Well, we’ve reached the end of the decade, and the end of our retrospective. Whew!
2019 proves that prog rock’s current renaissance is showing no signs of slowing down. We finish this decade with another year providing a surfeit of wonderful music. I’ve picked 11 representatives from 2019 for your listening pleasure. Here they are, in alphabetical order.
Big Big Train went for the big ideas on this one. It’s loosely based on the concept of a “grand tour” that educated Europeans took in the 1700’s and 1800’s. They manage to pull together such disparate topics as St. Theodora, the poet Shelley, and the Voyager spacecraft. Believe it or not, it all works!
Both Manuel Schmid and Marek Arnold are in Cyril, and I recently wrote a review of their excellent 2019 release, The Way Through. It’s about a man who has a near-death experience, and the struggles he has to overcome to reunite with his earthly body. A great prog effort!
This supergroup just gets better and better. On their third album, Flying Colors branches out into a diversity of styles, and come up with one of the best of the entire decade. “Last Train Home” is my favorite, “Geronimo” is funky blast of fun, and “Love Letter” sounds like a lost Raspberries classic.
In Continuum is another Dave Kerzner project that rose from the ashes of a planned Sound Of Contact reunion. It is a concept album about an alien who falls in love with a human, before Earth is scheduled to be destroyed. Kerzner recruited the cream of the crop to play on this, and it is a fine addition to his already impressive resume.
Izz released one of the most enjoyable albums of 2019. “42” is about Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier. While “Age Of Stars” features interweaving vocals and a driving beat. Their previous album, Everlasting Instant, was good, but Don’t Panic has more focus and confidence.
Goofy name, amazing music! These guys sound like a hybrid ska/prog/new wave band with an incredible vocalist. They have terrific playing chops, and their ability to switch styles mid-song makes my head spin. I found them via Tony Rowsick’s indispensable Progwatch podcast, and you can’t beat them if you just want to have something fun to listen to. “Captain Awkward” is a great track to start with, if you’re curious.
The Neal Morse Band pick up the story where Similitude Of A Dream left off. In this installment, the son of the protagonist from Similitude must battle his own demons and find salvation. I actually like this album better than Similitude, because there is more variety in the songs. There are so many good ones, but “Vanity Fair” really stands out.
Since Pattern-Seeking Animals consists of current and former Spock’s Beard members, you would expect this to sound somewhat Beard-like. However, the Pattern-Seekers come up with their own individual style that sets them apart. Ted Leonard is excellent on vocals and guitars, and John Boegehold steps up and takes a more visible role. “No One Ever Died and Made Me King” is the key track.
Often a much-loved album doesn’t make a positive first impression on me. That was the case with Bruce Soord’s (The Pineapple Thief) second solo album, All This Will Be Yours. On first listen, it is an unassuming set of songs, softly sung by Soord over a bed of mostly acoustic guitar and murmuring electronics. However, the more I listen to it, the more I am taken by it. “One Misstep” in particular is an engaging tune, with a mournful melody as Soord sings of his determination to make a broken relationship whole. As a matter of fact, I like this record better than the Thief’s much-acclaimed Dissolution, which was also released this year.
This was the biggest news in progworld in 2019 – after more than a decade, Tool reunited and recorded this massive groove-laden record. All of the songs segue into each other, and the result is almost trance-inducing. I was not a huge fan of Tool’s early work, but I love this one. Maynard James Keenan seems to be rejuvenated these days (as last year’s Eat The Elephant illustrated), and that is good news.
After recording several albums with his Devin Townsend Project, Townsend decided to go solo for the highly personal Empath. Once again, his patented wall-of-sound production is in play, and his incorporates choirs, strings, and guitars. Lots of guitars. Devin can be inconsistent, but Empath is one of his best.
And that completes our look back at the decade from 2010 – 2019. There were some exciting new artists that emerged, like Damanek, Evership, Perfect Beings, and Southern Empire, while veterans like Big Big Train, Gazpacho, Glass Hammer, Katatonia, and Neal Morse released some of the best music of their careers. Several surprise reunions bode well for the future: it was great to see Kino, A Perfect Circle, Tool, and Slowdive back in action.
