When I sat down to work out an introduction to my best of list, I already had a long, loud list in my head of grievances and shames and laments. They’re certainly valid, most of them, and timely and relevant: being tired of real evil being done; being tired of ostensibly less evil but comparable harm being done in the name of hollow causes or at the behest of charlatans; being tired of mean and selfish people; being tired of the reality that so much of that incivility is down to a lack of healthy relationships, especially with one’s self; being tired of the news that mental health professionals can’t keep up with the demand for their services and that so many of them are in similar need; being tired of so much of our time being reduced to productivity data and value-added outcomes; being tired of being bombarded at every turn with the admonishment that every minute must be devoted to improvement, “Produce more! Do more! Create more! Be more! Get better all the time!”
Just so tired.
But then I was struck by the notion of just what a privilege it is to be able to do this kind of bitching. What a privilege it is to live a life in which these are the things I bitch about. Instead of how I’ll keep myself alive today. Or wondering desperately where to find food for my kids tonight. Or whether we’re going to be homeless because the hospital wants their fucking money.
Little wave of shame.
Then I counted my blessings, as they say. So many, most of which are obvious and alluded to above, or they’re personal enough they wouldn’t make sense here. A rundown of both would read like a diary entry and bore the shit out of you. There are some things, though, that I hope and humbly suspect you’ll be able to relate to and appreciate with me.
Here’s a brief and necessarily incomplete account of the things I appreciated most about living in 2021:
I’m thankful for scientists and doctors and nurses and first responders and everybody who devotes their lives, even putting themselves in harm’s way, to helping whoever needs them, because it’s the right thing to do.
I really appreciated the help I was given, especially the opportunity to talk about things that frighten me and, more than anything, the unconditional love and empathy and compassion from the important people in my life.
I really appreciated the opportunity to help people when I was able and especially that people thought enough of me to ask me for help when they needed it.
I really appreciated that I had the great privilege of celebrating good fortune and triumphs, big and small, with the people close to me and even those a little farther away.
I love how, every single time I felt like the bad was beginning to overwhelm me, some golden soul was there to remind me of the light. This happened more times than I could count.
I really appreciated re-reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy at the same time as a good pal of mine and the wonderful discussions that the experience fostered along the way (and we’re not quite done yet).
I loved watching (or rewatching) TV shows with people just getting into them, especially with my kids: Cowboy Bebop (OG) with my daughter, Pokémon (OG) with my son, and Voltron (reboot) with both of them. Pure joy.
I love seeing and being a small part of my kids’ journeys of music discovery, too. My daughter is falling in love with jazz, especially the more chill, old school vibe of artists like Bill Evans. My son is bonkers for music reconstructed from video games (it’s a whole big thing!), but also, he has fallen hard for Iron Maiden generally this year and, specifically, Helloween, especially “Best Time.” (hang on, I got something in my eye)
I love how, even as the pandemic and all its related shittiness continued to suffocate the live arts, those who make that art found creative ways of sharing it with us (live streams, alternate media, multimedia and multipart releases) and that fans found ever more ways to support them (highest of fives to Bandcamp and its patrons).
And, most relevant here, I really appreciate being part of music culture, especially the heavy, even if I’m dangling a little out here at the very edge (great view from here!). I love that this space exists for people to write and read and talk about the music we love so much and that, for the most part, the words expressed here, in the articles but also in the comments, are mostly kind, mostly also happy to be sharing. I believe my life would be less without this community.
20. Konquest – The Night Goes On
Konquest belts out a nostalgic sound bolstered by reverent harmonies, anthemic choruses, and killer leads that make you think of early Maiden and Satan. That just *can’t* be bad! There’s no shortage of NWOBHM worship out there, but it takes a special combination of skill and heart to make it hit just right and Konquest (Alex Rossi) has both, hitting so hard as to take me all the way back to white high tops and thigh-tied bandanas.
19. White Void – Anti
Lars Nedlund followed up his amazing performance on Borknagar’s True North by gathering some pals and making an album that celebrates the melancholy. Not quite Gothic, mind you, but like in spirit. It’s heavy prog built with pieces of a dozen genres and subgenres, the through line being the absurd tragedy of being human in an unconcerned universe. Effectively conveying that sentiment is Anti’s great triumph.
