(A quick note: for new releases, order links are embedded in album titles; online playlists/previews/etc. follow reviews when available. For catalog albums, playlists are linked with titles.)
Once again, I get to second a positive review from Bryan — this time of Fauna, the new release from prog-metallers Haken. Wildly creative, I found this to be the British sextet’s most appealing effort since 2016’s Affinity, stirring in flavors of fusion, postmodern pop, funk, reggae, electronica and even opera alongside one heavy yet tuneful chorus after another. Whether on the short, sharp shocks of “Taurus” and “Lovebite” or the extended journeys of “Sempiternal Beings” and “Elephants Never Forget”, Ross Jennings’ vocals soar, Charlie Griffiths and Richard Henshall’s guitars crunch, Peter Jones’ keys fill what few sonic crevices remain, and rhythm section Conner Green and Raymond Hearne thunder. Play it loud — but look out for multiple, exciting curveballs on every track!
Last month also saw the release of two live albums from veteran bands who’ve made it through the pandemic back to the stage:
Van der Graaf Generator’s The Bath Forum Concert(a CD/DVD/BluRay set) documents the venerable trio’s 2022 return to action; tackling an ambitious setlist that spans their entire career, guitarist/pianist/singer Peter Hammill is as declamatory and vehement as ever, organist Hugh Banton covers the aural spectrum between cathedral and crypt, and drummer Guy Evans locks into or disrupts the grinding soundscapes as the spirit moves him. The beautifully filmed video shows VDGG working hard and watching each other, opting for the flow as they feel it rather than relying on clinical precision; warts and all, this is refreshingly in the moment, a strong show that captures the band’s existential angst and humanistic idealism in full.
Two years after their 2020 Far Eastern tour collapsed around them, King Crimson satellite band Stick Men returned to Japan and blew away any cobwebs that might have accumulated at Osaka’s BB Live venue. The resulting album Umedashowcases avant guitarist Markus Reuter, multi-bassist Tony Levin and percussionist Pat Mastelotto at their aggressive, angular best; whether on long-standing improvisational frameworks “Cusp”, “Schattenhaft” and “Swimming in Tea”, newer compositions “Ringtone”, “Tentacles” and “Danger in the Workplace” or Crimson classics “Red”, “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Pt. II” or “The Sheltering Sky”, these guys are frighteningly good, whether working up a hair-raising din or backing off for spacey, unexpectedly lush interludes. A great introduction for newbies and a must for fans.
Plus, in February and March the recorded music industry resumed cranking out deluxe box set reissues and compilations — apparently the market of Boomers (like me) with more money than sense isn’t tapped out yet:
Short, sharp shocks this month: all albums and EPs reviewed below come in under the old school LP limit of 45 minutes! Purchasing links are embedded in each artist/title listing; album playlists or samples follow each review.
Entransient, Ghosts in the Halls: My hometown’s very own prog-metal band lays out the cards for all to see on their Facebook page: “Melodic neo/post-prog rock from Michigan. Influenced by Anathema, Alcest, and Porcupine Tree.” The good news is that guitarists Matt Schrauben & Doug Murray, bassist Nick Hagen, drummer Jeremy Hyde and vocalist/keyboardist Scott Murray refine those influences into a distinctive blend, marked by rich atmosphere and a towering core sound. The opening epic “Parasite” grabs hold immediately with its games of acoustic/electric musical chairs; “Synergize” and “Last Strawman” drive forward without mercy, as Murray testifies fiercely over bare grooves and fuzzed chords alike. More reflective moments like the title track, “Misplaced” and “Where the Shadows Lie” dial down the tempos and the lyrical angst while keeping the edge intact as the band prowls lush, more aerated soundscapes. (Kudos for Hagen’s mixing and engineering, as well as for the mastering work of The Pineapple Thief’s Steve Kitch; the band’s dynamic and textural range is captured with crystalline clarity throughout.) Entransient has an open, readily appealing touch to their music; as they blaze a fresh trail in a style that easily collapses into cliché, they’re well worth a listen.
