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Even though it comes slightly late in comparison to other blogs and websites, this retrospective of the past year has been in the pipeline for a while. It is a first time for me, though obviously I have participated in quite a few surveys of this kind in my time as a collaborator of various music sites. However, the year 2011 has been uncommonly rich in excellent releases covering the whole of the progressive rock spectrum – similar in this to 2009 rather than the somewhat lackluster 2010.

My activity as a reviewer has also reached an unprecedented level in the past 12 months, and this (as well as other factors) have allowed me to listen to a wider range and number of new albums than in previous years – though not all of the albums I will be mentioning in the following paragraphs have been the object of a review. I have also been actively involved on the prog scene, attending festivals and gigs and keeping up a steady network of contacts with artists, label owners and fellow reviewers and fans. As the end-of-year statistics point out, the total number of views received by this blog in 2011 exceeded any of the expectations I had at the start of this venture, one and a half years ago.

Obviously, I cannot claim to have heard each and every prog (and related) album released in 2011, and quite of few of the big-name releases of the past year will be conspicuously absent from this overview. I will also refrain from using the usual list format, let alone a “Top 10/20/100” one, in spite of its undeniable popularity with music fans. While I am sure that everyone will be very curious to learn about my # 1 album of 2011,  this curiosity will have to remain unsatisfied, because I hardly ever think in terms of “absolute favourites”, and would be hard put to name my favourite band or artist (or literary author, for that matter). Although most “year in review” pieces do contain a measure of narcissism, the main aim of this post is to stimulate people’s curiosity, as well as debate, rather than turning it into a pointless competition of the “my list is better than yours” sort. We are all adult enough to be aware of the mostly subjective nature of lists, overviews, retrospectives and the like, and hopefully no one here is out to change other people’s minds.

In 2011, the prog “revival” reached unparalleled proportions, bolstered by the many opportunities offered by the Internet. In spite of the loud cries of woe about a supposed “death of the CD”, the number of acts that keep releasing their material in physical format is still quite high, and many of them still choose to put extra care in the artwork and liner notes, with often remarkable results. While the oversaturation of what remains very much a niche market cannot be denied, it is also true that high-quality productions are far from scarce, and the advent of legal streaming sites like the excellent Progstreaming has made it possible for everyone to sample an album before taking the plunge. Unfortunately, the wealth of music available either in digital or physical form does not correspond to higher availability of performing opportunities for those acts who still believe in the power of live performances. The shocking announcement of NEARfest 2011’s cancellation, at the end of March, rocked the prog fandom for months, and even the subsequent announcement of NEARfest Apocalypse for June 2012 did not allay many people’s fears concerning the dwindling range of gigging opportunities, especially here in the US (Europe, in spite of the economic crisis, seems to be doing much better in this respect). The prog community is also splintering in a way that, coupled with a worryingly nostalgic attitude and increasing reluctance to leave one’s own comfort zone, might spell disaster for the future.

2011 marked not only the return of a number of high-profile acts, but also some outstanding recording debuts. If I was forced at gunpoint to choose a favourite, this award would probably go to Texas-based trio Herd of Instinct’s self-titled debut, the first album released on Firepool Records, legendary Californian band Djam Karet’s own label. An almost entirely instrumental effort with the exception of one (gorgeous) song, the Herd’s debut shares this format with another of the year’s milestones, Accordo dei Contrari’s Kublai (whose only song features the incomparable vocals of Canterbury legend Richard Sinclair). These two albums, as well as Marbin’s classy Breaking the Cycle and Dialeto’s intriguing Chromatic Freedom, illustrate how the song form can be reinvented in such a way as not to disrupt the flow of the music, incorporating the vocals into a fabric that hinges on complex instrumental interplay.

In the realm of the purely instrumental releases, top marks go to Gösta Berlings Saga’s stunning third album, Glue Works (“Island” alone is worth the price of admission), alongside a trio of AltrOck Productions releases – Ske’s elegant 1000 Autunni (the first solo project by Yugen keyboardist Paolo Botta), Calomito’s intense Cane di Schiena and Camembert’s ebullient Schnörgl Attack – and a couple of outstanding offers from the ever-reliable MoonJune Records, the world-jazz of Slivovitz’s Bani Ahead and the superb testimony of Moraine’s NEARfest 2010 set, Metamorphic Rock. Lovers of creative percussion will surely enjoy Knitting By Twilight’s enchanting Weathering (and possibly check out the Providence collective’s previous releases); while Lunatic Soul’s Impressions (the third solo album by Riverside’s Mariusz Duda) will satisfy those addicted to haunting, ethnic-tinged soundscapes. On a more traditional note, Derek Sherinian’s Oceana presents a solid example of guitar- and keyboard-based progressive fusion, which spotlights ensemble playing rather than individual displays of technical fireworks.

