Review – The Wynntown Marshals – After All These Years – by Progradar

“The times you lived through, the people you shared those times with — nothing brings it all to life like an old mix tape. It does a better job of storing up memories than actual brain tissue can do. Every mix tape tells a story. Put them together, and they can add up to the story of a life.”
― Rob Sheffield, Love Is a Mix Tape

Not quite an ‘old mix tape’, ‘After All These Years’ marks a decade of The Wynntown Marshals, Scotland’s masters of Americana. Three studio albums into the Wynntown Marshals’ career, the band mark that decade together with the release of a this new collection of classic Marshal’s tracks. Primarily a retrospective look back at some of the recorded highlights of the past ten years, this specially-priced 16-track collection also includes 3 new, previously unreleased tracks which set the scene for the next chapter in the band’s history.

Following their self-finaced EP in 2008, the band’s debut long player ‘Westerner’ was released in 2010, following some line-up changes 2013’s ‘Long Haul’ was seen as a big step forward for The Wynntown Marshals. I found out about the band through lead and pedal steel guitar guru Iain Sloan just in time for the release of ‘The End of the Golden Age’ in 2015.

2017 sees the line up of Sloan and original frontman (and principle songwriter) Keith Benzie, Richie Noble (keyboards) and the new rhythm section of Simon Walker (drums) and bassist David Mckee.

The lyrics are never throwaway, the subject matter often obscure. World-weary yet uplifting melodies are channelled by strident guitars and gorgeous vocal harmonies, offset by beautiful keyboard parts and driven by a rock-solid rhythm section. Once referred to as ‘the masters of mid-tempo’, the band can also deftly turn their hand to heart-warming, uplifting power pop.

I got to know Iain through his playing with legendary Scots proggers Abel Ganz and it was during one of our numerous chats about music that he told me about The Wynntown Marshals. I’d never listened to much Americana before but was soon hooked on the band’s superb melodies and excellent songwriting.

‘After All These Years’ has something for just about anyone, allowing you to dip your toe into the band’s back catalogue while also showcasing three previously unreleased tracks for fans old and new. Take the laconic, bittersweet Low Country Comedown, an ode to life on the road, with its dynamic guitars and melancholy vocals combined with the swathes of Hammond organ and occasional heartrending pleas from the steel guitar. It’s a diamond of a song that really tugs at your heartstrings and opens this retrospective on a real high. The first of the unreleased tracks Your Time is another wistful tune that reflects the passing of time in a relationship. The organ that plays away in the background adds huge amounts of atmosphere in combination with the thoughtful guitars and Benzie’s contemplative vocal, a classic Marshals tune if ever you heard one. Keith says this about the song,

“Your Time’ is about wanting more time from/ with your partner when life/ kids get in the way! The verses chart (loosely) Fiona and I’s relationship with references to our honeymoon and both kids (and my preferred plane seat number).” 

One of the most complete tracks from ‘The End of the Golden Age’ Red Clay Hill is Americana at its absolute concentrated best. Benzie’s tribute to the shale bings of West Lothian is a charmingly nostalgic song replete with powerful guitars and rhythm section and that achingly sentimental sound of Sloan’s steel guitar. One of the more traditional country music feeling tracks, The Burning Blue is told from the perspective of a Spitfire pilot during the Battle of Britain. Keith’s voice has a real good ol’ boy tone to it and combine brilliantly with Leigh Hammond’s harmony vocal and the jangling guitars just scream Grand Old Opry at you. A country song about the Battle of Britain might seems at odds but it really works and the catchy chorus has you singing along every time.

The laid-back synth-led vibes of Being Lazy show a more chilled out side to The Marshals, Keith’s mellow vocals and the easygoing instrumentation transport you back to lazy, hazy summer days when you’re just busy doing nothing. Canada ramps up the tempo once more with a raucous jangling guitar sound and insistent rhythm section giving impetus to Benzie’s pure Americana vocal delivery. More Americana tinged pop, it is a fast paced slice of musical cool. Ballad of Jayne was the answer to a New Jersey-based record label’s 2008 request to submit a song for a ‘Hair Metal’ tribute album. A smoky barroom reinterpretation of L.A. Guns tribute to Jayne Mansfield with Benzie’s husky vocal and Sloan’s steel guitar the main players, as a Hair Metal-lite track, it really hits the spot. Listen out for the excellent string-bending guitar solo which is a highlight. A particular crowd favourite of the band’s live set, Tide is a sprawling West Coast tinged track with hints of psychedelia and surfer dude cool. The wandering guitars and carefree vocals add layers of calm insouciance to a song that wouldn’t have been out of place at the original Woodstock.

My personal favourite, and second unreleased song, among sixteen wonderful tracks is the hauntingly beautiful Odessa where Keith’s heartfelt emotive vocals and Iain’s touchingly affective guitar deliver near perfection. Noble’s calming keyboards and the delicately balanced rhythm section just add to the wonderful ambience. I asked Iain if he could find out the story behind the song and Keith said,

“Ah, where do I begin? Nothing too cerebral if I’m honest – I’d always felt ‘Odessa’ was a romantic sounding place, so I did a bit of research then used it as a backdrop to a slightly mysterious and sad tale of unrequited love.”

The Marshals have always written songs with a story, songs based on historical facts and one of the earliest examples is 11:15, taken from the band’s debut EP. It tells the tale of the greatest flood in modern UK history which took place in rural Aberdeenshire in 1829 and is a true epic. Keith trades vocals with the harmonies of Leigh Hammond once again on this two-part track, the first part sets up the suspense with its slow, deliberate pace before there’s a pause and guitar, drums, bass and keyboards are let loose Almost a modern folk infused piece of Americana, it really does showcase the band’s many talents consummately. We move straight into the live staple and classic Marshals song End of the Golden Age with its addictive chorus and sublime musicianship. If some one asked me to pick a song that typifies the band’s brand of Americana I wouldn’t hesitate in choosing this captivating hook laden piece of brilliance with its superb vocal harmonies and distinguished guitar work. After the splendour of the previous track, the stripped back acoustic guitars, piano and strings of Curtain Call are a polar opposite. A tragic tale of a suicidal Victorian conjuror, its plaintive, subdued and sorrowful feel is emphasised by the thoughtful vocals that leave you in a contemplative and reflective state of mind.

A wondrously dreamy and meditative piece of music that transports you to the high sierra of California and its national parks, Thunder in the Valley is a song that just transports you to a place of pastoral calm. Let the music wash over you taking the stress of everyday life away and just enjoy the peace and quiet while you can. This is music that makes the whole world slow down and lets you live life at a pace to suit you, the vocals are composed and serene and the guitars are restrained and impassive, just a wonderfully relaxing song to listen to. The languidly poignant tale of the first captive orca, Moby Doll is a tragic and touching song that really does hit you hard. You can feel the emotion, first in Keith’s vocals and then in the steel guitar and swirling organ as it works its way into your soul, the instrumental close out is pure genius and holds you transfixed. Possibly the only Americana song about a captive albino Gorilla, Snowflake takes The Marshals back down the pure country route with its soft-shoe shuffle and jangling guitars. An uptempo track with some great vocal harmonies and a Duane Eddy guitar tone, it’s another song that hits home perfectly. The last and third and final unreleased song on the album is Different Drug, the reworking of an early EP track. Subtle piano and the cultured rhythm section lend a sophistication that signature Marshals sound that the band have honed over the last 10 years. Benzie’s distinctive voice delivers the lyrics perfectly and the keyboards and guitar drive this elegant track to its fantastic extended close.

‘After All These Years’ is a glorious celebration of 10 years of one of Scotland’s best exports and the so called ‘masters of mid-tempo’. For the fans that have lived the journey with The Wynntown Marshals it is a nostalgic retrospective containing all the highlights of a stellar career to date and for those that are new to the band it is a reminder of what they have missed so far. Here’s to the next ten years with this incredible band…

Released 1st September 2017

Buy ‘After All These Years’ from bandcamp

Featured image by Carol Graham Photography.

 

 

Review – Threshold – Legends Of The Shires – by Progradar

Threshold return with their 11th full length release ‘Legend Of The Shires’. One of progressive metal’s most enduring bands formed in 1988 and released their first album in 1993, twenty four years later their “colossal double concept album” sees them stretching the boundaries of the genre once again.

