My favorite 40 (20+20) albums of 2020: Jazz

Moment of Clarity – Paul Shaw Quintet | Summit Records

It’s safe to say that I am the “jazz guy” here as I listen to jazz in some form or another on a daily basis, especially while working (along with some favorite classical works).

And so my first 20 favorites of 2020 are jazz. 

(The next 20, to be posted separately, are “everything else”, which includes prog, singer-songwriter, instrumental rock, and a bit of country.)

• “Moment of Clarity” by Paul Shaw Quintet: This beautiful album was my most played jazz release of 2020, a near perfect combo of interplay, melodic playing, and crisp production.

• “From This Place” by Pat Metheny: This epic album, which has a soundtrack quality to it, is one of my favorites of 2020 regardless of genre, with astounding playing at the service of deeply engaging songs. A masterpiece, in my opinion.

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The State of the Disunion, Part 1

Our Broken Institutions

This brave new world has fallen and decayed
Are there no heroes, just men with feet of clay?

– Arena, Spectre at the Feast

            The United States, to whatever degree we are still united, is approaching the end of a year that more tumultuous than most.  A few years in the 1860’s might have been more so, but as the country stands now, it’s doing everything it can to catch up with that dark time. 

            America in 2020 might be more dysfunctional now than it has ever been in its history.  Certainly, it hasn’t been this bad since the Civil War, the only difference being that we are not shooting each other – yet.  Simply put, every single institution we rely upon to keep this country united has been corrupted and decayed into utter, debilitating dysfunction.  Corruption, cowardice, rationalization, and a lack of the most basic ethics infect all three branches of government, our media, our corporations, and as a result, has eroded our civic life.  We can no longer agree with one another on even the most fundamental ideas of what our country should be. 

            These institutions were built to bind us to some basic agreements while allowing plenty of room above that for spirited, civil disagreement.  Just as we found ourselves in 1861, we are now a house divided.  Worse, our foundation is cracked and may be irreparably damaged. 

Our Dysfunctional Government:

            I’ve long repeated the saying that 99% of politicians give the rest a bad name.  I may be underestimating the number of truly detestable, faithless politicians in our country at the present.

            Throughout history, there seems to be a trend of legislative bodies and their members abdicating their responsibilities while still being able to benefit from their position.  The Roman senate twice gave away absolute power, first to Caesar (which didn’t last for well-documented reasons) and later to Augustus (which put the final nail in the coffin of the Republic).  The senators maintained their lofty status and wealth, all the while having relieved themselves of the responsibility of making hard decisions.  In our own country, state legislatures, through the 17th amendment, relieved themselves of the responsibility to choose senators.  And over several decades now, both houses of our congress have willingly turned over an increasing amount of power to the executive branch. 

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Best Prog of 2020, Part II

A few days ago, I attempted to create a “best of 2020” purely from memory.  My oldest daughter was driving the Honda, and I was enjoying the thrill of the quickly-moving Illinois landscape out the passenger’s window.  Honestly, at age 53, I should know better than to rely only on my memory, though, as a historian, I actually still have a pretty good one.  But, no longer great.  Just pretty good.  Even as I was typing the list in the car, I knew I’d forget all kinds of great albums, but I tried it anyway.  Pride and ego are funny things. 

Anyway. 

That list still stands (a few posts back), but I want to add some brilliant albums that I inadvertently failed to remember at the moment of writing.

Two albums this year get the spiritual successor to Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock award.  First up is Tim Bowness’s extraordinary nuanced (so glorious), Late Night Laments, an album full of meaningful lyrics and sonic soundscapes that boggle the imagination. Bowness, unfortunately, gets overshadowed by his sometime writing partner, Steven Wilson, but, frankly, the two artists are equally extraordinary. 

Following Bowness’s lead was the more recently-released Loma album, Don’t Shy Away.  Again, incredible textures mixed with intriguing lyrics.  Clearly, the band has spent a lot of good quality time listening to Talk Talk. Regardless, I owe Stephen Humphries (of the Christian Science Monitor) a huge thanks for introducing the band to me.

Nick D’Virgilio’s Invisible in an album full of surprises and full of soul.  There’s conviction behind every word and every note. I wasn’t sure what to expect before the album arrived, but I fell in love with it on the first listen. D’Virgilio is also rock’s greatest living drummer, so I was especially pleased to be reminded that the guy is just incredibly talented in all kinds of ways.

