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Archive for the ‘Canterbury Scene’ Category

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I hope my readers will forgive me if this post is somewhat less detailed than the ones I wrote in the past, as up to the very last moment I was not sure I felt up to writing my usual “Best of the Year” piece. However, I have tried my best to comment on the many highlights of a year that – while utterly dismal in terms of global events – was definitely a bumper year for interesting progressive music.

In my native Italy, leap years are considered unlucky, and 2016 did nothing to dispel this myth, crammed as it was with global turmoil and high-profile deaths. For prog fans, this year will go down in history for the double whammy of Keith Emerson and Greg Lake’s loss, as well as David Bowie’s passing a couple of days after the release of his Blackstar album. On the other and, while many of the protagonists of prog’s heyday have started leaving this planet, the younger generations – though faced with a world increasingly uncaring about music as an art form – have been forging a path ahead for the progressive genre, often displaying the barest of affiliations to the modes of the past. A few of the names that will appear in this post, as well as in many fans’ lists, have received warm accolades in the  “mainstream” press, and are therefore getting exposed to more diverse audiences. In many ways, these artists resemble the original prog generation in their desire to explore and experiment, rather than stick to a tried-and-tested formula as the “retro” acts do.

Even if lately my reviewing activity has been almost non-existent, I have kept in touch with new releases through my regular participation in DPRP’s Something for the Weekend? feature. On the other hand, a lot of highly rated 2016 albums have flown directly under my radar, so anyone who wishes to read further should take the absence of a rather large number of prog fans’ favourites into account – as the title of this post makes it quite clear. As usual, I have not had either the time or the inclination (or both) to listen to many of the albums that are prominently featured in many people’s Top 10 (or 20, or 50…) lists, because the amount of music released during the past 12 months under the increasingly broad “progressive” label was nothing short of staggering. And then, in all honesty, my tastes have been steadily drifting away from the traditional prog still enthusiastically embraced by both artists and fans. While I still have a lot of time for the classics, I am constantly on the lookout for modern music that will redefine the prog label without sounding derivative. In this respect, 2016 was like a 12-month Christmas.

For this edition, I have decided to adopt a similar format to the one used by my esteemed friend and fellow reviewer, Roger Trenwith, on his excellent Astounded by Sound! blog. In this way, I will still avoid the dreaded (though popular) numbered list, and at the same time make it somewhat easier for my readers to pick out albums. Although the order of appearance may partly reflect my own preferences, all the albums briefly described in the following paragraphs are well worth checking out. I have tried to include all those albums that have impressed me during the past 12 months, (many of which have already been recommended by me or my fellow reviewers on Something for the Weekend?) though obviously there are bound to be omissions for which I apologize beforehand. Links to Bandcamp or other streaming services are provided whenever available.

And here we go…

Knifeworld – Bottled Out of Eden (UK) – A real joy from start to finish, as intricate and eclectic as the best vintage prog,  Knifeworld’s third release is yet another winner from prog’s other busiest man, the one and only Kavus Torabi.

North Sea Radio OrchestraDronne (UK)  – Another Cardiacs-related effort, the fourth album by the ensemble led by Craig Fortnam is pure class, brimming with ethereal beauty and sterling performances.

Bent KneeSay So (USA) – The third full-length release from the Boston crew led by charismatic vocalist Courtney Swain boasts interesting songwriting and an almost punky edge, tempered by a sort of  confessional vibe.

Gong Rejoice! I’m Dead! (Multi-national) – Though Daevid Allen may be gone from this earthly plane, he left his beloved creature in the trusty hands of Kavus Torabi (again!), who gives the album a modern edge while paying homage to the band’s decades-long history.

Gösta Berlings SagaSersophane (Sweden) – Released just two weeks before the end of the year, the long-awaited fourth album from the magnificent Swedes (augmented, as usual, by Mattias Olsson) brings 2016 to a close with a bang. 40 minutes of stunningly hypnotic instrumental music by one of the finest bands in the business.

Deus Ex MachinaDevoto (Italy) – Another highly awaited comeback from one of Italy’s most distinctive bands, chock full of energy, melody and outstanding performances – though without any Latin in sight.

YugenDeath by Water (Italy) – The iconic Milan-based ensemble led by guitarist Francesco Zago is back with a dense, austere album that demands a lot from the listener. Modern Avant-Prog at its finest.

ZhongyuZhongyu (USA) –  Seamlessly blending jazz-rock, Avant-Prog, Far Eastern music and improvisation, the debut album by Jon Davis’ Seattle-based quintet (featuring three members of Moraine) is a must-listen for lovers of cutting-edge instrumental prog.

Richard Pinhas & Barry ClevelandMu (Multi-national) – Beautifully atmospheric music performed by a quartet of extremely gifted musicians – guitarists Pinhas and Cleveland plus the extraordinary rhythm section of Michael Manring and Celso Alberti.

Mamma Non PiangereN.3 (Italy) – The triumphant return of the veteran Italian RIO/Avant outfit will put a smile on your face,even if you do not understand the language. Stunning vocal performance from Laura Agostinelli of Garamond.

Jeremy FlowerThe Real Me (USA) – Carla Kihlstedt lends her vocals and violin to this lovely album from a gifted Boston-based musician. Top-class, surprisingly accessible chamber pop.

Finnegan ShanahanThe Two Halves (USA) – A charming, chamber prog-meets-Celtic folk debut for a talented young musician.

The WinstonsThe Winstons (Italy) – Three established indie musicians from Italy pay homage to early Soft Machine inone of the very few unabashedly retro efforts that actually works.

PanzerpappaPestrottedans (Norway) – Avant-Prog that will not scare first-timers away with a distinct new-Canterbury flavour from one of Norway’s most reliable bands

CorimaAmaterasu (USA) – Magma meets punk in the highly anticipated sophomore release of California’s electrifying Zeuhl-ers.

Chromb! – 1000 (France) – The Lyon scene is a real treasure trove of great bands exploring the many facets of the Avant universe – as illustrated by Chromb!’s outstanding third album.

UkandanzAwo (France) – What would happen if you crossed traditional Ethiopian music with RIO/Avant? The answer is Ukandanz –another winner from the seemingly inexhaustible  Lyon scene.

Herd of InstinctManifestation (USA) –  Intense and mysterious, yet pervasively melodic, the Texas band’s third album displays a stronger influence from their Djam Karet mentors than their previous releases.

Emmett ElvinAssault on the Tyranny of Reason (UK) – Proudly eclectic (and unexpectedly fun) effort from the man behind the keyboards of modern prog giants Knifeworld, Guapo and Chrome Hoof.

French TV –  Ambassadors of Health and Clean Living (USA) – Mike Sary’s veteran project’s comeback, recorded with the members of Japanese instrumental band TEE, offers a challenging  blend of RIO/Avant and jazz-rock.

Jack O’ The ClockRepetitions Of The Old City I (USA) – The latest effort from Damon Waitkus’ crew confirms their status as purveyors of unique-sounding chamber rock.

AmpledeedBYOB (USA) – The second album from the Californian band brings more top-notch art rock with plenty of diverse influences

Luz de RiadaCuentos y Fabulas 3 (Mexico) – Ramsés Luna’s collective sounds like almost nothing else, though of course fans of Cabezas de Cera will found a lot to love in this album.

Nicotina Es PrimaveraAnimal Cerámico (Argentina) – From the thriving Argentinian scene, sophisticated yet accessible Avant-Prog from an excellent new band.

Amoeba SplitSecond Split (Spain) – The Canterbury sound gets a 21-st century makeover in this outstanding instrumental album

Half Past FourLand of the Blind (Canada) – The irrepressible Canadians pack more into an EP than many bands in 80 minutes. Quirky, elegant and fun modern prog.

UlverATGCLVLSSCAP (Norway) – The mighty Norwegians’ homage to vintage Krautrock is pristinely beautiful.

a.P.A.t.T.Fun With Music (UK) – Just what the title says. Everything-but-the-kitchen-sink eclecticism rules!

Ill WickerUntamed (Sweden) – Dark, haunting acid-folk inspired by Comus and other Seventies cult bands.

VesperoLique Mekwas (Russia) – Russia’s answer to Ozric Tentacles deploy their whole arsenal of psych/space rock with intriguing world music touches.

PsychoyogiShrine (UK) – Short but sweet 2016 release from one of the UK scene’s hidden treasures – a must for “new Canterbury” fans.

Simon McKechnieFrom My Head to My Feet (UK) –  Another lesson on how to add interest and progressive quotient to the song format from one of the genre’s unsung heroes.

David BowieBlackstar (UK)  – Released just before his unexpected passing, Bowie’s swan song is a riveting testimony to his undimmed creative spirit.

N.y.X.The News (Italy) – Darkly Crimsonian vibes abound in the northern Italian trio’s second album.