Described as “A monster of an album…” by Threshold’s Richard West, it is also the band’s first ever double album.

If that wasn’t enough to get me drooling then the outstanding artwork by Russian artist Elena Dudina only heightened the anticipation even more. Of the art Richard also had this to say, “I love it when a cover tells you what sort of record you’re buying. This one really shouts “progressive” and reminds me of some of the classic prog albums from the 20th century.”

With vocalist Damian Wilson moving to pastures new and the return of Glynn Morgan to fill his substantial shoes (more of that in my interview with Karl Groom coming soon) the scene has been set for one of 2017’s most eagerly awaited releases…

Legends Of The Shires’ is possibly Threshold’s most complete album yet which, with a back catalogue like theirs, is really saying something. It flows from beginning to end, like one complete musical journey and is a true concept in both musical and lyrical terms. A concept loosely based on our country’s current position in the wider world and also how we, as individuals, fit into the wider scheme of things is worked intelligently into some of the band’s best recorded material of the last few years.

Keyboardist West and guitar guru Karl Groom are the main songwriting masterminds and, as well as Glynn (who also adds guitar parts), Johanne James (drums) and Steve Anderson (bass) make up the rest of the band. Production, engineering and mixing duties were also handled by Richard and Karl.

Richard discusses the new album title and whether or not the band were influenced by Tolkien:

The return of Glynn Morgan has added even more power to the vocals and yet he can also provide moments of sentiment and passion on tracks such as The Shire (Part2)State Of Independence and the emotive album closer Swallowed. Glynn also adds fervor and a rawness to hard riffing songs like the brilliant Small Dark Lines and the heavy On The Edge and Superior Machine.

The added emphasis on the song and the soundscapes is wholly evident on the two heavily prog-infused epics that grace this great album. The superb The Man Who Saw Through Time was never intended to be a longer track but just evolved into the wonderful musical odyssey it has become. An involving and powerful song which holds your attention and pulls at your heartstrings before opening up into a wide musical panorama with intricacy and vibrancy, you’ll find yourself transfixed. Lost In Translation is just over ten minutes of near musical perfection from the euphoric opening right through the hypnotic and entrancing verse and the addictive chorus to the uplifting close and the great interplay between Karl’s guitar and Richard’s keys, this is songwriting at its best.

There are no filler moments on the album, the progressive-metal standard Trust The Process has all the prerequisites than any such track should have and reminds me of Dream Theater at their original best and one of the stand-out tracks on this stand-out album is the exceptional Stars And Satellites with it’s Frost* like innovations and incredibly catchy chorus. Snowblind is another superior song with an exceptional musical narrative and one that I know Karl is especially pleased with.

Another highlight is the return of original bassist (and one-time vocalist) Jon Jeary who guests on vocals on the lovely The Shires (Part3) a delightful, if short, piece of music that compliments the rest of the tracks perfectly.

I make no excuses for my effusive praise of this new release from Threshold, ‘Legends Of The Shires’ is a triumphant return from one of the UK’s foremost progressive-metal artists and is an album where the song and the journey take precedence over technical wizardry and musical scales and deliver an expansive and immersive musical adventure that transfixes and captivates in equal measure. From beginning to end, the music flows perfectly and the album should ideally be consumed in one sitting, 2017 has given us some superlative musical releases already but, in ‘Legends Of The Shires’Threshold may just have delivered the finest one yet.

Released 8th September 2017

‘Legends Of The Shires’ is available to pre-order on a variety of formats from Nuclear Blast here:

 

 

 

 

 

Review – Josh Kay – Absence of Time – by Progradar

As most of you will know, I am a love of instrumental music. Be it jazz, progressive, alt-rock, ambient, math-rock or just plain old rock, I am eager to search it out and bring it to the attention of the masses.

The only problem with this is that there is SO much new music out there that it is sometimes like swimming against the tide and I am sure some great releases must pass me agonisingly by. Which is why I am glad that US instrumental artist Josh Kay actually approached me to review his third instrumental offering ‘Absence of Time’.

Before we get onto the music let me introduce Josh to you;

“Josh is an instrumental rock artists currently living in Los Angelese, CA. He has independently released three solo albums and collaborated with many groups over the last fifteen years. ‘Absence of Time’ represents a melding of his enthusiasm for progressive rock and guitar-centric instrumental music, with an emphasis on melody over calculable technique. To further his endeavors, Josh is currently attending Musician’s Institute in Hollywood.”

Beyond The Astral Reflection opens the album on a reflective note. A complex and emotionally intense listening experience with driving guitars layered over powerful drumming as Josh’s dynamically inventive guitar delivers a musically impassioned performance. The music switches between the dynamism and a smoother laid back style and has me intrigued to hear more. Ravine takes a more jazz biased, world music introduction and builds on it to deliver a stand out instrumental track with multi-layered guitars at the centre of this forcefully profound track. Josh holds your attention with his intricate guitar work but never lets this smother the musicality of the song. I’m reminded more of Neal Schon than the likes of Steve Vai or Joe Satriani on this contemplative piece.

Title track Absence Of Time is a darkly complex track with soul and emotion bleeding from every note. The guitar seems even higher in the mix, taking centre stage and demanding your attention. There’s a feel of a proper hard rock song at the core with dense, rocking riffs and a thunderous rhythm section giving it free reign to knock your socks off. Despite this it is still an immersive listen, the technicality adding impressive layers to the melodies within. The wonderfully restrained acoustic guitar and Josh’s wistful guitar playing bring to mind Neal Schon’s solo release ‘Beyond The Thunder’ as the delightful Solace In Sleep gets into its stride. Some elegantly persuasive guitar flourishes provide a great counterpoint on what is becoming my stand out track on the album. There’s music for the soul and music for the mind blended on this refined and stylish track and it emphasises Josh’s desire to showcase the musical harmony over his not inconsiderable technique.

Sometimes a gifted musician just needs to show off and the blistering guitar riffs, runs and motifs that define The Legato Gestapo show a musician at the top of his game with incredible technique and style. Intensely fast-paced and yet chock full of style and finesse, it is a grin inducing guitar-fest where Josh basically lets his hair down and lets rip! Nostalgic, wistful and winsome the uber chilled and laid back Ocean Reveries is the dynamic antithesis of the previous track. A sepia tinged and thoughtful piece of music, style and sophistication ooze from every jazz-tinged note falling from Josh’s cultured guitar. The final piece of this musical puzzle is The Sixth Extinction and this is the most progressive influenced track on the album. Josh explores different musical themes throughout its intriguing seven plus minutes length, the mood swings from the quiet and introspective to the ebullient and irrepressible making it a thoroughly engaging listen. Josh plays at his brilliant, complex and intricate best and it closes out ‘Absense Of Time’ perfectly.

For anyone who likes guitar-centric instrumental music ‘Absence Of Time’ should be on their must-buy list. Never formulaic, it delivers inventive and technically gifted guitar playing with thought provoking melodies to great effect. Josh Kay is a musician who has flown under the radar for too long, when his music is this good, it deserves to be given wider recognition.

Released 30th August 2016

Buy ‘Absence Of Time’ from bandcamp

 

 

 

 

Review – Abel Ganz – Gratuitous Flash (2016 Remaster) by Progradar

I’m not always sure that you should revisit the past, sometimes it isn’t as you remembered it and quite often not in a good way at all. However, in music, going back and remastering an album using modern technology can often add a lot more to the original production (the opposite can also be true but that’s for another time).

‘Gratuitous Flash’ was the first album released by seminal Scottish proggers Abel Ganz and was originally recorded in 1986. After the passing of thirty years the original line-up got back together to remix/remaster the release at South Park Studios in Glasgow. It has been remastered with some additional instrumentation by Hew Montgomery, co-founder of the band and keyboard player until 2007. He is joined, once again, by Hugh Carter (bass, flute & bass pedals), Alan Reed (vocals and Reedotron), Malcolm McNiven (guitars) and Ken Weir (drums and percussion).

The whole mix has been given a very slight clean up but this was kept to a bare minimum.

“You left school at seventeen, you never were the intellectual…”

A song about never growing up and never quite fitting in with your peers at school.

