The 2015 Progressive Rock Preview

Forthcoming releases from Steven Wilson, Neal Morse, and many others highlight what is bound to be an excellent year for progressive rock.

Of all the subsections of rock music that permeate through our ears each day, progressive rock is easily one of the most polarizing. Pioneered in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s by groups like King Crimson, Genesis, Yes, Pink Floyd, Rush, and Jethro Tull, the genre is often both revered and ridiculed for its lengthy song structures, incredibly intricate arrangements, eccentric concepts, and histrionic performances. Still, those of us who adore the style cling to it with as much passion and respect as anything else in the world, relishing any opportunity to either debate the merits of certain selections or introduce newcomers to our favorite opuses.

Despite a criminal lack of attention from just about every mainstream outlet (including publications, radio, and award shows), progressive rock is still going quite strong, with countless artists doing their best to pay homage to their idols while also pushing the field forward. In fact, 2014 was one of the best years in recent memory for the genre, with many established acts, such as Opeth, Anathema, Devin Townsend, and Lunatic Soul, issuing arguably their greatest works yet. Naturally, fans are expecting this year to shape up similarly, and if the following examples are any indication, they won’t be disappointed.

Artist: Steven Wilson

Album: Hand. Cannot. Erase.

Label: K-Scope

US Release Date: 2015-03-03

UK Release Date: 2015-03-02

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/h/hce-finalcover.jpg

Just as his precursor Robert Fripp (King Crimson) is often credited with leading the original progressive rock wave, English visionary Steven Wilson is typically hailed as the head of the current one. It’s easy to see why considering that his most popular project to date, Porcupine Tree, which formed roughly 20 years ago, has released some of the most unique, varied, and consistently impactful records of the last couple decades (with 2002’s In Absentia being a major standout). Much to the (initial) dismay of fans, though, Wilson more or less put all of his collaborative projects on hold a few years ago to focus on a more boundless solo career.

Fortunately, he’s managed to avoid the weaknesses that befall many who venture along the same course, as his three solo albums showcase breathtaking new sides to his songwriting and arrangements. His last LP, 2013’s The Raven that Refused to Sing, with its fearless blend of jazz fusion experimentation and unparalleled songwriting/storytelling, is commonly ranked as one of his chief efforts. For all of these reasons, devotees have spent roughly two years clamoring for a follow-up, and as of next month, they’ll have it in the form of Hand. Cannot. Erase.

In addition to utilizing the same musicians who played on The Raven (Guthrie Govan, Nick Beggs, Adam Holzman, Marco Minnemann, and Theo Travis), he is also bringing Israeli singer Ninet Tayeb and a boy choir on board. Wilson is aiming for a “less jazzy” record this time around, which is already evident in the previews he’s released, as well as in the Blackfield-esque title track. Featuring elements of electronica and ‘80s pop — as well as plenty of the requisite lengthy prog elegance — it’s apparently also heavily influenced by Kate Bush’s ingenious fourth disc, The Dreaming.

In a November 2014 interview with Ultimate Guitar, Wilson mentioned that Hand. Cannot. Erase. is another concept album, adding, “The basic story [is] about a woman growing up, who goes to live in the city, very isolated, and she disappears one day and no one noticed… [but] there’s more to it than that.”

Wilson got the idea for the tale “after seeing a film [Dreams of a Life] about this woman who died in London… [her name was] Joyce Vincent, [and she was] was found dead in her London apartment, and she’d been there for three years… what’s really interesting about this story is that your initial reaction when you hear a story like that is, ‘Ah, little old bag lady that no one notices, no one cares about.’ [Vincent] wasn’t [like that]. She was young, she was popular, she was attractive, she had many friends, she had family, but for whatever reason, nobody missed her for three years.”

With its mysterious, emotionally rich concept, poignant and catchy songwriting, and stellar instrumentation, Hand. Cannot. Erase., which comes out on 2 March (UK) and 3 March (US), is sure to be another powerful entry in Wilson’s catalog.

Artist: Beardfish

Album: +4626-COMFORTZONE

Label: InsideOut

US Release Date: 2015-01-27

UK Release Date: 2015-01-12

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/4/4626-comfortzone.jpg

There are few countries more plentiful for quality progressive rock than Sweden. Having spawned such legendary acts as Pain of Salvation, Opeth, the Flower Kings, Änglagård, and Kaipa, the region is definitely one of the foremost forces in the movement. Of course, eccentric quintet Beardfish resides as one of, if not the, best modern act to come from there. Led by vocalist/guitarist/keyboardist Rikard Sjöblom, the foursome has issued eight studio LPs thus far, including the monumental Sleeping in Traffic duo, the wildly colorful Destined Solitaire, and its relatively dark recent gem, The Void. Channeling greats like Camel and Frank Zappa into its surprisingly idiosyncratic sound, Beardfish is always reliable, surprising, and quite impressive, which is why its upcoming ninth production, +4626-COMFORTZONE, is so highly anticipated.

Of the album, the band says, “The comfort zone is the invisible protective suit of negative thinking, almost like an entity of itself. It’s been with you since birth: your parents and your teachers and your friends and your neighbours all teaching you the way the world works… the negative vibe is like a voice living inside of you, a companion through life. With time you start to like that voice and the place it takes you to: your comfort zone. I’m so sick and tired of it and I want to address it and maybe in that way start to work my way out of it.”

Additionally, Sjöblom recently told Sea of Tranquility that that title incorporates the area code of his hometown (Gävle). He also claims that the album marks another evolution in Beardfish’s sound, saying that “everyone is very present in arranging the material these days… we always go wherever we feel like musically… I think a lot of people thought we went too far into prog-metal land on The Void, then again a lot of people loved it too. The most important thing, at least for me, has always been that we stay true to what we want to do within the band. It’s always nice if people like it and continue to listen to our albums and come to our shows, but I’d rather play what’s in my heart to a smaller crowd than do something half-hearted just to please someone else.”

Seeing has how superb and ambitious each Beardfish record has been thus far, there’s no reason to expect anything less from +4626 COMFORTZONE when it comes out on 27 January.

Artist: Phideaux

Album: Infernal

Label: TBD

US Release Date: TBD

UK Release Date: TBD

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/p/phideaux_-_infernal.jpg

As with all types of music, it’s difficult to be a progressive rock artist and not overtly emulate those who inspired you. However, in the case of American troupe Phideaux, recalling said innovators can be charming, fruitful, and quite helpful in igniting the spark of creativity. Indeed, some traits of Jethro Tull and Genesis do appear in their mixture, but compositional mastermind Phideaux Xavier, alongside his cast of female vocalists and Canterbury multiinstrumentalists, still manage to compose fairly inimitable blends that are refreshing, vibrant, complex, catchy, and thematically deep. Truth be told, Phideaux’s last three full-lengths — Doomsday Afternoon, Number Seven, and Snowtorch — rival anything that inspired them, so expectations are justifiably high for his next statement, Infernal.

More than just another album in the discography, Infernal is the concluding chapter in the dystopic trilogy that began with The Great Leap (2006) and continued on Doomsday Afternoon (2007). (Just look at the connections in the cover art.) According to Xavier, the saga deals with “Big Brother” authoritarianism, ecological emergency, and ill-fated protagonists. Although a track listing has been revealed already, it’s most likely tentative, as Xavier has been working tirelessly to rewrite the record, as well as work around the schedules of those involved (and his own).

When we spoke last, he told me that “the album has gone through radical transformations and many questions have been posed and answered… I’m happy to say [that] I barely recognize the album from [what it was] a few months ago.” Furthermore, he says that “many of the songs [have been] augmented or rethought out, with either overdubs, edits, or instances where the full band or various instrumentalists were called back to re-do or re-imagine some small or large detail. I’m at the stage where I’m trying to… ferret out those instances which don’t really work.”

Whether or not he’s able to unleash it by this summer (the current goal) remains to be seen, but there’s little doubt that the astounding effort put into Infernal, as well as his proven techniques, will result in another tour de force for one of the finest artists in the genre today.

Artist: The Neal Morse Band

Album: The Grand Experiment

Label: InsideOut

US Release Date: 2015-02-16

UK Release Date: 2015-02-16

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/g/grandexperiment.jpg

Just as Steven Wilson is widely considered the leader of English progressive rock, Californian Neal Morse certainly dominates the American side. As the founder and chief songwriter/vocalist for Spock’s Beard (until 2002), as well as a member of genre supergroup Transatlantic, he’s helped produce one stellar disc after another. Likewise, his solo career hasn’t disappointed yet, with works like ?, Momentum, and the two Testimony sets more or less equaling anything else he’s done. Luckily, Morse is also extremely prolific, so the fact that his next collection, The Grand Experiment, is already on its way shouldn’t strike anyone as unexpected.

Once again recorded with the core duo of drummer Mike Portnoy and bassist Randy George, in addition to two prior members of the Neal Morse Band, The Grand Experiment represents its means of creation in its title, as Morse and company recorded it in a short period of time and, for the first time in his career, without any preparation. Morse has commented that he “wanted to see what it would be like to create freely in the room with no preconceived notions… I used to be rather paranoid about whether things would turn out in the short space of time we had available… [this time] I made a lot of room for the other guys to create and express themselves and the result is outstanding! We wanted to experiment, do something a bit different, and see what everyone is capable of.”

George also feels quite enthusiastic about it, concluding that “it has some very different things on it. You can tell there are other writers involved, but it also retains what makes Neal Morse special! It’s not totally devoid of the sound that one would expect from a Neal Morse Band Album, but lots of new territory as well!”

Always reliable, striving, and prophetic, Morse always delivers the goods and exceeds his fans’ expectations. The 10 February release date of The Grand Experiment can’t come soon enough.

Artist: Echolyn

Album: Lean In

US Release Date: Release TBD

Formed at the tail end of the ’80s, American quintet Echolyn was one of the principal progressive rock acts throughout the ‘90s and early ’00s, during which it crafted gems like As the World, Cowboy Poems Free, and the album-long suite Mei. Unfortunately, the group went on hiatus following 2005’s The End is Beautiful — talk about a symbolic title — and followers spent the better part of a decade wondering if Echolyn would ever return.

Fortunately the group did in 2012, making one of the best musical comebacks in recent memory with its two-disc eponymous triumph. Naturally, the quintet has been working diligently since then to produce a proper follow-up, and it won’t be long before it is unveiled.

According to keyboardist Christopher Buzby, the record is currently titled Lean In. The record is comprised of nine brand-new compositions that “continue stretching the ears of the world’s listeners as Echolyn continues growing and taking our own musical steps forward.” He elaborates by calling the collection “a moving, lyrical, and monstrous mash-up of several of the musical styles and paths we’ve traveled before, but in entirely new ways,” claiming that the group has started focusing on melody as the main part of its songs. Elements such as “harmonic, textured, rhythmic and developed/multi-part arrangements” will carry the melody forward throughout each song.

Unsurprisingly, familiar Echolyn trademarks, such as “multipart vocal harmonies, soaring synth and guitar leads… pocket and in-your-face bass and percussion parts, and lyrical content that continues a truthful discourse” will permeate throughout. Buzby says that the disc will require listeners to “challenge both their expectations and perceptions while leaning into the discomfort often required when searching for life’s meaning and (sometimes not obvious) beauty.”

Echolyn is currently finishing mixing the record, which has a hopeful release date of March or April.

Artist: Spock’s Beard

Album: TBD

US Release Date: Release TBD

There was arguably no bigger American progressive rock band in the ‘90s than Spock’s Beard. Formed by brothers Neal and Alan Morse and completed by Dave Meros, Ryo Okumuto, and Nick D’Virgilio, the quintet produced some truly phenomenal work, such as V and Snow. When Neal Morse left in 2002, drummer D’Virgilio took over vocal duties (yes, echoing the history of Genesis) and together, the band produced four more remarkable efforts.

A few years ago, D’Virgilio left to pursue other ventures, including a role in Big Big Train, so percussionist Jimmy Keegan and vocalist Ted Leonard (Enchant) replaced him. In 2012, the revised line-up of Spock’s Beard put out Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep, which showcased a slightly new direction and sonic palette for the group. It was very well received by both longtime fans and newcomers, so the anticipation for the next entry has been quite high. Thankfully, according to Keegan, the wait won’t be much longer.

Keegan admits that the group is still tracking the music, adding, “We have a list of song titles but we have yet to choose what will [and] won’t be on the record.” As for the cover art, he says that it’s almost always the last component to settle on. While Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep was “heavy on the groove side of things”, this one will be heavier on the story side, “as opposed to situational or political type songs. There are some social commentaries.” He also promises heavier drumming this time around, as well as lots of “fun, interesting vocal stuff.”

Finally, he says that Spock’s Beard hopes to get the record out within a few months.

Splash image: promotional shot of Steven Wilson for The Raven that Refused to Sing by Lasse Hoile.