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Archive for the ‘Canterbury Scene’ Category

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Life Is (4:21)
2. A Good Man (3:49)
3. Childhood Dreams (6:31)
4. Les Larmes (9:36)
5. Tuesday Rain (5:08)
6. Ileana’s Song (3:37)
7. When You’re Dead (7:15)
8. Pigeon’s Intrusion (6:00)
9. Le Voyage (3:22)
10. Linear Blindness (4:12)
11. Butterflies (6:38)

LINEUP:
Susan Clynes – piano, vocals
Simon Lenski – cello (3, 4, 7, 8, 11)
Pierre Mottet – bass (2, 6)
Nico Chkifi – drums (2, 6)

Belgian singer/pianist/composer Susan Clynes first came to the attention of the progressive rock audience for her stunning vocal performance on the song “Glass Cubes” (written by her husband, keyboardist Antoine Guenet, also a member of Univers Zéro and Sh.t.gn) on The Wrong Object’s critically acclaimed 2013 album After the Exhibition. With a solid academic background supporting her obvious passion for music, it was just a matter of time before Clynes’s talent – first showcased in the piano trio album Sugar for a Dream, released in 2005, when the artist was just 17 years old – was recognized outside the boundaries of her native country, thanks to the sponsorship of peerless talent-scout Leonardo Pavkovic of Moonjune Records.

Released in February 2014, Life Is… marks Clynes’ international debut, and presents material recorded by the artist during three concerts held in two different locations. Although not exactly a prog album (indeed, its conventional rock quotient is very limited, it does stand squarely in that vast “grey area” at the periphery of that much-debated genre, and does have enough progressive characteristics to appeal to a sizable slice of its fandom. True, its intimate nature and stripped-down instrumentation, may be seen as a turn-off by those who crave lush, multilayered arrangements and an impressive arsenal of instruments, both traditional and exotic. On the other hand, Life Is… is a poster child for that often-applied tag of “progressive but not prog” (a blessing or a curse, depending on points of view).

While comparisons to highly regarded artists such as Kate Bush, Tori Amos or Fiona Apple (not to mention their spiritual “mothers”, Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell) abound, it would be unfair to suggest that Clynes is in any way a copycat artist. For one thing, her strong, confident voice (sounding a bit strained on a couple of tracks, but then at 26 years of age she has still plenty of room for growth), eschews the overly ethereal or mock-operatic tones adopted by far too many female singers, and is actually more effective when keeping to a mid-range. Additionally, Clynes places an even stronger emphasis on the instrumental component, often using her voice as an instrument rather than in “traditional” singing.

With its catchy melody and uplifting, life-affirming lyrics, the title-track possesses a faint Canterbury vibe even in its chamber dimension; Clynes’ emotional vocals and dramatic piano do not need any further embellishments to keep listeners on their toes. The song is one of four recorded during a solo performance at the library of the Cultural Centre of the Flemish town of Bree – together with the rarefied torch song of “Tuesday Rain”, the more assertive “Linear Blindness” and the gentle, impressionistic instrumental vignette of “Le Voyage”. On the other hand, the jaunty, energetic “A Good Man” (which reminded me a lot of Kate Bush) and the delightful, lilting ballad “Ileana’s Song” (dedicated to her daughter, who was born during the recording of the album) feature the discreet presence of Pierre Mottet’s double bass and Nico Chkifi’s drums, and were recorded during the first of two shows at Brussels’ historic Art Deco bar The Archiduc.

In the remaining five tracks (also recorded at The Archiduc, though on a different occasion), Clynes is accompanied by cellist Simon Lenski of Belgian chamber rock outfit DAAU on cello, with truly outstanding results. The distinctive sound of the instrument complements her voice, and allows her to display her full potential – as in the scintillating “Childhood Dreams” (dedicated to another influential figure in Clynes’ life, her aunt Yoka, who passed away while she was writing the album), with its breezy scat overtones. The 9-minute “Les Larmes” (the longest track on the album), dedicated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is infused by a warm Spanish/Mediterranean feel enhanced by Susan’s lovely wordless vocalizing, while the cello, even with its occasionally strident, drawn-out tone, lends it an almost classical solemnity – which also emerges in the autumnal, Old-World-flavoured instrumental “Pigeon’s Intrusion”. In sharp contrast with the bright-eyed optimism of the title-track, “When You Are Dead” sounds hypnotic and ominous, with Clynes’ lower-pitched voice and the treated cello dipping and surging in unison in a blend of romanticism and tension – a pattern also displayed in haunting closing track “Butterflies”.

With a well-balanced running time of about one hour, plenty of melody, yet also ample room for more offbeat fare, Life Is… offers an accessible listening experience, yet with enough of an edge to appeal to listeners of a more adventurous bent. Packaged in an attractively minimalist cover showing a lovely photo of the artist’s face – embellished by clear gems that mirror the sparkling nature of her music – and the added interest value of Sid Smith’s impeccably penned liner notes, this album is already poised to become one of 2014’s highlights in terms of non-mainstream music releases.

Links:
http://susanoclynes.wix.com/susanclynes-music
http://www.moonjune.com/mjr_web_2013/catalog_mjr/061_SUSAN-CLYNES_Life-Is_MJR061/
http://moonjunerecords.bandcamp.com/album/life-is

 

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An Embarrassment of Riches – A 2013 Retrospective

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As the title of this post suggests, 2013 was another bumper year for progressive music – perhaps without as many peaks of excellence as the two previous years, but still offering a wide range of high-quality releases to the discerning listener. On the other hand, it was also a year in which the need for some form of quality control emerged quite sharply. The sheer number of releases that might be gathered under the “prog” umbrella made listening to everything a practically impossible feat – unless one wanted to risk some serious burnout. As modern technology has afforded the tools to release their own music to almost anyone, it has also fostered a sense of entitlement in some artists as regards positive feedback, even when their product is clearly not up to scratch. 2013 also evidenced the growing divide within the elusive “prog community”, with the lingering worship of anything Seventies-related in often sharp contrast with the genuine progressive spirit of many artists who delve deep into musical modes of expression of a different nature from those that inspired the golden age of the genre.

While, on a global level, 2013 was fraught with as many difficulties as 2012, personally speaking (with the exception of the last two or three months) the year as a whole was definitely more favourable – which should have encouraged me to write much more than I actually did. Unfortunately, a severe form of burnout forced me into semi-retirement in the first few months of the year, occasionally leading me to believe that I would never write a review ever again. Because of that, I reviewed only a small percentage of the albums released during the past 12 months; however, thanks to invaluable resources such as Progstreaming, Progify and Bandcamp, I was able to listen to a great deal of new music, and form an opinion on many of the year’s highlights.

I apologize beforehand to my readers if there will be some glaring omissions in this essay. As usual, my personal choices will probably diverge from the “mainstream” of the prog audience, though I am sure they will resonate with others. This year I have chosen to use a slightly different format than in the previous two years, giving more or less the same relevance to all the albums mentioned in the following paragraphs. Those who enjoy reading “top 10/50/100” lists will be better served by other websites or magazines: my intent here is to provide an overview of what I found to be worthy of note in the past 12 months, rather than rank my choices in order of preference.

