Published on 30th November 2019
The Decade in Review – Rob Fisher
Picking 10 releases from across a decade is no easy task. Injustices will be done! The different criteria you can use and the wide range of emphases on which you pin importance lead to all manner of selections and lists, which in turn change day after day depending on your mood!
At the outset of this exercise, if you had shown me the 10 picks below my response would have been “are you kidding?!” Yet here they are. In the end it came down to the fine line between appreciation and resonance. There are many releases over the last ten years which I appreciate, admire and enjoy as being finely crafted contemporary ‘classics’, masterpieces of musical inspiration and intelligent composition.
But in the end, this alone wasn’t enough to get them over the selection line. My final decisions came down to –
a) these albums continue to be regularly played because
b) the music has the ability to resonate on multiple levels and
c) I believe they all make an important contribution to the growth and evolution of progressive music over the last ten years.
So, without further ado, here we go. Enjoy!
The Seventh Degree of Separation – 2011
Arena had been quiet for 6 years since the release of Pepper’s Ghost in 2005. They returned in 2011 reinvigorated with a new singer in Paul Manzi and fan favourite John Jowitt resuming duties on bass. The result is both enthralling and energising, setting the scene for a moody and deeply atmospheric concept album which bristles with creativity and adventure.
The music explores the subject of death, based on Frigyes Karinthy’s theory of Six Degrees of Separation, which the band expanded to the seventh degree, using the process to link the living to the world of the dead. The album has an intense and passionate musical focus which is vibrant and vigorous in its treatment of the 13 episodes which make up the release.
An overriding sense of drama creates a musical space which swells with inventive compositions, pressing instrumental interplays and spirited vocal harmonies that keep you happily entranced for the duration. It makes my top three because over the years it has never lost that sense of freshness and adventure which mark it out as a remarkable performance by one of the UK’s significant prog bands.
War & Peace and Other Short Stories – 2011
Oh my goodness, where do you begin with an album like this? Unapologetically wearing its heart on its sleeve, there is a driving, dramatic, passionate energy pulsing through the life blood of music which eddies and swirls with thumping rhythms, giving way to gorgeous and wide-open melodic vistas.
You are not going to ‘get’ this on just one listen. Nor on many. There is simply too much going on here. A host of contributors including Lee Abraham, Gary Chandler, Dave Meros, John Mitchell, Gerald Mulligan, Darren Newitt and John Sammes all leave wonderfully distinctive footprints in the musical sands and fill the soundscapes with instruments played with a diverse array of tones, timbres and emphases.
At the same time strong cultural echoes and influences emerge at every point, founded on lyrical storytelling which is hugely perceptive and piercingly observant. The overall effect is an album which carries both musical gravitas as well as delight. Filkins toys, plays and experiments at each turn and it is clear that everyone involved has good fun doing so. Spend serious amounts of time with this album. It never fails to satisfy and reward in equal measure.
The Ghost Moon Orchestra – 2012
For me, The Ghost Moon Orchestra was the point at which Mostly Autumn finally showed us everything they had promised and demonstrated fully what they had it in them to be. Heather Findlay had departed after Glass Shadows (2008), the playful Go Well Diamond Heart (2010) teased with what might be on the horizon, but with Ghost Moon there is a majestic explosion of symphonic energy and progressive rock which is deeply impressive.
Olivia Sparnnen delivers a vocal performance which is truly remarkable, conveying both a penetrating clarity as well as a formidable diversity around which the album finds coherence. The band bring a consistently enjoyable driving rock-oriented intensity, brimming with delightfully crafted instrumental flourishes which show an evolving maturity and new found sense of direction.
Bryan Josh’s voice may not be the highlight of the album, but the texture he brings to the songs is beautifully well judged in contrast with Sparnnen’s and fleshes out the substance of songs which have a mythological, almost fairy-tale quality to them. Every track brings a change of direction, change of atmosphere, change of musical focus without losing the sense of the development of the plot.