The opening track, Little By Little, gives a huge dose of nostalgia as the keyboard intro sends you rushing back to the 80’s. It’s a song that has an immediate hold on you with the intricate guitar playing and superb keys, the percussion and bass driving the track on. The extended instrumental opening has a really upbeat vibe to it, blending the original music well with the new remastering. When Alan’s vocals begin they are crystal clear and you become engrossed in his lilting tone, seemingly telling you a tale from his youth. It’s like Marillion but with added doses of humour and humility. I never heard the original but this new version doesn’t have me yearning for the past, I’m just thoroughly enjoying what I’m listening to now, including a fiery guitar solo from Malcolm that takes flight with a mind of its own and Hew’s elaborate keyboard playing.

“Have you ever had a day when someone smiled, suddenly you’re feeling much older than today.”

A song about the frustrations of growing old and realising that love is passing you by.

A nicely strummed guitar opens You and Yours and is rapidly joined by the soaring keyboards and superb rhythm section before Alan’s distinctive voice joins in with not a little passion. There’s wistful, almost regretful tone that runs throughout the song and that 80’s neo-progressive sound is as strong as ever, yet brought up-to-date by the considerate remix. Hugh’s elegant bass is particularly outspoken on this track and works well as the metronome in the background. Another fluid and effortless song that has a wistful edge as the story unfolds before you. The polished instrumental sections work exceedingly well within the rest of the track and showcase just what great musicians these guys were (and still are!).

The Scorpion is an instrumental track that was unashamedly inspired for Hew by the playing of Don Airey in his Collosseum II days. it has a particularly grandiose opening before racing off with Hew’s keys and Malcolm’s guitar trading fiery licks and blows along the way. I’m sure Hew should be wearing the archetypal prog-cape as his fingers fly across the keys. Ken’s powerful and quick fire drumming is at the heart of the mix and the whole song has you feeling like you’re on a helter-skelter as Malcolm’s aggressive guitar takes centre stage for a moment. It’s the keys that are the focus of this dynamic and compelling instrumental to my ears though.

“Gets up every morning, at the crack of dawn, fix your working clothes, put your working smile on…”

A song written for someone that Hew worked with years ago whose name was actually Irene Kean and was always happy and enthusiastic about her job.

An emotive piano opens Kean on the Job with some laid back percussion adding to the atmosphere. There’s a whimsical tone to the music as it builds up the song. Alan’s earnest vocal takes up the tale and I’m pretty much engrossed from the first word. The chorus rapidly becomes an addictive earworm that I find myself humming all the time, in fact the whole track stands out on what is becoming a superb album. The tastefully played guitar and classy keyboards add even more gloss to the delightful narrative, all in all a rather excellent song.

“I wrote the song, for the radio, the words reflect the way I feel.”

A song dedicated to a journalist who, in the early eighties when he was a young lad working for a local newspaper, took great delight in making barbed comments about the music of Abel Ganz.

Another energetic and impellant track, title song Gratuitous Flash opens with a charismatic instrumental section with driving guitar, an ebullient rhythm section and compelling keyboards combining with irresistible effect to give a potent feel to the track. As the pace slows Alan’s characterful vocal recounts the details in a measured and distinctive manner, a strong 80’s neo-progressive overtone at its heart, Hew’s swirling keyboards closing out the track in dramatic fashion.

“He was only a boy of six years old, playing kids’ games on a frozen lake. But he ventured too close to the hockey match; that was his only mistake.”

Sometimes there are just some moments that inspire you to write music… and this is definitely one such moment. Inspired by the wonderful saga of Johnny Smith, it’s one of these songs that Hew always felt really satisfied with (although he also felt that there were a few spaces that needed to be filled just a bit, and the remix gave him the chance to do exactly that!).

A genuine epic, coming it at over 16 minutes, The Dead Zone is one of those tracks that has so many facets that just fit together perfectly. Quite a mournful song at times, especially the opening with its serious and ominous mood, it has a definite gravitas and pathos at its core. The sincerity in Alan’s voice is there to be heard and the exemplary musicianship fits the developing mood perfectly. An all encompassing and absorbing musical experience that seems to fill your whole being with its sentiment and poignancy, a piece of music for late night listening with the lights down low and a glass of your favourite tipple in your hand. Even running into sixteen minutes plus, it is such a gripping song that it never outstays its welcome as the music and lyrics absorb you throughout.

Newly added to this 2016 remaster of ‘Gratuitous Flash’ is Alan Reed’s solo reworking of Kean on the Job. Hew says, ” It’s a beautifully laid back way to end this album…” and he is 100% right in that assessment. A deliciously chilled out and easygoing rendition that flows in an undemanding manner. The capricious instrumentation is jazz influenced and it’s a warming and grin inducing way to close out this musical experience.

For those that have the original in their collection there is absolutely no reason not to upgrade to the 2016 version. A considerate and well thought out remix and remaster has brought out even more layers and given it a well deserved new lease of life. For those who have never heard the original then please purchase this modern take on a classic. Neo-prog doesn’t get any better than this with intelligent and humorous songwriting coupled with excellent musicianship to give a listening experience like no other.

Released 8th May 2017

Buy ‘Gratuitous Flash’ on digital from bandcamp

Buy ‘Gratuitous Flash’ on CD from ProgRock

 

 

 

 

Review – Steven Wilson – To The Bone – by Progradar

“It’s a new challenge to keep changing your music. I like words like transformation, reinvention, and chameleon. Because one word I don’t like is predictable.”

I’m sort of paraphrasing a quote from Naomi Campbell there, I like the way that, to me, it seems to describe how I view Steven Wilson and his music.

There’s lots of words to describe this artist, challenging and pioneering are two but predictable he definitely is not! I was a big fan of Porcupine Tree but it took me a long time to become enamoured with his solo work and I’m still not a big fan of albums such as ‘Insurgentes’ and ‘Grace For Drowning’. While they were no doubt groundbreaking and forging a new way for his music, I didn’t subscribe to the hype at the time.

I’ve grown to love ‘The Raven That Refused To Sing’ and ‘Hand.Cannot Erase.’, although both were uneasy relationships at first. Through every release he has sought to change his style, not any major changes but subtle transitions that have transformed each piece of work.

Now comes possibly his most controversial work and one that seems to have split the music community in two, ‘To The Bone’.

After many years with Kscope Steven has now signed to Caroline International and his new album is described as:

“A gloriously dynamic modernist pop record as imagined by the UK’s biggest underground artist…” 

There’s been a flurry of singles released from the album but I’m going to review it as whole and, with a break from tradition, I’m not going to dissect each track but just give a relatively short synopsis of how they feel to me after a few listens.

Let’s just say that ‘To The Bone’ is a really accessible album but one which also has longevity, the opening and title track To The Bone starts with a voice over before hitting you with something that is rather edgy, full of a funky guitar riff and with some rather tasty harmonica work that adds a driving pop-infused groove to the whole track. Nowhere Now seems like  a homage to the bombastic 80’s stadium rock that was the forte of bands like U2 and can still be heard in the alternative rock of Foo Fighters today. A memorable, catchy chorus and some excellent guitar work are the icing on the cake.

The first single release from the album, Pariah, features the unforgettable tones of Ninet Tayeb and is a lush, cinematic piece of intelligent and emotive pop music. A song with a serious overtone and one which envelops the listener in a cosseting soundscape and fuzzy, dynamic guitars. It’s possibly the best song on this release and is immediately followed by another great track, The Same Asylum As Before. This time we’re treated to power chords and crunching riffs that are mingled with chiming pop sensibilities and a falsetto vocal (an abomination to some but I like them) to give an acute and perceptive discourse on the world we live in today.

Refuge is a slow burning, incredibly immersive piece of music that captures the imagination and draws the listener in to its dark world of sanctuary. Haunting and deeply meaningful, the music plays its part in giving the song an otherworldly, almost alien, edge especially with the squalling guitar and harmonica soliloquy and the slow, gentle ambience that closes out the track.

Now onto the marmite song on the album, Permanating is either a wonderful piece of modern, driving pop music, Mr Wilson’s homage to ABBA and E.L.O or empty, mindless pop. I fall firmly in the first camp and love the pastiche and the good feeling that emanates from every note. To each their own and I can see both viewpoints, make your own mind up on this one. Sepia tinged nostalgia drips from every note of the criminally short Blank Tapes, a song that channels Porcupine Tree to these ears. The heartfelt vocals and hushed, delicate music add a huge dose of pathos, just make it longer!