Axon/NeuronMetamorphosis (USA) – An eclectic double CD for an excellent female-fronted band in the MoeTar vein.

iNFiNiENLight at the Endless Tunnel (USA) – Third album for another MoeTar-inspired band, with artwork from Tarik Ragab himself.

The Stargazer’s AssistantRemoteness of Light – Mesmerizing, multilayered soundscapes from Guapo drummer David J. Smith.

SternpostStatues Asleep (Sweden) – Ethereal, sophisticated chamber-pop reminiscent of Robert Wyatt.

Yawning ManHistorical Graffiti (USA) – A stunning instrumental “desert rock” album recorded in Argentina from an excellent southern California outfit.

Iron MountainUnum (Ireland) – Post-rock meets folk-metal  in this intriguing instrumental album.

Vaults of ZinKadath (USA) – HP Lovecraft-inspired Avant-Zeuhl-Metal.

Thank You ScientistStranger Heads Prevail (USA) – Energetic prog-pop from New Jersey’s wrecking crew.

The Mercury TreePermutations (USA) – Intricate, guitar-based modern prog from a band in constant development.

EdensongYears in the Garden of Years (USA) – The long-awaited second album from the New Jersey band will not disappoint fans of hard-edged prog.

ShamblemathsShamblemaths (Norway)  – Ambitious debut from another promising Norwegian outfit – eclectic prog at its finest.

Seven ImpaleContrapasso (Norway) – A darker, more intense follow-up to their highly praised debut.

Disen GageSnapshots (Russia) – Eclectic, guitar-based instrumental prog with a playful edge.

Factor Burzaco3.76 (Argentina) – New versions of older material from Argentina’s leading Avant-Prog outfit.

BubuResplandor (Argentina) – A short but highly satisfying comeback from a band that fully deserves its cult status.

GriotGerald (Portugal) – The concept album reinterpreted in modern art-rock terms.

Mothertongue – <em>Unsongs (UK) – Exhilarating, brass-led progressive pop.

AfenginnOpus (Sweden) – Haunting Scandinavian prog-folk.

Violeta de OutonoSpaces (Brazil) – Psych-space meets Canterbury with a South American flavour.

The Observatory – <em>August Is the Cruellest (Singapore) – Moody, melancholy post-rock inspired by T.S. Eliot’s poetry.

MacroscreamMacroscream (Italy) – The second album of this Roman six-piece hovers between tradition and quirkiness.

Il Rumore BiancoAntropocene (Italy) – RPI with an edge for the full-length debut of this band from Verona.

Syndone Eros e Thanatos (Italy)Cinematic RPI with echoes of Van Der Graaf.

Mad FellazII (Italy) – For fans of the jazzier, funkier side of Italian prog.

Alex’s HandKünstler Sch***e (USA) – Another Avant-punk opus from the Seattle crew.

Horse LordsInterventions (USA) – African-inspired polyrhythms and a saxophone that sounds just like a guitar. Oh my!

Za!Loloismo (Spain) – A percussion-driven mix of styles with an almost tribal flair.

GoatRequiem (Sweden) – African rhythms (again!) meet psychedelic rock with interesting results.

Sparkle in GreyBrahim Izdag (Italy) – A celebration of multiculturalism through rock, electronics and a lot more.

Savoldelli/Casarano/BardosciaThe Great Jazz Gig in the Sky (Italy) – One of the most brilliant ideas ever for a tribute album. Jazz and Dark Side of the Moon are a match made in heaven!

Pluck & RailTrigger (USA) – A fine roots/folk album featuring Frogg Café’s Andrew Sussman

TilesPretending 2 Run (USA) – The ambitious return of  the Detroit heavy proggers is a double CD package put together with the utmost care.

Sonus UmbraBeyond the Panopticon (USA) – Heavy yet melodic, atmospheric comeback from the Chicago-based septet led by Luis Nasser.

Mike KershawWhat Lies Beneath (UK) – Melancholy, atmospheric song-based progressive rock

Matthew ParmenterAll Our Yesterdays (USA) –  A collection of classy, deeply emotional songs from Discipline’s mainman.

Fractal MirrorSlow Burn 1 (The Netherlands) – Another laid-back album of song-based modern art rock

iamthemorningLighthouse (Russia) – Ethereal and delicate offering from the highly-regarded Russian duo.

MarbinGoat Man and the House of the Dead (USA) – Eclectic, high-energy fusion from one of the progressive scene’s busiest bands.

Though as a rule I generally mention albums I have heard in their entirety, this year I will make an exception for a handful of interesting albums that – for some reason or another – I have managed to listen to only partially:

Stick MenProg Noir (Multi-national) – Waiting for King Crimson to release some new material, here is a feast for lovers of touch guitars and intricate polyrhythms.

MoulettesPreternatural (UK) – Mythical creatures inspire this slice of  exciting, hyper-eclectic “wonky pop”.

The Sea NymphsOn the Dry Land (UK) – The second of the “lost” albums by Cardiacs’ spin-off trio is elegiac and whimsical.

Bob DrakeArx Pilosa (USA/France) – A collection of bite-sized Avant-Pop songs from one of Thinking Plague’s founders.

Free Salamander ExhibitUndestroyed (USA) – The much-anticipated return of some former members of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum hits all the right buttons.

Three Trapped TigersSilent Earthling (UK) – Hypnotic yet surprisingly melodic take on math-rock.

Although, as I pointed out in the introduction,  in my list there are quite a few of what the average prog fan would consider glaring omissions, I believe that the majority of the music mentioned above has the potential to appeal to anyone but the most hidebound listeners. It might not be “your father’s prog”, but it is definitely worth a try if you want to expand your musical horizons – and support a bunch of highly deserving artists (and the independent labels that keep up the good work in spite of all the setbacks) in the process.

Before I bring this rather lengthy post to a close, I would like to spend a few words on the question of reviews, or lack thereof. As much as I would love to start reviewing again on a regular basis, I do not see myself resuming that activity – which was of great comfort to me in difficult times – on the scale of the earlier years of this decade. In a person’s life there is probably a time for everything, and my career as a reviewer was probably fated to be a short (though intense) one. I will keep this blog alive on behalf of the many bands and artists whom I wrote about in the past few years, and for publishing the occasional piece like this one. However, I believe it is time to pass the torch to other reviewers, who are much more prolific and reliable than I have been since 2013 or so. I will keep up my contributions to Something for the Weekend? as a means of spreading the word about new music, as well as occasionally adding some band to the ProgArchives database. In the meantime, while we wait for the first 2017 releases, I hope my readers will discover at least one new band or solo artist by browsing my suggestions. Happy listening, and a great 2017 to everyone!

 

 

 

 

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Dario D’Alessandro

After a couple of months of silence, I am glad to have the opportunity to post this outstanding interview with Dario D’Alessandro of Sicilian outfit Homunculus Res (undoubtedly one of the best modern bands to come out of Italy for a long time), conducted by fellow music enthusiast Michael Björn.

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Homunculus Res
Dario D’Alessandro interview

(Japanese language version originally published in Strange Days #198, March 19 2016)

Text & interview: Michael Björn

Already with the first propulsive beats in odd time signatures on their debut album in 2013, Homunculus Res made it clear that great things were happening on the island of Sicily. With their new album Come Si Diventa Ciò Che Si Era, there is no longer any doubt that they are the new heirs to the throne of Canterbury-inspired progressive rock bands.

When the organ resolves the last 40 seconds of “Doppiofondo del barile” you could swear that Hatfield & the North are in the studio control room, clapping their hands. But although the humour, the inventive song writing, the short pop songs, the mass of ideas piled on top of each other and the complex arrangements all firmly root them in the Canterbury music tradition, Homunculus Res are no copycats.

Whereas Egg, Caravan and National Health all had a lovely cup of tea waiting for them at the end of a song; there is no such romantic dream of Albion in the music made by Homunculus Res.

When you leave that cup of tea behind, strange things happen. One could argue that Henry Cow did exactly this and the result was the RIO movement. Homunculus Res, however, are less overtly oriented towards politics; their focus instead seems to be the modernistic tradition of mainland Europe. They re-examine and re-invigorate their Canterbury influences in every twist and turn, outfit them with retro-futuristic sounds from space machines and dance moves from the Cabaret Voltaire nightclub.

Although such modernistic influences were certainly an integral part of the Canterbury scene, particularly during Soft Machine’s early years, here they are developed into a unique strain of rock music that touches a deep nerve in the listener.

How did Homunculus Res manage to develop their singular vision? We asked bandleader Dario D’Alessandro to tell us more.

How, when and why was Homunculus Res formed?

Dario: The band was founded in 2010. At that time, I wanted to play progressive music that was complex but at the same time pleasant to listen to and fun. I had already written several songs. The meeting with the Di Giovanni brothers – Daniele on drums and David on keyboard –  has made this possible because they also wanted to experiment with odd time signatures and musical mathematical games. Like me, they also they a strong taste for melody.

