2023 keeps delivering engaging music for prog-rock fans, no surprise given the past several golden years. Here we offer three quick overviews on albums which warrant your attention. While none of these are strong on originality, they all are well-done, enjoyable affairs. Given your tastes, some may even rank amongst your favorites of the year.
Jethro Tull – “RökFlöte”
When Ian Anderson’s solo career reclaimed the Tull namesake with last year’s “The Zealot Gene,” a few eyebrows were raised but by and large the “band” was welcomed back to the fold. Barre’ing a missing guitarist, the new album still carried the sounds of latter-day Tull and contained a decent collection of songs. True, Anderson’s voice had long ago shifted quite a bit and if one can’t deal with that irreversible development then there’s no real point in keeping up with the discography. But there were some interesting pieces offered on that album and surprisingly the followup “RökFlöte” has now arrived relatively quickly.
“RökFlöte” was initially envisioned as a mostly-instrumental rock flute affair, which probably would have been a better approach to take. Sort of a more rocking version of Anderson’s “Divinities” album, perhaps. But he just couldn’t help himself. Thus, lyrics were written based on the characters and roles of some principle gods of the old Norse paganism. (As a self-proclaimed Pantheist, Anderson sure spends a lot of time singing about divinities of one form or another.) Anderson uses the spoken-word-barely-sung approach he has taken to as of late (with little other option) but is clever in the arrangements: “Each set of lyrics was written in the form of a lyric poem with the first 6 stanzas of Trochaic Octameter to describe the settings, identities and personalities of the different gods. The final four stanzas of each song except the first and last tracks are a different personalized interpretation of those subjects in a more contemporary setting.”
Musically speaking, these pieces are very much in-line with recent Jethro Tull; pretty much what you would expect. The singles are wisely chosen, accompanied by Christian Rios videos, proving that Tull still has some bite left in them largely thanks to Joe Parrish-James’ guitar and a solid rhythm section. “Ginnungagap” is one of the better tracks, flute and guitar dancing on jagged themes and runs. “Allfather” lends a sprightly pace with Anderson’s lyrical cadence harkening back to “Hot Mango Flush” from the “dot.Com” album while “Cornucopia” provides a softer, lilting reprieve from the rocking pieces. As always, Anderson’s flute is fiery, imaginative and timeless, betraying no signs of wear or tear. The book-ending songs feature spoken word vocals from Reykjavik actress and singer Unnur Birnaare, spoken in old Icelandic which offers a unique spin on an otherwise fairly straightforward album.
For those still interested in where Tull are today, there’s plenty here to engage your ears. Still, the album’s dozen tracks all run a fairly narrow stylistic range, even compared to “The Zealot Gene”, and so a 45 minute album sadly feels a bit longer than it really needed to be. Had Anderson stuck to his original vision of rocking flute music, he may have been inspired to travel through more unexpected terrain than what we have here.
Pre-order “RökFlöte” HERE.
4. The Feathered Consort
5. Hammer On Hammer
6. Wolf Unchained
7. The Perfect One
8. Trickster (And The Mistletoe)
10. The Navigators
11. Guardian’s Watch
Crown Lands – “Fearless”
Calling all Rush fans: Crown Lands have assumed control. There’s really no other way of putting it – if you yearn to return to the lands of honeydew and drink the milk of paradise, you probably want to check these guys out. Though there are other influences and factors going on, the impact of the famed Canadian trio on Crown Lands – particularly the “Farewell to Kings” era – is overwhelming. So much so that it almost feels like a guilty pleasure, “Should I really be enjoying music that rips off…ahem…pays tribute to Rush this much?” Ultimately that question can only be answered by the listener but if you do give in, there’s much to appreciate here.
First off, yes, they are Canadian. But instead of being a power trio, astoundingly they are only a duo. Singer/drummer Cody Bowles and guitarist/bassist/keyboardist Kevin Comeau are both truly remarkable in their virtuosic skill, providing enough fire power to take you to the far reaches of the prog universe and then some. Producer David Bottrill (Rush, Muse, Tool, Mastodon) ensures that the mix on “Fearless” is pristine and a sheer delight to listen to.
Regardless of musicianship or influences, the main question that matters is whether these skills are put to work in service of quality songwriting. On that front, Crown Lands qualifies as promising but not convincing. Songs like “Context: Fearless Pt. 1”, “Lady of the Lake” and the closing “Citadel” are thrilling pieces with sweeping scope. “The Shadows” serves up classic rock staples while “Right Way Back” even carries a little punk energy. Less successful is the sprawling epic opener “Starlifter” which perhaps hits the listener with too much too soon. Considering that it also is “Pt. 2” of “Fearless”, it may have fared better later in the album. Extra prog points for the lovely solo acoustic guitar interlude “Penny”, showcasing one more side of Comeau’s endless skills. Ultimately though, material that is this derivative demands that the original hooks truly excel and win the listener over in their own right. Crown Lands is on their way in that regard but it still has to be said that many of the most rewarding moments here probably have their source material originating nearly 50 years ago.
While they fare better than Greta Van Fleet in terms of the younger generation of classic rockers inspired by musicians of their grandparent’s age, we can’t help but yearn for a little more original creativity in their musical foundation. Lyrically they impress with an indigenous-rights focus but musically most of it has been said before. “Fearless” is certainly filled with eye-candy from start to finish but at the end one still questions whether anything nutritious has been consumed, or if we’re just flying high on a sugar Rush.
Order “Fearless” HERE.
1. Starlifter: Fearless Pt. II
2. Dreamer Of The Dawn
3. The Shadow
4. Right Way Back
5. Context: Fearless Pt. I
8. Lady Of The Lake
Kite Parade – “Retro”
Kite Parade flies under the radar but hopefully a gust of wind from this impressive set will raise their trajectory a bit higher. Following the solid debut album “The Way Home”, main man Andy Foster takes it up a notch with a sleek blend of prog, rock and pop. Heavy on accessible melodies with enough skilled instrumentation to provide the requisite flourishes, this is smooth modern prog that will delight fans of Lifesigns, Kino, Marillion and more.
Foster plays and sings nearly everything himself, aside from the ubiquitous Nick D’Virgilio who again graces the drum kit for most of the album. It’s a perfect match, truly. Foster has a wonderful voice which is a boon for any prog band. That he also is fluid on saxophone, keys, rhythm & lead guitar and bass – along with the skills to arrange everything in a satisfying manner – is pretty astounding. There’s a handful of one-man-bands out there and Foster is among the better ones, though currently not as well known.
Kite Parade excels in faster paced material like the driving rocker “Speed of Light”. Even the beautiful “Shadows Fall” starts off as a tender ballad – including a classic sax solo – but before long picks up speed with D’Virgilio delivering all that his kit can offer amidst keyboard twiddling. “Under the Same Sun” bucks the trend and brings in a cracking guest backing band, but it’s still Foster who shines with one of his best choruses on the album.
The 14+ minute epic “Merry-Go-Round” closes the 6-song album on a high note. The slow guitar build during the intro signals what we’re in for as D’Virgilio’s well-mixed drumming is determined to support the piece’s grandeur. With lyrics by Steve Thorne, backing vocals from Jessica Chambers and even more saxophone thrown in towards the end, all the ingredients are in place for an intoxicating finish. Rob Aubrey ensures that the mixing and mastering do justice to Foster’s vision, making this sophomore outing from Kite Parade a real gem for the modern prog fan to savor.
Order “Retro” HERE.
2. Speed Of Light
4. Shadows Fall
5. Under The Same Sun
Production: 9 .5