SONIC BRIEFS: Overlooked Progressive-Rock Standouts From 2021

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It happens every year – we receive so much music to listen to that some gems inevitably slip through our fingers. Just a week or two after the Best Of lists are published, we often belatedly discovery a mind-blowing release that absolutely would have been on our list if only we had known. In that spirit, we offer you 4 excellent releases in the prog-rock category from 2021 that should not pass you by! The first is an instrumental tour-de-force while the subsequent three all share an orientation towards heady, psych-prog. Enjoy these Sonic Briefs:

Coevality – Multiple Personalities (Independent)

Surely the cream of the crop of don’t-miss albums – which nearly everyone did indeed miss – this debut album from the Los Angeles trio named Coevality is perhaps the best 2021 band you’ve never heard of. Flawless instrumental brilliance is displayed on every track in truly jaw-dropping performances. Jazz fusion meets prog with a touch of math rock, but perhaps a little bit better than any of those classifications would suggest.

The fretless bass absolutely dazzles throughout, starting 3 seconds into the first track. Derrick Elliott’s utter mastery of the instrument – on 6-string, 5-string and upright models – would dominate most any other band and honestly if you just focused on the bass performance alone this would be a revelatory album of 2021. However, Elliott’s band-mates are clearly up to the task of matching his level of performance as Andy Prado’s drumming will literally evoke laughter of delight and disbelief. Perhaps if Neil Peart had been more of a jazz drummer this is what he would have sounded like, but comparisons of any kind seem to do a disservice to an approach such as this. Careening overhead is Jon Reicher whose 7-string and fretless guitars bring in the melodic sensibilities that provide meaning to all of these notes. Reicher provides just the right amount of crunch when needed but overall his surprisingly clean tones ring brightly, showing off his virtuosic style with no distortion in the way to cover it up. He serves up a masterclass of technique and tricks on every piece here. As if that weren’t enough, his trumpet playing and MIDI programming add just the right amount of ambience and color to take this far beyond a “power trio” context.

“Multiple Personalities” Album Artwork

So, what of the compositions? Opener “Light Bikes” wastes no time in displaying how effectively Coevality’s writing serves their talent. As one of the most compact songs on the album, this is a perfect lead-off track and introduction to the band, a full-on showcase for Prado’s frenzied yet precise drumming while still allowing the other band members to shine gloriously. Although it’s tempting to go down the track list and lavish praise on every song, that might just come off as hyperbole. Suffice to say, each of the subsequent 6 tracks is an indisputable standout, an album-highlight in its own right. And the deeper the listener goes with repeated listenings, the more addictive and satisfying the material becomes. How can this be? The band explains that this album was 10 years in the making, an “instrumental concept album that functions as one complete piece from front to back.” Yes, it begins to make sense that fruits as ripe as this often only result from such long-honed effort. Their decade-long hard work is our reward.

Hopefully the case has been made, underlined and highlighted: “Multiple Personalities” is an album you must own. For fans of Brand X, Liquid Tension Experiment, Bozzio/Levins/Stevens, Holdsworth, Eric Johnson, or just a good old prog rock instrumental like “YYZ,” this is an absolute must-have. Support independent artists such as Coevality and spread the word to your friends…talent such as this shouldn’t be left undiscovered. Head over to their Bandcamp page and make the best $7 purchase you’ve made yet this year (or ever)…hell, throw in some extra bucks, too. They’ve more than earned it.

“Multiple Personalities” Track-Listing:

 1. Light Bikes (5:24)
 2. Cryptic Creek (5:32)
 3. Oceania (8:17)
 4. Carnival Minivan (10:04)
 5. MPD (8:03)
 6. Coin Incidents (5:34)
 7. Stone Among Pebbles (10:19)

Songwriting: 9
Musicianship: 10
Originality: 9.5
Production: 9.5

Malady – Ainavihantaa (Svart Records)

Released in mid-December, Malady’s third album arrived under the radar, so it was a true pleasure to discover this fine release shortly after the holidays. This Finnish band weaves a thick, intoxicating atmosphere of aural bliss that is wonderfully addictive. Mixing organ, mellotron, insistent bass lines, melodic guitar and woodwinds together with occasional languid vocal passages, it’s hard to say exactly which element is their secret weapon. It could be Jonni Tanskanen’s driving, hypnotic bass, or his rhythmic partner Juuso Jylhänlehto on drums. Most likely Ville Rohiola’s drenched Hammond organ is the deciding factor but even the Finnish vocals have an important part to play in the final tally.