Post-punk Pop with clashing guitars and edgy vocals, People Who Eat Darkness is another fast-paced and hard living track that has hints of Steven’s earlier solo works. A toe tapping song with undertones of developing anger amid the quieter moments., it fits right in with the current mindset of this troubled world. Song Of I is ‘a story of unrepentant obsession set to a sharp-as-a-tack rhythm track and an orchestral sandstorm’ and is the one track on the album that fails to reach the lofty ambitions of the others. It’s a track I have to be in the mood to listen to other wise it is just a meandering piece of music that seems to have no destination and is in no hurry to get there. Perhaps a victim of it’s own sagacity, it would be no detriment if it wasn’t included.

Detonation is the longest song on the album at just over nine minutes and never outstays its welcome, building layer by layer of hypnotic and haunting music amid vocals that seem slightly disconnected and uneasy, it has a chilling tone. Primeval guitars and a discordant rhythm section add to the tense and agitated aura that pervades. A modern mystery where the answers always seem just out of reach. The album closes with the wistful grace of Song of Unborn with its touching chorus and sepia tinged ambience. A piece of music that almost makes you hold your breath before breaking out into a dynamic, soul-stirring wall  of sound dominated by a solemn guitar solo.

‘To The Bone’ is intelligent,driving modern pop music with vibrant punk and rock roots and sees Steven Wilson cement his position in the music fraternity. Who’s to say his next release won’t be a 70’s disco-funk pastiche? And who’s betting that, even if it is, it won’t be as good as this striking new album.

Released 18th August 2017

Buy ‘To The Bone’ from Universal Music

 

 

Review – KingBathmat – Dark Days – by Progradar

KingBathmat, now there’s a name for a Prog band if ever I’ve heard one, except they’re not really Prog, more hard-edged pyshchedelic/alternative rock but, there’s no getting away from it, it is a name that starts discussion and really sticks in the mind.

I’ve been a big fan of the band and the brains behind it, John Bassett, for a very long time and it’s been four long years since the release of their last masterpiece ‘Overcoming The Monster’ and it’s incredible songs. John has focused on his solo work under his own name, the Arcade Messiah moniker and, more recently, his great synth-wave project Sacred Ape.

So the time is ripe for the return of the seminal KingBathmat, albeit a slimmed down version. The band now consists of just John and drummer Bernie Smirnoff and 6-track mini-album ‘Dark Days’ was released on 30th June.

KingBathmat now consists of only John Bassett & Drummer Bernie Smirnoff, tracks on the album were initially conceived in 2016 as a 2 piece side project, drums were recorded in Hastings Uk, and the rest of the music recorded and produced in Ireland over the last few months with John playing all the other instruments and fulfilling vocal duties.”

John Bassett says “It’s a darker, heavier album, but still with the melodic style that runs through most of the KingBathmat back catalogue. It wasn’t initially in my plans to make another KingBathmat record, but these songs just had that KingBathmat feel to them. Over the last few years I’ve had numerous messages asking for another KingBathmat album, so I thought why not. If the response is favourable this might be the start of a number of mini KingBathmat albums”

That’s a lot of KingBathmat but you won’t hear me complaining…

A special nod goes out to the excellent artwork which has always been a hallmark of KingBathmat albums.

The album opens with the short but meaningful title track. Dark Days has an insistent opening that is sparse and pared back before John’s distinctive vocal opens up. There’s a feeling of treading water, waiting for something importatnt to happen but, from the first note, it is undoubtedly KingBathmat and the years roll back. Bernie’s considered drums and an elegant guitar note then add real atmosphere and layers of intrigue. It’s a track that seems to effortlessly wend its way into your psyche with it’s air of mystery and suspense and an excellent opening to this new record.

Tis Pity She’s A Whore (nope, not the same title as a track from the last Bowie album but a reference to a play from the 17th century called ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore’ by John Ford) needs none of the previous tracks subtlety, it’s just a full on riff fest that starts with a piercing guitar note that could have come straight from ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ and then hits you right where it hurts with a sonically powerful riff and drums that could topple mountains. There’s a slight lull (not that it really matters) in the verse and then the monster chorus just takes it to yet another level of ferocity. This is what I was looking forward to, the dynamism, energy and sheer brutality of the music just takes your breath away but it’s done with intelligence and perception, psychedelic metal for the highbrow listener. KingBathmat are back!

We take a little step back again with Magnet To Pain, Bernie’s drums have a real energy to them but almost in a jazzy way and the bass playing in the background is superb. John’s vocal has a keening tone and, when the fuzzy riff kicks in, I’m transported to another decade. The guitar plying is very intense and heavy and yet seems slightly muted and in the background so as not to overwhelm everything. It’s a foot tapping, head nodding type of funky, intelligent heavy rock with psychedelic overtones, imagine The Red Hot Chilli Peppers jamming with Mastodon and you won’t be far off. How two guys can make a sound this big and expansive is beyond me.

The wistfully elegant guitar strumming at the start of Feathers gives the song a melancholy overtone and John’s vocal has a passion and devotion to it that adds a serious tone. Quite a sombre and downbeat track but one that has an fragile grace to it as well, the pensive, keening guitar just adding to that feel. This song puts me in a nostalgic and thoughtful mood, the music having a reflective and contemplative aura that draws you in. This shows the captivating and introspective side to KingBathmat’s music and songwriting, it is nine minutes of self retrospection and consideration and a superb track too.

The last track on this mini-album is Nihilist which opens with a mariachi style guitar, laid back, unhurried and undemanding and the song takes it’s cue from this. The vocals seem to wander into the song without a care in the world and it is Bernie’s drumming that gives the track some substance to build on. I like the chilled out atmosphere, almost ethereal in feel and the wistful air that seems to settle all around you. It’s a stylish and classy piece of music that seems to just meander across you aural synapses and the guitar playing is refined and tasteful. Half way through the pace increases and an almost frenetic note begins to seep into the drums and guitar as John and Bernie go into what seems to be an extended jam session, a bloody good one actually. They play off each other almost to the end of the track when John’s plaintive vocal returns and takes us to a thoughtful close.

KingBathmat have returned with a glorious slab of psychedelic prog/metal that takes the sound that people have come to love and gives it a harder edge and incredible nuances to create something quite unique. A superb listening experience and one that leaves this reviewer wanting more, John Bassett is one of the most creative musicians we have and joining forces with his old partner in crime has given him something extra, highly recommended.

Released 30th June 2017

Buy ‘Dark Days’ from bandcamp

 

 

Vinyl Review – Cosmograf – The Hay Man Dreams – by Progradar

“I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God’s business.”
― Michael J. Fox

Surely every musician strives for perfection on every new record that they are working on but perfection cannot be attainable otherwise what else could they seek to achieve? When you follow an artist across their album releases you accompany them on this journey to a perceived nirvana of musical enlightenment, every release opening another door into their soul for clearly that is what every musician leaves with their music, a piece of themselves?

Robin Armstrong is the man behind the highly respected musical project Cosmograf, the Cosmograf sound is rooted in 70’s classic rock with a contemporary and progressive twist with obvious influences from classic progressive rock such as Pink Floyd, Yes and Genesis, but with more contemporary flavours from bands such as Porcupine Tree, Muse, and Radiohead.

Cosmograf albums are built around concepts – Conceptual Progressive Rock allows the freedom to span genres, stop and start in different tempos, with the inclusion of relevant soundscapes and effects to build the story.  This creates a musical freedom far beyond the commercial rules and constraints of a disposable 3 minute pop song.

Robin’s musical odyssey began in 2008 with a rough demo called “Freed from the Anguish” and ‘End of Ecclesia’ which was self released in 2009. The break-through release that really brought Cosmograf to the music industry’s notice was ‘When Age Has Done Its Duty’, released in 2011 and the quality and excellence never let up through 2013’s ‘The Man Left In Space’, 2014’s ‘Capacitor’ and last years superb ‘The Unreasonable Silence’, a release where many thought Robin had actually reached his musical zenith.

