Prog 2022: The Year In Review

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2022 was a banner year for us here at The Fire Note as we rolled out a new section on the website – The Prog Corner! In addition to that we started a YouTube channel (The Prog Corner) of the same name in December of last year. In that time, the channel has exploded and now takes up all of my free time. This has led to a dirge of old school reviews from yours truly as it has been a lot more fun just talking about records I love on YouTube rather than laboring over the written word. We also saw a Prog band (Dream Theater) win at The Grammy Awards! Once again, there were quite a few “grey area” releases that I could have placed either on this list or my Staff Writer picks for “Non-Prog” records. I seem to have drawn the line somewhere between black midi and Black Country New Roads as the former appears here and the latter is on my “other” list. This also applies to The Dear Hunter, Muse, King Gizzard, Trail Of Dead and Midlake – all of whom could have made this list. But didn’t. I’m probably cheating a bit so I can load up on the PROG on both lists but such is life!!!

#25

Devin Townsend (Canada)
Lightwork
Inside Out Music [2022]

Devin Townsend has been putting out terrific material under a variety of monikers but lately, simply as Devin Townsend, he has been on a hot streak. Although he dropped a couple of low-stake albums last year (The Puzzle and Cuddles) this clearly the intended follow-up to 2020’s masterpiece, Empath. Perhaps not quite the game-changer that that record was, this new Townsend album finds the former Strapping Young Lad in fine form. The songs are what takes center stage this time around and Devin covers a lot of territory here: from extreme metal workouts to Queen-like rock tunes. Lightwork may not capture the senses with immediacy but the song craft is actually getting stronger over the years.

#24

Lobate Scarp (United States)
You Have It All
Self-Released [2022]

Here is a band that seems to be on the rise. Hailing from the sunny West Coast, Lobate Scarp have been flirting with greatness for a while now and on this, their second full length, Adam Sears and company have finally delivered on that promise. There are plenty of guest musicians to compliment Sears and his fellow Scarpers Andy Catt and Peter Matuchnak including Jon Davison and Billy Sherwood from Yes, Jimmy Keegan and Ryo Okumoto from Spock’s Beard as well as Eric Moore from Suicidal Tendencies. Yeah, it’s not light years away from Spock’s Beard in that the music here is a wonderful mix of classic prog and classic rock but it stand on its own merits. There was a ten year gap between their debut and this one. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait that long for album number three.

#23

Motorpsycho (Norway)
Ancient Astronauts
Stickman Records [2022]

Last year’s Kingdom Of Oblivion was a low stakes affair that suffered by comparison with the brilliant Gullvag Trilogy that preceded it. It felt like a step backwards. Never a band to be pigeon-holed, Motorpsycho gleefully defies expectations once again with a spectacular set that demonstrates a lot of what makes them so great. Through four tracks that range from two minutes to the twenty-two minute epic “Chariots Of The Sun,” the trio explore a wide variety of styles. I was not sold on this album at first listen. The epic, in particular, takes a while to get to its destination but upon repeat spins Ancient Astronauts reveals itself as a sophisticated and worthy addition to their already sizable discography.

#22

Arena (UK)
The Theory Of Molecular Inheritance
Verglas Music [2022]

Prog Rock supergroup Arena have been around for so long that it has become increasingly easy to forget about them and some of their more recent efforts. The band, formed by Clive Nolan (Pendragon) and Mick Pointer (ex-Marillion,) have been joined by John Mitchell (Frost*) since 1997 and achieved their highest level of critical acclaim shortly thereafter. But since 2003’s outstanding Contagion, it has been a slow decline in productivity and quality. The problem was solved resoundingly with the hiring of their fifth lead sing – the one and only Damian Wilson (Threshold, Headspace.) Unquestionably the best vocalist the band has ever employed and this album proves the case. It’s heavy at times but always melodic. Always captivating.

