will be full of more excellent music! 

 

 

The Peaceful Beauty of Nad Sylvan’s “Spiritus Mundi”

album_coverNad Sylvan’s latest solo album, Spiritus Mundi, is one of the finest records released thus far in 2021, and I expect it to be one of the top albums of the year come December. Sylvan brought his vampirate trilogy to a close with 2019’s The Regal Bastard. Spiritus Mundi, which is Latin for “spirit of the world,” departs from the more classic prog sound on his previous three albums, but it hasn’t quite set sail for new genres. Rather it explores different musical territories, including classical, folk, acoustic, and rock, all befitting the beautiful poetry of William Butler Yeats which serve as the lyrics. The musical elements from his previous albums are all here, but they are interpreted in a different way. In an interview with Progarchy’s very own Rick Krueger, Nad expands upon the development of the record and his collaboration with Vermont-based musician Andrew Laitres, so I’ll direct you to that for more info about how the album came to be. 

As it should be, Nad’s voice is the centerpiece on the record. All of the musical elements serve to frame his voice and the lyrics, bringing the poems to life through varying sounds. The baroque elements found on Nad’s vampirate trilogy pop up now and again, such as on “Cap and Bells” and “The Realists,” which I think adds a flavor that is uniquely Sylvan. Laitres also provides some lead and backing vocals, which adds some variety.

Musically the album is more open and relaxed than Sylvan’s previous records. It doesn’t have the heavier rock moments that those albums had, but the lyrics don’t call for it. Nad plays most of the keyboards, as well as some of the acoustic, electric, and bass guitars, and the orchestration. Jonas Reingold and Tony Levin also appear on bass, along with Steve Hackett on the 12 string. The Flower Kings’ Mirkko De Maio appears on drums. There are a few other guests too, but this should give you a sample of what to expect. It seems fitting that Nad, who’s become well-known for his work with Steve Hackett’s touring band, releases this sort of more acoustic and classically inspired record soon after Hackett released a beautiful acoustic album, Under a Mediterranean Sky

I’ll readily admit I’m frequently skeptical when an artist says they’re going in a new direction on their next album. While I didn’t have particular reservations about this album going into it, I was admittedly curious about what that different sound might be. I didn’t expect him to move into some sort of techno-pop trash like Steven Wilson, and thankfully he didn’t. Instead he leaned more heavily into the folk and classical elements that already existed in his music. At times the music is reminiscent of Big Big Train, and at other times I hear bits that remind me of Jethro Tull. The rock is still there though, with a fantastic bass line and slide guitar on “The Fisherman.”

Spiritus Mundi is a well-rounded album that offers a breath of fresh air in a very dark time in our world. Perhaps that is fitting since many of Yeats’ poems offered a similar freshness to the broken and hurting world of the early twentieth century. Nad Sylvan may have taken an unusual path to rock stardom in his 50s and early 60s, but that seems to have brought a maturity to the music he makes. This album is well-crafted, and it is both a fitting tribute to Yeats’ poetry and a wonderful introduction of that poetry to new audiences a century after it was written.

Sylvan is one of the most creative people working under the broad umbrella of progressive rock today. He seems to get better with each passing record. I only hope he gets the chance to tour his own music someday. Check out Spiritus Mundi along with his other solo albums. You won’t be disappointed. 

https://www.nadsylvan.com
https://www.facebook.com/Nadsylvanartist
https://twitter.com/sylvanofficial

Signed albums available from Nad’s webstore: https://www.nadsylvan.com/cd-shop
Or purchase from Burning Shed: https://burningshed.com/tag/Nad%20Sylvan&filter_category_id=261

Steve Hackett, Under A Mediterranean Sky

Give Steve Hackett credit for grace under pressure. With the 2020 leg of his Genesis Revisited tour stopped in its tracks by COVID-19, Hackett retreated to his London home, pulled out the acoustic guitar ideas he had been accumulating since 2008’s Tribute album, and huddled with wife Jo and keyboardist/musical director Roger King. Under A Mediterranean Sky is the sultry, stirring result, a first-rate blend of the world musics Hackett explored on recent electric albums The Night Siren and At the Edge of Light with the lush orchestral settings of his vintage classical efforts A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Metamorpheus. If you’re currently cooped up inside (whether due to the pandemic, winter in the Northern Hemisphere or both), this welcoming sonic travelogue will transport you to a brighter, better place.

