20 in 2020: My Highlights So Far

It’s been a grim old half-year, hasn’t it?

If you were to hunt for any positives to come out of lockdown, one of the few might be the increased opportunities it has afforded many of us to sit down and listen to music, in lieu of social or outdoor activities. Indeed, this simple act seems more important than ever as a means of raising spirits and maintaining one’s mental health in these troubled times.

The pandemic has wrecked the live music scene for the moment, and made the business of recording new material much more challenging, but it doesn’t seem to have stemmed the flow of new releases too much just yet, thankfully. So here’s a round-up of twenty things that have particularly caught my ear over the past six months.

Note: wherever possible, links in this piece are to the relevant Bandcamp page (or, failing that, to sites like Burning Shed or Music Glue).

Let’s start with stuff that might be regarded as ‘mainstream prog’. The epitome of this has to be The Red Planet by Rick Wakeman – an album that ploughs a much proggier, Moog-laden furrow than the maestro’s other recent, piano-based work. It’s a delight from start to finish, and my only regret is that I opted for the digital release rather than the CD or vinyl with their distinctive cardboard pop-up covers.

The Red Planet, by Rick Wakeman (Pop-up vinyl version)

Also firmly and squarely in the ‘mainstream prog’ camp lie Pendragon‘s latest, Love Over Fear, and Masters Of Illusion by Magenta. The former is easily the band’s best work for quite a while and features gorgeous aquatic-themed cover art (see below-left). The latter is an intriguing concept album paying tribute to Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Christopher Lee and other stars of classic horror movies. Even better than both of these is the splendid Things Unseen, by I Am The Manic Whale, an album that is uplifting and light in tone yet also satisfyingly intricate. Highlights are the 19-minute epic Celebrity and the touching paean to a newborn infant, Smile.

I’ve avoided lumping new Glass Hammer album Dreaming City in with the aforementioned ‘mainstream prog’ releases, only because this album has a pleasing, harder-than-expected edge to it. I’ll admit that Glass Hammer’s output hasn’t always clicked for me, but I’ve very much enjoyed the heavier tone here, as well as the forays into electronica. Heavier still, and just as engrossing, are Inescapable by Godsticks, and Jupiter Hollow‘s latest, Bereavement.

What else has grabbed my attention? Pure Reason Revolution‘s comeback album Eupnea stands out, as does Celexa Dreams by Kyros – an even better album than 2016’s impressive Vox Humana, I reckon. Earworm Rumour and the dramatic In Vantablack are especially noteworthy. If you enjoy slap bass and plenty of synths, you should definitely check this one out!

Rumour by Kyros, from Celexa Dreams

The pop and contemporary music influences that have shaped Celexa Dreams are even more prevalent in another couple of this year’s quality releases: The Empathy Machine by Chimpan A, and Valor by The Opium Cartel. Chimpan A is a side-project of Magenta’s Rob Reed which has been dormant since a 2006 debut album. This long overdue follow-up is a slick, smooth, highly palatable mix of prog, pop, electronica and dance beats, with excellent vocal performances. Valor, meanwhile, is a more straightforward homage to the pop music of the 1980s, but is no less elegant or enjoyable for all that. Elegance is also the watchword in Modern Ruins, by Tim Bowness & Peter Chilvers. This is minimalist art rock at its finest, with Bowness as soothing and seductive as he’s ever been.

In The Streets by The Opium Cartel, from Valor

Instrumental albums have very much been on my radar this year: not just Rick Wakeman’s aforementioned offering, but also material from younger, less established acts. Zopp’s eponymous debut release is a superb slice of jazz-tinged, Canterbury-inspired prog, featuring guest appearances from Andy Tillison and Theo Travis (Andy also engineered and co-produced this one). Much more squarely in jazz territory lies the Jazz Sabbath project, from Rick’s son Adam Wakeman. This imagines an amusing alternate history in which Black Sabbath made their name by ripping off the songs of jazz pianist Milton Keanes! The version of Iron Man on here is especially entertaining. Finally, I can’t leave the Instrumental category behind without mentioning Final Quiet, from the gloriously-named Flies Are Spies From Hell. This is post-rock, but with more delicacy and subtle variation than is generally found in that particular sub-genre.

Before The Light by Zopp, from Zopp

Funnily enough, my favourite releases of 2020 so far would mostly not be categorised as prog. Chief amongst these is Darkness Brings The Wonders Home by Smoke Fairies – a moody, mesmeric album in which minor keys, intertwined guitar parts and vocal harmonies combine to bewitching effect. Stand out tracks are Coffee Shop Blues, Chocolate Rabbit and Chew Your Bones. Equally compelling is Jonathan Hultén‘s acoustic solo album Chants From Another Place, a haunting, mysterious work that taps into obscure folk and choral traditions.

