Album Review: Ryley Walker – Course in Fable

[Husky Pants; 2021]

Ryley Walker has deftly weaved together dual reputations as a singer/songwriter and prolifically-collaborating guitarist. His newest album, Course in Fable, showcases both, expanding on a sound familiar to anyone who heard his 2018 release Deafman Glance.

While there’s a seemingly straight trajectory between these two albums, the growth between them is best informed by the two instrumental albums he snuck in the three-year interim: Little Common Twist with jazz drummer Charles Rumback, which is an impressive tour of every texture and mood you can squeeze out of majority acoustic guitar and drums; and Deep Fried Grandeur made from krautrock-flavored live jamming with Japanese psych-rock band Kikagaku Moyo (released only two months ago). This leaves one more important influence, given away by Ryley Walker’s provided artist biography: “I live in NYC. I’m 31. I only listen to Genesis. I’m never touring again unless it’s opening for Genesis.” Ah ha!

First off: hell yeah. Second: this is obviously Walker being cheeky and wasn’t something I originally wanted to put too much weight on. Course in Fable is not a progressive rock album. But still, the Genesis plug kept feeling more relevant as I listened. Why are there so many prog fans, but so few new breakout prog albums? Emulate the sound too closely and you’re ‘nu-prog’, a niche among niches, hidden to the undevoted. But yet, ask any group of music lovers for their favorite albums and you’ll see the same 70s prog classics reappear. There’s a paradoxical identity crisis. For a genre that loudly defined itself as a new era for music, it ended up being closely associated with the specific sounds of its early progenitors. Copy that sound and you betray the progressive ethos, stray too far and no one recognizes it as progressive rock anyway. It’s a genre with a definitional expiration.

Course in Fable presents a vision of how progressive rock can contribute to music past its initial decades. With that Genesis line in mind, suddenly Course in Fable’s adventurous chord changes, winding song structures, splashes of inspired intricate instrumental runs and fills earn an approving ‘ahh, I see what you’re doing here’ quality. There are lessons Walker’s learned from the negative stereotypes of progressive rock as well: no unbroken swells of looming instrumental tension, no demanding intellectual concepts. Throughout Course in Fable, Walker doesn’t see intricacy and gratification as mutual exclusives; this is music that rewards attentive listening without its depth getting in the way of its charms on a passive background listen.

On top of his compositional strengths, for an artist who could carry a career as an inventive guitarist and collaborator, Walker is an unexpectedly strong vocalist. Born a few decades earlier, with a touch more growl, his low full voice could’ve thrived in 90s rock – check out album highlights “Axis Bent” or “Pond Scum Ocean” if you don’t believe me. As it stands, he rounds out his baritone with a jazzy, sonorous touch to not crowd over the most soft and intricate moments of Course in Fable.

For such a prolific, genre-blurring artist, we are lucky as listeners that all the pieces Ryley Walker’s set up over the past decade could coalesce in such a fine, tight 40 minutes. May God bless the health of Ryley Walker, Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford, and Phil Collins, so we may one day be treated to the dream concert we need.