|Gimme live meat, now|
Well, that's another year over, and the Matrix, which went "RAAAWWWWGGGGGHHHH!!!" before projectile-vomiting several handfuls of nuts and bolts across the cosmos in the middle of 2016, is still waiting for the repair man to call it seems. However, life goes on and the never ending broiling sea of music keeps on rising, threatening my meagre flood defences. It's time to make A LIST, which I have been told is a pointless exercise, and it most probably is, but it satisfies the urge to scratch at an OCD itch or two.
There follows said LIST, in rough chronological order of release. Not so much a "Best Of", as there are doubtless glaring emissions, even within the small dusty musical corner I inhabit, but more a round up of the better albums that have come my way during 17th year of the 21st century. Those I like the most are highlighted by one, two or even three glittering asterisks, and I may even tell you what my Album Of The Year is at the end, not that you should care, of course!
For those that do the streaming thang, there is a Spotify playlist below, which covers most if not all of the gnarled beauties mentioned herein. Links to reviews in the titles, as ever. Spark up a big one, pull up the comfy chair, beckon the cat to your lap, and settle in...
*Knekklectric - For Mange Melodia
This came out back in January on Norway's always interesting Apollon Records label, but I've only just noticed it, and I'm glad I did. These tongue-twistingly named denizens of Ålesund play dense art-rock-pop of a very high quality indeedy. Check it out!
Tohpati Ethnomission - Mata Hati
Wonderfully diverse sounds. A truly global album that serves to highlight the futility of national boundaries, lines on maps that only exist if you want them to.
*Wingfield Reuter Stavi Sirkis - The Stone House
The first of two instalments this year from the fusion ensemble's corruscating marathon improv session recorded in 2016. Never a dull moment.
Eat Lights Become Lights - Nature Reserve
Shake the chalk dust out of yer bouffant and put yer Krautslippers on, baby-o...
**iNFiNiEN – Light at the Endless Tunnel
OK, it came out on Bandcamp in November 2016, but the CD release date was 1st February 2017, so that will do for me. What can I say? A band to rival Bent Knee in adventurousness and scope. Bloody marvellous!
Aquaserge - Laisse ça être
Mon aéroglisseur est plein d'anguilles. Slippery fun! :)
Juxtavoices - Warning: May Contain Notes
Choirs were never like this in my day.
Mouse on the Keys - Out of Body (EP)
Jerky modernistic electronica and trickery that will make your knees twitch, on a right little tease of an 18-minute EP that will leave you entirely unsatiated.
Tim Bowness - Lost In The Ghost Light
In which Tim fully assumes the mantle of Prog's Torch Singer. It is all getting a bit too slick for me, but Tim more than deserves any long overdue success that comes his way.
*Stefano Giannotti & Salvo Lazzara – La vostra ansia di orizzonte
This beautiful piece of art is certainly progressive, but not in the slightest prog, and has a timeless quality that will ensure its shelf life is considerably longer than the usual suspects that will occupy the top end of Best Prog Album lists this year. Making clever use of sampled found sounds, free jazz instincts, classical arrangements and an ear for the melodically unusual, without ever being strident, I find this album fascinating. It will probably sell about a 10000th the amount of those previously mentioned albums, more's the pity.
Along with Juxtavoices, the most experimental offering here.
Orange Clocks - Tope's Sphere 2
They bombed Higham Ferrers' chippy during the war, and this is East Northants' revenge on the dastardly Hun. Possibly.
The Hadron Big Bangers - flAsh
It barks and howls, and lets off firecrackers in your bathroom.
Jumble Hole Clough - Go and play quietly by yourself
The ever-prolific Colin Robinson gets all whimsical in his lonesome funky shed, oop narth, 'appen.
The Bug vs Earth - Concrete Desert
An odd pairing - ultra-modern sound manipulator The Bug, known for experiments in dub, grime & dancehall, whatever those last two are, and drone-metal (nope, me neither) guitar slinger Dylan Carlson team up for a dystopian cinematic instrumental album inspired by J G Ballard depicting the end of days in an alien and alienating Los Angeles. Nice it isn't, and you can almost taste the petrol fumes. Depicts what it says on the tin.
*Karda Estra -Infernal Spheres
Richard Wileman's vehicle for his singular classically inspired progressive music making just keeps on giving.
