Album Review: The Mars Volta – The Mars Volta

Band: The Mars Volta | Album:The Mars Volta | Genre: Art-pop | Year: 2022

From: El Paso, USA | Label: Clouds Hill

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The Mars Volta, along with acts like Porcupine Tree and Dream Theater, helped revive the world of progressive rock in the early 2000s. They were one of the most beloved and influential prog acts of the 21st century. Their 2003 full-length debut–De-Loused in the Comatorium–and its 2005 successor–Frances the Mute–are two of the best prog albums of all time, irrespective of era. In addition to past prog influences, they incorporated post-hardcore, jazz, and electronic elements. Their classic sound is striking and immediately recognizable.

Now, ten years after their last album–2012’s Noctourniquet–they’ve reunited to put out their seventh full-length release. The core of the band remains the same; Omar Rodriguez-Lopez is still on guitar, and Cedric Bixler-Zavala is still the vocalist. Beyond that, though, there has been churn in the lineup. Bassist Eva Gardner has returned to the band after last appearing on their 2002 Tremulant EP. Omar’s younger brother Marcel–formerly the band’s percussionist through 2010–covers keyboard duties. (Longtime TMV keyboardist Ikey Owens passed away in 2014, though he did not appear on Noctourniquet.)

In reading about this album’s background, I found that Omar (always the lead (and usually sole) songwriter) consciously made an effort to move away from prog. This strikes me as a perplexing move. Just because Omar and Cedric are recording together, that does not make it The Mars Volta. Prior to forming TMV, they were both in the post-hardcore band At the Drive-In; and the two had collaborated in the one-off band Antemasque in 2014. If they wanted to make a non-prog album, reviving this band’s name doesn’t strike me as a smart move. They’ve got enough clout in the modern music world that they could have announced a new project and built hype off their reputations.

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Album Review: Regal Worm – Worm!

Band: Regal Worm | Album:Worm! | Genre: Progressive rock, Psychedelic rock | Bandcamp

From: Sheffield, UK | Label: Quatermass

For fans of: Caravan, Diagonal, Egg, Perilymph

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Jarrod Gosling (also known by the alias of Varrod Goblink) is back with another album under the Regal Worm moniker. Last year’s The Hideous Goblink was a wonderful piece of buzzy, progressive psychedelia with a clear sonic throughline.

On Worm!, Regal Worm’s fifth full-length release, the sound palette is a bit more diverse, but this pays dividends. While the songs don’t flow together seamlessly like on the last Worm release, there’s still a unique energy to Gosling’s music. The overall feel of Worm! Is lighter and more playful than its predecessor; there’s no 19-minute opus called “The Satan” on this one.

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Album Review: Ashenspire – Hostile Architecture

Band: Ashenspire | Album:Hostile Architecture | Genre: Avant-garde metal | Year: 2022

From: Glasgow, UK | Label: Aural Music

For fans of: Ulcerate, Tomarum, Arcturus, Deathspell Omega

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Certain albums click with me immediately. Some of them I wind up absolutely loving, like Moura’s self-titled or Papangu’s Holoceno. Others fall from my graces fairly quickly, like Hand. Cannot. Erase. or Devin Townsend’s Deconstruction. Yet other releases, meanwhile, take a while to sink in. Even if I didn’t totally love it on the first listen, I keep feeling drawn back to it; and on subsequent spins, my enjoyment only grows deeper.

The second full-length album from Scotland’s Ashenspire is one of those albums that really grew. On the first listen, I liked it. It’s an incredibly dense record, so I knew I was going to need to revisit it. By the third time I made my way through this opus, it had become a serious contender for my album of the year. The blend of black metal and avant-garde influences is incredible, and the raw anger of this record truly shines through.

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Album Review: The Light in the Ocean – Deep Reef Dream

Band: The Light in the Ocean | Album: Deep Reef Dream | Genre: Progressive rock, Progressive metal | Year: 2022

From: Minneapolis, USA | Label: Independent

For fans of: Devin Townsend, echolyn, Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic

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The Light in the Ocean is a Minneapolis-based quartet with a penchant for sea life. Both this record and their prolix 2020 album–The Pseudo-Scientific Study of Oceanic Neo-Cryptid Zoology–have featured cephalopods on the album art; and their 2019 debut heavily focused on seafaring. I wouldn’t have expected such themes from a band based in a landlocked state. (Then again, many a Hawkwind song is about space, yet they live on Earth.)

The music on Deep Reef Dream feels like a logical next step in their sound, based on what I heard on their last album. This release has more heavy moments than its predecessor, and the band has fully integrated both violin and trumpet into their songwriting. The music remains both complex and accessible, though. The album is also much less lyrically-focused, with six of the nine songs being instrumental.

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Album Review: Phaneronaut – Anabasis

Band: Phaneronaut | Album:Anabasis | Genre: Zeuhl, Post-rock, Progressive electronic | Year: 2022

From: Munich, Germany | Label: Independent

For fans of: Magma, Pink Floyd c. 1969, Dreadnaught, Faust

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Phaneronaut is a one-man project out of Germany with an inclination for weird, experimental electronics and sharp contrasts in tone. In the three years the project has been active, they have been quite prolific, so I have not listened to their whole back catalog. What I have heard, though, is strongly reminiscent of early krautrock acts, often landing somewhere between Neu! and The Cosmic Jokers.

This album, then, marks something of a shift in Phaneronaut’s sound. Originally envisioned as having two contrasting halves–a “wood” side and a “metal” side–the project evolved into something else, though the “metal” concept remained. Thus, where previous works are synth heavy and quite electronic, Anabasis features sounds (synthesized or otherwise) that use metal in their production. So the celestial synths of earlier works are reduced, and now there are much earthier tones, meant to portray a (possibly hallucinatory) journey to heaven.

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Album Review: Louison – Magnetic Feel

Artist: Louison | Album: Magnetic Feel | Genre: Jazz-fusion, Math rock, Progressive electronic | Year: 2022

From: Paris, France | Label: Independent

For fans of: newer Ozric Tentacles, Return to Forever

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Louis de Mieulle is a multi-instrumentalist and composer I’ve previously covered twice on this site. Since his last outing, there have been a few changes. He’s moved from the US back to France and rebranded as “Louison.” His new album, Magnetic Feel, is much more electronic and synth heavy than either of his Sideshow albums. He also performs (almost) all the instruments, whereas those two prior releases were recorded with bands. This solo approach has also forced him to be more structured in his songwriting, and considering some of my comments on Sid€show 2, that’s probably a net good.

Not everything is different on Magnetic Feel. Though de Mieulle bills this album as “cyberprog” and “retrofuture,” there is a grounding in jazz-rock, math rock, and the contemporary prog scene. Like the two Sideshow albums, this is entirely instrumental, and there’s a strong sense of sonic continuity across the ten songs here.

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Album Review: black midi – Hellfire

Band: black midi | Album:Hellfire | Genre: Avant-prog | Bandcamp

From: London, UK | Label: Rough Trade

For fans of: Frank Zappa, Magma, Cardiacs

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Last year, black midi made a fairly big shift in their sound. They moved away from the post-punk sounds of their debut and instead  dove headlong into progressive and avant-garde rock. Cavalcade is a fantastic record that brims with anxious energy, and Hellfire feels like a natural evolution. 

The music on this record is powerful and befits its title perfectly. The band has described their new album as an “action film,” and the songs here are exhilarating enough to match that description. The lyrics are action-packed as well, often presented as  hellish or dystopian narratives. Tight riffs full of jazz and math-rock touches permeate this album alongside odder inclusions, like country and showtunes.

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Album Review: Porcupine Tree – Closure/Continuation

Band: Porcupine Tree | Album:Closure/Continuation | Genre: Progressive rock | Year: 2022

From: Hemel Hempstead, UK | Label: Music for Nations

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After years of waffling back and forth over whether or not he’d ever revive the band, Steven Wilson has brought Porcupine Tree back to life. While Porcupine Tree remained in limbo, Wilson remained in regular contact with both drummer Gavin Harrison and keyboardist Richard Barbieri. However, Wilson lost touch with bassist Colin Edwin, so he does not appear on this album. Instead, Wilson handles all the bass parts himself.

The title for this album is quite fitting. I honestly doubt Porcupine Tree are going to record another album together. Wilson’s increasingly poppy solo career belies that heavy progressive rock probably isn’t what he wants to focus on now. And Harrison has stated that his style of drumming is very physically demanding, and he’s unsure how much longer he can continue playing this style of music. The band’s ambiguous position following The Incident left pretty much everyone unsatisfied, so this album feels like a way for Wilson to close the book on Porcupine Tree on his own terms.

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Album Review: Ben Craven – Monsters from the Id

Artist: Ben Craven | Album:Monsters from the Id | Genre: Progressive rock | Year: 2022

From: Brisbane, Australia | Label: Desert Comb Music

For fans of: Yes, Pink Floyd

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Yes casts a very long shadow over progressive rock. Their influence isn’t just obvious in the music, but also in the visuals frequently deployed on album covers. Roger Dean-style artwork has become a cliche of the genre, and I have developed something of an apprehension about acts that use this visual style. I’ve harped on about acts that just uncreatively wallow in the mid-70s, and flashy album covers do not make up for bland, uninspired music. Thankfully, this is not one of those albums.

Monsters of the Id is the fifth full-length release from Australian multi-instrumentalist Ben Craven. It follows in the long prog tradition of albums made up of just two long songs. (Though for all the obvious Yes-isms on this album, that band never released a record with fewer than three songs.)

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