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Posts Tagged ‘AltrOck Productions’

Music Is My Only Friend – 2015 in Review

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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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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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TRACKLISTING:
1. Nadir (9:31)
2. Dandelion (4:47)
3. Seth Zeugma (5:48)
4. Dua (5:44)
5. Tiglath (8:28)
6. Più Limpida e Chiara di Ogni Impressione Vissuta (Pt.2) (3:21)

LINEUP:
Cristian Franchi – drums
Giovanni Parmeggiani – Fender Rhodes, Hammond organ, minimoog, acoustic piano
Daniele Piccinini – bass guitar
Marco Marzo Maracas – electric and acoustic guitar

With:
Vladimiro Cantaluppi – violin (3), viola (6)
Marina Scaramagli – cello (6)
Enrico Guerzoni – cello (3)

For my first album review after over four months of silence, what better choice than the new album of one of the most interesting new bands of the past few years – Bologna’s own Accordo dei Contrari, who managed to impress the ProgDay crowd in 2012 in spite of performing at the hottest time of a truly sweltering day? Three years after the highly praised Kublaione of my top albums for 2011 – the young but immensely talented Italian quartet have made their comeback with an album whose title is as minimalistic as its striking artwork (courtesy of drummer Cristian Franchi and Dario D’Alessandro of fellow AltrOckers Homunculus Res). AdC also marks the band’s return to the AltrOck roster, as they their debut, Kinesis (at present unfortunately still out of print), had been released in 2006 by the Milan-based label.

Clocking in at a mere 37 minutes, AdC is highly concentrated, and in many ways different from its predecessor – though there are some unmistakable signs of continuity to be found. According to the English-language liner notes, the album was recorded over a very short period of time, in an almost “live in the studio” situation. While “Dua” and “Seth Zeugma” date back from the time the band was working on Kublai (though they did not find a place on that album), the remaining four tracks were all composed in the intervening years. Although far from unusual, this state of affairs might have resulted in a patchy effort, but fortunately AdC – no matter how chequered its history may be – has turned out to be remarkably cohesive.

Completely instrumental (unlike Kublai, which saw the participation of Canterbury legend Richard Sinclair on one track), and with only two tracks over the 6-minute mark, it leaves very little room for self-indulgence – a danger often lurking in a subgenre like jazz-rock, which thrives on technical proficiency. The four band members weave a tight web of sound, each contributing his own individual imprint, but always keeping an eye an eye to the final result. As a whole, AdC comes across as heavier than its predecessor, with Marco Marzo’s electric guitar playing a leading role and lending a keen edge to keyboardist Giovanni Parmeggiani’s sophisticated writing. This time around, one can definitely hear less Canterbury and more Area in Accordo dei Contrari’s music.

The almost 10-minute “Nadir” opens the album with the ominous, cinematic impact of surging synths, then all the other instruments chime in, foregrounding guitar and drums in a well-paced, jazzy romp that blends energy and melody. The exhilarating contrast between Marzo’s gritty guitar and Parmeggiani’s liquid piano demonstrates the band’s excellent control of quiet-loud dynamics. Marzo’s six strings, offset by discreet Hammond organ, step forward right from the start of the shorter but punchy “Dandelion”, while Daniele Piccinini and Cristian Franchi’s flawless rhythm backbone imparts a choppy, energizing pace to the composition. Introduced by the lovely classical feel of grand piano and strings, “Seth Zeugma” soon veers into hard rock territory, guitar and organ sparring in a fashion reminiscent of classic Deep Purple or Colosseum II.

Piano and drums take firmly the lead in “Dua”, with melodic flurries and a gentle, waltz-like pace at the beginning, then a choppy, stop-start movement that culminates in a driving, insistent coda. In the 8-minute “Tiglath”, the band carefully build up a crescendo from a very sparse, atmospheric opening, with a vaguely Oriental tune followed by some intense, gritty guitar and organ exertions made more interesting by asymmetrical rhythm patterns. The short and sweet “Più Limpida e Chiara di Ogni Impressione Vissuta (Pt.2)” closes the album on a very different note, the somber drone of the cello underpinning lyrical violin and pensive guitar arpeggios.

Enhanced by Udi Koomran’s expert mastering, and produced by AltrOck’s own founder, Marcello Marinone, AdC may be over a bit too soon, but it definitely makes up in quality for what it may lack in running time. The album shows a band at the top of their game, capable of engaging in unbridled jazz-rock workouts as well as laying down understated, classical-tinged melodies. Highly recommended to lovers of instrumental progressive rock, AdC will please the band’s following, while wetting their appetite for Accordo dei Contrari’s next release.

