SONIC BRIEFS: Overlooked Prog-Rock Gems From 2022

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Every year many albums escape our ears amidst the onslaught of new releases. Here’s three noteworthy progressive rock releases from ’22 which approach the more ambient, layered and etheric side of the genre.

Esthesis – “Watching Worlds Collide”

The second full-length release from the French band Esthesis is a mysterious, atmospheric delight. Containing seven songs clocking in at fifty-one minutes, the album beckons repeat listenings and total immersion into its world. Languid vocals (sung in English) from band leader Aurélien Goude are often subtly but thrillingly complimented by the female voice of Mathilde Collet. Goude has brought in an excellent band to realize his vision, especially the playing of bassist Marc Anguill and drummer Arnaud Nicolau who bring surprising and satisfyingly hip grooves to the material. Plenty of other unexpected sounds add to the vibe, from banjo and smoky tenor sax to reverb-drenched whistling coming from down an alleyway through thick fog.

Considering how much of a Floyd inspiration permeated their earlier recordings, Esthesis’s evolution into jazzy film noir territory is impressive and welcome. If anything, No-Man is a more relevant touchstone now. Nowhere is this more evident than on the hypnotic “57th Street”, the album’s centerpiece which patiently takes its time to meander in back alleys and underground jazz clubs over 12 delicious minutes. The same impact is achieved on the more immediate opener “Amber”, a perfect piece that encapsulates the new Esthesis sound, from atmospheric opening sax to driving grooves and an explosive guitar solo from Baptiste Desmares

“Watching Worlds Collide” Album Artwork

More to the point, every song here is a small victory for the band – there is no filler. Whether it’s the grooving “Place Your Bets” with its saxophone jam, Mathieu Vilbert’s violin solo on the ambient “Skimming Stones”, the catchy “Wandering Cloud” or the exciting instrumental forays of “Vertigo”, “Watching World Collide” serves up diverse arrangements that make the listener swoon and pay attention in equal measures. Perhaps best of all is “Through My Lens” which devastatingly closes the album in sinister fashion. Just bring that sax up a bit more in the mix. Aside from that minor point, the production throughout is appropriately on point, able to balance single-note piano motifs and whistling with heavier distorted sections.

Esthesis have delivered one of the best under-the-radar albums of 2022, noteworthy not only in its own right but also for what it signals regarding the band’s future. Don’t keep it a secret.

Songwriting: 9
Musicianship: 9
Originality: 8.5
Production: 9.5

Returned to the Earth – “Fall of the Watcher”

If the lush, textured sounds of IQ, Airbag and Marillion are to your liking, be sure to add Returned to the Earth’s “Fall of the Watcher” to your list. This, their fourth release, will gain much greater visibility thanks to signing with the G.E.P. label; plans are to re-issue the album on January 27, 2023 with an expanded booklet. At times the band sounds so close to IQ – largely thanks to the tone of lead singer Robin Peachey’s voice – that it almost seems confusing (though inevitable) to have both bands on the same record label. No matter, great music is great music and this album is a superlative offering of emotional, transcendent prog.

Throughout the album the band’s sound design is a blend of acoustic and arpeggiated electric guitars, piano and layers upon layers of keyboards. It’s a trance-inducing combo over which Robin’s melodic vocals entrance and captivate. Steve Peachey’s keyboard patches are sublime, immediately evident on the opening title track. Add in a loping bass line and a mix of live and programmed drums from Paul Johnston and the spell is cast

“Fall Of The Watcher” Album Artwork

Two longer pieces, “Sacrificed In Vain” and the title track, are natural highlights but the shorter songs are no less impactful. “Lack of Information” is one of the best with an addictive vocal line. Robin has a talent for writing melodies which float above the bed of sound, weaving through the listener’s mind and ultimately lodging in our memory banks. The melancholic lyrics take on serious topics which can deepen the experience if desired, or just let Robin’s voice carry you through the clouds. Occasionally a soulful guitar solo will erupt but for the most part this is all about textures and layers.

Mastered by Steve Kitch (The Pineapple Thief), the sonic balance hits the right spot. This is a perfect soundtrack to accompany cold wintry months, so make “Fall of the Watcher” one of your new favorites this season.

Songwriting: 8.5
Musicianship: 8.5
Originality: 7.5
Production: 9.5

Ali Ferguson – “The Contemplative Power of Water”

Another fantastic new discovery is Scottish guitarist/songwriter Ali Ferguson whose “The Contemplative Power of Water” is a sumptuous multi-course meal taking about an hour to digest. If his name doesn’t ring any bells for you, as it didn’t for me, then perhaps mentioning that he is the live guitarist for Ray Wilson will give you a bit of context. More importantly, he is an artfully creative weaver of styles, soundscapes and sonic delights. On this, his third solo album, he plays a wide range of instruments along with vocals and even “field recording” (always a proggy indicator) but also calls on several friends to lend a hand.

The style of music is all across the map, serving up a most-welcome wide range of colors and influences. From ambient instrumentals to rockers fueled by drum programming to Celtic folk to Enigma-influenced soundscape samples, there’s a wealth of stylish diversity at play. The inescapable calling card is Ferguson’s Gilmour-flavored lead guitar lines which pop up from time to time, not to mention the fact that his voice carries a bit of that familiar tone as well, but the rest of the material and directions explored are clearly not limited to Floyd fodder.

“The Contemplative Power of Water” Album Artwork

A naturalist and even spiritual thread weaves through the album, most directly felt on the extended title track which totals 26 minutes but is spread into three parts, two of which bookend the album and the third coming halfway through. Here the sounds of water and birds are intermingled with long instrumental guitar passages and finally a hypnotic chorus which ends with Indian scale  chanting.

The numerous shorter songs in between bring Ferguson’s vocals more to the fore. Although his voice is pleasing, they are a bit too processed which, along with the absence of acoustic drums, ironically leads to a less organic feel to the album as a whole. Nevertheless, the strength of the songs speak for themselves. Ferguson goes from strength to strength in this meditation on water. Recommended!

Songwriting: 8.5
Musicianship: 8.5
Originality: 8.5
Production: 9 


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