Under A Mediterranean Sky grabs the listener right from the start with “Mdina (The Walled City). King’s opening orchestrations (a rich blend of acoustic instruments and synths throughout) seethe and sprawl, giving way to Hackett’s virtuosic solo work on nylon-string guitar; at the end, it’s a headlong dash to a sprightly finish, the guitar bursting forward as the symphonic storm gives way to sunshine on the coast of Malta. As a mission statement for the album, it could hardly be bettered.

Organically structured to circle the Mediterranean coast, Hackett’s musical portraits are drawn with ever-present grace and appealing variety. The delectable arpeggiated melody of “Adriatic Blue”, the pensive lines that link up with galloping Middle Eastern percussion on “Sirocco”, the folky, almost downhome French vibe of “Joie de Vivre” and the haunting, romantic Grecian portrait “The Memory of Myth” each tantalize in their own unique way. At the heart of the album comes Hackett’s only solo piece, a sonata by Italian composer Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) that features both breathtaking technique and a profound feel for melodic line, harmonic depth and rhythmic panache. It’s drop dead gorgeous, a true testimony to his heartfelt love for the classical guitar tradition.

The latter half of the program broadens the musical palette as the voyage continues, with stellar guest turns by brother John Hackett and regular band member Rob Townsend on flutes (a lush duet on “Casa del Fauno”), Azerbaijan tar virtuoso Malik Mansurov and Armenian duduk master Arsen Petrosyan (the dizzying, atmospheric “The Dervish and the Djin”), and oboist Frank Avril and violinist/violist Christine Townsend on “Andalusian Heart” (which also spotlights stunning extended flamenco work by Hackett). The poignant, rhapsodic finale “The Call of the Sea” is the perfect capstone to the album, winding down the journey to leave the listener at peace in heart and spirit.

Under A Mediterranean Sky is not just a welcome detour from Steve Hackett’s familiar sonic paths; it’s also a culmination to his lifetime pursuit of musical excellence. Hackett’s compositions and performances here are filled to the brim with both the fire of the young at heart and the canny craft of the mature, seasoned performer. Making this album obviously refreshed him during a difficult time; if my experience is any indication, hearing it — in fact, returning to it again and again — will refresh you as well.

(You can watch and listen to Steve Hackett talk about the album and selected tracks here.)

— Rick Krueger

Bryan’s Best of 2020

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/

Continue reading “Bryan’s Best of 2020”

Steve Hackett Releases a Magnificent Single From Upcoming Acoustic Album

A few days ago Steve Hackett released a music video for his track “Andalusian Heart” off his upcoming acoustic album, Under A Mediterranean Sky. The track is absolutely stunning. For just under six minutes I was able to slow down and be transported to another world. It’s so hard to slow down these days and be present with something. There’s always something that needs to be done, something to worry about, or one more email or twitter feed to scroll through.

The symphonic overtones set the scene, but Hackett’s calm Spanish-influenced guitar is obviously the main attraction. The visuals for the video are quite stunning as well. Well done, Mr. Hackett. Well done. I can hardly wait to hear the rest of the album.

The Big Prog (Plus) Preview for Fall 2020!

As always seems to be the case, there’s tons of great music coming out between now and Black Friday, November 27. Below, the merest sampling of upcoming releases in prog and other genres below, with purchase links to Progarchy’s favorite online store Burning Shed unless otherwise noted.

Out now:

Simon Collins, Becoming Human: after 3 solo albums and Sound of Contact’s acclaimed Dimensionaut, Phil Collins’ oldest son returns on vocals. keys and drums; his new effort encompasses rock, pop, prog, electronica and industrial genres. Plus an existential inquiry into the meaning of life! Available on CD from Frontiers Records.

John Petrucci, Terminal Velocity: the Dream Theater guitarist reunites with Mike Portnoy on drums for his second solo set of instrumentals. Plus Dave LaRue of the Dixie Dregs and Flying Colors on bass. Expect lotsa notes! Available on CD or 2 LP from Sound Mind Records/The Orchard.

The Pineapple Thief, Versions of the Truth: Hot on the heels of their first US tour, Bruce Soord and Gavin Harrison helm TPT’s latest collection of brooding, stylized alt/art rock, honing in on the post-truth society’s impact on people and relationships. Available on CD, BluRay (with bonus track plus alternate, hi-res and surround mixes), LP or boxset (2 CDs/DVD/BluRay) – plus there’s a t-shirt!