The current line-up is a prog-rock quintet, including Mauro Turdo, to whom I willingly leave the most difficult guitar parts, and Daniele Crisci on bass. When we play a live show, we try to involve horn players, flute and /or sax, to complete the arrangements.

We are all interested in the arts. As for myself, I am primarily a painter and graphic artist. In fact, I curate all the graphical parts of our project.

 

Davide Di Giovanni, Dario D’Alessandro

 

Is it true that the band name Homunculus Res comes from Otto Rippert’s six-part science fiction film “Homunculus” from 1916? What does the name signify to you?

Dario: I wanted a band name that was mysterious but also funny. Initially, it was Homunculus REX, haha! A graceful mockery of the seriousness of certain themes that still fascinate me. The name can also be a derogatory version of Man himself; a small man with no soul, morally poor. Probably this character metaphorically represents a critique of modern society. The inspiration mainly comes from Goethe’s Faust.


You have a different approach to music than most other Italian progressive bands.

Dario: True, we have a different approach than the Italian style in general; less “romantic”, more amused and perhaps more geared to the North-European and American tastes.

I don’t know why.


My two favourite Italian bands are Homunculus Res and Breznev Fun Club. Would you count yourself as part of the same scene?

Dario: We can probably both broadly be called Avant-Prog, but it is obvious that there are huge differences in our styles. Breznev Fun Club leader Rocco Lomonaco is a great meticulous composer who looks to the contemporary avant-garde music; whereas we are a band that basically uses the rock language.

But Rocco and I hold each other in high regard and we will write something together soon.


You have called Picchio Dal Pozzo the most important Italian band. Do you see Homunculus Res as a continuation of their music?

Dario: For me, Picchio dal Pozzo is something wonderfully unique and unrepeatable that happened on the Italian music scene. I am very pleased that the critics compare us, but we feel very tiny compared to them, although they are an endless source of inspiration. Maybe what we have in common is a surreal sense of humour.

Picchio dal Pozzo founding member Aldo De Scalzi has in fact collaborated on a song on our second album. He is very nice to us; a very kind and cheerful person.


How did you get so many artists to guest on the album?

Dario: Well, I just expressed my admiration to them and vice versa. For example, I found the music of Regal Worm very fresh, unconventional and similar to our intentions.

For us it was a real privilege. Dave Newhouse (the Muffins / Rascal Reporters) played many horn parts, showing great mastery and naturalness with the modesty that is typical of great musicians. He’s a wonderful and sensitive person.


There is also a track called “Egg Soup” by Steve Kretzmer from Rascal Reporters. Did he write it for you? I thought Steve Kretzmer had left music for good?

Dario: I included the opening theme from the fantastic Rascal Reporters album “Happy Accidents” on our first album. Then, I came in contact with Brian Donohoe (Volaré, Alpha Cop), who has taken over the huge Rascal Reporters tape archive in order to digitise and remaster it.

Brian put me in touch with Steve Kretzmer, who was amazed that someone had done a Rascal Reporters cover. I tried to convince Steve to play or make a song together, although he has not played for a long time. However, thanks to Brian, they had the brilliant idea to give me an unreleased 1977 piano piece, “Egg Soup”.

From what I know, Steve Kretzmer will return to write music.


What is Canterbury music to you?

Dario: For me, as for many others, it is music that quirkily and smartly blends electric jazz with the progressive rock and psychedelia: A quest into complex rhythms and delicious harmonies with a pataphysical and surreal attitude. Everything is so graceful and refined, both in the most violent raids of Egg and in the most ethereal Wyatt melodies.

You seem to have a strong affection for the nonsensical elements of that music. The absurdism as well as the humour shines through even though I do not understand a word of Italian.

Dario: The absurdity attracts me, and I am attracted to music that explores the unknown. I am fascinated by eccentric literary authors such as Rabelais, Sterne, Kafka and Jarry; and I love Dadaism and Surrealism. However I would not call my lyrics “nonsense” – it is more appropriate to think of them as symbolic texts.

I try to give a musicality to the words. If the humour comes out even for a not Italian listener, this pleases me!

Top: Daniele Crisci, Mauro Turdo, Davide Di Giovanni Bottom: Daniele Di Giovanni, Dario D’Alessandro

 

Many of your songs are extremely short…

Dario: Many things can happen within a short space of time – and we tend to get bored when repeating or stretching phrases or riffs. This may stem from our love for beautiful “pop” songs, and we hope it is also stimulating for the curious listener


Your new album also contains the 18-minute track “Ospedale Civico” that seems to reference National Health. Why keep some things together and divide others up?

Dario: My way of composing is similar to the method of a writer of short stories. “Ospedale Civico” is connected by various internal references, recurring themes and self-citations, in a coherent continuum and self-sufficient form. The song is definitely a reference to National Health; it is a hallucinatory journey inside a public hospital, treated as in a J.G. Ballard story. Full of disjointed phrases uttered by patients, the general feeling is grotesque and restless but, because of that, it is tragicomic as in the Italian cinema tradition.

I also involved Wyatt Moss-Wellington, who sang some magnificent choruses. He was making a beautiful, long piece entitled “Sanitary Apocalypse” during the same period; an enjoyable coincidence, so it was perfect for the cause.


Is there any collaboration on the writing or on arrangements?

Dario: I write almost everything and propose it to the group.  I have not studied music so I do not write a score, even if I try to translate the music to midi files. The songs originate on guitar or keyboard or, in the case where I need to understand things concomitantly, they are born on a computer.

We then try to find the best arrangement together, and witnessing a song take shape with the band is the thing I enjoy the most. On some parts I’m inflexible (some chords, a sequence of notes, or a precise rhythm), while for other things I leave it the group to decide all together.

On each record, there are also one or two songs written by keyboardist Davide.


I saw a live concert recording of you online. Is it very difficult to play your music live?

Dario: Some songs are not very easy to play. There are so many things to remember and many steps are very tight. Maybe we mostly love the studio atmosphere; we work on the arrangements and we have fun during recordings and postproduction.

In any case we do rehearse frequently and our few concerts are appreciated even by those who don’t know us.

 

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Music Is My Only Friend – 2015 in Review

SDC14875

First off, I feel the need to apologize to my readers for the string of rather depressing titles given to my “Year in Review” posts. No matter how optimistic I try to be at the beginning of a new year, life always finds a way to disappoint my expectations. 2015, though, was special – for all the wrong reasons. Even now that things are going somewhat better (though far from ideal), I still occasionally feel the urge to withdraw from everyone – hence the not exactly uplifting title of this piece.

This sorry state of affairs obviously impacted my inspiration as regards writing reviews and the like. My blog was neglected for most of the year, with only 9 posts in 12 months, and the few label owners who regularly sent me their material took me off their mailing lists – which contributed to my feelings of isolation, even if I cannot blame them for that. Music remained nevertheless a constant source of comfort, thanks to the ready availability of new (and not so new) material on streaming services such as Progstreaming and Bandcamp. This allowed me to listen to most of the albums I was interested in, and keep in touch with a scene that I have been steadily supporting for the past few years. Some days I had to force myself to listen, but thankfully things got easier with time.

Although full-length reviews were thin on the ground, I kept up my collaboration with Andy Read’s excellent weekly feature Something for the Weekend?, as well as my activity as a member of the RIO/Avant/Zeuhl genre team (also known as ZART) at my “alma mater”, ProgArchives. In the second half of the year i was able to resume writing longer reviews, not only for my blog, but also for DPRP – though not yet on a regular basis. On the other hand, our concert attendance hit an all-time low. To be fair, ProgDay 2015’s extremely high level of quality more than made up for the many other gigs that we ended up missing. The only other show we attended was The Muffins’ one-off performance at the Orion Studios in mid-May, which unfortunately I was unable to enjoy as much as it would have deserved.

As usual, the amount of new music released in 2015 under the ever-expanding “prog” umbrella was staggering, and required a rather selective approach. The year just ended further proved that the scene is splintering in a way that, while it may help people more effectively to find music that appeals to their tastes, may also in the long run cause harm – especially as regards the live scene. Festivals in the US have further shrunk in number, with the cancellation (and apparent demise) of the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend leaving only ROSfest and ProgDay still standing. Europe seems to be faring somewhat better (though one has to wonder how long this will last), and festivals appealing to a broad range of tastes within the prog spectrum continue to be reasonably well-attended.

On a positive note, websites dedicated to prog are going strong, as is the rather controversial Prog magazine (whose fan I am definitely not). It remains to be seen if what has always been a niche market (even in the Seventies, when bands that enjoyed commercial success were just the tip of a very large iceberg) will be able to keep up with such a vast output in the following years. In some ways, as I also observed in last year’s post, going underground has freed progressive rock from the constraints of appealing to market tastes, but (in my view at least) the opportunity for almost everyone to produce an album and put it on Bandcamp or Soundcloud poses a lot of questions as regards quality control.