However, an artist with the talent and imagination of Robin Armstrong can’t sit on their hands and, despite health problems (thankfully resolved now), Robin has returned with another Cosmograf release ‘The Hay Man Dreams’ which, for the first time, will be released on vinyl through Chris Topham’s Plane Groovy label.

A retrospective album in both theme and style, ‘The Hay Man Dreams’ harks back to the sound and feel of the classic prog era fused with the raw energy and darkness of a rock behemoth. The 6 track album is measured at a single LP length and instrumentally delivers the vintage sound of guitar, bass and drums with a sprinkling of classic keyboards.

The theme presents as a mythical tale of a farm labourer meeting an early death, and leaving a loving wife and young family. His widow builds a scarecrow effigy as a shrine to her loss, and this ‘Hay-Man’ spends his weather beaten days in eternity, dreaming beyond his field.

The new album features guest performances from Rachael Hawnt (The Beautiful Secret), Kyle Fenton (These Septic Stars), Matt Stevens (The Fierce and the Dead), Rachel Hall (Big Big Train) and former BBC Voiceover artist David Allan.

It’s great to see an album that was conceived to be a vinyl release from the outset, the packaging is excellent, as I’ve come to expect from Plane Groovy, and you get that frisson of excitement as you remove it from the shrinkwrap and take the slipcase and liner notes out of the sleeve. The singular artwork is very impressive and really stands out. Time to take it out of the slipcase, put it on the record deck and lower the needle…

“I’m tethered and bound to the earth today
It’s hard to walk free when you’re made of hay
Tethered and bound to the earth I say
Nothing to fear but nothing to say…”

The ominous and suspenseful opening to the first track Tethered And Bound raises the hairs on the back of your neck and David Allan’s atmospheric voice-over just helps to build the tension. The eerie feeling continues before a powerful and methodical guitar riff breaks through the uneasiness and Robin’s distinctive vocal adds an authoritarian tone. This song is pure and definitive Cosmograf but turned up to 11 with emotive guitars and mountain moving percussion provided by Kyle Fenton. It’s like the best of progressive rock met math-core and morphed into something quite unique. I love the creeping tension that lies throughout the song, it’s almost like hiding behind the sofa watching Doctor Who when I was a kid but brought bang up to date for the 50-something adult I am now. A really powerful, imposing piece of music that dominates its surroundings with Rachael Hawnt’s vocal talents also put to good use to add even more theatre, a thunderous start to proceedings.

“These trees surround the field
The boundary marks the forest
It forms a perfect shield
Protects the summer harvest…”

Trouble In The Forest is a massive contrast with its wistful, gentle nostalgic opening that is full of the feeling of lazy, hazy sunny days and a forest with the dappled sun’s rays lighting up the forest floor. A wonderfully calm and collected track full of assured grace and composure. There’s a feeling of longing to the elegant, ethereal guitar and contemplative percussion that gives an otherworldly aura to the music. I can’t imagine a more laid back song that I’ve listened to this year as Robin’s voice finally joins in, all soothing and tranquil and with a meditative timbre to it. The tempo increases slightly, a note of urgency bleeding into the vocals before another voice over from Mr Allan sets the scene. The gentle meander and preamble takes on a slightly discordant edge as the immediately recognisable tone of Matt Stevens’ guitar opens up and he goes into Guthrie Govan mode with an intricate and convoluted guitar solo that only a guitarist of Matt’s talent could ever hope to deliver. The snaking, coruscating guitar work fits in perfectly with the almost spiritual ambience of this song and the ambient effects add even more mystery as this superb piece of music comes to a serene close.

“The motorway extends in grace, the shiny metal’s keeping pace
The engine’s calling out to me, rev it more and let it breath
Let it breath…”

A stylish acoustic guitar motif opens The Motorway with an assured note, another tell-tale Cosmograf sound that is instantly known to this reviewer. It lulls you into a false sense of security as it gently ambles on before Robin’s emotive vocal begins, backed by Kyle’s classy drums and a real 70’s sounding keyboard, Rachael’s carefully considered backing vocals adding lustre. Everything seems good natured and jaunty as the song moves along at a measured clip but the mood changes as Robin’s voice switches to a more ardent intonation and the whole song seems to transform into something altogether more serious, sombre and thoughtful. A thunderous riff emerges and the drums go all native on us as Robin turns into a seriously heavy rock vocalist, all dark and dangerous, it’s quite an about face, I’m thinking 70’s Deep Purple or Bad Company myself. A sultry break with more of that acoustic guitar calms things before Robin opens up with a superb guitar solo that literally pins your ears back to the side of your head and screams passion, fervor and feeling at you (yes, it’s air guitar time!) before the song comes to resounding close and so does side one of this utterly captivating and arresting vinyl release.

“Spoil the view
Do what you want to do
A greener field
Made from a muddy hue…”

A deliberate and pensive piano opens Cut The Corn, the first of two relatively shorter tracks, and this precedes Robin’s instrospective, absorbing vocal, full of sentiment and warmth and yet there’s a melancholy edge that runs throughout the song, a yearning and a longing for something out of reach and this adds a fragile beauty to the whole track. The tempo is deliberate and restrained and adds to the mournful sense that emanates, even more so when the reflective and thoughtful acoustic guitar is played to the captivated audience leaving you lost in thought as the track comes to a close.

“The colder air it hurts my throat
as I walk the stony roadway
There’s demons on the moonlit path
They plot to steal the break of dawn…”

The emotion, passion and fervor reach a climax on the wonderfully stirring and affectional Melancholy Death Of A Gamekeeper, a track where, if I didn’t know better, I’d have thought Robin had co-opted David Gilmour into appearing. The whole song is a complex blend of emotions from Robin’s sultry vocal, Kyle’s elegant drums and the flowing keyboards but it is the incredibly impressive guitar work that really stands out and makes this a song I keep returning to time and time again. I could sit and listen to the searing, powerful and ardent playing all day long, this is music that moves you on a primal level and stirs the soul, I can’t get that guitar note out of my head and I don’t want to either. Touches of Pink Floyd? Yes, but it’s an affectionate nod of the head, not a blatant copy and I think it works fantastically well.

“The rain comes
It soaks his worn out clothes
I follow everywhere he goes
Hay Man dreaming of the sun
Hay Man are you having fun?”

Well, it is going to take something really special to top that and, to Robin’s eternal credit, he just gets on with it and produces another instant classic with the title track The Hay Man Dreams. From the first exquisitely delivered word that Rachael Hawnt utters we are given a song that will stand the test of time and should be considered a classic of the genre. Rachel’s hypnotic vocal is utterly beguiling and enthralling and the guitar, bass, drums and keyboards ooze style and sophistication. A track for late nights, darkened rooms, powerful red wine and forgetting about the complexities that life throws at you. The longest song on the album at over twelve minutes, not a second or a note is wasted and Robin delivers possibly his best guitar work yet with playing that bewitches, dazzles and delights even the most seasoned hack, just sit back and enjoy. That’s not all though, it’s a song in three or more parts and the mood is broken by David Allan’s voice over one more time before things take a darker turn as the carefree jazz/blues guitar is overwritten by a more compelling and aggressive riff, the drums dominating and Rachel delivers an outpouring of passion and fervor as the atmosphere turns chaotic around her, as if a tornado has hit the Hay Man. All of a sudden an argent and incandescent guitar solo breaks loose irradiating the sky, a furious and dynamic piece of guitar playing that hits you right in the solar plexus. This thunderous refrain comes to a sudden halt to be replaced by the elegant strains of Rachel Hall’s violin and order is restored once more. The album closes out with a feeling of pastoral calm and relaxed repose as the needle comes to a stop and silence settles around you.

What an incredibly emotional roller coaster Robin Armstrong has taken us on. I have no qualms in saying I have always been huge fan of his music and on ‘The Hay Man Dreams’ the sheer scope of his songwriting and imagination is barely conceivable. Cosmograf albums are lovingly crafted nuggets of musical brilliance created not for commercial gain but for the enjoyment of the listener and, on this latest opus (especially as it is available on vinyl), Robin has delivered his most impressive work yet. Perfection? maybe not but it doesn’t get much closer than this.