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My Conflicted Relationship with Progressive Music (Prog)

By Mark Sullivan

My earliest memory is standing on my tiptoes putting Let it Be by The Beatles on my parent’s stereo. I must have been only four or five years old, and I don’t know why my parents let their pre-schooler touch their records. I wouldn’t have.

“I dig a pygmy, by Charles Hawtry on the deaf-aids. Phase one, in which Doris gets her oats.” Then the acoustic guitar, the bass drum, John and Paul singing in unison, and I’m in my happy place – laying on the floor listening to music. Looking up at the ceiling and lost in my imagination. Not much has changed in 45 years. 

Besides The Beatles, my parent’s record collection consisted of 1970s staples such as Linda Rondstadt, Neil Diamond (laugh if you’d like), Emmy Lou Harris, Glen Campbell, Loretta Lynn, Bob Dylan, Charlie Parker, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Wes Montgomery, Herbie Mann, and The Moody Blues. I listened to all of those albums except Every Good Boy Deserves Favor by The Moody Blues. The cover freaked me out and planted the seeds of suspicion about Progressive Music (Prog).

Probably as a teenager I tried to listen to it. I imagine that I picked up the needle at “Desolation, creation.” It still sounds stupid, but if I would have stayed with it and listened to “The Story in Your Eyes,” things may have been different. 

However, I wasn’t aware of Prog as a thing or deliberately avoiding it until I encountered the anti-Prog bible, The Worst Rock n’ Roll Records of All Time: A Fan’s Guide to the Stuff You Love to Hate by Jimmy Guterman and Owen O’Donnell in a used bookstore sometime in my early 20s. That book was everything a young music snob like me could want, take downs of stupid lyrics and bloated Prog bands on every page. I learned that you could always be cool by ripping on Prog.

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Wounded Knee at 130

One hundred thirty years ago today, the United States military engaged—for the last time—the American Indians.  The conflict, often known as the Battle of Wounded Knee, should appropriately be called the tragedy or massacre of Wounded Knee, for it was nothing short of a travesty. The last actual battle of the Indian Wars was that at Skeleton Canyon against Geronimo and his forces, four years earlier, in 1886.

Beginning in October of 1890, tensions between a significant group of Sioux Indians and the U.S. Government reached toward the tipping point in South Dakota.  Many of the Sioux had begun to adopt a nativist religion, recently imported from Nevada, called the “Ghost Dance.”  The dance, a complicated movement that hoped for the end of the world with the intermixing of the living and the dead, had been founded by Jack “Wovoka” Wilson, a Paiute Indian.  In his famous messiah letter, he had written:

“When you get home you must make a dance to continue five days. Dance four successive nights, and the last night keep up the dance until the morning of the fifth day, when all must bathe in the river and then disperse to their homes. You must all do in the same way.

“I, Jack Wilson, love you all, and my heart is full of gladness for the gifts you have brought me. When you get home I shall give you a good cloud [rain?] which will make you feel good. I give you a good spirit and give you all good paint. I want you to come again in three months, some from each tribe there [the Indian Territory].

There will be a good deal of snow this year and some rain. In the fall there will be such a rain as I have never given you before.

Grandfather [a universal title of reverence among Indians and here meaning the messiah] says, when your friends die you must not cry. You must not hurt anybody or do harm to anyone. You must not fight. Do right always. It will give you satisfaction in life. This young man has a good father and mother. [Possibly this refers to Casper Edson, the young Arapaho who wrote down this message of Wovoka for the delegation].

Do not tell the white people about this. Jesus is now upon the earth. He appears like a cloud. The dead are still alive again. I do not know when they will be here; maybe this fall or in the spring. When the time comes there will be no more sickness and everyone will be young again.

Do not refuse to work for the whites and do not make any trouble with them until you leave them. When the earth shakes [at the coming of the new world] do not be afraid. It will not hurt you.

I want you to dance every six weeks. Make a feast at the dance and have food that everybody may eat. Then bathe in the water. That is all. You will receive good words again from me some time. Do not tell lies.”

Many of the American Indians of the Southwest had a deathly fear of ghosts, and Wilson’s faith failed to catch on there.  But it spread rapidly on the northern Great Plains, especially among the Sioux. The Sioux, of course, had not only been recently defeated as a people, but they had lost their entire way of life—the buffalo hunt—and the U.S. had brutally confined and imprisoned them on strictly (and unjustly) governed reservations.  Among the most corrupt was the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.  Here, the people not only adopted the Ghost Dance, but they added to its tenets, claiming that a “ghost shirt” would protect the wearer from bullets and other weapons of the whites.