#21

Big Big Train (International)
Welcome To The Planet
English Electric Records [2022]

Being the final Big Big Train record with singer David Longdon, it is surprising to hear how positive and uplifting this record is – especially compared to last year’s relatively bleak Common Ground. Sharing almost-identical album covers was probably a terrible idea as the two records have totally different vibes to them. Ironically, this is the least Longdon-centric Big Big Train album since Longdon and Nick D’Virgilio joined the band in 2009. Newcomer Carly Bryant even wrote (and sang) the title track (which closes out the album in a way predicting a future without their iconic lead singer.) As a huge fan of this band it is actually kind of difficult to listen to this one. Longdon recorded a solo album before his death so this is not his final recorded statement but it sure feels like it. Founder Greg Spawton has kept the band alive. It’s what Dave would have wanted.

#20

Elder (United States)
Innate Passage
Armageddon Shop [2022]

Here’s a Boston band that keeps getting better and better – and yes, by that I mean they are getting proggier with each album. Now on their seventh studio album they have truly expanded their sound passed the usual space rock and psychedelia and into fascinating other realms. The keyboards are more prominent. The songs feel more expansive and exploratory. Although this is the same four piece lineup that recorded 2020’s outstanding Omens, they sound fresh and energized. A late release that almost didn’t make the list as a result, this album is just too good to leave off my year end summary. With a few more listens and I’m certain that this would be ranked a little higher. Deadlines.

#19

Karfagen (Ukraine)
Land Of Green And Gold
Caerllysi Music [2022]

Released a mere month before Putin’s tanks illegally rolled into his native Ukraine, there will never be another Karfagen album like this one. I fear this may be the last of Antony Kalugin’s unrelenting onslaught of good vibrations to the world. The charm of his music has always been innocence and perhaps a touch of naivete and it is hard to imagine that surviving completely unscathed. Either way, the timing could not have been any worse to release your best album. The rap against Karfagen has always been that their music all sounds the same but this time around that complaint holds no water. Kalugin is opening up his sonic range with stunning results. He has since released a solo album from exile in Poland and his other project, Sunchild, has announced the release of their seventh album in January. Russian invasion or not, Antony Kalugin carries on with his business.

#18

Bubblemath (United States)
Turf Ascension
Cuneiform Music [2022]

Formed in Minneapolis in 1995 and getting their line up solidified three years later, this band has had the audacity to release only two albums until Turf Ascension arrived earlier this year. Music this complex does take a bit longer to produce than your standard fare but c’mon guys!!! We need more of your manic Cardiacs by way of Gentle Giant zaniness. There is definitely a bookish, almost mad scientist quality about this quintet. Although this album is their attempt at streamlining, there is still a lot of information to process. With four songs between ten and eighteen minutes in length, each track demands strict attention but not because they’re blindingly complex (which they are.) They demand the attention because of how good they are.

#17

The Von Hertzen Brothers (Finland)
Red Alert In The Blue Forest
Alternative Distribution Alliance [2022]

I’ve been a casual fan of this band for a long time and have become increasingly distraught at the uneven nature of their records. Even this one, which I consider to be one of their very best, has a couple questionable moments but overall the Von Hertzen boys acquit themselves very nicely. There are quiet pastoral moments. There are rousing Arcade Fire style anthemic sing-alongs. There are quasi Prog moments scattered throughout the album. But the draw here is not instrumental prowess or Prog virtuoso pyrotechnics. Nope. The draw here is pretty basic: really good songs performed and sung at a ridiculously high level. I knew these brothers had it in them but they needed to be okay with being a Prog Band.

#16

Kaipa (Sweden)
Urskog
Inside Out Music [2022]

Oh, the dark, virgin forests of Scandinavia. They provide the perfect backdrop for many of my favorite Third Wave Prog bands from the Nordic lands. But Kaipa is a different beast. They are the complete opposite of dark. Their music is always optimistic and operates almost exclusively in the Land Of The Major Keys. Happily, Urskog doesn’t really stray too far from their winning formula. Hans Lundin still has not met a chord progression he didn’t like. Jonas Reingold and new drummer Darby Todd sound like they’ve been playing together for years, Guitarist Per Nilsson is still one of the very best shredders alive. But the magic, as always, comes from the boy/girl vocals of Patrik Lundstrom and Aleena Gibson. Heavenly.

#15

Fren (Poland)
All The Pretty Days
Self-Released [2022]

Fren’s first album, Where Do You Want The Ghosts To Reside, was my Debut Of The Year back in 2020. So now we are being treated to a second dose of Polish instrumental Prog that flirts with King Crimson and fusion in equal amounts. Tons of piano and Mellotron add texture and harmonic diversity to a solid template that accepts the riff as Prog currency and expands and varies each theme to logical ends. There is little to no wasted space here. Each section feels right. Each instrument comments on the music in exactly the right way. Structured around an album-ending epic (the twenty-two minute long “Turque”) this sophomore effort is every bit as adventurous and satisfying as the debut. I might even like it a little better.

#14

Jonas Lindberg (Sweden)
Miles From Nowhere
Inside Out Music [2022]

Although this is the second album Jonas Lindberg has recorded with The Other Side, Miles From Nowhere is his debut for Inside Out Music and that potential wider audience seems to have been all this guy needed. Besides the epic title track that closes the album (and includes a ripping solo from Roine Stolt) there are two other longer songs – “Oceans Of Time” was a brilliant choice for the first single and “Summer Queen” features the stunning vocals of Newcomer Jenny Strong. It’s hard to believe that Lindberg’s songwriting has improved this much since 2016’s Pathfinder but he has definitely found his niche in the Prog Rock scene. If there were a category for Most Improved Progger it would certainly go to Jonas Lindberg.

#13

Porcupine Tree (UK)
Closure/Continuation
Megaforce Records / Music For Nations [2022]

No one saw this coming. The band (minus bass player Colin Edwin) return and drop and unexpectedly great record. I was not a big fan of their last LP (The Incident) so I was able to dampen the anticipation a bit but then the singles started coming out and it was pretty obvious that this was not going to be some money grab record, designed specifically to justify a tour and take the unsuspecting public’s cash. Far from it. This is a quality release that stands up to their very best work. Okay, maybe it’s not quite as good as In Absentia or Fear Of A Blank Planet but it’s actually pretty close. With Gavin Harrison completely dominating the drum kit and Richard Barbieri providing his usual excellence, Steven Wilson the uncanny knack of writing just the right songs for the right project.

#12

Pattern-Seeking Animals (United States)
Only Passing Through
Inside Out Music [2022]

The third LP from this Spock’s Beard spin off finds the band cementing their unique sound. Principle songwriter John Boegehold has opened up the sonics to such a degree that PSA no longer even really sounds like the mighty Beard. Spaghetti Westerns, once again, have become a major touchstone here. Ted Leonard’s vocals have never sounded better and he even wrote a couple songs this time around. The rhythm section of Dave Meros (bass) and Jimmy Keegan (drums) only lasted two Spock’s Beard albums so it’s always a delight to hear them do their thing. The band has actually played their first-ever shows this year so the future for this band is extremely bright. Extra points for starting the album with a two minute song that’s as proggy as anything you’re likely to hear out there.

#11

Comedy Of Errors (UK)
Time Machine
COE Music [2022]

Oh yeah!!! There are some bands that just hit you right. Comedy Of Errors is that band for me. Joe Cairney’s vocals are just emotive enough to color these songs with nuance while the band sounds truly energized. Bruce Levick is an absolute revelation on drums, while keyboard player and songwriter Jim Johnston takes a turn at the mic during the title track. With two long songs (at twelve and fifteen minutes) and three shorter tracks, Time Machine is only 44 minutes total running time. In other words, the perfect length for a classic seventies Rock album. Never mind that it’s 2022 – albums have been just too damn long for a couple decades now. There is not a single second wasted here either. Making this record kinda perfect.

#10

black midi (UK)
Hellfire
Rough Trade Records [2022]

So I decided to “promote” black midi to the ranks of Prog Rock. Their first two albums ended up on my “non-Prog” lists but this year the band is in the Premier League. This may not seem like a huge leap but, in case you’re confused, I have kept Black Country New Road off the Prog list. So there is a line of demarcation, after all. And that is exactly where it is drawn. And the new black midi album is so good that it makes me forget about those first two records. While not exactly a concept album, it functions very much in the same way – telling interesting stories that somehow feel unified into a whole. It must be hard holding the future in your hands but black midi do it without breaking a sweat. What a band.

#9

Evership (United States)
The Uncrowned King Act 2
Self-Released [2022]

Last year’s The Uncrowned King Act 1 almost took home the big AOTY prize – held off only by the mighty Transatlantic. So it is no exaggeration that this was my most anticipated release of 2022. And it did not disappoint. Although not as immediate as its predecessor, it is oddly more accessible as well. With Glass Hammer and Neal Morse calling Tennessee home, the Volunteer State is becoming a hotbed for American Prog. My first impression of Act 2 was a bit of confusion as the album lacks the epic track that every Evership album has had. But the shorter runtimes and more commercial approach actually work to the band’s advantage as they are carving out a very unique place in the Prog world.

#8

The Tangent (UK)
Songs From The Hard Shoulder
Inside Out Music [2022]

Andy Tillison has as much love for Crass as he does for Yes. This punk rock, nihilistic outlook is so refreshing in Prog Rock. I can’t think of another artist in the genre as dedicated to social and political issues as Tillison. And here on his band’s twelfth album that attitude is front and center. What makes this one so special are the presence of epics – four of them (if you include the cover of UK’s “In The Dead Of Night.”) And they throw in a short soul/R&B number for good measure. Although Andy’s love for the Canterbury Scene of bands (Caravan, Hatfield & The North, Egg) informs much of this record, The Tangent are most comfortable (and incendiary) when they follow a more symphonic path. Either way, The Tangent can do no wrong.

#7

Marillion (UK)
An Hour Before It’s Dark
Racket Records [2022]

Few bands have done more to advance the cause of progressive rock than Marillion. Way back in the early eighties they were a lonely voice crying in the wilderness. After Fish left the band many thought they were done but Steve Hogarth has been rock solid at the mic. The H era has been uneven, to be sure, but when they get it right (as they did on Brave, Marbles and FEAR) they are an absolute force. And now you can add this one to the short list of great, late era Marillion records. The messages are heavy-duty and run the gamut of modern concerns from Covid to blood diamonds. I know some people are put off by the far-left tropes found throughout but that’s their problem. Forty years on and Marillion are still relevant. And awesome!!!

#6

Ryo Okumoto (United States)
The Myth Of The Mostrophus
Inside Out Music [2022]

The great Japanese-American keyboard player (best known for his work with Spock’s Beard) took the hiatus that band is on to collaborate with Michael Whiteman from I Am The Manic Whale. And the results are ridiculously good. With a long list of guest musicians (including every member of Spock’s beard past and present – except Neal Morse) this album more than fills the gap left by the Beard’s absense. Bookended by two long songs, there is really something for everyone on this record, “The Watchmaker” harkens back to Abacab-era Genesis while “Chrysalis” is easily the best (short) song I’ve heard all year. Sung by Randy McStine, (who just got off the road with Porcupine Tree) the song is a revelation. And then there’s the epic title track which closes out the album in stunning fashion.

#5

The Flower Kings (International)
By Royal Decree
Inside Out Music [2022]

The third “reunion” album from The Flower Kings is also the best of the three. Tomas Bodin’s absence is being felt less and less with each release. Zach Kamins is providing a kind of sophistication that perfectly compliments Roine Stolt’s heart-felt and gritty style. His ear for interesting harmonic structures is inspiring. Bass duties are shared between longtime bassist Jonas Reingold, Roine’s brother Michael and newcomer Jonas Lindberg. The songs here are based on fragments and demos that Stolt found on his hard drive and this definitely makes By Royal Decree sound more like classic Flower Kings. The return of percussionist Hasse Bruniusson also helps with this perception. Roine and Hasse Froberg share vocal duties almost 50/50 and being that I love both of their voices that is a recipe for greatness.

#4

Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso (Italy)
Orlando: Le Forme dell’Amore
Inside Out Music [2022]

The Kings Of Italian Prog are back!!! After the death of their legendary singer Giacomo di Francesco in 2014 most fans assumed they were done. But Vittoria Nocenzi had a different plan. Tony D”Alessio has been conscripted into service and the band released Transiberiana in 2019. I was quite fond of that one but Orlando is even better. It is a concept album based on a 18th Century poem. It is also Banco’s first-ever double album. There’s a lot to comb through here but the one overriding thought I have when listening to this is: “Wow. This sounds fresh.” If that is an oxymoron regarding a Prog band celebrating their 50 year anniversary, it isn’t. From avant garde instrumental exercises to detours into folk melodies and even Tango, Banco displays both maturity and youthful energy. I don’t know how they do it.

#3

JPL (France)
Sapiens Chapitre 3; Actum
Quadrifonic Records [2022]

Oh yeah! The final installment of Jean Pierre Louveton’s Sapiens Trilogy was everything I wanted it to be. There are four short songs on Side One (all of which are really fun) and then Side Two is comprised of the epic song, “Memento Mori,” a piece that is broken up into five parts. It is my favorite epic of 2022. It is the perfect send off to a story that took three discs and three years to tell. After the (slightly) disappointing Part 2, this third album, subtitled Actum, corrects that misstep by insuring more variety and better songwriting. JPL is at his best when he allows his songs to breathe. His vocals (all in French) are fantastic – even if I have no idea what he’s singing. But he is most confident when playing that Fender guitar. He is a guitar hero without having to play 20 notes a second. Now that the trilogy is complete I wonder where he goes next…

#2

Kaprekar’s Constant (UK)
The Murder Wall
Talking Elephant Records [2022]

I knew these guys had it in them!!! After two very good records Kaprekar’s Constant finally realized their potential and dropped an absolute masterpiece. Led by Bill Jefferson and Al Nicholson, the band is rounded out by bassist Nick Jefferson, Mike Westergaard on keys and Mark Walker on drums. But wait!!! There’s more!!! It’s David Jackson (formerly of Van Der Graaf Generator) is on sax and flute and his daughter, Dorie, on lead vocals. I can only hope that David’s health holds up (he has been under the weather) as he is the secret sauce in this band. His playing style is instantly recognizable. And Dorie does an amazing job on vocals. There is also a guest vocalist on The Murder Wall – the great Judie Tzuke takes a turn on the mic for the song “Years To Perfect.” Telling multiple stories of mountain climbers and the propaganda circus that surrounded these exploits make in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Short songs have never sounded so epic!!!

#1 – Prog Album Of The Year

Ben Craven (Australia)
Monsters From The Id
Self-Released [2022]

And here it is!!! Ben Craven has been flirting with greatness for a while now. He has a lot of things going for him – not least of which is having Roger Dean on speed dial. He can play every instrument, he has a serviceable voice and his compositional skills have (all of a sudden) jumped off the charts. This album consists of exactly two twenty minute songs. Both of them are absolutely perfect. “Die Before You Wake” has the audacity to stay in 7/8 time during its entire runtime and “Amnis Flows Aeternum” is every bit as Prog as its title implies. An almost perfect marriage of Yes and Pink Floyd, Craven could be accused of cleaving to closely to those greats of yesteryear but I strongly disagree. He takes the rhythms and timbres from the Golden Era Of Prog and truly makes them his own. Monsters From The Id is one of those records that must be heard to be believed. And once heard, may you never say: “They just don’t write ’em like that anymore.” Because, obviously, they do.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

1. DAAL – Dedealus
2. Crippled Black Phoenix – Banefyre
3. Rosalie Cunningham – Two Piece Puzzle
4. Glass Hammer – At The Gate
5. Granval – eau/feu
6. Naxatras IV OAK – The Quiet Rebellion Of Compromise
7. Fernando Perdomo – Out To Sea 4
8. Dave Kerzner – The Traveler
9. Ranestrane – Apacolypse Now
10. Aliante – Destinazioni Oblique
11. The Samurai Of Prog – The Spaghetti Epic 4
12. Phoenix Again – Vision
13. Verbal Delirium – Conundrum
14. Gandalf’s Fist – Widdershins
15. Jethro Tull – The Zealot Gene
16. Tim Bowness – Butterfly Mind
17. Ghost Of The Machine – Scissorgames

LIVE ALBUM OF THE YEAR: Steve HackettGenesis Revisited Live: Seconds Out & More

SONG OF THE YEAR: Ryo Okumoto – “Chrysalis”

BEST DEBUT: Birth – Born

REISSUE OF THE YEAR: Pink FloydAnimals

EPIC OF THE YEAR: JPL – “Memento Mori”

MVP (MOST VALUABLE PROGGER): Steven Wilson

Scot Lade
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