Big Hogg - Gargoyles
Some big Scottish fun in among the furrowed brows to jolly up this LIST. Frankie Miller and Alex Harvey would approve.
*Pat Mastelotto & Markus Reuter - FACE
This is nothing like prog, but FACE is as close to prog as these two are ever likely to get.
Markus Reuter featuring SONAR and Tobias Reber - Falling For Ascension
Markus with Sonar as his backing band do the incremental bop with all the icily intellectual style you would expect.
Miriodor - Signal 9
A classy and intricate listen, as you would expect from the long-running French-Canadian troupe.
*AKKU Quintet - Aeon
The modern tradition of Swiss minimalist jazz fusion continues with this band, who take as long as it takes to get from A to B, as it should be.
**Cheer-Accident - Putting Off Death
Another long-running band who are not the slightest bit perturbed that fame will never come a-knocking, and continue to make their own inimitable sounds. "Adventurous and accessible" say I.
***All Them Witches - Sleeping Through The War
Marvellously unhinged swamp rock, from Nashville of all places. My mate Shawn sez this is "a gloriously groovy mindfuck". Yup, that's about right.
Thinking Plague - Hoping Against Hope
Wilfully individual furrows ploughed by Mike Johnson's far-flung veteran avant rockers for the pleasure of us miscreants and misfits the world over. There's a 14-minute avant-epic entitled A Dirge For The Unwitting on here...you have been warned.
Richard Barbieri - Planets + Persona
Video of the Year, filmed in 360° - see below. The album is none too shabby, either!
*O.R.k. - Soul Of An Octopus
The multi-national underground supergroup return with a second album of heavy alt-pop-prog.
Machine Mass - Machine Mass Plays Hendrix
A brave move from Belgian guitarist Michel Delville's adventurous band, which pays off handsomely by tearing up the rule book.
Richard Dawson - Peasant
Folk music's Scott Walker equivalent channels ISB and Robert Wyatt in a sprawling tale of grubby survival in the Dark Ages.
The Bob Lazar Story - Baritonia
Matt Deacon has a febrile musical imagination, and each album he makes is better than the last. His music is the one aspect of his life where his delusional rantings are put to good use. ;)
Toby Driver - Madonnawhore
Ghost whispers of Catholic guilt crowd the fragile air. As they do...
Valdez - "This"
Classy Rundgrenesque art-pop from Simon Godfrey and members of Echolyn. Very good indeed.
**Nick Prol & The Proletarians - Loon Attic
The kitchen sink gets smashed to pieces by a troupe of restless gibbons and is then reassembled by a previously unknown tribe deep in the Amazon jungle, who while they know nothing of modern plumbing aids, have an ear for a catchy tune.
Norwegian progressive iconoclasts make "pop" album shock horror!!! Well yes, but it's much, much more than that, and unlike the other ironically far more popular nominally pop convert further down this list, The Assassination of Julius Caesar doesn't sound remotely like anything they've done before. This is what progression sounds like.
ZU - Jhator
Meditative ur-rock for the furrowed brow.
**Mew - Visuals
There was a time when I couldn't put this band down, but she had a fling with a producer, and we drifted apart a long time ago. In fact the last album I bought by them was the fabrous And The Glass Handed Kites, way back in 2005. Visuals is only the third album since then, but a relative flurry of activity in the unhurried world of Mew has now resulted in two albums in as many years. Steady on, chaps! Their muse is obviously mining a rich seam, and the care and craft lavished on this great record pays good dividends. Scandi-pop hasn't sounded this good since A-ha.
**faUSt - Fresh Air
Very long-running Brit panel comedy show Have I Got News For You recently featured Jean-Hervé Peron as one of four suspects in its "Odd One Out" picture round, which was a surprise, as was the vibrancy of this album released back in the summer. Jean-Hervé was playing symphonies on a cement mixer in the quiz show picture, as well he might.
**Arve Henriksen - Towards Language
More elegiac trumpet playing from the Norwegian master. Sublime.
Schnauser - Irritant
Scratch it...no, down a bit...left a bit...that's it! This album satisfies a need for quirky invention combined with hummable choons. What's not to like? Maybe the cover, which much like their previous long player, is deliberately hideous.
Mumpbeak - Tooth
He loves his clavinet, does Roy Powell, he rather likes his Hammond too.