Some of my readers will undoubtedly notice the absence of some of the year’s higher-profile releases. As I did last year, I decided to avoid mentioning albums I had found disappointing or just plain uninteresting, as well as those I have not yet managed to hear. A lot of other people have mentioned those albums in their own Year in Review pieces, and I think there is no use in pointing out the negative instead of concentrating on the positive. Compared with some of the previous years, 2015 started out in rather low-key fashion, with many highly anticipated releases concentrated in its second half. On the other hand, the first part of the year brought albums that are very well worth checking out, though they may never enjoy the status of other discs. It was also a year that, while prodigal with very good releases, mostly lacked genuine masterpieces. On the whole, I feel I have just scratched the surface, as perusing the myriad of Best of 2015 lists published on the web constantly reveals some album I have not heard of before.

As I mentioned in last year’s post, my tastes have been steadily moving away from “standard” prog, though a few albums that qualify as such have been included here. In fact, my personal #1 album of the year was released by a band that first got together in the late Seventies, and is probably closer to “conventional” prog than people would expect from me. However, Hands’ masterful Caviar Bobsled is a unique album that does not really sound like anything else, definitely fresher and more modern than a lot of highly praised albums by artists who have been active for a much shorter time.

Having promoted US prog for a while now, I am glad to report that the American scene produced some fine specimens over the past few months – with the NY/NJ region being again very much in evidence. Brilliant releases from The Tea Club (Grappling), 3RDegree (Ones & Zeros Vol. 1) and Advent (Silent Sentinel) highlighted the work of bands that have reached full maturity in terms of musicianship and compositional flair. To this outstanding trio I would also add Echolyn’s I Heard You Listening (more of a slow grower than their career-defining 2012 album) IZZ’s stylish Everlasting Instant, as well as a couple of well-crafted albums with a more traditional bent, both recommended to keyboard lovers – Kinetic Element’s sophomore effort, Travelog, and Theo’s debut, the dystopian concept The Game of Ouroboros.

All of the above-mentioned albums offer plenty of sophisticated music with great melodic potential, standing at the crossroads between tradition and modernity. The contemporary US scene, however, is also rife with cutting-edge artists that constantly challenge the perceptions of their intended audience. Works such as Upsilon Acrux’s highly charged Sun Square Dialect, the hypnotic math-rock of BattlesLa Di Da Di, Stern’s gloomily haunting Bone Turquoise, The Nerve Institute’s idiosyncratic Fictions (containing previously unreleased material), Ben Levin Group’s “pronk” opus Freak Machine (featuring most members of Bent Knee), Jack O’The Clock’s Outsider Songs (a collection of quirky covers), and Andrew Moore Chamber Works’ intriguing debut Indianapolis (steel drums meet chamber rock) proved the vitality of the US avant-garde scene. Thinking Plague (whose new album is expected in 2016), reissued their seminal debut, In This Life, while two albums involving previous or current members of the band – Ligeia Mare’s Amplifier and +1’s Future Perfect (the latter one of the many projects of keyboardist/composer Kimara Sajn) – helped to make the wait more bearable. Another fine Avant-related album (though in a more song-based vein), Omicron, came from former Alec K Redfearn and the Eyesore’s vocalist, Orion Rigel Dommisse.

New, highly eclectic releases by “jazzgrass proggers” Galactic Cowboy Orchestra (Earth Lift) and Yes-meets-country trio Dreadnaught (the EP Gettin’ Tight With Dreadnaught), Marbin’s fiery Aggressive Hippies, Djam Karet’s supremely trippy Swamp of Dreams, Fernwood’s delightful acoustic confection Arcadia, Mammatus’s monumental stoner-prog opus Sparkling Waters, and ethereal chamber-folk duo Fields Burning’s eponymous debut also illustrated the versatility  of a scene that is all too often associated with heavily AOR-tinged music.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the British scene has been experiencing a renaissance in terms of creative modern progressive rock. Top of the heap, and definitely one of the best 2015 releases as far as I am concerned, were two Cardiacs-related albums: William D. Drake’s superb Revere Reach, one of those rare discs that are impossible to label, as well as being a delight from start to finish, and Guapo’s hypnotic, surging Obscure Knowledge. Thieves’ Kitchen’s stately, poignant The Clockwork Universe, with its original take on “classic” prog modes, completed my personal trinity of top 2015 British releases.

The runners-up, however, are all quite deserving of attention from discerning prog fans. Richard Wileman’s über-eclectic Karda Estra regaled its followers with a whopping three releases – the full-length Strange Relations (recorded with the involvement of The Muffins’ drummer extraordinaire Paul Sears), and the EPs The Seas and the Stars and Future Sounds (the latter also featuring Sears). Guitarist Matt Stevens’ The Fierce and the Dead made a comeback with the intense EP Magnet, and A Formal Horse’s second EP, Morning Jigsaw, provided a British answer to Bent Knee and MoeTar. John Bassett (of Kingbathmat fame) produced an exciting follow-up (simply titled II) to the 2014 debut of his instrumental, stoner-prog solo project, Arcade Messiah; in a similar vein, the cinematic psych/space of Teeth of the Sea’s Highly Deadly Black Tarantula. To further prove that the modern British prog is definitely not steeped in nostalgia, Colin Robinson’s Jumble Hole Clough brought us more of his quirky, electronics-infused antics with A List of Things That Never Happened, and Firefly Burning a heady dose of drone-folk with their latest effort, Skeleton Hill.

Plenty of great music also came out of continental Europe. From Scandinavia, one of the year’s most eagerly anticipated albums – Anekdoten’s Until All the Ghosts Are Gone – delivered amply in the quality stakes, as did the scintillating electro-jazz of Jaga Jazzist’s Starfire, Pixel’s warmer, more organic Golden Years, the rambling, keyboard-based jazz-rock of Hooffoot’s debut, Agusa’s space-rock workout Två, the quirky Avant-Prog of Simon Steensland’s A Farewell to Brains, Necromonkey’s all-electronic extravaganza Show Me Where It Hertz, and another long-overdue comeback – Dungen’s sunny Allas Sak – as well as guitarist Samuel Hällkvist’s highly original effort Variety of Live, recorded with an international cast including Pat Mastelotto and Richard Barbieri. Dungen’s guitarist, Reine Fiske, also appeared on elephant9’s highly praised Silver Mountain – the only album mentioned here that I have not yet managed to hear. Heading east, the intriguing, though not widely known, Russian scene produced the haunting psychedelic rock blended with shamanistic chanting of Ole Lukkoye’s Dyatly, The Grand Astoria’s ambitious crossover The Mighty Few, and the lush symphonic-Avant of Roz VitalisLavoro d’Amore.

The thriving French scene presented Avant fans with Unit Wail’s psyche-Zeuhl opus Beyond Space Edge, Ni’s electrifying Les Insurgés de Romilly, Ghost Rhythms’ elegant Madeleine, and Alco Frisbass’ Canterbury-inspired debut. Switzerland, on the other hand, seems to have become a hotbed for all forms of “post-jazz”, with two outstanding Cuneiform releases – Schnellertollermeier’s exhilarating X, and Sonar’s more understated Black Light – as well as IkarusEcho and Plaistow’s Titan. Germany brought the omnivorous jazz-metal of Panzerballett’s Breaking Brain, and Belgium Quantum Fantay’s pulsating space trip Dancing in Limbo. From the more southern climes of Greece and Spain came Ciccada’s lovely, pastoral sophomore effort, The Finest of Miracles, the intriguing Mediterranean math rock of El Tubo Elástico’s eponymous debut, and Ángel Ontalva’s sublime, Oriental-tinged Tierra Quemada.

Italy, as usual, did its part, turning out a panoply of albums of consistently high quality. Fans of the classic RPI sound found a lot to appreciate in La Coscienza di Zeno’s third effort, La Notte Anche di Giorno, Ubi Maior’s ambitious Incanti Bio-Meccanici, and also the harder-edged Babylon by VIII Strada. Not A Good Sign’s comeback, From A Distance, combined Italian melodic flair and Crimsonesque angularity, while Pensiero Nomade’s Da Nessun Luogo introduced haunting female vocals into jazzy/ambient textures. The very title of Slivovitz’s All You Can Eat illustrated the boisterous eclecticism of the Naples-based outfit, and feat.Esserelà’s classy debut Tuorl was a welcome addition to the ranks of modern jazz-rock.

2015 was a great year for fans of the Canterbury sound, witnessing the release of the third installment of the Romantic Warriors documentary series (aptly titled Canterbury Tales) just a few months after the passing of Daevid Allen, one of the scene’s most iconic figures. Moreover, two outstanding Canterbury-related albums came from two vastly different parts of the world: Blue Dogs, the debut by Manna/Mirage, The Muffins’ Dave Newhouse’s new project, and Sicilian outfit Homunculus Res’ brilliant second album, Come Si Diventa Ciò Che Si Era (with Newhouse guesting on the epic “Ospedale Civico”). The latter is one of the finest 2015 releases from my native Italy, a distinction shared with the supremely elegant chamber-rock of Breznev Fun Club’s second album, Il Misantropo Felice (both albums were released on the ever-reliable AltrOck Productions label), and with OTEME’s beautiful comeback, L’Agguato. L’Abbandono. Il Movimento.

