A special (MEGA!) progcast, featuring Tad Wert, Kevin McCormick, Dave Bandana, and Brad Birzer. Nearly 3 1/2 hours long, we play Tin Spirits, SAND, NAO, Oak, Nosound, No-man, Memories of Machines, Sanguine Hum, The Tangent, Big Big Train, The Flower Kings, and The Bardic Depths. All of the music was chosen to impress Kevin, and we find out his reactions to it all. Additional bonus feature: Dave talks a lot about the making of the most recent The Bardic Depths album, Promises of Hope.
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.
This latest back-and-forth on Spirit of Cecilia is dedicated to discussing the new Sanguine Hum album, A Trace of Memory. Join Editor-In-Chief Brad Birzer and Arts Editor Tad Wert as they discuss this fine collection of prog tracks.
Brad: Tad, we’ve been blessed with an abundance of prog for and in the second half of 2020. COVID has its advantages. Not many, of course, but it–or, at least, the resulting lockdown–has manifested itself as great works of prog art! Just goes to show that even the nastiest things have their silver lining. I really enjoyed your review of Sanguine Hum’s latest, A Trace of Memory, and I’m wondering if we could talk about it a bit more.
From my perspective, this is pretty much a perfect album. I think at one level, the music is simply fantastic–the flow, the energy, and the complexity. I think at another level, though, the vocals are sublime–in tone as well as in content. Sadly, I don’t have the lyrics in front of me, but they sound quite good.
Tad: Brad, I am so glad you chose this album for a dialogue. I enjoyed listening to your guest appearance on the Political Beats podcast covering the post-Peter Gabriel years of Genesis, and in it you stated that you considered A Trick of The Tail a perfect album. I agree with that assessment, and I agree with your calling A Trace Of Memory another perfect album! They are very different in tone, yet each is a perfectly sequenced, composed, and performed work. Where Genesis is more romantic – Ravel or Debussy-like – in their approach, Sanguine Hum comes from a more quirky and playful tradition – I am reminded of Stravinsky or Satie.
I have loved Sanguine Hum’s music since their debut, Diving Bell. They have a knack for writing songs that are lengthy time-wise, yet never seem over-long. The 13-minute “The Yellow Ship” is a great example of this. My interest never flags for a second as I listen to it, and I have listened to it many, many times!
I think Joff Winks, Matt Baber, Brad Waissman, and Paul Mallyon (with Andrew Booker on two tracks) have an extraordinary amount of sympathetic understanding as they play. As I listen to this album, I don’t hear individuals playing music together; I hear one entity producing a glorious, melodic sound – that flow, energy, and complexity you mentioned.
Brad: I’d not made the connection between Stravinsky and Satie and Sanguine Hum. I think you’re absolutely right, and I think it’s an excellent connection.
I’d be really curious to know how these guys write their music. Do they each throw a piece in, thus forming a whole? Or, does one member of the band compose things and allow the band to fill out that composition? Or, do they just start noodling in the studio and then see how the songs emerge, spontaneously?
Whatever technique the band uses, it works, and it does so very well.
The intro track, “New Light,” especially lays out the tone of the album, pulling the listener into not just the song, but into all of A Trace of Memory.
But, it’s the second track, “The Yellow Ship,” with its plaintive vocals that so appeals to the listener. At least to this listener. It’s the best track of a perfect album.
“Thin Air,” track four, reminds me a bit of mid-period Radiohead, but, ultimately, proves more interesting than Radiohead.
And, just when the band sounds like it might become imitative, it deviates and takes us into a new direction. A perfect example of this deviation comes in track five, “Unstable Ground,” with its peculiar time signatures (that fit the title of the song) and ominous vocals.
One of the shortest songs on the album, “Still as the Sea,” actually feels as though we’re adrift in a boat, especially with the jazzy keyboards and guitar.
The driving power of track seven, appropriately entitled “Automaton,” is relentless.
