Tuesday, April 2, 2024

New Album Roundup - Capsule Reviews and Comments - Early 2024

New Album Reviews - Early 2024

Hey, it's time to through some of the best albums of the year so far. I usually spend the first month or so of a new year catching up on recommended albums from the previous year that I missed or had not yet heard, and that was certainly true for this year, as there were several albums that came out right near the end of the year, as well as several interesting albums I heard about in various year-end lists that I was not familiar with. So, I had been listening to dozens of 2023 albums through the early weeks of 2024, as I waited for the new crop of 2024 albums to start coming out. So, before highlighting the best of the new 2024 albums, Here are a few of the best of those 2023 albums that I did not hear until 2024.

2023 late arrivals:

Regna - Cinema (2023) 
Regna is a relatively new progressive rock band, from Barcelona, Spain. This is their first full-length album, following an EP, Meridian (2015). And this band certainly bases its sound on the classic Prog of the early 1970's, harkening back to the style of Yes, Genesis, Camel, and others of the time, but also adding some modern elements as well. Their strength is their musicianship and instrumental prowess, with dazzling displays of proggy goodness, as exemplified on their 20-min epic, Accolade. However, the vocals are a bit of a weak spot, as they are just OK, functional but nothing special, and with a single vocalist, there is little in the way of harmony or backing vocals throughout. But overall, the strength of the songs and playing provide a very good album of classic-style prog. Best Tracks: Tangent, Accolade, Spyglass. Rating: 3.5ó

Lalu - The Fish Who Wanted to be King (2023)
Lalu is a prog band formed and lead by French keybordist-composer Vivien Lalu. This is their 4th album, following closely after 2022's Paint the Sky, and their 2nd album to feature premier vocalist Damian Wilson (Ayreon, Star One, Headspace, Threshold) and he shines throughout the album. Although this band has been designated as progressive metal, this most recent album is really not that at all, fortunately, as it is more melodic and contains more elements of AOR style rock. I would call it more of a mixture of melodic rock, Neo prog, and classic symphonic prog, with some more modern, heavier, and jazzy elements as well. And it is quite wonderful, a delight from start to finish. There is certainly more than enough great classic proggy instrumental flourishes throughout to satisfy the prog fans, but also maintains solid melodic lines and themes (to not scare away the non-prog rock fans), as well as a diversity of styles, creating a fun, entertaining and unique blend of driving, rockin' prog songs, from the shorter, jazzy instrumental, Reversal of Fortune, to the many highlights of the more epic length Amnesia 1916 and title track. Best Tracks: Amnesia 1916, The Fish Who Wanted to Be King, Deoxyribonucleic Acid, Digital Fear, Reversal of Fortune. Rating: 4ó .

David Longdon -  Wild River (2023 Remastered Reissue, originally released 2004)
David Longdon was the wonderful lead vocalist, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from the prog band Big Big Train who died in a tragic accident in late 2021. This is the rerelease of an earlier solo album he made prior to his joining Big Big Train. David was one of the best vocalists around, with a pure, heartfelt, majestic quality, but was also a fine instrumentalist, playing guitar, keyboards, harmonica and flute. On this early album, from 2004, his vocals, songwriting, and playing are all in fine form, as he moves through songs of varying styles. Although overall, it might be classified as light rock or pop, he mixes in various styles and influences, including folk, pop, blues, classical, and rock, and all the songs have interesting arrangements and strong melodies. Although this is not quite in the prog style of Big Big Train, the qualities that David brought to the band are clear throughout, from his songwriting and melodic sense, to the intricate arrangements that bring out the best of each song, to of course, his fantastic vocals. This is a great album from a great artist in the early stages of his career. Best Tracks: This House, Vertigo, Mandy, Falling Down to Earth, Honey Trap. Rating: 4ó

It is still early in 2024, but there have already been many great new albums released in these first few months. Here are some of my favorites so far:

