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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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Barely 10 days after the passing of John Orsi, I find myself writing about the demise of another fine progressive rock musician whose work I had  the pleasure of reviewing on this blog.  Though Dave Kulju passed away on December 10, I only found out this morning – again, while scrolling down my Facebook feed. He would have turned 44 in January.

My first contact with Dave also happened when I was collaborating with that other website, and he sent me his second solo album, Notes From the Margin, for review. I remember being intrigued by his obviously Finnish surname (I lived in Finland from 1996 to 2001, and still have very fond memories of that country), though only later did I ask him if he had Finnish roots. Unfortunately, I did not get round to reviewing the CD on that occasion, so when we connected on Facebook a few months later I asked him to send me another copy. The album turned out to be a cut above the majority of the “solo pilot” projects I had reviewed in the past – marrying melody and accessibility with a genuine love of progressive rock, and paying homage to the genre’s glorious past without coming across as blatantly regressive.

In the past few months, Dave had been working on some new music, and towards the end of November he posted a video of a new song on his blog (which also hosted examples of his impressive photography, including quite a few shots from NEARfest Apocalypse). He had also been working with a couple of old friends with the intent of starting a band, and recorded two demos titled “Big Sur” and “Echoes of Warning”. In spite of his commitments to work and family, he always found the time for music, which was his greatest passion together with photography, computers and sports.

Although both Dave and I were in Bethlehem for the final edition of NEArfest, we managed to miss each other, but hoped there would be a next time in which to meet face to face. Sadly, fate decreed otherwise, and for the second time in this month of December – a month that has acquired a special poignancy for me since my mother’s passing at the end of 2004 – I have to mourn the passing of a talented artist and very nice human being. I hope those of my readers who are unfamiliar with Dave’s music will want to check it out and keep his memory alive.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Skating on Europa 9:35
2. Know Again 6:26
3. A Poet’s Talespin I: Half-Slept Moments 1:56
4. A Poet’s Talespin II: Soft Collisions 8:28
5. A Poet’s Talespin III: The Bridge 7:55
6. A Poet’s Talespin IV: I Write 5:01
7. A Poet’s Talespin V: In the Shadows 6:17
8. Get the Hell off my Lawn 4:20
9. Counted the Stars 1:18

LINEUP:
Dave Kulju – electric and acoustic guitars, bass guitar, keyboards, guitar synthesizer, sound effects and programming
Frank Basile – drums

With:
Annie Oya – vocals (3)
Ian Cameron – electric and acoustic violins (2)

Notes in the Margin is the second album released by US multi-instrumentalist Dave Kulju, based in Rochester (New Hampshire). After his recording debut with Electrum, Frames of Mind (1998), followed in 2002 by Standard Deviation, when the band went on hiatus he started devoting his free time to his solo career, releasing Abstract Expression in 2007, which brought him to the attention of the community of progressive rock followers.  Like Abstract Expressions – even if Kulju is in charge of the majority of the instrumentation – Notes in the Margin is not your typical, ubiquitous ‘solo-pilot’ projects made possible by modern recording technology, but features a real drummer, Frank Basile, as well as a couple of other guests. Unlike its predecessor, though, the album is not completely instrumental, and its centrepiece, the five-part epic “A Poet’s Talespin” (adapted from two poems by Australian poet Amanda Joy) features the amazing contribution of UK-based  session vocalist Annie Oya.

Three years in the making, the process lovingly detailed on Dave’s own website, Notes in the Margin is an unusually elegant, deeply literate effort that eschews any of the pretentiousness often associated with prog, and manages to emphasize emotional content without being mawkish or contrived. The striking cover, a photo taken by Kulju himself (who is a gifted photographer as well as a talented musician), immediately projects a stylish contemporary image that sharply deviates from the old prog cliché of fantasy/sci-fi themed artwork, with its still life centred around a vintage typewriter. According to the artist, the album title is a reflection on the process of making the record itself – a process involving a lot of rewriting and refinement, just like a work of literature.

For a project completely conceived in the studio, Notes in the Margin sounds remarkably organic,  multilayered though never overdone, each instrument standing out in clear detail. It comes very much across as a guitar-based album, showcasing Kulju’s fluid, clean style, inspired by the likes of David Gilmour and Andy Latimer without being derivative. Keyboards, on the other hand, are used more as a foundation than the main event, though the epic can boast of some positively gorgeous piano passages. Surprisingly, however, the real protagonist of Notes in the Margin is the bass, merging seamlessly with Frank Basile’s excellent drum work to set the pace, and stamping its own distinctive touch on the fabric of the compositions. The music flows smoothly, with enough complexity to satisfy the cravings of most prog fans, except those who are looking for innovation at all costs. Indeed, while Notes in the Margin does not offer anything startlingly new, neither does the vast majority of current releases, and the musical content here is undeniably above average.

With a practically perfect running time of about 51 minutes, no filler is needed on Notes in the Margin, and none of the tracks feels padded or stretched beyond reason. Album opener “Skating on Europa”, loosely based on the work of sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke, is a forceful yet melodic number which, in spite of its almost 10-minute duration, never outstays its welcome. Driven by thunderous yet not overwhelming drums and a sleek, dynamic bass line, it pushes Kulju’s fluid, fiery lead guitar to the forefront with exhilarating effect. In “Know Again” (the English translation of the Greek word anagnorisis, the moment of recognition for the protagonist of a Greek tragedy)  the keyboards take more of a lead role, and Ian Cameron’s contribution on acoustic and electric violin add further layers of dimension to a piece that, while not exactly jazzy, shifts subtly from a subdued tone to a sort of crescendo, slowing down again towards the end.

The album’s epic, “A Poet’s Talespin”, which (like Shadow Circus’ “Project Blue” or The Rebel Wheel’s “The Discovery of Witchcraft”, to name but two recent examples) is conceived as five separate pieces strung together by a  musical and lyrical fil rouge, rather than as a massive 30-minute behemoth. As previously hinted, it is also the only composition featuring Annie Oya’s lovely vocals, soothing and melodious yet devoid of that cloying sweetness all too frequent in female prog singers. Introduced by a gorgeous classical piano piece, the romantic, mid-paced (and very aptly titled) “Soft Collisions” develops into a number of subtle complexity where the vocals are complemented by Kulju’s superb guitar and bass work and the recurring presence of the piano. “The Bridge” treads spacey territory, with a subdued, more acoustic bent; while the symphonic, keyboard-driven “I Write” is brimming with gentle sadness, and “In the Shadows” closes the epic with an instrumental reprise of the main theme, rendered in spacious, atmospheric tones reminiscent of Pink Floyd. The album is wrapped up by two instrumentals – the highly dynamic, riff-based “Get the Hell Off My Lawn”, bringing to mind Rush compositions such as “Leave That Thing Alone”, with bass and guitar working together to create intense textures; and the short, somber keyboard piece “Counted the Stars”, named after a phrase in an Anne Sexton poem that was the earliest inspiration for the epic.

With superb production values and sterling sound quality, Notes in the Margin is indeed an excellent release, worthy of the attention of even the more demanding prog listeners. It is a pity that – like most studio-only projects – it will probably flow under the radar of many fans in favour of more extensively publicized albums. A labour of love in every sense of the term, classy and literate yet full of endearing warmth, this is a must for everyone who loves melodic, guitar-oriented progressive rock. It would be a boon if, one day, Dave managed to put a band together and perform his music on stage, in spite of all the well-documented difficulties that plague those artists looking for live outlets for their work.

Links:
http://www.davekmusic.com/

http://www.littleglasspen.com/

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