SONIC BRIEFS: Recommended Prog-Rock Releases – July 2023

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2023 keeps delivering engaging music for prog-rock fans, no surprise given the past several golden years. We offer three overviews below, on albums which absolutely deserve your attention, all three released last month of July 2023. Keep reading, and you might discover a gem that ends up ranking amongst your favorites of the year. 

United Progressive Fraternity (UPF)- “Planetary Overload Part 2: Hope”

We don’t have many “environmentally-conscious progressive rock supergroups” out there so thank God for UPF, whose dedication to raising environmental awareness via inspiring music is one small balm to our world’s precarious situation. This is none more true than on their third full-length release, emphasis on “FULL”. A whopping 22 tracks deliver two hours of music with more guest artists than we have collective fingers to count.

Led by Mark Truey Trueack (vocals, lyrics) and Steve Unruh (vocals and virtually every instrument under the sun), UPF are hardly a proper band at all but rather a community of top-tier eco-minded musicians who come together for these recordings. For a more complete overview of the UPF project, check out our extensive coverage of Part 1 from 2019.

As the titles imply, whereas Part 1 was focused more on the dire side of the situation we find ourselves in, Part 2 leans towards a more hopeful path. Still, the thematic material feels inherently serious throughout, as one might expect. Fortunately the music and performance is of such a high caliber that the listener doesn’t get bogged down in the heaviness of it all. Quotes from Chief Oren Lyons, Sir David Attenborough and others are sprinkled throughout to keep us on track and offer a balance to Trueack’s lyrics. It’s a full-on multi-sensory experience throughout, causing the listener to think as well as be entertained.

“Planetary Overload Part 2: Hope”

The drums call us in on the tribal opening chant “Hope Is/Drums of Hope” with four drummers being featured, all arranged by Tommy Murray, for an impressive overture introduction. “Love Never Leaves Us” is the catchy lead single, with drumming from Lisa Wetton and lots of programming and keyboards from Christophe Lebled who is one of the primary musicians and composers on the album, especially their Romantechs side project where he really flies his Vangelis flag. However, Ben Craven takes on the keyboards, guitars and compositional credit for the powerful “The Answer” as Jonas Reingold actively rumbles below on bass. 

While most of the songs run under 10 minutes, we get to summit one 21-minute epic in “Being of Equal” which pulls out all the stops. Offering a quick overview of human development, the song concludes that we must balance our ambition with the bounty that the natural world offers us if we are to survive. Gordo Bennett takes on the first keyboard chair, co-writing this piece with Unruh and Trueack. Still, there’s room for a Hammond solo from Ryo Okumoto, a bit of guitar from Steve Hackett, and an impressive array of world instruments from Charlie Cawood. Oh yes, and that’s Colin Edwin on fretless bass, while Hasse Froeberg even jumps in on shared vocals with Truey and Elisa Montaldo offering layered backing vocals. Lest this sounds like it’s just name-dropping, each musician’s offering is sincere and significant; it’s an all-star effort in earnest.

There are rockers on the album such as “Islands” and “Homosapien”, both of which feature Jamison Smeltz on saxophones – the latter sounding like it’s from the region of Kashmir – and “Faultline” which almost veers into big band territory. But there are also are beautiful ballads like the delicate “The Bees in Us” and the Rachel Flowers-penned “Who We Really Are” with her inspired piano and Unruh’s violin offering a soothing simplicity to balance the other busier tracks. 

With an overabundance of songs, it’s hard to pick out favorites. Indeed, the main drawback of this release may be that “Planetary Overload” is also a sonic overload. Consensus still shows that a 40-minute album is optimal for listener absorption and appreciation, but here we have 3 album’s worth of material. And that’s not even including the added hour of bonus material from their alter-ego Romantechs, which is part of the deluxe packages. Sometimes less is indeed more but who can fault UPF for their earnestness in saving the world? Beautifully produced, this is an experience to take in and savor, to inspire and to be inspired by. Join the cause and enjoy music which is a force of good in the world. 

Pre-order “Planetary Overload Part 2: Hope” HERE.

Songwriting: 8
Musicianship: 10
Originality: 8
Production: 10


Agusa – “Prima Materia”

Just in time for the heat of the summer, Sweden’s prog quintet Agusa arrives with a new release of vintage psychedelic prog to quench your thirst. Four mostly-instrumental tracks are laid out in these 42 minutes, boasting plenty of room to groove, jam and evolve through an array of spacious moods. Although the music is not cinematic, the four titles seem to reference Swedish films of the past few decades which perhaps played a role as inspiration for the music herein.