18. Lugubrum – Bruyne Kroon
A Lugubrum fan knows: if you have to ask, you probably won’t understand. And that’s okay. For those who do understand, Bruyne Kroon is another wonderful entry in Lugubrum’s Brown Metal oeuvre and that’s really all there is to it. If you enjoy (almost) black metal and wackadoo musical ingenuity, it’s right here, same as it ever was. Also, so many farts.
17. Pharaoh – The Powers That Be
Pharaoh is beyond reproach. Their brand of triumphant traditional heavy metal, perhaps the purest form of power metal, reflects a dedication to the craft that is rivaled only by the band’s talents. The Powers That Be is absolutely a great album. It’s only down here on my list because I’m still working it out – it feels a little more straightforward than their last few, but seems to also reveal some subtle intricacies when I sit and really attend. I’m thinking this one has long, sexy legs.
16. Wharflurch – Psychedelic Realms ov Hell
Just look at that cover art. Who wouldn’t want death metal that sounds like that? Wharflurch’s first LP maximizes the impact of its death metal with the hallucinogenic wash of synthesizers to tell the story of an alien psychic spore navigating its first trip to Earth. Good lord. Against all odds, this crazy idea turns out to be the best bad trip I’ve ever taken (yes, there’s a story there, too).
15. Worm – Foreverglade
Just look at that cover art. Who wouldn’t want death metal that sounds like that? Worm makes some ugly ass death metal. My favorite thing about it though is, like the art, its willingness to be other things, too. There’s plenty of vestigial black metal to add strange mists and reflections along the edges and in the corners, but it’s the weird, strangely beautiful melodic touches that really draw me into the fetid mire.
14. Mastodon – Hushed and Grim
I think I’m the only person I know that really likes this album. It’s weird because, before Hushed and Grim, I hadn’t enjoyed a Mastodon album since Crack the Skye. This one’s full of faults that I’ll freely acknowledge, not the least of which is a dangerously butt rocky reach for balladry. And for some reason, I even like that song! Overall, I just love the feel of Hushed and Grim. I love the catchiness and the balance of complexity and intimacy. Comfort food, I guess.
13. Thy Catafalque – Vadak
This is the lowest I’ve ever ranked a Thy Catafalque album, I believe. This is absolutely a reflection of the pure quality above it and not an indictment of Vadak’s, at all, which is characteristically high. Tamás Kátai’s trademark heavy metal eclecticism is still there in full force; sounds, compositions, performances all still of the highest caliber. Nothing at all to like less about it than albums before, except maybe that ol’ Tamás didn’t give us a whole lot of time to miss him, releasing this one just a year or so after the world beating Naiv. Tell you what, though: like The Powers That Be, I fully expect Vadak to rise in years to come.
12. Helloween – Helloween
Power metal par excellence. Unmitigated triumph. Helloween is a rare exception to the apparent rule that reunions fall short of the expectations they stimulate. It’s got fantastic sound, incredible songs, impeccable performances, and that necessary but ever elusive intangible quality, here manifested in palpable energy. This is an album that frequently and consistently makes me feel like I’m gonna jump straight up through the roof. “I will have the/ best time of my liiiiiiife!”
11. Atvm – Famine, Putrid and Fucking Endless
Just look at that cover art. Who wouldn’t want death metal that sounds like that? As the art hints with a wink, this is technical death metal, coming across warmly and defined by clean lines and bright colors making shapes that are familiar from this angle and bizarre at that. There’s a healthy dollop of early aughts tech death in Famine, even if it’s more than that. Fans of Quo Vadis will surely get the vibe, which is high praise indeed. Atvm seems to be experiencing a nice bit of upness in their arc right now, so let’s hope they translate it into momentum.
10. Project: Roenwolfe – Edge of Saturn
Project: Roenwolfe get so much right on their sophomore effort, Edge of Saturn. First off, getting it right when what you’re trying is power/thrash is a feat in itself. Then, touching on the stronger aspects of adjacent bands (here Nevermore, Crescent Shield, Kaius) and remaking it as your own is how you grab people by the earballs (great artists steal, after all). Nailing the sound, the riffs, the solos, and the vocals? Now you’re just showing off. Finally, writing songs that beg the replay button despite having just worn your poor headbanger out? Well, that’s how you forge the path to a new perfection. I’ve played the shit out of this album in 2021 and cannot wait for what comes next.