I hope this series of posts inspired you to check out somebody you may not have been aware of, or go back a revisit an old musical friend. If you are interested in hearing more prog news and music, check out the podcasts ProgWatch and The Prog Report. Both are excellent resources for learning about and hearing new music in progworld.
Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Happy New Decade!
We’re getting close to the present day in our look back at the best music of the decade. 2018 was another bountiful year for prog fans, and, like 2017, it included a couple of surprise reunions along with some reappearing favorites.
We’ve chosen 15 albums to represent the excellence of 2018, so without further ado, here they are in alphabetical order.
Damanek’s second album is even better than their impressive debut. “Skyboat” sounds like a mid-70s Jethro Tull single, and the three-part “Big Eastern” is an epic telling of a family’s saga from their roots in China to their settling in America. Thanks to Damanek, I have become a big fan of Guy Manning.
Another sophomore effort that improves on an excellent debut. Evership II continues their championing of classic prog. Fans of Marillion and early Spock’s Beard will love this.
Gazpacho released one of their all-time finest albums in 2018 with Soyuz. Loosely based on the true story of a doomed Soviet Russian space mission, the music is uplifting, angry, and heroic.
There’s a reason a Glass Hammer album has been featured almost every year this decade: they have consistently produced great music! This entry to their catalog is a sequel to Chronometree, and it showcases their pop skills (think classic Todd Rundgren). “Fade Away”, the majestic finale, is one of their best.
Haken released a 2-CD/DVD set of a great performance in Amsterdam in 2018, where they play the entire Affinity album. Later in the year, they put out Vector, which made quite a few Best of 2018 lists. Haken are at the top of their game, with no sign of fading.
This was a nice surprise! Way back in 2005, John Mitchell (Arena, Frost*, Lonely Robot, It Bites), Pete Trewavas (Marillion), John Beck (It Bites), and Chris Maitland (Porcupine Tree) got together and recorded what many people thought was a one-off album. Lo and behold, they reunited in 2018 and released Radio Voltaire, which ended up being one of the best of the year. Like anything Mitchell is involved in, there are excellent tunes, superb guitar, and a dash of humor.
Tim Morse (no relation to Neal) quietly and carefully self-produces gems of albums every few years. Tim Morse III is a delight to listen to, and I hope he never stops creating music.
If you’ve worked your way through this series, you know that I like North Atlantic Oscillation – a lot. Grind Show doesn’t disappoint, as they continue to hone their unique sound that marries layered harmonies to synth-heavy music. Sort of like what would happen if Brian Wilson collaborated with Kraftwerk.
A fascinating set of songs from the Norwegian group Oak. I would classify it as chamber pop music. They even include “Clair de Lune” in one of their songs, but it doesn’t come off as pretentious. Highly recommended if you are looking for something pretty to listen to.
Wow. This is one of the best albums of the decade, let alone 2018. Vier means “four”, and the songs are divided into four groups: Guedra, The Golden Arc, Vibrational, and Anunnaki. The entire album is one long suite as various themes emerge, recede, and reappear. On their previous two albums, Perfect Beings incorporated some Beatlesque power pop into their music, but this is on another plane of music entirely.
Another surprise reunion. Maynard James Keenan’s side project A Perfect Circle released two incredible albums in 2000 and 2003, and a horrible one in 2004. It seemed like that was that, and they were done. Fourteen years later, they put out Eat The Elephant, which is excellent. Not as metal-oriented as their earlier music, but more subtle. Beautiful melodies and lyrics expressing barely controlled rage characterize this one.
Riverside survived the dreadful loss of Piotr Grudzinski, their guitarist, and released the very strong Wasteland in 2018. Set in a post-apocalyptic future, this album manages to be hopeful and uplifting.
RPWL started out as a Pink Floyd tribute band, which was obvious on their earlier Beyond Man and Time. On Tales From Outer Space, they just rock out and have a great time. I ended listening to this album almost more than anything else in 2018. “Not Our Place To Be” has a great hook that gets in your ear and won’t come out.