In its attempt to control and attenuate the Ghost Dance, the U.S. military decided to arrest two of the most prominent Sioux leaders, Sitting Bull and Big Foot.  Ironically, neither man had thought much of the Ghost Dance movement, seeing it as contrary to the Sioux vision of life.  The arrest of Sitting Bull went horribly wrong, resulting in the great man’s death in his underwear.  During the subsequent arrest of Big Foot (who was deathly ill with pneumonia), the U.S. Army (the Seventh Cavalry, once led by George Armstrong Custer) demanded all the arms of the Ghost Dancers.  During the disarming, a Sioux fired a shot, and a medicine man threw dirt in the air (the signal for the end of the earth). A firefight broke out, and the U.S. military killed—very quickly—anywhere from 150 to 200 Sioux. Many of the wounded Sioux remained on the field—without aid—through harsh, freezing weather. When photographers arrived in the scene, they found the field littered with grotesque frozen warriors. Twenty-five U.S. soldiers died.

The importance of Wounded Knee cannot be exaggerated.  It was a horrible end to a horrible series of Indian Wars (most unjust and brutal) that had begun almost immediately following the Civil War. That the massacre occurred in 1890, the same year as the “closing of the American frontier,” at least as Frederick Jackson Turner understood it, has not been lost on historians. Further, the actions of the U.S. Army at the time proved many of the republican fears of a standing army as originally expressed during the Founding and Jacksonian periods. The fight with the American Indians also undid the Jeffersonian legacy of the “empire of liberty” in which the American Indians were to be treated as future citizens of the republic, as best and most brilliantly expressed by the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

For those interested in the tragedy of Wounded Knee, see Jerome A. Greene’s most recent book, “All Guns Fired at One Time”: Native Voices of Wounded Knee, 1890, published in October 2020 by the South Dakota Historical Society Press (sdhspress.com).

A Year of Prog: A Reflection on 2020

I’m typing this as my oldest daughter is driving the CRV across I80 in Illinois. Sadly, I must recognize as I fly at terrifyingly lovely speeds across the state, my title is more a wish than a fulfillment. Much of what follows is merely what is stuck in my brain, and I don’t have my CDs in front of me.

Though a vaccine is coming, COVID is still taking its toll on the world. Never before in peacetime have Americans so willingly complied with rules and regulations and group proddings and peer pressure. Perhaps all of the conformism was necessary for health reasons, but it was still conformism.

Despite all of this, though, and despite all the unrest and tragedies of 2020, progressive rock remained. It remained as a reminder of what is good, true, and beautiful in this world, and it remained as a reality of creativity and non-conformity. Granted, prog musicians couldn’t play live (not really), but they could develop, hone, make, assemble, and innovate. Innovate they did!

Because of the limitations of my situation, I might very well forget a CD, and the following order is as they come into my brain, not as they are ranked in my heart and soul. That is, unless I state something like “yeah, this was my favorite.”

First, Dave Bandanna, Robin Armstrong, a whole host of excellent musicians, and I released a cd under the band and title, The Bardic Depths, on Robin’s label, Gravity Dream. While I recognize it’s outrageously obnoxious for me to rank my own music, it would be equally disingenuous of me to ignore it. I had intimate knowledge on this one, and I’m incredibly proud of what we produced. While I won’t go so far as to rank my CD in actual ranking terms, I will state, I loved the whole process and the end result. Here’s hoping you did as well.

Leaving aside The Bardic Depths. . .

Lunatic Soul, THROUGH SHADED WOODS. Holy schnikees, what a great and compelling listen. While there’s a folky feel to the album, there’s something immediately and permanently captivating about the album as a whole. To get the album right, you just have to imagine mid-period Jethro Tull playing Riverside’s WASTELAND.

Grumblewood. Admittedly, as I sit here in the speeding car, I can’t for the life of me remember the title of the album. I can see it in my mind’s eye, though. Brown and woodsy looking! The album—which is also folk prog—sounds quite a bit like a relatively updated early-Jethro Tull and Blodwyn Pig. The textures of the music are simply gorgeous.