9. Gateway – Flesh Reborn
This is the death metal I’ve listened to the most this year. It’s a one-man project out of Bruges. The one man calls himself R and borrows lead guitar from some fella name of M. All very mysterious, as is sometimes the way. There’s not much to say about the music that isn’t probably obvious, like that it’s massive and engulfing, riffs bouncing off the walls of a cavernous production, the kind of effect that makes this death/doom. If you enjoy the style, you’ll hear shades of Indesinence, Rippikoulu, and the like. Songs? Nah, just heaving monolithic walls of sound threatening always to crush just to the verge of death.
8. Dream Unending – Tide Turns Eternal
This is my favorite album of the year that I’m still trying to figure out. Not desperately, as the saying sometimes goes, but rather patiently and willingly. There are a few obvious signposts here, including death growls and an atmosphere of doom that, together, point to death-doom of the Peaceville Three variety. But, maaaaan, this is so much more than that. These songs are written for the mopers, all down in the dumps, loathe to look up and accidentally glimpse the sun. But, also, these songs are written for the hopers, all kinds of strange beautiful light, organ chimes glowing warmly behind the haze, lead guitar arcing through it, not quite errant, but also not quite destined. I think I love Tide Turns Eternal because it seems to have done the apparently impossible feat of representing something of life that most of us know but would be hard pressed to describe. Incredible.
7. A Dying Planet – Where the Skies Are Grey
A lot of people aren’t going to like Where the Skies Are Grey for the same reasons they won’t like anything from the brothers Tipton, Jasun and Troy, to include A Dying Planet, Abnormal Thought Patterns, Cynthesis, and Zero Hour. These projects all offer a version of what the brothers do: complex riffs from guitar and bass, sometimes in parallel, sometimes in counterpoint, in complex time with expansive atmosphere and a lot of repetition. Variation in intensity – in “metalness,” really – seems to be the biggest distinction and point of departure for some fans. I say all that to emphasize that I love it all. Where the Skies Are Grey is at the lighter end of the spectrum in terms of simple intensity, though it’s still plenty heavy. It succeeds despite sometimes offering very little to grab hold of, because it is about things that are very difficult to grab hold of: love, loss, loneliness. It conveys the dynamic experience of those emotions so well, which is easy to miss with a cursory listen, inescapable when you give yourself to it.
6. Terra Odium – Ne Plus Ultra
I remember well the “Oh! Holy shit!” moment that my good pal alerted us behind the scenes to Terra Odium. He’d tried to just mention a few times how cool he thought they are, but that didn’t work so, finally, he said something like, “Hey, numbskulls, the singer/guitarist and drummer from Spiral Architect made a new album with Steve DiGiorgio.” And I said, “Oh! Holy shit!” and bought the CD after half a listen. It’s a more straight forward affair than A Sceptic’s Universe, but that’s pretty relative – Ne Plus Ultra is plenty complex. The riffs are predictably awesome, the bass is absolutely as amazing as you’d expect from perhaps the most prolific bassist in all of heavy music ever, and Øyvind Hægeland’s vocals are tall and commanding. The song style sort of straddles the space between early technical prog metal bands (eg, Psychotic Waltz, Perfect Symmetry era Fates Warning) and Spiral Architect. There’s no warm snugglies here; this music is massive and mighty, dark and foreboding. If you want to connect with the songs, you’d better get in the right frame, like maybe imagining yourself trapped in that labyrinth on the album cover, praying desperately this corner will sufficiently hide you from the prowling minotaur.
