All posts by Thaddeus Wert

High school math teacher and fan of all kinds of music, but most of all prog.

Evership’s THe Uncrowned King Act I Rules!

Evership

A few posts back, I passed along the news that Evership was about to release a new album, The Uncrowned King. Well, it is now available, and it is the best work they have done.

The Uncrowned King is a concept album based on an allegorical story by Harold Bell Wright of the same title. It’s basically a very brief Pilgrim’s Progress, and since it’s in the public domain you can read it for free here. I highly recommend listeners take a few minutes to read through the story, because the album won’t make a lot of sense if you don’t. The story involves twin princes of a kingdom who take very different paths. In the end, they both learn that “The Crown is not the kingdom, nor is one King because he wears a Crown.”

Musically, The Uncrowned King is the most accomplished and adventurous achievement of Shane Atkinson and Beau West yet. Fans of melodic prog will love every song. There are hints of classic Boston, Styx, and Kansas throughout, while Atkinson’s unerring ear for a beautiful melody keeps Evership’s sound sui generis. Standout tracks are “The Tower” and the epic “Yettocome/Itmightbe”.

Beau West has been a phenomenal vocalist since the debut album, but his singing on The Uncrowned King is simply amazing. He is blessed with some awesome pipes, and Atkinson’s compositions give him plenty of space to wield them.

There have been several outstanding prog albums released in the past few months, and The Uncrowned King is definitely a contender for the best of 2021. Here’s the official video for the Overture:

Spirit Of Cecilia Takes On The Most Dangerous Woman In America!

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Brad: One of the lead singers of the incredibly good and powerful prog band, IZZ, Laura Meade, has just released an incredibly good and powerful art rock album, The Most Dangerous Woman in America

From its opening moments with a couple singing on the Seine to its closing notes of deep melancholic reflection, the album just moves and moves and moves and continues to move. Indeed, if there’s any flaw, the album is simply breathless. Or, rather, the listener is breathless at the end of each listen.  There’s just so much going on, and Meade has one of the single best voices in rock today. This, of course, is a great thing, and even after ten to fifteen listens, I’m still utterly captivated by the music and the story. Driven by piano and bass throughout, The Most Dangerous Woman in America sounds like little else, though I hear echoes of Tori Amos and Talk Talk and some 1980s style atmospherics. 

Whatever it borrows from others, though, this album is a work of unique genius.

Exactly who is The Most Dangerous Woman in America?  Meade never reveals, and, far from being frustrating, the mystery of the identity of the lead singer continues to intrigue, listen after listen.  Given the lyrics, this must’ve been a Hollywood celebrity. But, whether she was an actress or a director or producer (or all three) is unclear.  For now, I’m happy to keep guessing.

By wisely keeping the identity of the protagonist quiet, Meade has created something more akin to myth and allegory than to story and narrative.  Afterall, there may just be many possible dangerous women in America, women who once ruled the world but were soon forgotten.

Tad: Brad, thank you for putting this album on my radar; I wasn’t aware of it, and I am a big IZZ fan!

According to Laura’s official site, the album is about a woman who took a brave stand, and paid a price. In her own words, 

“There have been so many people throughout history – many of them women – who stand up for themselves, stand up for what they believe in, and experience great pain and suffering for doing so, their memories and voices lost along the way to gossip and rumor. I hope that this album, in some small way, honors and gives voice to the forgotten.” (From http://www.laurameademusic.com/about.html)

John Galgano, bassist for IZZ, collaborated with Laura, and I think that accounts for the emphasis on that instrument. Like you, I love Laura’s voice; thankfully, she does not sing in that faux-innocent folkie style that dominates pop music these days. Laura isn’t afraid to use her impressive range of voice, moving from hushed to full-blast power in the space of a few bars. 

While the album gets off to a slow start, in my opinion, the patient listener is rewarded with the extraordinary closing quartet of tracks: the title track, “The Shape of Shock”, “Forgive Me”, and the brief “Tell Me, Love”. “Forgive Me” is the song that I keep coming back to, with its exotic, almost middle-eastern feel. Its melody spirals up and up with unrelenting force, like a modern “Kashmir”. It’s definitely the highlight of the album for me.