Links:
http://accordodeicontrari.bandcamp.com/album/adc-2014
http://www.accordodeicontrari.com/
http://www.altrock.it

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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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TRACKLISTING:
1. Two Views on Flight (4:17)
2. Ankoku (4:55)
3. Words Lurking (3:12)
4. Kurai (5:50)
5. Flow My Tears (4:17)
6. Ananke (1:34)
7. Running Water (5:04)
8. The Ghosts of Dawn (4:14)
9. In Darkness Let Me Dwell (4:55)
10. A Knife Under the Pillow (1:22)
11. Coming Back Home (3:56)
12. Waiting For the Crash (2:08)
13. A Dark Vanessa (3:03)
14. This Night Wounds Time (3:16)

LINEUP
:
Paolo «Ske» Botta – keyboards
Jacopo Costa – vibes
Elaine Di Falco – vocals
Maurizio Fasoli – piano
Pat Moonchy – electric zen garden
Giuseppe A. Olivini – percussion, theremin
Francesco Zago – guitars, mellotron, bass

With:
Bianca Fervidi – cello (1-3)
Rachel O’Brien – vocals (5)

2013 was another very busy year for guitarist/composer (and AltrOck Productions co-founder) Francesco Zago. In the summer, his new “vintage prog” band Not A Good Sign made its recording and concert debut, and a few months later  he appeared on In Between, the new album by his long-time associate Markus Stauss’ outfit Spaltklang – to which should be added his participation in original RIO band Stormy Six’s live CD/DVD Benvenuti nel Ghetto.

However, it is with the Empty Days project that Zago offers his most distinctive contribution to the rich musical landscape of the recently ended year. Featuring some of his Yugen cohorts (the ubiquitous Paolo “Ske” Botta, Jacopo Costa, Maurizio Fasoli and Giuseppe Olivini), plus Milan-based sound/noise artist Pat Moonchy and US-based vocalist Elaine Di Falco (of Thinking Plague/3 Mice fame, who had also guested on Yugen’s 2010 album Iridule), Empty Days was not conceived as a studio-only project: the release of their eponymous album in September 2013 was accompanied by a few live appearances in Italy and Switzerland, as well as at Wurzburg’s Freakshow Festival in Germany.

Clocking in at about 50 minutes, Empty Days includes 7 songs and 7 instrumentals, all relatively short, which represent the two main directions of Zago’s current musical interests: art-rock songs with brooding lyrics and ethereal melodies, and darkly rarefied ambient compositions, arranged in a neatly alternating pattern. Unlike Yugen’s intricate, carefully composed pieces, the tracks are more like impressionistic sketches created through a shimmering sonic palette in delicate patterns of light and shade.  Interestingly, Empty Days’ outstanding artwork, with its muted sepia shades and  austere layout, for once is not credited to AltrOck’s in-house graphic artist Paolo “Ske” Botta. While the cover image was provided by renowned contemporary artist Salvatore Garau (who is also Stormy Six’s drummer), the booklet is credited to Zago himself, proving the versatility of his artistic inspiration.

Elaine Di Falco’s performance is one of the undisputed strengths of Empty Days. Here she shows a different side of her art than on Thinking Plague’s 2012 album, Decline and Fall – where the music’s mind-boggling complexity forced her voice into an apparently flat, yet oddly riveting timbre. Here, her dusky contralto displays more curves than angles, lending a hauntingly soft quality to Zago’s wistful vignettes, and providing the ideal vehicle for the pensive, often rather gloomy lyrics. Only one of the songs, the well-known “Flow My Tears” by English Renaissance composer John Dowland,   is interpreted by a different singer – mezzo soprano Rachel O’Brien, whose classically trained voice adds to the piece’s mournful feel.

Di Falco’s multitracked vocals, complemented by Fasoli’s rippling piano and Costa’s gently chiming vibraphone in opener “Two Views on Flight”, weaves a magical, dreamlike atmosphere reminiscent of Dead Can Dance or Kate Bush (or even Gentle Giant), while the somber drone of the cello fits her like a glove in the delicate “Words Lurking”, echoed by Zago’s subtle guitar. “Coming Back Home” revisits one of the songs featured on Not A Good Sign’s debut in understated yet markedly atmospheric fashion, enhanced by mellotron surges and ethereal guitar arpeggios. On the other hand, “In Darkness Let Me Dwell” (another Dowland composition) and “A Dark Vanessa” (from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire) hinge on Di Falco’s deep, almost whispered vocals and minimalist instrumentation to create a mysterious, faintly unsettling mood. The album’s centerpiece, however, is the arrestingly beautiful “Running Water” (with lyrics by Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney), whose title is evoked by Fasoli’s flowing piano and DiFalco’s compelling voice, almost chasing each other in a hypnotic movement.

