December 22, 2023

Well, 2023 was quite a year for new releases. I can’t recall a year in recent memory where I was as impressed (and nearly overwhelmed) by so many terrific new albums, and I felt compelled to go with a hefty thirty top picks for year’s end. I could have gone on further, but nobody wants to read an enormous list, and I found that once I got past the 30 mark, we were moving into simply ‘Good’ territory… and beyond, all the way to ‘Overhyped’, ‘Meh’, and even ‘Dreadful’ (there were a few, I’m afraid). But no need to dwell on all that. In the spirit of the season and positivity, I present my 30 favourite albums of 2023 countdown! Drumroll please…

  • 30. Eloy – Echoes of the Past

    The German symph/space rock legends squeak onto the list in the #30 slot with Echoes of the Past some 52 years after their eponymous debut. More of an emphasis on the musicality here than with the narration prevalent throughout the first two parts of this trilogy (The Vision, The Sword, and the Pyre parts 1 &2) which were not among the stronger Eloy efforts, to put it mildly. The Floydian synth approach weaves its way around these new pieces, a more classic and refined approach is taken, and a fine album is arrived at. And hey, if that isn’t a pure Eloy cover sleeve through and through, I’ll eat my hat!

  • 29. Nexus – Insania

    The Argentinian symphonic masters quietly released their eighth album in the late summer, with little fanfare or advertising, but it’s another worthy entry in a catalogue rich with symphonic prog rock heritage and vintage sounds. Vocalist and bassist Roxy Truccolo now seems a full member of the band, having made guest appearances on previous albums, and serves the music well here. New Nexus releases are always welcome.

  • 28. Il Bacio della Medusa – Imilla

    The fifth release from these contemporary Italians is fairly typical in its musical approach, mingling classic Italian prog and heavier rock with folk undertones and a modern pep. Thematically it’s a bit more adventurous, branching off from its predecessors as a concept album about Monika Ertl… but that’s a story for another time. It’s an engaging release and one of only two Italians to make my list this year (an unusually low number for The Boot).

  • 27. Ozric Tentacles – Lotus Unfolding

    It’s amazing that Ed Wynne and his jolly gang manage to continue crafting these bubbling electro-rock soundscapes in their inimitable style nearly 40 years into a career that might not have seemed probable at its inception. But craft they do, and while some say that a few albums is all you need from the Ozrics, I disagree; the more the merrier, and Lotus Unfolding is as fine a collection of synthy, psych-tinged, squealing guitar space-rock as they’ve done in recent memory. And the striking cover artwork is certainly a good indication of the music within. Wonderful as always! If you like a bit of the ol’ puff-puff (on a chuff chuff)… feel free to partake and then read my… erm, review here.

  • 26. Rick Miller – Altered States

    Ontario’s Rick Miller releases his seventeenth(!) album of graceful, beautiful symphonic rock compositions that float around the Steve Hackett, Pink Floyd, Moody Blues, and Camel worlds, incorporating the usual flutes, violins, and cellos for colouring. Occasionally folky flourishes add further appeal. If you want high quality progressive rock in the purest symphonic tradition, look no further.

  • 25. Gong – Unending Ascending

    Kavus Torabi and company continue to lead the charge as per Daevid Allen’s wishes with the third studio album since his passing. While it’s not entirely the same animal, most of the Gong hallmarks are there, and the guitar work is immaculate. I don’t see how fans of classic early 70s Gong wouldn’t be into this as well. It’s Gong for a new age, and I’m glad for that!

  • 24. Il Balletto di Bronzo – Lemures

    From what I can tell, this new release is the brainchild of vocalist and keyboardist Gianni Leone and bears little resemblance to the Italian band’s legendary 1972 scorcher Ys, with its dark and experimental approaches seemingly closer to Goblin territory. But that’s of course not a bad thing, and while anyone looking for Son of Ys will be disappointed, the more open-minded among us will find a lot to latch onto here, particularly the complexities of the arrangements and freaky sections of music that unsettle as effectively as they uplift.

  • 23. Proud Peasant – Communion

    The third release and second full-length album from Xander Rapstine and his Texas-based prog collective arrives as the middle volume of a planned concept trilogy, and there’s plenty to sink one’s teeth into here. As mentioned in my October review, nothing is off limits… from folky to hard rockin’ to gentle beauty to Crimsonesque strangeness. The Peasants aren’t on everyone’s radar, but they should be.

  • 22. Metallica – 72 Seasons

    The lone metal album in my list this year, but these legends earn a place with their best album in years. Taking the strongest aspects of previous albums such as Hardwired… to Self-destruct and Death Magnetic (while thankfully overlooking the baffling misstep of Lulu), the grizzled thrashers hone their songwriting skills and deliver a more focused effort. Several highlights are strategically placed throughout, culminating in the album’s finale, the 11 minute Inamorata. The energy level remains high, and though Hetfield hit the big six-oh this year, he roars through songs like Shadows Follow and the title track effortlessly. Much more than a ‘respectable’ or ‘decent’ effort, this one is great, and shows they haven’t forgotten how to do it. I pay no attention to the online hate brigade; there’s a reason why this band is where they are.

  • 21. Resistor – Illuminator

    This one seemed to appear out of nowhere this year, as I had not seen any hype leading up to its release; there was just suddenly a new Resistor album! And it’s a good ‘un. Steve Unruh – one of the busiest guys around – and company put together another fine series of songs that showcase Unruh’s unique voice and Fran Turner’s strong guitar work. This highly likeable U.S. quartet don’t always have their influences on full display, cleverly keeping them tucked into their nifty compositions which stretch sometimes into more epic lengths but never outstay their welcome. And Unruh’s flute and violin bring something to the table beyond simple flourishes. Do yourself a favour and check out Resistor. They can really rock too… in an oddball sort of way.

  • 20. Mystery – Redemption

    Under the watchful eye of guitarist and main man Michel St-Père, the excellent Quebec band Mystery unveils their latest slick, polished collection of songs dripping with emotion, strong melodies, and catchy choruses with a perfect balance and interplay between guitar and keyboards, while forever straddling the line between 70s and 80s prog rock and AOR. This has always been a band well worth listening to, but I have to say the last few albums with this lineup (featuring Jean Pageau on lead vocals) have been their best without a doubt. Truly excellent music that owes as much to Styx and Asia as it does to the usual suspects.

  • 19. Lucifer – IV

    Euro doom-rock band’s fourth release finds them chugging along with their highly effective Sabbathian formula to bring us another slab of groovy, fuzzy, occult-tinged goodies. It’s another winner, and so perfectly encapsulates this genre that it can safely be said that you are missing out if you don’t have it. And if all that isn’t enough… they use the debut Rush album font in their logo!

  • 18. Ring Van Möbius – Commissioned Works Pt II – Six Drops of Poison

    Of all the Nordic retro-prog bands in recent years, Ring Van Möbius are surely the most nestled into the ELP zone, with the heavy organ approach also recalling early 70s Deep Purple among others. They make no bones about it; they simply play some great music that brings comfort and gets toes tapping. I also detect shades of Atomic Rooster, VDGG and good ol’ King Crimson on this third album. I hope to see much more from this lot.

  • 17. Soft Machine – Other Doors

    What can be said at this stage? 55 years after the debut album from The Soft Machine, new music is still being released under the same banner but with different musicians. But those musicians are top-notch and still conjuring a jazzy soundscape worthy of the Softs name. Featuring recently departed John Marshall’s final recordings and a couple of notable reworkings, this is an hour of solid music not to be missed. Viva Softs!

  • 16. Comedy of Errors – Threnody for a Dead Queen

    I always think of these guys as one of the UK’s most likeable bands who get lumped in the ‘Neo prog’ subgenre. I suppose they do appeal to those who love the sound of early Marillion, IQ, Pendragon, etc. but they have carved out their own space over the years, and the keyboards and vocals are a big part of the reason why. Joe Cairney has a charismatic singalong vocal style that complements the music beautifully. Although all their albums are good, I’ve been more a fan of their earlier ones for the longest time. But Threnody for a Dead Queen ranks up there with their best, and shows they can still bring the goods without remaining stuck in the 1980s.

  • 15. Vesilinja – Myrskyn keskellä

    Technically a late 2022 release, but not available on CD until this year, so on the list it goes. This Finnish sextet play a wonderful blend of old-school progressive rock with modern Nordic influences, and the saxophone is a nice touch. I liked their debut album, but this follow-up is even better. Highly worth seeking out for anyone intrigued by that simple description. Let the music do the talking. Besides, I can’t pronounce that title.

  • 14. Galahad – The Long Goodbye

    Here’s one of the few bands stemming from the 1980s ‘neo-prog’ era who continue to improve and release excellent albums chock full of memorable melodies. Their striking sound that merges electronica with prog rock gives them a unique edge, and The Long Goodbye is another robust addition to a string of terrific latter-day releases. This band deserves so much more credit than they’ve been given over the years they’ve spent in the shadows of their often stagnant contemporaries.

  • 13. Tusmørke – Hestehoven

    Whatever they’ve been putting in the tap water in Norway, long may it flow freely. For several years now, Tusmørke have alternated between what could be deemed ‘Prog Rock for Children’ albums and the more full-on Nordic folk-prog freakfests, and thankfully this time around we were due for the latter. If you know these guys, you know the drill: flutes ‘n forests. And I love it! They do it so, so well.

  • 12. Peter Gabriel – i/o

    A predictable choice, possibly, but it’s been over 20 years and I was pretty pleased with this one. At almost 74 years of age, I don’t know how many albums he has left in him, but if this proves the last, he’s going out on a fine note in my estimation. There are some lovely tracks here interspersed with some of his quirky, artistic rockers. He may not be reinventing genres anymore, but even treading water at his level is admirable. The Blu-ray also sounds spectacular. This album also holds his placemark as the ex-Genesis member with the most current new release… until Hackett overtakes him once again in February.

  • 11. Jordsjø – Salighet

    Another Norwegian band I have loved since their inception and who continue to produce top-notch material in that Scandinavian Symphonic vein with loads of texture, melancholy, and pastoral notes incorporated into their lush and rich compositions. They came busting out of the gate in 2015 and have never lost an ounce of what makes them so fantastic. I love not being disappointed!
  • 10. Crown Lands – Fearless

    Canada’s staggeringly talented duo lay on the Hemispheres-through-Moving Pictures vibes pretty thick, both in style and sonics, while plucking from other notable legends and skillfully blending them all together to make sensational music of their own. Cody Bowles’ soulful vocals are delivered with passion and intensity and occasionally launch into the same stratosphere occupied by his (and our) heroes. Closing track Citadel is perhaps the least like those Three Men of Willowdale, and is a good example of their range and why they don’t deserve the ‘clone’ tag. They are so much more than that.

  • 9. The Chronicles of Father Robin – The Songs & Tales of Airoea – Book I: The Tale of Father Robin (State of Nature)

    The first of two releases this year (both of which made my list) with the third and final part of the trilogy due out in February 2024. Wonderful outfit featuring members of prog rock bands of the modern Norwegian landscape such as Jordsjø, Wobbler, and Tusmørke coming together and concocting an intoxicating brew. Drink heartily!

  • 8. Agusa – Prima Materia

    One of my favourite Swedish bands again does not disappoint with their fifth full-length slab of retro-psych brilliance. I adore their compositions and it’s no exaggeration to say I could listen to them every day for the rest of my life and never grow tired of them. Came in at #8 on this list but could easily be higher on any given day. Out-bloody-STANDing, as they say in Sweden (if they’re English).

  • 7. Zopp – Dominion

    Follow-up album to British multi-instrumentalist Ryan Stevenson’s respected eponymous debut once again includes some impressive guest musicians and merrily splashes around in Canterbury-tinged waters while sprouting out slightly on a few key tracks. A splendid and engaging listen and I love the vintage keys. More please, Ryan! I have a feeling the next one is going to be a real killer.

  • 6. Blood Ceremony – The Old Ways Remain

    Doomy Toronto quartet returns with their fifth album and it’s a doozy. The Black Widow meets Uriah Heep vibe remains strong, with Alia O’Brien’s plucky vocals never sounding more assured. All of this band’s albums are winners in my book, and this is among their best. Richard Proctor’s review explains better than I can here with just a quick blurb. I want to light candles and drink wine from chalices with this lot.

  • 5. The Chronicles of Father Robin – The Songs & Tales of Airoea – Book II: Ocean Traveller (Metamorphosis)

    (See #9.)

  • 4. Wegferend – En Autremonde – Chapitre Second

    A new discovery this year and what a discovery. In my September review, I predicted this gloriously dark folk release from France could well become the soundtrack to my autumn… and it did. Gorgeous, haunting… mesmerising.

  • 3. Arabs in Aspic – The Magic of Sin

    Retro-psych-stoner giants revamp their 2017 Syndenes Magi album and it is distinct enough to qualify as a new release in my view. What a killer record! The classic Crimson influence is woven throughout (among others – I even hear Beardfish moments) but nobody quite sounds like Arabs in Aspic, and their appeal should be wide-ranging and all-encompassing. I bow without hesitation to these musical overlords and their impressive catalogue.

  • 2. Paskinel – Maraude Automnale

    Essentially a solo album from France’s Patrick “Paskinel” Dufour (of the excellent Alco Frisbass) and with help from bandmate Frédéric Tourneriff Chaput, this keys-heavy beauty is a gripping and sumptuous blend of various prog rock styles including heavy doses of Canterbury, jazz, and symphonic, with occasional avant-garde flavours. Kind of like Shylock meets Gentle Giant meets Hatfield & the North… kind of.

    … and in the #1 position this year …

  • 1. Lars Fredrik Frøislie – Fire Fortellinger

    Headline reads: Wacky Wobblerite wows whole world with wondrous, wild wizardry! This is an outstanding release that spent 8 months at the top of my 2023 list and never even… wobbled. The only placement here that I am 100% convinced cannot move. My review from April said it all, really.

My wife looks at me like I’m crazy when I do this…

I hope people make some new discoveries from this list, and have a great holiday season. From Velvet Thunder’s Canadian correspondent… Cheers and thanks for reading all year!