The Universe By Ear - The Universe By Ear
Noisy Krimsoid blooze in spirit, where thankfully the 12-bar is never once troubled for a light on this fine debut.
**Orchestra of the Upper Atmosphere - O3
This album is MASSIVE, a sprawling trip into Krautrock influenced rock improv the likes of which you won't hear bettered at this moment in time and space. Now available through Bandcamp.
Mark's croonsome baritone sashays through some killer tunes with a swagger in its step and just a hint of menace. Which is nice.
Big Bad Wolf - Pond Life
Charming and occasionally tantalisingly complex, this is chill out music for lesser boffins, thus avoiding headaches caused by wilful degrees of difficulty.
Dusan Jevtovic - No Answer
Thoroughly modern jazz fusion that will cauterise your ear hairs.
**Bent Knee - Land Animal
The unjustified stick this band get from the more conservative corners of the Progwelt is symptomatic of how the majority of prog fans just can't handle innovation and difference, a delicious irony indeed. Or maybe their dismissive attiude arises because Bent Knee may appeal to music fans away from our particularly obsessive corner, or even possibly that like some of their compatriots in the "Scene That Isn't" - I'm thinking Moe Tar, Half Past Four, iNFiNiEN, to name but three - they have a forthright female as a front-person? Hmmm...
Anyway, Land Animal is maybe over-ambitious and tries just a tad too hard, and for me doesn't quite reach the dizzy heights of previous album Say So. For all that it conforms to the cliché "More ideas in one song than most bands have in entire albums", especially so those in the prog pond, and MOJO magazine are probably right when they said in their review of the album that "If prog rock has a future then Bent Knee are surely it".
***Elder - Reflections of a Floating World
ROCK! Fuck, yeah!
**Laura Marling - Semper Femina
The supremely talented Ms Marling iterates once more on the feminine condition in that alt-folk crossed with Lou Reed way of hers. Still only 27 and now on her sixth album, had she been a baby boomer she'd be as internationally revered as Joni Mitchell. A perfect record for a hot summer afternoon.
The Tangent - The Slow Rust Of Forgotten Machinery
I've listened to the new Tangent offering...all of it, which must say something. I quite like it in parts, it has a very sub-Zappa/fusion groove, and is much less deliberately proggy ("proggy"...did I just say that? Damn and blast!) than some of their output. Not only that, but Andy's idiosyncratic singing is almost passable! His righteous political ranting hits the spot too. There are not many on the all too cosy prog sofa who tell it like it is, regardless of how many fans they might alienate. Which hopefully won't be too many for in order to truly appreciate art as well as to make it you need an open mind, one that is accepting of diversity and of course, you must have a love of creative freedom. All of which excludes the closed mind of the conservative thinker, he says, naively...or provocatively. ;)
Anni Elif - Edith
Norwegian singer-songwriter plays jazz-inflected dark electronica. Which hardly begins to sum up this captivating album.
Papir - V
Danish metronomic space rockers hit precisely calculated musical peaks with guitars. QED.
Peter Perrett - How The West Was Won
The unlikely return of rock's lost poet is everything I dared to hope it would be. We should all be grateful he's still capable of walking the walk and talking the talk.
Discipline - Captives Of The Wine Dark Sea
An engaging and involving art-rock excursion from long-running American band. And no, it doesn't sound the slightest bit like Van der Graaf Generator...ok, maybe a teeny bit.
***UNKLE - The Road: Part 1
The electronica giants' first album for seven years is essentially a James Lavelle solo album "featuring", as is the wont of modern pop, a whole load of disparate folk from all walks of modern alt-pop music. This makes the record a stylistic mash up of electronica and all kinds of modern rock(ish) and pop. It is a mess, but oddly it works, as it is all loosely thematically linked by spoken word "Iters", the first of which sets the the tone with actor Brian Cox's "Have you thought about the mistakes you made?", no doubt a self-referential nod by the author to his extended burial under a vast snowfield of coke following his initial brush with success. Quite a compelling work, all told.
Steven Wilson - To The Bone
"There's only one thing worse than being talked about, and that's not being talked about", which I believe was one of Wilde's. Mr Wilson was never in any danger of not being talked about, even if he hadn't made a nominally "pop" album. Everything changes, but essentially stays the same...apart from THAT song, which is actually rather good. Enough, already.