The 2011 releases that feature vocals as an essential part run the gamut from experimental to melody- and song-oriented. Big Block 454’s quirky Bells and Proclamations, and another couple of AltrOck releases – The Nerve Institute’s multifaceted Architect of Flesh-Density, and Dave Willey and Friends’ moving homage to Willey’s father, the beautiful Immeasurable Currents (review forthcoming) – are outstanding instances of the first category. More in a jazz than a rock vein, Boris Savoldelli’s Biocosmopolitan showcases the Italian artist’s superlative vocal technique, all the while offering music that is eminently listenable and upbeat. The ultra-eclectic Zappa homage that is Electric Sorcery’s Believe in Your Own Best Friend throws a lot of diverse influences into its heady mix of outrageous storyline and constantly challenging music. On the other hand, Man On Fire’s Chrysalis is a blueprint for modern “crossover prog”, seamlessly blending the accessibility of Eighties-style quality pop with some seriously intricate instrumental work; while fellow 10T Records band Mars Hollow make a true quantum leap with their second album, World in Front of Me, which follows in the footsteps of early Yes in terms of successfully marrying gorgeous pop melodies with instrumental flights of fancy. However, the crown for 2011 in the realm of “mainstream” progressive rock goes to Phideaux’s magnificent Snowtorch, an incredibly dense concentrate of haunting vocals, memorable tunes and thought-provoking lyrical content.

Some landmark albums released during the past year are at least tangentially related to progressive rock. In all probability, my personal award of most played album of the year should go to Black Country Communion’s 2, a more mature, well-rounded effort than its barnstorming predecessor. Thanks to the Glenn Hughes-led quartet, classic hard rock is undergoing a renaissance, with a recognizable yet subtly updated sound. BCC guitarist Joe Bonamassa’s latest opus, Dust Bowl, while not revolutionary in any sense, features scintillating guitar and soulful vocals in its modern treatment of time-honoured blues modes. In a completely different vein, Kate Bush’s ninth studio album (not counting the rather controversial Director’s Cut, released a few months earlier), 50 Words for Snow, shows an artist that still possesses the ability and the power to surprise her followers. English contemporary classical ensemble North Sea Radio Orchestra’s I A Moon (one of the year’s biggest discoveries for me, thanks to a friend’s recommendation) offer a mesmerizing blend of Old-World folk, avant-garde and academic chamber music that is, in many ways, much more progressive than the slew of cookie-cutter acts so revered in prog circles.

Some other albums, while not quite making the cut, have attracted enough of my interest, and are very much worth checking out: AltrOck releases Sanhedrin’s Ever After, Abrete Gandul’s Enjambre Sismico, Humble Grumble’s Flanders Fields, Factor Burzaco’s II and October EquusSaturnal, Ozric TentaclesPaper Monkeys, CopernicusCipher and Decipher, and From.uz’s Quartus Artifactus; for the more conservatively-minded listeners, The AnabasisBack From Being Gone, La Coscienza di Zeno’s self-titled debut, and TCP’s Fantastic Dreamer also deserve a mention. There have also been a number of albums that, even though heard superficially, and mainly in the final weeks of the year, have left enough of an impression to make me want to write about them at some point – chief among those, Discipline’s To Shatter All Accord.

As I anticipated at the opening of this essay, my readers will be sure to notice some glaring omissions from this overview. The most noticeable ones  are probably Jakszyk Fripp CollinsA Scarcity of Miracles and Steven Wilson’s Grace for Drowning – undoubtedly two of the most highly rated releases of the year. Unfortunately, in spite of repeated listens, neither album has yet clicked with me, even if I clearly perceive their very high standard of quality. Though I hesitate to use the term “disappointment”, The DecemberistsThe King Is Dead did not resonate with me in the same way as its predecessors; its songs, however, acquired a new dimension when performed live.