This is the album I actually did listen to more than anything else. It is sung in German, and the melodies are elegant art-pop. Here’s what I said in my original review: Schmid and Arnold’s melodies are beautiful and delicate, catchy without being cloying, and deceptively complex. The instrumentation is primarily keyboards based, and mostly acoustic. There are very tasteful synth flourishes and electric guitar solos, but none of them overwhelm the beauty of the underlying melodies.
The second outing by this band from Down Under consists of four epics, and there isn’t a wasted note anywhere. These guys are going to be prog superstars very soon.
That completes our look back to 2018. Honorable mentions are Big Big Train’s live set Merchants of Light, Gunship’s Dark All Day, Pineapple Thief’s Dissolution, Tesseract’s Sonder, and Umphrey McGee’s It’s Not Us.
Let us know what we’ve missed in the comments!
Seven years down and three to go in our look back at the best music of 2010’s. This post features 18 fine albums no self-respecting prog aficionado should be without. Here they are, in alphabetical order.
Southern spacey swamp rock (if that makes any sense!) that sounds relaxed and easygoing until the coffee kicks in. They really stretch out and mine some fine grooves on “Bulls” and “Alabaster”. If the Allman Bros. and Porcupine Tree had a child, it would sound like this.
A prequel to the Ayreon mythos, this 2-disc set is one of the most metallic in their catalog. It rocks incredibly hard, and as usual, Arjen manages to recruit an impressive cast of vocalists. The Ayreon arc of albums is one of the most impressive in rock, and The Source is a fine addition to it.
This was my top album of 2017. It’s an all-instrumental affair by Porcupine Tree keyboardist Richard Barbieri. While it is mostly jazz influenced, it also contains entrancing songs like “Unholy” – a meditative song with wordless vocals that could be a prayer. Nothing is rushed on this record, and I still never tire of listening to it.
We got an embarrassment of riches from Big Big Train in 2017. First, they released Grimspound which continued in the fine tradition of Folkore of celebrating unsung or forgotten heroes. “Experimental Gentlemen” and “A Mead Hall In Winter” are two outstanding tracks from this set.
A few months later, BBT released The Second Brightest Star, which was almost as good as Grimspound. The title track and “The Leaden Stour” are highlights.
BBT also gave away a digital-only release, London Story, which was a 34 minute track that combined several London-related songs. All of this activity was unprecedented for BBT and much appreciated by their fans.
Spirit of Cecilia’s founder and editor Bradley Birzer got in on the prog action in 2017 with this collaboration he made with Dave Bandana. Birzer wrote the lyrics – based on the sci-fi novel A Canticle For Leibowitz – and Bandana played and sang. It is full of majestic synths and great melodies.
Damanek is led by Guy Manning, and On Track is one of the best albums of the decade. Very sophisticated songwriting and playing abounds on this debut. African rhythms and catchy choruses make for a very nice experience. Marek Arnold lends his sax to the proceedings as well.
I was beginning to wonder if Depeche Mode was ever going to make a decent album after Playing the Angel. Fortunately, Spirit has some of their best tunes in years, and they sound energized. Let’s hope it lasts.
I didn’t catch this one until after 2017, but if I had I would have picked it as my favorite of the year. Geoff Downes (Buggles, Yes, Asia) and Chris Braide (Producers) join forces and produce an extraordinary album. The title track is one of the finest epics in the history of prog (and it even features vocals by Kate Pierson of the B-52s!). “Darker Times” has some of the most beautiful harmonies since the Beach Boys’ Surf’s Up. Chris Braide is a fantastic singer – pure and pitch perfect.
This collection of songs from Glass Hammer’s vault turns out to be one of their most fun albums ever. The stomping “Troll” is a hilarious takedown of internet trolls, and “Cool Air” is a marvelous musical version of an H. P. Lovecraft story.
I Am The Manic Whale’s second album is even better than their first. More confident and risk-taking, they succeed on “Strandbeest” and “Stand Up”. If you like XTC and Frost*, you will enjoy IATMW.
What a gorgeous album. It begins almost in midsong with Jonas Renske’s warm and hushed baritone singing, “You wait by the river/Days are long” and continues for more than a hour as one song flows into another. Even though there is a superficially languid feel to the music, I always sense the enormous power this band is capable of.