Neal Morse - The Restoration: Joseph Part 2 
A solid, and improved follow-up to last years's The Dreamer: Joseph Part 1. Once again, Neal has brought in many guest vocalists (Ted Leonard, Matt Smith, Jake Livgren, Nick D'Virgilio, Ross Jennings) to round out the cast of characters in his biblical prog rock opera telling of the story of Joseph, along with his Neal Morse band cohorts guitarist Eric Gillette and keyboardist Bill Hubauer to enhance Neal's own multi-instrumental musicianship. Although a long album (16 tracks, 75 min), and certainly dramatic and theatrical in nature, Neal tries to keep things interesting by varying the tempo and musical styles from song to song. That and the different vocalists, keep things moving through the various stylistic choices of Morse and Co. Mixing in familar prog elements (reminiscent of Spock's Beard, Gentle Giant, ELP, etc) with hard rock, choirs, vocal harmonies, orchestration, jazz, and even a bit of latin swing, as only Neal Morse could.  Although much of this may seem quite familiar to other projects from Morse, he still manages to surprise occasionally, and entertains quite consistently, as it builds to a rousing and satisfying conclusion, and saves the best songs for the last sequence. Better than expected. Best Tracks: My Dream, the Argument, Make Like a Breeze, The Brothers Repent, Restoration, Everlasting, Dawning of a New Day. Rating: 3.5ó

Ellesmere - Stranger Skies
This is the 4th album from Ellesmere, lead by Italian progger Roberto Vitelli, and is firmly in the style of classic symphonic prog ala Genesis and Yes. Vitelli has assembled an accomplished band of musicians  perfectly suited to the prog workout displayed here, with all the intricate instrumental passages and soloing to make successful prog, and are joined on this album by vocalist John Wilkinson, who sings in a voice and style suspiciously similar to Phil Collins. Thus, all the pieces are there, the vocals are fine and the instrumental sections do achieve a grandness and virtuosic satisfaction. However, to me, it just seems a bit too ordinary and run of the mill, and just going through the motions. What is missing here are great songs, as the songs and melodies here are just ok, nothing special. They just are not very engaging or compelling. Great playing all around, but the songs themselves just don't do much for me. Still enjoyable to listen to, but I can't get too excited about it, even with some great musicianship on display. Rating: 3ó   

Kyros - Mannequin
Kyros, a UK progressive pop band, lead by the vocals and keyboards of Shelby Logan Warner, has embraced 80's style synth-pop on this, their 5th album. But this is synthpop re-imagined from a decidedly bold progressive rock perspective, for a style that sounds new, but is also quite familiar as well. Very catchy beats and melodies collide with edgy vocals and prog flourishes throughout. Starting off with a more gentle acoustic pop song (Taste the Day), the album moves to an energetic synthpop instrumental (Showtime) before the main features and core of the album take hold, an impressive display of progressive synthpop brilliance for the next 6 songs. Unfortunately, the album falters on the final 2 tracks, when the band goes much darker and heavier (more prog metal) on Technology Killed the Kids IV, which apparently is a continuing series from previous albums, but which does not fit or work at all here, and completely ruins the vibe and feel of the album. The final track, Have Hope, is hyperactive and disjointed, and although has some nice moments, is too much of a chaotic mess. Up until those final 2 tracks, this is a really great album, but have to downgrade it due to the poor finish. Best Tracks: Esoterica, Illusions Inside, The End in Mind, Ghosts of You, Liminal Space, Digital Fear. Rating: 3.5ó

The Pineapple Thief - It Leads To This

Another great album from veteran prog band The Pineapple Thief lead by composer-gutarist-vocalist Bruce Soord, who have really been on a roll since the addition of drummer extraordaire Gavin Harrison (Porcupine Tree) in 2016. This new album is even stronger than their quite good previous couple albums, Giving it Back (2022) and Versions of the Truth (2020), but doesn't quite reach the pinnacle of Dissolution (2018), which I consider to be their masterwork. This album saw a closer working relationship between Bruce Soord and Gavin Harrison in crafting the songs for the album, actually writing together in the same studio for the first time. The album starts with Put it Right which sets the mood and atmosphere for the album with a soft understated cool, but dark vibe and develops into a slow boil throughout the song. But the album really takes off with the middle series of songs, starting with the title track and its blend of atmosphere, melody, and rhythms. The intensity builds with The Frost amid heavier riffs. Throughout, the understated vocals and melodies of Soord mixed with the dynamic drumming of Harrison, and the rhythms and riffs of the rest of the band create rich and satisfying soundscapes, even with the undercurrents of darkness and unease. This album is a real grower, in that it may not knock you out on first listen, but its subtleties and intricacies develop and is richly rewarding with repeated listens. The band seems even more of a cohesive coordinated unit than on previous albums creating a wonderful listening experience. My only mild criticisms would be that 1) it doesn't stray very far from what they've done previously, similar in style and substance (but so very well done), and 2) It just seems a bit too short (8 tracks, 40 min). It ends rather abruptly, and it just seems it could use one more song to round it out. All in all though, Another gem of an album. Best Tracks: It Leads to This, Every Trace of Us, All That's Left, The Frost, To Forget. Rating: 4ó

Steve Hackett - The Circus and the Nightwhale
The latest from guitarist extraordinaire Steve Hackett (and something like his 30th album), this one is a concept album with a story based on Steve's own life experiences, and is something special, his best album in many years. At 74, and a career spanning more than 55 years, Hackett seems to be stronger than ever, with his Genesis Revisited tours and regular releases of live and new solo albums. This album mixes together songs of many different styles, ranging from classical guitar stylings to dark and ominous heavy prog metal riffs, as well as lighter more melodic pop and rock, with international stylistic flourishes, strong harmony vocals, and yes, even some Genesis-reminiscent passages. Steve has his powerhouse backing band (same as his touring band) as well as some guest artists to bring these songs to life, and the result is a tour de force album of delights, 13 tracks comprising a compact 45 minutes, telling his story in one of the prog highlights of the year.   Best tracks: Enter the Ring, Wherever You Are, Ghost Moon and Living Love, Get Me Out, Into the Nightwhale. Rating: 4ó

Dirt Poor Robins - Firebird

Dirt Poor Robins
are a totally unique band from Louisville, KY, and are essentially the married couple of Neil and Kate DeGraide writing and performing all the songs. They bill themselves as a Theatrical/Cinematic/Singer-Songwriting Rock Band and make genre-defying music, incorporating pop, rock, jazz, prog, musical theater, and nostalgia (music of the 1920's, 30's, 40's, and 50's), usually in elaborate concept albums. Very theatrical, cinematic, but also quite accessible, they weave compelling story songs of varying styles. With this latest album, The Robins create a futuristic sci-fi scenario rooted in pop styles from the 1980's, yet again, encompassing many different styles and genres, but with a bright and exuberant sound throughout. This album may be their most entertaining and accomplished work yet. From the pop gem opener, Political, through to the majestic closer Firebird (based on Stravinsky's Firebird theme), this is a wonderful album, even with a couple of overwrought ballads I did not care for, it is all part of the experience. The only other band I can compare them to is The Dear Hunter, as they both feature that musical diversity and theatricality aspects, yet are so compelling and accessible.  Best Tracks: Political, Holy Roller, So Long to Yesterday, Firebird, You'll Never Hear it Coming. Rating: 4ó

Albion - Lakesongs of the Elbid
Another somewhat new band releasing their first full-length album. Originally formed in 2019, released an EP, Pryderi in 2021. And what a fantastic album this is, with a unique and exciting sound that the band calls folk metal, which mixes Old English-style folk music with classical, hard rock, and prog metal for a rousing sonic journey. But it is much more than that, with a wide range of styles and influences, featuring songs ranging from traditional folk with acoustic guitar and vocal harmonies to a rockin' Sea Shanty all the way to full-on progressive metal, but on most songs creating an exhilarating blend of multiple styles in a bold symphonic prog. This band features guitarist-flutist-vocalist Joe Parrish-James, who has been guitarist for Jethro Tull for their 2 most recent albums, but recently announced he was leaving Tull to concentrate on his other band, Albion. Although there are several similarities with Tull, in that both bands feature a mix of acoustic folk and hard rock, with prominent flute and symphonic arrangements, Albion's sound is uniquely its own, with only occasional similarities with Tull. Actually, the modern band that they are a bit more reminiscent of is the Von Hertzen Brothers. Several songs start out in a mostly folky mode, but then build or explode into full-on symphonic prog powerhouses, while still retaining folk elements. A stunningly good album. Fresh, invigorating, exciting, and exemplifies what Progressive rock is all about. Best Tracks: Pagan Spirit, The Dream of Rhonabwy, Lyn y Fan Fawr (Sister Lake), Arthurian Overture, Camlann, Canens (Maya). Rating: 4.5ó

