Hello there fellow wizards and multi-part suite lovers! You might have noticed that I have taken over the weathered helm of the prog ship from Eden. Allow me to give you a small introduction to myself and my relationship to progressive music. My name is Joe and I’ve written for the blog since 2019, and I’m currently based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Manchester, England. I grew up becoming immersed in some of my father’s musical obsessions, which interestingly seems to be quite the common entry point for young prog fans. Rush, Yes, and Supertramp were passed down to me fairly seamlessly, and I never looked back. Since then I’ve discovered and adored the classic newer slew of prog bands, be it Porcupine Tree, Opeth, Between The Buried And Me, Haken. While other genres have since surpassed prog for me in the driver’s seat of artistic expression, the genre has firmly and waywardly lodged itself in my heart and continues to have a huge and undeniable influence on my taste. With that said, this month top record picks come in the shape of propulsive adventure prog from I Built The Sky & Jake Howsam Lowe and yet another gem from the severely underrated Svart Records in Malady. Enjoy dorks.
Closer To The Heart (Top Picks)
I Built The Sky, Jake Howsam Lowe – Coalesce (progressive metal, instrumental)
To be completely forthcoming: just like our fearless new leader Joe, my prog days are a little behind me. I used to revel in being that person, rolling my eyes at anyone who couldn’t get into it. Like, what, baby can’t count past four? Can’t lock into an off-time groove? Can’t handle a little organ leitmotif through perilously long suites? I think we’ve all been guilty of obnoxious elitism like that at times. Luckily I grew out of it, but I also grew out of enjoying progressive music for quite a while as well, instead opting for more straightforward, vicious stuff. That time of my life has too come and gone, and in its wake is a renewed appreciation for the finer things in life, like the new collaborative EP from two of Australia’s best modern guitarists: I Built The Sky’s Rohan Stevenson and Jake Howsam Lowe of The Helix Nebula and Plini.
Coalesce just feels like an old friend right out of the gate. Channeling the riffs and feel of The Discovery-era Cloudkicker and early Scale The Summit, Ro and Jake’s compositions are dizzying, meaty, and bright. Sure, it’s djent-adjacent, but what the hell isn’t anymore? There’s a reason musicians latched onto that style and never looked back. I’m sure there’s science somewhere to back up the specific gratification response initiated by being swept away in a filthy rhythm dripping in extended-range tones. However that works, the duo are well versed, delivering a delectable collection of songs that make the good brain juices flow and keep you rocking along in your chair.
One of the underrated hallmarks of a good record these days is often how well it works whether you’re listening actively or passively. Because let’s be honest here; how often do you sit and listen intently to an album with undivided attention? Probably nowhere near as often as you just have something playing in the background, right? Coalesce delivers on both fronts, managing to walk that line between quick, adventurous virtuosity that doesn’t waste a second of your time and administering grooves that shut half the lights off in your mind to allow you to focus on other tasks. That’s not a slight in any way; all-purpose music is good music, especially in a world where a significant part of the workforce is getting burnt out from home and needs a pick-me-up for any time of the day.
Title track “Coalesce” and single “Stonewalker” are obvious standouts, with the latter’s bass sections and tapped arpeggios so clean they sound like programmed synths. “Ataraxia” is a fun orchestral, cinematic lead-in to finale “Ascendant” featuring Brazilian virtuoso Andre Nieri, but the real winner to me is “Mirage”, a classic djenty odyssey through peaks and valleys of muted chugs and soaring solos you can’t help but smile at. Coalesce is pure unadulterated prog metal joy, while still being extremely accessible to neophytes of the genre. If you miss the sounds of those decade-ago 7 and 8-string pioneers, you will not want to miss this release.
