December 17, 2022

2022 was another good year with plenty of strong releases to choose from. Nonetheless, it was fairly easy to whittle down my list to a top 10, because these – in my opinion – are the best of the best. And so, in no particular order…

Banco del Mutuo Soccorso Orlando: Le Forme dell’Amore

Like so many people, I assumed the death of Francesco Di Giacomo in 2014 – among other less tragic lineup changes – spelled the end of Banco, one of Italy’s premiere progressive rock bands whose illustrious career has seen them produce some of the most beloved albums in prog history. I mean, you could stick his photo in the dictionary beside the word ‘irreplaceable’ and nobody would argue. But Banco did eventually resurface, and thankfully have opted to forego the carbon copy approach with a singer who is not a soundalike of their iconic former frontman. And when 2019’s Transiberiana proved they were sturdy on their feet again, I was both surprised and relieved at their resuscitation. The follow-up Orlando: Le Forme dell’Amore carries on in the Banco traditions of classical themes and tricky compositions, and bases itself around the 1532 epic poem Orlando Furioso (as you do). As always, lovely instrumental sections are woven throughout this impressive and eclectic release, Vittorio Nocenzi’s keys are top-notch, and the repeat play factor is high. Yes, Francesco is of course terribly missed, but it’s heartening to know Banco are still capable of making music this good some fifty years after their debut.

Alco FrisbassLe Mystere Du Gue Pucelle

Originally a digital-only release on their Bandcamp page last year, 2022 saw a proper CD issue of French band Alco Frisbass’ third (and possibly best) album following popular demand (in fact, it’s already seen a second pressing). Jazzy/Canterbury sounds mingle with retro prog and more avant-garde zeuhl-ish flavours for a delightful and well-rounded affair. You can’t help but get sucked into the unique and complex arrangements and tasty playing – this album is a keyboard lover’s dream! The 10 minute opening title track is one of the best pieces of music I heard all year. If you’ve never heard Alco Frisbass, I can safely recommend all three of their releases. But if you only grab one, start right here! This engaging album is thrillingly close to 10 out of 10 material.

The Lost Vision Of The Chandoo PriestThe Lost Vision Of The Chandoo Priest

Francesca Zanetta and Niccolo’ Gallani, both of Italian band Quel Che Disse Il Tuono, step out and moonlight with their own little debut, a spacey psych/prog instrumental soundscape that should be nicely accompanied by the stimulant or relaxant of your choice. Composed during lockdown, this album is pure escapism and gets my nod for (Very) Pleasant Surprise Of The Year. Fluid guitar leads a la Andy Latimer, Moog, Hammond, Rhodes, mellotron, flute… if these ingredients raise your eyebrow in interest, then trust me: you want this. It’s no small feat to stand out in a crowded genre, but Zanetta (also guitarist for the fantastic Unreal City), and Gallani (ivory tinkler for Cellar Noise) succeed admirably. More please!

Anima MorteSerpents in the Fields of Sleep

Absolutely captivating fourth release from these cinematic Swedes – and their first in eight long years – Serpents in the Fields of Sleep is so steeped in mood and atmosphere that it could easily be a horror film score. And I don’t mean library music snippets used for cheap shock effect. These are weighty compositions infused with riveting melodies, driving rhythms, and moments of stark beauty. The ominous synths, dark themes, and pulsing electronics employed by Anima Morte are more aligned with horrormeisters Goblin and John Carpenter than with much of their fellow countrymen’s folkier or more classical-based approaches. I was two songs into my first listen of this album when I knew it would be on my top 10 of the year. Their best yet… pure magic.

The TangentSongs From The Hard Shoulder

Now a dozen albums into the career of The Tangent, band visionary Andy Tillison seems to have found his most stable lineup – and it’s an absolutely killer one. We spoke at length about this new album (among other things) back in May of this year, and it was a typically honest and comprehensive chat with one of progressive rock’s key modern figures. Like all the best Tangent albums, Songs From The Hard Shoulder builds on the strengths of its predecessors, and proves another ambitious journey that traverses symphonic prog, jazz, and Canterbury, with healthy dashes of hard rock and funk for good measure. Not to mention Tillison’s narrative prowess, as finely honed now as it’s ever been. I can say with complete certainty – and just a wee touch of Shakespearean melodrama – that I will never part with my Tangent albums. The world is a better place for having them in it.

Rick MillerOld Souls

This one came out way back on 7 January, and survived in my top 10 list for the entire year, if that tells you anything. Miller’s sixteenth album Old Souls is a dreamy blend of the more wistful, melancholic and pastoral attributes of 70s prog, and will appeal to fans of Genesis, Pink Floyd, and Camel, to name just a few of the more well-known suspects. But this Canadian is no clone, he is his own musician and is not trying to ride coattails. Positively loaded with rich textures and achingly gorgeous melodies, Old Souls is the perfect rainy day album, and I mean that in the best way possible (I love rainy days). Cello, violin, flute, and striking background vocals all play important roles alongside the soaring guitars, popping percussion, and wobbly keyboards. Miller is one of those naturally gifted songwriters who manages to not only conjure the perfect mood for each piece, but is able to effectively capture them on tape too, and the songs on this album feel like interlocking pieces, each an essential part of the overall journey. It’s the rarest of albums that commands 100% of your attention from beginning to end like this one does. Wonderful – and highly recommended.

Birth Born

Solid debut rising from the ashes of defunct American retro-psych outfit Astra, Birth’s Born delivers 41 minutes of pot-scented indulgence split evenly between jammy guitar and thick organ (not unlike those released under the Astra moniker). Early 70s vibes are plentiful, with the kind of serious, blistering Deep Purple-like passages one might expect, and lyrics which include lines like ‘Breathe, last breath, as I drift into the noise… within the void’. Yes, bands in this field do love to sing about voids. But for any clichés it might sport, Born is a charming and gratifying listen, and creates exactly the mood that it should. It’s also nicely balanced by more gentle moments that swell into grand, epic crescendos. Much of this album towers over the sometimes aimless music made by some of their contemporaries. Despite comfortably nestling into the genre, this band is no one-trick pony, and now find themselves easily added to my ‘auto-buy’ list with this spiffy debut.

GalahadThe Last Great Adventurer

Galahad’s shimmering fifteenth release is perhaps the best they’ve ever recorded… and I don’t make such a bold statement thoughtlessly, as I’m well aware of the strong platters dotting their thirty-plus-year career. Memorable melodies abound, solid playing is always in service of the song, and the opening track Alive is a positively joyous anthem. Truth be told, every song is a winner here, and 55 minutes seems to go by like 25. This band’s albums can sometimes go out of print quicker than you’d think, so I’d grab this one sooner rather than later. Forever bubbling just beneath the more well-known bands of their ilk, Galahad continue to experiment, shedding the trappings of the dreaded ‘neo-prog’ label by modernizing their sound… while retaining the best aspects of their past. They really deserve to be much more acknowledged than they are. Outstanding album.

Jonas Lindberg & The Other SideMiles From Nowhere

February saw the emergence of this unabashed modern symph-prog album from Swedish multi-instrumentalist Jonas Lindberg and his project The Other Side. Borrowing heavily from his obvious heroes (and sharing a label with some of them), Lindberg somehow manages to take a somewhat stale formula and create an exceptional album from it; a crisp, polished production with so many standout moments, I wouldn’t know where to begin (‘at the start, dummy’). Strong songwriting and three competent vocalists provide a healthy variety in the sound of the record, and occasional small doses of more AOR/classic rock sounds enhance rather than detract. So while it’s true that nobody is going lob terms such as ‘groundbreaking’ or ‘trendsetting’ at this album, it sure is good… damn good. If you’re in the mood for some comforting symphonic prog sounds, but are feeling a little burnt out on the heavyweights of the genre, be aware that there’s another choice. Equal parts catchy and epic… I like where this guy is going.

Michael RomeoWar of the Worlds Pt. 2

The Symphony X axeman follows up his acclaimed 2018 release War of the Worlds Pt. 1 with an even stronger sequel, laser focusing his skills and crafting an hour’s worth of crushing riffs and blazing solos into a futuristic prog-metal triumph. A criticism that I sometimes read about music like this is that it has ‘no soul’ or is just a showcase for playing technique. While that may be true of others, it does not apply here. Romeo has a knack for the sweeping and dramatic, at times taking an almost film score approach to his music, and the overall effect is quite absorbing for the listener. The album is dynamic and has a lot of depth, and for the Symphony X fans clamouring for a new batch of tunes, it surely scratches the itch. This CD just can’t seem to find its way out of my stereo and onto my shelves, so it won’t be collecting dust anytime soon. And it sounds spectacular turned up as loud as your neighbours can stand! EPIC.

Some honourable mentions this year include Marillion‘s An Hour Before It’s Dark, Steve & Virgil Howe‘s Lunar Mist, Drifting Sun‘s Forsaken Innocence, Comedy Of ErrorsTime Machine, Kirk Hammett‘s Portals EP, Djam Karet‘s Island In The Night Red Sky, and Vesilinja‘s just-released Myrskyn keskellä.

Cheers to all, Merry Christmas and happy holidays from Velvet Thunder’s ‘Canadian correspondent’ … see you in 2023!