5. Monolord – Your Time to Shine
(ugh, that album cover’s tough, isn’t it? there’s meaning there, though; beauty in it’s way) Your Time to Shine is the only album on either of my lists I’m comfortable calling dope. It is so fucking dope. There are two very obvious conclusions that you should draw from that statement: 1. this album is saturated with sweet, dank, fuzzalicious tone, and 2. this album is chock full of tasty riffs. That information alone is reason enough for a lot of folks to fall for a record. Your Time to Shine just happens to also have more amazing reasons than that, including, above all, a great big ol bunch of beautifully sanguine leads and solos. Then there’s it’s heft; Monolord sends it as heavy as this style gets, but with a warm embrace, more hug than hammer. Add all of that to compelling song structure and you understand why this record didn’t leave my turntable for a good long week after it arrived.
4. Herzel – Le Dernier Rempart
Again, there’s certainly no shortage of heavy metal bands out there reaching back to the glory days, trying to capture the fire of an upstart genre at its creative upward inflection point. Herzel happens to get it just right, nailing the balance between nostalgia and originality. Some of what they get right is obvious: nice guitar tone, cool riffs, powerful vocals, well written songs. What sends Herzel over the top is a bevy of less obvious but critical elements, including a track order that builds and maintains momentum even through the cool down of an interlude, an extra measure of charm from the French language lyrics (accentuated further with some wonderful traditional instruments), and maybe most important of all, an undeniably strong and resilient spirit. Le Dernier Rempart feels like an album that will withstand.
3. Iron Maiden – Senjutsu
I’ve decided to just stop trying to understand fans altogether, especially legacy band fans. I don’t even normally pay attention to the chatter but, try as I might, I couldn’t avoid a lot of the bluster surrounding Senjutsu(It’s too long. The production sucks. It repeats too much). I got frustrated there a couple times and then remembered that I really don’t give a fuck and then I felt better! Bottom line is that I love Senjutsu. I love it because it’s awesome. I know beyond any shadow of a doubt that I’ll be listening to this album years from now and it will be for the same reason I listen right now: I enjoy it. I love the little new directions they took in the song writing and the videos to boot, especially the payoff after the big build up to lead single “The Writing on the Wall”; it was exciting, for Pete sake! Whodathunk. I love the massive scope of the album and of the individual songs, especially that closing trio of epics tucked neatly into the end of the album where “The Parchment” marches relentlessly into “Hell on Earth” for an immensely satisfying close. I love that Senjutsuis the equivalent of two full length albums and I don’t recall ever feeling it drag. I love that the first few listens yielded several blemishes with the potential to ruin the album for me and subsequent listens saw the album’s strengths render the blemishes inconsequential. And, in the end, it looks like the heavy metal world agrees with me (us) by and large, so that’s pretty cool, I guess.
2. Dream Theater – A View from the Top of the World
Been waiting on this Dream Theater album for damn near twenty years. Honestly, it really seemed for a long time that we’d never again see this band at their best, at least not over a full album. We got close with A Dramatic Turn of Events and then closer still with Distance Over Time, but even the best since Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence always had that one track or usually a few (or even more!) that suffered from some cringe-inducing idea. And, if we’re really honest here, every album they’ve ever made has one of those moments with the possible exception of Awake. And yet, somehow, some way, A View From the Top of the World gives us prime Dream Theater, not necessarily returning to roots, but rather as current as current is for their style with an album stacked to the rafters with great songs. Not a stinker in the bunch and barely enough cringe to find even with squinted eyes. A Dream Theater album that fans can love without justification, reservation, or apology. And the best part is they even spread their wings a little bit. Nothing shocking, but it’s nice to hear some new ideas like Petrucci’s riffs and Rudess sounds in “Sleeping Giant” and renewed aggression in the riffs and rhythms in lead off “The Alien” and “Awaken the Master.” Mostly, it’s just so nice to hear such energy and enthusiasm in a collection of songs so consistently good. Petrucci’s solo album last year had a similar vibe… I wonder if he might be experiencing a renaissance and the band is soaking up the glow.