Stepping back, though, I have to scratch my head. Just what is it about this album that works? Some of the appeal of the band comes from the distinctiveness of the keyboards and the guitar, as well as the intricacies of the drums and bass, but especially in their mutual interplay of all four on the album.
Yet, for me, it always comes back to the melancholic vocals with Sanguine Hum. They’re good enough as a band to be purely instrumental, but who would waste those glorious vocals?
Tad: According to the press release, keyboardist Matt Baber says they wrote all of the music quickly in the summer of 2018. All of the songs credit Winks, Baber, and Waissman as writers, so I’m assuming it’s a joint effort, perhaps stemming from jam sessions.
I agree that “The Yellow Ship” is the standout track; it may be the best thing they’ve ever recorded. I had not caught the Radiohead influence, but now that you mention it, it’s obvious!
For me, Sanguine Hum has a unique combination of a jazz/art rock sensibility and wistful vocals, courtesy of Winks. He is definitely not a thunderous vocalist bellowing out high notes over crunching metal accompaniment. And yet, the gentle, almost hushed timbre of his singing conveys a lot of power. As a teacher, I’ve learned the trick of speaking quietly to gain and hold my students’ attention, and Winks’ vocals do the same thing for me.
As you said at the beginning of this conversation, 2020 has been an amazing year music-wise: Bardic Depths, Days Between Stations, Kyros, Gazpacho, Glass Hammer, and now Sanguine Hum have all released incredible albums. Spirit of Cecilia is going to have some interesting “Best Of 2020” lists!
There is some interesting music in this week’s DropBox: a 46-year veteran prog band continues their recent winning streak, a more recently formed prog group comes up with a welcome return to form, and a veteran of several seminal prog groups maintains his high quality on another solo effort.
Pioneering progrock group Kansas’ new album, The Absence of Presence, proves that 2016’s excellent The Prelude Implicit was not a fluke. I don’t know what has lit a fire under these boys, but they are playing with more purpose and originality lately than they have shown in decades. Most bands of their age (46 years!) are content to rest on their laurels and milk nostalgia tours for all they’re worth. Kansas, on the other hand, has released two of the best albums of their career.
The title cut is a stone classic, comparable to any of the classics they released in the ’70s and ’80s. Ronnie Platt’s vocals are excellent, as is David Ragsdale’s violin work. Throwing Mountains is another terrific track with great energy and vocal/instrument interplay. The closer, The Song The River Sang, is a more straight-ahead rocker, and I love it.
The UK’s Sanguine Hum has new album coming out in November, and I am pleased to report that it is one of their best. Their first album, Diving Bell, was one of my favorites of 2011, and the follow-up, The Weight Of The World is one of the best albums of the past decade. Guitarist/vocalist Joff Winks, keyboardist Matt Baber, and bassist Brad Waissman have forged a totally unique sound, while remaining wonderfully accessible. The only way I can describe it is to imagine a mix of Kraftwerk, Devo, XTC, and Steely Dan, with a little Frank Zappa. Like I said, they have a unique sound. After TWOTW, though, they lost their way, and spent two concept albums telling a story that was a little too cute for its own good (a perpetual motion machine powered by cats – who always land on their feet – with butter on their backs, because buttered toast always lands butter side down. Ha.)
Fortunately, A Trace Of Memory is a definite return to form. They have an unerring ear for a beautiful melody, as evidenced by the 13-minute track, The Yellow Ship. It’s also the finest composition they have ever recorded, as Winks’ querulous, everyman vocals establish the melody before they take off on an extended jam session that never meanders or loses focus. I can listen to this one track all day, but the rest of the album is almost as good. Sanguine Hum have hit upon the perfect ratio of instrumental to vocal tracks with this set, and I would love to see them perform them live.