Ranging from the almost 6 minutes of “Kurai” to the barely over one minute of the piano interlude of“A Knife Under the Pillow”, the instrumentals, explore the instruments’ potential to build up cinematic ambient soundscapes that veer from the soothing, Japanese-inspired “The Ghosts of Dawn”, with its rarefied, crystalline sound effects, to the strident, menacing “Ananke” and “Waiting for the Crash”. The longest track on the album at almost 6 minutes, “Kurai”, with its sparse, ominous texture, slashed by sudden cascading chimes and eerily reverberating sounds, aptly reflects its title (Japanese for “dark”, and also the name of another of Zago’s projects, whose album was released in 2009). The 5-minute “Ankoku” is a spacey, faintly discordant piece anchored by Bianca Fervidi’s cello’s muted drone; while in closing track “This Night Wounds Time” piano and mellotron surge in unison, echoing between pauses of near-silence.
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As I anticipated in my 2013 retrospective, Empty Days fully deserves to be included among the year’s landmark albums. Though, not surprisingly, its main target will be the ever-demanding RIO/Avant crowd, the strong melodic quotient of the songs make the album potentially more accessible for people who are normally daunted by “weird” music. In any case, Empty Days is a thing of beauty, lovingly crafted by one of the most genuinely creative artists on the current progressive rock scene, and highly recommended to anyone who loves music that flies in the face of today’s depressing commercial trends

Links:
http://www.francescozago.com

https://www.facebook.com/FrancescoZagoMusician

http://www.altrock.it

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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. QXP-13 Space Modulator (3:49)
2. Eat a Bag of DiX (5:08)
3. Hapax Legomena (4:47)
4. Nocturne, op.33 (4:15)
5. The Cascades (6:37)
6. Snack(s) – The Song! (7:12)
7. Osedax (6:16)
8. Mymaridae (6:25)
9. Variety Pack (2:52)
10.Fairies Wear Boots (7:35)

LINEUP:
Wally Scharold – electric and acoustic guitars, vocals, programming, clapping, keyboards, synths
Travis Andrews – electric and acoustic guitars, baritone guitar, vocals
Carolyn Walter – clarinet, bass clarinet, baritone sax, bassoon
Jamison Smeltz – alto sax, baritone sax, clapping
Matt Lebofsky – bass, vocals, keyboards, guitars, junk drums
Matt Guggemos – drums

In the late spring of 2009, the debut album of a hitherto unknown band from Oakland (California), by the idiosyncratically-spelled name of miRthkon, made waves on the progressive rock scene. A monumental, 70-minute slab of quirky, Zappaesque avant-progressive rock with a healthy dose of metal-inspired energy and intriguing references to contemporary classical music –  a package rounded out by outstanding artwork and a wacky background mythology – Vehicle was mentioned by many (including myself) in their personal “best of 2009” lists. Once again, Marcello Marinone and his AltrOck Productions cohorts had unearthed a gem.

Founded around 2005 by guitarist/composer Wally Scharold, miRthkon went through the customary stages of upheaval (and the release of EP The Joy of Illusion) before stabilizing their lineup. With two new members on board – guitarist Travis Andrews and bassist/keyboardistMatt Lebofsky (also a member of Secret Chiefs 3 and MoeTar) replacing Rob Pumpelly and Nat Hawkes – the band are a solid six-piece propelled by a twin-guitar and twin-reed attack that sets them apart from almost everyone else. A quintessential live outfit, they have recently managed to bring their unique brand of progressive rock to Europe. Indeed, after Scharold recovered from some health issues that had forced the band to cancel the second half of their 2012 tour with MoeTar, 2013 has proved to be very good year for miRthkon as a live act, with successful appearances at the first edition of Seaprog in Seattle, the 2013 edition of the Rock in Opposition Festival in Carmaux, and a one-day festival organized by the AltrOck staff in Milan. In addition to their busy concert schedule, the band have spent a good part of the past few years working on the follow-up to Vehicle – a full-length album by the title of Snack(s), which was finally released in the autumn of 2013, following the band’s European tour.