A supergroup composed of King’s X bassist/vocalist Dug Pinnock, Korn’s drummer Ray Luzier, and Lynch Mob’s George Lynch, this is a straight rock album with no apologies necessary. “Breakout” is a killer song.
The second installment in John Mitchell’s Lonely Robot trilogy. “Awakenings”, “Sigma”, and “In Floral Green” are an incredible one-two-three punch early in the album.
Gary Numan followed up the excellent Splinter with the even better Savage. There is a definite Middle Eastern vibe here, and Numan is still the master of the irresistible hook. His band lays down a massive groove on every track. It’s been fascinating to watch Numan struggle with his atheism – for someone who doesn’t believe in God, he sure does yell at Him a lot.
Slowdive were founding members of the “shoegaze” movement in the 90s. They disappeared after1995, and then suddenly showed up in 2017 with this eponymous album. It is as good as their best work from 20 years ago. Here’s hoping they don’t wait another 20 to make another.
Damien Wilson is no longer with Threshold, but that didn’t stop them from producing the fantastic double disc set Legends Of The Shires. “Stars and Satellites” is a fantastic song with layers of guitars and an unforgettable chorus.
Wilson embraces his love for ’80s new wave pop, and comes up with the most consistently enjoyable album of his solo career. His guitar solo on the title track is perfect: concise, melodic, and lyrical. “Pemanating” could be a Tears For Fears single, and “Blank Tapes” is unbelievably sweet and heartbreaking. A great, great record.
That’s our look at 2017, folks. Two more years to go! Honorable mentions for this year go to Dave Kerzner (Static), Godsticks (Faced With Rage), Lunatic Soul (Fractured), Sons Of Apollo (Psychotic Symphony), and Wobbler (From Silence To Somewhere). Add your choices in the comments!
Welcome to Spirit of Cecilia’s retrospective of this decade’s musical highlights! This is the seventh chapter, which covers the best of 2016, and Hoo Boy! we had a bumper crop of great music that year. Here are 20(!) of the best prog and rock albums from 2016, in alphabetical order.
Big Big Train continued its decade-long conquest of progworld with Folklore. A big part of their appeal (aside from their wonderful musicianship and beautiful melodies) is their knack for finding forgotten heroes and paying musical tribute to them. In Folklore, we are treated to the fascinating story of the messenger pigeon, Winkie. “The Transit Of Venus Across The Sun” is another indispensable BBT track.
Blueneck hails from Britol, UK, and The Outpost was one of the standout albums of 2016. Shimmering, slow-building, atmospheric, and majestic music made this a compulsive listen for me. “From Beyond” is a tremendous track.
David Bowie had this album released posthumously. As always, he resists easy categorization. The nearly ten minute title track is full of skittery rhythms, disembodied jazz sax, and disturbing lyrics. A fitting final statement from one of the most talented and creative souls in music.
I did not hear about this group until recently, but I am glad I discovered them. Cyril is from Germany, and Marek Arnold and Manuel Schmid are members. Paralyzed is a fantastic prog album – one of the best of the last ten years. There are hints of classic Genesis in their sound, and I can’t recommend this album enough.
It looks like this is the final offering from the Devin Townsend Project, and what a way to finish! They revisit a DTP classic (“Truth”), and cover a Ween song (“Transdermal Celebration”). In between are some of the strongest songs Townsend has ever written. His vocals can make my hair stand on end, they are so, well, transcendent.
Evership is from my own city of Nashville, TN, but I would add this to our list regardless of their location. These guys write lyrical epics that are performed flawlessly. “Ultima Thule” is a near-perfect song, building slowly and quietly to a roaring conclusion. I can’t wait to hear more from this group.
How about a little fun? Jem Godfrey’s project Frost* released a terrific pop/prog collection in 2016 that I still listen to often. “Closer To The Sun” is one of the most enjoyable and reassuring seven and a half minutes in music.
Glass Hammer embraced their inner Rush and put together a challenging concept album based on the trauma suffered by a WWI veteran. Suzie Bogdanowicz never sounded better, the band rehearsed all the songs before recording, and it shows. They really fire on all cylinders.
