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

2019 Prog (Plus) Preview 2!

More new music, live albums, reissues (regular, deluxe & super-deluxe) and even books about music heading our way between now and Christmas?  Yep.  Following up on my previous post, it’s another exhaustive 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 creators.

Out now:

Andrew Keeling, Musical Guide to In the Court of the Crimson King, 10/50 Edition: composer/musicologist/online diarist Keeling’s revision of his 2009 book (the first of a series acclaimed by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp).

Marillion with Friends from the Orchestra: 9 Marillion classics re-recorded by the full band, the string quartet In Praise of Folly, flautist Emma Halnan and French horn player Sam Morris.  Available on CD.

A Prog Rock Christmas: Billy Sherwood produces 11 holiday-themed tracks from the typical all-star cast (members of Yes, Utopia, Flying Colors, Renaissance, District 97, Curved Air and more).  Download and CD available now; LP available November 1.

 

October 25:

King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King (50th Anniversary Edition): featuring brand new stereo and surround mixes in 24/96 resolution by Steven Wilson.  Available in 3 CD + BluRay or  2 LP versions.  (Note that the new mixes will also be included in the Complete 1969  CD/DVD/BluRay box set, which has been delayed until 2020.)

Van Morrison, Three Chords and the Truth: 14 new songs from Van the Man, available in digital, CD or LP versions.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Colorado: the first Young/Horse collaboration since the 2012 albums Americana and Psychedelic Pill, available in CD or 2LP versions.

Continue reading “2019 Prog (Plus) Preview 2!”

In Concert: The Who – Moving On!

The Who, Van Andel Arena, Grand Rapids Michigan, May 7, 2019.

Taking the mike as The Who casually took the stage, surrounded by a 49-piece orchestra, Pete Townshend saluted my adopted hometown. “Grand Rapids — on the Grand River — a grand occasion!”

As I’ve noted before, Michigan has played an outsized part in The Who’s history — the site of their first US hit single (“I Can’t Explain”, in Detroit) their first US gig outside New York (the Fifth Dimension Club, in Ann Arbor), their first car driven into a swimming pool (at Flint’s Holiday Inn).  Tuesday night brought a new “first” — the opening night of an ambitious band-plus-symphony tour.  Would it be a brave triumph?  A crazy experiment?  An baffling failure?  A cynical cash grab?  We would get to find out — first!

What we got was a mix of the first two possibilities — thoroughly intriguing and pretty gripping, worth some shaky moments and rough pacing for the sheer, audacious impact of the whole package.  The evening was by no means a smooth ride or a safe play to a sold-out sports arena crowd; parachuting into unfamiliar sonic terrain, The Who had to blaze new trails forward.  They stumbled at times, but when they found their feet, the musical vistas they discovered could be downright glorious.

Continue reading “In Concert: The Who – Moving On!”

Bryan Hears a Who! Roger Daltrey Live at Ravinia – 6/23/18

Roger Daltrey, Live at Ravinia, Highland Park, Illinois, June 23, 2018

Setlist: Tommy (whole album except for instrumental “Underture”)
Who Are You
Baba O’Riley
Always Heading Home (new solo song from Roger Daltrey)

Players: Roger Daltrey (vocals), Simon Townshend (backing vocals, guitars), Frank Simes (guitars, backing vocals), Loren Gold (keyboards), Jon Button (bass, backing vocals), Scott Devour (drums), Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra (conducted by Keith Levenson)

Landscape view of the Ravinia pavilion and stage from the back left of the pavilion.
Pre-show – I’ve just about given up taking photos with my phone during concerts because they always look like garbage, and it distracts both me and other audience members from the music

Roger Daltrey’s performance of Tommy was truly a once-in-a-lifetime event. One of the benefits of being a younger fan of progressive rock is the thrill of seeing many of the classic prog and classic rock bands on their 40th and 50th anniversary tours playing their classic albums. I’ve seen Ian Anderson perform Thick as a Brick, The Moody Blues perform Days of Future Passed, B. B. King doing a greatest hits show, Dennis DeYoung doing greatest hits of Styx, Kansas doing greatest hits… next week I’m seeing Yes for the first time, and I’m seeing the other Yes (Anderson, Wakeman, Rabin) in September. I’m proud to add Roger Daltrey of The Who to that list. And he played the greatest rock opera of all time! It was a fantastic evening, to say the least.

Continue reading “Bryan Hears a Who! Roger Daltrey Live at Ravinia – 6/23/18”

1969: A Blast from the Past

“Well it’s 1969 OK all across the USA
It’s another year for me and you
                                      Another year with nothing to do”  — 1969, The Stooges

I was 7 going on 8 in 1969.  But my brother was ten years older — and Detroit was a prime location to explore rock as it turned psychedelic, then progressive, still with plenty of punk attitude.  Our cousin from Lansing was about the same age as my brother — so they did a fair amount of concertgoing together.

