Album Review: Yes – The Quest

Band: Yes | Album: The Quest | Genre: Soft rock, Progressive rock | Year: 2021

From: London, UK | Label: InsideOut Music

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Yes have returned after a seven-year absence to deliver an album no one was asking for. 2014’s Heaven and Earth was a terrible, ignominious end to Chris Squire’s impressive career. That record sounded like Air Supply doing a Yes cover album. In a contemporaneous review on my personal Facebook page, I remarked that that album “… is beyond bland. It makes milk seem spicy. This is beyond paint-by-numbers. This has less soul than a ginger.” 

Unfortunately, The Quest continues in a pretty similar vein to its predecessor. This album is an improvement over their last release, but that is a pretty low bar to clear. Yes brings absolutely nothing new to the table here. The ills which plagued Heaven and Earth also hobble The Quest, a trend which seems to imply that there are inherent problems with this version of the band.

Vocalist Jon Davison appears to be a big part of the problem, but he’s not the only problem. As much as I would love to blame Glass Hammer (Davison’s former band and my favorite contemporary prog punching bag) for all of Yes’s ills, I cannot do so in good faith. Some of the worst songs on the album were written solely by longtime Yes guitarist Steve Howe. 

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Album Review: Diagonal – 4

Band: Diagonal | Album: 4 | Genre: Progressive rock, Space rock | Year: 2021

From: Brighton, UK | Label: Cobblers Records

For fans of: The Soft Machine, Gong, Hawkwind

Bandcamp

Diagonal had a quick turnaround between this album and their previous release, 2019’s Arc. Compare that timeline to the five-year gap between their self-titled debut and their sophomore album, or to the seven-year hiatus following that. Needless to say, I’m glad they’re putting out music at a brisker pace than they have in the past

I’m also glad that 4 is an improvement over Arc. Arc wasn’t bad by any means, but good chunks of it felt unfocused or needlessly drawn-out. On this new release, the band sounds energized and full of new ideas, and that musical vigor shines through in the five compositions present here.

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Album Review: Kesem – Post-Terra

Band: Kesem | Album:Post-Terra | Genre: Progressive rock | Year: 2021

From: Los Angeles, USA | Label: Sentient Recordings

For fans of: Astra, Gong, Hawkwind, early Pink Floyd

Bandcamp

Kesem’s debut EP was my EP of the year for 2020. It was a mind-bending trip of 21 minutes that blended progressive rock and space rock with the rawness and energy of classic garage rock. The songs on that EP feature sudden shifts in tone, texture, and mood; and the ample deployment of trumpet made them stand out.

Their first full-length-release, Post-Terra, follows in the same path as their self-titled EP. It feels more polished with smoother edges than its predecessor, but that doesn’t mean the sound is watered down at all. There’s still plenty of astral odysseys and surprises packed into this album.

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Album Review: The Mask of the Phantasm – New Axial Age

Band: The Mask of the Phantasm | Album:New Axial Age | Genre: Progressive rock | Year: 2021

From: Austin, USA | Label: Independent

For fans of: Bent Knee, The Dear Hunter, The Mars Volta

Bandcamp

It is likely unsurprising that the author of a progressive rock blog is not the biggest fan of punk. Post-hardcore is a variety I’m particularly not fond of (mostly due to the vocals), but post-hardcore is also the variety most often melded with prog. There have been some successes in the realm, most notably The Mars Volta’s earliest releases, but a lot of it fails to tickle my fancy.

The Mask of the Phantasm’s debut is one of those uncommon records which uses post-hardcore in a way which I like. There’s an emotional rawness to New Axial Age, as well, which is absent in a lot of prog. Thomas Pridgen (formerly of The Mars Volta) provides drums on this album, and the raw intensity he brings serves it well. All the members of this band perform excellently, from the impassioned vocals to creative keyboard parts, to the strong compositions provided by their guitarist.

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Album Review: Leprous – Aphelion

Band: Leprous | Album:Aphelion | Genre: Art rock | Year: 2021

From: Notodden, Norway | Label: Inside Out Music

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Leprous are one of the bigger names in the current progosphere. I love their first three albums, and Bilateral, especially, is fantastic. Their sound has changed a lot over the years however, and they’ve moved decidedly away from metal in a manner that has left fan opinions sharply divided.

I have not minced words about my disappointment in Leprous’s recent musical direction. To quote my coverage of their 2019 album, Pitfalls, “This album fucking sucks.” My thoughts on Malina, their 2017 release, aren’t an awful lot kinder. I saw them on tour twice in 2018 (opening first for BTBAM and later for Haken), and the experience was dull, to say the least. Pared-back arrangements and vocalist Einar Solberg going, “Ooh-aah” as pulsing white lights blinded me? Disappointing. Both sets were unvaried in their tonal and dynamic palettes: LOUD-quiet-LOUD-quiet, without any deviations to spice it up. Pitfalls was like a studio version of this experience.

Naturally, I didn’t have high hopes for Aphelion. I was fully anticipating this would be another micro-review, like my coverage of Pitfalls, or an Odds & Ends entry. But I’m familiar enough with the band’s output, and I found enough to discuss, that I could write a full-length review.

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Album Review: Between the Buried and Me – Colors II

Band: Between the Buried and Me | Album:Colors II | Genre: Progressive metal | Year: 2021

From: Raleigh, USA | Label: Sumerian Records

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It’s not often I’m this on top of a new release (only three days out!), but BTBAM are one of my favorite bands. They’ve managed to blend death metal and metalcore with the tonal and structural language of progressive rock to forge a distinct niche for themselves.