1. Papangu – Holoceno
Wowee! Where the heck did these guys come from?! There’s very little in this life that I love more than the discovery of a brand new band that makes a brand new style of music on a brand new album that just knocks it the fuck out the park (even if it’s only brand new to me). Papangu is a young Brazilian band that plays progressive heavy metal and has exactly one album to their credit, which is the one featured here. That means, more than likely, this is the first time you’ve heard/read their name, unless you count the time you noticed them in our Combined Staff Top 25, in which case, you are awesome, or maybe you’re super schooled in the heavy progressive arts, in which case, also, you are awesome. The music Papangu makes is the kind of progressive metal that manages the very difficult and rarely achieved feat of channeling the heroes of classic prog right while maintaining a firm grasp on the metal that brung them to the dance in the first place. The result is a thing that I’d never heard before. It’s undoubtedly heavy metal, hanging with early Mastodon easily and getting down even into the muck with the oily stuff of late Oranssi Pazuzu. But it also does the crazy stuff that King Crimson did and Magma and it (mostly) does it without ever getting unheavy, crushing as much as balancing massive riffs and growls with saxophone and zeuhl delivered in the band’s native brand of Portuguese. It’s a lot to digest, even on paper, and that’s exactly why Holoceno is so great: Papangu manufactures prog from metal with adventurous song-writing and ballsy experimentation, expeetly wrapping avant-garde all around convention and conveying it all with such passion that it feels as familiar as it does strange and dangerous.
20. Monobody – Comma
Chicago-based Monobody is pretty new to the jazz-fusion game, their earlier albums hewing closer to math- and post-rock, but their 2021 effort, Comma, feels like a fresh take made by old timers. The post-rock vibes come through to set Monobody apart in terms of style and, coming from the speakers, gives Comma a quiet energy that draws me back again and again.
19. Antony Kalugin – Stellar Gardner/Chameleon Shapeshifter
A twofer. May be cheating, but these two make up the second and third parts of a trilogy that began with last year’s Marshmallow Moondust. Stellar Gardener is the earlier work, composed and played entirely by Kalugin, and is very much in line with his recent work, being keyboard driven, composed in the classic symphonic style, and following enthusiastically in the mammoth footsteps of Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson. Chameleon Shapeshifter, more recently released, is the product of a full band and feels that way. On the lighter side, sharing melodic and harmonic ideas with The Flower Kings and Pat Metheny, this last part is, fittingly, the best of the three and really showcases Kalugin’s compositional chops.
18. Birth – Birth
A few of us here at Last Rites have long been pining for the retro prog delight of Astra, they who graced us with two amazing albums in 2009 and 2012 and then… went away. A couple Astra members, Conor Riley (guitar/keys/vocals) and lead guitarist Brian Ellis, have finally re-emerged in the form of a demo for new project, Birth, wherein they do everything wonderful they did with Astra with a little more finesse, the net cast a mite wider for inspiration so that the spirit of King Crimson still reigns, but this time sharing a lot of space with Wishbone Ash and The Moody Blues. Birth’s debut is going to be amazing.
17. Durand Jones & The Indications – Private Space
Already at the leading edge of the new old soul movement, Durand Jones & The Indications decided on their third album to push that edge a little closer to the edge. They added some disco flair and synthesizer sheen, but also some modern flash with pop melody and hip hop groove. At the core, the band’s impeccable harmonies buoy some heavier subject matter as well as the usual celebration of being together. Another unfailing prescription for gettin’ on up.
16. Daudane – Colchique
I’m getting old enough now to get a twinge of pain noticing when modern bands are reaching back not to just one but multiple decades at once for inspiration. Daudane’s Colchique, for example, is as 90s indie as it is 60s psychedelic. One filtered through the other, one way now, the other the next. Krautrock and dream pop, Marshall Tucker Band and Slowdive. Endless connections coursing through a common core of coziness. Think I’ll take a nap.
15. Big Big Train – Common Ground
Common Ground is not one of Big Big Train’s best albums and, yet, it’s good enough to make the year end list. That’s because Big Big Train only knows how to make great music. One pretty clear difference this time around is some novel approaches to the song writing; Rikard Sjöblom taking the lead a few times makes for a wonderfully fresh take on the Big Big Train sound. But the biggest treat has to be vocalist David Longdon dropping to the lower register for “All the Love We Can Give,” resulting, at least in part, in one of the band’s best songs ever.