**Hammock - Mysterium
The very sad backstory of this album lends weight to Hammock's already signature sound depicting "despair at the gates of ennui" translated into music. Inappropriate jesting aside, this is as near to a perfect expression of grief and its aftermath through music as you are likely to hear this or any other year. I wouldn't recommend playing this straight after Nick Cave's Skeleton Tree.
Like All Them Witches, Hammock are based in Nashville, which obviously has far more going for it that us outsiders might assume.
**My Tricksy Spirit - My Tricksy Spirit
Dub gamelan summer trippin' the heavy fantastic!
(Note - Weird timing tags make this impossible to post individual tracks to the Spotify playlist, but there's a link to Bandcamp streaming in the linked review)
*Wingfield Reuter Sirkis - Lighthouse
Second instalment of sizzling improv from masters of the craft. See second entry in this list for the first.
***Motorpsycho - The Tower
The Norwegian space travellers turn up in Laurel Canyon, put CS&N on a rocket ship and fire it at the sun, among other groovy things. A simply massive album!
**Inner Ear Brigade - Dromology
Primal and odd, and a must-listen!
Trojan Horse - Fukushima Surfer Boys
There's a worrying amount of releases in this list from that nefarious Lahndahn label Bad Elephant Music, but contrary to your admittedly justified suspicions I haven't been threatened, nobody called Elliott 'as 'ad a word, 'onest guv. Actually, none of them are Cockneys as far as I can make out, which ruins my modern day Fagin analogy. Bastards.
French TV - Operation Mockingbird
One of a handful of yer actual prog albums on this here list...yes, it may be referential, often way too complicated for its own good, and occasionally hard work, but if like me you like to take a trip down that peculiar road now and again there aren't any better guides than Mike Sary's wilful troupe. They don't make hunting down sample tracks too easy, so you'll have to trust me on this one!
**Charlie Cawood - The Divine Abstract
The young musical polymath astounds with the scope of his vision. That sounds pretentious, I know, but such hyperbole in this case is merited. It's been a good year for Bad Elephant Music and this album may well be the best of the year for the label.
*The Knells - Knells II
A really inventive album, and probably the best example of "voices as instruments" you'll hear this year. Combining a classical choral section with progressive rock instrumentation isn't a formula you'd expect to work, but it does. Unfortunately my old curse of perfect pitch means I find the harmonies occasionally rattle my finely tuned aural sensibilities, but I guess most wouldn't notice!
Ever since arriving on the scene a somewhat staggering 37 years ago, Michael Head has found writing winsomely effortless tunes tinged by a life of increasingly hard knocks as easy as scoring in a dark alley somewhere in Liverpool. His is the story of the blues, as another Scouser would have it.
Courtney Swain - Growing Pains EP
The hugely talented Ms Swain makes her second foray into this list with a solo EP of alt-torch singer fare, reminiscing and emoting in her trademark swooping style with just her own piano playing for accompaniment, occasionally joined by a string trio. We are not worthy.
LEF - Hypersomniac
Dystopian concept album partly inspired by The Wall, with accompanying animated comic book.
Peter Hammill - From The Trees
A stripped-back musical frame supports more of the author's reflections on the passing of time and the realisation of mortality. Seemingly effortless class from simply the best lyric writer of the original generation of underground musicians who begat progressive rock.
GRICE - The Grey of Granite Stone (EP)
Delightfully crafted post-rock-pop with a classy supporting cast including Richard Barbieri and Steve Jansen. Hopefully, this serves as a teaser for an album.
Well, that was 2017...apart from...
Some re-releases/archival releases:
Radiohead - OK Computer - OKNOTOK 1997 2017
Has it really been twenty years?
The band's appearance at Glastonbury back in June made many of us go on a 'Head binge in the days following. I have said many times that pop is often more progressive than prog, and Oxford's miserablists in chief are prime evidence. OK Computer when it came out was light years ahead of the dreary Britpop it succeeded, and it was the album that launched the band into unlikely global mega stardom, something that did not sit easy on their undernourished narrow shoulders. Try as they might with the two albums that followed they couldn't shake off their by then huge fanbase, and they remain about the only band I can think of that can foist formless noisy experimental deconstructions on the masses and get away with it. They're not bad at choons too, which helps.
