Published on 3rd January 2021
TPA Best Albums of 2020
Here’s to a hopefully happier New Year!
It’s that time again where we look ahead to the audible delights that might give us a quick peck on the cheek, a full-blown snog or have us running screaming from the singles bar in 2021. It’s also time to look back, to remember with fondness new-found relationships forged in 2020 amid a landscapes of masks and keeping at more than arms length, some of which might have become a permanent fixture, their toothbrush placed tantalisingly next to yours in the metaphorical bathroom of musical heaven.
Anyway, below are a whole load of lists from folk who clearly have too much time on their hands, presented in alphabetical order. Whatever Leo says, there is no right answer, just a whole host of great releases to listen to. To that end, we’ve added links so that you can do just that. Go on, feel free to gorge on the wonderful sounds – it might even lead to wedding bells.
The fact that a massive 56 albums have been suggested by the twelve contributors underlines that – against the odds – 2020 has been another great year for music at the progressive end of the spectrum, from both big names and more underground artists, all of whom have struggled in difficult circumstances, so do them and yourselves a favour and don’t just listen, listen and then buy a couple. I doubt there is anyone who has heard all of these releases, not all are going to be to everyone’s taste, but the fact that they have been created at all and have managed to resonate with an audience – however small – is important.
Happy listening and hopefully discovery, and here’s to a wonderful collection of new albums to hear in 2021!
Motorpsycho – The All Is One
Motorpsycho are creative and forward thinking in their approach to music, combining powerful but precise presentation, making them a band that continually develops their ideas to create the great sounds contained here, making this my album of the year.
Wobbler – Dwellers of the Deep
This release is a definite move forward for the band, Dwellers of the Deep is well named as there is so much buried deep within the music. Repeated plays reveal more aural delights and as you peel away the layers the enjoyment level increases.
Samuel Hällkvist – Epik, Didaktik, Pastoral
The tracks contained here are of a very high standard and quality, with lots of depth worth exploring. The sometimes hypnotic programming used draws you in and allows the songs to develop in and around it. Samuel’s work continues to develop and evolve through all of his releases, and he deserves to be heard and enjoyed.
Pixie Ninja – Colour Out of Space
This their second album is full of bold, brave ideas which have been developed to create a wonderful listening experience, with hidden depths that continue to enrich this exciting music.
Talinka – Rainbow Over Kolonaki
This their second album is full of bold, brave ideas which have been developed to create a wonderful listening experience, with hidden depths that continue to enrich this exciting music.
2020 is going to go down as a horrible year for gigs, out and abouts and a few other things, but not music. There have been some stonking releases this year, even without the ability to promote. Music is strong, stronger for all that COVID-19 threw out, despite cancelled gigs there were some amazing live broadcasts, and interesting online conversations. When the day dawns, get out there and support the acts and small venues. Care for the little, the big can take care of themselves to some extent. So five releases, a difficult number to cut it down to, but using a sharp knife I have whittled these from the musical tree…
Hats Off Gentlemen It’s Adequate – Nostalgia For Infinity
Just Brilliant; mixing and matching genres, taking risks and stepping well beyond the limitations. I took it on knowing I had liked them live, and despite the Roger Waters tendency to avoid anything happy. But it is a joy now, months after the review. There is variety here, and beautifully written lyrics, and like the good stories you hear, it drove me to seek further information.
Jargon – The Fading Thought
Having heard snippets before release, my anticipation was exceedingly high, almost with the risk of crushing disappointment. I was not and my anticipation was rewarded in Jargon’s debut solo album, with only a light nod to the day job with Verbal Delirium. Loved it then, love it now.
Nick D’Virgilio – Invisible
A Story told well, prog in a sense that the boundaries between genres no longer exist, as musical polyglot Nick takes us through a potted history of the music in his life. The tale is not autobiographical, Nick ably manages to combine his influence into an album that delivers and satisfies. A noire cover of Money, and the introductory piece by composer Carl Baldasarre just add to all that make an album step beyond good.
Jump – Breaking Point
‘The British Rock Band’ is their tag line, as on this, their fourteenth album, they touch upon the dark places of our lives in the lyrics whilst the music uplifts. My first dip into the recorded works, and there’s a desire to see them again. I chose this over Wishbone Ash’s Coat of Arms, they touch upon similar musical areas, but Jump is the one I will play.