14. Transatlantic – The Absolute Universe – Forevermore (Extended Version)
Man, how the heck did this happen? I have never been a Transatlantic fan, largely because they make Neal Morse music and I’ve never been a fan of Neal Morse (care very little for his voice and even less for his proselytizing). This album, though? This one perfects every bit of the band’s prismatic, bombastic capital P Prog while minimizing Morse’s impact overall. Not sure whether it was intentional but the result is one of my favorite feel-good albums of 2021.
13. Øresund Space Collective – Relaxing in the Himalayas
Scott Heller (aka Dr. Space), and the ever-rotating participants of ØSC release improvisational psychedelic space rock at an incredible rate, with at least one new or live album a year since 2006. Sometimes, we get a special treat in the form of a historical release, like this year’s Relaxing in the Himalayas, originally recorded in 2014. As the story goes, a bunch of pals from other bands (Camper Van Beethoven, Agusa, My Brother the Wind, Gösta Berlings Saga) got together with Scott in the studio kind of on a whim and made some ØSC music, this album representing the first 45 recorded minutes of that experience. A wonderful, wandering, supremely chill trip.
12. Ehsan Gelsi – Ephemera
From Gelsi’s page: “…a ground-breaking hybrid work showcasing the mammoth grandeur of the ten thousand pipe acoustic organ installed at the Melbourne Town Hall, while exploring the full extent of the instrument’s electronic sequencing capabilities alongside Gelsi’s own formidable collection of synthesisers.” This thing is so ridiculously big in scope, it really has no business being as intimately engaging as is. Listening to it, though, especially on quality headphones, is an experience unto itself, warm and comfy and often exhilarating, like Vangelis flying you through the clouds and into the stratosphere.
11. Evership – The Uncrowned King: Act 1
Pure, unabashed prog rock pomposity worthy of the giants and their giant works of the golden era, especially those of the American style, like Kansas, Camel, Styx, and Queen. There’s nothing new happening here, but the old ideas are done with such respect and adoration that this kind of panache can’t be anything but intrinsic.
10. Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime
Mdou Moctar is a self-taught Nigerian guitarist. With his band, he plays iridescent melodies steeped in Western psychedelic guitar rock as much as in his own culture. His songs feel improvised and finely crafted at once, like a savant whose technique struggles to contain his creativity. Most striking is the unfettered joy that fills every facet of this music, even as the artist laments the all too commonplace horror visited upon Nigeria’s people; potent protest music.
9. Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio – I Told You So
I know it’s not my idea, but I love that Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio feels like Booker T for the new millennium. This album surely stands out on my lists for its apparent simplicity, it’s straightforwardness of purpose. And lo! but you have been deceived! The initial appeal certainly comes from that humble funky groove, but there’s an awful lot more going on than simple jams with organ, guitar, and drums. My words won’t capture it, but subtle touches reveal themselves like hidden gems on repeated listens, making this a jackpot of replay value.
8. Agusa – En Annan Värld
En Annan Värld is such an engrossing work. It’s comprised of just two tracks, 21 and 25 minutes, one per side, as per the Old Ways. The tracks couldn’t be more different in terms of feel, “Sagobrus” buoyant and soaring ever higher across its runtime, and “”Uppenbarelser” playing like a quiet walk through the mossy woods, although there are captivating swells here, too. The music is made with the standard prog rock setup of guitar, bass, keyboards, and drums, and adds the lilting melody of the flute, and the songwriting makes the most of these by executing the symphonic style to perfection.
7. Hiromi Uehara – The Piano Quintet: Silver Lining Suite
I guess I don’t know the languages of jazz or classical music well enough to offer anything too close to erudite about them, much less the product of their merger. What I can say is that, when Hiromi Uehara plays her grand piano with a string quartet accompaniment, the result feels like a rare invitation to spend some personal time with her, each piece playing like the soundtrack to a different moment of her day. It’s so lively and kinetic, it’s hard not to remember the wonderful exuberance of a classic cartoon orchestra.
6. Motorpsycho – Oblivion Kingdom
If there’s ever one thing to know about Motorpsycho, besides the fact that they’re awesome, it’s that, once you’ve heard one Motorpsycho album, you’ve heard exactly one Motorpsycho album. Masters of eclectic prog, the Norwegian trio gets (back to) heavy with Oblivion Kingdom, downtune the guitars and deify the riff in their latest interpretation of rock and roll, interweaving psychedelic and stoner rock with jazz, folk, and ambient musical ideas. It’s the same thing they’ve been doing for thirty years and as unique as every other album they’ve made (well, that I’ve heard – they have 24 albums). What an amazing band.