Finally, an album that almost slipped past me – Lonely Robot’s Feelings Are Good. Lonely Robot is John Mitchell, guitarist and vocalist extraordinaire who has lent his talents to The Urbane, Arena, It Bites, and Frost*. The first three Lonely Robot albums formed a trilogy that chronicled the adventures of an unnamed astronaut. Feelings Are Good, on the other hand, is more down-to-earth in its subject matter. There are glimmerings of power pop (Into The Lo-Fi), hard rock (Spiders), prog (the Floydish Life Is A Sine Wave), and balladry (Crystalline). Anything Mitchell releases is guaranteed to be an enjoyable listening experience, and Feelings Are Good continues his streak. Highly recommended if you like classic Peter Gabriel or Frost*.
So, three albums, three winners. I think so highly of them that I have purchased hard copies. Do yourself a favor and at least give them a listen on your preferred music streaming service.
We’re continuing our look back at the decade that is ending in a few weeks with a fond recall of 2013. It was another exceptional year in terms of high quality music, and I have selected fifteen albums that represent just how good that year was for lovers of prog and rock. Once again, my choices are in alphabetical order.
Okay, this is certainly not prog, but the Beatles were the greatest rock group of all time. This is a huge collection of studio outtakes from 1963 that was initially available for purchase for only a few hours on iTunes. Why only a few hours? Because the 50 year copyright on them was set to expire if they weren’t made commercially available. Once they were put on the marketplace, their copyright was safe, and the music label could continue to make money off of them.
That said, these tracks are a fascinating glimpse into how good John, Paul, George, and Ringo were from the beginning of their recorded career. They hit their harmonies effortlessly, and their musicianship is excellent. This collection is now available on Apple Music, and it is worth checking out if you are a even a casual Beatles fan.
Big Big Train followed up 2012’s English Electric Part 1 with English Electric Part 2, which was, in some fan’s eyes, even better. It opens with the propulsive “East Coast Racer” and includes the tender “Curator of Butterflies”. “The Permanent Way” pulls together several themes from the two parts beautifully.
Later in 2013, BBT released a deluxe 2-disc edition of Parts 1 and 2 with a changed running order and extra tracks entitled Full Power. I suppose it is the definitive edition, but I prefer the original separate albums.
One of my favorite albums of the decade is Cosmograf’s The Man Left In Space. It is a concept album about the anguish an astronaut goes through as he realizes he will not be returning home from his space voyage. Great music, sensitive lyrics, and snippets of audio conversations create a claustrophobic soundscape that is redeemed by the uplifting finale, “When the Air Runs Out”.
After he released Reality in 2003, Bowie announced he was retiring from music. Ten years later, The Next Day appeared. Reality was a career high point, but The Next Day is a worthy successor. In it, Bowie explores all of his eclectic musical interests, and delivers a terrific set of songs. The album cover is simply a vandalized version of his 1978 classic, “Heroes”, as if to say, “What’s past is past. Listen to me now.”
Los Angeles-based Days Between Stations released their excellent second album, In Extremis in 2013. It features Colin Moulding of XTC fame on the catchy “The Man Who Died Two Times”, and “Eggshell Man” is one of the best epics of the decade.
Einaudi is a classical composer and pianist, and In A Time Lapse is a superb collection of his minimalist-tinged compositions. Unabashedly melodic and romantic, this album is a beautiful listening experience.
One of the strongest sets of songs Roine Stolt and the Kings ever recorded. Here’s what I wrote about it in my 2013 review: Desolation Rose is a dark and brooding jeremiad on the dangers of corrupt media and government, perpetual war and violence, and religious fanaticism. Freedom is not a given, and Desolation Rose is a dire warning to those who would trade it for “security”, whether by indiscriminately believing what governments and mainstream media tell us, or by neglecting critical thinking when it comes to the claims of deceptive religious figures. Each song segues seamlessly into the next, reinforcing the overall impact of the lyrics. It may take a few listens for them to take hold, but once they do, they are very powerful.
The Mountain was Haken’s third album, and it was a breakthrough. Every song is excellent, and “Paraidolia” is one of the best in their entire catalog. This album was my favorite of 2013 (yes, I liked it even more than BBT’s Full Power). Today, Haken is one of the top bands in progworld. This album shows why they deserve all the accolades.