Interestingly, two of my top 2013 albums (both released at the end of January) came from the UK – a country that, in spite of its glorious past, nowadays rarely produces music that sets my world on fire. Although the magnificent Gothic cathedral of Guapo’s History of the Visitation and the lyricism and subtle complexity of Thieves’ Kitchen’s One for Sorrow, Two for Joy may sound wildly different, they both represent a side of the British progressive rock scene where the production of challenging music is still viewed as viable, and image-related concerns are a very low priority.

Indeed, in 2013 the UK was prodigal with interesting releases for every prog taste. Among the more left-field offerings coming from the other side of the pond, I will mention Sanguine Hum’s multilayered sophomore effort, The Weight of the World – one of those rare albums that are impossible to label; Godsticks’ intricate, hard-hitting The Envisage Conundrum; the unique “classical crossover” of Karda Estra’s Mondo Profondo; The Fierce and the Dead’s fast and furious Spooky Action (think King Crimson meets punk rock); Tim Bowness’ Henry Fool with Men Singing, their second album after a 12-year hiatus; and Brighton-based outfit Baron (who share members with Diagonal and Autumn Chorus) with their haunting Columns. A mention is also amply deserved by volcanic multi-instrumentalist Colin Robinson’s projects Jumble Hole Clough and Churn Milk Joan – whose numerous albums are all available on Bandcamp. The prize for the most authentically progressive UK release of the year, however, should probably be awarded to Chrome Black Gold by “experimental chamber rock orchestra” Chrome Hoof, who are part of the Cuneiform Records roster and share members with their label mates Guapo.

The US scene inaugurated the year with the late January release of Herd of Instinct’s second album, Conjure, a completely instrumental effort that saw the basic trio augmented by Djam Karet’s Gayle Ellett on keyboards fleshing out the band’s haunting, cinematic sound. Ellett’s main gig (who will be celebrating their 30th anniversary in 2014) also made their studio comeback with The Trip, featuring a single 47-minute track combining ambient, electronics-laden atmospheres (as per self-explanatory title) with a full-tilt psychedelic rock jam. Later in the year, Little Atlas’ solid Automatic Day and Sonus Umbra’s brooding Winter Soulstice brought back two bands that had long been out of the limelight. From the US also came a few gems that, unfortunately, have almost flown under the radar of the prog fandom, such as The Knells’ eponymous debut with its heady blend of post-rock, classical music and polyphony; Jack O’The Clock’s intriguing American folk/RIO crossover All My Friends; Birds and Buildings’ über-eclectic Multipurpose Trap; The Red Masque’s intensely Gothic Mythalogue; and the ambitious modern prog epic of And The Traveler’s The Road, The Reason.

The fall season brought some more left-field fireworks from the ever-reliable AltrOck Productions and Cuneiform Records. miRthkon’s Snack(s) and ZeviousPassing Through the Wall, both outstanding examples of high-energy modern progressive rock by two veritable forces of nature in a live setting, were preceded by Miriodor’s long-awaited eighth studio album, Cobra Fakir, premiered at ProgDay in an utterly flawless set. More RIO/Avant goodness came from Europe with Humble Grumble’s delightfully weird Guzzle It Up, Rhùn’s Zeuhl workout Ïh, October Equus’s darkly beautiful Permafrost, and Spaltklang’s unpredictable In Between. From Sweden came Necromonkey’s self-titled debut, an idiosyncratic but fascinating effort born of the collaboration between drummer extraordinaire Mattias Olsson and Gösta Berlings Saga keyboardist David Lundberg.

Among the myriad of prog-metal releases of the year, another UK band, Haken, stood head and shoulders above the competition: their third album The Mountain transcended the limitations of the subgenre, and drew positive feedback even from people who would ordinarily shun anything bearing a prog-metal tag. Much of the same considerations might apply to Kayo Dot’s highly anticipated Hubardo, though the latter album is definitely much less accessible and unlikely to appeal to more traditional-minded listeners. Fans of old-fashioned rock operas found a lot to appreciate in Circle of Illusion’s debut, Jeremias: Foreshadow of Forgotten Realms, a monumentally ambitious, yet surprisingly listenable album in the tradition of Ayreon’s sprawling epics, rated by many much more highly than the latter’s rather lacklustre The Theory of Everything.

Some of the year’s most intriguing releases came from countries that are rarely featured on the prog map. One of my personal top 10 albums, Not That City by Belarus’ Five-Storey Ensemble (one of two bands born from the split of Rational Diet) is a sublime slice of chamber-prog that shares more with classical music than with rock. Five-Storey Ensemble’s Vitaly Appow also appears on the deeply erudite, eclectic pastiche of fellow Belarusians (and AltrOck Productions label mates) The Worm OuroborosOf Things That Never Were. The exhilarating jazz-rock-meets-Eastern-European-folk brew provided by Norwegian quintet Farmers’ Market’s fifth studio album, Slav to the Rhythm, was another of the year’s highlights, guaranteed to please fans of eclectic progressive music. From an even more exotic locale, Uzbekistan’s own Fromuz regaled their many fans with the dramatic Sodom and Gomorrah, a recording dating back from 2008 and featuring the band’s original lineup.

In the jazz-rock realm, releases ran the gamut from modern, high-adrenalin efforts such as The AristocratsCulture Clash, Volto!’s Incitare by (featuring Tool’s drummer Danny Carey), and keyboardist Alessandro Bertoni’s debut Keystone (produced by Derek Sherinian) to the multifaceted approach of French outfit La Théorie des Cordes’ ambitious, all-instrumental double CD Singes Eléctriques, the sprawling, ambient-tinged improv of Shrunken Head Shop’s Live in Germany, and the hauntingly emotional beauty of Blue Cranes’ Swim. Trance Lucid’s elegantly eclectic Palace of Ether and the intricate acoustic webs of Might Could’s Relics from the Wasteland can also be warmly recommended to fans of guitar-driven, jazz-inflected instrumental music.

Leonardo Pavkovic’s Moonjune Records, however, proved throughout the year as the most reliable single provider of high-quality music effortlessly straddling the rock and the jazz universe, with the triumphant comeback of Soft Machine Legacy and their superb Burden of Proof, The Wrong Object’s stunning slice of modern Canterbury, After the Exhibition, and Marbin’s sophisticated (if occasionally a a bit too “easy”) Last Chapter of Dreaming. Pavkovic’s frequent forays into the booming Indonesian scene brought masterpieces such as simakDialog’s fascinating, East-meets-West The 6th Story, and I Know You Well Miss Clara’s stylish Chapter One – as well as Dewa Budjana’s ebullient six-string exertions in Joged Kahyangan. Dialeto’s contemporary take on the power trio, The Last Tribe, and Dusan Jevtovic’s high-octane Am I Walking Wrong? also featured some noteworthy examples of modern guitar playing with plenty of energy and emotion.