The other day, out of the blue I got a letter from our cousin, reproduced below with my random thoughts interspersed:

Dear Cousin Rick,

I’m sending along a copy of the program from the festival I attended in the south of England summer of 1969.  I thought you might it interesting.

plumpton festival program(Hmmm … The 9th National Jazz and Blues Festival.  Waitaminute: Pink Floyd?  King Crimson?  Peter Hammill performing solo before the first Van Der Graaf Generator album? Yes?  The Who?  Keith Emerson with The Nice?  Not to mention Soft Machine and Pentangle?  And he was there? Doggone straight I find it interesting.  Please continue, cousin!)

I’d seen both The Who and The Nice at the Grande Ballroom in the spring before.  The Who played the entire Tommy opera both times.  The Nice as I remember had some kind of revolving organ at the Grande.  At the Plumpton fest they closed the show on Sunday backed by a large orchestra.  At the final song the stage opened and a regiment of bagpipers marched off the stage and into the crowd.  Those were heady times.

isle of wight 1969There’s also a copy of the Isle of Wight festival flier which I missed as it was the weekend which we were heading home.  Such fond memories.

(Bob Dylan & The Band?  The Moody Blues?  More from King Crimson, The Who and Pentangle?  Stop torturing me, cousin!!!  Actually, no — please continue as I wrestle with envy and wish Doctor Who’s TARDIS was real.)

The day we arrived in London the Rolling Stones played in Hyde Park celebrating the life of Brian Jones who had just passed.  Couldn’t quite get there but almost.  (Another King Crimson show!!)

I’d like to hear more about your music blogging/reviews.    P.S.  We didn’t arrive at the fest until Saturday so we missed all the Friday acts.  Booo!

Fortunately, the sounds of the Plumpton Festival aren’t completely lost in the mists of time; I plan to direct my cousin to Soft Machine’s and Pink Floyd’s sets online, and send him a copy of King Crimson’s set.

detroit rr revival 1969And talking with my brother later, I heard the story of how he and my cousin somehow got permission to go to the 1969 Detroit Rock’n’Roll Revival (with the MC5, Chuck Berry, Dr. John, The “Psychedelic” Stooges and many more acts) the night before my sister’s wedding.  Maybe I should rethink missing Yes’ 50th Anniversary Tour when it hits Grand Rapids.  Not to mention Wayne Kramer’s MC50 Kick Out the Jams 50th Anniversary Tour and Soft Machine’s world tour coming to Progtoberfest IV

— Rick Krueger

The Albums that Changed My Life: #4, Who’s Next by The Who

by Rick Krueger

“Rock ‘n’ Roll might not solve your problems, but it does let you dance all over them.” — Pete Townshend of The Who on Good Morning America, 1978.

From the 1960s through the early 1980s and beyond, Michigan loved The Who.  The only place their first single “I Can’t Explain” was a hit in the USA was Detroit.   Flint’s Holiday Inn became infamous as the hotel where, according to legend, Keith Moon drove a Lincoln Continental into its swimming pool on his 21st birthday.  Their 1975 show at the Pontiac Silverdome briefly held the record for largest indoor concert.

So it wasn’t as if I hadn’t heard songs from Who’s Next before I went to college in 1979; at that point, “Baba O’Riley,” “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” were inescapable on FM radio.  But it was at the end of my first term away from home that the 1971 album became something more to me.

Continue reading “The Albums that Changed My Life: #4, Who’s Next by The Who”

“There’s no record industry anymore.”—Roger Daltrey

Roger Daltrey sounds ridiculous in this interview with Rolling Stone:

Would you ever make another Who record?
We’ve talked about it, but it’s not going to be easy. There’s no record industry anymore. Why would I make a record? I would have to pay to make a record. There’s no royalties so I can’t see that ever happening. There’s no record business. How do you get the money to make the records? I don’t know. I’m certainly not going to pay money to give my music away free. I can’t afford to do that. I’ve got other things I could waste the money on.

Well, the music industry is constantly changing.
Well, it’s been stolen. The way the Internet has come about has been the biggest robbery in history, like musicians should work for nothing.

Artists get paid for streaming, but not like they did for albums.
You’re joking. You get paid for streaming, my ass. There’s no control. Musicians are getting robbed every day. And now it’s creeping into film and television, everything now. You notice, the Internet is a slowly but surely destructive thing in all ways. I don’t think it’s improved people’s lives. It’s just made them do more work and feel like they’re wanted a bit more, but it’s all bollocks. They feel like they’re wanted because they got 50,000 Facebook likes or whatever, and it’s all bollocks. It’s all rubbish [laughs]. Look up for a while. Live in the real world.