It all comes together seamlessly as a creative and musical experience and will enthuse no small amounts of involuntary foot stomping and joining in as it sweeps you away. Neo-progressive symphonic folky prog at its very best.
Skin – 2012
A remarkable album of striking poise, assured finesse and inspiring beauty. Ann-Marie Helder’s bewitching vocals are a sublime feast, demonstrating strength and vulnerability, commanding authority and emotional nuance. It is a virtuoso performance, held aloft on an impressive array of songs which demand no less than full range of what she has to offer.
Alun Vaughan is replaced on bass by the irrepressible Yatim Halimi who brings a new and powerfully dynamic presence to the mix since 2010’s Satellite. His mesmerising contribution to the band’s live performances confirm the exquisite and exciting touch he brings to the songs and Jonathan Edwards keyboards provide the dancing magic which both fills the soundscapes when required as well as the fragility of touch in the quitter moments.
What makes this album special are the straightforward foundations on which the enchanting simplicity of the storytelling is based, the wonderful focus of the instrumental interplays which spark and skip between the musicians and the sheer depth of musical emotion they manage to convey. The title track in particular rarely fails to bring a tear to the eye.
A Feast of Consequences – 2013
I was lucky enough to see Fish during The Feast of Consequences tour and the emotive power and disturbing delicacy experienced during the gig instantly cemented in my mind the significance of this album since first hearing it.
The canvas on which he paints is huge, ranging across the various quizzical experiences of life with a biting lyrical eye that only Fish can summon. At its heart is his musical homage to the Great War, a brilliant mosaic of conflicting emotions, difficult memories, deft commentary and music which is always focused, expressive and above all, organic in the shifting segues and transitions he builds.
The song writing has a confidence and consistency which eluded some of the previous releases; the strength of the musicianship is compelling in the potent balance it brings to the soundstage and the cradle it forms around the lyrics. But what shines out most distinctly is the undeniable flair Fish can channel as a storyteller and the sheer imaginative savvy he has in being able to translate this into music which is irresistible.
Love, Fear and the Time Machine – 2015
Following on in tone and substance from Shrine of New Generation Slaves (2013), Love, Fear and the Time Machine is, for me, close to being the ‘perfect’ album. It brings to together the direction in which Riverside had been developing and crowns it all with a musical finesse and creative artistry that makes it stand apart not only from their own catalogue but in relation to anything else released in the last decade.
The diversity of the song writing is ambitious as well as intelligent. Michal’s keyboards build background worlds of grainy textures and uplifting horizons. Piotr’s guitar work is a master class in timing, touch and a mesmerising ability to fill the spaces with deft, nuanced interjections that supplement the more aggressive and substantial contributions. His loss to the world of music is inestimable. Piotr K’s drumming is perhaps the best it has ever been, technically skilful, driving momentum whilst also deft and subtle where required. Mariusz is absolutely astonishing with bass lines that one minute, rumble and pulsate whilst the next, delicate and playful.
It is the most ‘complete’ album I’ve heard across the decade and brings so much to the party you cannot fail to hear new layers and new elements each time you play it. Magnificent.
Southern Empire – 2016
It was a close call between this and second album Civilisation, but for me the debut release from this fascinating Australian band brings to the table everything that is so good about prog. Crazy levels of musical skill, complex compositions, shifting time signatures, beguiling segues and music that soars with a dazzling energy and spirit.
The lyrics are unflinching and brilliantly poignant, gently toying with our feelings of how we cope with growing up, growing old, all the things left undone and the things which can still be done. They effortlessly convey troubled feelings and disconcerting resonances which both drive and colour the mood and atmosphere of the music. The musicianship is rigorous, controlled and precise, but certainly not clinical. Talent and passion drive music which is warm, spirited and edgy, brimming with vitality and purpose.
At the time of its release I concluded that this is a significant album delivering progressive music which is psychologically perceptive, emotionally insightful and alive with melodic creativity. To this day I still believe it to be a glorious achievement and one which I thoroughly recommend.
Built For Fighting – 2016
I love this album. Whenever I hear it, I break out a huge cheesy grin. I don’t particularly know why – and more importantly, I’m not entirely sure I want to. As reviewers we can be guilty of analysing something to death and I’m sure as heck not going to make that mistake with this album.
In the broadest possible brush strokes, the music exudes a spirit, an attitude, and a tone which is captivating and mesmerising. The simplicity of the arrangements are exquisitely compelling and unexpectedly beautiful. Each song is a wonderful vignette of social comment and observations, descriptive story-telling and a beguiling focus which is refreshing.
Wilson’s voice brings an incredibly diverse range to the songs, from the gentle and emotionally nuanced ballads all the way through to the feisty, rugged and good old-fashioned heavy rock anthems. The vocal performance elicited by and expressed through the music is simply magnificent, a joyful master class which is a delightful privilege to hear, appreciate and enjoy.
‘Built For Fighting’ is an extraordinary achievement on so many levels. It is a gem which hides in plain sight and runs the risk of being ignored precisely because of that. It is fiercely honest, impressively direct yet for all that, expressed in and through music which is delicately sensitive, powerfully moving and strikingly touching. Sit back and enjoy it. Bloody wonderful.
Seed – 2019
Profound musical beauty blends with profound emotional empathy and creates intellectual resonances which cross history in a wonderful act of remembrance and, in many ways, allows those who died to live again in our hearts and in our memories. It is a stunning achievement which I doubt can or will ever be bettered.
Never before have I reached for a pause button so frequently as when listening to this album. There is a gentle but disturbing sensitivity which underlies the lyrical ingenuity of this release which hits home again and again with heart-breaking poignancy and force. If you want to talk about war, if you want to come one step closer to understanding the unspeakable, unbearable horror of what people went through on the battlefields, if you want to remember them, then this is precisely how you do it.
The holistic musical experience and historical vision it offers will – and should – stop you in your tracks. It is at once devastating in the sweep of its poignant delivery whilst at the same time utterly humbling in the profound insights it enables. Flawless.
Solipsystemology – 2019
I sat in silence for seven minutes after listening to this album. When the music ended, I didn’t move, I didn’t stir, I just didn’t – couldn’t – do anything. Nothing prepares you for the sheer scale of Thomas Thielen’s momentous intellectual, musical and experiential tsunami which sweeps you off your feet. Subsequent listens don’t make it any better. Nothing prepares you for the way it keeps on doing it to you – again and again and again, penetrating and permeating the worlds and experiences you think you know – even though you know what to expect.
I sincerely believe Solipsystemology is a masterpiece. Thielen quite deliberately makes his listeners work hard when it comes to his music and this is no exception. What an album it is. It will whisper to your fears, echo in your darkness, nuzzle and embrace your self-doubts.
Frankly, it wouldn’t have mattered when it was released, this is without doubt a once in a life time kind of release, a work of genius which comes around only once in a generation.
Suffused with emotional turmoil, poetic lament, heart rending loss and music which dances to different rhythms, tempos, sounds, mixes – from top to bottom it exudes innovation but without sacrificing musical invention and power. Devilishly brilliant, it resonates at all levels with the captivating and unsettling music of life.
As with any list of this nature, there are casualties of decisions you wish you didn’t have to make. Some of the choices which led me to leave the following selections out were painful and all, in their own way, are equally deserving of time and attention.
Barock Project – Detachment, 2017
Flux – ShadowLines, 2016
HFMC – HFMC, 2015
Marek Arnold & Manuel Schmidt, Zeiten, 2019
Threshold – Legends of the Shires, 2017
Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused To Sing, 2013
Zeelley Moon – Zelley Moon, 2017
It has been a marvellous decade of music. Here’s to the next ten years. Cheers!