Song-based yet challenging progressive rock was well represented in 2013 by the likes of Half Past Four’s second album, the amazingly accomplished Good Things, propelled by lead vocalist Kyree Vibrant’s career-defining performance; fellow Canadians The Rebel Wheel’s spiky, digital-only concept album Whore’s Breakfast;  Simon McKechnie’s sophisticated, literate debut Clocks and Dark Clouds; and newcomers Fractal Mirror with their moody, New Wave-influenced Strange Attractors. New Jersey’s 3RDegree also released a remastered, digital-only version of their second album, Human Interest Story (originally released in 1996). Iranian band Mavara’s first international release, Season of Salvation, also deserves a mention on account of the band’s struggles to carve out a new life in the US, away from the many troubles of their home country.

Even more so than in the past few years, many of 2013’s gems hailed from my home country of Italy, bearing witness to the endless stream of creativity of a scene that no economic downturn can dampen. One of the most impressive debut albums of the past few years came from a young Rome-based band by the name of Ingranaggi della Valle, whose barnstorming In Hoc Signo told the story of the Crusades through plenty of exciting modern jazz-rock chops, without a hint of the cheesiness usually associated with such ventures. Another stunning debut, the wonderfully quirky Limiti all’eguaglianza della parte con il tutto by Sicilian outfit Homunculus Res, delighted fans of the Canterbury scene; while Not A Good Sign’s eponymous debut blended the angular, King Crimson-inspired melancholia of Änglagård and Anekdoten with that uniquely Italian melodic flair. After their successful NEARfest appearance in 2012, Il Tempio delle Clessidre made their comeback with  AlieNatura, an outstanding example of modern symphonic prog recorded with new vocalist Francesco Ciapica; while fellow Genoese quintet La Coscienza di Zeno made many a Top 10 list with their supremely accomplished sophomore effort, Sensitività. Another highly-rated Genoese outfit, La Maschera di Cera, paid homage to one of the landmark albums of vintage RPI – Le Orme’s Felona and Sorona – by releasing a sequel, titled Le Porte del Domani (The Gates of Tomorrow in its English version). Aldo Tagliapietra’s L’angelo rinchiuso saw the legendary former Le Orme bassist and frontman revert to a more classic prog vein, while iconic one-shot band Museo Rosenbach followed the example of other historic RPI bands and got back together to release Barbarica. Even PFM treated their many fans to a new double album, though scarce on truly new material: as the title implies, PFM in Classic: Da Mozart a Celebration contains versions of iconic classical pieces performed by the band with a full orchestra, as well as five of their best-known songs. Among the newcomers, Camelias Garden’s elegant You Have a Chance presents a streamlined take on melodic symphonic prog, while Unreal City’s La crudeltà di Aprile blends Gothic suggestions with the classic RPI sound; on the other hand, Oxhuitza’s self-titled debut and Pandora’s Alibi Filosofico tap into the progressive metal vein without turning their backs to their Italian heritage. Il Rumore Bianco’s Area-influenced debut EP Mediocrazia brought another promising young band to the attention of prog fans.

However, some of the most impressive Italian releases of the year can be found on the avant-garde fringes of the prog spectrum. Besides Francesco Zago’s project Empty Days (featuring contributions by Thinking Plague’s Elaine DiFalco, as well as most of his Yugen bandmates), OTEME’s superb Il giardino disincantato – a unique blend of high-class singer-songwriter music and Avant-Prog complexity – and the sophisticated, atmospheric jazz-rock of Pensiero Nomade’s Imperfette Solitudini deserve to be included in the top albums of the year. To be filed under “difficult but ultimately rewarding” is Claudio Milano’s international project InSonar with the double CD L’enfant et le Ménure, while Nichelodeon’s ambitious Bath Salts (another double CD) will appeal to those who enjoy vocal experimentation in the tradition of Demetrio Stratos.

My readers will have noticed a distinct lack of high-profile releases in the previous paragraphs.n Not surprisingly for those who know me, some of the year’s top-rated albums (such as The Tangent’s Le Sacre du Travail, The Flower KingsDesolation Rose and Spock’s Beard’s Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep) are missing from this list because I have not yet had the opportunity to listen to them. Others have instead been heard, but have not left a positive enough impression to be mentioned here, and I would rather focus on the positives than on what did not click with me. In any case, most of those albums have received their share of rave reviews on many other blogs, websites and print magazines. I will make, however, one exception for Steven Wilson’s much-praised The Raven Who Refused to Sing, as I had the privilege of seeing it performed in its entirety on the stage of the Howard Theatre in Washington DC at the end of April. Though the concert was excellent, and the stellar level of Wilson’s backing band undoubtedly did justice to the material, I am still not completely sold about the album being the undisputed masterpiece many have waxed lyrical about.

In addition to successful editions of both ROSfest and ProgDay (which will be celebrating its 20th  anniversary in 2014), 2013 saw the birth of two new US festivals: Seaprog (held in Seattle on the last weekend of June) and the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend (held in Dunellen, New Jersey, on October 12-13). As luckily both events enjoyed a good turnout, 2014 editions are already being planned. There were also quite a few memorable concerts held throughout the year, though we did not attend as many as we would have wished. In spite of the often painfully low turnout (unless some big name of the Seventies is involved), it is heartwarming to see that bands still make an effort to bring their music to the stage, where it truly belongs.

On a more somber note, the year 2013 brought its share of heartache to the progressive rock community. Alongside the passing of many influential artists (such as Peter Banks, Kevin Ayers and Allen Lanier), in December I found myself mourning the loss of John Orsi and Dave Kulju, two fine US musicians whose work I had the pleasure of reviewing in the past few years. Other members of the community were also affected by grievous personal losses. Once again, even in such difficult moments, music offers comfort to those who remain, and keeps the memory of the departed alive.

In my own little corner of the world, music has been essential in giving me a sense of belonging in a country where I will probably never feel completely at home. Even if my enjoyment of music does have its ups and downs, and sometimes it is inevitable to feel overwhelmed by the seemingly never-ending stream of new stuff to check out, I cannot help looking forward to the new musical adventures that 2014 will bring.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Open the Door, See the Ground (10:17)
2. Conversation (8:02)
3. Pop Sick Love Carousel (6:16)
4. Reverie #2 (14:51)
5. Love Letter from Canada (4:26)
6. Dangerous Kitchen (9:04)
7. A Dancing Girl from Planet Marsavishnu Named After the Love (10:48)

LINEUP:
Reza Ryan – guitar
Adi Wijaya – keyboards
Enriko Gultom – bass
Alfiah Akbar – drums

With:
Nicholas Combe – sax (6, 7)

With their rather intriguing handle (allegedly referring to a former girlfriend of guitarist Reza Ryan’s), accompanied by equally intriguing cover artwork, I Know You Well Miss Clara are the latest gem unearthed by Moonjune Records’ Leonardo Pavkovic in the thriving Indonesian music scene. The quartet join fellow countrymen simakDialog, Tohpati and Ligro on the New York label’s ever-growing roster of progressive artists with their debut album, aptly titled Chapter One. Formed in 2010 in the erstwhile Indonesian capital of Yogyakarta (which is also a renowned centre for Javanese classical art and culture) when its members were studying at the Indonesia Institute for the Arts, the band caught Pavkovic’s attention during one of his frequent trips to South-East Asia in search of new talent.