Big Big Train, EMPIRE. Come on, what would a year-end list look like without a BBT entry! Plus, throw in SUMMER’S LEASE as well as the music BBT has released through its Passenger’s Club, and it’s been a verifiable utopia for us music lovers throughout 2020. BBT seems incapable of a misstep, and has been on such a course since 2009. Even the diminishment of the band’s size only makes the future all the more intriguing. As I’ve written before, Ave, Spawton!

Gazpacho, FIREWORKER. Gnostic rock! Does any band come up with more intriguing gothic themes of mystery and universal mayhem than does Gazpacho? This album, especially, feels as though the band has tapped into a Lovecraftian mystery cult. The music, though, is fluid and lush.

Sanguine Hum, A TRACE OF MEMORY. This might very well be the band’s best album, and given their catalogue, this is no where near slight praise. From the opening to the final note, the listener is captivated and immersed in a melacholic, nuanced, and beautiful world.

Glass Hammer, DREAMING CITY. As with BBT above, what list could possibly exist without at least one GH entry! The band never ceases to grow, to develop, and, yes, to progress. While this album is quite a bit heavier than any previous release, the story is a driving one, and the music captures the lyrical themes rather perfectly. The band also just released A MATTER OF TIME—reworkings of older songs. I’ve not had a chance to immerse myself in this album, but I plan to do so when I take back over the wheel of the car.

I have more albums to list, and I will come back to these informal rankings shortly. For now, let me also write: 2020 would never have been as good without the beautiful writings of two of the best reviewers in the prog world: Stephen Humphries and Jerry Ewing. I thank the Good Lord for each of them.

Movement is Life

Year of social distancing! But a lot of that was on a motorcycle, we all try to make the best out of the situation! There is this 50 mile stretch west of Olympic forest which always eluded me, but managed to explore that this year. In that process also experienced a sunset at Ruby beach, one of those moments forever engraved in mind. Stayed at this rather rustic lodge after a six hour ride through the peninsula, well-furnished but no wifi and erratic cell coverage. Realized some cheap wine, decent fish n chips, and some silence makes for a great evening.

There is definitely something inexplicable about riding, there are actual full length documentaries/books detailing explanations, but most of it seems dreamed up romanticism. Reasons have to be simpler, because it’s just one of those visceral impulses, just like a lot of other recreational activities. More than the sights, with a motorcycle we essentially get to absorb the journey, and not just the final destination.  And yes, that journey often includes cold bursts of shower, gravel and dirt, unstable truck drivers, snapchating drivers and anything else nature might decide to fling. But, it’s again that simple visceral impulse, to experience the delights and also the travails of a journey. It’s something our ancestors endured every day before the comforts of modern civilization, now we get a glimpse of that from riding a well-engineered machine. In general, there must be something innate prompting us to journey, may be exploration must have aided in our survival within an ancient primitive environment.

Brad Pitt states in that apocalyptic movie – “People who moved survived… Movement is Life”. Needless to say, we cannot take it literally. But, in general movement can aid in adaptation. Whether it’s moving for work, or learning a new skill, or reading a new theory to solve that problem. All qualifies as movement, because they help us adapt in a changing world. Such an adaptation requires some planning, and that planning mandates at least some stable factors. What differentiates modern civilization from the primitive past is simply the existence of some stable social factors in an otherwise unstable system.

Simple example would be contractual agreements. If you order grocery, there is a near 100% probability that it will be delivered. On top of such simple and stable factors we construct complex plans, something which enables adaptation to unexpected events. Essentially that grocery might help us study for a test, run a marathon, or become a chef. In other words, law provides that stability in an unpredictable world. We actually don’t know whether we will pass the test, or win the marathon, or become a super chef. But law anyway provides us tools to pursue elaborate goals constructed on simple reliable norms. When applied equally to all, it enables the best of the plans, best of the minds, and in that process most complex of civilizations to emerge.

 “Of all multi-purpose instruments it is probably the one after language which assists the greatest variety of human purposes. It certainly has not been made for any one known purpose but rather has developed because it made people who operated under it more effective in the pursuit of their purposes” — Friedrich Hayek

The Best Albums of 2020

The first two months of 2020 seem like a decade ago. It was certainly a different world than the one we live in now. As I look over my listening habits during 2020, it is clear that all of the chaos of the year had me seeking somewhat calmer music than I normally listen to. That said, there was an abundance of excellent music to choose from. Artists who were prevented from touring channeled their energy into recording new albums, and we are the beneficiaries of that.