Continue reading ““There’s no record industry anymore.”—Roger Daltrey”

Son of Aurelius — Under a Western Sun ★★★★★ @SonofAurelius

It is with great pleasure that I share with you a truly excellent prog metal album. Between July 1 and July 4, I selected my four favorite releases of the year thus far; over the past few days, I have been sharing them with you. I conclude that series of posts now with the album that I suspect will end up being ranked by me as Album of the Year when December rolls around.

Son of Aurelius was a technical death metal band that has now grown into an innovative and unique prog metal band. Actually, what they do defies genre categorization. They even engage in a critique of the entire notion of “prog” here in the lyrics to track six, “Attack on Prague” (a clever variant spelling of “Prog”):

Freedom from impulse
has never been required more
than it is in relation to the state we’re in,
and it will take so much more
than progressive metal can hope to achieve
With all of its intention and spacey themes.

The band’s first release, The Farthest Reaches (2010), stuck solely with the genre’s usual monochromatic death metal vocals over top of technically accomplished metal. Now on this sophomore release, they have evolved musically and exited from the sub-sub-genre ghetto of death metal but incorporated the best of those sub-sub-genre tropes into a much, much greater musical accomplishment. I am struck by the level of transformation here, and to use an analogy that Progarchy readers will understand, it seems to me something like the difference between Rush’s first album and their second album. Under a Western Sun (2014) appears to be Son of Aurelius’ Fly by Night. In case you miss my point: with this release, we are now in the presence of true musical greatness.

There are fifteen tracks on this entirely independently-produced release. The old death metal screams and growls are incorporated here only as a smaller part of the full palette of an astonishingly dynamic range of vocals. Rather than death metal vocals for the sake of death metal vocals, Riley McShane’s screaming here is intelligently deployed simply as part of the emotional variation within the songs. The impact is incredibly effective and gives the sonic experience a unique range and power.

I think of the album’s fifteen tracks in three groups of five. First, there are five lengthy, mind-blowingly epic prog metal tracks:
2. Chorus of the Earth (7:11)
3. The Weary Wheel (6:46)
6. Attack on Prague (6:03)
13. Long Ago (6:53)
14. Under a Western Sun (7:15)
The technical virtuosity is amazing on every one of these tracks. If you want to have an experience similar to being a teenager listening to Neil Peart for the first time, listen to what Spencer Edwards does with his drumming: you will be astonished to discover that a human being is capable of making sounds like this on a drum kit. It is hard to pick a favorite track, because everything here is truly superb. Cary Geare on guitar and Max Zigman on bass will blow your mind with their unbridled excellence. There are even acoustic guitars and keyboards here and there, which showcases the musical intelligence and compositional skill of the band as they create prog soundscapes on an epic scale.

If I had to single out a favorite moment and a favorite track, it would be track 13, “Long Ago,” where Riley McShane at 4:09 holds the last syllable of the last word he sings in the chorus in an extended rock and roll yell over top of the blistering guitar power chords and the enfilading fire of the drum kit. It’s a truly transcendent moment, because it takes a few seconds for you to realize that Riley is not letting go of that note… and then he just keeps on going and going, for a whole twenty seconds! Unlike Roger Daltrey’s famous yell in “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” which telegraphs what it is about to do, this yell sneaks up on you instead. But it too delivers a truly great rock and roll moment that is no less classic.

Every one of these five lengthier tracks is a mini-masterpiece, and together they actually add up to the length of a regular vinyl album of five-star rank. But the band is kind enough to share more music with us, and so we get a CD that is 72:15 in total length. Let me tell you about the rest of it, which is like having ten bonus tracks added on to an already five-star classic prog metal album.

The second group of five tracks includes four instrumentals, and one more track, “The Prison Walls,” which, unlike the other vocal tracks on this release, is nothing but growling death metal vocals, and hence it harkens back to the old style of their first album:
1. Return to Arms (2:42)
7. Flailing Saints (1:19)
11. The Prison Walls (5:55)
12. Submerge & Surface (3:03)
15. Strange Aeons (2:29)
Personally, I find these exclusively growling death metal vocals completely boring and I can barely stand listening to track eleven. I feel my I.Q. dropping as the dumb growls plod on and on — although the demented riffing on the track does make for some great crazy metal music. There is an excellent instrumental break at about the three-minute mark, and so usually I just fast-forward to that, if I don’t skip the song entirely. I guess this track is a sop to the fans who loved their first album, but I just think it is time to grow and move on and leave this sort of thing behind. It works when it is deployed in very small doses as part of an escalating dynamic range, as within the five epic prog-length tracks, but on its own it is musically very dull.