Chew Your Bones by Smoke Fairies, from Darkness Brings The Wonders Home

Folk influences also permeate two other 2020 releases that are particularly dear to my heart: Let It All In by Baltimore band Arbouretum, and The Life Of The Honeybee And Other Moments Of Clarity, from Glasgow-based Abel Ganz. The former deftly blends americana, psych and even krautrock, courtesy of the pulsating, hypnotic 11-minute title track. The latter is a majestic and beautiful prog album that somehow improves upon the mood-enhancing, sunny, summery feel of its 2014 predecessor. I guarantee it’ll lift your spirits if you give it a spin. It’s hard to pick a favourite track, but the epic Sepia And White is truly spectacular.

I’ll finish with a shout-out for KOYO, a band local to me, whose new album You Said It has been on constant rotation at home. This is more direct and punchy, and less psychedelia-influenced, than its 2017 predecessor. Overall, it’s not especially proggy, though album closer Against All Odds definitely leans in that direction, while Out Of Control wouldn’t sound out of place on Steven Wilson’s To The Bone. In fact, it’s easy to imagine Wilson producing an album like this, were he to opt for a grungier, more alt rock direction on some future release. However you want to label it, this is a hugely engaging, lively and enjoyable listen, and one of my favourites of the year so far.

Out Of Control by KOYO, from You Said It

The Beauty of Ardor

Image

Ardor by The Opium Cartel

In a year of great music, Ardor is a surprise and an absolute delight, so much so that it has moved into my top 10 for the year.  The Opium Cartel, often referred to as an ‘art pop collective’ have created a brilliant blend of 80’s pop/rock music with progressive overtones, delivered by outstanding musicians with stunning production reflecting hundreds of hours of work crafting this music. I haven’t felt such a strong connection with an album since the last Big Big Train CD.

The Opium Cartel is the pop/rock outlet for Jacob Holm-Lupo of White Willow, joined by Stephen Bennet of NoMan/Henry Fool, Matthias Olsson from White Willow, plus members of Wobbler, Jaga Jazzist and Pixel, with Venke Knudtson, Rhys Marsh, Tim Bowness and Alexander Stenerud,on vocals.  The music is consistent and the variety of vocalists is not a distraction in the least; in fact int enhances the overall listening experience. The music is atmospheric reflecting the pop sensibilities of The Dream Academy, The Blue Nile, Thomas Dolby, Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush, mixed with the progressive influences of the White Willow /Wobbler /Autumnsongs gang in a perfect blend of songs that demand repeat listening.  The production is masterful, with waves of sound embellishing a melody and quickly disappearing before you know what you heard.  Mellotrons, 80’s synths, bells, chimes, acoustic guitars, flute, sax and percussion weave through beautiful melodies creating a perfect audio blend.  The electronic percussion offsets Mattias’s acoustic drums,  keeping the music constantly moving rather than plodding as the late 80’s bands had a tendency to do.

Kissing Moon, featuring Rhys Marsh and Venke on vocals, is the perfect opening track, whimsical, reflective and melancholy. This is followed by When We Dream, one of the loveliest songs of the year–sad, lovely, autumn music.

“And when she sleeps she sleeps alone

And when she calls her lover’s gone

And every moment she has known

Are only dust when it has blown”

Northern Rain is pop/rock at its best, with an infectious sing-along chorus over a pounding bass.

“I have seen you walk away walk away walk away

And I wish you will be home before too long

As the sun sets on the hills and trees and the beautiful places where we go

I will be waiting there for you”.

The lyrics seem simple but evoke the perfect emotion on every song.

 

White Wolf is my favorite track, with a pedal steel guitar opening building:

“Did I see in the distance

Not a day away

Gleaming spires and domes of gold lay

I am weary and weak now

Traveled night and day

All I want is a place where I can stay

Let me lay down beside you

On your velvet bed

And don’t wake me till the morning rises red

 The music moves through a lovely haunting flute solo to a huge chorus with outstanding vocals:

Shadows all around me

Look what I’ve become

Like a ghost another

White Wolf on the run

I have found some peace here

Comfort by your side

But kept on I’m just a

Stranger on the run

Will you say a little prayer

Will you say a little prayer for me”.

The album concludes with Mariner, Come In, the best Peter Gabriel song I have heard in years, of course written by TOC. Mariner is the longest track on the album at 11 minutes, ending with an extended powerful dreamy sax solo.

While the dedicated prog fan might be cynical of my mention of the 80’s pop references, The Opium Cartel has captured the energy and spirit of some of the best of the wonderful music created in that decade.  Ardor evokes the  ‘sound’ of that era with progressive stylings, emotive lyrics and 21st century production. As with all great CDs, the minute Ardor ends I am ready to play it again.  There are no ‘skip’ tracks, there is no wasted space, no wasted sounds, no doodling, no extended solos, no excess.  Ardor is an outstanding collection of beautiful songs crafted by true artists.  We are lucky to have music like this still being made.  

Highly Recommended