Magenta – Masters of Illusion
I heard one track and was smitten. The album is a concept around Bela Lugosi, star of horror and sci-fi. Fantastic, I had bought Christina’s The Light years before, loving her voice, but this was my first purchase of Magenta. Best enjoyed in the studio, a family cave in the garden where you can listen and watch without fear of volume. Now for the back catalogue and a ticket when ‘Live’ returns…
Elder – Omens
What are the odds? Your concept album about the final days of a civilisation facing impending doom is released in the middle of a global pandemic. While I’m sure Elder didn’t set out to create a “pandemic playlist”, they’ve delivered an album that feels apt for 2020, ably fulfilling that criteria, immersive, musically-rich with the power to enthral and transport us beyond the terrors of the present. A masterclass in long-form composition and arrangement, the myriad sections apply diverse sounds that never quite go where you expect them to. The towering guitar riffs remain, but now with two guitarists, allowing for deft melodic interplay to create monolithic walls of sound. It’s thrilling stuff, securely placing Elder in the upper-echelon of modern progressive/psych-rock. In my estimation, they’re just getting warmed up…
Enslaved – Utgard
Album #15 in an impressive 30 year career is an achievement in itself, but methodically expanding and maturing the sound whilst never losing your core extreme metal identity is remarkable. A concept album inspired by Norse mythology and Jungian archetypes, its strict “album-length” approach has led to an incredibly tight batch of songs that cover all the twists and turns we’ve come to expect, but in a more compact format. The arrangements are inspired, intricate and bursting with creativity. Now with three lead singers, it allows for more complex harmonies and combinations of vocal approach. Enslaved’s ability to balance melodic, ethereal progressive elements with acidic brutality has always been their hallmark and the new line-up has only strengthened that. Utgard is a career-defining album, a bold, exciting, focused work from a band whose best days are clearly ahead.
Motorpsycho – The All Is One
Few bands are as consistently rewarding and entertaining as Motorpsycho. At their peak over the past decade, they’ve released a string of prog/psych gems that invariably feature in my year end lists. This sprawling album took a little longer to spin its charms, but once immersed it has proven to be just as rewarding. In a unique structure, the album is essentially a 40-minute album separated by a different 40-minute album at its centre. The opening and closing segments are a collection of earthy analogue rock songs with a strong emotional underpinning. The progressive rock album at the centre, the N.O.X. suite, is another winning collaboration with Jaga Jazzist. While initially sceptical of the structuring, I’ve come to appreciate the variety it provides, and taken as a whole it’s a must-listen.
Unleash The Archers – Abyss
This Canadian heavy metal band were my favourite 2020 discovery. First hearing 2017′ Apex, I instantly fell in love with the deft blend of classic heavy metal and Euro power metal with a vibrant, thoroughly-modern approach. Abyss takes the classic metal framework and launches it into orbit, both with the science fiction-themed storyline and a meticulous, highly-polished production aesthetic. A year in the writing, the songs and arranging are the keys to success, the intense focus evident in the finished result. They’ve achieved something difficult, creating a hook-filled album with loads of melody and catchy choruses galore whilst retaining the requisite grit for a kick-ass metal album. The band’s progressive muscles are also flexed and this album has proven to be the perfect remedy for the pandemic blues.
Imperial Triumphant – Alphaville
The most original work I’ve heard in a long while – and one of the least accessible, which makes it infinitely cooler. Most attempts I’ve heard at mixing jazz into extreme progressive metal have been decorative in nature, adding a soloist or “jazzy” section to primarily metal compositions. This is something new, avant-garde classical and jazz musicians recreating the visceral impact of extreme metal – brutal, frightening and beautifully cathartic. Rotted Futures has a loping funereal gait reminiscent of King Crimson’s more aggressive side. Excelsior has a Voivod vibe, but also draws directly from Charles Mingus. The highest jazz quotient features in the beautifully arranged Transmission To Mercury and City Swine. Producer Trey Spruance wrangles all the elements into a cohesive framework for a wholly uncompromising but highly recommended experience.
Pendragon – Love Over Fear
A majestic album, beautifully crafted with organic resonances drawn from previous albums and woven into an enthralling musical experience from start to finish. Possibly their finest album to date, it confirms a richly burning creativity at the heart of progressive music which evolves and flourishes with each release. Over 40 years and still one of the most significant bands in the UK.
Abel Ganz – The Life of the Honey Bee and Other Moments of Clarity
The seventh studio album from this Scottish band is an absolute masterclass in musical elegance and inventive finesse. Six gentle and gorgeous tracks highlight a supremely masterful musical flair and deft instrumental skilfulness in songs infused with an achingly melodic momentum. A stunning album which shines an uplifting light in what has been a profoundly difficult year.