As pointed out in the liner notes (penned by esteemed music writer and King Crimson biographer Sid Smith), Chapter One was recorded in 18 hours, all of the tracks being first or second takes – a testimony to the band’s energy and enthusiasm for their craft. The album itself offers a refreshing take on the classic jazz-rock template so well interpreted in the Seventies by the likes of Return to Forever, Weather Report and Mahavishnu Orchestra – the latter being by far the biggest influence on the band’s sound. Canterbury outfits such as Hatfield and the North and National Health are also a clear source of inspiration for I Know You Well Miss Clara, as indicated by a playful exuberance that speaks volumes about the  members’ enjoyment of music-making, coupled (though never in conflict) with a very high level of technical proficiency.

If compared with simakDialog (whose latest album, The 6th Story, was released at the same time as Chapter One) I Know You Well Miss Clara are more firmly rooted in the Western jazz-rock tradition, with a lone drummer (the excellent Alfiah Akbar) employing a standard kit rather than a trio of kendang percussionists. Although their sound also places a stronger emphasis on guitar (which is not surprising, seen as Reza Ryan is the main composer), none of the four band members prevails on the other or indulges in showing off his skills. Opening track “Open the Door, See the Ground” starts out sedately, then veers into a more experimental mood, with dramatic drums and whooshing, spacey synth complementing Ryan’s sizzling yet tasteful solo. The interplay between the guitar and Adi Wijaya’s piano (both electric and acoustic) is spotlighted in the appropriately-titled “Conversation”, a more laid-back piece with an entrancing ebb-and-flow movement and plenty of melody. This elegant yet accessible approach, injected with sudden surges of energy driven by organ and guitar, is also pursued in the Canterbury-flavoured“Pop Sick Love Carousel”; while the album’s centerpiece, the almost 15-minute “Reverie #2”, starts out at a slow-burning pace, then gradually gains momentum – both piano and guitar emoting in almost improvisational fashion, bolstered by Enriko Gultom’s nimble bass lines – slowing down again towards the end.

The shortest track on the album at around 4 minutes, “Love Letter From Canada” is also the most unusual: a haunting, emotional ambient study of surging keyboard washes, sparse guitar  and cascading cymbals, it hints at interesting future developments in the band’s sound. Its mood is briefly reprised at the beginning of “Dangerous Kitchen”, which then morphs into a leisurely jazzy piece where guest Nicholas Combe’s sax and guitar work almost in unison, leaving some room for a bit of improvisation before the end. A lovely tribute to Ryan’s idol John McLaughlin – by the amusingly tongue-in-cheek title of “A Dancing Girl from Planet Marsavishnu Named After the Love” – closes the album in style, referencing the iconic “Dance of Maya” (from Mahavishnu Orchestra’s debut album, The Inner Mounting Flame) in a buoyant, dance-like ride interspersed by pensive, sax-led passages before its exhilarating, almost cinematic finale.

Clocking in at around 63 minutes, Chapter One is never at risk of overstaying its welcome in spite of the length of the majority of its tracks. Successfully blending serious chops with engaging spontaneity and enthusiasm, I Know You Well Miss Clara’s debut is one of the best instrumental albums released in 2013 so far, and will delight devotees of classic jazz-rock/fusion – especially those who prize emotion over an excess of technical fireworks. Hopefully the band will follow in simakDialog’s footsteps and visit the US as soon as possible.

Links:
http://iknowyouwellmissclara.weebly.com/index.html

http://moonjunerecords.bandcamp.com/album/chapter-one

http://www.moonjune.com/mjr_web_2013/catalog_mjr/057_I-KNOW-YOU-WELL-MISS-CLARA_Chapter-One_MJR057/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Sopla viento del Este (4:36)
2. Bounkam Rêverie (4:08)
3. Leilya (4:00)
4. Una para Lars (3:57)

Suite Sendas de Ofir:
5. En Ruta (1:39)
6. White Bird (6:21)
7.  Sendas de Ofir (4:44)
8. Oricalco (2:32)
9. Oricalco Coda (2:28)

10. Aurelia quiere saber (2:23)
11. Sunda Stream (2:42)
12. Aguas del Bagradas (4:18)

LINEUP:
Ángel Ontalva –  guitar, flute
Víctor Rodríguez – keyboards, melodica (10)
Amanda Pazos Cosse – bass
Fran Mangas – saxophones
Toni Mangas – drums
Pablo Ortega – cello (4)
Salib – vocals (3)

Spanish guitarist and graphic artist Ángel Ontalva is the mind behind RIO/Avant band October Equus and a slew of other eclectic projects. He is also the founder of the independent label OctoberXart Records, on which his main band’s latest album, Permafrost, was released in the late spring of 2013. A few months before Permafrost, Ontalva released his first solo album, Mundo Flotante, which includes material originated around 2007, and recorded between 2009 and 2012. Two other members of October Equus – bassist Amanda Pazos Cosse, who is also the artist’s wife, and keyboardist Victor Rodriguez – appear on the album,  as well as other musicians who had already previously collaborated with Ontalva.

Those who approach this album expecting something along the lines of October Equus’ austerely refined take on Avant-Prog may be disappointed, because Mundo Flotante is quite a different animal. Though featuring the same accomplished musicianship and compositional skill, there is very little to remind the listener of Univers Zéro or Henry Cow, while comparisons with the Canterbury scene will often crop up. Indeed, the album’s very title of “Floating World” neatly sums up the airy, effortlessly fluid nature of the music, reminiscent of the quirky elegance of Hatfield and the North or National Health. A rich instrumental texture unfolds a subtly shifting backdrop for Ontalva’s beautiful guitar excursions, suffused with the warmth of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern tradition. In fact, the album’s roots lie in one of Ontalva’s many projects, called Transarabian Connection, whose sound blended classic jazz-rock and chamber music with the traditional music of Spain’s Sephardic Jews. The overall effect is of refined elegance and high listenability in spite of the obvious complexity of the pieces. The music possesses an upbeat, almost catchy feel – obviously not in a mainstream sense, but still making listening a pleasurable experience even for those who are used to more straightforward, melodic fare.

Five of the 12 tracks listed on Mundo Flotante are grouped in a suite titled “Sendas de Ofir”, the album’s centerpiece also on account of it strategic placement in the middle of things. Bookended by gentle, subtly melancholy melodies woven by electric and acoustic guitar, saxophone and keyboards, its central section alternates rarefied passages with an almost improvisational feel and more buoyant ones, led by energetic drums and sax and introducing a hint of dissonance. The elegant flow of the music, its many changes handled with a skilled touch, make for riveting listening, without none of the pretentiousness often associated with ambitious, multi-part compositions.

The remaining tracks are even more intriguing, some of their titles hinting at the presence of heady Middle Eastern suggestions. In particular“Leilya”, the only piece featuring Salib’s haunting wordless vocals well complemented by flute, sax, piano and guitar, conjures a North African market place, as well as the timeless magic of flamenco; opener “Sopla el viento del Este”, on the other hand, marries ethnic flavour and a jaunty, appealingly loose jazzy pace, which spotlights Ontalva’s guitar alongside organ and sax. The charming “Bounkam Reverie” evokes the Canterbury sound with its smooth yet intricate interplay between guitar, keyboards and drums (especially in evidence here), while in “Una para Lars” the cello adds its sober voice to the beautiful, romantic tapestry of acoustic guitar arpeggios embellished by tinkling percussion. The wistful “Aurelia quiere saber” pursues the almost autumnal mood of the last part of the suite, with melodica adding an appealing folksy touch. In contrast, the two final tracks on the album – “Sunda Stream” and “Aguas del Bagradas”-  reprise the brisk, jazzy tone of the opener, with some sharper, angular moments that hint at Ontalva’s work with October Equus.

Clocking in at a mere 43 minutes, Mundo Flotante is full of beautiful, laid-back music that is never in danger of overstaying its welcome, and where Ontalva’s remarkable compositional skill is not overshadowed by excessive ambition (as is often the case with solo albums). The strong ethnic component will especially appeal to those who love some exotic spice in their music of choice, but the album can be safely recommended to most lovers of progressive rock, especially those who lean towards the instrumental side of the genre.

Links:
http://www.octoberxart.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Culturismo Ballo Organizzare (5.50)
2. ΔU (1:53)
3. Dj Psicosi (3:49)
4. Preparazione Bomba H (3:13)
5. Sintagma (1:09)
6. JessicaLaura (3:18)
7. (che ne sai tu di un) Cerchio nel Grano (3:49)
8. Rifondazione Unghie (3:18)
9. Ballata dell’amore stocastico (3:16)
10. χΦ (1:30)
11. Nabucco Chiappe d’Oro (4:14)
12. Il Papa buono (2:52)
13. Accidenti (0:24)
14. Centoquarantaduemilaottocentocinquantasette (2:06)
15. Profiterol (1:29)
16. Estate 216 solszt (1:24)
17. Puk 10 (2:25)
18. Il Contrario di Tutto (2:21)

LINEUP:
Dario D’Alessandro – guitar, vocals, keyboards, glockenspiel, percussion
Davide Di Giovanni – piano, organ, MS10, drums, bass, acoustic guitar, vocals
Daniele Di Giovanni – drums, percussion, acoustic guitar, vocals
Domenico Salamone – bass
Federico Cardaci – minimoog, memotron, organ
Dario Lo Cicero – flutes, wind controller
Mauro Turdo – additional guitar (1)

With
:
Paolo Ske Botta: synthesizers, organ, electronics, glockenspiel
Giovanni Di Martino – Microkorg (3)
Totò Puleo – trumpet (3)

With its high-sounding title – taken straight from the realms of philosophy –  Homunculus Res’ debut might initially give the impression of yet another stereotypically pretentious “conventional” prog opus. However, a closer look at the distinctive cover artwork depicting a mushroom-sprouting human head next to a tiny gnome in a pointed red hat should readily clue the listener in on the album’s true nature.

Hailing from the Palermo, Sicily, the band – one of the newest recruits of the thriving AltrOck Productions stable –  is a loose configuration of musicians revolving around multi-instrumentalist and main songwriter Dario D’Alessandro. If the triangular island in the southern Mediterranean sounds like an unlikely birthplace for a progressive rock band – especially if compared with hubs such as Genoa or Milan – it should be pointed out that Franco Battiato, one of the most iconic figures of the early Italian prog scene, also hails from Sicily. Like Battiato, Homunculus Res blend high and popular culture in their lyrics, and also enjoy citations from other musical sources, even though their sound is firmly rooted in the Canterbury tradition. The breezy, often infectious quality of the music –  interspersed with more sedate, almost introspective moments and some seriously intricate instrumental flights – recalls early Soft Machine and Caravan, as well as fellow Italians Picchio Dal Pozzo (whose legitimate heirs Homunculus Res are poised to become) and Stormy Six, or even a more obscure Canterbury-inspired gem,  Cocktail by Patrick Forgas (who later went on to form the outstanding jazz-rock combo Forgas Band Phenomena).

Most of the album’s 18 short tracks (whose titles will reveal an intriguing mix of highbrow, whimsical and more down-to-earth elements) are so closely linked together musically that they almost flow into each other – especially the instrumental numbers, mostly concentrated in the second half. In spite of the album’s overall light-hearted attitude and apparent focus on shorter compositions, the music is richly textured, thanks to the band’s impressively varied instrumentation. While keyboards (supplied by D’Alessandro, Davide Di Giovanni and Federico Cardaci, as well as special guest Paolo Ske Botta) are clearly the stars of the show –  aided and abetted by Daniele Di Giovanni’s ebullient, acrobatic drumming – the guitar plays a discreet but invaluable supporting role, only rarely stepping into the limelight.

The album opens with a song that will stick in your head for a long time – the mostly instrumental “Culturismo Ballo Organizzare”, whose almost 6 minutes are packed with exhilarating stops and starts, while vocals are used as an irresistibly quirky enhancement of the musical line  rather than the “main event”. The following “ΔU” starts in a deceptively low-key, almost wistful manner reminiscent of Hatfield and the North, then turns frantic and chaotic, with strident synth dominating the tune. “DJ Psicosi” returns to the upbeat form of the opener, its title repeated in almost hypnotic fashion, while a weirdly echoing trumpet adds a nostalgic note. The Canterbury vibe takes over in “Preparazione Bomba H”, as well as in the majority of the instrumental pieces comprising the second half of the album (which also occasionally hint at Latin and Brazilian rhythms).

Occasional references to other artists crop up throughout the album, as in the nod to Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” in the above-mentioned “Dj Psicosi”, and the lullaby-like homage to Fabrizio De André’ “La Guerra di Piero” at the beginning and at the end of the flute-laced “(che ne sai tu di un) Cerchio nel Grano” (whose very title hints at Lucio Battisti’s “Pensieri e parole”). On the album there is also room for a couple of  ballads, whose apparently romantic tone is belied by the subtle irony of the lyrics – “Jessicalaura” and “La ballata dell’amore stocastico”, in which Dario D’Alessandro channels his inner Richard Sinclair, accompanied by elegant piano. The energetic “Rifondazione Unghie”, on the other hand, features dynamic flute and guitar interplay in pure Jethro Tull style; while the subdued mood of album closer “Il Contrario di Tutto” emphasizes the lyrical musings on the plight of a disillusioned young man longing for an escape from day-to-day routine.

Loaded with humour and the obvious pleasure of the craft of music-making, Limiti all’eguaglianza della Parte con il Tutto is the perfect antidote to too much overwrought, self-important prog. Though the lyrics and their cultural references might be lost on non-speakers of Italian, an understanding of the words is not necessary to enjoy the album and its sophisticated yet accessible brand of “Canterbury Samba Progressive”. Highly recommended to everyone but those who believe that progressive rock and humour should not mix, or else object to non-English lyrics, Homunculus Res’ debut is a delightful, intelligent album that effortlessly blends retro and modern attitudes, with the added interest value of Dario D’Alessandro’s outstanding artwork.