AltrOck (whose 2016 schedule looks mouthwatering, to say the least) is also responsible for two of the year’s most distinctive albums: the ultra-eclectic, vocal-based Everyday Mythology by Loomings, a French-Italian ensemble put together by Yugen’s Jacopo Costa, and multinational quintet Rêve Général’s stunning debut Howl (the latest endeavour by former Etron Fou Leloublan drummer Guigou Chenevier). Another debut related to the original RIO scene came with Logos, by English-based quartet The Artaud Beats, featuring drummer Chris Cutler and bassist John Greaves; while Stepmother’s wacky, Zappaesque Calvary Greetings spotlights another multinational outfit, which includes legendary drummer Dave Kerman.

Though in 2015 the latest incarnation of King Crimson released Live at the Orpheum (recorded in LA during their 2014 US tour), there seems to be hardly any new material in sight from the legendary band. Luckily, last year brought a few KC-related albums that are well worth exploring – especially for those who favour the band’s harder-edged output: namely, Pat Mastelotto’s new trio KoMaRa’s dark, gritty self-titled debut (with disturbing artwork by Tool’s Adam Jones), Chicago-based math-rock trio Pavlov3 (featuring Markus Reuter) with Curvature-Induced Symmetry…Breaking, and Trey Gunn’s haunting, ambient-tinged The Waters, They Are Rising.

Other, less widely exposed countries also yielded a wealth of interesting music during the past year. Out of Chile (one of the most vital modern prog scenes) came the good-time Avant-Prog of Akinetón Retard’s Azufre; while, on the other side of the Pacific, Indonesia continues to produce high-quality music, brought to light by Moonjune Records’ irrepressible Leonardo Pavkovic. Guitar hero Dewa Budjana’s Hasta Karma and Joged Kahyangan , and keyboardist Dwiki Dharmawan’s So Far, So Close showcase the unique fusion of Western jazz-rock and the island nation’s rich musical heritage.

No 2015 retrospective would be complete without a mention of the many losses sustained by the music world during the past year. The passing of legendary Yes bassist and founder Chris Squire was undoubtedly a traumatic event for prog fans, while the demise of heavy rock icon (and former Hawkwind member) Lemmy a few days before the end of the year was mourned by the rock community at large. Though, of course, the heroes of the Seventies are not getting any younger, neither of these seminal figures was old for today’s standards – unlike jazz trumpeter Ornette Coleman and bluesman B.B. King, who had both reached respectable ages.

As I stated at the beginning of this post, most of the music I have recommended would not qualify as “real prog” for many listeners. It does, however, reflect the direction my tastes have taken in the past few years, and I hope it will lead to new discoveries. Whenever possible, I have provided links to the artists’ Bandcamp pages, where my readers will be able to stream the albums (and hopefully also buy them). For the vast majority of the artists mentioned in this article, music is a labour of love rather than a day job. Though progressive music is alive and well in the second decade of the third millennium, and 2016 already looks very promising in terms of new releases, the scene – now more than ever – needs to be supported if we really want it to survive.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Canterbury Bells (4:50)
2. Duke Street (4:47)
3. Muffin Man Redux (7:23)
4. Lost in a Photograph (4:21)
5. Blind Eye (4:56)
6. Shwang Time (4:58)
7. Rovian Cue (4:10)

LINEUP:
Dave Newhouse – keyboards, woodwinds, drums
Billy Swann – bass
Paul Sears – drums
Mark Stanley – guitar
George Newhouse – drums
Steve Pastena – French horn

As wonderfully illustrated by Adele Schmidt and Jose Zegarra Holder’s superb documentary Romantic Warriors III – Canterbury Tales, the Canterbury scene expanded well beyond the borders of Great Britain, spawning a number of excellent bands in other countries. One of those outfits was The Muffins, a four-piece with an idiosyncratic configuration (drums, bass and double woodwinds) originally established in 1973 in the Maryland/Washington DC area, and reformed in the late Nineties after a lengthy hiatus. Though drummer Paul Sears’ move to Arizona in 2010 has curtailed the band’s live appearances, their recording activity has not ground to a halt, with two albums released in the past five years. The band members have also been contributing to several interesting projects in the field of progressive music.

Named after The Muffins’ 1978 debut album – one of the essential Canterbury-related releases – Manna/Mirage is the newest project by founding member Dave Newhouse (one of the band’s two woodwind players). Not surprisingly, fellow Muffins Billy Swann and Paul Sears are also on board, as well as Newhouse’s son George, guitarist Mark Stanley (of Chainsaw Jazz and Thee Maximalists), and newest recruit, Steve Pastena, on French horn. The ensemble’s debut, released in the autumn of 2015, bears the title of Blue Dogs – a title inspired by a painting by artist and RIO/Canterbury fan Gonzalo Fuentes Riquelme (aka Guerrilla Graphics), which graces the CD cover. The album was mixed and produced by none other than Mike Potter of Orion Studios – probably the most important venue for progressive music in the US, and the setting of The Muffins’ most recent performance to date, in May 2015.

As related in detail on Manna/Mirage’s website, Blue Dogs was originally meant as half of a big- band album by The Muffins. Clocking in at a mere 35 minutes, the album is such a rewarding listen that it almost feels like the appetizer before a full meal – jam-packed with buoyant horns and woodwinds, energetic yet stylish drumming, multilayered keyboards and keen-edged guitar. While the imprint of Newhouse’s mother band is clearly stamped all over it, Blue Dogs goes one step further, bearing witness to the artist’s love of classic jazz, as well as the Canterbury sound’s trademark blend of elegance and whimsy.

In the aptly-titled opening track “Canterbury Bells”, the titular bells are provided by a gently lilting glockenspiel, while Newhouse’s jaunty keyboards and woodwinds flesh out the sound. Dedicated to Duke Ellington (whose recorded voice can be heard at the end), the jazzy “Duke Street” starts out in an upbeat mood, then turns sparser and looser, the instruments’ staggered interplay of the especially riveting. Newhouse’s expressive woodwinds take centre stage in the exhilarating “Shwang Time”, where the big-band origin of the music is clearly on display. In contrast, “Lost in a Photograph” (whose title hints at nostalgia for things past) provides a foil for the album’s more dynamic compositions, with its stately, almost melancholy mood, while closing track “Rovian Cue” starts out brightly, and then mellows out, the piano and the woodwinds complementing each other.

That leaves Blue Dogs’ two most distinctive tracks, which increase the interest value of an already outstanding album. At over 7 minutes, “Muffin Man Redux” is propelled by Paul Sears’ pyrotechnic drumming, while leisurely bass and guitar mesh together to complement the spirited call of the saxes. A citation of the gospel classic “When the Saints Go Marching In” leads the way to a fuzzed-organ passage in true Steward-Ratledge style, followed by an amusing rendition of the nursery rhyme that lends its title to the song. On the other hand, after a slow, sedate beginning, “Blind Eye” veers into Avant/Zeuhl territory, with its many tempo changes, meandering guitar and blaring saxes.

Although Blue Dogs is obviously a must-listen for any self-respecting fan of the Canterbury scene, the album will provide 35 minutes of bliss to everyone who loves great music. Newhouse’s love of his craft and his knowledge of different genres are all brought to bear in what is definitely one of the top releases of 2015 – though, unfortunately, not one that will have received as much exposure as other (and, in my view, inferior) albums. I hope this review will in some way redress the situation, or at least create some curiosity. Those who appreciate the album will be glad to know that Manna/Mirage’s follow-up effort has already been composed and halfway recorded, and will see the light in 2017. In the meantime, what about some live shows?

Links:
http://www.mannamirage.com

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A documentary film by José Zegarra Holder and Adele Schmidt
Produced by Zeitgeist Media LLC
Total time: 118 minutes

Located in Kent, the south-eastern county nicknamed “Garden of England” for its bucolic beauty, Canterbury is a city of barely over 50,000 people, dominated (not just in a physical sense) by the sprawling mass of its stunning Gothic cathedral. For all its rich history, it is easy to imagine how stifling such a place might have felt to its younger denizens in the late Sixties. Its very Englishness, in some ways, explains many of the distinctive features of the musical movement that originated there in those heady years.

Even within a quintessentially niche context such as progressive rock, the Canterbury scene has acquired a cult status that transcends its unassuming beginnings. With often mind-boggling connections and ramifications that would make the task of drawing a family tree rather daunting, this “movement” – born, in a polite, understated English way, from the early musical pursuits of a handful of middle-class teenagers – became extremely influential, though never achieving any of the commercial success that was awarded (albeit briefly) to some of the original prog bands.