Some other high-profile 2011 releases have failed to register on my personal meter. Such is the case of Opeth’s Heritage, Karmakanic’s In a Perfect World, and White Willow’s Terminal Twilight – all excellent albums, but lacking in that undefinable “something” that would kindle my enthusiasm. Others (such as Wobbler’s acclaimed Rites at Dawn or Glass Hammer’s Cor Cordium), though in no way displeasing to the ear, are too staunchly, unabashedly retro to truly impress,. As to YesFly from Here (possibly the year’s most eagerly awaited release), I am not ashamed to admit that I have refused to listen to it – even though I own most of the band’s back catalogue, and their earlier albums get regular spins in my player. With up-and-coming acts struggling to get their music across, I believe that spending too much time on the interpersonal dynamics of a band that do not particularly need to be supported is quite detrimental to the scene as a whole.

Some other albums that have been very positively received (at least by part of the fandom) have escaped my attention completely, in some cases for lack of interest (Dream Theater’s A Dramatic Turn of Events), or simply for lack of listening opportunities (Agents of Mercy’s The Black Forest, Mastodon’s The Hunter, Van Der Graaf Generator’s A Grounding in Numbers, The Tangent’s COMM, among others). Hopefully I will manage to hear at least some of those discs in the near future, and possibly write reviews of them. With the overwhelming quantity of music released in the past year, the very concrete danger of getting burned out (and therefore becoming unable to appreciate anything at all) is always lurking around the corner.

2011 has also been an outstanding year for concerts, as witnessed by the live reviews I have published in these pages. Besides seeing my beloved Blue Oyster Cult not once but twice (after a 25-year wait), I was treated to an outstanding edition of ProgDay, a stunning “goodbye” performance by Phideaux at the Orion Studios, the electrifying Two of a Perfect Trio tour, and the highly successful one-off CuneiFest (to name but a few). While the NEARfest cancellation cast a pall on the prog scene for some time, bands and artists are still doing their best to bring their music on stage for the benefits of those fans who still love to attend live shows.

Unlike other sites, I will refrain from mentioning “prog personalities”, or awarding any other such dubious prizes. As I previously stated, the whole point of this piece is to encourage people to delve into the abundant musical output of the past year, especially in regard to those lesser-known acts that deserve more exposure. With a few highly-awaited releases already in the pipeline for the coming months, it remains to be seen if 2012 will be able to keep up with its predecessor. On behalf of the survival of non-mainstream music, we all hope this will be the case.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Pyjamageddon  4:16
2. Blind Jack of Knaresborough  4:21
3. Yockenthwaite  3:59
4. Metal Trees  4:52
5. The Cloud Of Unknowing 6:56
6. Blind Jack’s Unicycle 0:59
7. The Modern Architrave  5:43
8. Kirton In The Rain  3:55
9. Long Shore Drift  3:33
10. Rubber Road  3:16
11. Crossing the Bay 0:37
12. The Sun Unconquered  3:34

LINEUP:
Mark Joell – keyboards, tumbi, shouting through cymbals, funny vocals, funny handshake
Colin Robinson – 6-string fretless bass, corrupted vocals, shehnai, xaphoon, tablas, junk
Alex Stone –  guitar, accordion, kantele, portable harmonium, serious vocals

With:
Sean Corlett – voice (1)
Tim Bradshaw – trombone  (7)
Nastassja Joell – vocals (8,12)

In spite of England’s exalted status as the cradle of the original progressive rock movement, I do not get to review modern English bands very often. This week, however, I have chosen to devote both of  my new reviews to bands hailing from the British Isles, even if I can hardly imagine two acts as different from each other as purveyors of classy pop-prog Exhibit A and arch-experimental outfit Big Block 454.

Hailing from the north-western English city of Manchester – better known for its pre-Britpop scene of the early Nineties than for progressive music – Big Block 454 (named after a car engine developed in the Seventies) were founded in 1988 by Colin Robinson and Pete Scullion, and have been active since then, though in different configurations. Bells and Proclamations, their seventh album, sees them stripped down to a trio of multi-instrumentalists (including Robinson, the one constant member of the band) with guest musicians featured on some tracks.