Three Colours Dark – The Science of Goodbye
Oh, my goodness – what an album. Emotionally far-reaching, psychologically intense and musically quite brilliant, the significance of what this album offers and achieves reaches far, far beyond the scope of just this year and extends well into the future. Rachel Cohen’s vocals are unspeakably exquisite whilst Jonathan Edwards creates an entwining musical cradle which is enchanting, sumptuous and provocatively atmospheric.
FM – Synchronized
Whilst the greatness of this delightfully boisterous album may well be weighted primarily toward the songs at the beginning of the track list, it is nevertheless a spirited and above all joyful release of musical exuberance combined with disciplined structures and fluid transitions. Pounding rhythms give rise to dynamic hooks and melodic refrains to ensure the music remains compelling, embracing – and never far from my player.
Kepler Ten – A New Kind of Sideways
Sizzling with energy, bristling with ingenuity and innovation, this second studio album from Kepler Ten leads the way in showing just how accomplished the band have become in such a short time. The music is both inventive as well as technically complex, the shifting structures within each song adding to a mesmerising sense of refined power and inspirational originality. This is exactly how prog is supposed to sound!
Kansas – The Absence of Presence
With only two of the current seven members hanging on from the 1974 debut, Kansas’ sixteenth album came in this ill-omened year when hope was still at the laboratory stage. Despite the newer members (original singer Steve Walsh being replaced by the excellent Ronnie Platt), this band sound like nobody else, the opening title track summarising everything they stand for: widescreen, heart-tugging sweeps of majesty played to perfection. Even when the pace slows, the signature sound of violin adds longing and nostalgia to every note, and with ex-Yes man Tom Brislin contributing to the songwriting throughout, this release is a top five for them and us.
Pattern Seeking Animals – Prehensile Tales
A Spock’s Beard off-shoot with producer and keyboard player John Boegehold on board, this six track album has a variety menu plus two great and recommended main courses, Soon But Not Today being a personal choice. The group’s eponymously titled first album was a corker and the follow-up builds on that strength. Ted Leonard’s voice obviously cements the type of music this is, but fans of Enchant and this band’s Mothership combo will not be disappointed, in fact it’s a no-brainer to fans of good quality rock music. This is an album that sounds fresh and polished but with enough soul and quirkiness to make it a classic for many years to come.
The Flower Kings – Islands
Released at the colder end of a disagreeable year, Islands will certainly bring sunshine to the Swedish winter even when our closest star has stoically decided to not bother for a few snow-capped months. Written during what will hopefully be historically known as THAT Pandemic year, all the parts were contributed over the Internet, which makes the cohesive in-the-same-room-ness of these twenty-one tracks even more remarkable. Roine Stolt’s project continues to be revitalised by keyboard player Zach Kamins and new drummer Mirko DeMaio. Black Swan and Solaris stand out on an album that only has highlights. This is pure Progressive Rock and most certainly proves that the genre is in tremendous good health, even if the world is not.
Kyros – Celexa Dreams
The latest album by young progsters Kyros has looked to the production qualities of the 1980s to veneer their musical contribution to this annus horribilis. Prog in abundance with tracks like In Vantablack and the prog-funk Two Frames of Panic, the album closing with the fireside Her Song is Mine – a thing of beauty. Radio friendly, competent, and almost too good for the charts, that’s exactly where these ten tracks belong. Fire up your poshest hi-fi (the one that goes loud and annoys the neighbours) and push play. An ’80s revival is long overdue and the combination of maybe ABC and Prefab Sprout cloned with keyboard-era Rush, everything Trevor Horn has ever stood for, and then measured digitally and sync’d with an atomic clock. This is a cracking record.
Deep Purple – Whoosh
Deep Purple have edged their songs to the prog side for some time now, partly due to Jon Lord’s replacement, Don Airey. Drummer Ian Paice has always added a swing swagger but maestro guitarist Steve Morse adds a sheen that gives this band a seismic shift upwards. Listen to the sheer joy of Nothing at All, a playful romp and roll session in the ball pit. There’s boogie in Throw My Bones and even a remake of And the Address if you want to hear what they were like fifty-two years ago – pretty much the same, Amen to that! There’s optimism in the more serious tracks and sheer fun in the others. Whoosh should sit well next to the rest of the catalogue, especially the Morse/Airey ones. It appears that in a changing world of not a lot to look forward to, they’ll always be our beloved Deep Purple.
A top five, you say? I’ve checked, and it seems I’ve listened to over 200 releases from this year. No wonder the prospect of working out a top five seems so impossible! On the other hand, I’ve listened to only around 20 releases from New Zealand this year. So, instead of playing entirely by the rules (something I’ve never been great with), here’s my top five Kiwi releases from 2020. I’ve given a “sounds like” for each, though it may not be terribly helpful or accurate. You may just have to do your own investigations!
Pull Down The Sun – Of Valleys and Mountains
I might have had to think about just which releases to fill up the rest of the top five, but Pull Down The Sun was always going to be number one. There’s a bit of a twin concept going on. Even if you are unfamiliar with the particular stories used, it deals with universal truths, as well as Māori mythology. It’s the heaviest album in my list, but not unrelentingly so, beautifully sequenced with a mix of instrumental and vocal tracks and a variety of moods and textures, sounding like a brutal, yet beautiful, mix of Blindspott, Deftones and Gojira. One of the stand out albums of 2020 for me.
Ruby Solly – Pōneke
The only quieter entry in my list, a reflection of my recent listening tastes. As the year has gone on, my frustrations with it seem to have grown, and my urge to listen to heavier music has grown too. As with any list, it’s somewhat arbitrary, as it can depend so much on how one feels at the time and place of making it, but this album remains my go to when I want solace and/or reflection. A beautiful, contemplative album filled with taonga pūoro, cello, and field recordings. The birdsong gets me every time. I cannot really put into words how much this album speaks to me.
Pencarrow – Growth in the Absence of Light
One of the biggest surprises for me this year, this follow-up from Pencarrow isn’t just a step up from their debut – it’s an Everest-sized leap. Leaving almost all the prog metal tropes behind, the band have served up an absolute delight which continues to enchant me every time I put it on. I finished my review of the album by suggesting that if Pink Floyd were a prog metal band, they might sound like this. On reflection, that can conjure up the entirely wrong idea, as I imagine for some people they might think of Porcupine Tree or Riverside, while this is closer to Storm Corrosion or Lunatic Soul.
Outside In – Karmatrain
Like Pull Down The Sun, this is a rather magnificent concept album, perhaps even a twin concept album as the songs follow the layout and story of Siddhartha, while also incorporating moments from the lives of the band, and associated persons. The full package, with individual photographic lyric cards, is beautifully conceived and presented. It all sounds terribly deep and convoluted, yet has a real immediacy about it. For all its heavier moments, this is an easy and enjoyable album to listen to. Sounds like Karnivool and Riverside meeting A Perfect Circle and Radiohead.
Coridian – Eldur
The third in a series of four EPs, each longer than the previous, and this one is arguably an album. The final instalment, from what I can gather, is likely to be a full-length album. Of course, length is not everything. I will choose quality over quantity always, but there’s no need to worry here as this is absolutely the most impressive and engaging Coridian release yet, and has me pretty excited to see what the boys have to give us for the grand finale. Sounds like: Tool and Karnivool as played by U2 and Midnight Youth.
Pendragon – Love Over Fear
There have been few things to alleviate the awfulness of 2020, but Pendragon’s latest, released while Covid was just starting to become global, was one of them. Nick Barrett’s optimism is inspired by his love of the sea and his recent move to Cornwall. There’s a boundless energy here and a return to the band’s ’90s style which manages to feel fresh whilst recalling what made their albums from that period so great. Love Over Fear feels like an album which has taken the best of Pendragon’s musical legacy and added something fresh. This might just be the band’s finest release to date and that, from one of prog’s finest outfits, is no mean feat. Had this been released two months earlier, it would have been my album of the previous decade. It really is that good.
Fish – Weltschmerz
After many delays plus Brexit and the election of Trump, the Dalkeith boy’s final release morphed into a double album. Roughly translated as ‘world-weariness’, Weltschmerz is a sometimes challenging listen as Fish tells a series of tales on subjects like illness, loss and poverty. Wearing its heart on its sleeve across the 84-minutes, it is engaging throughout. Messers Vantsis, Boult and Paterson do a good job ensuring that the music does justice to the material and there’s even a delicate ballad from John Mitchell for Garden of Remembrance. There are one or two moments that feel a little indulgent, but Fish should be allowed this for his swan song. It’s powerful and moving; a fitting conclusion to his career and a reminder that the world of prog will be the poorer for his retirement.
Rick Wakeman – The Red Planet
An unexpected delight. Wakeman returns to the pomp and prog of his late ’70s solo works. Drawing on a dizzying array of styles, and showcasing his virtuoso skills as a keyboardist, the listener is drawn into a series of eight varied and engaging pieces. Pianos, Moogs and synths provide the textural palette and melodies for this affectionate nod to Wakeman’s heyday and that of his contemporaries like Keith Emerson and Peter Bardens.
Dukes of the Orient – Freakshow
Whilst not quite the equal of their debut, Freakshow has more than enough about it that shows what an excellent pairing John Payne and Eric Norlander make. A few too many curve balls upset the apple cart, but when this album works, it’s excellent. The Supertramp-y The Ice Is Thin and Payne-Asia The Monitors both stand out, but there are plenty of other great moments on this sophomore release.
Mark Kelly’s Marathon – Mark Kelly’s Marathon
This is a prog treat for keyboard lovers, as one might expect, with rich synths, excellent piano and keyboard melodies and some fine chord progressions – When I Fell and Puppets deserve special mention. Structured as two epics sandwiching a number of shorter pieces, the album’s tracks are delightfully varied. There are elements of ’70s Genesis and (of course) Marillion, jostling here with more contemporary prog in the style of Kino or The Pineapple Thief. Mark Kelly’s debut ‘side project’ is a magnificent record with fine keyboard and guitar solos.
Nobody expected the Covid-19! Amongst its weaponry were such diverse elements as… Stop that! It’s silly! Anyway, with a vaccine(s) on the horizon and the vague possibility of a return to a more familial world, time to reflect on one of the few things that have remained unaltered. Well maybe not unaltered, but certainly retained its ability to offer an intermission to the madness – MUSIC. So a time to select just 5.5 (digital) long playing records that have helped across the ‘year of the sanitiser’…
Mark Vickness – Interconnected
Long Island finger-style guitarist Mark Vickness returned in 2020 with his sophomore album Interconnected, a collection of nine instrumental tunes for solo guitar and ensemble pieces, and featuring a world class ‘acoustic fusion group’. All the tracks are wonderfully immersive and utterly beguiling and for this reviewer have proved to be a perfect antidote in a year that will not be remembered with fondness – unlike this wonderful album.
Deep Energy Orchestra – The Return
Another returnee in 2020 were DEO, led once again by composer and bassist Jason Everett. A stellar cast take us on a second journey which revisits and expounds on their outstanding 2018 release, Playing With Fire. Once again the band combine World and cultural Indian music, jazz/fusion, classical, Flamenco and progressive rock. A fantastic return…
Quest Ensemble – The Otherside
New (to me) in 2020 were UK based contemporary classical piano trio Quest Ensemble. Quoting from my review: “Although classically trained, collectively Quest Ensemble choose to compose in a more contemporary fashion, their music borne from spontaneity and improvisation, rather than following the dots, so to speak.” Something they rather eloquently display across the album. Often dark, always adventurous, exciting and intoxicating and most definitely engrossing…
Band Of Rain – Petrichor
Some eighteen years and seven albums after its conception, Band Of Rain finally turned up on my radar in 2020. Revolving around composer, guitarist, multi-instrumentalist Chris Gill, Petrichor was an impressive introduction. As the album unfolds, the stately tempi inveigles its way! Rick Hambleton drums pound, Jon Camp’s bass is thunderous, whilst Robert Webb’s keyboards are lush and crafted against Chris Gill’s hypnotic and muscular guitar. Icing on the cake – Matthew Corry’s vocal performances.
Gavin Harrison & Antoine Fafard – Chemical Reactions
A late arrival to the party this year is Chemical Reactions, released just a few weeks ago by drummer extraordinaire Gavin Harrison and bassist, multi-instrumentalist Antoine Fafard. ‘The’ Jerry Goodman makes a guest appearance along the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra. Antoine Fafard continues his quest, working with the crème de la crème of contemporary drummers, and once again it has paid rich dividends. A wonderful alchemy of progressive-fusion with exhilarating music and combustible interactions.
Liontortoise – Photosynthesis
With such a plethora of fine albums released this year, it may seem a little odd that an EP features in my top five selections (hence the .5), but Denver-based instrumental quartet Liontortoise released 18 minutes of music that raises a smile every time I hear it. And in 2020 that’s no mean feat. Wonderfully angular guitar riffs, sweet melodies and cemented by a powerhouse rhythm section.
So, 2020 eh? What a shit-show. Not being able to attend a gig since March has been a real trial and I have found myself sliding into a comfort loop of listening to things that I’m more than familiar with, albums that mean something and old favourites that I might not have listened to in ages. Lovely! But despite listening to a very limited number of new releases this year, there have been some very rewarding albums that will stay with me for a long time, and here’s some to get the juices flowing…
Vennart – In the Dead, Dead Wood
Mike Vennart has crafted an excellent trilogy of albums since the demise of Oceansize, and this latest is the pick of the bunch for me. Showing Mike’s matured creativity, the writing is focused and succint, both visceral and intoxicatingly beautiful, coloured with a fantastic vocal performance. With a mix of alternative sounds, metal scope, mathy intensity and psychedelic bursts of brightness, it drips with melody and gut-punch heaviosity. Mike Vennart deserves far more attention and aclaim than he currently receives.
Tom Doncourt & Mattias Olsson – Cathedral
This is a poignant release, given the death of Tom Doncourt last year, but Mattias Olsson has drawn the recordings that the duo made in the year or so previously into an eclectic and adventurous piece of work built on the classic prog of the pair’s respective outfits, Cathedral and Änglagård. With lashings of Mellotron and Chamberlin, Mattias’ idiosyncratic and imaginative way with melody, guided by Tom’s fragments and sketches, have produced an enthralling album, diverse, beautiful and bearing many repeated listens. A fitting tribute to Tom Doncourt.
Jakko M. Jakszyk – Secrets & Lies
Jakko has appeared in a multitude of settings over the years, but his solo albums have been rare and generally fly under the radar. His recent as singer and second guitar for King Crimson have raised his profile considerably, and this fourth solo release takes elements of the recent KC sound – and many of its fellow members – to integrate with Jakko’s excellent songs, all delivered with one of the finest voices around. This is a stunning album, both sonically and musically, accessible but with variety and plenty of depth. Highly recommended.
Luo – Unspoken
A compelling album by a duo who work together thoughtfully and with invention. The results are dynamic and engaging, keeping the listener hooked with fascinating free-flowing rhythms. Highly atmospheric, neither musician swamps the sound, each allowing the other structured free-rein. The sound hovers within the realms of Battles and Three Trapped Tigers, but this is no clone, offering a different experience that I recommend very highly.
Ensemble Gamut! – UT
A late contender for the list, this one came out of nowhere and completely absorbed me. A fascinating mix of early music and Scandinavian folk played on archaic instruments with the pure voice of Aino Peltomaa at its heart. I’m a sucker for a quality collections of traditional acoustic music, the heartfelt sounds of the human condition interpreted by skilled hands through hand-crafted instruments, and this is simply a magnificent example of what that can achieve.
Chris Opperman – Chamber Music From Hell
Opperman is probably best known for his work on orchestral scores for such luminaries as Mike Keneally and Steve Vai. This is his sixth solo album, a modern classical conceptual work telling the story of a post-human world populated by robots with AI, and explores the resulting music. Much of it is computer produced, programmed by Kurt Morgan, but augmented with real instruments including Opperman’s piano, trombone by James Camelio, cellist Brianna Tagliaferro, drummer Ryan Brown, Keneally on guitar and the New Jersey Percussion Ensemble. The results are strange, beautiful, and compelling; think Anton Webern blended with Jazz From Hell and you may get some idea what to expect. Opperman’s compositional skills are evident from the first listen, and the whole work is utterly riveting.
Zopp – Zopp
Stunningly, most of the music here is the work of one man – Ryan Stevenson. Ryan has won awards for his film soundtrack work, but this is his first foray into progressive rock. Having been influenced at an early age by the Canterbury scene, bands such as National Health and Hatfield and the North permeate this release, fused with other progressive influences. Dense layers of fuzzed organ and Mellotron dominate a largely instrumental electric rock stew. Andy Tillison plays a vital role, with some extra keyboard parts but also in co-producing and mastering. One-man-band affairs generally benefit from a fresh pair of ears, and his experience must surely have helped produce this aural delight. Instrumental albums can often be less accessible, but Ryan’s fine sense of melody challenges this notion, and repeated listens reveal a depth of complexity which delights.
I Am The Manic Whale – Things Unseen
On their third studio album, Rob Aubrey’s mixing has brought a new dimension to the sound, but it’s also down to the band’s experience enhancing the writing process, and the self-confidence this brings to the performance. They have made not only the best album of their career, but one of the most engaging and entertaining albums you’re likely to hear this year. It is as prog as you could possibly want, but avoiding the clichés so often associated with the genre. It’s the sound of a band on top of their game really going for it, and that is a cause for celebration. When I first saw the band live I enjoyed them, but didn’t honestly think they would be capable of an album of this quality. I’m very glad to be proved wrong.
The Tangent – Auto Reconnaissance
Andy Tillison has very possibly made the album of his career; an eclectic collection of songs in various styles covering a range of topics, all combined with an exceptional level of musicianship. From the crazy travelogue storytelling of Jinxed in Jersey to the 28-minute Lie Back and Think of England, this is an album of epic proportions. We have a love song of rare beauty, commentary on the state of the nation, railing against being treated as a number, all delivered with integrity and with a hint of optimism. There’s prog, Steely jazz, Motown, hip hop and metal mayhem in a style that could only be The Tangent. The band all put in great performances, but above all, Tillison shows why he is one of the best keyboard players around. Recent albums have shown a run of form, but this is another step up.
Fish – Weltschmerz
He’s been talking about his final studio album for years, and it’s finally out, 85 minutes of music over two discs, and goodness me, it was worth the wait. The solo album of his career, it’s a gritty tour de force exploring Fish’s world weary view after a long career of music making and touring. As he contemplates his self-imposed gardening leave, he has skilfully crafted ten songs which trump almost everything he has done since Marillion. Observations are well targeted, razor sharp, and poignant. Garden of Remembrance is achingly touching, especially to anyone affected by dementia, whilst the epic Rose of Damascus covers upheaval, religion and terrorism in the world today. Is the party really over? Only time will tell, but if so, he has left us with a momentous and fitting final piece of work. So long, and thanks for all the Fish.
Rock List number 581.5, The Plague Year. AKA a Top 5 of 2020, a year that saw bands confined to quarters, which might explain why there has been an abundance of fine releases in this otherwise utterly shite year. Here is my selection, arrived at via a process of whisky drinking and hangover.
Motorpsycho – The All Is One
Thankfully, no-one told this hairy bunch of Norwegian mavericks that epic rock bands died out when the comet hit. For which we should be eternally grateful. And rock compositions do not come more epic than the five-part 40-minute exercise in thrilling dynamics that is N.O.X., a suite that knocks the aimless interminable meanderings of certain bands who shall remain nameless into a cocked winged war helmet. Valhalla awaits!
Aksak Maboul – Figures
RIO almost-originals resurrect after years in hiatus and make their best album to date. Ladies and gents, from Belgium we have this marvellous slice of sonic wonkiness, described thus in my review: “… a glorious mix of left-field pop, wonky café jazz, avant rock moves, breathless attraction, and impish humour”, and Aksak Maboul are… “a group of musical non-conformists who know what they want… (who)… epitomise the free-thinking inherent in all the best art, which makes the band a natural bedfellow for the open-minded listener. Closed-circuit thinkers and musical conservatives (small “c”) need not apply”. I’m not wrong. This album is super sexy gorgeous!
Nubia Garcia – Source
The nu-jazz scene, primarily a London-based phenomenom is borne of a community escaping prejudice and drudgery encountered at every turn in the modern urban existence, so it is no surprise that there is a massive groove and a joie-de-vivre running through it all like a glittering seam in the darkness. One of my most played albums this year, Source, is a prime example. A quartet led by saxophonist Nubia Garcia, one of a number of women in this burgeoning sub-culture, which in itself is mightily refreshing, these tunes exude a deep sensuality it is impossible to resist. The title track mixes Nubia’s warm saxophonous melodies with dub reggae, and is utterly sublime.
Kavus Torabi – Hip To The Jag
The only “streaming gig” I’ve watched during The Plague Descent was beamed from Kavus Torabi’s living room, a highlight of which was an Iron Maiden cover, with his daughter wearing an Eddie mask! Kavus is a highly entertaining chap, and he also played many a tune from his first solo album, Hip To The Jag. This fine homespun record has an uncanny ability to sound both ancient and prescient at the same time, and is full of Kavus’ otherworldly spirit. Tapping into all that, the push and pull of the happy/sad You Broke My Fall makes it my song of the year. Time for a quote from me!: “Here we are then, chillied up on brake fluid, venturing deep down the neural pathway of the optic nerve of the Third Eye, lost in Kavus’s netherworld”, and a thoroughly beguiling place it is too.
Those four pick themselves. Choosing a fifth is nigh on impossible, there being a heap of candidates, so, sticking a pin in the tail of a metaphorical donkey, it’s…
Bob Dylan – Rough And Rowdy Ways
You weren’t expecting that! The living myth that is His Bobness sheds a little light on his journey thus far, and on the way tells us how we got to here. Artists half his age would be proud of this. His recent albums have been typically idiosyncratic trawls through the Great American Songbook, no-one expected him to come up with an album of such high lyrical/poetic standards, up there with his best spotlighting of modern history and culture, with a bit of personal revelation thrown in for good measure. “I sing the songs of experience like William Blake, I have no apologies to make”, and who are we to argue? The album ends with a 17-minute tone poem tracing America’s – and by extension the world’s – current woes back to the assassination of Kennedy. Carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, Dylan wearily intones “The day that they killed him, someone said to me, ‘Son, the age of the Antichrist has just only begun’.” This album will keep Dylanologists busy until the ice caps melt… so not that long then?
Abel Ganz – The Life of The Honey Bee, and Other Moments of Clarity
The band’s first album in the six years since their self-titled release which is one of my favourite albums of all time. In worrying times we instinctively seek what is enjoyable and engaging, but we also yearn for art that expresses our deepest emotions… and somehow Abel Ganz achieve both on this remarkable album, a perfect synthesis of music and theme in which the band ‘explore our relationship with memory and loss’ through finely crafted, intuitive songs in a beguiling musical journey. They have an uncanny ability to meld different styles with smooth as silk transitions, giving an eclectic mix of folk, progressive rock, Americana, with Celtic tinges and even hints of jazz. It all fits together seamlessly. This album certainly touched my heart and compelled me to smile… and don’t we all need something like that right now?
Gazpacho – Fireworker
2020 has been a strange year, then along come Gazpacho with a weird, darkly hypnotic and ambitious concept album. They make no compromises, expressing themselves with characteristic individuality and eccentricity. Here they have surpassed themselves both musically and conceptually. The ‘Fireworker’ life force has survived deep within us, the vehicles in which it travels, for billions of years. The band’s most profound journey ever, delving deep into our minds… and maybe our souls? Gazpacho have the ability to imaginatively convey atmospheres with lyrical imagery and evocative musical passages. No flamboyant solos, each player contributes what is needed. Keyboardist Thomas Andersen likens their music to a novel that slowly reveals its depth over many pages. Fireworker truly repays a willingness to invest time in its world.
Lunatic Soul – Through Shaded Woods
This remarkable side project from Riverside’s Mariusz Duda has taken on a life of its own, this album taking it in a different direction, deep into the proverbial forests with more folk influences, the emphasis on organic sounds rather than electronica and rock. It’s an album of positivity and hope, Duda’s most personal, reflecting his Polish identity and showing his roots in the Slavic folk of his youth in rural Poland. The non-electric instruments fused with Mariusz’s ability with fascinating and hypnotic rhythms and memorable, insistent, beguiling melodies, taking us on a journey from darkness to revival. In a year of sadness and fear it is a timely release, imbued with a sense of rebirth and hope.
Chimpan A – The Empathy Machine
A fascinating project from Magenta multi-instrumentalist Rob Reed and superb vocalist Steve Balsamo. Fans of Reed’s work may be expecting a familiar foray into his usual prog territory, but they could be in for a shock – a very pleasant one. Those unfamiliar with Chimpan A should leave their preconceptions at the door. A variety of styles and instruments are melded together fluently and with such intuition that it just fits perfectly. Reed and Balsamo have shared that this album had ‘No Rules’, they just put together what worked emotionally. It’s not an album to be analysed, its ambient subtlety and emotionally imbued atmospheres should just be felt with the heart. The intuitive and dreamlike melodies, suffused with hypnotic rhythms and real soul make balm for the mind and music to soothe the heart. Ironically, it’s probably more truly ‘progressive’ than any Prog project with which Reed has been involved.
Rain – Singularity
A new band, Rain have poured forth a torrent of emotions in a fascinating cascade of myriad styles and ideas into their remarkably mature debut. Many will be attracted by the inclusion of John Jowitt and Andy Edwards (ex-IQ and Frost*), but trying to define the Rain sound is challenging. It ranges widely in a captivating and sometimes bewildering musical panorama. Anyone expecting a re-tread of more conventional tropes should open their minds to a group of musicians who seem intent on fusing sounds and styles with no concern about the limitations and predictability of genre. Singularity is shot through with images and references to Lockdown, skilfully conveying that strange, dislocated feeling of angst many felt with human contact limited and connection largely via technology. This is one of the most distinctive and atmospheric albums of 2020. You simply will not have heard anything like it this year.