Big Big Train - The Likes of Us
Big Big Train, one of the premier prog bands of the 2000s, has been through a lot over the past few years. In 2019, half the band (including guitarist Dave Gregory, Andy Poole, Danny Manners, and string player Rachel Hall) quit, leaving the remaining core members (David Longdon, Greg Spawton, Rikard Sjoblom, and Nick D'Virgilio) to regroup and refocus. They did so brilliantly, coming back with the great album Common Ground in 2021, and showing some new directions. However, in late 2021, the band was devastated by the tragic accidental death of lead vocalist-multi-instrumentalis-composer David Longdon, and put the future of the band in doubt. But they have regrouped once again, adding vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Alberto Bravin, as well as Dave Foster on guitar, Oskar Holdorff on keyboards, and Claire Lindley on violin, and released this latest album, and it is another triumphant return for the band. Alerto Bravin brings a different presence to the band, as he doesn't try to sound like Longdon, but has his own style and commanding voice that all his own. He also has added substantially in the songwriting, playing, and arrangements of many of the songs on the album. Although forging on in some new directions, the album maintains the the essence of what makes Big Big Train great, with beautiful melodies, soaring instrumental passages, evocative narratives, and sweeping majestic themes, maintaining effective use of strings and horns, as well occasional bursts of heavier prog instrumental sections. From the shorter more rock-oriented Oblivion, to the beautiful ballads like Love is the Light, to the pastoral splendor and symphonic grandness of Light Left in the Day, to the magnificent epic Beneath the Masts, which has everything one could want in an epic-length BBT song (and will take its place among their greats), the album delivers another astounding chapter in the musical adventures of BBT, and continues their reign, at least for me, at the top of modern progressive rock.  Best Tracks: Beneath the Masts, Miramare, Light Left in the Day, Oblivion, Last Eleven. Rating: 4.5ó

Quick Hits:
Here are some more new albums worth checking out, but ones that I didn't have time to review in full, didn't like as much, or just didn't have much to say about. So here, are just the briefest of comments on these still quite worthy albums.

Caligula's Horse - Charcoal Grace (Inventive, dynamic prog metal album, but too much metal for me) 3ó 

ALMO - Reconciliation (Heavy Prog Metal, mostly heavy metal, not enough prog) 2ó

The Smile - Wall of Eyes (another set of half-baked, underdeveloped 'art rock' songs, more like demos or rehearsal sessions, but marginally better than 1st album) 2.5ó

Everything Everything - Mountainhead (Bright, bouncy, modern synthpop, just not that memorable or compelling) 3ó

The Last Dinner Party - Prelude to Ecstasy (Well-done drama pop, just not something I can connect with) 3ó

Emerald City Council - Motion Carries (fun, pop-oriented, accessible, melodic prog rock. Recommended) 3.5ó

Karfagen - Mesages From Afar: Second Nature (More well-crafted and engaging keyboard-led prog from Anthony Kalugin) 3.5ó

The Bardic Depths - What We Like in Stories (gentle melodic prog, nice vocals and arrangements, literate lyrics) 3.5ó

Monkey3 - Welcome to the Machine (Well-done instrumental psychedelic/space-rock inspired by Pink Floyd) 3.5ó

Drfting Sun - Veil (musically impressive prog songs, marred by creepy, distracting vocal performance) 3ó

Professor Caffeine and The Insecurities - Self-Titled (Invigorating, inspired indie rock, with elements of Prog) 3.5ó 

Mesa Verde - All is Well (Pleasant, mostly gentle, laid-back, but complex and quirky, indie pop, gets better as it goes on) 3.5ó

BB’s Rating scale:

1ó – Terrible, torturous to have to listen to
1.5ó - Poor, not worth your time
2 ó – Fair, maybe a couple half-way decent songs, but sub-par overall
2.5ó – Average, OK, meh, not bad but not that good either
3ó – Good, solid album, several good songs, but not spectacular. Certainly worthy, but may not be something you come back to very often
3.5ó – Very good album. Some stellar tracks, very enjoyable overall
4ó – Great album, filled with great songs, one that you will want to come back to over and over again
4.5ó – Excellent album, beyond great, superb in every way, just short of a masterpiece 
5ó – A Masterpiece, among the greatest albums of its type, and has stood the test of time

So, that's it for now. A lot of really good stuff already this year, with more on the way. What have you been listening to this year? What are some of your favorites thus far?

1 comment:

Iowatullfan said...

Thanks for the info on these groups. I was not familiar with any of them. So, I checked out Albion on Bandcamp and find that album to be outstanding. I am a longtime Jethro Tull fan, so obviously I had a great appreciation for the flute in a rock album.

Thought I might be able to return a recommendation to you for a listen (if you have not already heard them). Just came upon a group that released their first full length album called English Teacher- the album is This Could Be Texas. Very impressive