Haken took a time machine back 30-odd years ago for Affinity. There all kinds of vintage synth sounds and nods to ’80s hair bands that make Affinity a hugely enjoyable record. Of course, they still have their 21st century wall of sound on great songs like “1985” and “The Architect”. This is one of Haken’s best albums, and it is scary how good they are.
The second album from Adam Wakeman’s and Damien Wilson’s project was a stunning set of songs. There are rough blues (“Polluted Alcohol”), straight ahead metal (“Kill You With Kindness”), and complex prog (“The Science Within Us”). “Secular Soul” is the kind of song that forces you to stop what you’re doing and just listen.
A beautiful and sensitive portrayal of a young woman’s battle with mental illness, Lighthouse was iamthemorning’s second album. In my original review, I noted, “Imagine, if you will, a world where Aerial-era Kate Bush, Dumbarton Oaks-era Igor Stravinsky, and Sketches of Spain-era Miles Davis got together to compose a song cycle.”
One of the biggest surprises of 2016 was the triumphant return of Kansas. This was no cashing in on nostalgia – this was a truly excellent album that successfully compares to their classics from the ’70s and ’80s. Welcome back, boys!
These guys started out as Synaesthesia, and morphed into Kyros. Whatever they call themselves, Adam Warne and Co. are some of the most talented songwriters and musicians working today. Vox Humana was a 2-disc concept album about a scientist who creates an artificial human, and the problems that ensue. Highly recommended.
The Similitude Of A Dream was the Neal Morse Band’s second album, and it was a monster. Over 2 hours long, it told the story of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Upon its release, it was immediately hailed as a prog classic.
Opeth’s Sorderess topped a lot of critics’ Best of 2016 lists. With this album, Opeth laid to rest any remains of their death metal past, and jumped headlong into prog.
In 2016, Pineapple Thief released what I consider to be their finest album to date, Your Wilderness. Bruce Soord came up with a diverse and satisfying set of songs that really rocked (“Tear You Up”). Gavin Harrison plays drums, and he kicks them into high gear.
Radiohead rediscovered melody on A Moon Shaped Pool and came up with a beautiful album. String quartets, gentle synth washes, and massed voices combine for one of their finest hours.
Australia’s Sean Timms (keyboards) and Danny Lopresto (vocals, guitar) lead this marvelous new prog band. Their debut was one of the best albums of 2016, with “The Bridge That Binds” the standout track.
I listened to this album by Syd Arthur more than practically anything else in 2016. It is a funky, catchy set of songs that remind me a bit of Talking Heads. I dare you to sit still while listening to “No Peace”.
And finally, an offering from an old veteran: Vangelis. He can veer dangerously close to cheesy romanticism, but Rosetta is one of his best set of songs in his long career. He composed them to accompany the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft that successfully landed on a comet. It is appropriately spacey and atmospheric.
Whew! I hope this long post convinced you that 2016 was one of the best for great music. Let us know in the comments below what you enjoyed back then.
We’re midway through the decade – thanks for joining us on our journey through the musical highlights of the 2010s!
In terms of music distribution, compact disc sales continued their steep decline. In 2000, 943 million CDs were sold. By 2015, that number had dropped to a little over 100 million. iTunes (and mp3s in general) was fading fast as Spotify, Amazon Music, and Apple Music attracted listeners to their streaming platforms. What these trends mean for artists remains to be seen. As it gets harder to earn income from recorded music, will that discourage new artists from getting started?
On the other hand – stepping back and taking a longer view of history – perhaps we’ll look at the 20th century as an aberration in terms of the financial rewards many recording artists were able to garner. For most of recorded history, musicians and composers have had to struggle to survive, and even the the most gifted relied on wealthy patrons.
Fortunately for us in the 21st century, there is no shortage of great artists producing fine music, and 2015 was a good example. So here are the highlights of that year, in alphabetical order.
Casey Crescenzo has released five of his planned six acts. Act IV: Rebirth In Reprise is my favorite so far. As usual, there is everything but the kitchen sink here. “A Night On The Town” is the key track as it swings like a Gershwin composition before an exhilarating rock motif takes over.