Envy of None: No, this sounds nothing like Rush, even with Alex Lifeson’s guitar work in the mix. (If that’s what you want, the new anniversary edition of Moving Pictures is now available — and getting glowing reviews from unlikely sources like Pitchfork, for pete’s sake.) Lifeson does provide satisfying crunch, acoustic contrast, and creative lead work in spades, bedding in seamlessly with fellow core players Andy Curran (bass & guitar) and Alfio Annibalini (guitar and keys). They weave a darkly enticing aural mesh that cradles the understated, seductive singing of Maiah Wynne; her breathily fragile volleys, playing off the sticky minimalist hooks embedded in EoN’s web, are what might really ensnare you. Musically, this is all about basic song forms deployed in ambient/industrial/goth/post-rock styles; the seasoned instrumental interplay and Wynne’s preternaturally mature vocal work are what elevate the album above the obvious genre markers. So it’s old-fashioned chemistry and star quality, from veterans and newcomer alike, that turn out to be key to Envy of None’s appeal. Try it on that basis and see if it grabs you.
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 . . .
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.
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).
Back on March 20, Bandcamp waived its share of all sales, in order to support artists whose livelihoods were effected by the COVID-19 pandemic (especially because of cancelled live shows and tours). The results were astonishing: $4,300,000 in sales of downloads, CDs, LPs and merch, 15 times a normal Friday’s take.
On May 1, June 5, and July 3 (the first Friday of each month), we’re waiving our revenue share for all sales on Bandcamp, from midnight to midnight PDT on each day.
(Over 150 artists and labels are offering discounts, exclusive items, merch bundles, and more this Friday.)
It may sound simple, but the best way to help artists is with your direct financial support, and we hope you’ll join us through the coming months as we work to support artists in this challenging time.
And, in case you’re wondering, there’s tons of recorded goodness available at Bandcamp from these Progarchy-favored artists:
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.
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:
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.
Stick Men — touch guitarist Markus Reuter, bassist/Stick player Tony Levin and percussionist Pat Mastelotto — have been expanding the frontiers of progressive music since 2007. With a repertoire that encompasses Levin & Mastelotto’s legacy in King Crimson, Reuter’s innovative soundscapes and searing improvisations, 4 studio albums as a group and even Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird, they are the real deal, whether as a self-contained unit or joined by other groundbreaking musicians. I heard them live in 2011 when they toured with The Adrian Belew Power Trio, both performing their own music and joining Belew’s band for an awe-inspiring set of Crimson classics.
In August and September 2018, Stick Men teamed with violinist David Cross (best known for his contributions to King Crimson from 1972 to 1974), touring ten countries in Latin America. The results are documented on the new Panamerica, due for release in September. Expanding on previous live Stick Men releases Midori (recorded with Cross in Japan) and Roppongi (recorded with saxophonist Mel Collins), the set will include:
A complete show recorded live in Costa Rica
“Pan America Specials” recorded live in Argentina and Brazil
“Pan America Suites” recorded live in Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay
“Fire Starters”, a continuous mix of selected Cross/Reuter show opening pieces
While Panamerica will be available for download at Stick Men’s Bandcamp store, pre-orders are now being taken for a collectors’ 5-CD set, limited to 500 copies and sold by invitation only, with all proceeds going directly to the band. Interested? Go here for all the details!
What new music, live albums, reissues (regular, deluxe or super-deluxe) and tours are heading our way between now and All Hallows Eve? Check out the exhaustive (and potentially exhausting) sampling of promised progressive goodies — along with other personal priorities — below. Click on the titles for pre-order links — whenever possible, you’ll wind up at the online store that gets as much money as possible directly to the musicians.
Tool, Fear Inoculum: Tool’s first album in 13 years. Available via digital download, as well as “a deluxe, limited-edition CD version (which) features a 4” HD rechargeable screen with exclusive video footage, charging cable, 2 watt speaker, a 36-page booklet and a digital download card.” Really.