To quote Austin Powers whilst commenting on the 1980’s, “There was a Flock Of Seagulls and that was about it”. With regards to live music and the dystopia brought about by the pandemic I would agree with him. However, what I have experienced is the rich musical diversity and talent that emerges from many of the most unsuspecting artists in the business. I mean, who would have expected hearing a Pink Floyd song being performed on children in need? Beverley Knight did a fantastic job of Wish You Were Here. The hardship and uncertainty experienced by many including myself has been a lot to bare and the performing arts as well as cinema, theatre and art galleries have taken a lot of the impact. Good then to see Steve Hackett and Steven Wilson stepping up to the plate and being proactive in doing something to draw attention to the plight of unemployed crew and music venues under threat. In Steve Hackett’s case he commissioned Facemasks and T-Shirts to me made and sold with all profits going to his road crew. Even Steve Hackett’s band who lost out on their live work did not sit idle, instead making use of the internet and file sharing to record and produce one hell of an album under the guise of The Backstage. Narrowly being included in my top ten I have to inform all that Isolation is a tonic and had this been my top twenty it would have been number eleven.
Steven Wilson too using his notoriety, influence and business acumen to auction music on outdated media in a bid to raise £10,000 for struggling venues. Given that my enthusiasm for his current musical direction is waning I doff my cap to him. Throughout all of the crisis the Prog community remained steadfast and their presence felt when I was going through my own personal issues with anxiety and depression. Despite the greed and selfishness of many which the threat of lockdowns and panic presented I witnessed more kindness and mindfulness than the divisive negativity being spread via social media and indeed the good old aunty Beeb.
From a music point of view 2020 heralded some gems the first I encountered being Love Over Fear by Pendragon. This album really did touch my soul in many ways and the lyrics became more poignant as the pandemic took hold. The album also struck a chord with me on a personal level and at the time of its release I honestly believe that Pendragon set the bar high for other bands throughout 2020. I found Love Over Fear fulfilling both musically and lyrically. Quite easily the best thing the band have recorded for many years. Also on a roll musically is Robert Reed who features on three of the albums in my top ten this year, no mean feat. First up was Magenta’s Masters Of Illusion which features songs about famous Hollywood horror movie stars, the backstory being about their personal lives and plights. I found the album absolutely fascinating and thought that it found the band back on form. The second of the albums that caught my ear was Rob’s collaboration with Steve Ballsamo as ChimpanA. The diverse cross genre pieces that went up to make The Empathy Machine I thought to be a breath of fresh air whilst his most recent solo project Cersus 123 430 reminded me of the first time I heard Jean Michel Jarre with its analogue synth inflections and light airy atmosphere. As mentioned in my previous blog one of the things that helps to get through the deeply troubled times, we face is reflection and Cersus 123 430 certainly helped with that by transporting the listener back to better days.
Making it into my annual top ten albums for the very first time is Fish. I unlike his loyal followers failed over the years to enjoy his music. I appreciate his work as a wordsmith though I am unable to appreciate the bulk of his output due to the nature of his singing voice. Marmite you might say? His latest and final album caught me unawares however. Rich in his usual Prog poet laureate the subject matter, empathy and the projection of a man comfortable in his own skin appealed to me massively. No longer a man with painted face trying his hardest to be Peter Gabriel despite his Midlothian accent and Sasquatch stature. Weltchmerz to my tastes represents the best thing that Mr Dick has ever recorded and pleased that he retired with such a masterpiece under his belt. I really enjoy his Facebook post Fish On Friday which I feel shows his human side. Of course, Prog isn’t all about the merely enjoying the original format of long pieces dedicated to the wonderment of landscapes and worlds of fantasy as depicted in the livery of their artwork. Melding other musical forms to the mix makes for interesting alternatives. My love of jazz fusion is no secret to my close friends and I bathe in what for many would be described as elevator music. I simply love it. So, when I discovered Norwegian band Pymlico a couple of years back I was blown away. The bands new album On This Day pretty much begins where they left off with their last venture “Nightscape” Projecting a rich, intense peppy form of what can only describe as Prog fusion (shoot me now} and despite its more prosaic imagery is an uplifting listen. If its Roger Dean artwork and flavours of classic 70’s Prog you want then look no further than the new album by The Flower Kings, Islands. For those who yearn for the heady days of Relayer by Yes in a bite size form then look no further. If you have the luxury of being able to play vinyl then this is a must for any self-respecting Prog head. It certainly ticks all the boxes and an absolute joy to listen to.