Links:
http://www.altrock.it

http://www.allmusic.com/artist/homunculus-res-mn0003137197

https://www.facebook.com/HomunculusRes

http://www.youtube.com/channel/UC2lGwBU4eo-z8QDVLen0fnA?feature=watch


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TRACKLISTING:
1. Burden Of Proof (5:51)
2. Voyage Beyond Seven (4:53)
3. Kitto (1:50)
4. Pie Chart (5:07)
5. JPS (1:03)
6. Kings and Queens (6:46)
7. Fallout (6:59)
8. Going Somewhere Canorous? (1:13)
9. Black And Crimson (5:05)
10. The Brief (2:27)
11. Pump Room (5:19)
12. Green Cubes (5:33)
13. They Landed on a Hill (3:03)

LINEUP:
John Etheridge – electric guitar
Roy Babbington – bass guitar
John Marshall – drums, percussion
Theo Travis, tenor sax, flute, Fender Rhodes piano

It should not come as a surprise to find Soft Machine Legacy on the roster of an independent label named after one of the original Soft Machine’s most iconic compositions. The band – the last in a series of Soft Machine offshoots started by bassist Hugh Hopper back in 1978 with Soft Heap – was born in 2004, when guitarist Allan Holdsworth left Soft Works and was replaced by John Etheridge. They released a studio album and two live ones between 2005 and 2006, just before founding member Elton Dean’s untimely passing. Their second studio-based effort, 2007’s Steam,  saw renowned flutist/saxophonist Theo Travis (currently also a member of Gong, The Tangent and Steven Wilson’s band)  take Dean’s place; the album was also to be the last with Hugh Hopper, who succumbed to leukemia in 2009. In spite of these setbacks, Travis, Etheridge and drummer John Marshall (who had originally replaced Robert Wyatt in 1971) recruited another Soft Machine alumnus, bassist Roy Babbington, and went on to produce their third studio album. Burden of Proof, recorded in Italy at Arti e Mestieri keyboardist Beppe Crovella’s Electromantic Studios was finally released on Moonjune Records in the spring of 2013.

Though its name may suggest yet another of the many tribute bands whose popularity often eclipses that of bands performing their own material, Soft Machine Legacy deliver much more than just a reverent homage to one of the most influential bands of the early progressive rock scene. The “Legacy” at the end of the band’s name (even when all of its founders had the legal right to call themselves Soft Machine) emphasizes the continuity between the “mother” band and its offshoots, while ruling out slavish imitation. Bringing together the variegated threads of the history of the band founded by Robert Wyatt, Mike Ratledge, Kevin Ayers and Daevid Allen in the mid-Sixties, the quartet led by John Etheridge have perfected their own original sound. Travis’ own soundscaping system, called Ambitronics, lends the proceedings a haunting ambient component, bringing to mind his work with Robert Fripp, and integrating with Etheridge’s use of loops and other effects to replace Mike Ratledge’s trademark fuzzed organ; while his sparing but effective use of the Fender Rhodes electric piano creates an ideal connection to Soft Machine’s turning-point album, Fourth (their first completely instrumental effort).

Featuring 13 relatively short compositions spread over a running time of about 55 minutes, Burden of Proof possesses an internal cohesion of its own. The longer, more structured pieces (between 3 and 7 minutes) are bridged by shorter interludes, mostly improvisational in nature; despite this apparent fragmentation, the music flows effortlessly, and the two “souls” of the album fit together without leaving an impression of patchiness. A stunning rendition of Hugh Hopper’s “Kings and Queens” (from Soft Machine’s Fourth) – strategically located in the middle of the album, and led by Theo Travis’ melodic, melancholy flute meshing with Etheridge’s measured guitar – functions as a centerpiece that captures the original band’s moment of transition from its psychedelic roots to state-of-the-art jazz-rock. Roy Babbington (who guested on Fourth, though not on “Kings and Queens”) is a discreet but unmistakable presence, his finely-honed synergy with John Marshall’s impeccable drumming in evidence right from the opening strains of the title-track – which later develops into an intriguing “conversation piece” between sax and guitar. The upbeat sax intro to “Voyage Beyond Seven” briefly dispels the previous number’s elegantly laid-back atmosphere, before going into a sort of slow-motion that culminates into a rather chaotic, spacey jam with sudden flares of volume.

The deeply atmospheric Etheridge showcase of “Kitto” leads into the slow-burning, jazz-blues saunter of “Pie Chart” – an unexpected but welcome deviation from the band’s heady yet somewhat lofty stylings, as is the bracing boogie-rock of “Pump Room”, with Etheridge delivering a barrage of rough-and-ready riffs and scratchy, distorted chords, aided and abetted by Travis’ buoyant sax. “Black and Crimson” is all about melody Soft Machine Legacy-style, with an almost Latin feel; while the nearly 7-minute “Fallout” sandwiches a loose, improvisational section between a brisk, sax-and-guitar-driven main theme, bolstered by Marshall’s dramatic drum rolls. The album is wrapped up by the noisy avant-garde bash of “Green Cubes”, followed by the spacey, meditative strains of “They Landed on a Hill” – a finale that, in a way, represents the album’s two souls.

Those who have followed Soft Machine Legacy and its previous incarnations for the past two decades will find a lot to love in Burden of Proof, an album that combines melody and ambiance with the almost carefree abandon of improvisation. The four members of Soft Machine Legacy draws upon their individual strengths, striving to create music that, while sophisticated, is also not too detached from the earthiness of rock. Though the amount of improvisation may put off those who prefer their music to be scripted, and the minimalistic approach to composition may be found unsatisfactory by fans of prog’s more convoluted aspects, the album captures a group of seasoned musicians who obviously still enjoy themselves both in the studio and on stage. Even if sometimes demanding, Burden of Proof is also a consistently rewarding listen.

Links:
http://www.moonjune.com/mjr_web_2013/catalog_mjr/052_SOFT-MACHINE-LEGACY_Burden-Of-Proof_MJR052/

http://www.johnetheridge.com/softmachinelegacy/index.htm

https://myspace.com/softmachinelegacy/

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1505

No doubt about it: 2012 was a difficult year for most of us. True to the Italian saying about leap years being unlucky, 2012 ran the gamut from weather-related disasters, wars and other acts of random violence to political malfunction and economic near-collapse, sparing almost no part of the world. There was no lack of disruption in my own little world either. In spite of all my good resolutions, the year started with a few weeks of less than stellar physical condition (nothing serious, but enough to grind most of my projects to a halt), and then I was hit by a double-whammy of bureaucracy-related problems that –  while obviously not tragic – caused enough distress to cast a pall over the remaining months.

It is not surprising, therefore, that in 2012 I have been less prolific a reviewer than in previous years, or that the views on this blog have somehow decreased, though not dramatically so. Constant stress can wreak havoc on inspiration, and at times it was hard to come up with a coherent sentence – let alone an 800-word review. However, in spite of the seemingly endless stream of worry and general annoyance, music has remained a source of delight and (as the title of this essay points out) comfort when things got really tough.

The number of progressive rock-related albums released during 2012 was nothing short of staggering. The second decade of the 21st century started indeed with a bang in 2011, and, at least for the time being, the trend does not show any signs of being reversed. Many of those albums were made available for streaming (at least for a limited time) by websites such as Progstreaming, Bandcamp or Soundcloud, allowing the often cash-strapped fans a “test run”. On the other hand, the sheer volume of new releases made it necessary to pick and choose to avoid being overwhelmed. While confirming the vitality of the genre, this also showed one of the downsides of the digital age – the oversaturation of the market, and frequent lack of quality control.