Number 11: Katatonia’s City Burials

Katatonia improved on 2017’s amazing Fall of Hearts with City of Burials. Jonas Renkse’s vocals are some of the finest in rock, and the rest of the band are worthy accompanists. While there are still some crunchingly hard tracks, the standout ones – like “Lacquer” – are full of stillness and hushed tones.

Number 10: Lunatic Soul’s Through Shaded Woods

There are all kinds of primal rhythms and timeless melodies happening here, and the result is Mariusz Duda’s finest release as Lunatic Soul . You can read more of our thoughts on it here

Number 9: Kevin Keller’s The Front Porch Of Heaven

Keller is one of the finest composers of classical music today. This song cycle was composed and recorded after he underwent open heart surgery. It is an extraordinary work that is life-affirming and encouraging. It is rare for instrumental pieces to communicate such feeling and reassurance.

Number 8: The Bardic Depths

Spirit of Cecilia’s own Brad Birzer and Dave Bandana joined forces for this tribute to J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Owen Barfield. The music runs the gamut from elegant spaciness to funky prog. It is a blast to listen to, and I hope Robin Armstrong’s Gravity Dream label plans to release more from them. You can read my full review here.

Number 7: Pineapple Thief’s Versions of the Truth

Bruce Soord has really come into his own with the past few PT albums. Having drummer Gavin Harrison on board has injected a huge dose of energy into their music, making Versions of the Truth their best album ever.

Number 6: Loma’s Don’t Shy Away

The most interesting sounding album in this list. Loma is an American trio who take loose jams and breathy vocals to create an utterly beautiful sound that is compulsively listenable.

Number 5: Glass Hammer’s Dreaming City

Has Glass Hammer ever released a mediocre album? Not that I’m aware of, and I have 29 in my music collection. Dreaming City is one of the hardest-edged albums of their career, conjuring up memories of classic Rush, but maintaining that unique Glass Hammer sound. You can read my full review here.

Number 4: Gazpacho’s Fireworker

A new direction for Gazpacho, as they incorporate choirs and orchestra into their sound. The “Fireworker” of the title is the primal presence in every human that we have to control if we are to be civilized. You can read more of our thoughts on this album here.

Number 3: Kyros’ Celexa Dreams

What do you get when you mash up the best of ’80s pop/rock with a contemporary prog sensibility? This fantastic album that has logged dozens of listens on my stereo. I can’t say enough good things about it, and I hope Kyros doesn’t take another four years to record a followup.

Number 2: Sanguine Hum’s A Trace of Memory

Recorded during UK’s lockdown, this sounds like all the members of Sanguine Hum were in telepathic communication instead of Zoom. A tremendously satisfying set of songs that reward repeated listens. You can read more of our thoughts on this album here.

Number 1: Days Between Stations’ Giants

In my earlier review, I suggested this might be the album of the year, and you know what? I was right! Billy Sherwood, Colin Moulding, and Durga McBroom all join forces with Oscar Fuentes Bills (keyboards) and Sepand Samzadeh (guitar) to create a wonderfully fun and thoughtful work that is comparable to the best albums of the, well, giants of prog rock. This album is destined to be a classic that will be cited years from now.

So, those are my ten favorite albums of 2020. Honorable mentions go to Lonely Robot, Kansas, Pain Of Salvation, and Neal Morse. Meanwhile, I hope you have a Merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year.

Update: Mr. Bandana of Bardic Depths pointed out that I listed eleven albums (two number 7’s), so I’ve corrected that mistake. In my defense, I blame 2020. 

COVID, Woke Science—and Death – American Greatness

More ominously, we still have no idea whether far more have died due to the lockdowns than to the virus itself—given the quarantines have caused greater familial, spousal, and substance abuse, suicides, impoverishment, missed surgeries and medical procedures, educational deprivation, and long-term psychological damage. Amid this void of knowledge, state and local officials have often claimed expertise and implemented Draconian measures that may well have made things far worse.
— Read on amgreatness.com/2020/12/20/covid-woke-science-and-death/

COVID, Woke Science—and Death – American Greatness

More ominously, we still have no idea whether far more have died due to the lockdowns than to the virus itself—given the quarantines have caused greater familial, spousal, and substance abuse, suicides, impoverishment, missed surgeries and medical procedures, educational deprivation, and long-term psychological damage. Amid this void of knowledge, state and local officials have often claimed expertise and implemented Draconian measures that may well have made things far worse.
— Read on amgreatness.com/2020/12/20/covid-woke-science-and-death/