Welcome to the January Progress Report, and Happy New Year to everyone out there. It’s not much of a bar to get over, but here’s hoping everyone has a better year than 2020. Although the year sucked, musically it was fantastic, with great releases in multiple genres including progressive music. So we are hoping that trend continues. Here in our January Report things are a bit mellower than they’ve been in the past, with progressive pop taking a front seat, and no death metal to be found. But that’s okay; read on and give these albums a spin if they sound interesting. Remember, the bands all need our support just as much this year as last year.
Ratings are on a five star scale.
MEER – Playing House (Karisma)
An eight-piece band featuring the usual rock trappings with orchestral elements? Sounds a little like the Diablo Swing Orchestra, which isn’t a bad thing. MEER are a prog-pop band from Norway, and Playing House is their second album. Sadly, their 2016 debut is not on Bandcamp (but is on iTunes and Spotify).
MEER’s strengths are twofold: glorious, lush arrangements and fantastic vocals dominate the album. Johanne Nesdal’s vocals are an early-year highlight; it was hard for me to stop listening to this album when she was singing. All eleven songs have their own wonderful quirks, from the easy groove of “You Were A Drum” to the majesty of “Beehive.” And to top it off, a crazy-cool bonus cover of Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” is available, and needs to be heard. Playing House is our album of the month.
Need – Norchestrion: A Song for the End (Ikaros)
It has been four years since we last reviewed Greek prog metallers Need. Hegaiamas: A Song for Freedom was an excellent album with one glaring flaw. Norchestrion is the band’s fifth album, and takes the songwriting and performances a step up from their last. The songs here are classic melodic prog metal, with loads of emotion and aggression and captivating arrangements. Jon Voyager’s vocals are top notch, and the band nails their performances.
Over an hour of great music is a worthy accomplishment, but once again the band sees the need (sorry about that) to include a horrendous spoken word track. This was the only drawback of Hegaiamas, and they repeat it here. Three minutes of two people arguing does nothing for the flow or story, and is a definite “skip” track. If it wasn’t for “V.a.d.i.s.” Norchestrion would have been our pick for the month.
Needlepoint – Walking Up That Valley (Stickman)
The feel-good album of the month has to be Walking Up That Valley, the latest outing from Norwegian jazz-prog quartet Needlepoint. Prog doesn’t get more nostalgic than this, with the gloriously hazy sounds of the ’60s and early ’70s prog greats like Camel and Soft Machine on full display across eight intricate yet relaxed tracks.
Laid-back vocals adorn meandering, whimsical arrangements. In a style similar to retro-kings Wobbler, a variety of vintage keyboards and overdriven, intricate bass lines lead the music. Contrary to Wobbler, though, Needlepoint take a much more calm approach to their prog, wrapping us in smoky comfort. If you’re a fan of vintage prog, or modern bands who can pull off the sound, Needlepoint are up your alley.
Steven Wilson – The Future Bites (Arts & Crafts)
The evolution of Steven Wilson continues on The Future Bites, his sixth solo release. Considered by many to be prog rock royalty, The Future Bites finds Wilson moving down an electronic pop path, where his impeccable arrangements and skill behind the mixing board can really shine. The first half of this album plays things relatively close to the vest, with scrumptious and catchy pop songs. Members of Porcupine Tree, The Cure, and Sir Elton John himself make guest appearances.
The music gets more adventurous as the album progresses. The album highlight of course is the epic “Personal Shopper,” which eviscerates the public’s mass consumerism. In a song. On an album. That he wants you to buy. Irony aside, The Future Bites will go down as one of the best-sounding albums of the year, and there are some beautifully constructed pop numbers here, making it an album well worth diving into.
TDW – The Day the Clocks Stopped (Layered Reality)
TDW (Tom de Wit and backing musicians) have been creating in many media formats for a long time, usually as TDW or Dreamwalkers Inc. The Day the Clocks Stopped is de Wit’s latest opus. Here he is assisted by Annihilator’s Rich Gray and Fabio Allessandrini throughout, as well as a number of guest guitarists who provide stellar solos on many of the tracks.
Near-death experiences and what happens to both the body and brain in crises are the themes. Heavy stuff, and de Wit pulls it off with emotion and some wonderful musicianship. This is very much a modern progressive metal album, with plenty of dynamics and light/heavy moments. The album’s length is daunting, but I’m not sure where it could be trimmed. It’s an effective and emotional story, but a 55 minute version may have been more impactful than 75 minutes.
Vajra – Irkalla (Thunder Cult)
New York’s Vajra last released an album in 2012. Irkalla is the first part of a trilogy of releases, and is an esoteric take on different levels of consciousness. The band blends eastern and western philosophical and musical influences together to create a sound that can be mysterious and captivating, all led by the powerful vocals of Annamaria Pinna.
This is such a hard album to assign a rating to. It’s less than twenty minutes long, and half the tracks are ambient instrumental segues. “Maya” and Crown or Crucify” are really strong alternative metal songs with a hint of progressive complexity to them, while “Sever the Tie” attempts to bring an exotic flavor to the mix. These songs show Vajra’s potential, but we need more than three of them.