KingBathmat is the brainchild of John Bassett, and for a while in the mid-’10s it looked like they were going to conquer the world. Overcoming The Monster is their best album, and it is a hard-driving metal/psychedelic/progressive melodic masterpiece. “Kubrick Moon” is one of the weirdest yet satisfying songs I’ve ever heard.
Most people in America think Gary Numan is that one-hit wonder guy with the song about cars. He’s actually had a long career, with many ups and downs, and Splinter is an incredible return to form. Trent Reznor owes a lot to Numan, as Splinter illustrates. A very strong album, performed very well. The bass is absolutely thunderous, and the hooks Numan sets up sink in and won’t let go.
Not a 2013 album, but a welcome rerelease. The original 2002 album was greeted rapturously, because no one knew if Rush would ever perform together after Neil Peart’s personal losses. Once the initial excitement subsided, it was clear that the mix on Vapor Trails was a disaster. With this version, these fantastic songs can be heard as the band intended.
Matt Healey (North Atlantic Oscillation) released this solo album that could be another NAO set. It is a wonderful album, including an ode to Halley’s telescope (“Elegy For The Old Forty-Foot”). I’m a fan of anything NAO does, and SAND is an essential part of their catalog.
Sanguine Hum’s second album is even better than their excellent debut. The title track is 15 minutes of endlessly delightful pop that flies by in no time. The Weight Of The World is a career high that they have yet to surpass.
One of the best albums of the decade. Simon Collins (son of Phil, with his father’s vocal and drum chops) and Dave Kerzner formed the creative nucleus of this band and released a terrific concept album about a being who can travel through different dimensions. “Mobius Slip” is one of the most exhilarating 20 minutes in rock. Too bad Collins and Kerzner couldn’t patch up their differences to work together again. We’re all poorer for it.
When I first heard Steven Wilson’s opening track to The Raven That Refused To Sing, I thought, “Hmm… Early ’70s Herbie Hancock fusion with Yes.” I’m not a fan of that particular mixture, but fortunately, track 2 is one of Wilson’s finest ever: “Drive Home”. I admire him for trying new things and never sitting still musically – that’s what keeps me interested in his work.
Other significant releases in 2013: Anathema’s concert set Universal, Blackfield’s IV, The Dear Hunter’s Migrant, Nosound’s Afterthoughts, and Tesseract’s Altered State. Let us know your favorites that we missed in the comments!
In our continuing series of posts celebrating the music of the 2010’s, here is Chapter 2: 2011.
2011 was a relatively quiet year music- and prog-wise. I’ve chosen to highlight ten albums that have survived the test of time, and one or two might surprise. Once again, they are listed in alphabetical order.
A Steven Wilson side project with Aviv Geffen, Welcome To My DNA is their third release. This was a very nice, radio-friendly collection of songs (with one terrible misstep: Geffen’s “Go To Hell”). With the benefit of hindsight, one can see the influence this project had on Wilson’s excellent To The Bone years later.
Casey Crescenzo took a break from his six-act arc of albums (still in progress, BTW) to record this nine EP collection of songs inspired by the color spectrum. It begins with black, and works through the rainbow to end at white. It sounds insufferably pretentious, but it works. Dear Hunter manages to master every conceivable style of rock, from hard-core industrial (black) to pleasant folk (yellow). If you missed this set, check it out. It is an amazing achievement.
Duran Duran were always far more than ’80s pinup boys. Simon LeBon is a fine lyricist, and their melodies stand the test of time. All You Need Is Now is a surprisingly strong album, where they come close to the peaks they reached in their heyday, after spending years wandering in the wilderness.
The second Glass Hammer album to feature vocalist Jon Davison, and it builds on the strengths of 2010’s If. Every track is a winner, with “To Someone” a particular highlight. Once again, the cover art is a hoot.
Neal Morse continued chronicling his conversion to Christianity, focusing this time on a miraculous healing of his infant daughter. As expected with Morse, the music is excellent as endlessly satisfying melodies pour forth. The bonus disc contains three of his finest compositions: “Absolute Beginners”, “Supernatural”, and the 26-minute epic “Seeds Of Gold”.
