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.

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