Fans of flute-heavy bands like Focus and Tull will instantly gravitate towards Jenny Puertas’ excellent playing but there’s much jamming to enjoy from the keyboards of Roman Andren and band main-stay Mikael Ödesjö on guitar. Indeed, the band’s personnel have rotated several times during their five albums but the content and performance remains impressively high. As far as inspired retro psych goes, Agusa delivers time and time again. 

“Lust och fägring (Sommarvisan)” kicks the album off with chiming acoustic guitar reminiscent of Supertramp’s “Even In The Quietest Moments” before the full band kicks in. Focusing on various descending progressions throughout numerous sections, the apex of the song comes during a brief vocal accompaniment as Ödesjö fires blistering guitar attacks. Perhaps titled for the 1995 Swedish film of the same name (“Great Lust & Beauty”), you can catch a unique video teaser clip of the song, featuring countryside pole dancing. Seriously, give a search on YouTube. 

“Prima Materia” Artwork

On “Under bar himmel” the band seems to have Porcupine Tree’s “Colourflow In Mind” on their own mind as the song starts, leading to one of the best pieces on the album. Again, a descending progression forms the intoxicating main theme, though there’s plenty of soloing and even a danceable section as the players trade off solos. The next piece, “Ur Askan” (which I can’t help but interpret as You Are Askin’!) is even more equipped to get your body moving to its Middle Eastern groove, complimented by hand percussion. We also get a brief passage sung in Spanish by Puertas, one of the rare vocal moments on the album which mysteriously fits in perfectly with the rest of the vibe.

Agusa deserve the attention of the wider prog community, as their blend of folk, rock, classical and world themes would appeal to many. This is a nicely produced package which feels both professional and informal, well-arranged and improvised in equal measures. Lighten up your summer with this wonderful soundtrack.

Order “Prima Materia” HERE.

Songwriting: 8
Musicianship: 9
Originality: 8
Production: 9

Kurt Michaels – “Stones From The Garden”

Hailing from Chicago, Kurt Michael’s fifth album “Stones From the Garden” has just been released on Melodic Revolution Records. This singer/songwriter/guitarist invites a healthy roster of guest musicians to bring his material to life, including Billy Sherwood (Yes), Michael Sherwood (Toto, Sammy Davis, Jr.), Amanda Lehmann (Steve Hackett), John Abbey (John Cale), Dennis Johnson, (Survivor, Dennis DeYoung and Chase) and many more. The album offers a diverse set of music, from rockers to pop to prog to a closing extended ambient mix, showcasing Michael’s wide range of tastes.

Michael’s uniquely characteristic voice propels most of the songs forward but he favors bringing in a number of backing female vocalists throughout, who often duet right along with him. This pays off well on several tracks like the chorus of “Why Must Life Be Such A Fight?” and the anthemic qualities of “Happiness”.

“Forever” boasts some of the strongest guitar work on the album, Michael’s approach bringing to mind Steve Howe at times. The more laid-back “I’m In Love With That Dream” dips back to the 60s for a touch of Beatles inspiration and some fine swaths of guitar soloing, one of the most enjoyable moments on the album.

“Stones From The Garden”

Billy Sherwood makes his presence firmly known on “Will I Ever Pass This Way Again” with his signature Chris Squire-influenced bass playing and tone, but he also delivers a lively drum performance that truly stands out. Considering that his brother, the late Michael Sherwood, provides keyboards on this song as well, it certainly rises to be a noteworthy highlight of the pieces offered here.

Surprisingly, the album concludes with a 17-minute detour in “The Road Beyond”, a keyboard-drenched ambient drone over which guitar soloing and other effects make their improvisations. As an excerpt from a live performance at the ElectroMusic festival in 2007, it’s an unusual but welcome way to end this recording before the record scratch brings us to its end.

Independent artists such as Michaels have much to offer and prove to be worth seeking out. The songs (stones) in this garden have unique angular edges that take the listener in unexpected directions, all the more reason to give it a try and take it all in.

Order “Stones From The Garden” HERE.

Songwriting: 7
Musicianship: 8
Originality: 8
Production: 7


1 Comment

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