Radiohead releases are few and far between, so when King Of Limbs showed up in 2011, it caused a stir. The first five tracks are dominated by relentless rhythm – maybe they’d been listening a lot to Philip Glass and Steve Reich? Anyway, it isn’t until “Codex” that a real melody shows up. “Give Up The Ghost” and “Separator” close things out on a relatively gentle note.
A DVD/CD set that documented Rush’s performance in Cleveland. Rush has released a lot of concert videos, and this is one of their best. They weren’t touring in support of a specific album, so they cover songs from every phase of their long career, and even preview a couple from the not-yet-released Clockwork Angels.
When I first heard this group, I was very excited. They managed to meld Devo-like rhythms to XTC-worthy tunes while creating a sound all their own. This was the strongest debut album of 2011, and is still a joy to listen to.
Steven Wilson’s second solo album, and it put to rest any hopes of Porcupine Tree working together again. This was an ambitious two-disc set that ran a gamut of styles. Wilson is an inspired composer of seductive melodies (“Deform To Form A Star”), and he isn’t afraid to wear his influences on his sleeve, i.e. late-’60s Beach Boys or King Crimson. Like a lot of double albums, it might have been stronger as a single disc.
Just when you think you’ll never hear anything new worth hearing from Yes, they surprise you with a strong album like Fly From Here. This one featured vocalist Benoit David, from the Canadian group Mystery, and it included Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes from Drama days. One of their best late-career efforts.
And that wraps up our musical look back to 2011. Not the most productive year with regard to prog, but just wait until 2012 – the floodgates are about to open!
Tony Rowsick, the host of my favorite music podcast, Prog-Watch, invited me to be a “Guest DJ” on the latest episode (#603). I had a really hard time narrowing my choices down to four songs, but I eventually settled on ones by U.K., Big Big Train (of course!), Sanguine Hum, and Glass Hammer.
You can stream the episode here, or catch it via iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, etc. ( Just search for Prog-Watch)
If you are a lover of prog rock, then you need to subscribe to Prog-Watch. I have discovered more great artists through Tony’s show than any other source. He is also an excellent interviewer of prog’s biggest stars as well as up and coming ones. It comes out weekly, and it is well worth the time spent listening. As Tony would say, “Until next time, be good to each other, and Prog On, my brothers and sisters!”
Top albums of 2018
Well, stunningly, it’s that time of year—the time we begin to assess the best of that which came throughout the year. At age 51, these years fly by, faster and faster. Time devours, but individuals innovate. 2018 has been a rather spectacular year, at least on a personal level. In very large part, the creative soundtrack behind the year’s events proved equally spectacular.
Here are my favorite albums of 2018.
10. Galahad, Seas of Change. Stu and company nail it with this album. At once deeply progressive musically and timely politically, Galahad strike the perfect balance of art and message on this wondrous 43-minute long album (and song!). The message never becomes oppressively preachy, itself being fully integrated with the music.
9. Bjorn Riis, Coming Home. This is the only EP to make it to my top 10 of 2018. Only 27 minutes long, Riis’s Coming Home offers more depth in music and thought than most albums can at 50 to 70 minutes. A perfectionist and a minimalist, Riis offers just enough to keep us eager for me. As with his work on Airbag, Riis provides a lush soundscape of tundra, doted here and there with evergreens.
8. Shineback, Dial. I don’t think it’s constitutionally possible for any of the Godfrey musicians to be uninteresting. Despite having moved from the U.K. to the Philadelphia, Simon Godfrey retains all of the romantic best of the motherland. Electronic flourishes, Thomas Dolby rhythms, pop melodies, progressive and extended passages, and Godfrey’s always anxious and surreal lyrics pull the listener in, from the opening minute to the closing minute—92 minutes later! A feast of creepiness and introspection. Every time I listen, I realize I’m only getting about 70% of what’s going on. This is music for headphones, to be sure.
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