Gentle Giant - Three Piece Suite
Frankly, if you don't like Gentle Giant, you don't really like progressive rock music, do you? Here, the Man In The Expensive Retro NHS Specs remakes and remodels the album's worth of master tapes that still exist from this class act's first three LPs, and the results are simply stunning, both in 5.1 surround sound and in the new stereo mixes.
Frank Zappa - Halloween 77
Uncle Frank gets up close and personal over three discs of delightfully perverse live music.
Gig of the Year:
I have never understood the fan mentality, where proclaiming that you've seen Tommy Winkle's Tumescent Trouser Sausage live 124 times is a final call in a pissing contest. I may have seen a few favourites live a handful of times, but I would far rather see a band I've never seen than one I have already seen. The proof of that is that seven out of the mere ten gigs I went to in 2017 were first timers. Having said that my gig of the year is not one of those, but shockingly a third timer - does that make me a fan? Heaven forfend! However, it was the first time I have ever seen a band in another country, and Magma with the Mekanik Orkestra at the splendidly appointed Paris Olympia on a surprisingly mild 2nd February night was a marvellous experience. I thought at the time that the concert was unlikely to be bettered in the year then yet to come, and I was right.
A few gigs came close - All Them Witches, Motorpsycho, and Ulver were all first timers and all enthralling in their own way, and North Sea Radio Orchestra were sublime, as ever. I regret missing Elder, and hope there might be another opportunity in the future. While low on quantity, 2017 was certainly high in quality, gigs-wise.
2016 Albums That Got Away:
Shaman Elephant - Crystals
Heavy riffage takes a bucketload of all the right drugs and goes "wibble". Smashing!
Richard Pinhas & Barry Cleveland - Mu
Jumble Hole Clough - This Salty Armada
Mr Colin Robinson, back in the shed again.
Mercury Rev - The Light In You
This came out in 2015, and I only found out about it in January this year! Criminal, considering it's probably their best since the career pinnacle that was Deserters' Songs all those years ago.
Same old thing you've heard from me too many times already I shouldn't wonder...
We all know how prog fans hate change, ironically enough, and it will be interesting to see how they take to Big Big Train's much anticipated change of direction and their soon come Earth Wind & Fire-styled disco album, which rumour has it is all down to singer David Longdon's long closeted Maurice White obession. Mirrorballtastic!
Irony Bypass of the Year:
Pugilistic ex-Pink Floyd bass player and righteous Trump baiter Roger Waters advertised his UK tour back in October, with tickets starting at an eye-watering £100. The tour was billed as "Us + Them". Sigh...
Album Of The Year:
Music is not a competition, so put that in yer pipe. If a gun was pointed at my head, it might be All Them Witches' fabulous racket...or any of the others I gave three shiny asterisks...heck, I don't know!
Well, that's it, then, apart from this...
Schroedinger, you know, he of cat fame; I'll bet had he been around at the time would have been a mahoosive prog fan, probably inclined towards impossibly complex theoretical quantum prog. He would have hummed Henry Cow's Terrible as an Army with Banners in the shower, that one.
If I may, I will posit the theory of Schroedinger's Prog Album. If I ignore the annual 706 albums of mostly regressive and anally retentive nonsense that block up my auditory pipes, then they do not actually exist in my universe.
Therefore, no longer do I have to worry about never getting around to reviewing Galadriel's Tumescent Tapeworm's pointless epic The Boy, The Unicorn, and The Bearded Clam Shed...or even Stevie Boy's Boney Thing. Ipso factum, QED, and indeed, wahey!
Ah, the relief! This is lower colonic irrigation for the soul, you really should try it.
That really is it, and finally..Thank you, kindly...
Thanks must go out this year as every year to anyone who puts up with my raving and occasionally salient verbiage both in the imaginary world where I am a lickspittle to Lester Bangs, and the real one, where I am simply a grumbling old scrote. Anyways...have a spiffing Yuletide and we will meet on the other side, to shimmy some more.
Also, a special hail thee well (virtually) met to my American Farcebook mate Shawn Dudley, who apart from gifting his ongoing photographic diary of the American Fantasyland he lives in....that's L.A. to us mere mortals, has this year, knowingly or otherwise reintroduced me to the RIFF, and thereby to righteous rock'n'roll. In this list those two essential ingredients are supplied mostly by All Them Witches and Elder, two American bands I would probably have let zoom by unnoticed were it not for Shawn's insistence. Ta, muchly! :)