Malady – Ainavihantaa (progressive rock)
First off, let me say how grateful I am to Joe for taking over this column. I’m grateful for many reasons but mostly because it frees me up to write more about progressive music itself, one of my original musical loves and passions. With this month’s entry, we get a triple pleasure: we’re writing about not only an underrated band but also about an underrated label and an underrated scene. Let us start from the top: the underrated scene in question is that of Scandinavian progressive rock. Now, I know that including Finland (from whence Malady hail) as part of Scandinavia is a contentious proposition but in the style of progressive rock at play here, I believe there’s no real question. Including such names as The Flower Kings, Karmakanic, Anekdoten, Wobbler, and many more, the Scandinavian progressive rock scene has been around for a long time and makes some of the finest progressive rock out there.
Curating many of the more obscure releases from this scene is the underrated label of Svart Records. We’ve covered many of their bands in length before on the blog, but I always feel like they deserve special mention when I cover one of their acts. Their roster is immense and unique, containing many bands that you won’t find anywhere else. One such band is the aforementioned Finnish band, Malady. We first fell in love with these guys in 2018, around the release of their absolutely incredible Toinen Toista, which has fast become one of my favorite progressive rock albums of all time. Well, the wizards are back with Ainavihantaa (translated by Google as “evergreen”), a further exploration of the progressive rock sound as laid down by past masters, mostly King Crimson.
But here’s the thing about Ainavihantaa; it’s a bit darker than previous releases and introduces the saxophone, with the addition of Taavi Heikkilä to the lineup. You’ll find all of the elements you’d expect from a Malady release (or a classically progressive rock album, if you have yet to be inducted into the wondrous temple of Malady’s music): there are plenty of great guitar parts, accompanied by agile drums and lightly majestic synths, setting the stage for expansive tracks and woodwind explorations. But, starting from the very first track’s second half and continuing all through the album, the increased presence of the brass instrument is immediately felt. Everything around it feels more toned back, giving center stage to its brassy timbre. The main instrument which “stays alongside it”, mostly when working with the saxophone, is the bass, the beautiful, gorgeous, rich bass. It works wonders alongside the sax, accompanying it to flesh it out and “connect” it to the synths and the rest of the instrumentation.
You can also feel that the production was changed a bit to suit this new mode. Malady records live in the studio, adding a thick organic sound to their music from the get-go. But on Ainavihantaa, that sound has been further amplified by a deepening of the synth and bass tones, adding a sense of warmth and closeness which makes the album feel smaller and more intimate. The end result is an album I would describe more as “meditative” whereas previous albums were “expansive”. It’s also a shorter release, preferring a more direct and condensed approach to Malady’s version of modern progressive rock. The press release from Svart describes their sound as “retrofuturist” and there’s even more of that than ever on this release; it sounds like a sleek spaceship taking off towards an unknown constellation, continuing the tradition of progressive rock with a sci-fi vibe to it. And this is Malady’s genius: they can be expansive, adventurous and fantastical alongside the best of them. But they can also be intimate, weird, and exploratory. They can do it all. They can make amazing progressive rock and they’ve done so again.
P.S this album releases in December, and there’s time until then, but I’m simply too excited to not write about it for this month’s column on progressive rock. I simply couldn’t imagine writing about anything else. That’s how much I love this album so I went with it. Who’s going to stop me?
Polyphonia (Further Listening)
Fractal Universe – The Impassable Horizon (progressive death metal)
This is a mea culpa. I slept on Fractal Universe’s June release and that’s an extremely poor decision on my part. The Impassable Horizon continues the band’s journey into making truly excellent progressive death metal and I would say that it comes close to perfecting their sound, certainly elevating it even further than their already quite good previous releases. It has a sort of added expansiveness and ambition to it, raising it to stand alongside other great progressive death releases, drawing the closest comparison to Alkaloid. And that’s high praise indeed but it’s well deserved; The Impassable Horizon is chock full of the same sort of expansive guitar solos, memorable vocal lines, and absolutely iconic guitar riffs. All of this means that it’s almost an hour long runtime becomes easier to navigate, because every track has something to latch on to, some hook to engage you and keep you listening. It’s still an epic journey, an album which requires your attention and your patience, but it makes things easy for you by being extremely catchy and moving.