As my readers know, I do not do “top 10/20/50/100” lists, leaving this exercise to people who are interested in arranging their choices according to a more or less strict order of preference. From my perspective, there have been milestone releases, and others that – while perhaps not equally memorable – still deserve a mention. On any account, even more so than in the previous year, 2012 has emphasized the ever-widening gulf between the retro-oriented and the forward-thinking components of the prog audience. Sometimes, while looking at the reviews pages of some of the leading websites of the genre, I have had the impression that (to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling) the twain shall hardly ever meet. In the US, such a split has been detrimental to the festival scene – though the void left by NEARfest’s demise may lead organizers to step out of their typical audience’s comfort zone in order to attract a more diverse crowd.

Though I am most familiar with albums that I have reviewed, or otherwise own, there are others that have left enough of an impression to deserve a mention in this post. As my choices have been mainly informed by personal taste, I will apologize beforehand for any major omissions. While I may consider those albums essential listening, some of my readers will certainly disagree with me, and suggest their own personal picks –and this is exactly how things should be. Indeed, as the French would say, vive la différence!

Although I have built a reputation as a fan of the more “difficult” stuff, one of my favourite albums of the year (and one that is likely to be featured in many top 10 lists) is an album that, in many respects, is not even “prog” in the conventional sense of the word. However, Echolyn’s self-titled eighth studio album – unlike so many true-blue prog releases – is a masterpiece of songwriting, instrumentally tight without any concessions to self-indulgence, and packing a huge emotional punch. Another highly awaited, almost unexpected comeback – 18 years after the band’s previous studio effort – Änglagård’s third studio album, Viljans Öga, reveals a keen, almost avant-garde edge beneath its pastoral surface, well highlighted in their impeccable NEARfest appearance.

2012 was a milestone year for what I like to call the “new frontier” of prog – less focused on epic grandeur and more song-oriented. In the second decade of the 21st century, “progressive rock” and “song” are not antithetic concepts any longer, and going for 5 minutes instead than 15 is not a sign of sell-out. Three albums in particular stand out: 3RDegree’s The Long Division, a perfect combination of great melodies, intelligent lyrics and outstanding musicianship with the added value of George Dobbs’ Stevie Wonder-influenced vocals; the Magna Carta reissue of MoeTar’s 2010 debut From These Small Seeds, a heady blend of catchy hooks, edgier suggestions and Moorea Dickason’s stellar, jazz-inflected voice; and Syd Arthur’s delightful “modern Canterbury” debut, On And On – infused with the spirit of early Soft Machine and Pink Floyd.

As in the previous years, in 2012 the ever-growing instrumental prog scene produced some outstanding albums. Canadian multi-instrumentalist Dean Watson wowed devotees of high-energy jazz-rock with Imposing Elements, the second installment of his one-man project – inspired by the industrial Gothic paintings of Toronto-based artist Ron Eady. In the early months of 2012, French seven-piece Forgas Band Phenomena made a triumphant recording comeback with the exhilaratingly accomplished Acte V. Another two excellent Cuneiform releases, Ergo’s second album If Not Inertia and Janel & Anthony’s lovely debut, Where Is Home, while not immediately approachable, will gradually win over the discerning listener with their deep emotion and lyricism. In a similar vein, A Room for the Night by drummer extraordinaire John Orsi (the mind behind Providence-based collective Knitting By Twilight) provides a veritable aural feast for percussion lovers. On the cusp of prog, jazz and metal, the aptly-titled Brutal Romance marks the thunderous return of ebullient French power trio Mörglbl, led by Christophe Godin’s humour-laden guitar acrobatics. Leonardo Pavkovic’s Moonjune Records specializes in instrumental music of a consistently high standard of quality, and this year’s landmark releases were no exception: Indonesian powerhouses Ligro (Dictionary 2) and Tohpati Bertiga (Riot), Canadian quartet Mahogany Frog’s rivetingly eclectic Senna, and douBt’s towering Mercy, Pity, Peace & Love – all of them true melting pots of rock, jazz, avant-garde and psychedelia. Also very much worthy of exploration, Kotebel’s Concert for Piano and Electric Ensemble revisits and updates the marriage of classical music and progressive rock with a heady dose of traditional Spanish flavour.

The left-field fringe of the progressive rock spectrum was spearheaded by the tireless efforts of dedicated labels such as Cuneiform Records and AltrOck Productions. One of  2012’s musical milestones – the long-awaited sixth studio album by seminal US Avant outfit Thinking Plague, titled Decline and Fall – was released in the very first weeks of the year. Mike Johnson’s monumentally intricate, intensely gloomy reflection on humankind’s impending Doomsday was complemented by a Thinking Plague-related project of a vastly different nature  – the charming, Old-World whimsy of 3 Mice’s Send Me a Postcard, Dave Willey and Elaine Di Falco’s transatlantic collaboration with Swiss multi-instrumentalist Cédric Vuille. By an intriguing coincidence, almost at the tail end of the year came the stunning live album by one of the foremost modern RIO/Avant outfits, Yugen’s Mirrors – recorded at the 2011 edition of the Rock in Opposition festival in Carmaux (France). A special mention is also deserved by Cuneiform’s touching tribute to RIO icon Lars Hollmer, With Floury Hand (sketches), released four years after the artist’s untimely passing.

On the Zeuhl front, founding fathers Magma made their comeback with the short and unusually low-key Félicité Thosz, proving once again Christian Vander’s versatility and seemingly endless reservoir of ideas; while the US produced an astonishing example of Zeuhl inspired by Aztec mythology – multi-national outfit Corima’s second album Quetzalcoatl. Eclectic albums such as Cucamonga’s Alter Huevo, Inner Ear Brigade’s Rainbro (featuring another extremely talented female vocalist, Melody Ferris) and Stabat Akish’s Nebulos – as well as chamber-rock gems such as Subtilior’s Absence Upon a Ground  and AltrOck Chamber Quartet’s Sonata Islands Goes RIO – reinforced AltrOck’s essential role in the discovery of new, exciting talent on the cutting edge of the progressive rock scene. Also worthy of a mention as regards the Avant-Progressive field are the politically-charged Songs From the Empire by Scott Brazieal, one of the founding fathers of the US Avant scene; the exhilarating Sleep Furiously by English outfit Thumpermonkey;  the wacked-out return of cult Finnish band Alamaailman Vasarat, titled Valta; and French quartet Jack Dupon’s energetic double live CD set, Bascule A Vif . The Avant-Progressive scene was also celebrated in the second episode of José Zegarra Holder and Adele Schmidt’s documentary film series dedicated to progressive rock , Romantic Warriors II – About Rock in Opposition.

The year was also noted for hotly anticipated comebacks from high-profile acts:  first of all, Rush, who were also finally inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for the joy of their substantial following. Their Clockwork Angels, while not a life-altering masterpiece, is definitely their strongest effort in almost 20 years. 2012 also saw the release of Ian Anderson’s Thick As a Brick 2, mixed by none other than Steven Wilson (also responsible in 2012 for the 40th Anniversary edition of King Crimson’s seminal Larks’ Tongues in Aspic) – a solid, well-crafted album, though not on a par with the original. While King Crimson seem to have been put on hold indefinitely, Robert Fripp has not been idle, and the elegant Travis/Fripp CD/DVD package Follow offers a complete aural and visual experience – suitably rarefied yet spiked by almost unexpected electric surges – to diehard fans of the legendary guitarist.