Well over two years in the making, and nearly two hours long, the third chapter in Adele Schmidt and José Zegarra Holder’s Romantic Warriors saga is at the same time similar and different from its predecessors. Though by far the most technically polished of the three documentaries – its pristine photography providing a perfect foil to the grainy footage from the Seventies – it is also the one with the strongest emotional impact. Meticulously researched, yet somewhat hampered by the unwillingness of some of the key protagonists of the scene to release material, or even just show up, the film occasionally feels like a story told from a third-person point of view. This, however, proves to be a strength rather than a weakness, lending an almost mythical quality to the narration.

In spite of some glaring defections, many of the exponents of the early Canterbury scene agreed to contribute to the film, providing their unique insights on the birth and development of the movement. Their contributions are supported by those of three modern-day experts: Aymeric Leroy, who maintains the most complete and informative website on the Canterbury scene; Bruce Gallanter of Downtown Music Gallery, one of New York City’s few surviving independent music stores; and Leonardo Pavkovic, head of Moonjune Records.

The story unfolds in chronological order, its very dense content sometimes hard to follow even for those who are familiar with the ins and outs of the scene – lively and colourful, yet tinged with an inescapable feeling of sadness. Because of the unavailability of a lot of the material recorded in those years, the music often takes a back seat: in fact, Canterbury Tales is the first film in the series to have a score written expressly by an outsider to the movement itself – the very talented, Maryland-based multi-instrumentalist/composer Dan Britton, who appeared in the first Romantic Warriors. On account of this and other factors, the film’s focus on people rather than music comes across even more strongly than in the previous two episodes of this “progressive music saga”.

If I had to sum up Canterbury Tales in few words, I would say that it is, first and foremost, about absence and loss. The story of Soft Machine – probably the best-known and most influential of the Canterbury acts – is mostly told by people who (with the sole exception of Daevid Allen) were not involved in the original incarnation of the band, though the availability of plentiful footage makes the extremely intricate tale come alive. Some of the protagonists of the scene seem to view their connection to Canterbury more like an embarrassment than a badge of honour: iconic keyboardist Dave Stewart’s image is hard to discern even in photo stills, while Robert Wyatt’s 1995 interview makes it quite clear that he is not interested in revisiting the past (“I am not a museum”).

In most other cases, however, the absence is a direct consequence of death: in fact, over the years the Canterbury scene has lost a larger share of its protagonists than other prog subgenres. The slight, pixie-like figure of Daevid Allen – with his lined face and uncannily young eyes and smile – weaves in and out of the narration, his untimely passing (occurred while the film was in post-production) reinforcing its melancholy, elegiac mood. In the whirlwind of images, the headline of Charlie Hebdo – the French satirical magazine that gained notoriety after the tragic events of a few months ago – flashes by a couple of times, perhaps easily missed, but adding to the pervasive sense of loss.

On the other hand, Canterbury’s trademark sense of humour and whimsy – a blend of quintessentially English nonsense, slightly risqué puns and highbrow suggestions – is suitably emphasized, in stark contrast with the stereotyped idea of progressive rock as an overly serious genre. Those characteristics are embodied by some of the musicians who appear in the film: Richard Sinclair’s gently eccentric, almost luminous presence, Mont Campbell’s charismatic allure and self-deprecating wit, Daevid Allen’s endearing quirkiness stand out, while others come across as more serious, but as a whole all the original protagonists give the impression of being content with their life, and still very much involved in artistic creation.

One of the most appealing features of Canterbury Tales lies in its “travelogue” aspect, apparently at odds with the narrow geographical focus of the original scene. Alongside Canterbury Cathedral’s majestic towers and pinnacles, the immaculately beautiful images of different locales – London’s Tower Bridge by night, Paris’ stately boulevards, the silver-grey North Sea shore, the peaceful greenery of the Apulian countryside, the bustling streets of Barcelona, the bright lights of the theatre district in Kyoto – illustrate the wide-ranging sweep of a movement that over the years managed to spread its influence well beyond the borders of its humble beginnings. Accordingly, the activity of non-English Canterbury bands such as Moving Gelatine Plates, The Muffins and Supersister is given ample recognition.

While watching Canterbury Tales, it is often hard not to feel that – unlike the first two chapters of the saga – the film’s main focus is on the past rather than the present. Daevid Allen’s enthusiastic endorsement of Gong’s newest member, maverick guitarist/composer Kavus Torabi, contrasts with the film’s final shot of David Sinclair’s deeply moving interpretation of his own signature piece, “Nine Feet Underground”, while the camera lingers over hands that, in spite of the evident marks of age, are as nimble as ever over the keys. Even if enough space is granted to those modern bands and artists who have picked up the baton (Forgas Band Phenomena, Planeta Imaginario, The Wrong Object and Syd Arthur), it is not enough to dispel the looming presence of the past, and the underlying poignancy so superbly conveyed by the opening and closing shots of Allen’s solitary figure on the sea shore. The dedication of the film to Zegarra’s mother and all the musicians who have passed away compounds the impression that Canterbury Tales is, in many ways, an epitaph.

Even if someone may find its relative lack of original music disappointing, Canterbury Tales is a beautiful, deeply touching (though not depressing) piece of filmmaking, a warm-hearted tribute to those protagonists of the scene who are no longer with us. While the film’s subdued mood reflects the impermanence of things, the lasting legacy of the music created by that handful of young people from a provincial corner of England is given its due, and the unavoidable sadness implied in Daevid Allen’s fateful parting words is somewhat mitigated. Highly recommended to every self-respecting progressive rock fan, Canterbury Tales is also an encouragement to delve deep into the treasure trove of this highly idiosyncratic subgenre’s rich output.

Links:
http://www.progdocs.com/Progdocs.com/Home.html
http://calyx.perso.neuf.fr/index.html
http://www.moonjune.com
http://www.downtownmusicgallery.com/Main/index.htm

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candle

While searching for a suitable title for my customary “year in review” essay, I thought of something that would convey the general mood of my 2014 while emphasizing the role that music had in helping me out of a bout of potentially severe depression. This is how I came out with this title (shared by a song from Rainbow’s iconic Rising album) and the image that goes with it. The first six months of the year were spent in a sort of daze, in which I tried to keep up with listening and reviewing new music, but was increasingly consumed by a job assignment that ultimately got me burned out. Over the summer months I gradually withdrew from social life, and lost most of my interest in music – to the point that, when ProgDay was approaching, I almost decided to bail out and stay home. The low number of posts on my blog bears witness to this sorry state of affairs – which was thankfully brought to an end by a very enjoyable ProgDay experience. Music, as usual, did help me out of a black hole, and so did the friendships I have made over the years thanks to this lifelong passion of mine.

After such an introduction, it will not come as a surprise that many of this year’s highly regarded albums escaped my attention, and even those I did manage to hear did not impress as much as they would have in a different situation. This 2014 overview may therefore contain some glaring omissions, for which I apologize. Keeping track of the staggering number of new releases in the progressive realm is difficult under normal circumstances, and even harder when real life gets in the way.

Although my full-length reviews have become a much rarer item, since February 2014 I have been regularly providing recommendations for an excellent new feature (the brainchild of DPRP longtime collaborator and editor Andy Read) by the name of Something for the Weekend?. Dedicated exclusively to progressive music available for free streaming on invaluable resources such as Progstreaming or Bandcamp, this weekly feature has allowed me to promote the work of many outstanding artists – as well as exploring a lot of exciting new music that might have otherwise flown under the radar. Going back to ProgArchives, the thriving website where I started my career as a reviewer back in 2005 (and also met my husband), after a four-year absence has also been very beneficial in terms of discovering new music and cultivating fulfilling relationships.

The past year saw my personal tastes shift even further away from traditional prog, and wholeheartedly embrace the new incarnations of the genre. While this does not mean I have stopped enjoying classic prog, I recognize that, in the second decade of the 21st century, the genre needs to look forward rather than backward if it is to survive. Speaking of which, having resolutely moved underground is probably the best thing to happen to progressive rock in the past few years. In spite of the many difficulties they face, many progressive artists now produce music to please themselves first and foremost. Without having to obey the constraints of the “market”, artistic creativity can be given free rein, so that we can expect the next few years to be generous with high-quality releases.

My personal “best of 2014” spans different subgenres of prog, with a pronounced emphasis on the eclectic and experimental side of things. Though often labeled as RIO/Avant, my album of the year – Ut Gret’s marvelous Ancestor’s Tale – is the best Canterbury album to be released in a long while (though the band hail from Louisville, Kentucky), and introduced the prog audience to the stunning vocal talents of songstress Cheyenne Mize. Incidentally, another two of my favourite 2014 albums came from bands that have occasionally been associated with the Canterbury sound – though. Like Ut Gret, neither hails from that part of the world. Moraine’s  Groundswell, is their most mature work to date, showcasing the Seattle quintet’s unique brand of ethnic-tinged, contemporary jazz-rock. On the other hand Italian quartet Accordo dei Contrari’s comeback album, AdC , saw them explore heavier territories, though retaining the exquisite sense of melody that distinguishes Giovanni Parmeggiani’s compositional style.

As a whole, 2014 was an uncommonly good year for eclectic releases that avoided the “old wine in new bottles” syndrome. Knifeworld’s sophomore release, The Unraveling, spearheaded this highly individual approach to the creation of progressive rock. Also appearing on Gong’s latest effort, I See You, Knifeworld mainman Kavus Torabi seems poised to replace Steven Wilson as the busiest man in prog, though with a much more genuinely innovative attitude. Torabi’s longtime collaborator and bandmate Emmett Elvin’s Bloody Marvels was true to its title, delivering a series of deeply cinematic, atmospheric pieces mostly performed on acoustic instruments, released on independent British label Bad Elephant Music – which in 2014 distinguished itself as one of the foremost purveyors of interesting progressive fare. Together with Elvin’s album, guitarist Matt Stevens’ Lucid and Trojan Horse’s “pronk” assault World Upside Down proved that the British isles have got more to offer than endless variations on the neo-prog gospel. As for Sound Mirror, the highly touted second album by “new Canterburians” Syd Arthur (their first for the revamped Harvest label), I only managed to get hold of it when I had already started writing this piece: my initial impression is positive, though the album is definitely in a more mainstream vein.

One of the biggest surprises of the year, mentioned as a favourite by many prog fans, came from Norwegian outfit Seven Impale: their furiously sax-driven, full-length debut, City of the Sun, combines echoes of King Crimson and Van Der Graaf Generator with an endearingly zany sense of humour. Fellow Norwegians Major Parkinson’s “cabaret rock” opus Twilight Cinema also drew a lot of rave reviews, as did Swedes Pingvinorkestern’s heady melting pot Push. Spain’s ebullient Cheeto’s Magazine offered more Zappaesque, genre-bending goodness with their debut, Boiling Fowls, while French outfit PoiL’s Brossaklitt went beyond Magma and their offspring, with lyrics in an invented language set to an explosive mixture of punk, jazz and RIO/Avant. From the eastern reaches of Europe, Russian quartet Uphill Work’s third album, Missing Opportunities, struck a fine balance between the traditional song form and eccentric avant-garde.

The sprawling US scene achieved its fair share of cliché-busting releases, such as Atomic Ape’s frenetic debut, Swarm (introducing a revamped lineup of Orange Tulip Conspiracy), or Jack O’The Clock’s mysterious Night Loops, a rather different album from last year’s folksy All My Friends. Bent Knee’s Shiny-Eyed Babies reinterprets art rock in thoroughly modern fashion -occasionally reminiscent of their fellow Bostonians Schooltree, though in a darker, more experimental vein. The Pacific Northwest scene produced the melancholy folk-prog of The Autumn Electric’s Flowers for Ambrosia (featuring Phideaux’s keyboardist Johnny Unicorn) as well as the furious “pronk” of Alex’s Hand’s The Roaches and Badwater Fire Company’s eponymous debut, the elegant eclecticism of The Mercury Tree’s Countenance, and the experimental jazz-rock of Fang Chia’s Where Would You That We Gather?. From New York City came the dirty funk of Tauk’s Collisions and the Zappa-inflected jazz-rock of Trout Cake’s EP Ultrasounds (recommended to fans of Frogg Café). Somewhat more appealing to prog traditionalists, Resistor’s To the Stars blends a lot of diverse influences (think Kansas, Iron Maiden and Jethro Tull jamming together with a very 21st-century attitude) for one of the year’s most intriguing “crossover” offerings, while Dream the Electric Sleep’s powerful second album Heretics treads in grunge/alternative territory. Minneapolis quartet  Galactic Cowboy Orchestra also released a new album, Zombie Mouth, and at the end of August wowed the ProgDay crowd with their sparkling brand of “jazzgrass art-rock”.

Instrumental progressive rock in its many forms continues to be a source of interest and delight. After 2013’s psychedelic opus, The Trip, Djam Karet celebrated their 30th anniversary with the über-laid-back Regenerator 3017, while their label Firepool Records brought to the prog audience’s attention the riveting self-titled debut by Spoke of Shadows, the latest project by Warr guitar wizard Mark Cook (of Herd of Instinct fame) in collaboration with renowned session drummer Bill Bachman. One of the year’s undisputed highlights, however, came once again from the cold climes of Sweden, with Necromonkey’s mesmerizing second album, A Glimpse of Possible Endings – complemented later in the year by a career-defining appearance at ProgDay.

Alongside Moraine’s pristine album, the ever-reliable Moonjune Records provided at least another entry to my personal “best of 2014” list: Belgian songstress Susan Clynes’s delightful debut, Life Is… – a must-listen for fans of Kate Bush and Tori Amos, but also for lovers of contemporary jazz. Keeping up his efforts at promoting the Indonesian progressive jazz-rock scene, Leonardo Pavkovic also brought us the latest opuses from established guitar heroes Tohpati (Tribal Dance) and Dewa Budjana (Surya Namaskar), as well as rising star Tesla Manaf’s self-titled debut, and simakDialog’s Live at Orion (capturing a gig that I was lucky to attend). Another live album, The Third Set, came from Chicago whizz kids Marbin, one of the busiest bands on the planet; while the European scene gave us drummer Xavi Reija’s thunderous Resolution and the majestic modern jazz-rock tour de force of Machine Mass Trio’s Inti.

Milan-based label AltrOck Productions kept its unflagging tradition of delivering high-class material to sophisticated prog listeners looking for distinctive musical experiences: besides the already-mentioned Ut Gret, Accordo dei Contrari and PoiL, the re-release of Geranium by Russian folksy RIO/Avant outfit Vezhlivyi Otkaz, the jazz-rock-meets-space-rock craziness of Wrupk Urei’s Kõik Saab Korda, the almost impenetrable, yet fascinating Avant of Factor Burzaco’s 3, enhanced by Carolina Restuccia’s vertiginous vocals.

Indeed, 2014 was a great year for bands fronted by female vocalists. One of the most anticipated releases of the year was undoubtedly MoeTar’s scintillating Entropy of the Century, a quintessential modern art rock effort showcasing Moorea Dickason’s jaw-dropping vocal skills. Kate Bush fans certainly found a lot to love in Russian duo iamthemorning’s delicate, haunting Belighted. In a similar vein, the debut of Swedish band Nomads of Hope (including two former members of late Seventies band Kultivator), Breaking the Circles for a While, marries folk and medieval music with haunting trip-hop suggestions, while Finnish outfit Aalto’s Ikaro introduces elements of Tuvan throat singing and North Indian raga. Many accolades were also received by Homínido‘s debut Estirpe Litica, another highly eclectic effort featuring some former members of Chilean band La Desoorden.

Plenty of interesting new releases came both from newcomers and seasoned protagonists of the thriving Italian scene: among the many worth mentioning, Fabio Zuffanti’s somberly ambitious La quarta vittima, Alex Carpani Band’s modern symphonic 4 Destinies, FEM’s lush concept Sulla bolla di sapone, Nodo Gordiano’s intricate Nous, Agora’s lovely slice of acoustic jazz-rock Ichinen, Greenwall’s melodic yet whimsical Zappa Zippa Zuppa Zeppa, the space-tinged classic RPI of LogosL’enigma della vita, Tacita Intesa’s dramatic, self-titled debut. On the other hand, Lagartija’s Amore di vinile and Marco Machera’s Dime Novels explored the successful union of prog and singer-songwriter music, while Periplo’s debut, Diario di un malessere passeggero, offered an intriguing slice of stylish chamber rock. Sadly, the Italian prog scene suffered an irreparable loss in February, when legendary Banco vocalist Francesco Di Giacomo was killed in a car crash.

Even if I have grown away from classic symphonic prog, a few 2014 releases brought a breath of fresh air in a subgenre that can often sound stale. Kant Freud Kafka’s No Tengas Miedo brought to mind The Enid’s unique brand of majestic, classical-inspired prog, while Deluge Grander’s powerfully choral Heliotians – printed in only 205 hand-numbered, hand-painted LP copies –distilled the very essence of the modern DIY ethos. Those disappointed with Yes’ recent lackluster recording efforts found a lot of enjoyment in Heliopolis’ bright, feel-good debut, City of the Sun. Australia’s The Merlin Bird’s offered lovely female vocals and pastoral textures in their second album, Chapter and Verse, while Eccentric Orbit went for an all-out, ELP-style keyboard assault in Creation of the Humanoids.