5. Krokofant (with Ståle Storløkken & Ingebrigt Håker Flaten) – Fifth
Slightly mad jazz rock melded with prog rock riffs and compositional style. Guitars and bass, keyboards, saxophone, drums. Wonderful motifs spliced into great swaths of improvisation, ranging from light and playful to downright heavy and menacing. Some sections will carry you back to prog’s golden era, remembering King Crimson and Van der Graaf Generator, but mostly it’s here and now, itching to be a part of what comes next.
4. Rachel Flowers – Bigger on the Inside
Just an amazing eclectic modern prog rock album. Bigger on the Inside has just about everything from grand sweeping orchestral arrangements to pensive piano interludes to cool jazz fusion to hard driving rock and roll to catchy pop melodies. It’s all supremely well-written and executed and Rachel Flowers does every bit of it herself. About the only thing that might keep a person from enjoying this album is the steadfast intention to remain unhappy.
3. 曇ヶ原 / Kumorigahara – 曇ヶ原 / Kumorigahara
Up until a few weeks ago, I’d have said without reservation that Wobbler holds the crown among the classic prog revivalists. Now? Well now there’s Kumorigahara. I’ll stop short of claiming a full usurpation, but it is absolutely clear that Kumorigahara are legitimate contenders for the throne. The best part is that Kumorigahara come with a distinctly different approach, fleshing out the classic prog architecture with high octane hard rock, leading to sensational musings like, What if Jon Lord played with Yes!? or Andy Latimer teamed up with Lucifer’s Friend!? Of course, Kumorigahara is much more than that, but boy do they nail the idea of something old being new again. Such fire and passion, this is the sound of a group of virtuosic rock-and-rollers born way too late. (As of now, you’ll have to drop more than 40 bones to have the CD shipped from Japan so, until we get some stateside/global distribution, the Kumorigahara debut is on about every streaming platform.)
2. Giant Sky – Giant Sky
Giant Sky is a side project or, more appropriately, I suppose, an exploratory offshoot of Soup founder and keyboardist, Erlend Viken. Giant Sky is one of those amazing records that invites literally all the hyperbole, every single one of the cheesy overwrought metaphorical descriptions in the futile attempt to translate the listener’s experience for the reader. Even acknowledging the silliness of it, I’m not sure there’s any other way. Giant Sky is very much a synthesized/electronic project of Viken’s, but he surrounds himself with a wonderful ensemble of real singers and instruments, including flute, viola, organ and all kinds of percussion. Viken plays around with about every sound so it’s hard sometimes to tell the organic from the processed, but the overall effect is that it’s kind of not of this world. Surreal, celestial, ethereal and yet very real inasmuch as an imagined experience is real for the person imagining it. Giant Sky is like a dissociative drift in the stardust, an untethered float along the edge of someone else’s dream. (I warned you).
1. Caligonaut – Magnified as Giants
It’s so hard to explain why I love this album so much, mostly because I want to say everything about it, in which I end up saying nothing at all. Seems to be true of so many favorite albums of mine. The ol’ je ne sais quoi, I guess. Part of the problem is that a description of the music invites countless references to other bands, from classic masters like Genesis, Gentle Giant, and Van der Graaf Generator, to the modern vanguard, including Airbag and Anekdoten and Wobbler. The difficulty isn’t really in making those references make sense, but in doing so on an album that never really sounds like any of them except in a rhythmic flash here or melodic rush there. Suffice it to say that this 51 minutes of modern prog maximizes the impact of all the classic prog tropes – from mellotron waves to virtuosic leads and solos to symphonic layers – by passing it all through a modern stylistic sieve; it sounds as fresh as it feels familiar. And as little as those words seem to actually convey looking back at them, it’s probably just safest to say no album got more time from my ears this year, in about every medium, including probably a dozen hours on the turntable, me supine on the couch, utterly lost in the music.
Thanks for being here, buddy. You’re the best.