“Flailing Saints” and “Strange Aeons” are brief fade-in and fade-out instrumental outtakes, but “Return to Arms” and “Submerge & Surface” are fully coherent instrumental wholes that are very, very impressive. If you want a quick sample of the band’s virtuosity, try out those two tracks. I especially love the bass solo on “Submerge & Surface,” because it explodes into an unexpected burst of feedback at the end. The instrumentation and arrangement is top-notch on these purely musical tracks. They work well in bringing variation and interest to an already stellar album.

The last group of five tracks consists of carefully-crafted songs that are shorter in length, but still packed with the musical virtuosity that is the hallmark of Son of Aurelius:
4. Coloring the Soul (3:56)
5. The Stoic Speaks (4:46)
8. A Great Liberation (5:27)
9. Clouded Panes (4:28)
10. Blinding Light (4:15)
“Coloring the Soul” and “The Stoic Speaks” give us lyrics sung from the perspective of a Marcus Aurelius character who seems to be standing outside of time. “Coloring the Soul” even sings at the end a quote from the Emperor’s actual Meditations:

The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.

The band gets its name from the successor Emperor, Commodus, who on their first release was changed by the lyrics into a fictional, super-powered lunatic. But on this release, the “son” of Marcus Aurelius could be anyone listening to the album who is spiritually attuned to what the lyrics are singing about — a “spiritual son” of Marcus Aurelius, in other words. Perhaps something of that vision even informs the lyrics to the epic track “Long Ago,” which could be giving voice to the album’s Marcus Aurelius character, standing outside of time, viewing the trajectory of the Roman Empire, and lamenting the way the world has gone.

Tracks eight, nine, and ten are all very different, but yet each one finishes up with a highly creative outro. Each outro is very satisfying and unexpected and impressive. “A Great Liberation” has screaming death metal vocals throughout, but while the growling ones on track eleven, “The Prison Walls,” are boring, these screaming ones at least have an interesting expressive dimension, and they actually work very well with the incredible music that comprises “A Great Liberation.”

The track “Clouded Panes” is a good short introduction if you can only play one short song for someone to show the truly amazing range of which Son of Aurelius is musically capable. Again, it’s hard to pick any favorites, but one of mine is “Blinding Light,” which for the first few minutes sounds exactly like it could be a Big Big Train song! But then, at the transition into the outro, power chords come ripping in unexpectedly, and Big Big Train turns into… Son of Aurelius! It’s an awesome moment. The vocals by Riley McShane are really great here, especially his quiet clean vocals which then erupt into rock singing. This is the stuff of greatness.

Son of Aurelius are the real deal. Don’t miss this album. It’s a special accomplishment and will doubtless be our Prog Metal Album of the Year.

Son of Aurelius — Under a Western Sun

Max Zigman – Bass
Spencer Edwards – Drums
Cary Geare – Lead Guitar
Riley McShane – Vocals

Progarchist Rating: 10/10 ★★★★★

The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Four): Clear Blue Sky

clearbluesky

The fourth installment in this series will focus on a band called Clear Blue Sky.  Although they are still active (they released an album this year), I would like to focus on their eponymous debut album Clear Blue Sky.  Formed in the late 1960s by John Simms (vocals and guitar), Mark Sheater (bass), and Ken White (drums), Clear Blue Sky actually received some attention after the release of their first album because of one of their fans: John “Thunderfingers” Entwistle of The Who.  The masterful bass player enjoyed listening to this new band and would even stop by the studio to jam with them.  With a musician like Entwistle supporting them, one would think that Clear Blue Sky would have punched their ticket to stardom.  Unfortunately this was not the case, as their music was not quite “radio friendly” enough to get sufficient airplay. The album opens up with a 17 minute rock epic entitled Journey to the Inside of the Sun and ends with the softer Birdcatcher.  The songs featured in between are shorter, heavier rock pieces that may remind some listeners of Atomic Rooster (sans Hammond organ).  John Simms’s guitar takes center stage on all of the songs and he plays with prodigious skill for an 18 year old.  Sheater and White are not to be ignored, however; they provide a sound rhythm section.  Overall, the band plays with solid skill (considering how young they were) and it is unfortunate they did not get the attention they deserved.  Sadly, this seems to be the case for so many progressive rock bands.  Nonetheless, this is one album certainly worth listening to.

Here’s their website: http://www.clearbluesky.co.uk/

Here’s the album: