Review – Earthside – A Dream In Static – by Shawn Dudley

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If they gave out awards for most ambitious debut albums of the year then Earthside would be the clear winner for 2015. ‘A Dream In Static’, the audacious debut of this Connecticut prog metal quartet was recorded over a two and a half year period, on three different continents.

To ensure they attained the production sound they wanted they travelled to Sweden and worked with renowned engineers Jens Bogren (Opeth, Katatonia)  and David Castillo (Opeth, Bloodbath). Another frequent Opeth collaborator, artist Travis Smith was brought in to design the artwork. The passion evident in the overall project carries over into the music.

‘A Dream In Static’ is evenly split between instrumental cuts and songs that feature the guest vocalists. The risk of featuring multiple vocalists on any project is sometimes the identity can get lost from track to track, but Earthside (mostly) avoids this pitfall with a unified compositional focus that perfectly ties the pieces together into a whole.

The opening instrumental piece The Closest I’ve Come begins the album by introducing us to the character of the core group before the other layers are applied. Their sound is striking; very modern, muscular, melodic and intricately arranged. A lovely looped guitar melody cascades over a synth backing and a driving beat before the rest of band enters. Unlike many prog metal bands the focus here is not on pyrotechnics, it’s creating a mood, an experience. The arrangement continues to build with each section, dynamics always carefully applied; quiet and then soaring, delicate and then aggressive, tension and release. After a lovely guitar solo the song quiets down into a soundscape, synth sounds and real percussion swirling together in the aether before crushing Meshuggah-style guitar chords lead back into the arrangement. It’s dramatic music to be sure, but they’re natural dramatics, not the oft-contrived variety.

The group describes their music as “Cinematic Rock” and nowhere is this more evident than on Entering The Light. The song features guest soloist Max ZT on hammer dulcimer and he creates a lovely wash of sound that intermingles perfectly with the full orchestra. The contribution to this piece by the band is mostly confined to the mid-section bridge. It definitely has a soundtrack quality to it, if I close my eyes while listening I picture low flying helicopter shots of a frozen tundra or some such…exactly the type of reaction I’m sure the band was hoping for.

The most impressive composition on the album is the mid-album centerpiece Skyline. This intricate instrumental has a breathtaking arrangement, the complex layering of piano, synth, 8-string rhythm guitar and soaring melodic lead guitar in the opening sections create a massive enveloping sound. This is contrasted beautifully by a stark bridge featuring just piano and drums, before slowly building into the epic conclusion.

Of the vocal tracks on the album my favorite is the driving title track A Dream In Static featuring Daniel Tompkins from Tesseract. The dramatic balance of melodic and aggressive from the instrumental compositions carry over to the vocal arrangements and the impressive vocal range of Tompkins is used to great effect. There is a Katatonia vibe to this song that also appears in other places on the album.

The lead single from the album is actually the only track that doesn’t really work for me. Mob Mentality is more akin to the symphonic metal style and I have to be honest and admit that isn’t really my cup o’ tea usually. The arrangement of the orchestra and the band is very nicely done and has a huge cohesive sound.  Guest vocalist Lajon Witherspoon’s (Sevendust) R&B-flavored vocals also provide an interesting contrast as usually these types of arrangements go for the operatic approach. But as a whole the song just doesn’t quite gel in my opinion and it also goes on far too long with too many repetitions of the chorus.  The band is actually underused here, this song is practically screaming out for an instrumental mid-section but it never materializes. While a nice attempt, this is the one track that feels out of place with the rest of the album.

The rest of the album fares better with the aggressive instrumental The Ungrounding and the album closing epic Contemplation Of The Beautiful featuring Eric Zirlinger (Face The King) being my other favorites.

Color me impressed. Despite my love of progressive rock and my love of good heavy metal I can’t say I’m usually that much of a Prog Metal fan. There are a few exceptions, but mostly the combination just doesn’t quite work for me.  I’m very glad to have found another exception.

Earthside has crafted an impressive work with ‘A Dream In Static’, one that could prove difficult to surpass with their sophomore effort.  But I’m laying odds they can top it.

Released 23rd October 2015

Buy the CD with complimentary download direct from the band

Buy the download from the band’s bandcamp site

 

 

Review – Arcade Messiah – Arcade Messiah II – by Progradar

Arcade-Messiah-II-Cover

There is a place in music for everything. There is a place for quiet and contemplative and a place for upbeat and energetic. Heartwarming and heartbreaking can be found in every listener’s record collection. I mean, even the blasted wasteland of thrash and death metal will float quite a few people’s boats somewhere.

Yes, as individuals we can shut ourselves off from what we dislike to concentrate on the music that resonates and innovates our souls but, that doesn’t mean there isn’t someone, somewhere who really appreciates that which we do not. Yes, even chart music, the anodyne, tasteless blurb that blasts out from shopping centres all across the world, even that has its place, much as it pains me to say it.

As  a music reviewer I try to cover a hell of a lot of bases and keep my musical tastes varied and relatively indiscriminate. I like the beauty and soul that emanates from a lot of progressive music but, then again, I also like the hard hitting and innovative too. And, sometimes, I just like to listen to something that blows my bloody socks off and tries to remove what little hair I have left.

One artist whose music resonates with me for its power and deep down raw energy is John Bassett. English multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter and producer John hails from Hastings in Sussex. He first came to my notice as the driving force behind the Progressive Rock band Kingbathmat who are well known for their style of prog that combines cutting vocal melodies with sledgehammer riffs and psychedelia.

As well as the eight albums he has released with the band, John also released a brilliant, acoustic based, solo album ‘Unearth’ last year but, it is John’s other solo instrumental project, Arcade Messiah, that is the centre of attention for this review.

The first, self-titled, Arcade Messiah album was released last year to wide acclamation. I penned these words about it, “Dark, bleak and full of despair it may be but, when it is this good, that pales into insignificance as one of the UK’s premier progressive musicians re-invents himself with assured aplomb once again.” 

Arcade Messiah Album Cover

It was also bloody monstrous, a huge tapestry of immense musical brilliance and John is just about to release the follow up to the album, imaginatively titled ‘Arcade Messiah II’.

John was surprised by the success of the first album and that spurred him on to record the follow up, hopefully bigger, better and more refined but without losing the edginess of the first release.

Produced and recorded by him in his studio in Hastings, it has quite a lot to live up to…..

John Bassett Promo 3

John has gone to the unusual lengths of releasing the download for 99p but, it is the CD version that I review here. This includes a near nineteen minute cover of The Four Horsemen by Aphrodite’s Child. There is absolutely no way I was missing out on that!

First things first, the artwork, absolutely stunning and carrying on the style first encountered on the debut Arcade Messiah release.

The main album is eight tracks of near-perfect instrumental hard rock with an infinite depth to it. Opener Moon Signal is a perfect marker for what is to follow with its restrained opening, the resonant guitar sound of John Bassett instantly recognisable. When the thunderous riffs and almighty drums kick in, it is enough to knock you back a step or to, immensely powerful and not for the faint-hearted. You feel yourself surfing on a huge wave of sonic dominance and you know you will fall off the wave eventually so enjoy the ride while you can. There is no let up to the ferocity of the precisely engineered music and it is highly addictive, please approach with caution. Red Widow carries on in a similar vein, this time with a menacing background aura to it. Compelling and commanding, it has a real heavy metal riff running throughout it, a sound that is granite hard as it hits you from all sides. Believe me when I say it is like a beautiful aural assault and one that you cannot back down from. It is like staring into an endless, limitless abyss and still jumping in with no safety line, obsessively habit-forming.

Taking the mysterious route, Black Dice Maze opens up with an enigmatic guitar note, lighter, lithe and agile. It is almost hypnotic in the way that its featherlight tendrils touch your synapses, leaving you in a calm and collected mood. The complete antithesis to what has gone before it would seem but, wait, all is not as you would presume it to be and another monstrous riff kicks in and drags you along in its wake. The mercilessly incessant drums and quick fire licks hook you in and steal your soul as this roller coaster ride of instrumental inventiveness carries you away on an influx of musical torque only to leave you exhausted on some metaphorical shore. Will there be time to catch your breath? It would appear so as the gentle undulating calmness of the guitar introduces Gallows Way, an altogether much more serene proposition. A tranquil and harmonious contrast to the intense maelstrom that has preceded it. At three minutes, a relatively short but perfectly placed respite and one that allows you to collect your thoughts before moving on to more of the dangerously addictive towering musical force that is Arcade Messiah.

John Bassett Promo 5

Fourth Quarter strides confidently into the room on the back of a coruscating guitar and stylish drum beat. Almost like a mind control drug, you find yourself focusing on that astringent guitar note as it overwhelms your very being. A guitar-led break impacts with even more of the bleak, barren grace that radiates from this track. Reminiscent of a post-nuclear landscape that has been scorched and left with a naked and raw beauty, this song really impacts on your soul. Just over one minute of refined, statuesque refinement, Via Occulta packs a lot of intent and meaning into a very short timescale, I just wish it was longer.

By the time you reach the sixth track, you are comfortably ensconced in the metaphorical musical seat that John Bassett has provided for you. Read The Sky is another intensely acute listening experience that washes over you as if you were a gravel shoreline being assaulted by rolling Atlantic breakers. Meticulously created riffs from another planet hit you from every angle leaving you a laughing, maniacal wreck, the experience is vivid as your synapses reverberate with the brilliantly vivid soundscapes created by this innovative musician. Almost like a meditative come-down, the introduction to Start Missing Everybody is an esoteric opposite to the general atmosphere with a guitar note that feels like Ennio Morricone could have invented it. Hold your horses though, the thunderous musical train is on the track and coming your way with no brakes, the final run out of the song pulverising your senses before it comes to an abrupt close.

So, onto the CD bonus track and the cover of The Four Horsemen by Aphrodite’s Child. Perhaps with more of a feel of KingBathmat to it, it is quite an impressive musical odyssey. Mesmerising guitars and dynamic drums and bass combine to deliver one of the best tracks of the year. You really do get lost in the striking grandeur of the music, a wide-ranging vista of imposing melodic inspiration and sagacity and one that takes over your world for the nineteen minutes of its duration.

John

‘Arcade Messiah II’ takes all that was good with the first album and enhances by taking the raw, coruscating energy of the first release and developing it into a superb sound that, while holding nothing back, is full of nuances and intelligence. A ‘Wall of Sound’ that makes Phil Spector’s look like a diminutive picket fence and it is quite possibly the best thing this highly talented musician has ever produced.

Released 22nd November 2015

Buy direct from the artist’s bandcamp page

 

 

 

 

Review – T- Fragmentropy – by Rob Fisher

Fragmentropy

Heraclitus is famously alleged to have said that we cannot step into the same river twice. Everything changes, everything is in the process of change, nothing remains the same and nothing lasts. This is true of the universe as much as it is true of human life. And for 75 gloriously intense minutes Thomas Thielen gives us a masterful, insightful and quite profound philosophical musical poem to both the exasperations as well as the joys of what it means to be alive.

‘Fragmentropy’ is about moments, episodes, dipping your toe again and again into the coursing, vibrant, inevitably chaotic river of life. It is a force we barely understand, are carried along in its swirls, eddies and currents to a destination we know not where. Along the way we discover joy and sorrow, we find and are found, we love, are loved, are parted from love and have it ripped from us.

We fight, we struggle, we laugh, we delight; in our search for meaning we mistake the profound for the mundane and the mundane for the profound. It is not easy being human; it is a struggle. At nearly 3 years in the making, ‘Fragmentropy’ eloquently captures it all and captures it quite brilliantly.

That we are dealing with the same river is beyond doubt. This is an album which naturally flows (sic) from T’s hugely powerful 2012 musical commentary ‘Psychoanorexia’ where the spotlight is firmly fixed on the mediocrity of modern life. The ability to appreciate and savour the depths and the heights of what life has to offer us is sacrificed on the altar of celebrating the shallow, the bland, the ordinary and the common place.

‘Fragmentropy’ is much more adventurous, more daring, more challenging. By the time we dip our toes in the waters again, T has taken several steps further and invites us to understand that there are bigger questions with which we need to grapple. In the process of answering these questions, this album is at its revealing best. It is full of wondrous mystery and restless curiosity; in many respects the music represents the simple open-minded attitude of the inquisitive child facing the universe and asking ‘why?’ again and again, wanting to know but never satisfied with the responses received.

At the same time T lays down a strong scientific thread (again following on from ‘Psychoanorexia’). His poem is in three parts; Anisotropic Dances (Chapter One), The Politics of Entropy (Chapter Two) and The Art of Double Binding (Chapter Three). Each chapter is a toe dipped in the water, musical soundings which struggle to reveal the patterns which shape our lives. The album is a question, or rather, an on-going set of questions which invite you into a conversation with the ideas and the feelings being evoked and painted on the musical canvas before you.

As such what quickly becomes clear is this could only be the work of a single artist and never a band; there is a unified vision directing the musical currents and eddies, a mind which brings with it determination, a quiet but assured confidence which shines through again and again in music which is laden with an abundance of attitude, with spirit which briefly enjoys the settled symphonic and melodic present but which quickly dissipates into a discordant wrestling with the troubled moments life brings.

Caught up in it all are the most wonderful and sublime textures: musical textures, intellectual textures, emotional textures all fused and seamlessly intermingling into a beautiful tapestry of sound. In this respect ‘Fragmentropy’ is a stunning pinnacle of intelligent creative musical achievement. Thielen has always been an innovator, both enjoying as well as experimenting with music and sound. He understands, like few others, that they are not the same and yet their partnership is vital. From ‘Naive’ (2002) through ‘Voices’ (2006), ‘Anti-Matter Poetry’ (2010) and ‘Psychoanorexia’ (2013) he has been consistently building unique musical spaces.

Thomas Thielen 2

These albums aren’t simply about the sounds the instruments make, even though he single-handedly plays everything you hear. It is about combining musical creativity with instrumental technique; it is about how to blend sounds, how to arrange music, how to record it, mix it, produce it and ultimately how to use these as part of the musical experience itself.

Everything you hear is mixed, engineered, recorded and produced by T. These ‘tools’ are no less instruments than those he plays. What ‘Fragmentropy’ finally shows us is what happens when the musical project finally comes together, slots into place and delivers an album which is stunning in its vision, exemplary in its delivery and phenomenal in capturing the momentary fragmented songs of human living.

And what amazing songs they are too. The attention to detail is mesmerising; spend some time with the lyrics alone to see the passionate intensity and sculpted finesse of poetic vignettes, nuanced allusions and literary breadcrumbs housing piercing observations and sentiments. Then listen carefully to the way these are integrated into each track.

It is not just a voice which carries and delivers the full range of human emotion, clear echoes and strains of Bowie (and maybe Hogarth) in soulful enunciation one minute, driving and biting the next; it is also the way the voice itself is used as a texture and blended into the movement of each track.

For example, check out time points circa 9.50 of Brand New Mornings (Track 2), 4.57 in Entanglement (Track 4) and 5.30 in Eigenstates (Track 5). These are (momentous) states of transition from dissonant passages that are full of storm and fury to tranquil calm and soothing peacefulness. The contrasts are disarming and the effect much like the rays of the sun emerging from behind the clouds.

And yet each transition itself is a fragment in a series of fragments which highlights the themes of the album generally. The keyboard work, particularly the piano, is a presence which infuses everything, sometimes in the centre ground of melodic symphonies, sometimes a lone voice against a curtain of silence, sometimes a faint echo peeking through layered guitar work.

The drumming is quite brilliant in the range of tones and techniques which are employed, dominant and almost overpowering one minute, subtle, coy almost submissive the next. The bass is lovely; undulating, driving, menacing but never intrusive or demanding of attention. It is the current which moves the river along, the pigment at the heart of the textures.

Guitars are bewildering in the way they weave the plot and tell the story; so much intensity cascading away into magical riffs, in turn falling into the background, drawing breath and building again. There is so much going on here it is impossible to take it all in or properly appreciate at times the sheer genius at work in its orchestration.

Special mention must also go to Katia Tangian’s incredible photography which is startling, challenging and poignant. Take time to compare the cover from ‘Psychoanorexia’ and the transition to the cover of ‘Fragmentropy’. Life mirrors art; the covers are perfect foils for the themes contained within. They are themselves another stimulating layer to add to the textures of musical experience.

Don’t be surprised if you do not understand what you encounter when you first hear this album. Don’t be surprised if you are still scratching your head after the second, third and maybe even the fourth listen either. It is not ‘easy listening’, nor, given what has gone into its composition, should you expect it to be. Good things come to those who persevere and this hidden gem is no exception. It demands attention, asks for your time, expects your effort and invites your curiosity.

I fervently urge anyone who listens not to give up on it. Wrestle with it, engage with it, join the conversation and undertake the voyage which is being offered to you. Each time you play it you certainly will not step into the same river twice. It will open itself up to you again and again and again. And when it does, my goodness: take a deep, deep breath and cry out in delight because it really is an absolute treat.

Released 11th September 2015

Buy direct from Progressive Promotion Records

Review – Comedy of Errors – Spirit – by Progradar

CoE Spirit

“Human spirit is the ability to face the uncertainty of the future with curiosity and optimism. It is the belief that problems can be solved, differences resolved. It is a type of confidence. And it is fragile. It can be blackened by fear, and superstition….” – Bernard Beckett.

“It’s not so much the journey that’s important; as is the way that we treat those we encounter and those around us, along the way.” – Jeremy Aldana.

To me, the beauty of music is the way it can tell a story, heartwarming or heartbreaking, it doesn’t matter. The best albums take you on a musical and spiritual journey, one that will, hopefully, leave you in a better place than when you started.

The journey isn’t always easy, there will be highs and lows, moments of sheer ecstasy and moments of utter despair. It is becoming a rare ability to write and perform songs that can move you emotionally and make a difference to your life and I spend most of my days searching for that scarce and rarefied commodity.

Recently I was the lucky recipient of the latest album from the esteemed Scottish progressive band Comedy of Errors and it promised to be one of those rare beasts, a work of music that would be challenging yet profound and, ultimately, life affirming.

‘Spirit’ is the band’s most musically ambitious album so far, representing a major step forward in the band’s development, dealing with themes of grief, loss and ultimately, hope. The cornerstone of the album is a 45 minute unbroken piece taking the form of an emotional journey at once personal and universal, despairing and uplifting.

Live

After a long absence from the scene, Comedy of Errors re-formed in 2010 and have been busy increasing their profile since then through gigging at venues in the UK and Europe and appearing on the bill at several UK prog festivals. They are excited and delighted to add the United States to the growing list following an invitation from the organizers to play at Rosfest 2016.

They have also released 3 albums during that time, their first album effectively being ‘Disobey’ (2011) followed by ‘Fanfare and Fantasy’ (2013) and their most recent album ‘Spirit’ released in October 2015.

Based near Glasgow, Scotland, Comedy of Errors are Joe Cairney (Vocals), John Fitzgerald (Bass), Bruce Levick (Drums), Jim Johnston (Keyboards), Sam McCulloch (Guitar) and Mark Spalding (Guitar).

Joe, Jim and Mark were in a former incarnation of the band some years ago where they gigged extensively and released various demos during that period. When they disbanded Jim kept on working on revising songs and writing new music before getting the band back together in 2010.

Piano

The main track, Spirit, has been divided into multiple tracks but, as the CD booklet says:

“…..these divisions and titles are arbitrary; the ‘song’ is in fact one long single unbroken piece of music best listened to in its entirety from beginning to end.”

For the sake of the review I am going to follow the band’s ‘arbitrary’ subdivisions….

You’re God and You let me down, My grief lies all within….

The opening to My Grief Lies All Within is almost revelatory, the keyboards waking you from a stupor before the rest of the band arrive with a cacophony of guitar heavy staccato notes. There then follows a more pensive section, thought provoking, before Joe’s immediately recognisable vocal takes up the tale. The track takes on a choral feel with the harmonies and organ like keyboards, the bass and drums delivering an even handed tempo. Emotive and stirring, Joe Cairney’s voice is the centrepiece around which everything is grounded. There seems a sadness deep at the core of this powerful song, a poignancy that pervades the melancholy guitar solo that runs out the track.

Playing with our hopes we bow to you, in helpless, hapless, hopeless despair….

There is a seamless segue into Infinite Wisdom which is a fast paced, almost frenetic two minutes of sceptical hell or no notion. An anger consumes the vocal and gives a slightly menacing feel to the whole track.

Spirit shines, Undiminished, Like a flower, Gentle, unbreakable….

This quite unique musical experience continues with Spirit Shines/Spirit, a slow burning build up leaving tendrils of warmth enveloping your very soul. There follows an uplifting, feel-good piece of music with a repeated vocal motif that just really ‘gets’ you emotionally and I feel the tears welling up, tears of joy and happiness, as if a great weight has been lifted from your shoulders. Joe’s vocal delivers empathy and succour in equal measure, his compassion and the delicate piano note lift you up and leave your very being re-born.

Tension…….tightening, Frightening……dread….

Uncertainty is the overwhelming mood that is imparted at the beginning of Can This Be Happening/Timeless, anxiety and concern leech from the song. The music is measured one minute and hectic and unsure the next. A maelstrom attacks your aural senses leaving you misdirected and momentary lost, all the moods and emotions imparted by the excellence of the musicians and conducted by Joe’s commanding, theatrical delivery.

We gather together in darkness, While endlessly waiting for answers…

The questions continue with In Darkness Let Me Dwell, we seek the answer to the eternal question of a greater being. A dominating bass line runs throughout this compelling track. Joe’s vocal is both questing and demanding. A profound, complex and intricate song and one that leaves more questions than answers….

Abstract

Destroyer of Angels, On the wind of your breath, you deal out disaster, Destruction and death.

A reverie of angelic voices opens I Call And Cry To Thee, leaving you somewhat in rapture, a timely pause to allow your soul and senses to catch up with you. A solemnity surrounds everything, a contemplative yet austere tone that is carelessly tossed aside by the compelling, hard-edged riff that overtakes everything, like a musical tsunami. Joe Cairney’s challenging vocal then takes over, still demanding of the heavenly entity, leaving a melancholia surrounding proceedings.

Set your spirit free….

A calm reflectiveness descends as Set Your Spirit Free/Goodbye My Love Until We Meet Again begins. An ethereal, wistful instrumental that plucks at the heart strings with a feeling of letting go, a finality of slightly sorrowful bereavement.

Spirit shines, like a flower, Gentle, unbreakable.

A very moving introduction, fateful and momentous holds your attention as Ascension/Et Resurrexit/Auferstehen – Arise In Love Sublime, Arise – Spirit builds into something utterly sublime, The organ note from the keyboards transfixes you with its celestial grace and then Joe repeats the refrain from Spirit Shines, inspirational and incredibly moving. A spiritual and refined experience that fills your heart with love and compassion.

Rise again, oh rise again in everlasting love…..

Another perfect transition and Into The Light continues the uplifting atmosphere. The transition from despair, grief and loss to hope and joy is nearly complete. The vocals lead us with the realisation that we shouldn’t question the greater powers, where there is death, there will always be love and happiness, our is not to reason why. The joyous music is an outpouring of both grief and delight and lifts up your soul to greater heights.

The Time and distance disappear, beyond the rooftops twilight urban glow..

The final segment of this epic journey is Above The Hills and is as full of hope and longing as the earlier tracks were of anguish and despondency. Joe’s mercurial voice leads the whole band in a jubilant celebration of life and of death. A nostalgic note creeps into his voice, a hint of sadness but with a thoughtful edge. The culmination of an eventful journey though life, love, despair and happiness, that these superb musicians can impart this whole gamut of emotions through their music is testament to their songwriting skill and musicianship.

Aubitt

Part 2 ‘Epilogue

This Is How It Has To Be is a brilliant instrumental where the skills of the musicians come to the fore. The drums and bass provide the backbone on which the rest of the instruments can rely. A demonstrative guitar guides you through the rest of the track, ably abetted by the delightful keyboards. A reflective musical trip that really gets you thinking, the change into a Mike Oldfield style second half is clever and gives the song a second lease of life. A livelier, shanty style that really gets your foot tapping, quite ingenious.

The closing track on this particular copy is the Spirit (single) and it is a worthy addition to the album bringing back all sorts of emotions as you hear Joe singing that fantastic refrain once more, a quite sublime song with a superb guitar solo.

Do you believe music has soul? I do and, when it is as deeply involving and emotionally uplifting (and draining to be honest!) as this, it becomes life affirming in many ways. All the songs were written by Jim Johnston but I’m sure even he would agree that they are given life by the whole of Comedy of Errors. A contender for album of the year and one that should be gracing everybody’s music collection, just brilliant.

Released 20th October 2015

Buy Spirit direct from the band

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review – Spock’s Beard – The First Twenty Years – by Gary Morley

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‘Time’, it’s a strange thing. Undetectable without relying on specialist intervention – slow motion or time lapse cameras show us its effect, mirrors reflect the effect it has on us. Time is both measure and measured, we slice it up and record its passing, yet time is the single most important concept we have. Without it, there is no ‘now’ and no ‘future’ or ‘past’.

If someone in the future invents a time machine and travels back, we would know it, wouldn’t we? They’d stop wars, point humanity on the right path to prevent destruction of the planet, encourage us to support the exploration of outer space, reveal the evil of reality TV etc.

If there is such a machine and such people were taking requests, then I think Spock’s Beard need to borrow that time machine to go back and meet their earlier selves.

The one thing they need to communicate, without putting the future of the universe at risk with causality and paradox, is they should seriously think about changing their name. No matter how good they are as musicians, no matter how epic their epic tracks are, the name conjures up all the wrong associations. Geek chic it ain’t…

Twenty years of Spock’s Beard. To me, they are part of the “new wave” of Prog, post Genesis, and post Twelfth Night et al. They write long, epic tracks and started as they meant to go on with complex multi-part tracks that are polished and assembled on this chronological trip.

The first piece by them I’d heard, from a cover mount free CD was At the End of The Day and it wormed its way into my consciousness. I went on a voyage of discovery, picking up second hand copies of their albums, then deluxe first editions as they were released. I didn’t realise but SB and it’s off shoots, side projects and affiliates take up a large chunk of my modern Prog pile. The tentacles spread out, from Transatlantic to Roine Stolt’s Flower Kings to Neal Morse’s solo work to some bunch of internet sprout wranglers; the Beard has links to it all.

Yet they are not mentioned in the same pages that eulogise Mr Wilson, fawn at the uttering’s of lesser talents with better haircuts. But they deserve their place in such company.

They write record and perform long, complex pieces; they can rock out with the best, with an instantly identifiable sound. It is a broad pallet of sound – vocal harmonies, kicking brass section, attacking keyboards, and guitars too, underpinned by some severe drumming talent.

Photo taken in Altadena on 03/11/15.

In many ways, Spock’s Beard are the quintessential American Prog band. Musically adept, lyrically optimistic, almost slavish attention to detail. There is a lot going on in these tracks, almost too much at times: This “everything but the kitchen sink” approach is evident in the tracks that start this CD.

The younger version of SB, fronted by a scarily long haired version of Neal Morse, seemed to want to be taken seriously, very seriously. Every track is a constructed of multiple parts, instrumental breaks and moments of sublime beauty. The Guitar and keyboard coda of the track in question still makes me stop and hold my breath.

The cynical amongst us may deride SB as Genesis wannabe’s as there are striking similarities between the evolution of both bands.

  1. Both bands produced complex, multi part tracks across their first albums.
  2. Both bands “lost” their original vocalists and replaced them with the incumbent drummer stepping up to the front.
  3. Both vocalists departed leaving, as their swansong, complex double concept albums in their wake.
  4. Both bands then changed to a more direct, full on direction and reaped the benefit of commercial success.

But here our stories diverge, as SB then floundered with a mid career fallow patch ( to me, “Feel Euphoria” was a band in a holding pattern) .They then rediscovered their Prog Mojo with “ Octane” , the opening  7  part concept sees them at their best ,describing  a car accident from the POV of the driver. The sheer beauty of his life unfurling is a testament to the collective ability of the ensemble in that it skates close to cloying sentimentality. But the combination of words and music convey the love of life and of hope in the face of adversity which reflects the lyrical obsessions of Mr Morse and the spiritual quest that pulled him away from the band.

One part of this epic, my favourite post Morse SB piece, is here in burnished re-mastered glory.

She Is Everything is one of Prog’s great love songs. A song that makes you want to share the joy of this experience, the lyrical content is crafted around a tune that comes straight out of the classic pop tunes book. It’s a love song that in a few short verses leaves you fully understanding the depth of feeling conveyed, but without getting caught up in sentimentality.

I mentioned earlier Neal Morse’s swansong, “Snow”, my favourite SB album.

It’s that most “Prog” thing, a concept album detailing the life of Snow, an albino loner with a psychic ability. He grows up in the Midwest, move to New York, undergoes an epiphany , uses his powers for good, falls in love with the wrong girl, ends up fulfilling his prophetic vision of his future ( see, time again! ) then gets saved by his friends.

Mixing Christian myth, Robert Heinlein’s ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ and taking the good from every concept album ever written, bits of ‘Tommy’, ‘The Lamb’, ‘The Wall’ & Bowie and Roeg’s ‘The Man who fell to Earth’ all are thrown into the pot. There are bits that Yes would be proud of, Marillion would recognise and ELP would tap their feet to. In short, it is the quintessential Prog Rock concept album.

But if that all sounds clichéd, it succeeds on the strength of the music. It ebbs and flows beautifully, from a gentle acoustic representation of Snow’s innocent childhood to the depravity of the cess pit of New York to the pain of unrequited love through the depths of despondency and out on the wings of hope and love.

The tune selected for here, The Wind At My Back is the centre of the piece, appearing twice at the climax of both discs. Its harmonies and themes run all through the album and serves as a fitting memorial to Mr Morse’s tenure as vocalist.

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If this Collection has done nothing else, it’s made me dig out my SB CD’s, and go looking to fill the gaps in my collection.

X, represented by The Jaws of Heaven seems a return to the more Prog rock version of SB than the previous albums, with this track highlighting the keyboard strengths of the band. There’s a whole raft of sounds – Mellotron, piano, strings, brass all flowing together and complimenting Nick D’Virgilio’s fine vocals.

Over the two discs of this compilation we have witnesses the young Prog overachievers throw everything into the mix, then slow down, give us vocal harmonies, fine melodies and songs, become increasingly adventurous with their lyrical subjects which culminated in an epic modern fable. Then the singer quits and their drummer takes over.

The band move onto new terrain, ploughing a rockier landscaper, but still sowing the seeds of Prog, they start to really find their musical point in the cosmos with a trio of albums…

And then they lose another front man! NDV jumps tracks and we all know which train he’s hitched his wagon to!

It’s starting to read like a Prog Spinal Tap here, without the gardening joke, but nothing is going to slow the progress of the Beard. If you’ve lost a front man, not a problem: steal (or borrow, though do you have to give him back?) one from another band.

Enter Ted Leonard from US Prog metal band, Enchant. Now I had a couple of Enchant CD’s once. They didn’t survive the great CD purge. They were nice, inoffensive formulaic Prog Metal. Too twiddly for me to be honest, the downfall of Dream Theater in my humble opinion. I go for the Miles Davis approach. Play one note instead of ten as long as it’s the right note.

Jump to 2013 and the release of “Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep”.  And it sounds like the old SB, back to their proggy best. The track chosen here, Waiting for Me features the SB “sound”, vocal harmonies and glorious melody, a superb production as we have come to expect. This track shows how far the band has travelled but they’ve still retained their core spirit. They use keyboards to complement the guitar as did Deep Purple before the departure of Mr Blackmore. Drums are high in the mix, but unlike Metallica , SB have a world class percussionist who drives the songs forward rather than running alongside trying to grab the steering wheel.

The penultimate track is the first track on their most recent album. Criticisms have been levelled at the band for moving away from their sound, but, on the evidence of this track, the 2015 SB is rolling on nicely, with some great guitar and keyboard touches. The Deep Purple comparison is very evident with the Hammond being prominent, but to me, this is a good move as that classic sound of guitar, Hammond, bass and drums drives the song onward.

Photo taken in Altadena on 03/11/15.

And so, gentle reader, we reach the track that most Beard heads will be forking out for. A track that promises all 3 front men together (well appearing on the same song). And we start with gentle piano and strings, then a very Early Yes like rhythm and sound.

It’s Very Yes like. The Proper Yes. Roger Dean Artwork Yes.

There’s a nice instrumental section, with all working together to create a melange of melody. Guitars are edgy and the metal influences are there, but the big Prog chords and drums keep them firmly in their place.

The music swells and slows, we are anticipating vocals as the rhythm changes and we get acoustic guitar a drum then a voice.

More voices, it’s no longer a song of parts as the song moves through a very folksy part with at least 2 different voices singing parts, then we switch moods again and a third, much more rock voice appears.

I’m enjoying the interplay of instruments and voices on this first listen, I’m not too focused on the lyrics as they flow with the tune and I’m more interested in the structure first, lyrics second.

This is possibly a result of continued exposure to bands singing in languages I’m not conversant in ( i.e. everything except English) but as I get older and the reading of lyrics stops being feasible due to CD sized fonts and ole eyes, I find it easier to concentrate on the whole thing.

And…

Well, it’s a Spock’s Beard epic track. Lots of glorious vocal harmony. Glasses full of guitar and keyboards. There are fine performances from all 3 singers.

As you would expect, their voices complement each other, the sound is one that SB have perfected. It’s a compliment to them that time flies by as you listen. The track allows them to do what they do best.

Listening again (the third time) this track reminded me of another band. It opens as if it’s from those dextrous players on a cosmic adventure, Utopia, circa 1973 when Todd Rundgren was in full cosmic flow, expanding his (and our) consciousnesses.

The more I listen, the more the track strikes me as a statement of where American Prog is today. Think of a line drawn from Utopia, through Kansas, up across the Boston Guitar Mountains to the Glass Hammer lakes, there you will find a dam built by these eager beavers of Prog. All that music is held back and they tap it off into these epics.

There’s even a drum solo hidden in there and leads us on to an extended instrumental piece that ties all the different SB threads together. Guitars weave as the tempo increases, the keyboards are fighting for their place in the sun, the interplay between them and the drums is pure SB and all the more welcome for that. I can see this going down a storm live, with the big solo closing piece giving the lighting designer a chance to stun the watchers as the closing lyric wafts over the rapturous audience.

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If you’ve never dabbled in the world of Spock’s Beard, then this compilation is a fine way to start. Chronological and logical, it gives a true flavour of the band. Personally, I’ would have included live tracks as that’s when the interplay between them as musicians really comes into play.

Also, I’d have chosen different tracks. I would have included Devil’s Got My Throat from “Snow” which is as noisy and rocking as the title suggests. I’d feature more from “Day for Night” and “V”, but then they were the first SB CD’s I owed.

At the price this is floating around for, it’s a great summary of a great American Prog band.

They will never be out there on the edge, pushing the envelope of Prog, but if you want songs, actual tunes you can hum or even sing along to, then dip you toes in the Beard’s world. It’s a rather fine place to spend an evening or two with a glass of good wine.

Released 20th November 2015

Buy The First Twenty Years from Inside Out Music

 

 

 

 

Review – Henrik Fevre – A Summer Can Change Everything- by Progradar

Henrik Fevre Album cover

Danish singer, songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist Henrik Fevre has traversed a multitude of musical genres in his career to date. Better known as current vocalist and long time member of the well respected Danish progressive metal band Anubis Gate he has also released three previous solo albums and dabbled in all sorts including jazz, pop and dance.

This year has seen Henrik return to his solo roots for an album of quiet, minimalistically composed and arranged songs, often for piano and voice only.

A Summer Can Change Everything is a real departure for this accomplished musician (and this website if I’m honest!) and it allows his delightful voice to shine through and be the centre-piece of the album.

The gentle piano is a perfect accompaniment and leaves the listener in a music induced trance where seemingly nothing can harm you or affect your reverie. It is an utterly bewitching collection of carefully constructed songs that grabs you with its ethereal grace from the first piano led introduction to Life at sea and the jazz tinged finesse of Love.

With lyrics that deal with the hardships and ups and downs of life and growing up, it is an immersive musical experience, the lilting laid back charm of The Elegant Dancer imprints itself on your soul, powerful and beguiling and the sparse and yet refined beauty of Safe and Dreams and Compromise is utterly captivating.

The arrangements are deliberately kept simple, Clouded with its unelaborate lyrics, haunting vocals and effortless piano is a perfect case in point as it increases in intensity to mark the whole fibre of your being. Thoughtful and uncomplicated, with a childlike grace Pride is a particular highlight and the dancing piano lights up your mind.

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Touches of pop, jazz and contemporary chamber music can be heard throughout this pure and exquisite release. The charming simplicity of It’s Only Me transfixes you, there is no need for embellishment or hyperbole to tarnish the sheer artistry and delicacy of Inconfidence with its seductive saxophone or the vocal allure of After All, this is music at its simple and organic best.

The whole album has been building up to the ten minute title track, A Summer Can Change Everything is a seductive musical journey through your own soul. I advise you to find yourself a quiet place of contemplation where you can shut yourself off from the real world, put your headphones on and just enjoy the musical wonderment of this bewitching song. The cultivated piano ambles along leaving behind a feeling of utter repose and tranquility in its wake. Henrik’s serenely impassive vocal imparts a note of well being and contentment to leave you utterly relaxed and spellbound and lays the foundation for the one minute lusciousness of the final track NextFloor Neighbour.

A man of many talents, Henrik Favre  has delivered a vocal masterpiece that is nearly flawless. When things get too much for you or you just want a moment of reflection, shut yourself away from the outside world, put this little gem on the stereo and press play, there is no better antidote.

Released 29th October 2015 via matchman records

email direct to order the CD : matchmanrecords@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

Review – The Dave – Gravity – by Progradar

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Let me get one thing out of the way straight away, I don’t think The Dave is the best name for an artist. Only Dave Foster will know why he didn’t use his own name for this solo project but I just wish he had, my opinion only, mild rant over.

Dave Foster will be better known to you lot out there as the guitarist with noted Northern rock band Mr So & So, progressive stalwarts Panic Room and for being the guitar player and co-writer in legendary Marillion guitarist Steve Rothery’s band. It goes without saying that his CV is pretty impressive.

Now Dave is currently in the process of writing and recording a new solo album (thankfully using his own name) called ‘Dreamless’ so it seemed the right time to visit his debut release from August 2011, ‘Gravity’, and give it the Progradar ‘going over’.

I’m a sucker for great album art and the cover design for ‘Gravity’, by leading artist Antonio Seijas, is very striking indeed. A good start then but let’s check out the music and see what The Dave has in store for us….

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‘Gravity’ is mainly an instrumental album but there are a few vocal tracks and my first impression is that it gives something more than your average guitar guru’s solo album.

First track Tesla could be straight out of the Joe Satriani songbook with intricate guitar histrionics. There are enough searing licks, riffs and solos to keep even the most avid guitar nut happy and it shows straight from the off that Dave Foster is one sublime guitar player. Convoluted and extremely intense, it is a thrill-a-minute hell ride on the flaming vapour trails of Dave’s fluid guitar playing. You just know from the title that Summer Sky is going to be a real feel good track and it doesn’t disappoint. Like a gentle amble on a lazy summer’s day it asks nothing of you other than to listen and enjoy. The keyboards and drums lay down a silky smooth foundation on which Dave can build with his supreme guitar playing. There is a fluent feel to the music as it flows serenely around your mind. Fast paced but never hectic, you set off on an unhurried journey and arrive calm and collected.

Paradox is the first track co-written by and featuring Dinet Poortman on vocals. This is a more straightforward rock track, very much in the Panic Room vein, and, as such, the guitar takes a step back. Dinet’s vocals are rich and luscious and add a velvet coating to this thoughtful song. Not what you were expecting on a guitar based album? Does it matter?, not one jot, it actually adds another dimension to this already impressive album. Back to the instrumental but with a much more serious and sober feel, Liberty Bridge is dense and pensive as a whole. The guitar drips sincerity and ennui then, occasionally, the light seems to break free and shine brightly. There is something crucial and weighty at the heart of proceedings, the sense of adventure generally reined in but, when it does manage to break the stranglehold, it illuminates with a fiery light.

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Polarised is an electronica edged pulsating industrial metal track that feels like it has the weight of the world on its shoulders. Dave (I think it’s him) provides a downbeat vocal that is all determined and no-nonsense and the guitar riff could have come from the depths of Motorhead’s debased mind, all dirty, edgy and darkly humorous. Fans of 90’s band Ministry will love the thundering guitars and restless keyboards and the guitar solo that closes out the track is pure, sublime theatre. Dinet Poortman returns on Only A Lullaby, a halting track that takes on a symphonic, female fronted metal mantle. Within Temptation and Nightwish come to mind but this is taken to a higher level. There is something dark and dangerous hiding in the shadows, an alien intelligence that gives this song something special. Once again, Dinet’s vocals are really special, she has voice that infiltrates your whole being and it works brilliantly with Dave’s coruscating guitar note which, on this track, burns slowly igniting something infernal inside you.

Apollo 13 is the most complex and elaborate song on the album, blending intricate, brooding sections of music with voice overs from the original space mission. It has a real sense of history and nostalgia to it and occasionally opens up into a heightened and passionate outpouring of brilliant guitar playing. Where the other tracks on the album seem to leave you to get on with your life as you enjoy them, this one demands you stop what you’re doing and give it 100% of your attention. A mesmerising, winding musical journey through space and time and one which clearly showcases the incredible talent that this man has. Shall we do smoky, burning blues guitar? Indeed we shall, Shining Light is a little gem of a track, heartfelt vocals and acoustic guitar lay the heart on the sleeve but it is the fiercely intense guitar that is the star of the show as it affects every fibre of your being. Lay back, close your eyes and enjoy this ardent piece of music.

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Despite being only fifty-nine seconds long The Wait is much more than just an interlude. it is one minute of acute musical pleasure as the effects laden guitar leads you into a place of calm contemplation from which you really have a hard time leaving and it segues perfectly into the final track The Bride. To my ears there is a little sense of loss and melancholia to this delightful song. It is not immediately evident but it is there hidden under the graceful layers of guitar that are presented to you. A slight sense of regret that soon fades perhaps, this song brought up hidden emotions and a lump to my throat as the elegant and exquisite guitars lightly dance across your aural receptors. A real cornucopia of guitar playing delights, as it comes to a close I just sat there in silent appreciation.

So, if ‘Gravity’ is anything to go by, we are going to be in for some hell of a treat with Dave Foster’s new album. Admittedly I am a huge fan of instrumental guitar albums but this one is up there in a higher echelon than most of the rest. An album that, if you don’t already have it in your collection, you should head to the link below post-haste and buy it immediately.

Released 15th August 2015

Buy ‘Gravity’ from Bandcamp

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An interview with Greg Spawton (and a little Kings Place reminisce) – by Progradar

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It is almost three months since the three seminal gigs of the year. When that fantastic community of friends and music fans, now known as The Passengers, got together for a brilliant social event and a series of concerts like none of us had known for quite a while.

It wasn’t just about the music, it was about meeting people I had just conversed with online for the best part of three years and friends I have met recently through a shared love of the band Big Big Train’s music.

Greg Spawton, Danny Manners, David Longdon, Andy Poole, Nick D’Virgilio, Dave Gregory, Rachel Hall and Rikard Sjöblom  took a huge risk when they decided to perform live at three dates at London’s Kings Place in August. Yes, they were playing to an adoring audience but it had been many a year since any of the material had been heard in a live setting. Add in the fact that they were going to play with a brass band and it was no mean feat that they were attempting.

To cut a long story short, and as better and briefer wordsmiths than I have already spoken about, it went down a storm. I came down on the Friday and stayed with some friends.

Saturday saw me meet up with Mike Morton of The Gift and assorted other friends and Passengers at the Old Parcel yard pub in Kings Cross where we spent the afternoon reminiscing and wondering what the evening’s entertainment was going to bring.

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The anticipation was building to a crescendo as we walked to Kings Place, just round the corner. Many of the great and good were in the bar before the gig and it was great to meet up with Jerry Ewing and his sister Sarah, Joe PayneChristina BoothDavid and Yvette Elliott and many other friends I have made in the music industry over the last few years.

I am not going to waffle on about the concert itself, only to say that it was a real life affirming event for me. The depth of emotion and sheer brilliance on show will stay with me forever.

If I had to pick a couple of  tracks to epitomise the whole evening for me, it would have to be Victorian Brickwork from the first set where the addition of the superb Brass and the way the track finished just left me an emotional wreck and, from the second set, the utterly sublime and beautiful Curator of Butterflies, I cried…. a lot……..

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Showing just how much they are in touch with their fans, the band did a ‘meet and greet’ with everyone after the concert. Many ales were quaffed with great friends and a fantastic night finished with aplomb.

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So, after the dust had settled, Greg luckily enough agreed to answer some questions for me about the band, the gigs and the future…..

Greg Martin

Pic courtesy of Martin Reijman

Progradar: When did the idea of doing some live concerts first come up and was it just one band member’s idea which you extrapolated on?

Greg: We had talked about it from time-to-time over the last few years. However, our focus has been on writing and recording new music so it seemed, to me, to always be a distant prospect. As a firm idea, it started to come up in conversations in 2013.

However, our studio recordings are complex, layered things, with strings and brass in the brew alongside the normal rock instrumentation, so we were a little worried how difficult it would be to recreate our sound in a live setting.

Therefore, we decided to do a dress-rehearsal in 2014, with no audience present. This worked pretty well so we started the process of selecting a venue and a team to work with. 

Progradar: Did the addition of Rachel and Rikard to the ranks make this more of a reality?

Greg: Absolutely. The fundamental decision we had to make was whether we stripped things down and played a more basic version of our songs with a smaller line-up, or whether we should try to present our music as we want it to be heard, with all the layers and the bells and whistles.

Rachel and Rikard enabled us to take the latter approach. Rachel had performed on the ‘English Electric’ albums and was already a big part of our plans. We also needed to find a musician who could cover guitar and keyboards with equal dexterity. There are not many people like that around, but Rikard ticked all the boxes. Soon after the 2014 rehearsals, we invited them both into the band. 

Progradar: What made you decide on Kings Place in the end?

Greg: We like to do things our own way on our terms and we didn’t want to play something on the usual circuit. Kings Place came to our attention when Danny played a show there with Jonathan Coe. It was in the smaller Hall Two, but I was struck by the potential and thought it would be worth checking out Hall One.

Generally speaking, there were a few things we had to take into account: location was important as we wanted the venue to be an accessible place, close to public transport. The stage had to be big enough to accommodate a large band, but we had little concept of likely ticket demand so didn’t want to over-reach and book a venue with too high an audience capacity. We needed a place with good acoustics and with access to recording facilities as we wanted to record the gigs. We made contact with a few other places, including the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre and we looked at some places in Winchester.

Bristol was also an option at one stage. In the end, I went up to Kings Place with Rob Aubrey and we liked it the minute we walked in. The staff were great, very welcoming and it met all of our other requirements. Not all London venues offer welcoming staff and they were brilliant all the way through. They rarely do rock gigs there and so I think they looked on us as a way of expanding their enterprise. It brought quite a buzz to the place and they thought our fans were lovely.

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Progradar: When deciding on the set list, what factors did you take into account?

Greg: If we had decided to gig without the brass band, we would have looked at a very different set list. However, as we knew we would be playing with the brass band this enabled us to select some of the pieces where the brass plays a significant part. This brought East Coast Racer and Victorian Brickwork straight into the reckoning.  Above all, we wanted to create a set list which showed all aspects of what we do, from the epic progressive rock through to folk and pop music.

Sometimes we get to cover lots of different things in one song, such as Summoned By Bells or Hedgerow. Other times, it was the contrast between songs which we wanted to demonstrate. We were particularly keen to offset some of our melancholy moments with some which are more joyful and communal. Once we had decided on the set list we needed to make one or two musical changes to songs for live performance.

For example, East Coast Racer needed a new ending as the closing section on the album was simply a restatement of an album theme and wasn’t right for the live version which we wanted to play at the end of the gig to bring things to a close. One of the original options I thought about when writing East Coast Racer was to have a guitar solo at the end, so we decided to revisit that idea. Danny composed a new chord sequence to allow the solo to develop.

We also changed the opening section of Make Some Noise to give it a more folky, foot-stomping feel. And Dave Desmond added more brass to The Underfall Yard.

Progradar: Did you ever consider varying the setlist for each night?

Greg: We had a couple of other songs on the rehearsal back burner and, at one stage, thought about varying the set list. The crucial thing though, was to try to play things well. We only had limited rehearsal time together so we didn’t want to cram in too much at the risk of lowering the quality.

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Progradar: How involved was Rob Aubrey in the planning and sorting out sound when you’d finally agreed a venue?

Greg: Rob had huge involvement in every aspect of the sound. He liaised with Real World and Kings Place about all aspects of the sound and arranged for their monitoring engineer to visit our rehearsals which was a big help as sorting out monitoring for 13 musicians is a headache. One of the advantages we had with rehearsing at Real World was that we could record everything we did, allowing us to playback the songs and fully work out keyboard and other levels ahead of the gigs.

The more you can sort in advance, the more things are in control on the night. We had a rather random meeting with Michael Giles at the pub on the first night of rehearsals and the first thing he said to us was: ‘record everything and listen back to it’. The other big help we had was finding Zab Reichhuber who controlled and prepared the lights and the videos and slides. She is a very talented and impressive young woman.

Progradar: How did rehearsals go and, honestly, did you really feel ready by the Friday of the gig?

Greg: Rehearsals were brilliant. They were hard work and a lot of fun. By the time we arrived at the venue we felt ready enough, but there were still a couple of areas where we tripped up during the first show.

That may be nerves, or just the different environment. In the 70’s, progressive bands would get extremely tight due to constant touring. Not many of us have that opportunity these days as the more limited audiences will enable most bands to play maybe 10 or 20 shows each year or just do one-off shows, so it is a different set of circumstances.

We had a really good couple of hours on the Saturday afternoon at Kings Place where we sorted out some of the monitoring niggles and then had time to work through the bits that were unsteady on the Friday show. We were pretty tight on Saturday and Sunday.

Progradar: The massed ranks of Passengers were going extremely giddy in anticipation of these concerts, does that put added pressure on you as a band to perform?

Greg: In the weeks running up to the gigs we became increasingly focused on gig preparation so we absented ourselves from social media for much of the time ahead of the shows. At rehearsals we were in a little world of our own. Nick and Rikard, who have both played a lot of gigs, were very confident about the audience response. That settled my nerves a bit.

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Progradar: How much extra does having the brass section there playing live add to the performance?

Greg: A huge amount. The brass band has become an integral part of our sound since ‘The Underfall Yard’. The sound of a brass band is not something you can easily replicate on keyboards, so without them, we couldn’t properly perform quite a few of our songs. The guys in the band are some of the best brass players in the country and they are all really great chaps to hang out with, so we are truly lucky to have them onboard. We are recording with them again for ‘Folklore’ and ‘Station Masters’ so they are part of our long-term plans.

Progradar: How did the reaction of the audience make you feel, was it what you were expecting or something on a different level?

Greg: It was at a completely different level. Personally, I had no idea what to expect from the audience. It was a seated venue so I wondered if that may make things a little subdued. That didn’t particularly worry me as it is nice to think that people are listening carefully, but I didn’t want it to be too restrained.

When we were standing stage-door before the gigs the atmosphere sounded quite lively and we became aware that the audience were likely to be quite enthusiastic. Then we walked on and had a great welcome and it went on from there.  It was amazing really.

Progradar: Did you enjoy meeting the fans after the concerts and sharing a drink with them?

Greg: For all of us it was one of the highlights. It was lovely to meet so many listeners and share a few words. There was such a friendly atmosphere, it was heart-warming. I really don’t like the whole paid meet and greet thing that seems to have caught on in some parts of the music business although I understand the commercial reasoning and I know that it is popular with some fans.

Progradar: What was the buzz like on Saturday morning after the first performance the night before?

Greg: We were pretty tired early doors, but very happy. We also wanted to spend some time running through some sections again and we had a good couple of hours playing in the afternoon. After that we felt pretty relaxed and were looking forward to the show.

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Progradar: Did the Sunday matinee feel any different to the two evening gigs?

Greg: Each of the gigs was different. The audiences reacted to different songs and passages of music. We all liked the matinee. Sunday evening exits from London can be a terrible thing so it didn’t feel that people had to rush off afterwards.

Progradar: At any point did you wonder what you had let yourselves in for?

Greg: It has been a major organisational challenge and a steep learning curve. In order to make the band a profitable concern we try to do as many things ourselves as we can which means cutting out middle-men like promoters. At times, in the weeks ahead of the gigs, so much energy was expended on planning itineraries and transport and food and accommodation that it seemed there was little time for music. It was also a big musical challenge but we got into our stride pretty quickly at rehearsals so worries about that began to subside.

Progradar: What do you get from performing live that is different from recording?

Greg: I am a songwriter rather than a performer and haven’t played a gig for many years so it has been an interesting experience. The obvious difference is the interaction with the audience. There is no part of the writing and recording process which is at all like that.

When things are going well on stage and the band is playing well and the audience is into things it is a pretty amazing thing to be part of. Having said that, I love writing and I am looking forward to finishing off our new album. All aspects of the music making process are very satisfying and all parts can have their moments of frustration.

Progradar: Now things have calmed down a bit, what were the highlights of the weekend for you?

Greg: It was very cool to perform with my friends and bandmates and watch them in their natural environment.  The atmosphere both backstage and onstage was such a positive thing. And the audiences were amazing. They seemed very engaged. I liked that there would be applause during the songs for solos.

I saw Elbow in February and came away thinking that they have an ability to make a gig both a communal event with lots of singalong moments and, at the same time, a very personal one, with people reacting individually to songs that moved them. That was what we were reaching for with these gigs, and that seemed to happen.

Finally, after everyone had gone on Sunday and the gear was on its way back to base I got to have dinner with my lovely wife at St Pancras. It had been a very busy few months ahead of the gigs and then there were rehearsals and the shows so it was nice to finally have some time to relax and reflect.

Progradar: Were there any negatives, what would you possibly do different next time?

Greg: We’ve already started thinking about this. The main thing is monitoring. We will probably hire or buy our own monitoring desk next time and get things fully set up at rehearsals. This will save time in setting up at the venue and keep us fresher. 

I still think we will aim to play two or more nights in one location rather than a conventional tour but, depending on how things go with record sales, we may well look at a bigger venue next time.  It would be great to play live with Rachel’s string quartet at some stage as well, but that would make things even more complicated so we may leave that idea for a while.

Progradar: Does the thought of doing it again fill you with dread or joy and, if it’s the latter, when can we do it all over once more?

Greg: Definitely joy and definitely in 2017!!

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Review – Yuka and Chronoship – The 3rd Planetary Chronicles – by Rob Fisher

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‘The 3rd Planetary Chronicles’ is nothing short of a glorious and joyful revelation. Despite the band describing their music as “highly reminiscent of late Seventies Progressive rock” and “reputed for its philosophical depth, lyrical brilliance, and technical virtuosity”, it nevertheless does nothing to prepare you for the exhilarating voyage of musical exploration and discovery which listening to this remarkable album brings. It truly is a sublime ode to all that is best in innovative and creative progressive music.

The musicianship to which we are treated is both exemplary and staggering. Formed in 2009 by Yuka Funakoshi, the visionary impetus at the heart of Yuka and Chronoship as well as its keyboardist, vocalist and composer, the band consists of Shun Taguchi on bass, Takashi Miyazawa on guitars and Ikko Tanaka on drums.

Taguchi’s production is flawless, allowing the technical brilliance of each musician to shine through with a crystal clarity which only serves to underscore just how breath-takingly brilliant they are as a band. The seemingly effortless technical mastery of their respective instruments is further enhanced and enriched when they play together: the music they create is a wonderful testament to a band enjoying each other’s company and revelling in each other’s musical abilities. There is a clear sense of joy in creating music together and it is no coincidence that they claim to be happiest when playing live; but that sense of freedom, playfulness and creativity is no less present in this studio recording.

And what a recording it is. Following on from their debut album ‘Water Reincarnation’ (2011) and ‘Dino Rocket Oxygen’ (2013, complete with Roger Dean cover), this third album deeply impresses in just about every respect. Whether the title refers to this being the third record in a series – suggesting a strong conceptual connection across all their albums to date – or whether it refers to Earth as the third planet in the solar system and the album being the chronicles of its growth and development, is unclear. I suspect it is actually and intentionally both, in which case we are being offered something which has been carefully and cleverly conceived as a historical and conceptual, as well as a philosophical, whole.

Such an impression is bolstered by the CD booklet, designed by respected Japanese manga artist Hideji Oda, as well as the way in which the 12 tracks are arranged and presented. The album is in effect a survey of the significant stages, developments and evolution of earth itself as well as the human race inhabiting it. This sweeping vision covers not just the very formation of the planets but the emergence of earth, key steps in human history (Galileo, steam, The Industrial Revolution, the birth of radio) but also anticipates aspects of the future of humanity as well.

Live 1

As such the album is built around four recurring musical ‘anchors’: Birth of the Earth – Collision (Track 1), Birth of the Earth – Merger (Track 5), Birth of the Earth – Magma Ocean (Track 9) and Birth of the Earth – Embryonic Planet (Track 12). This in turn effectively creates 3 distinguishable ‘sections’ or ‘phases’ in the progression of the conceptual plot and the musical story being told.

And, my goodness me, what a musical feast it is. Tracks 1 – 4 are dripping with moody atmosphere, the sounds of cosmic winds offset by a haunting simple keyboard, in turn opening into a magnificent sound stage as a wall of melodic and harmonious orchestration brings in the guitar, bewitching, rising above and piercing the keyboards and bringing a distinctive voice of its own; this in turn prompts the bass and drums to enter, primal, tribal rhythms beating out the life and soul of the universe itself, in turn adorned by a vocal, almost operatic overlay, in turn echoed by playful synth and flute sounds. The world is new and the instruments blend and dissonate like the elements conspiring in the formation of the universe itself.

Yet even this is just a prelude, labour pains giving birth to something momentous, new, profound and wondrous. The discordant almost chaotic beginning to Galileo I (Track 3) speaks of confusion, of competing elements, of attempts to make sense of the world (and how nice that Galileo is honoured in such a way). Yet this gives way in Galileo II (Track 4) to beautiful rippling arpeggios, the discovery of science and the workings of the world, off beat guitar work matching fantastic and ever changing drum tempos. It is full of hope and optimism.

Blog Pic

(Pic courtesy of the Yuka and Chronoship blog)

Tracks 5 – 8 mark a shift in tone and tempo. From the light, airy playfulness of the early beginnings, we reach a more developed sound, crunching yet subdued guitars adding confidence to the subtleties and nuances of the keyboards, the bass adding more assured support and riffing quietly as part of a growing ensemble, the drums more intricate, yet more unsettled, the timings changing and changing again as ideas are explored and turned aside, new ideas given prominence only to be cast aside and the process repeats. This is the steam age, the age of technological revolution and fast paced innovation and the music brilliantly captures the breathlessness of human evolution and advancement.

This in turn sets the stage for the finale. Tracks 9 – 12 build and push on again, the music now grander, fuller, more encompassing not just in scale but also in depth of sound and diversity of ideas being offered. The guitar work comes to the fore, solos, riffs appearing from nowhere, taking the breath away but leaving as quickly as they arrive to seamlessly hand over to the keyboards who in turn allow the choral echoes to float and supplement the ever present bass which at one moment grumbles and asserts itself and then in another gently lifts and supports.

The concluding tracks are a stunning testimony to what this might sound like played live, the drums signing off E = M#C (Track 10) as they would the final song of a live set, bringing the show to a definitive conclusion. And yet this itself is a ‘false ending’, I Am Thee (Track 11) taking us back once more to the reflective atmosphere of the beginning whilst pointing the way to the future and introducing one final set of ideas and musical motifs.

Breathlessly brilliant, ‘The 3rd Planetary Chronicles’ is enticing, captivating and spell-binding. At 33 seconds short of an hour it is without doubt one of the stand out albums of 2015 and in the short time it has been available, it has displaced just about everything else I have been listening to. Thoroughly recommended.

Released 25th September 2015

Buy The 3rd Planetary Chronicles from Cherry Red Records

 

Short video previews new Arcade Messiah II album

KingBathmat frontman, and the mastermind behind the Arcade Messiah project, John Bassett has announced the follow up to the first, self-titled, release….

“Hi everybody, I will soon be releasing the follow up to last years Arcade Messiah album. ‘Arcade Messiah II’ will be released end of November/early December

There will be a Pre-Order for both digital download and CD starting next week…”

John has just recently posted a two minute preview video of the forthcoming release: