Monday, 1 July 2013

Music of 2013 - the mid-term report

Well, we've passed the mid-point of the year, and so far 2013 has produced some outstanding Progressive music. I've been a little dilatory in reviewing most of it, so I now aim to make amends.

The stand-out album of the year so far must be Big Big Train's 'English Electric Part 2', which I have written about elsewhere. This record still blows me away every time I listen to it, and if you haven't heard it yet, do yourself a favour, and do so. NOW! ;)

The music of Thieves' Kitchen has always had, for me, a jazzy edge to it, coupled with some fine musicianship and, in recent years, the hauntingly sublime vocals of Amy Darby. Having waited five years since the release of their last album, 'The Water Road', we were treated this year to 'One for Sorrow, Two for Joy', and here we are presented with a wonderful collection of songs, ranging from the folk ballad of 'The Weaver' to the prog epics of 'Germander Speedwell' and 'Of Sparks and Spires'. This is music that may take time to grow on you, but the effort is well worth it, I think.

Steven Wilson, as well as being a thoroughly nice bloke, must be one of the busiest men in Prog at the moment - possibly in the whole music industry. Not only has he worked at remixing classics from King Crimson & Jethro Tull in the past few years, he's now working on perhaps THE seminal Prog album, Yes's 'Close to the Edge'. And when he's not in the studio with other people's music, he's busy making his own. This year saw the release of 'The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories)', a bunch of songs that move from the rocking 'Luminol', whose opening bass riff puts me in mind of Yes's 'Tempus Fugit', to the haunting and melancholy title track. Wilson seems to do melancholy well: there are many examples in his canon as a solo artist and with Porcupine Tree, and this collection adds further depth and breadth to that repertoire.

Currently touring with Wilson is bassist Nick Beggs, who, with John Young & Frosty Beedle, produced Lifesigns. This is a lighter prog, some might say almost with a popular edge to it (I know, popular prog: whatever next!), but none the less enjoyable for that. The five songs range from 8½ to 13 minutes in length and showcase the musical dexterity of the players wonderfully. Beggs's bass-playing is remarkable in places! One of the defining marks of Progressive music is a virtuosity of playing, one example of which among the many noted here is that of Spock's Beard, whose eleventh album 'Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep' was released earlier this year. Now without singer and drummer Nick D'Virgilio, they still managed to produce music to their usual high standard: sadly I was unable to see them when they toured the UK in May (I was cruising round the Canaries at the time.)

One of the most enjoyable albums I've heard this year is the eponymously titled debut from Swedish band Wintergatan. I'm not sure how I would define their music (if that's important) but I simply find it joyful and life-affirming. Check out this video of theirs on YouTube and see for yourself. It just makes me smile! Other discoveries for me this year have been Johannes Luley's 'Tales From Sheepfather's Grove' with its wonderful echoes of classic-era Yes; 'Dimensionaut' from Sound of Contact, fronted by Simon (son of Phil) Collins, who is clearly his father's son, both vocally and facially; and the second album by Days Between Stations, entitled 'In Extremis', a concept album exploring the final stages of life, with a strong whiff of Pink Floyd about it.

Yes, the concept album is alive and kicking again, not just 'In Extremis', but in space too. Cosmograf (the talents of Robin Armstrong and assorted friends) brought us 'The Man They Left in Space', which does just what it says on the tin, and tells the story of an abandoned astronaut. (We also have 'Le Sacre du Travail', the latest from The Tangent, but I've not got round to listening to that yet, so it will have to wait until later in the year.)

On the heavier side of Prog we've had 'Enigma' from Aeon Zen, which, although a bit screamy in places, is a good collection of songs, and Riverside's 'Shrine of New Generation Slaves' which continues their excellent pedigree. On the quieter side I've particularly enjoyed Vienna Circle's sophomore offering 'Silhouette Moon', and the third album from Willowglass, entitled 'The Dream Harbour', awash in places with that prince of prog instruments, the mellotron!

Part of the new breed of British Prog, we've seen the second full-length album from the distinctive-sounding Godsticks, who gave us 'The Envisage Conundrum', and the stunning second from Sanguine Hum in 'The Weight of the World'. These are two bands whose following will, I hope, grow over the coming months and years, because they are producing some outstanding music which deserves a wider audience.

So, so far it's been another great year for Progressive music! It's wonderful to see this resurgence in a much-maligned art-form, in this country and elsewhere, and the rest of the year promises more excellent examples of this genre. Bring them on!