This brings me to my top three albums. It would be much easier for me to say that all three are joint first as it seems to me to be like having to hand over one of your children to the child catcher. David Longdon’s collaboration with the late Judy Dyble can only be describes as beautiful and I warmed to it immediately. What I suspected would me more of a folk album was prevented from being so by David Longdon’s presence and connections within the Big Big Train camp. Recorded with Judy failing fast during the recording David longdon teased the best from her and Between A Breath And A Breath is both a fitting musical epitaph for Judy and testament to the musical skills as a songwriter and musician for David. Have a tissue handy though as I found the closing song made shortly prior to Judy’s passing very sad. In contrast to Between A Breath And A breath is one of the best produced albums I have heard for many years, The Life Of A Honeybee And Other Moments Of Clarity by Scottish band Abel Ganz. With hints of The Blue Nile and even Peter Gabriel running through it Abel Ganz pulled out all the stops whilst recording and producing this album. There is a clue in the title to just how good this album is. The clarity of recording and the rich compositions found me unable to stop playing it as part of my play list for months.
So, the all-important number one album was not an easy decision to make as the quality of the whole ten was so high in so many ways. Auto Reconnaissance by The Tangent however, pipped the others to the post. Containing all the elements about Prog that I enjoy in its many forms Auto-Reconnaissance also has a sense of humour so needed in the present environment. On receiving the vinyl record it instantly made me smile with its Ed Unitsky cover and quirky lyrics. As usual the playing of instruments is stratospheric in skill and coordination all thanks to the hand-picked ensemble who obviously shared their craft with passion with love and not commerce in mind. Of all their albums for me Auto-Reconnaissance shone like a beacon above The Tangent’s previous output so much so it reached number eight in the UK album charts. No mean feat for a Prog album, though having said that I honestly believe that with this project the envelope was stretched to the max. A worthy contended for the crown in this years Prog pageant methinks and to them I raise my glass.
Best newcomer of 2020 I thought was Zopp, the brainchild of multi-instrumentalist Ryan Stevenson who put together and nod to the Canterbury scene with the album of the same name. The album also entitled Zopp really impressed the hell out of me and I will be keeping a close eye and ear on future projects and strongly advise anyone who loves Hatfield And The North and their likes to sound this album out. It has been a difficult and worrying year on so many levels for so many people and the one thing that has given me strength on a personal level in moments of despair has been music. In my battle against insomnia, it has been music and the ability to reflect even in the quietest moments. Indeed, as I type it is stupid O’clock in the morning and I am listening to a seminal Prog album by Lancashire’s finest, Barclay James Harvest. Spiritually I can only hope for better things in 2021 and with the same for all my family, friends and work colleagues. I hope to continue as long as I have the necessary resources with my radio show (The Progmeister @ Progzilla) on www.progzilla.com for as long as they will have me and continue promoting new bands and new music by old bands. Of course, I will celebrate many other forms of music via the interweb radio harking back to my childhood till the present day. Thank you to all those people who make the effort to tune in when my show goes out on the second Sunday of every month at 6pm just as you are making your tea and watching Countryfile. It is repeated on the following Tuesday afternoon at 4pm. Though the spirit of Christmas for many may be diminished hopefully some of it still prevails and so I will wish you all a safe and enjoyable Christmas and a more prosperous New Year. Peace love and light to you all.
The Progmeister’s top ten albums of 2020
- Auto-Reconnaissance – The Tangent
- The Life Of The Honeybee And Other Moments Of Clarity – Abel Ganz
- Between A Breath And A Breath – Dyble/Longdon
- Love Over Fear – Pendragon
- Islands – The Flower Kings
- Masters Of Illusion – Magenta
- On This Day – Pymlico
- Cersus 123 430 – Robert Reed
- Weltschmerz – Fish
10. The Empathy Machine – ChimpanA.