On the “modern prog” front, standard-bearers The Mars Volta’s sixth studio album Noctourniquet marks a return to form for the band, as it is their tightest, most cohesive effort in quite a long time. The Tea Club’s third album, Quickly, Quickly, Quickly confirms the status of the New Jersey band (now a trio) as one of the most interesting modern outfits, with a respectful eye towards the golden age of the genre; while Gazpacho’s deeply atmospheric March of Ghosts offers another fine example of English label KScope’s “post-progressive” direction. In a more accessible vein, Canadian/Ukrainian duo Ummagma’s  pair of debut albums, Ummagma and Antigravity,  will appeal to fans of Kate Bush, Dead Can Dance and Cocteau Twins with their ethereal yet uplifting feel.

Though I cannot call myself a fan of progressive metal, the debut albums by female-fronted German band Effloresce (Coma Ghosts) and Israeli outfit Distorted Harmony (Utopia) made enough of an impression to deserve a mention here; while Diablo Swing Orchestra’s Pandora’s Piñata – the band’s most mature effort to date – transcends the boundaries of the genre.  At the very beginning of the year, Steve Brockmann and George Andrade’s opus AIRS: A Rock Opera updates the classic rock opera format while deftly avoiding the cheesiness of other similar efforts, concentrating on a moving tale of guilt and redemption interpreted by an array of considerable vocal and instrumental talent.

The thriving contemporary psychedelic/space rock scene also produced a slew of fine albums that combine modernity and eclecticism with an unmistakable retro touch: among many others, Øresund Space Collective’s mellow West, Space and Love, Earthling Society’s eerie pagan-fest Stations of the Ghost, Colour Haze’s Krautrock-influenced double CD set She Said, Diagonal’s fiery The Second Mechanism, Astra’s highly awaited (though to these ears not as impressive as the others) second album, The Black Chord. Fans of Krautrock, and Can in particular, should also check out Black and Ginger by Churn Milk Joan, one of the many projects by volcanic English multi-instrumentalist Colin Robinson (of Big Block 454 fame); while Australian band Tame Impala’s Lonerism will appeal to those who like psychedelic rock in a song-based format.

As prolific and varied as ever, the Italian progressive rock scene produced a number of remarkable albums ranging from the classic symphonic prog of Höstsonaten’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Pt. 1, Alphataurus’ comeback AttosecondO and Locanda delle Fate’s The Missing Fireflies (featuring both older and new material) to more left-field fare such as Nichelodeon’s live album NO, Stereokimono’s Intergalactic Art Café and Daal’s Dodecahedron. Another of Fabio Zuffanti’s many projects besides Höstsonaten, L’Ombra della Sera, presents an appealingly Gothic-tinged, almost completely instrumental homage to the soundtracks of cult Italian TV series of the Seventies. Aldo Tagliapietra’s Nella Pietra e Nel Vento, his first release after his split from Le Orme, a classy, prog-tinged singer-songwriter effort, boasts a splendid cover by Paul Whitehead. The prize of most impressive RPI album of the year, however, goes to Il Bacio della Medusa’s ultra-dramatic historical concept Deus Lo Vult, with side project Ornithos’ eclectic debut La Trasfigurazione a close second.

Of the many “traditional” prog albums released in 2012, one in particular stands out on account of its superb songwriting: Big Big Train’s English Electric Pt 1, an effort of great distinction though not as impressive as its predecessor, 2009’s The Underfall Yard. Autumn Chorus’ debut The Village to the Vale also celebrates the glories of England’s green and pleasant land with a near-perfect marriage of pastoral symphonic prog and haunting post-rock; while Israeli outfit Musica Ficta’s A Child & A Well (originally released in 2006) blends ancient and folk music suggestions with jazz and symphonic prog. Released just three weeks before the end of the year, Shadow Circus’ third album, On a Dark and Stormy Night (their first for 10T Records), based on Madeleine L’Engle’s cult novel A Wrinkle in Time, fuses symphonic prog with classic and hard rock in an exhilarating mixture. On the other hand, Pacific Northwest trio Dissonati’s debut, Reductio Ad Absurdum, gives classic prog modes a makeover with influences from new wave and avant-garde. Highly touted outfit District 97’s sophomore effort, Trouble With Machines, proves that the Chicago band is much more than a nine days’ wonder, showcasing their  tighter songwriting skills, as well as vocalist/frontwoman Leslie Hunt’s undeniable talent and charisma.

With such a huge wealth of releases, it was materially impossible for me to listen to everything I would have wanted to, and my personal circumstances often impaired my enjoyment of music, as well as my concentration. Among the releases of note that I missed in 2012 (though I still hope to be able to hear in 2013), I will mention Beardfish’s The Void, Anathema’s Weather Systems, Dead Can Dance’s comeback Anastasis, Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! (another comeback, released after a 10-year hiatus), AranisMade in Belgium, The Muffins’ Mother Tongue, Alec K. Redfearn and the EyesoresSister Death, and Motorpsycho’s The Death-Defying Unicorn. All of these albums have been very positively received by the prog community, even if they will not necessarily appeal to everyone.

As was the case with my 2011 retrospective, quite a few highly acclaimed prog albums will be missing from this article. This implies no judgment in terms of intrinsic quality, but is simply determined by personal taste. Albums such as The Flower KingsBanks of Eden, Marillion’s Sounds That Can’t Be Made or IZZ’s Crush of Night (to name but three) –although thoroughly professional and excellent from a musical point of view – failed to set my world on fire. A pure matter of chemistry – as further demonstrated by my lack of enthusiasm for Storm Corrosion’s self-titled album (which reflected my reaction to Steven Wilson’s Grace for Drowning in 2011), or Mike Keneally’s undoubtedly outstanding Wing Beat Fantastic, co-written with Andy Partridge of XTC fame.

2012 was also a great year for live music, with both big names and new talent hitting the road. While we missed some of the former (such as Rush and Peter Gabriel), as well as this year’s edition of RoSfest,  the one-two punch of NEARfest Apocalypse and ProgDay 2012 more than made up for it. Unfortunately, the all-out Seventies bash named FarFest, organized by a veteran of the US prog scene such as Greg Walker, and planned for early October 2012 – was cancelled due to poor ticket sales, reinforcing the impression that the era of larger-scale prog festivals may well be coming to an end (in spite of the announcement of Baja Prog’s return in the spring of 2013). On the other hand, the much less ambitious ProgDay model is likely to become the way forward, as are the smaller, intimate gigs organized by people such as Mike Potter of Orion Studios, the NJ Proghouse “staph”, and our very own DC-SOAR.

With an impressive list of forthcoming releases for every progressive taste, 2013 looks set up to be as great a year as the previous two. In the meantime, we should continue to support the independent music scene in our best capacity – not just by buying albums or writing about them, but also attending gigs and generally maintaining a positive, constructive attitude. I would also like to thank all my friends and readers for their input and encouragement, which has been invaluable especially whenever the pressures of “real life” became too hard to bear. If this piece has seen the light of day, it is because you have made me feel that it was still worth it.

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