2014 also brought some interesting solo projects, with the brilliant heavy fusion of Dean Watson’s Fantasizer!, the eclectic jazz-rock concept of Superfluous Motor’s Shipwrecked, the hauntingly intimist album by  Bodies Floating Ashore (aka Matt Lebofsky of miRthkon/MoeTar/Secret Chiefs 3 fame), and Simon McKechnie’s brainy, Crimsonian tour de force, Newton’s Alchemy.

Unfortunately, some of this year’s notable releases still remain unheard to this day: for instance, Univers Zéro’s Phosphorescent Dreams (released by an obscure Japanese label, and therefore very hard to find), Gong’s I See You, Secret Chiefs 3’s Ishraqiyun: Perichoresis, KaukasusI, and all of Cuneiform Records’ 2014 output. Other high-profile albums have been discussed in detail by most prog websites, but will not be mentioned here for a number of reasons. I have also refrained from mentioning albums I did not particularly enjoy, because I find negativity ultimately pointless, and also because quite a few fellow music writers have already published comprehensive “year in review” pieces covering many of the albums that have not found a place here.

No “year in review” piece would be complete without a mention of live performances. Even if my personal concert-going activity was very limited in comparison to previous years, 2014 was quite generous in terms of festivals and shows, with the continuing success of ROSfest, the return of Baja Prog (unfortunately suspended for 2015), the second editions of SeaProg and the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend (both confirmed for 2015), ProgDay’s 20th edition, and the Orion Studios‘ marvelous 20th anniversary celebration – as well as the welcome addition of A Day of Prog Art Rock Showcase, organized by the New England Art Rock Society(NewEARS) in the Boston metropolitan area, and Chicago’s two-day Progtoberfest.

My commitment to Something for the Weekend? provided the incentive to explore and actively look for new music to recommend to the feature’s steadily increasing number of readers (50,000 were reached a couple of weeks before the end of the year). What I jokingly call my “collection” of interesting new music bookmarks is also steadily growing. Bandcamp, in particular, is like an underground treasure trove that more and more artists are using to give exposure to their music, embracing a model that rules out any kind of financial gain, but thrives on positive feedback and direct communication with fans. Actively seeking out challenging new music, and making a point of listening to at least one album a day (preferably early in the morning, before I start getting ready to go to work) has become a pleasant routine that has helped me to keep in touch with the scene.

Since many of the albums mentioned in this essay are available for streaming, I hope this lengthy feature will encourage at least some of my readers to click on the hyperlinks and listen to those artists, and perhaps invest a few dollars (or any other currency) to buy a CD or two. As much as I enjoy the classics, I firmly believe that the future of progressive music lies with these people, whose dedication to music often means struggling with less than favourable circumstances, including the lack of support on the part of their intended audience. This essay is dedicated to them, with my most heartfelt thanks for the gift of music and its positive effect on my life.

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UtGretCoverProof1

TRACKLISTING:
1. Ancestors’ Tale (5:24)
2. The Departure (0:58)
3. Hopperknockity Tune (4:01)
4. Selves Unmade (5:56)
5. The Raw, the Cooked and the Overeasy (5:27)
6. An Elephant in Berlin (8:29)
7. Dinosaur on the Floor (3:51)
8. The Grotesque Pageantry of Fading Empires (9:17)
9. Zodiac (7:17)
10. Walk the Plank (7:37)

LINEUP:
Jackie Royce – bassoon, contra-bassoon, flute
Steve Roberts – piano, electric piano, organ, mellotron, marimba, vibraphone, samplers
Gary Pahler – drums, percussion
Steve Good – clarinet, bass clarinet
Joee Conroy – fretless bass, Chapman stick, electric guitar, acoustic 12-string guitar, electronics

With:
Cheyenne Mize – vocals, violin (1, 3, 4, 5, 7)
Sydney Simpson – double bass (6, 9, 10)
Gregory Acker – saxes, flutes, percussion, didgeridoo (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

In my years as a reviewer, it has rarely happened for an album to make such an impression that – barely halfway through my first listening – I felt inclined to claim that it was one of the best I had heard in a long time. Listening to the apparently endless series of releases filed under the ever-growing “progressive” umbrella tends to make one a bit jaded, so that even albums received enthusiastically rarely make it to the status of regular presences in a reviewer’s CD player. However, my very first exposure to Ut Gret’s latest effort, Ancestor’s Tale – their first release for AltrOck Productions – was one of those moments in which the sheer beauty of the sounds coming out of the speakers caught me by surprise, and elicited superlatives that I normally use very sparingly.

Founded in 1981 by multi-instrumentalist Joee Conroy, a native of Louisville (Kentucky) while living in California, Ut Gret went through different incarnations before Conroy moved back to Louisville and teamed up with former collaborator Steve Roberts (founder of Avant-Prog outfit French TV), where the band’s debut album, Time of the Grets, was released in 1990. The band is currently a five-piece, augmented by a number of guest artists, and all of its members have an impressive amount of experience in a wide-ranging array of musical genres.

With a distinctive handle combining the medieval name for the C (or Do) note with the name of a fictitious tribe of barbarian invaders, Ut Gret label their output as “pan-idiomatic music” – a definition borne out by the eclectic, often markedly experimental nature of their musical pursuits in the course of the past three decades, and which at the same time niftily dispenses with the often pesky “progressive” tag. Their variegated history is also reflected by their recordings, with a 3-CD archival box set of mostly experimental material (including a live performance of Terry Riley’s “In C”) titled Recent Fossils released in 2006, followed by Radical Symmetry in 2011.

While there is progressiveness aplenty on display on Ancestor’s Tale, the music is also surprisingly accessible: multilayered and eclectic, yet consistently melodic, it might well be tagged as “Canterbury by way of Louisville, KY.” The influence of the seminal movement is openly acknowledged in the mind-blowingly intricate but appealingly fluid “Hopperknockity Tune”, a tribute to Soft Machine bassist Hugh Hopper (though Conroy’s glissando guitar also nods to Gong’s Daevid Allen), but is quite evident on most of the album, not least in the quirky yet literate song titles. On the other hand, the band’s origins notwithstanding, there is very little, if anything, suggesting traditional American genres such as blues, country, or Kentucky’s own bluegrass; while the weird, improvisational duet between Gregory Acker’s sax and didgeridoo and Gary Pahler’s drums in “The Departure” provides almost the only instance of the “difficult” music generally identified with the Avant-Prog tag.

While featuring all the traditional rock staples (not to mention a mellotron), the rich instrumentation emphasizes the woodwinds, according a starring role to Steve Good’s clarinets and Jackie Royce’s bassoon and contra-bassoon (the undisputed protagonists of the dramatic, expressive “An Elephant in Berlin”, a piece strongly suggestive of late 19th century classical/chamber music). Both sets of instruments also come into their own in the three final tracks, which together form almost one half of the album’s 58-minute running time. Low-key moments and flares of intensity alternate in the 9-minute “The Grotesque Pageant of Dying Empires”, whose middle section also showcases some gorgeously atmospheric six-string action from Conroy. The mellotron-drenched “Zodiac” pays homage to Robert Fripp and early King Crimson, with hints of Maurice Ravel in the subtly tense build-up. while album closer “Walk the Plank” begins with a swaying, nostalgic waltz-like pace, then suddenly veers into Univers Zéro territory with a somber, riveting tone in which guitar, flute, vibraphone and eerie, bird-like effects interweave on a solemn mellotron backdrop.

Besides the effortless complexity of the instrumental parts, much of Ancestor’s Tale’s unique charm resides in Cheyenne Mize’s star turn on the four tracks with vocals. The Louisville-based, indie folk singer-songwriter’s sublime pipes will cause jaws to drop right from the opening of the title-track – her voice gliding smoothly and caressing the ear like warm honey, crystal-clear but with a haunting note of sensuality, and not a hint of the stilted theatrics so frequent in so many female prog singers. Never domineering, though not submissive, Mize’s voice blends with the instrumentation and sets the mood: whimsical yet somewhat pensive in the multifaceted “Selves Unmade”; sober and wistful in the stately “The Raw, The Cooked and The Overeasy”, where Royce’s puffing bassoon offers her a perfect foil; more upbeat in the title-track, though with a hint of torch-song flavour in the song’s second half; and, again, sedate and melancholy in the heavy, oddly cinematic “Dinosaur on the Floor”, which also features a spectacular contra-bassoon solo.

While my reviews always convey my own personal enjoyment of an album, I rarely wax lyrical as other writers are wont to do. Ancestor’s Tale, however, is one of the very few albums released in recent years that deserve to be called perfect. From the quirky, Oriental-inspired cover artwork (titled “Moby of the Orient”) and lavishly illustrated, detail-rich booklet to the astonishingly accomplished performances of all the musicians involved, the album is a joy from start to finish, and one of the most rewarding listening experiences I have had for quite a while. Moreover, it is one of those rare albums that, in spite of its complexity and sky-high technical quotient, can be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in great music – regardless of labels.

Links:
http://www.utgret.net/
https://www.facebook.com/UtGret
http://utgret1.bandcamp.com/

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