Released 14th July 2017

Buy ‘The Hay Man Dreams’ on vinyl via Burning Shed

Buy ‘The Hay Man Dreams’ on CD and Download from Cosmograf

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review – The Vicious Head Society – Abject Tomorrow – by Progradar

I remember 1992 (yes I am that old!) and seminal Progressive Metallers Dream Theater releasing their incredible second album ‘Images and Words’. It was something of a groundbreaking release with the incredible musicianship and songwriting making a huge impact on my life.

I followed the band for many years with superb release after superb release, ‘Awake’, ‘Falling Into Infinity’ and the marvellous, innovative brilliance of ‘Metropolis Pt2 – Scenes From a Memory’. I first saw them live on the ‘Train of Thought’ tour in 2003 and was blown away by the majesty of their show. The last great album they released, in my opinion, was 2005’s ‘Octavarium’ and, sadly for a big fan like me, they seemed to peak then, both on record and as a live event.

I’ve been waiting for a long time for an album of pure progressive metal to come along and blow me away like ‘Images and Words’ did in 1992, one with some great songs and wonderful instrumentation, I like an extended guitar solo as much as the next man!

There have been some near misses but none have really come close. Funnily enough, it was one of my old fellow Dream Theater fans, Laura McCoy who put me on to Graham Keane and The Vicious Head Society, sharing a video of a track from the debut album ‘Abject Tomorrow’ and it piqued my interest more than enough to want to hear the whole thing.

Why? because the first thing that came into my head was, it’s like Dream Theater but the old Dream Theater when they were my favourite band in the world and that’s just got to be good…

The Vicious Head Society is the brainchild of Irish guitar virtuoso Graham Keane.

Debut album ‘Abject Tomorrow’ initially started as a pet project around 2010 after returning to the Emerald Isle from music school in the UK. Keane was tutoring aspiring musicians when he decided to start writing original material purely as a self gratifying project. He figured that living in a remote area of Ireland with not many musicians interested in his style of music, metal, hard rock and prog, he would be best to forge ahead alone. As with many creative types Keane had a very laid back attitude about the whole thing and on many occasions just sat there noodling on his guitar while life passed him by. It wasn’t until his wives cancer diagnosis in 2013 that he started to take things a bit more seriously. The shock of realising his own mortality threw Keane into action.

Writing and recording became an asylum, from the emotional turmoil and with nothing to lose, the project began to grow in scope. Virtual instruments wouldn’t cut it anymore, as had been the norm to that point, and so Keane began to contact musicians worldwide to help bring it to life. Of course this brought with it several new challenges, not to mention the financial burden, the main reason it has taken this long to complete!

The vast majority of the album was recorded in Keane’s home studio with vocals, drums and other guest musicians being outsourced to their own recording facilities. Guests including Wilmer Waarbroek, Derek Sherinan, Nahuel Ramos, Pat Byrne, Klemen Markelj, Kevin Talley and Nathan Pickering. “It was a somewhat challenging process,” Keane comments. “Financing being one of the major difficulties. There were times when it seemed like releasing the album would be impossible but I’m delighted to have overcome these obstacles and with the help of some really amazingly talented people, it is now complete!”

As with most progressive records ‘Abject Tomorrow’ is no different in the sense that it is a concept album. The story is based in a dystopian future in which all humans are required to have emotion inhibiting implants implanted from birth. One man’s implant fails and it chronicles his journey of discovery and reconnection with his humanity. Musically, it draws from a huge range of influences; from classic prog acts that influenced Keane growing up, such as Yes, Genesis, ELP and Rush to metal acts such as Death, Meshuggah and Megadeth. Keane adds, “I hope it finds some kind of audience and that people enjoy it. For me, it’s a very emotive album. Even though it’s a concept album on the surface, there’s a lot of personal experience in it and there’s sure to be some people out there who can connect with it on an emotional level.”

An urgent keyboard note introduces you to The Sycophants before some powerful and edgy riffing, joined by dynamic drums takes over. A monstrous riff erupts from the depths of the earth to pound you with its ferocity and then the vocals kick in, hard-edged and forceful. This is no frills prog-metal, you get what you see and it is all the better for it. Throw in some brilliant guitar runs and the odd solo that burns like a solar flare and you couldn’t really ask for much more, actually you don’t need to because Graham gives it to you anyway. Well thought out songwriting and his emotive vocal give real class to the song, add in an cleverly intricate instrumental section (dare I say it, emulating Dream Theater themselves), a thunderous close-out and you’re left admiring a really good opening to the album. So, now onto the title track, Abject Tomorrow begins with a really skittish, staccato riff that has a feel of unease to it, the progressive drums pounding along in union. A coruscating guitar fires up into the heavens before things calm down, an uneasy silence broken by some rather dark and hushed vocals. I’m on the edge of my seat with anticipation before the powerful chorus erupts from the quietude, an emotional depth emanating from Graham’s vocals. The guitar note almost seems to be speaking to you when the darkness returns tenfold with some harsh vocals giving a proper demonic tone and an ominous counterpoint to the grim hope that the haunting chorus seems to give. Cue extended guitar solo and a bloody good one at that. This song really does seem to be clash between darkness and light and you find yourself caught up in the tumultuous conflict, like a musical version of Lord of the Rings, fantastical and nightmarish. A conflict that seems to span the ages, neverending and the stylish close to the track seems to echo that in eternity.

Downfall has a subdued opening, all swirling, sci-fi keyboards before the tension starts to build. Graham’s heartfelt vocal takes centre stage, a stirring delivery backed by some stylish bass playing and it gives real heart and soul to the song. A harsh vocal delivered over some elegant keyboards really gives an out of this world aura to the song. The juxtaposition between the earnest, fervent clean vocals and the alien feel of the harsh voice really works, one complementing another. As the song comes to a close a granite-like riff gives an elemental quality and the vocals soar into the distance almost like an out of body experience, a compelling and passionate track that really touches your emotions. I have to admit that I’ve been impressed so far and the next track just adds to that in spades, Agenda opens with yet another impressive and uber-heavy riff, one that could shatter mountains I’m sure! But it’s not all about the intensity, there’s intelligence right at the heart of this music too (got to say I love the riffs though!), the songwriting and musical ability is excellent and every note is there for a reason, even if it does strip paint at forty yards. The dynamism of the music and the addictive chorus work together perfectly to add lustre and vitality to the compelling songs. I am not a lover of the harsh, cookie monster vocal delivery but it really works on this album, Graham seems to have got the balance perfectly right. As for the guitar playing, well it is one of the most influential aspects of the album and what lifts it above the merely good and gives an almost cinematic scope to every track. As you get towards the end of the song it goes all intricately progressive on you before a calmness envelops all and then we are treated to a crescendo of an ending, a stirring  and affectional guitar fading out to the close.

A hushed voice and keyboards open The 11th Hour, a feeling of treading water as if you’re waiting for something to happen. Falsetto vocals arrive along with another epic riff from the bowels of the Earth, everything has an anthemic feel to it, music for the ages, from the ages. There’s an uplifting delivery to the vocals yet one that has a pleading undertone, more mixing of the harsh with the clean, once again to good effect and then a more jazzy instrumental section where the bass takes on a funky tone and the guitars a more stripped back feel. A real melting pot of musical styles that deliver a vigorously immersive listening experience, Devin Townsend meets Queen in some strange parallel Universe and they join up with Faith No More and Metallica for a jam session. It’s hypnotically brilliant and quite mesmerising. Psychedelic Torture Trip is just under four minutes of fast paced, elaborate instrumental showboating and it’s thoroughly enjoyable. If you can play instruments as well as this then why shouldn’t you have a bit of fun while doing it? It brings back memories of tracks like Erotomania by Dream Theater and the like. Just sit back, press play and enjoy the virtuoso music laid before you.

Granite like riffs that feel as old as the earth and weight more than the planet we live on? check, that’s what you get at the start of God Of The New Age and it’s almost as if they are being played by celestial beings. This is a riotously compelling song where the heaviness of the music doesn’t detract, it is absolutely necessary and gives emphasis to the vibrant keyboards, energetic drums and Graham’s charismatic vocals. The thunderous guitars and crushing drums that close out the song along with some rather stylish keyboards are utterly compelling, just turn up the volume and enjoy this utter prog-metal fest! The epic nineteen minute album closer Analogue Spectre is a nod to the great progressive metal acts of the past, Graham channels his inner Symphony X, Dream Theater and Fates Warning and yet gives everything his own twist to make it uniquely The Vicious Head Society. A slow burning opening builds up the tension before a heartfelt guitar fires out of the gloom and the shackles are off, a more subtle riff and then Graham’s hushed vocal give an almost symphonic metal feel, this is rapidly blown away by the increasing intensity of the riffing and drums and the vocals taking on a more urgent tone. This is music that grabs your attention with its ebb and flow between the restrained and controlled and the potent and persuasive and it’s a fascinating counterpoint. You’ll get blind-sided by some utterly spellbinding and complex instrumental progressive sections that seem to find their way out of more blind alleys than is really possible. Note perfect and yet ferociously perplexing and convoluted, it’s all you can do to keep up. Follow this up with some laid back, chilled, calm and collected parts and you are being treated to a whole gamut of musical emotions that your mind is manically processing to try and keep up with. The uplifting, almost symphonic metal vocal that follows is utter class and gives a real gloss to the track. This song is like a tapestry that displays the whole range of musical emotions (including salsa, yes… salsa…) that Graham is capable of and leaves me speechless in appreciation.

It is 25 years since ‘Images and Words’ first graced us with its presence and we have been given a plethora of Progressive Metal albums since, some very good but most not so. I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn when I say that ‘Abject Tomorrow’ is one of the best I’ve heard in that quarter of a century and deserves to be named in the same breath as ‘I&W’, it really is that good. A prog-metal masterpiece for the 21st Century, Graham Keane and The Vicious Head Society have only just begun their journey to the top of the genre but are already well on the way there.

Released 24th March 2017

Buy ‘Abject Tomorrow’ on CD from the band.

 

 

Review – Big Big Train – Grimspound – by Progradar

“No matter how much time passes, no matter what takes place in the interim, there are some things we can never assign to oblivion, memories we can never rub away.”
Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore.

Imagine, if you will, a deserted beach and a man in studious concentration, digging up the sand and then, like an artist who works in silica, crafting the most wonderful sandcastle. Like a medieval wonder it rises from the sand into a creation of unparalleled brilliance, a thing of spectacle for all to marvel at.

Fast forward twenty four hours to the same beach where the wondrous castle has disappeared, swallowed up by the unremitting tide, and the sand is pristine, not a single sign of the artist’s incredible work.

The artist may return to take up his labour of love once more but nature will always prevail, no matter what he does, and the sandcastles will always return to their constituent particles.

To me, this is something of an allegory of modern music. New records have such a short time-frame to impress the listener before the next big thing comes along. A lot of these albums will have been labours of love that the musicians have slaved over for months until they are as close to perfect as they can be. What do they do to make their achievements stand out enough for people to want to listen to and buy and to stay long in the memory to still be played in a years time or more?

British progressive rock stalwarts Big Big Train have long been known for their immersive musical productions with songs that tell stories from history and folklore and have been incredibly succesful. They are one of the bands that I turn to often for my musical fix and their pastoral progressive rock has been a big part of my life for the last four or five years.

April 2017 saw the release of their latest studio album ‘Grimspound’. On ‘Grimspound’, Big Big Train tell stories from the oceans and the skies, from the meadowland and the mead hall, tales of scientists and artists and poets and dreamers. Here can be found songs drawn from history and folklore, true-life tales of a flying ace, of Captain Cook’s ‘experimental gentlemen’ on his first voyage of discovery and the legend of a ghost waiting outside an ivy gate whilst the carriers of souls circle overhead.

Now, even though I liked the last year’s ‘Folklore’ (and still do!), I felt that, even though it had immediacy, it lacked the depth and endurance of albums like ‘The Underfall Yard’ and ‘English Electric’ and I don’t go back to it as often as I do the others.

Would ‘Grimspound’ be another engrossing tour-de-force that would take longer to really get into but, because of that, become a much loved classic? Let’s delve into the past and let the amazing story telling of Big Big Train do its magic…

“A statue of a young man
Defiantly stands
Glove held in left hand
With an Angel close by his shoulder…”

“The wonderfully atmospheric tale of Captain Albert Ball, a reluctant flying ace and hero of the Great War, “a young knight of gentle manner who learnt to fly and to kill at a time when all the world was killing … saddened by the great tragedy that had come into the world and made him a terrible instrument of Death”. DL

A haunting introduction paves the way for what is a classic Big Big Train track and really gives me the impression that the band have returned to their roots with this record. The build up is slow and measured before the guitars and drums herald the main part of the song and you are already rapt in attention. Lovely touches of flute and violin draw in David Longdon’s expressive and emotive vocal to tell the tale of this heroic airman. The music has a touch of pomp and circumstance in parts, befitting such a hero but also has gentle and subtle touches that would seem to mirror his compassionate soul. The build up to the chorus is spine-tingling and has you singing along with the words,

“I’ll be a brave captain of the sky.”

There’s a segue into a fast-paced instrumental section that has you on the edge of your seat, these consummate musicians once again showing their skill and class with guitar parts that are intricate and memorable and the mesmerising keyboards playing off against each other. Nick D’Virgilio’s drums and Greg Spawton’s bass are the glue that holds everything in place on this enduringly powerful piece of music before we are brought back down to ground and David’s voice over tells us more about Captain Ball and how he finally came to be shot down, aided perfectly by the stirring strings of Rachel Hall that almost seem to talk to you.

This amazing song closes out with another brilliant instrumental section interspersed by the repeated refrain,

“Brave Captain of the skies..”

Heart-wrenching guitars and that vibrant rhythm section hold your attention right to the suitably impressive end. Wow, what a start to the album!

On The Racing Line, this instrumental is a further piece about John Cobb, the racing driver, who was the subject of our song Brooklands on the ‘Folklore’ album.” GS

An immediate and expressive instrumental that seems to convey the impression of speed and racing from the first note. Just let the music wash over you and be transported back in history to a time of gentlemen racers who would drive their cars to the track before risking life and limb careering round at high speed. The drums, keyboard and piano seem to be the motive force of this song, the descriptive strings and compelling guitar painting the pictures in your mind, it is all really inventive and quite majestic in delivery. Not just a piece of music but one that recreates history right in the depths of your mind.

“Farewell, my friends,
taking leave of England
headed due south;
experimental gentlemen.”

In 1768, Captain Cook’s ship, HMS Endeavour, set sail from Plymouth. The voyage had been financed by the Royal Society and the Royal Navy and had a number of aims, including the observation of the 1769 Transit of Venus.

Along the way, the botanists aboard the ship were tasked with collecting specimens from all locations visited in the southern hemisphere. Cook called the scientists on the Endeavour, who included the astronomer Charles Green and the botanist Joseph Banks, his ‘experimental gentlemen’. GS

Experimental Gentlemen was the track that, upon first listen, made me realise that the band were reverting back to their older sound. The introduction is gentle and pastoral and lifts the soul, leaving you in some kind of reverie, flute and piano meandering around your mind before Nick’s drums direct everything into a more regimented sound. There’s a feel of ‘English Boy Wonders’ to the rhythm and vocals and the brilliantly evocative and descriptive guitar is a beautiful touch. Every time David Longdon sings the title line I find myself joining in  and a smile appearing on my lips, this is Big Big Train at their expressive and illuminating best. Rachel Hall’s violin takes centre stage half way through as a more serious note pervades the song, aided and abetted by some emotive keyboard playing to give a real affectional feel to the song. Her violin follows the motif of the chorus and we are off again on this jaunty journey into the wonder of it all. The climax begins with a brilliant, rising guitar solo that grabs your attention before calm and reflection settles over the track and it segues into a piano led section where Greg’s subtle bass playing joins Nick’s drums as the foundation on which a haunting guitar and ethereal strings raise the hairs on the back of your neck, quite clever and very touching as this superb song comes to a close, leaving you enjoying the silence and solitude.

“Here, with book in hand,
follow the hedgerow
to the meadowland.”

“One of the characters who featured on our ‘English Electric’ albums was David’s Uncle Jack. The Meadowland in this song is an idealised place where people gather together to share their thoughts about the things they love. You may bump into people when you are out and about and spend some time talking with them, creating your own such space. As the song is set in the countryside, I couldn’t resist a final appearance for Uncle Jack, who follows the hedgerows up to the meadowlands, as he did many times in his long life.” GS

A short song as Big Big Train ones go, coming in at under four minutes go, it opens with a wistfully delicate guitar and violin that immediately gets under your skin with its sentiment and warmth. This is an exquisitely graceful track that really plucks at your heartstrings, David’s vocal is heartfelt and just brings nostalgia flooding back. The interplay between the violin and guitar is genius, I don’t mind admitting that I had a tear of joy in my eye as it came to an elegant close.

“What shall be left of us?
Which artefacts will stay intact?
For nothing can last…”

Grimspound is a slightly older song than the others on the album. In fact, the drums were recorded by Nick at Real World back when we were making ‘Stone & Steel.’ Big Big Train music contains many historical and archaeological references, and this song is no different in that respect, because it is the name of a Bronze Age settlement on Dartmoor in Devon. When I came to write the lyrics for ‘Grimspound’, I decided that it would be a song about the folklore and myth that surround crows. It is specifically about life, from the perspective of Grimspound the crow.” DL

A slow building opening to the song, a gentle breeze blowing around your mind as the calming music settles upon your soul. There’s a touch of ‘Folklore’ to this track, a more folk edge to the music and the vocals and the repeated musical motif which has become a much loved instrumental earworm to me. Grimspound is a song that just epitomises Big Big Train and their wonderful brand of pastoral progressive rock with its unique Britishness that the fans can relate to. The music is catchy and grabs hold of you and won’t let go but in a gentle and jovial manner, it is music for long summer days in the meadows with meandering streams and for making lifelong memories. The delightful run out with the elegantly nomadic guitar line just adds to the class and charm.

“Upon nights this cold
So the story goes
Some folk say they see the ghost
of Thomas Fisher wait
Outside the Ivy Gate..”

“The origins of this dark song began when I was trying to write a piece called Folklore. This was way before we had decided to call our 2016 album by the same name. The Ivy Gate is a song about family and loss, the perils of childbirth, warfare and faith. It is also a supernatural tale concerning damnation. The Ivy Gate is set during a time of war and centres around the life and times of the ill-fated Fisher family. I met Judy Dyble when she attended the Saturday BBT show at Kings Place. We kept in touch and, as The Ivy Gate developed, I thought that it would make an interesting duet.” DL

The idea of The Ivy Gate being a duet between David and Judy Dyble of Fairport Convention fame borders on genius and gives an elegant fusion of traditional folk and the more pastoral, progressive rock tinged, version that Big Big Train produce. The deep and dark, banjo inspired opening gives real atmosphere and depth to the song right from the off. Judy’s voice adds drama and suspense to the song and a mysterious aura envelops the music, added to by the haunting strains of Rachel’s strings. I feel like I’m transported back in time to be in the middle of a supernatural Victorian spectacle and when David joins in it is almost spine tingling and dramatic. There’s a tense, nervous feel to the music, the violin and banjo adding real tension before the song erupts with Greg’s dynamic bass giving real drive and force to proceedings and progressive overtakes folk as the stimulus. Keyboards swirl, drums are pounded and we are back in the 70’s with a proper prog out instrumental section backing David and Judy’s vocal conjoinment, a powerful musical statement from the band.

“With an eye pressed to the spyglass
counting constellations.
On the shores of distant oceans
charting undiscovered lands;
the collectors and observers,
curators and explorers,
reflectors of light.”

A Mead Hall in Winter began life as a two-minute acoustic guitar and piano instrumental, which was originally intended for the ‘Folklore’ album. Somewhere along the way, Rikard developed his short instrumental into an epic progressive rock piece. Once we had received the initial demo from Rikard and had spent some time getting to grips with the complexities and twists and turns in the song, it was decided that, between the three of us, I would write the vocal melody and backing vocals and Greg would write the words. When I was developing the vocal melodies for A Mead Hall in Winter (which I demoed on the flute), I mentioned to Greg that the song reminded me a little of The Underfall Yard. DL

When David mentioned the connection to The Underfall Yard, I went back to that song and reminded myself of the words. The main theme of the lyrics is the concern that we are losing sight of the Enlightenment values which underlie much of the scientific and social progress that mankind has made in the last few centuries. I thought I would revisit that theme and explore it in greater detail on A Mead Hall in Winter.” GS

A proper ‘prog epic’ at over fifteen minutes, A Mead Hall in Winter is an early favourite of all the Big Big Train fans but, initially, it doesn’t grab me as I’m not a fan of the opening which I feel is a bit messy and almost sounds like an 8 bit Nintendo theme tune from the 80’s. Luckily, after 30 seconds or so, guitar and violin combine to good effect and, as far as I’m concerned, the blue touch paper is lit and we’re off. I love the way that the song seems to drop you slap bang in the middle of the Mead Hall, fire roaring, mead flowing and music playing, it’s really a rather immersive piece of music, one that asks the listener to get involved and become part off. David isn’t just the singer here, he’s a proper troubadour, a minstrel telling stories through the ages and his voice seems to go back in history to echo the early days of the band from ‘The Difference Machine’ and onwards. The captivating and addictive chorus will have you singing along with every word, the harmonised vocals are hauntingly memorable and the little snatches of violin and guitar are the glue that brilliantly hold it all together.

“Artists and dreamers and thinkers are right here by your side…”

Midway through the song we are treated to another entrancing and mesmeric instrumental section that leaves me open mouthed and slack jawed in appreciation. The vocals and instrumentals entwine and combine to deliver an intricate and yet amazingly accessible piece of music that demands to be listened to above all else, stop what you are doing and just concentrate on what is laid before you. The organ section that follows just leaves me transfixed as Rachel’s violin swoops in like Grimspound of the title and dances before your very eyes. Fifteen minutes of sonic delight come to a close with the beguiling vocals and enthralling music resounding in your ears, incredible stuff.

“All here is good,
still and quiet.”

“Sarah’s concept for the cover artwork of the ‘Grimspound’ album has always been that of a crow in flight. Amongst all of the pieces that we have written over the last few years about people and landscape and folk tales we have always featured some songs (or observations within songs) which are more personal in nature. This includes As the Crow Flies. One of the most profound experiences is caring for other people, whether that be for children or aged relatives or others who need support. As the Crow Flies is about the succession of moments of letting go as children prepare to take flight on their own.” GS

As The Crow Flies is perhaps the most personal and melancholy track on the album, when we talk of our children ‘flying the nest’ it is at once both a happy and sad time, it marks a big change in people’s lives and this song has a profound and yet and uncertain timbre to it, echoing perhaps the feelings when we must venture out on our own. The opening to the track has a very sombre tone to it, David’s vocal especially and the music feels like it is treading carefully, almost walking on metaphorical eggshells. The guitar work on this song is as exemplary as ever, almost as if the instrument is talking to you, an accompaniment to David and when Rachel Hall’s delicate voice joins in, it is a thing of ethereal grace and adds hope and longing to lift the feeling of loss that hung over everything. Ultimately our children are our hopes and our futures, we must let them out into the world to become what they are destined to be and to leave their own mark. The sentimental nature of the music and the vocals leaves its mark on my heart and soul and I’m left looking forward to the future, whatever it may bring.

‘Grimspound’ was a hugely anticipated album from one of Progressive Rock’s most revered bands and had to deliver on every front. And it has, many times over, songs like this are what have given Big Big Train the reputation they have today. They are not just music, they are historical tales that take that music and weave it around stories, factual and fictional, to deliver an deeply engaging and riveting spectacle that stays with you forever. This is one sandcastle that no tide will ever wash away…

Band photos by Simon Hogg.

Released 28th April 2017

Buy ‘Grimspound’ on CD from The Merch Desk

Buy ‘Grimspound’ on Vinyl from Burning Shed

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Fierce And The Dead’s Matt Stevens Talks RoSFest

The legend that is Matt Stevens took time this Sunday morning to talk to me about The Fierce And The Dead’s appearance at the recent RoSFest, North America’s premier progressive rock festival.

Among other things, we talk about the tedious process of getting an artist visa, what it’s like playing in a different country, American prog fans and beer, strong beer!

(Featured image of Matt by Jose Ramon Caamano)