By ProgBlog, Dec 31 2020 11:34PM
Like something out of a Hollywood apocalypse movie, 2020 descended into the stuff of nightmares during March when Sars-CoV-2 viral infections spread unconstrained around the world, and ten months later we’re still far from getting out of an unprecedented situation for our times, with Christmas marking the potential onset of a third spike of cases.
There’s no denying that most governments appeared to be putting the welfare of their citizens ahead of any other concerns in March and April. Some may have been a little slow to get off the mark but as deaths increased, huge sums of money were thrown at building, opening and equipping new hospitals, and attempting to acquire PPE for frontline staff in the other hospitals. Even Free-Market finance ministers came up with furlough schemes to protect businesses from closure and to ensure employees were ready for the return to work once the pandemic had passed. Unfortunately for those of us in the UK, there were gaping holes in the provision of protective equipment to those that needed it, there were mixed messages with policy seemingly made up on the hoof, there were no staff to run the new hospitals, local public health expertise was ignored and following the introduction of new test kits, marred by a shortage of reagents, positive contacts weren’t effectively traced by a centralised team. Politicians began to lie. They split into factions, those for or against restarting the economy before the pandemic was fully over; there was a push to get children back to school without the provision of adequate safeguards. The Free-Marketeers won the day and restrictions were lifted – before it was safe to do so.
All parts of the hospitality sector suffered but the music industry was as badly affected as any. In response, the UK government eventually put together a Culture Recovery Fund, a welcome if late move, and in the devolved nations some of the money went to individuals. In England, the money was directed at organisations and venues. John Harris, writing in The Guardian says the Musicians Union has estimated that 70% of its membership is unable to more than a quarter of their pre-pandemic work and that 87% of musicians will earn less than £20000 this year.
With no performance option, revenue has had to come from the artist’s recorded output. Unfortunately, physical sales have been declining for years and the current industry model for distribution of music is based on streaming, where the dominant platforms have been under attack for their derisory musician’s remuneration. Fortunately, prog has historically had a core of dedicated fans that seem far more willing than most to purchase an LP or CD. In fact, despite the pandemic, 2020 saw the release of some quite incredible music. Home studios and file sharing played a major part which is nothing new, but a temporary relaxation of restrictions also allowed musicians to meet up. That there has been such a quantity of quality prog is still a surprise, given the inevitable anxiety over artists’ livelihoods and their concerns for family and friends. It’s hard to believe the creative process wasn’t adversely affected by the pandemic.
ProgBlog has been in the fortuitous position to be introduced to some of these releases, much of which goes under the radar, even escaping the journalists at Prog magazine who once again have done an admirable job reporting on all aspects of prog music, even delving into the far-flung corners of interconnected sub-genres. As is traditional at this time of year, I’ve revisited submissions to ProgBlog, recommendations, releases by bands I’ve been lucky enough to get to see live in a year when there really hasn’t been a great deal of live activity, plus other gems that I’ve come across while continuing my musical research, and I’ve decided on my album of the year.
Actually, my favourite album of 2020 is jointly held by Italy’s La Maschera di Cera with S.E.I. and Norway’s Wobbler with Dwellers of the Deep. Both came out well into the latter half of the year, suggesting that at least part of the production process was carried out well into the pandemic. Compare that to another of ProgBlog’s ‘recommended’ 2020 releases, Worlds Within by Raphael Weinroth-Browne which came out in January, before almost everyone had heard of Covid-19 (more about Worlds Within can be found here: https://www.progblog.co.uk/discovery20-worlds-within/4594865353)
So what is it about S.E.I. and Dwellers of the Deep that puts them at the top of the list? By sheer coincidence my copies are both on green vinyl, but the reason it’s hard to decide which I find most enjoyable is another facet they share: they both reference 70s prog without sounding derivative. There’s a narrow line between imitating bands from the golden period of progressive rock and utilising the sonic template of those acts while sounding relevant 50 years later, and both La Maschera di Cera and Wobbler manage to sound fresh. The Italians have been playing as a unit since 2001 but S.E.I. is only their sixth album, presumably due to other musical commitments (see Zaal, below), and while the style and palette are clearly related to classic progressivo italiano bands, the writing and production easily transcends the earlier era, and the group stands out for its lack of lead guitar and lashings of idiosyncratic flute. The new album is their best yet, and a full review of S.E.I. can be found here: https://www.progblog.co.uk/la-maschera-di-cera-sei/4595073765
Wobbler came into existence in 1999, and are now on album number five. They also have a distinctive sound, propelled like a fair few other Scandinavian bands, by trebly Rickenbacker bass. Unashamed to signal their influences, there’s more than a hint of early 70s Yes in their music, lyrical themes and song titles, but they maintain their relevance with an intangible sensibility, a vaguely menacing quality that I associate with Norse myths. Dwellers of the Deep is full-on prog.
Recommended releases of 2020
Wobbler and La Maschera di Cera are both well-established acts (though Prog stubbornly refuses to write an article on La Maschera di Cera), as is another of my favourites for 2020. The Red Planet by Rick Wakeman and the English Rock Ensemble, delayed by problems ‘with the supply chain’, presumably Covid-related, was promised by Wakeman to be a 70’s keyboard-laden instrumental prog album along the lines of The Six Wives of Henry VIII. From the music to the gatefold sleeve, he delivered in full. The review can be seen here: https://www.progblog.co.uk/rick-wakeman-the-red-planet/4594979105
Less well known but highly recommended is the UK-Italian collaboration Zopp, multi-instrumentalist Ryan Stevenson and Leviathan drummer Andrea Moneta, whose debut Zopp from April is a natural successor to the Canterbury sounds of National Health.
Zaal is a prog-jazz project fronted by La Maschera di Cera keyboard player Agostino Macor. I was lucky enough to catch a rare performance by the band in 2017 where I detected Third-era Soft Machine influences but Homo Habilis, released in October incorporates a world-jazz vibe and at times reminds me of the Mahavishnu Orchestra featuring Jean-Luc Ponty. I’d suggest any fan of La Maschera di Cera or Finisterre would like this album.
The recently-formed Quelle Che Disse il Tuonno from Milan mix well-known progressivo italiano names like guitarist Francesca Zanetta and the up-and-coming, like Niccolò Gallani and in March’s Il Velo dei Riflessi they’ve produced a mature, well-balanced modern symphonic RPI album which would appeal to anyone who likes Cellar Noise or Unreal City.
Mention must also go to Phenomena by ESP Project. Since launching ESP Invisible Din in 2016, Tony Lowe has steered the band through five albums of beautifully written, played and produced music, drifting from full-blown symphonic prog to post-rock. Phenomena falls mainly in the latter category but it’s exquisitely layered and an integral part of ESP canon. See the review here: https://www.progblog.co.uk/esp-project-phenomena/4595049609
The albums listed above form a very small part of the music from 2020 that I’ve been listening to, and the bands that I’ve not mentioned all deserve credit for keeping going during trying times – I’ve enjoyed your contribution, too. A couple of bands who might have been in with a shout of an appearance in this year’s list are Gryphon, whose Get out of my Father’s Car is on vinyl pre-order, and Beaten Paths by Vincenzo Ricca’s The Rome Pro(G)ject IV, another album where I’m waiting for a release on vinyl.
The pandemic may not have ended but there are signs of hope if we stick to the public health guidelines and the vaccines prove to be effective.
Anywhere there’s music, there’s hope