John Bassett was very active in the mid 2010s with his KingBathMat, solo, and Arcade Messiah projects. KingBathMat was a quirky prog group that released five excellent albums of melodic metal, while Arcade Messiah began as an instrumental outfit. AM has released a few EPs since 2016’s III, but Bassett is back with a vengeance in 2020, and it sounds like he never left. In fact, he has taken the best elements of KingBathMat and Arcade Messiah and melded them into a sleek prog-metal machine. He’s now working exclusively under the Arcade Messiah moniker, and their latest effort is The Host. It features his trademark gift for a memorable melody delivered with crunching guitars. If you like your prog rock on the heavy side while remaining hummable, then your can’t go wrong with Arcade Messiah’s latest.
Katatonia’s City Burials is their followup to 2017’s magnificent The Fall of Hearts. This is a set of songs that explore the sadness and sense of loss one gets as one realizes that the past is buried forever. “Behind The Blood” is a ferocious rocker in the tradition of past Katatonia, but the majority of tracks are more hushed and tender. Jonas Renkse’s vocals have never been more warmer and more expressive as they are here. “Vanishers” features a beautiful duet between Renkse and Anni Bernhard that is a highlight. Katatonia’s evolution from extremely dark metal to melodic prog has been fascinating, and City Burials is their strongest effort yet.
Speaking of evolutions, The Pineapple Thief has fully emerged from their Radiohead/minimalist origins, and with Versions Of The Truth they are now one of the finest prog/pop groups active today. In the early 1980s, The Police were one of the biggest groups in the world. Their secret power was letting Stewart Copeland’s drums take the lead, and having Andy Summers’ guitar provide the rhythm.
With Gavin Harrison, The Pineapple Thief have a percussionist as gifted as Copeland, and his drums are way up in the mix, propelling the entire project. Every song is credited to both Harrison and Bruce Soord, and these are the finest set PT has ever recorded. Gone are the 20+ minutes-long meandering explorations, to be replaced by perfectly crafted pop miniatures. Even the longest one – “Our Mire” at 7:26 – is a masterpiece of concision. Stylistically they range from the laconic “Driving Like Maniacs” to the pulverizing “Break It All”, and there isn’t a clunker in the lot.
Three albums, three winners. 2020 isn’t a total disaster!
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!
Tomorrow, our wonderful poet-in-residence, Kevin McCormick, is turning 52. Just a good deck of cards.
On November 22, the website turns one. How great is this? Too great, to be sure.
Very recently, some excellent music has shown up in the Spirit of Cecilia mailbox. New Flower Kings, new Cure (well, new live Cure), new Elbow, new old Peter Gabriel, and new old Dukes of Stratosphear. Some new Bruce Soord, too. A blessing of riches. If all goes well, Glass Hammer’s remixed and renewed LEX REX should show up tomorrow.
Reviews forthcoming. . .
And, of course, expect great pieces from Tad, Erik, Mahesh, Richard, and Alex and others! All to the good.