Even a cursory look at Big Block 454’s back catalogue will clearly reveal their self-proclaimed nature as “a semi-amorphous post-modern / situationist neo-dada cross-platform compositional construct” rather than a band in the traditional sense. While quirky, absurdist titles such as Their Coats Flapped Like God’s Chops (their fifth album, released in 2004) might bring to mind post-rock bands, Big Block 454 are quite a different beast – a veritable melting pot of diverse influences and sources of inspiration, rendered in an outwardly conventional song form, with short, even snappy morsels which are instead densely packed with ideas and variations. This is art-rock in its purest and most literal form – indeed, in its earliest manifestation, the band provided the soundtrack for a Dadaist art installation. Though the easiest way to categorize Big Block 454 would be to place them squarely in the somewhat overcrowded RIO/Avant camp, if you expect something along the lines of the darkly mesmerizing chamber-rock of Univers Zéro or the Canterbury-meets-avant-garde compositions of Henry Cow, you will be disappointed. In fact, the band lean more towards the humorous side of the RIO/Avant spectrum, as embodied by the likes Samla Mammas Manna or Stormy Six, though with an uniquely British twist.

Armed with an impressive instrumentation, including both conventional rock staples and more exotic items, the band offer 12 tracks none of which runs longer than 7 minutes, and which might be very effectively described as deconstructed pop songs. While there faint mainstream suggestions to be found in Bells and Proclamations, they are treated as parts of a fascinating mosaic. Indeed, though the very first impression may be a bit too off-kilter for comfort, threads of melody will emerge from repeated listens, and the album as a whole may prove much less impenetrable than a lot of music bearing the RIO/Avant tag. Eclecticism is the name of the game here, and – though it will probably not have symphonic prog fans jumping for joy – the album will intrigue and reward motivated listeners.

All of the 12 numbers feature vocals, and the vocal style adopted by the members of the band complements the music perfectly – deep-toned, not exactly melodic, yet oddly catchy, occasionally even infectious. Opener “Pyjamageddon” immediately sets the tone, both with its quirky title (used as a chorus of sorts throughout the song) and its extensive use of electronic effects, enhancing an almost danceable tune that might bring to mind some instances of techno/house music. The next two songs develop in a similar vein: “Blind Jack of Knaresborough” blends snippets of melody with electronic noises, theatrical vocals and blaring sax over a strong percussive background; while “Yockenthwaite”, with its mix of the pastoral, the quirky and the experimental, made me think of Barrett-era Pink Floyd. Things turn mellower with the haunting, folksy “Metal Trees” and its accordion-infused coda, and especially the beautiful “The Cloud of Unknowing”, the album’s longest item at almost 7 minutes – a hypnotic, psychedelic mini-epic driven by organ and melancholy guitar chords and vocals, again strongly reminiscent of early Pink Floyd – like a 21st-century version of “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” minus the scream.

After the short, chaotic interlude of “Blind Jack’s Unicycle”, “The Modern Architrave” offers a skewed take on an Eighties synth-pop song, suggestive of archetypal ‘pronk’ acts such as The Stranglers, followed by an entertaining (though quite unrelated), circus-like section; while the brisk “Kirton in the Rain” evokes memories of Devo, with its funny vocal harmonies weaving in and out of the song. The hauntingly minimalistic “Long Shore Drift” is another highlight, with its slow, almost liquid movement and mournful vocals, which seems to flow into the muted, lullaby-like “Rubber Road”, peppered by faintly sinister creaking sounds. The album is then wrapped up by the snappy “Crossing the Bay”, almost like a Fifties’ pop song filtered through modern electronics, and the New Wave-meets-raga of  “The Sun Unconquered”, with its quirky, slightly out-of-tune vocals and atmospheric keyboard coda.

From the above description, it should be quite clear that Bells and Proclamations is the kind of album that is likely to send fans of traditional prog running for the exits. Indeed, I would call it a textbook example of the ‘great divide’ between ‘progressive’ and ‘Prog’. Needless to say, an open mind is indispensable in approaching this album, as well as the whole of Big Block 454’s output. This is an album that, as I previously hinted, may need repeated listens in order to sink in fully, and is also very unlikely to appeal to people who prize melody and great hooks. On the other hand, fans of Krautrock, Eighties new wave, electronic music and genre-bending acts such as Zappa, Gong and King Crimson (and eclectic-minded listeners in general) will find a lot to appreciate in Bells and Proclamations – a genuinely progressive effort with a welcome dose of offbeat, very British humour. The album can be downloaded (for free or by naming your own price) from Big Block 454’s Bandcamp page.

Links:
http://bigblock454.bandcamp.com/

http://bigblock454.tumblr.com/

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