By Howard Whitman
While we prog fans certainly get our fair share of new music from established record labels such as BMG, Frontiers, and the big dog in our world, InsideOut/Sony, there are plenty of independently released albums well worth checking out.
The proliferation of professional-standard home recording and self-releasing via the internet has opened the door for both new and established artists to put out their music their way, on their own dime, without the backing of a label.
It’s a double-edged sword for the artists, of course. While they can craft their songs without the input of label A&R and marketing departments, they also don’t get the promotion and tour support that comes with a big company. Sadly, sometimes these independent releases can slip under the radar, because they don’t have the “big machine” to let you know they exist.
To help rectify that, I’m devoting this month’s Prog-versation to five recent releases by four artists — some veterans and some that (perhaps) are not on your radar — that are all deserving of your attention.
Dave Kerzner has always worn his influences on his sleeve. His debut album under his own name, New World (2014), sounded like the great, lost Pink Floyd album, while his 2022 release The Traveler mixes in a hearty serving of Genesis. That’s not a big surprise, as Kerzner was the keyboardist for Sound of Contact, the short-lived band that featured Phil Collins’ son Simon on vocals and drums and strongly emulated Duke-era Genesis. The Traveler almost plays like a sequel to Sound of Contact’s only album Dimensionaut; songs like “Another Lifetime” and especially “A Time In Your Mind” would fit right in on Abacab. But Kerzner’s not just a Greta Von Fleet for Genesis and Floyd fans; his songs are catchy and well-constructed in their own right, his lyrics are smart and clever, and the vocals and performances on The Traveler are consistently excellent, with fantastic contributions from Nick D’Virgillio on drums and Fernando Perdomo on guitar. You can order The Traveler digitally or on CD here.
Speaking of Genesis, the next featured band, Rocking Horse Music Club (RHMC), also has some connections to the legendary band. RHMC first got on my radar when it released Which Way the Wind Blows, a beautiful tribute to founding Genesis guitarist Anthony Phillips, in 2019. The strength of that album, which did a terrific job of modernizing and rearranging some of Phillips’ best solo songs, prompted my interest in original works from RHMC, a conglomerate of musicians from around the world led by producer/keyboardist/composer Brian Coombes. RHMC’s latest, Circus of Wire Dolls, is a two-CD concept album based around the story of a person experiencing an afterlife that takes the form of a carnival. The Genesis/Ant Phillips influence certainly is present throughout, but the band has its own unique style — veering from folky to energetic, haunting to optimistic. Lead singer Justin Cohns is a standout, Coombes does an excellent job of pulling it all together and making it sound pristine, and it’s very nice to hear special guest Noel McCalla (vocalist on Mike Rutherford’s classic solo debut Smallcreep’s Day) sing leads on the title track and “Packed Up.” Chris Difford of Squeeze gives a Lou Reed vibe to his vocal as the “Oldest Man Alive” on “Cut From a Different Cloth.” Circus of Wire Dolls is available on CD here.
Adrian Belew should be no stranger to prog fans, if, for nothing else, his over three decades of service in various lineups of King Crimson. A staggeringly original guitarist, Belew’s also a wonderful singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. He puts all of those skills to work on Elevator, his 25th solo album (he also painted the cover art). Playing and singing every part, Elevator was recorded during the pandemic years in Belew’s home studio, and fans of his prior solo work will find this to be a perfect mix of quirkiness, instrumental adventurousness, and melodicism. “A13” recalls the kinetic piano-driven songs of Mr. Music Head, while “A Car I Can Talk To” brings to mind Belew’s fun Lone Rhinoceros days (and features a guitar solo that sounds like a mix between Les Paul and… well, a car). Elsewhere, Belew creates guitar tapestries that remind you that no one gets the noises out of the instrument that he does. Belew has called Elevator his best-ever solo album, and he may be right about that. You can order it on CD directly from Belew here.
The Secret Machines started as an indie band in 2002, got signed to Reprise, put out some criminally underrecognized albums and then splintered apart. After reuniting in 2020 to self-release the brilliant comeback LP Awake In the Brain Chamber, The Secret Machines are back in 2022 with two EPs, Day 21 and Dreaming of Dreaming, both now available as digital downloads or collected onto a single cassette. However you digest it, the new music’s fabulous, with the band (previously a trio, now a duo of singer/keyboardist/bassist Brandon Curtis and drummer Josh Garza) continuing its trancelike, driving psychedelic stomp.
Imagine early Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd with John Bonham on drums and you’ll have an idea of what The Secret Machines sound like. Both new releases offer three songs each, with Dreaming of Dreaming including two different versions of the title track, a revamp of an old B-side from the band’s Reprise days. The music can be out-there strange, but it’s always rooted in melody and groove. It’s not old-school prog, but it’s bold and original with roots harkening back to the early days of psychedelia. And it’s a gas, man. Day 21 and Dreaming of Dreaming are available here.