Rikard Sjöblom’s Gungfly, Alone Together: Sjöblom spearheads a thoroughly groovy collection on vocals, guitar and organ, with Petter and Rasmus Diamant jumping in on drums and bass. Heartfelt portraits of daily life and love that yield extended, organic instrumental jams and exude optimism in the midst of ongoing isolation. Available on CD and LP (black or deep blood red vinyl).

[Upcoming releases follow the jump …]

Continue reading “The Big Prog (Plus) Preview for Fall 2020!”

Progressive Music in a Time of Pandemic

In the era of Napoleon, the Prussian diplomat Klemens Wenzel Furst von Metternich coined the phrase, “When France sneezes, the whole of Europe catches a cold.”  Like all good clichés, it’s been re-purposed endlessly since the 1800s.  Which leads to today’s question: when the music industry of 2020 catches COVID-19, what does the progressive music scene come down with?

In the last few weeks, the toll of the current pandemic has been steadily mounting, with the postponement or cancellation of tours by Yes, Steve Hackett, Tool and Big Big Train (plus this year’s Cruise to the Edge) at the tip of the iceberg. 

The tale of Leonardo Pavkovic, impresario of MoonJune Records and MoonJune Music (Bookings and Management) is all too grimly typical; since the outbreak of coronavirus, eight MoonJune-booked tours have been cancelled at a loss of about $250,000 to the artists, with many more tours now in jeopardy.  MoonJune artists Stick Men lost 8 of 9 concerts in Asia, plus their US spring tour; touch guitarist Markus Reuter resorted to GoFundMe in order to make up for the loss of six months’ income.

So where’s the good news?

For one thing, the plight of progressive musicians has resonated strongly with their fans. Reuter’s GoFundMe goal was met in just over a day; Pavkovic has had a newly positive response to MoonJune’s digital subscription program and discount offers. (Full disclosure: I’m a digital subscriber and I love it!)  And now Bandcamp is getting into the act:

To raise even more awareness around the pandemic’s impact on musicians everywhere, we’re waiving our revenue share on sales this Friday, March 20 (from midnight to midnight Pacific Time), and rallying the Bandcamp community to put much needed money directly into artists’ pockets.

So (if your situation allows it), who can you support via downloads, CDs, LPs and merch bought on Bandcamp this Friday?  Well, you could start with four fine new albums I’ve reviewed this year:

Then move on to other artists well loved on this blog:

Best of all, the music keeps on giving.  Leonardo Pavkovic is already sharing details about his next MoonJune albums: a live set from Stick Men’s only uncancelled Asian concert, plus an album of improvisational duets by Markus Reuter and pianist Gary Husband recorded during down time in Tokyo.  And jazz-rock master John McLaughlin has made his most recent album (Is That So with vocalist Shankar Mahadevan and tabla player Zakir Hussain) available as a free download.

Whither the music industry in time of pandemic?  As with everything else, it’s way too soon to tell.  But, if all of the above is any indication, progressive music — due to the indefatigable, awe-inspiring musicians who make it — will survive.

— Rick Krueger

News: Steve Hackett’s Autobiography in July!

From HackettSongs.com:

July 2020 sees the publication of A Genesis In My Bed – the long overdue autobiography from guitar great and former member of Genesis, Steve Hackett. As with his music, Steve has written a highly detailed, entertaining and embracing tome that charts his life in full, but with a firm emphasis on his years with Genesis that saw the band’s meteoric rise to become one of the most successful British bands of all time.

Steve talks candidly about his early life, his time with Genesis, and in particular his personal relationships with the other four band members, with great insight into the daily goings on of this major rock band.

Naturally, A Genesis In My Bed also regales stories of Steve’s career since leaving Genesis and the many different journeys that it has taken him on. With his flair for the creative, and a great deal of levity, A Genesis In My Bed is a riveting read. Indispensable for Genesis fans but also essential for general music lovers and avid readers of autobiographies full of heartfelt and emotive tales.

A Genesis in My Bed: The Autobiography is now available for pre-order from HackettSongs and Wymer Publishing (the latter featuring slightly cheaper shipping to North America).  Wymer’s signed & numbered special edition of the first 1000 copies is already gone, but Steve will sign copies pre-ordered through HackettSongs.

— Rick Krueger

kruekutt’s 2019 Favorites: Reissues and Live Albums

Here are the reissues and live albums from 2019 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.  Links to previous reviews or purchase sites are embedded in the album titles.  But first, a graphic tease …

Continue reading “kruekutt’s 2019 Favorites: Reissues and Live Albums”