The decision to do a sequel to their best-known album 14 years after the fact struck many (myself included) as an odd choice, but I did my best to keep an open mind. I don’t pay attention to lyrics, and harsh vocals barely even register as words to me, so if you’d changed the title to something else, I doubt I’d know this was a sequel. It is undoubtedly a BTBAM album, but there’s not much inherently Colors-y about it.

I’m also glad that this album was released whole, unlike the weird, two-part release of Automata. Automata works better as one unified piece, and it’s a full 10 minutes shorter than Colors II. I’ve read some speculation that that may have been due to interference from Sumerian Records. If true, I’m glad they held back from issuing Colors 1.5 and Colors 2. (And side note–why does Sumerian Records have the Sphinx and Pyramids of Giza as their logo? Couldn’t they have used a ziggurat?)

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Album Review: Perilymph – Tout en Haut

Band: Perilymph | Album:Tout en Haut | Genre: Space rock, Progressive rock, Psychedelic rock | Year: 2021

From: Berlin, Germany | Label: Six Tonnes de Chair

For fans of: early Pink Floyd, Patrick Moraz, Phideaux

Bandcamp

While I purposely use pretty broad, amorphous genre definitions on this site, I generally aim to highlight acts who are musically adventurous or inventive. A common way artists spice up their music is through various forms of contrast. This is especially common in metal and various subgenres which start with “post,” where it’s often a harsh-clean contrast. Another dichotomy occasionally used is an electronic-acoustic one.

I’ve previously covered Perilymph, the brainchild of multi-instrumentalist Fabien de Menou. The band’s last album, Deux, was a wonderful blend of synth-led space-kraut balanced smartly against pared-back acoustic passages. Tout en Haut (Eng. On Top) follows in a similar sonic and textural path.

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Album Review: Papangu – Holoceno

Band: Papngu | Album:Holoceno | Genre: Progressive metal, Zeuhl | Year: 2021

From: João Pessoa, Brazil | Label: Independent

For fans of: Mastodon, Magma, ‘70s King Crimson, Oranssi Pazuzu

Bandcamp

Zeuhl and metal are two genres which I’ve long felt would make fantastic bedfellows, but almost every instance of an attempted fusion I’ve found has been lackluster. Magma’s Šlag Tanz EP bills itself as jazz-metal, and that’s not too far off the mark; and the bands ni and PoiL frequently have moments where these two styles merge. Most other attempts at blending zeuhl and metal have come off as muddled, meandering morasses of aimless dissonance and irregular drumming.

Brazil’s Papangu, though, might be the best-realized example of zeuhl metal I’ve run across to date. Holoceno, their debut album, has been seven years in the making, and it tells the story of an environmental apocalypse–something Brazilians would understandably have on their minds.

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Album Review: black midi – Cavalcade

Band: black midi | Album:Cavalcade | Genre: Avant-prog, Zeuhl, RIO | Year: 2021

From: London, UK | Label: Rough Trade Records

For fans of: Frank Zappa, Magma, ni, John Zorn

Bandcamp

I mostly find my music through searching tags like “progressive metal,” “krautrock,” or “zeuhl” on Bandcamp, and I’ve found that’s a pretty good way to stay abreast of new releases. Some bands, though, put only low-effort, insufficiently descriptive tags on their Bandcamp pages (if they have a Bandcamp presence, at all), so about once a month, I’ll browse through the charts on RateYourMusic and ProgArchives to see if I’ve missed anything which might fall under the purview of this site. 

The tastes of RYM’s prog fans tend to skew in favor of the avant-garde and harsh, so when I saw that (as of writing), that site’s #1 record of 2021 so far was an avant-prog release from a band I’d never heard of, my curiosity was piqued. Avant-prog and brutal prog (a yocto-genre often featuring overbearing saxophone and aggressive, obtuse structures) are often hit-or-miss for me. Some of it is really daring and inventive, but a lot of it just strikes my ears as masturbatory weirdness and dissonance for the sake of weirdness and dissonance.

Cavalcade, the second full-length release from London-based band black midi, is an exciting, enthralling album that artfully blends the bizarre and bombastic with the restrained and melodic.

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Album Review: K’mono – Return to the ‘E’

Band: K’mono | Album:Return to the ‘E’ | Genre: Progressive rock | Year: 2021

From: Minneapolis, USA | Label: Ephemerol Night Terrors

For fans of: Yes, Camel, Genesis, Uriah Heep

Bandcamp

K’mono is a Minneapolis-based trio that are not shy about fully embracing the sounds of the early 1970s. Doing a wholehearted embrace of retro-prog can be a risky move. Most of the acts I’ve run across who take this route end up releasing records which are middling retreads of ideas done better half a century ago. There are certainly strong examples of unashamed retro-prog, though: Ring Van Möbius’s most recent album is fantastic; Chromatic Aberration’s debut (which I covered earlier this year) is a strong reimagining of Rush’s classic sound; and even my favorite punching bag Glass Hammer has a couple good records under their belt.

Return to the ‘E’ is K’mono’s debut record, and even without seeing this album’s tags or reading its description, it’s clear that they’re trying to evoke the imagery of famed album cover artist Roger Dean. A fantastical landscape of mushroom forests is the backdrop to some dark lord facing off against a trio of warriors, with the band’s logo written in a flowing, flourished style.

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