The addition of saxophone on this third album is particularly thrilling, bringing a jazzy vibe to tracks such as the transcendent “Vapaa Ja Autio”. This instrumental is sheer perfection, the sax and lead guitar lines complimenting and trading off from one another as the Hammond and a few choice mellotron riffs add to the total impact of the mix.

“Ainavihantaa” Album Artwork

“Sisävesien Rannat” might sound like it’s the opening of Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” but it soon gives way to more heady, mysterious avenues than a mere full-on rocker. “Dyadi” carries the strongest vocal arrangement on the album before lifting off into another blissful instrumental foray toward its latter half. “Haavan Väri” sets the stage for a more extensive organ solo from Rohiola, while “Alava Vaara” and the title track bring all of these components together into perfect ensemble presentations.

Inspired, fresh and deeply retro at the same time, this is a highly recommended band. Timeless.

Ainavihantaa” Track-Listing:

1. Alava vaara (6:43)
2. Vapaa ja autio (6:21)
3. Sisävesien rannat (6:41)
4. Dyadi (7:07)
5. Haavan väri (3:44)
6. Ainavihantaa (7:02)

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

Soup – Visions (Stickman Records)

From Norway, the news that “Visions” may perhaps be the final (?) album from Soup is a little hard to digest. No pun intended. Coming off the much-lauded “Remedies”, the band serves up more moody atmospheres and mixed bag of melodies and song fragments. “Crystalline” feels like the most coherent of the collection, conveying beautiful longing displayed in its plucked acoustic guitars, plaintive vocals and violin. The melody is echoed later on by trumpet and other instruments, repeating and repeating until a wave of distortion overtakes it and renders it to oblivion. As effective as “Crystalline” is, the 15-minute “Burning Bridges” is less focused, though still rewarding at times. The mix is inconsistent, holding the vocals down as if they were recorded at a distance, refusing to allow the listener to fully enjoy the voices. Still, there’s much to appreciate in this meandering song.

“Visions” Album Artwork

Tracks 3 – 5 are essentially one long 18-minute piece, spacious and cinematic. The “Kingdom of Color” track features a glorious symphonic progression which is surely one of the album’s best moments. “Skins Pt. 2” conveys its melancholic lyrics through the acoustic delivery of a 60s folk icon until mellotron carries us into “Pt. 3”’s guitar finale.

There is more than a hint of “Meddle” and “Obscured By Clouds” – era Floyd pervading “Visions” and that can’t be a bad thing. Played in a darkened room on headphones, Soup have certainly left us with potent material to conjure our own visions. Happy journeying.

Songwriting: 7.5
Musicianship: 7.5
Originality: 8
Production: 8

Himmellegeme – Variola Vera (Karisma Records)

Our final band also hails from Norway, which maybe gives a clue as to why these Scandinavian bands share a related vibe. While more animated than the aforementioned Soup album, there still runs a dreamy, atmospheric thread connecting all three bands, along with the Finnish Malady. This is the second album from Himmellegeme and while their 2017 debut garnered praise, the follow-up expands their sound both sonically and in some personnel changes. The sounds of Gazpacho, Airbag, Sigur Ros, Steven Wilson and Radiohead give you a sense of where the band’s compass points for the most part.

The opening two tracks immediately make it known that “Variola Vera” is something special. “Shaping Mirrors Like Smoke” casts its spell right off the bat, offering a bewitching blend of ambient and groove. Aleksander Vormestrand’s lyrics are mostly sung in English on this album but hard to understand regardless the language. No matter – the point here is texture and emotion, which are woven together effectively by voice and instrumentation such as the closing slide guitar. Followup “Heart Listening” is a highlight of the album, acoustic prog pop that works on every level. Truly impressive to convey such infectious hooks while still retaining artistic credibility.

“Variola Vera” Album Artwork

The rest of the album is less consistent in style but still offers plenty of worthy material. The two obvious outliers are the shiny pop “Blowing Raspberries” and the curious retro rocker “Caligula”, the former being the more convincing of the two but coloring further outside the lines of what one would expect of this band. They earn points for trying something new but it’s a matter of personal taste whether you like the new direction or not. Still, there’s more dreamy calling cards such as “Let the Mother Burn” and the spacey “Agafia”. All in all, Himmellegeme offer an intriguing psych-prog recording worthy of your visit.

“Variola Vera”track-listing:

1. Shaping Mirrors Like Smoke (5:47)
2. Heart Listening (5:21)
3. Blowing Raspberries (3:43)
4. Brother (5:02)
5. Let the Mother Burn (4:56)
6. Caligula (4:17)
7. Agafia (5:55)
8. Variola Vera (3:54)

Songwriting: 8
Musicianship: 8
Originality: 8.5
Production: 8.5


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