Though miRthkon are anything but your conventional “nostalgia prog” band, they seem to have learned an important lesson from the genre’s golden age: that is, the importance of the visual aspect. Their albums are not just challenging sonic buffets of wide-ranging eclecticism, but also visual feasts that display another facet of Wally Scharold’s considerable talent. Snack(s)’s artwork is a true stroke of genius,  a parody of modern society’s addiction to junk food, with the cover and each page of the booklet imitating the packaging of some popular snacks, down to the mandatory (in the US at least) nutritional breakdown – which contains detailed information about each track, including the daunting time signatures, as well as the lyrics cleverly disguised as “ingredients”. Not your average Roger Dean opus for sure, but extremely well-made, and hugely entertaining.

Though it might raise eyebrows, the “avant-garde metal” tag that has been attached to miRthkon is not as far-fetched as it may seem. The combination of deadpan humour and highbrow references is far from uncommon in the world of technical/avant-garde metal, though miRthkon take it up a notch and imbue their heady genre-bending blend with the jazz-tinged energy of Carolyn Walter and Jamison Smeltz’s array of reeds. Indeed, Snack(s) is the kind of album that will keep you on the edge of your seat, not knowing if that low-key, almost conventionally melodic passage will erupt into chaos (albeit of the controlled variety) in just a couple of seconds. Most of the album’s 10 tracks were written by either Scharold or Lebovsky, with the notable exception of an unrecognizable version of Samuel Barber’s piano piece “Nocturne” (which was part of the band’s setlist at the Orion Studios in August 2012), and a similarly idiosyncratic cover of Black Sabbath’s “Fairies Wear Boots”.

Compared to Vehicle, Snack(s) is more focused (also in virtue of being almost 15 minutes shorter) and also somewhat heavier, though losing none of the compositional complexity that had made miRthkon’s debut so riveting. Crushingly heavy guitar riffs coexist with joyfully blaring reeds in the exhilarating jazz-metal blend tinged with ska (of all things!) of opener “QXP-13 Space Modulator”, a hyper-energetic instrumental that prepares the listener for the mind-boggling twists and turns of “Eat a Bag of DiX”, which juxtaposes brooding chamber-like sections with electrifying guitar forays and almost punk vocals. “Hapax Legomena” ’s deceptively laid-back, jazzy intro soon turns into a bracing duel between guitars and reeds; while wistful clarinet keeps the classical flavour in “Nocturne”, though offset by the guitars and spiked by an odd reggae-like rhythm. The first half of the album ends with the angular yet atmospheric heaviness (and rather apocalyptic lyrics) of “The Cascades”, enhanced by the organic sound of the glockenspiel, organ and piano.

Eerie electronic effects and upbeat, anthemic singing pepper the 7-minute “Snack(s) – The Song!”, driven by Matt Guggemos’ spectacular drumming and reeds blaring in unison. The sinuous, faintly disturbing first half of “Osedax” again brings melody into the equation, with haunting clarinet and a brief yet striking bass-guitar duet followed by a choppy, drum-driven section complete with shouting vocals at the end. After the maze-like complexity of the multilayered “Mymaridae”- whose inexhaustible intensity evokes a swarm of the titular “microscopic parasitic wasps” in a textbook example of controlled chaos – the less than 3 minutes of the bassoon-led “Variety Pack” provide a short but welcome oasis of calm before the grand finale. The longest track on the album, miRthkon’s take on “Fairies Wear Boots” keeps the spirit of the original even in its “deconstructive” approach, replacing Tony Iommi’s iconic riffing with a spirited double baritone sax attack, and Scharold channeling his inner Ozzy Osbourne in a very aggressive vocal turn.

The somewhat clichéd expression “not for the faint-hearted” seems to have been tailor-made for miRthkon. Snack(s), just like the band’s live shows, is a constant adrenaline rush, with only occasional moments of respite, and therefore not very likely to make a dent in the convictions of those who equate prog with lush melodies and grandiose, quasi-symphonic arrangements. Such intense music, almost relentless at times, may require a lot of concentration on the part of the listener. In any case, Snack(s) is one of the most original albums released in 2013, and a must-listen for fans of truly progressive, challenging music. Highly recommended to anyone wishing to step out of their comfort zone.

Links:
http://www.mirthkon.com/

http://mirthkon.bandcamp.com/album/snack-s

http://www.altrock.it

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