Another year, and not one, but two Gazpacho releases. Molok is another dark concept album about the ancient demon utilizing modern technology for his nefarious purposes (I think). The fact that Molok has some of the prettiest music Gazpacho has ever made makes the concept go down easy. Night Of The Demon is a live set where the band really cooks. It’s a perfect introduction to them, if you’re curious.
Another year, and not one, but two Glass Hammer releases. The Breaking Of The World is another peak for them (how do they keep doing that?) with essential songs “Mythopoiea”, “North Wind”, and “Nothing, Everything”. Double Live is a terrific no-frills live performance. Susie Bogdanowicz and Carl Groves are excellent singing classics like “The Knight Of The North” and “If The Stars”, while the band rocks tighter than a tick.
A new band from Reading, England, I Am The Manic Whale sprang fully formed from the brain of Michael Whiteman (the band name is an anagram of his). This is an impressive debut with songs celebrating subjects ranging from 10,000 year clocks to the joys of parenting messy toddlers. “Princess Strange” is an inspiring take on cyberbullying. A true delight to listen to, and worthy of a large audience.
Veteran proggers Karnataka enlisted new singer Hayley Griffiths for Secrets Of Angels, and she really lit a fire under them. Opening track “Road To Cairo” has a killer middle eastern riff that is as satisfying as Led Zep’s “Kashmir”. The title track is also excellent.
The keyboardist and composer from Sound Of Contact struck out on his own and produced this wonderful Floydian sci-fi epic. Put it on, and imagine you are back in 1977, hearing a fantastic new prog masterpiece.
John Mitchell’s (Arena, Frost*, It Bites) first album in a trilogy about an astronaut lost in space. One of the best albums of the decade, Lonely Robot features John’s excellent vocals and stellar guitar work. Every song is memorable, but “Oubliette” and “Are We Copies?” are standouts.
The first album from The Neal Morse Band is one of the best of the decade. First, it is NOT a Morse solo record – this is a band effort with all members contributing to the songwriting. Second, Neal found a young multi-instrumentalist in Eric Gillette who is simply phenomenal and spurs everyone to new heights. “Alive Again” may just be the finest epic Neal has been involved in.
This was my favorite album of 2015, and I still listen to it fairly often. Riverside pulled together their metal and hard rock roots with Mariusz Duda’s gentler Lunatic Soul excursions, and came up with a winning mix. Add in some nods to ’80s new wave, and this is a very fine record.
A document of Rush’s 40th anniversary tour, where they played songs from every phase of their long career. The stage set began filled to the brim with props and effects, and they gradually shed them as they worked their way back to the first shows they played in a high school auditorium.
Subsignal’s The Beacons Of Somewhere was a highlight of 2015. Straight-ahead prog rock with awesome melodies. “Everything Is Lost” is an excellent song, as is the multi-part title track. Every time I listen to this marvelous album, I hear new details that delight.
Tesseract toned down the more extreme metal aspects of their music for Polaris, and that made a huge difference. Daniel Tompkins has always been a terrific vocalist, but on this album he really shines. “Dystopia” soars, and “Tourniquet” is a gorgeous cacophony of sound. “Phoenix” makes me want to drive 100 mph. A great album that earned Tesseract a well-deserved wider audience.
Steven Wilson’s Hand.Cannot.Erase caused the biggest stir in progworld in 2015. It was his breakthrough album, catapulting him into the mainstream, and deservedly so. That said, the subject is so emotionally harrowing (the true story of a young woman who died alone in her apartment, and wasn’t discovered for three years) that I have a hard time enjoying it.
A box set that contains recordings of seven concerts from 1972. Yes was touring in support of Close To The Edge, and this is a fascinating document of a young and hungry band at the peak of their powers. Yes, the setlist stays constant, but it is fun to hear how their performances evolved over a short period of time, and how they dealt with onstage setbacks, like a local FM radio station taking over their PA system!
Once again, I easily could have doubled the length of this post. I left off excellent albums by Bruce Soord, Downes Braide Association, Echlyn, Izz, and Perfect Beings, among others. Let us know what your Best of 2015 list is in the comments!