IZZ’s last album, Don’t Panic, was one of my favorites of 2019, and Laura Meade’s The Most Dangerous Woman In America is a worthy successor. It has certainly brightened my 2021!

Here is the video for the first single of TMDWIA, “Burned At The Stake”:

Evership To Release Third Album

Evership

It’s been a long wait, but we can now rejoice: Evership (Shane Atkinson & Beau West) is set to release a new album, The Uncrowned King, Act I. If you haven’t heard their previous work, every self-respecting fan of melodic, intellectually stimulating prog rock owes it to him or herself to give them a listen.

From their latest newsletter is this teaser:

Album 3 is the first half of a Rock Opera adaptation of the 1910 book by Harold Bell Wright called The Uncrowned King. This story is an allegory in the style of The Pilgrim’s Progress but with a story arch of Twain’s Prince and the Pauper meets Dicken’s Christmas Carol. 

A pilgrim on a search for Truth arrives at the Temple of Truth with questions about the journey. In answer, the Keeper of the Temple retires him to The Quiet Room, overlooking The Beautiful Sea, where he is visited by the The Four Voices of Life. Each Voice tells him a piece of a story entitled “The Uncrowned King”, to give answer to his questions.

Rich with imagery, Shane has adapted the story faithfully to a progressive rock format we believe our fans will enjoy. Broken into two releases, the story is an allegory on the nature of truth. It is a statement that real truth cannot be derived solely by the senses, but it is more transcendent and one must be courageous in its pursuit and consequence.

Sounds like a fascinating premise for a concept, and I can’t wait to hear it. You can preorder The Uncrowned King, Act I here.

Meanwhile, while you’re waiting, enjoy listening to “Ultima Thule” from their debut album:

Frost* Heats Up

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Frost*’s upcoming album, Day and Age, showed up in the DropBox this past weekend, and considering their last one, Falling Satellites, was one of my top 5 of 2016, I immediately plugged it into the USB port of my home stereo. After eight consecutive listens and picking my jaw up off the floor, I have to state up front that Day and Age is Jem Godfrey, John Mitchell, and Nathan King’s finest achievement. Ever.

The album opens with the title track, and it is a galloping monster straight out of the gate. A young boy tells the listener to “enjoy yourselves, you scum!”, a relentless beat is established, and one of the most addictive keyboard/guitar riffs ever recorded takes charge. I think Frost* must have been listening to a lot of Synchronicity-era Police before writing this song, because it reminds me of that massive, tense, steamroller of a song, “Synchronicity II”. It is a masterpiece of controlled chaos that builds inexorably for nearly 12 minutes. There’s even a little ska-like section at the 5:33 mark that makes the Police invocation explicit. However, in a battle of the bands, Frost* would beat the pants off Messrs. Sumner, Copeland, and Summers. This is an incredible track, and after I heard it for the first time, I wondered if the rest of the album could possibly hit the high bar it set.

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King, Godfrey, and Mitchell are Frosted*

I need not have worried, as every song on Day and Age is equally strong. There is not a single clunker on the album. I don’t what lit a fire under John Mitchell, but his vocals have never sounded more impassioned (and he’s sung quite a few songs with a lot of passion!). The core of the group is Jem Godfrey (keyboards, vocals), John Mitchell (guitars, bass, vocals), and Nathan King (bass, keyboards, vocals). They have enlisted the talents of three different drummers – Pat Mastelotto, Darby Todd, and Kaz Rodriguez – and each one provides perfect support depending on the needs of the song.

“Terrestrial” is the first single, and it is a great choice – melodic, energetic, and leaving the listener wanting more:

“Waiting for the Lie” is a keyboard-based ballad that provides a nice respite from the fast-paced previous tracks. It features a beautiful melody that is allowed to shine through a no-frills production. “The Boy Who Stood Still” is a spoken-word allegory about a boy who, you guessed it, stood still. So still, that he disappeared. The narrator tells the tale over an infectious bed of ’80s – era synths and skittering drums. It sounds weird, but it is oddly attractive.

“Island Life” begins with some waves on the beach as washes of synths and some arpeggiated guitar (there’s that classic Police vibe again!) as Mitchell sings of escaping a dreary life and “living in this island life”. “Skywards” is my second-favorite song (after the title track), with some especially beautiful chord progressions in the melody. You think you know where it’s going, and it takes an unexpected turn and ends up even better than you anticipated.

Wait, did I say “Skywards” was my second-favorite song? I actually meant “Killing the Orchestra”! An electric piano and delicate vocals introduce this one, and it gradually builds into a mini-symphony that includes Mitchell’s best guitar solo of the album. It is nine and half minutes of musical bliss that segues immediately into the closing track, “Repeat to Fade”, that reprises some of the themes from the title track. This is a terrifically dense and claustrophobic track that features Mitchell hollering, “Enjoy yourselves, you scum!” Sounds oppressive, I know, except that the melody is very uplifting and makes the dark atmosphere bearable.

Nathan King recalls the writing and recording of “Repeat to Fade”: “We were 30 feet by the sea, next to a nuclear power station and a lighthouse, in midwinter! …in my head you can absolutely hear the bleak isolated oppression having an effect on us.”

The recording conditions may not have been ideal, but Jem, Nathan, and John have managed to produce a pop/prog masterpiece of an album from them. I’ve listened to it a dozen times now, and I find new delights every time.

Day and Age will be released on May 14, 2021 on InsideOut Music. You can preorder it here: https://frost-band.lnk.to/DayAndAge

The Spirit Of Cecilia Says, “Yes!”

Roger Dean’s logo for Yes, one of the most recognizable in rock

No site devoted to discussing progressive rock music (among many other topics!) can ignore for long a true giant of the genre: YES. Dating from the late ‘60s, Yes was one of the first prog groups to achieve mainstream success. More than fifty years later, they are still active, so Spirit of Cecilia has decided to divide our discussion of them into three parts. This post will focus on their music beginning with their 1969 eponymously titled debut album through 1973’s live album Yessongs. Let’s join Editor-In-Chief Brad Birzer, Arts Editor Tad Wert, and all around brilliant writer/musician Kevin McCormick as they attempt to analyze the music of one of the most influential and productive groups in rock history.

Brad: My earliest prog memory is of Yes.  I’m the youngest of three boys (with my oldest brother being eight years older and my older brother being five years older), and I was exposed to all kinds of music at a very young age.  In our house, we had classical, jazz, big band, musicals, and every variety of rock and pop. Sometime around 1973 or 1974 (the memory is somewhat fuzzy on the details–I was only five or six), I discovered the three-disk set of Yessongs.  I was stunned–especially by the artwork which I studied like a talisman. Later, when I was older, I appreciated the music.  But, at first, it was Roger Dean’s paintings that grabbed me fiercely. I count Yessongs as my first real prog love.  And, love it was. It wouldn’t be until Kansas’s Leftoverature and ELO’s Out of the Blue that I found albums to rival Yessongs in terms of artistic beauty.

Yes is certainly my earliest progressive rock love, and, from them, thanks to my brothers, I began to listen to Kansas, Jethro Tull, and Genesis.

While Yes has now experienced a massive history–indeed, is there a rock band that can quite match it in terms of malleability and lovegevity?–it’s the period of the Yes Album through Going for the One that seems nearly flawless.  To think about the albums of that period–The Yes Album, Fragile, Close to the Edge, Tales, Relayer, and Going for the One–is to be overwhelmed!  Such innovation and harmonic glory, all wrapped into a neat package.

When I was younger, Fragile was my favorite of the Yes albums.  But, ever since starting college, Close to the Edge has been my favorite.  Indeed, not just my favorite Yes album, but a favorite album.  If forced to rank it, it would compete (not necessarily defeat) Moving Pictures, The Colour of Spring, Spirit of Eden, and Selling England by the Pound.  If it’s fallen out of the top five for me, it’s only because Big Big Train released The Underfall Yard in 2009.

Kevin: Looking back at the early stages of Yes, it’s important to remember the context of the music of that time: it was all over the map.  There was a collision of styles brought together by much of the experimentation and cultural upheaval of the 1960’s.  Prior to this most musicians and audiences stayed in their respective corners. 

Continue reading The Spirit Of Cecilia Says, “Yes!”

A Symposium on The Cure: Prog or Something Else?

Readers of Spirit of Cecilia, we have a special treat for you: not a dialogue, but a full-fledged, three-way symposium! The topic: Is the Cure a prog band or not? Join Editor-in-Chief Brad Birzer, Tad Wert, and the brilliant Kevin McCormick to learn what they concluded.

Brad: Tad and Kevin, I’m in the mood to talk about The Cure!  Granted, in the middle of the COVID crisis, “The Cure” could mean a lot of things, not all of them pleasant.  But, I mean specifically the English rock band, led by everyone’s favorite mischievous trickster, Robert Smith.  That guy with huge teased hair, smeared lipstick, and boot-like tennis shoes.

Though identified and remembered mostly as a Goth and a post-punk New Wave group, The Cure always employed progressive rock elements rather effectively in many of their songs and, sometimes, throughout the entirety of some of their albums.  Some of this prog influence, of course, came from the band’s love of minimalism, drone/wall of sound, and Eric Satie. 

Admittedly, because of my prog obsession, I want The Cure to be proggish!  So, I might be reaching here.  But, it’s really hard for me to listen to album such as their 1989 masterpiece, Disintegration, and not think prog.

If pushed, I would happily rank that album in my top 10 albums of all time, sitting near Spirit of Eden, Laughing Stock, Moving Pictures, Songs from the Big Chair, Skylarking, Selling England By the Pound, and Close To the Edge. Every song on Disintegration fits perfectly with every other song on the album, and it makes for a wildly effective album in its consistency, art, and beauty.

In hindsight, Smith has claimed Disintegration to be the middle of a trilogy, beginning with 1982’s Pornography and ending with 2000’s Bloodflowers. If a trilogy isn’t proggy, nothing is!

Of course, much of The Cure is really clever pop as well.  In fact, despite having a distinctive sound, The Cure are about as diverse–when it comes to style–as any band over the past fifty years.

Tad: Okay, Brad, I’ll tentatively  accept your assertion that The Cure are prog, even though it never occurred to me until you and I made each other’s acquaintance! Even though I was a huge British music fan in the ‘80s, I was a little late to the Cure party. I think it was because my first exposure to them was hearing “The Lovecats” on the radio and I took an immediate dislike to that song (I still think it is too cute for its own good). However, while working in a record store in 1985, a coworker was a Cure nut and he played The Head On The Door instore repeatedly. I liked that album, and they earned my grudging respect.

That said, THOTD was the only Cure album in my collection for many years until I heard “Why Can’t I Be You?” on the radio, and I realized there was a gaping hole in my musical knowledge. So I embarked on an exploration of Cure music via some shady file-sharing software (this was in the ‘00s, before streaming!) and discovered how terrific Seventeen Seconds, Faith, Disintegration, and Wish were. 

When most people think “prog”, they think of extraordinary technical proficiency on musical instruments, shifting and odd time signatures, long song lengths, and lyrics that deal with deep subjects. While The Cure fail to check the boxes on the first three criteria, they often hit the jackpot on the fourth. And I would argue even their early work – Seventeen Seconds and Faith – have a proggy sensibility to them. Both of those albums (particularly the latter) set up and carefully maintain a consistent atmosphere throughout their entire length. They aren’t mere collections of unrelated songs, but song suites whose impact is far greater than the sum of their parts. As far as later works, I think “From The Edge Of The Deep Green Sea” off of Wish is about as proggy as you can get. I’m holding off on sharing my thoughts on Disintegration until we hear from Mr. McCormick!

[To keep reading, please scroll down a bit . . .]

Continue reading A Symposium on The Cure: Prog or Something Else?

Placing a Transatlantic Call

In the latest Spirit of Cecilia dialogue, Editor-In-Chief Brad Birzer and Arts Editor Tad Wert exchange thoughts on the massive set of new releases from progrock’s supergroup, Transatlantic. There are several different versions of The Absolute Universe (you can check them out here), and each one has its own charms.

Brad: Tad, I just finished watching the Transatlantic Roine Stolt interview (available on Youtube as a part of a series), and I couldn’t help but think of you.  I also couldn’t help but think–yet again–what a grand gentleman Stolt is. So interesting and intelligent. Prog musicians are articulate in general, to be sure, but Stolt is exceptional even among exceptional people. Does my soul good. He is, truly, The Flower King. 

I know that you like the new album(s), The Absolute Universe, from Transatlantic, and I very much do as well.  Indeed, I’m rather in love with the extended edition, and I’m growing very fond of the abridged version as well.  The more I listen to each, the more I realize how different (and yet so complementary) each is to the other.

What’s interesting to me is that from the opening minute, you know it’s a Transatlantic album.  There’s something about the instruments, the voices, and, especially, the energy that is uniquely Transatlantic.

As I’ve been devouring the new album(s) and anticipating the massive box set on its way in three or so weeks I’ve been waxing nostalgic.  I bought the first Transatlantic album, SMPTe, shortly after it came out.  A student (now a colleague in the philosophy department) had lent it–along with Flower Power by the Flower Kings–to me, and I was immediately taken with both.  Since then, I’ve bought every Transatlantic album–studio and live–as they’ve come out.  In many ways, my last twenty years have, in some way, been shaped by Transatlantic.

Then, of course, there’s the distinctive Transatlantic art.  The great Transatlantic ship is wonderful, and the band has, probably, the best font for any band since Yes’s classic signature.

Tad: Brad, you and I are on the same wavelength. I have been immersing myself in both versions of The Absolute Universe (How’s that for a provocatively countercultural title?), and I am increasingly drawn to the extended version. It turns out that Roine is the main mastermind behind that set, while Neal Morse is the one who put together the abridged version. 

I have not seen the Stolt interview, but Morse has begun his own podcast and his first guest is none other than Mike Portnoy! It is also on YouTube, and it is such a pleasure to watch and listen to two very close friends discuss all kinds of topics. I highly recommend you check it out.

I also grabbed my copy of SMPTe to listen to again, and it holds up incredibly well. I think it has stood the test of time – has it really been 21 years since it first came out? – and it can now be considered a progressive rock classic. Those first chords of All Of The Above are so stirring to me; I almost get emotional listening to them now. And as you mentioned, from the opening notes of Overture from The Absolute Universe, you know you’re listening to a Transatlantic album! When Portnoy’s drums kick in gear and start propelling the entire band – that is a very satisfying listening experience for me. Also, Morse’s organ playing the opening melody of Heart Like A Whirlwind (extended version)/Reaching For The Sky (abridged version) is a special moment.

I think you would agree with me that Morse dominated the first two Transatlantic albums (and probably the third) but on this one I get the sense that all the members had relatively equal input. I am especially pleased to hear Pete Trewavas stepping up and singing more lead vocals. His songwriting contributions are more accessible – in other words, poppier – than Stolt’s and Morse’s, which keeps things grounded. Hopefully this album will greatly expand their audience.

Brad: Excellent responses, Tad.  I didn’t know about the divided duties regarding two different versions of The Absolute Universe. I must admit, while I love both versions, I’m still much more taken with the extended version.  For two reasons, really.  First, I love all of Stolt’s guitar and vocal parts.  And, second, because my favorite track–”The World We Used to Know”–is only on the extended version.  “The World We Used to Know” is the quintessential Transatlantic song, blending the old so perfectly with the new. It’s clear that the band is honoring Yes and Rush in the song, but the song remains completely a Transatlantic track, despite its influences.

If I were forced to rank Transatlantic’s first four albums, I would rank them: SMPTe; The Whirlwind; Bridge Across Forever; and Kaleidoscope, recognizing that each is great.  That is, there’s not a huge difference between No. 1 and No. 4 in terms of quality.  I have to give the first place to SMPTe, mostly because of the memories associated with my first listen to it, twenty-one years ago.  Those opening chords still ring in my soul and play in my mind.  It’s such a classic.

Now, after having given The Absolute Universe several spins, I would place it in the No. 2 spot.  It might, in some ways, be better than No. 1, but I’m still too taken with SMPTe–even after 21 years–to rank it anything other than No. 1. Regardless, The Absolute Universe is truly special, and life is better because it exists.

Tad, what version did you end up buying?  At first, I ordered individual copies of the abridged and the extended, along with the blu-ray.  I quickly changed my mind, however, cancelled that order, and then ordered the deluxe package from Radiant Records.  I was a bit hesitant at first to do this, given the money involved, but now that I’ve heard and devoured The Absolute Universe, I regret nothing!

One thing that strikes me as interesting.  There’s definitely an overlap of style when one considers the Neal Morse Band, The Flower Kings, and Transatlantic, and these three bands have so critically defined Third-wave prog.  Yet, they have hardly any imitators.  It’s impossible to imagine the current prog movement without, for example, Steven Wilson and all of his imitators.  Why isn’t the same true of Stolt, Morse, Portnoy, and Trewavas?

Tad: Good question, Brad, and one that had not occurred to me until you asked it. My first answer is because they are all such incredibly talented artists that any attempts at imitation would pale in comparison! But I also think Portnoy doesn’t get enough credit for his role as arranger and producer in Transtlantic, and he is simply inimitable in the music world. WIthout his energy and guidance, TA would not be near the artistic force they are. 

Like you, the more I listen to both versions, the more I prefer the extended one, Forevermore. I go into greater detail why in my earlier post on this album.

My ranking is the same as yours, except I would place Bridge Across Forever ahead of The Whirlwind. I think the melodies are stronger on BAF. Also, I always get a kick out of Suite Charlotte Pike, because Charlotte Pike is a road near my home that I often drive on!

As far as what edition(s) I ordered, I went with both the extended and abridged versions, but I am very tempted to go for the big box like you did. I imagine some people might consider the release of so many different versions a crass commercial move, but it’s really not. Every version is a separate work that stands on its own, and I am grateful to Morse, Portnoy, Stolt, and Trewavas for bestowing so much music on us.

A Deluge Of Music From Transatlantic

Prog supergroup Transatlantic (Mike Portnoy, Neal Morse, Pete Trewavas, and Roine Stolt) are releasing their fifth album next month, and it is an unprecedented project. Fans have a choice of not one, but TWO versions of the new album, entitled The Absolute Universe – a two-disc edition and a single-disc one, or a huge 5-LP, 3-CD, Blu-Ray boxset that includes both. In case you’re assuming the single-disc album is merely an edited, shorter version of the two-disc one, let me set you straight: these are two different albums that share some of the same musical themes and a few songs.

Let’s start with the single-disc version, The Breath of Life. The most obvious comparison is to Transatlantic’s third album, The Whirlwind, because TBOL is also one long song divided into sections. I think it is superior to The Whirlwind due to a greater variety of melodies and musical styles. The band has never sounded tighter, either. Portnoy’s drum work is phenomenal, particularly on the King Crimsonesque Owl Howl. All the members take lead vocals for various sections, and they all contribute music compositions. Trewavas’ Solitude is an especially nice passage, while Morse adds his unerring musical magic throughout the album.

Something I find fascinating is Morse’s statement in the liner notes that “everyone writes their own lyrics to their sections and we don’t usually discuss what it’s all about. Sometimes we’re writing about different things in different sections, but somehow it all works together in the end.” That four different personalities can combine to create as cohesive a work as The Absolute Universe is nothing short of miraculous.

Portnoy has stated that The Absolute Universe is a concept album, and that it touches on the events of 2020. For example, Morse’s lyrics

Where were you when everyone/Crashed and burned and fell/Into the silence of the sun/With nothing to be done

refers to his sense of God abandoning the world at the height of the pandemic.

Likewise, the lines

Where were all the seats preferred/And all the wise men winding up/The wisest of all words/And God’s love like dinner served/But now we wonder at the warning

is about lockdowns prohibiting gatherings and other social interaction.

TBOL ends on a high note with the exhilarating The Greatest Story Never Ends which segues into the spectacular finale of Love Made A Way, which is an acknowledgment that God actually has been present throughout all the tribulations of 2020. Musically, this song is one of the finest Transatlantic has ever recorded.

After listening several times to The Breath Of Life, I turned my attention to the double-disc Forevermore expecting to hear longer versions of the songs. Nope! This is a separate album from TBOL that happens to share a few musical sections. As good as TBOL is, Forevermore is even better. I can’t put my finger on exactly why I prefer it, except that it strikes me as more energetic and the songs that are unique to it are simply wonderful.

For example, if I only had TBOL, I would miss hearing Heart Like A Whirlwind, The Darkness In The Light, the delightfully poppy Rainbow Sky, and Stolt’s magnificent The World We Used To Know. Those are all essential Transatlantic songs now, and I would be much poorer for not having heard them.

So what’s my recommendation? Fans of Transatlantic will want to get both albums. True fanatics will splurge for the box set, which includes both versions on CD and vinyl, as well as a BluRay documentary of the making of The Absolute Universe. If I had to choose just one, I would pick Forevermore without hesitation. The good news is, you can’t really go wrong – it’s ALL great music, no matter what you go for. 

You can pre-order The Absolute Universe at nealmorse.com.

Update: I neglected to mention that the BluRay also has a 5.1 mix of the album, and you can purchase it separately. For those fans with surround sound systems, that is probably the best deal!

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. 

In The DropBox: Loma, Big Big Train, Glass Hammer, and Doncourt/Olsson

The first album in this batch of DropBox offerings is a wondrous work of art from a group called Loma. They are on the Sub Pop label, of all places, and with Don’t Shy Away they have come up with a subdued, spacious masterpiece. Emily Cross (vocals), Dan Duszynski , and Jonathan Meiburg have collaborated to create music that reminds me of the best of Talk Talk and Laurie Anderson. This is music that takes its time to develop, yet grabs the listener’s attention from the first note. Brian Eno is a fan, and he lends his talent to “Homing”. Cross’s breathy vocals are gently enchanting, while a chugging sax provides counterpoint. On “Jenny”, crickets chirp in the background as muffled drums beat and a guitar is slowly strummed. It’s so inviting – as if they asked the listener to join them in an intimate jam session on their back porch. This album came out of left field, and I can’t stop listening to it. If you are a fan of Kate Bush, Talk Talk, Brian Eno, or Over The Rhine, you owe it to yourself to check this one out.

While St. Cecilia is the patron saint of this site, Big Big Train could be considered the patron group. It was mutual love of their music that brought many of Spirit of Cecilia’s contributors together, and we eagerly anticipate every new release of theirs. The latest from BBT is a recording of their November 2019 show at the Hackney Empire. It’s a very good performance, featuring songs from English Electric, Folklore, Grimspound, and The Grand Tour. For long-time fans, it’s also a bittersweet affair, since it includes the final performances of Dave Gregory, Rachel Hall, and Danny Manners. If you haven’t heard anything by BBT but were curious, this BluRay/CD package is a perfect introduction. David Longdon’s voice is in excellent form, and the band plays even the most challenging passages to perfection. Nick D’Virgilio’s drumming is exceptionally fine. The primarily acoustic “The Florentine” is a highlight with its lilting vocal harmonies and Hall’s ecstatic violin solo.

Back on this side of the big pond, Glass Hammer have released a download-only collection of favorite tracks from their early years. They have rerecorded them, and it is a lot of fun to hear these 20+ year old tracks given new life. I especially enjoy the ones from 1998’s On To Evermore, an album that is one of my favorites of GH, but which slipped under the radar for a lot of prog fans.

Finally, an album from Tom Doncourt and Mattias Olsson, Cathedral. The dark artwork matches the music perfectly, which was composed and recorded before Doncourt’s death in March of 2019. It includes Gregorian chant-like vocals, lots of mellotron and synths, as well as some hard rocking guitars in places. The highlight is the 12:34 long “Poppies In A Field”. Doncourt and Olsson obviously put a lot of thought into the arrangements of these songs, and I am impressed with how they are able to create a unique atmosphere. It is a fitting tribute to Doncourt, and if you are looking for an album to play on a rainy, gloomy Sunday afternoon, then Cathedral will fill the bill.

Okay, that’s the latest from the Spirit of Cecilia DropBox. A true masterpiece from Loma, some fan service from two old favorites, and an intriguingly dark work from Doncourt and Olsson. My next post will be my favorite albums of 2020. We have had a bumper crop of great music this year, so it might be a long one! Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with Loma’s video for “Fix My Gaze”: