Now Spinning Magazine Collaborator Steven Karlsson Picks His Top Albums of 2021

2020 I made a top 10 prog albums list but when I  started one for 2021 I discovered two things. First, I had not bought THAT many prog albums. Secondly, I had not bought one single studio album during the year that blew me away. This has forced me to sit down and relisten, write down thoughts that have led to small reviews and try to at least make a top 10.

What I ended up with, is that my Album-Of-the-Year is a live album. In fact, there are two live albums in top 10. Fair deal, except I, usually consider live albums interesting but not “new”. It is, however encouraging to see that a young band like Ethyrfield ended up on the list.

Don’t miss Timothy Hughe’s 2021 list and the Editor’s choice from Phil Aston. I’m sure going to check out some of the releases he mention that I have missed.

Album of the Year

Klone – Alive
This live basically cover Black Days to latest studio album Le Grand Voyage. I just can’t find enough superlatives to describe how much I like this French band.
Stylistically they are not far from Anathema with their atmospheric beautiful songwriting and since they also have their roots in the metal camp they can put some power into it.

The album starts, just as latest studio album, with the amazing lazy-summer-daydream of Yonder. Those who have heard Klone’s albums from 2012 and onward know
that Yann Ligner has a fantastic clean voice, but he has an exceptional growl as well and he can effortlessly glide from that lovely clean one to a monster growl which is very powerful.
Already on Yonder he almost reaches his harsh style at some peaks but then we fire into the past with The Dreamer’s Hideaway’s Rocket Smoke. Those who know this blinder, know the power of the chorus, and might guess what to expect: An explosion of power. The effect is amazing, and we reach the palm-mute-djent-stuff-with-tribal-drums of the middle I got goose bumps.

We get treated to lovely renditions of back-beat-dream Breach and Sealed before we travel backwards to Black Days for Give Up The Rest and a list of some of their absolute best stuff from that album and onward. To finish off they treat us with their monster version of Björk’s Army Of Me.
I’m so happy that Klone have put some more balls into the live renditions of some of the newer songs as this makes the more dreamy stuff stand out more. Enough crowd noise to give that good feeling of a live album and the recording quality is GREAT.
Buy, buy buy!

Rest of my top 10

  • Ethyrfield – In Delerium
  • Jason Bieler And The Baron Von Bielski Orchestra – Songs For The Apocalypse (An Auditory Excursion Of
  • Whimsical Delirium)
  • Solstice – Sia
  • Frost* – Day And Age
  • Mastodon – Hushed And Grim
  • Michał Łapaj – Are You There
  • Crack The Sky – Tribes
  • Tears For Fears – Live At Massey Hall Toronto, Canada / 1985
  • Soen – Imperial
  • Great EPs of 2021
  • Per Wiberg – All Is Well In The Land Of The Living
  • Soen – The Undiscovered Lotus

Music DVD/BD of 2021
The Pineapple Thief – Nothing But The Truth

Box sets worth a notice

Van Der Graaf Generator – The Charisma Years 1970-1978
Sadly, missing Grey Aerosol Machine, since it wasn’t released on Charisma. But what a box set!
All the classic albums. Both original and new mixes + a great hardback book with loads of info and press clippings.
All copies sold out pretty quick, but apparently, a second batch is planned.

Kevin Gilbert – Call Me “Kai” and Giraffe – Giraffe
These two are related since they both feature Kevin Gilbert. “Call me Kai” is a collection of albums Gilbert recorded while working in a studio but was never released. A lot of the songs have been recycled. Partly with Giraffe but also solo. In total
The Giraffe box includes both studio albums (long out of print and expensive when found) and a DVD with recovered live stuff. A CD sized booklet with interviews and info is also included.
Call me Kai is a 4 panel digi-pack set and Giraffe comes in CD size clamshell box

Riverside – Wasteland Tour 2018 – 2020
Fan club only 2 CD, 20 songs collected from the Wasteland world tour and 1 DVD from the concert in Oberhausen (Germany). Signed photos of the band members also included.
What can I say? Riverside excel int the live environment. Every song is even better then on the studio albums and they rearrange songs for every tour. ACE!

Jason Bieler And The Baron Von Bielski Orchestra – Songs For The Apocalypse (An Auditory Excursion Of Whimsical Delirium)
Jason Bieler (Saigon Kick) and friends have managed to mix styles like It Bites and Oingo Boingo with party rock on this album full of enjoyable rock. Yes, it sounds bonkers but it do work.
Don’t know anything about Saigon Kick but it’s probably about time I check them out. If they are anything like this, I need to invest!
Great party-starter for those who want something a bit more complex.

Solstice – Sia
Solstice was one of those bands in the so-called neo-prog wave in the 80’s. A great live band with guitarist Andy Glass as the lead song writer. As with many of them they had a small dedicated following and in the community, they were tipped to get a major record deal. That never happened but Glass have revived the band with new recruits over the years.

Sia is the first album since 2013 and was in Nov 2020 but I never got it until January so hence why it’s here. In contrary to most of the 80’s bands these guys are leaning towards folk and jazz. This is emphasized by having a violin in the band.

The album kicks off with the +12 min Shout. Like most Sostice songs, this is a nice voyage rather than a magnum opus. New singer Jess Holland fits the band like a glove. Her voice reminds me a lot of original singer Sandy Leigh
The album carries on with lovely song, Love Is Coming based around acoustic guitar and accordion sounding keyboards and nice harmony vocals in combination with Hollands soft voice. In the second half of it the drums kick in with piano and violin added.
The whole album makes me think of summer and it’s lovely to listen to it on a cold winter night, thinking of warmer, greener days to come.

For fans of their first album Silent Dance this is a must buy and if you are into lighter progressive rock that can mix soft stuff with rocking out, this is a good tip.

Ethyrfield – In Delerium
Amazing young band from the British south coast. The musical style is somewhere rooted in 90’s Seattle combined with modern progressive bands, like Porcupine tree and Opeth.
I doubt any of the three members was even born when their influences released their best albums but here we are. A bunch of guys in their early 20s.

The thing that sets Ethyrfield apart from the Seattle bands is the use of keyboards and the folk influences in some songs. This make me think of the Swedish band Ritual who are a bit more leading towards prog but also have a lot of Led Zep vibes.
In the track Laying Of Hands there is hints to 70’s Rush and Opeth. I hear other hints to prog bands and there is even a bit of a jazz workout in this tune.

On the track Serenity we are back in Pearl Jam territory but again the prog influence comes in and make me raise my eyebrows. Remembering is like a tribute to Opeth but with clean vocals.
As the icing on the cake, the overall the vocals are GREAT with nice harmony stuff thrown in. Last tune, Bitter Wishbone has hints of Alice In Chains heaviness 🙂

Highly Recommended! Almost became album of the year.

Frost* – Day And Age
Frost* is back with the same setting a on Falling Satellites minus Craig Blundell. This time Jem and Mitchell have written more together and Mitchell sings more. What is remarkable that these ace musicians do not play one single solo on the album. Apparently, it was a decision taken during the writing/recording.

First, I thought I’d miss Godfrey’s keyboard runs and Mitchell’s string bending but instead, they have done some great arrangements that make you forget the solos. As usual the music is catchy but still prog enough to throw you those lovely curveballs.

If life was fair a single edit of the title track would be a great radio hit. The calmer verses and the kicking chorus is a smash!
Prog without solos, who would think that?

Mastodon – Hushed And Grim
Mastodon returns, after the death of their manager and friend Nick John, with a glorious album. Songs are great, arrangements are great and there is well enough complexity to satisfy fans of heavy prog.

Michał Łapaj – Are You There
After hearing the Riverside keyboardist playing around with vintage synths and sequencers online, I was under the impression that would be an improvised Tangerine Dream tribute.
Instead, we are treated to lovely, emotional composed songs. Some even have vocals by guest Mick Moss (Antimatter) and Bela Komoszyńska. Also, in contrast to his online stuff there is proper drums by Annalist’s drummer Artur Szolc.

I can swear there is electric guitar on it as well, but the credits do not mention any.
So does this sound anything like Riverside? Well, as a longtime fan of the band I can hear some hints of Riverside’s more ambient stuff, but this is more melodic than that and it’s nowhere near the bands heavier stuff.
Lapaj have really gone his own route here but it’s a good one. Nice to see his wife have written all the English lyrics. A real family collaboration.

I have a hard time to point out musical references to this record beside TD or early Jean Michelle Jarre. Mostly because I’m not to familiar with this type of music. I think fans of Riverside off-shot Lunatic Soul’s more electronic stuff will like this too.

Great moody music!

Crack The Sky – Tribes
US cult band Crack The Sky is probably most known for their 1978 album Safety In Numbers that kicks off with the 8+ min Nuclear Apathy. Main songwriter John Palumbo left the band before the album but some of his somgs are on that album.

After Animal Notes the band sort of faded into obscurity but Palumbo resurected the band with the other guitarist Rick Witkowski in the 80’s. Since then they have released a number of albums with shifting quality, both when it comes to song writing and production. I discovered them with their 1990 album Dog City. but lost track of them again because the lack of distribution i Europe.
last year I walked into my fav record shop Bengans and there in the just-in-bin there was a Crack The Sky album. For some reason I bought it without listening to one second of it.

I will not claim this is a must-have record or even that it must Crack The Sky’s best one. It is however a very nice rock album mixing classic and alt rock with some prog tendences that absolutely will appeal to CTS fans.
It has those social observation lyrics that fans of the band have gone used to and it stands out enough for me to take notice.
The double LP version also include 4 re-recorded tracks, spanning from 1978 to 2015.: From the Greenhouse, Skin Deep, Late Nights, The Beauty Of Nothing

Tears For Fears – Live At Massey Hall Toronto, Canada / 1985
Great live album from the time when TFF was at the height of popularity. The band is on fire.

Per Wiberg – All Is Well In The Land Of The Living EP
After spinning Per Wiberg’s (ex Opeth/Kamchatka/Spiritual Beggers) first solo album Head Without Eyes (2018) I was really looking forward to this, hoping it was a complete album. Sadly it was just an EP but I’m happy anyway 🙂
4 great songs in the same style as the debut album! Dark keyboard heavy

Soen – Imperial
Soen’s latest offering is a nice gift to us fans but it does not reach the peak of musical emotion that Tellurian, Lykaia (revisited) and Lotus are to me.
This time they did an amazing work on production, mix and master but there is something missing. The exceptions are Lumerian, Monarch and Antagonist where the lyrics and the dynamics (specially on Monarch). Don’t get me wrong. Soen is an amazing band but with the track record of the prior albums I had high expectations. Probably too high. My hope is that Soen get a bunch of new fans with Imperial and they discover the incredible back catalogue

Soen – The Undiscovered Lotus EP
A-side: The leftovers from Lotus are even better than anything on Imperial. 
B-Side: Live recordings of three tracks from Lykaia: Sectarian, Jinn and Lucidity
Best RSD buy in 2021!

Wardruna – Kvitravn
Noone knows how music in the Nordic sounded during the bronse and viking age but this is how Wardruna thinks it sounded. Great ethnic noir from Norway. All sung in old Scandi.
Kvitravn is pronounced with a silent “K”. Means “White Raven”
Ancient vibes

Kosmogon – Mässan
Niklas Barker from Anekdoten have done another keyboard-based album. Anekdoten fans have hopefully heard his OST for the Spanish thriller El Último Fin de Semana that came out 10 years ago.
This time he has collaborated with his girlfriend Sophie Linder. The album has two +20min compositions Mässan and Somnus and both is a treat for lovers of vintage keyboards like Mellotron, ARP Odyssey, Hammond with a multitude of old electronic equipment and tape loops thrown in.

Genghis Tron – Dream Weapon
US experimental metal band throws out all guitars and replace them with keyboards……and it works!
Interesting stuff

Plenty – Enough
When Tim Bowness (No-Man, Memories Of Machines) started out in Manchester this was one of the first bands he was in.
In 2016-17 they rerecorded what was supposed to be their first album It Could Be Home. Enough is a collection of other recorded songs by Bowness, David K Jones, Brian Hulse, with ex member Michael Bearpark and Peter Chilvers as guests. During 2020-21 the same personnel decided to re-record “the rest” and some covers.
The result is a set of charming art-pop with a strong 80-s smell but with modern production. Not as striking as It could be hoe but for Bowness/Hulse fans or fans of bands like The Blue Nile this is a nice 2 CD set.
Lovely, dreamy stuff!

Big Big Train – Common Ground
OK but not exceptional album from what has been UK’s premier melodic prog band the last 10 years.
On this one, more of the members have contributed and imho this have not been a positive thing. The album kicks off with a David Longdon composition about lockdown that is good but not too memorable. Nick D’Virgilio’s contribution sounds more like Spocks Beard then Big Big Train.
it carries on like this and I’m sad to say it is not for me.

Wheel – Resident Human
A bit like the story of Soen – Imperial. Yes, it’s good but not the same smack-in-the-face-impact as I got from their debut Moving Backwards.

Steven Karlsson | Now Spinning Magazine