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

 

 

 

 

Live Review – The Prog Before Christmas – CCA Glasgow 18/12/15 – by Progradar

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(Your intrepid correspondent and Jon Hunt, aka jh)

No matter how long and arduous the journey, if the destination deserves it, it was a worthy one. Trust me, the trip up to Glasgow and back for The Prog Before Christmas was decidedly long and, at times, extremely arduous. However, what transpired and unfolded before me on that magnificent night of entertainment at the CCA was utterly magical and entirely worth every mile of train track I covered.

‘Ambitious’ could possibly have been the first word used when I heard that Denis Smith of Abel Ganz was organising a gig on the Friday before Christmas, and way up north in Glasgow too! But, in the inimitable style, they said , “build it and they will come…”and we did…..

The line up was pretty impressive too, legendary Scottish proggers Abel Ganz would be joined by the irreverent brilliance of Peter Jones’ Tiger Moth Tales and the whole darn shebang would kick off with the new kids on the block, Manchester’s own We Are Kin and this, just to top things off, would be their debut live performance. No pressure then eh guys?

Joining me on this jolly adventure way up North would be my mate, the brilliant Jon Hunt and we met at my hotel for a beer before heading over to Sauchihall Street and the impressive CCA venue where we met Adam and Dan from We Are Kin (featured image) outside before heading in for what would turn out to be a superb evening’s musical entertainment….

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Heading up stairs to see Denis doing ticket duties, we walked into the room and I said a few hellos before We Are Kin took to the stage with hardly a sign of nerves and proceeded to leave a puzzled frown on gathered faces. Why a frown? well, did I tell you this was their debut live gig, first……one…..ever….? You would not have believed it as they delivered a superb live performance full of emotion, heart and soul, the twin vocals of Emma C and Nuru holding everybody rapt.

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Home Sweet Home opened the set with Nuru taking lead on this superb track, disarming the audience with its warm embrace. There was more immediacy and an electronic edge to Hard Decision, a joint vocal delivery and underlying grittiness delivering a fast paced, energetic feel and the first sign of Adam McCann’s guitar virtuosity.

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A brilliantly earnest track and one which captivated everybody, Without Them is a slow burner that builds gradually into an eye opening crescendo, Adam’s solo just made the hairs rise up on the back of your neck. The band then followed up with probably the song I had been looking forward to hearing the most. Tides of Midnight has been a favourite of mine since I first heard this unique band back in 2013 and it didn’t let me down, Emma C’s vocal adding layers of gravitas and the keyboards of Dan Zambas adding a polished veneer to the poignant guitar. This music stares deep into your soul and leaves you in a place of contentment.

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Another favourite is Weight of the World, its inspired 80’s synth intro alway makes me smile and it just seemed to come to life in Glasgow with Gary Boast’s intricate drumming and Lee Braddock striding around the stage like some 70’s pimp-daddy with his feather embellished bowler hat. A great live experience indeed. What this band do best is ethereal, endearing and just downright beautiful and the delicate acoustic guitar and vocal that opened The End ticked all those boxes. A moving and yet, slightly sad track that has a mournful grace. I didn’t know whether to smile or cry at the end…

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All good things must come to and end and this utterly wonderful debut performance came to a close with the delicate and soothing charms of The Door. One thing that We Are Kin do extremely well is to make you feel central to the music and this passionate song left me speechless and lost in its allure.

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So, a first debut gig and a triumph, time to nip off to the Gents and the bar and then await the arrival of the outrageously talented Peter Jones, the man behind the much loved Tiger Moth Tales.

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Peter is funny, not in any contrived manner, he is just a funny guy who is full of life and he has a guitar and keyboard combo with drum pedal that makes him appear to be some sort of modern day maestro of the one man band and he is fantastically good at it.

The first track, following some typical Jones banter, is Tigers in the Butter from the first TMT album ‘Cocoon’ and it just leaves you gobsmacked and in awe. Powerful and animated, Peter delivers an utterly convincing performance. A true troubadour, he has the audience in the palm of his hand as he moves onto Story Tellers from the follow up album. A magical album full of fairy tales and fantastic characters, it is Peter Jones whose voice and skill bring them to life on songs such as this. Bewitching all those around, his voice has a wonderful lilt to it as he recounts the tail in his own inimitable style.

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There is a warmth and humility to the banter that flows from Peter between tracks and he had us all in stitches but what he is at heart is a first class musician and he writes songs that draw you in and take you on a fantastical journey like Don’t Let Go, Feels Alright. Like stepping through into Narnia, it takes you to an altogether more exciting place where just about anything can come true. The beautiful guitar work on this song nearly brought me to tears, as if it was really alive with its soaring grace. Now Peter never hides the fact he is a huge Genesis fan and his next track was a cover of More Fool Me and a great homage to his heroes. There was passion and soul in his delivery and he even had the crowd singing along, well those that knew the words anyway…..

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There was a huge shout when another Genesis track was announced, this time Harold the Barrel, fast paced and humorous, even I was tapping my feet at this one and the more knowledgeable really seemed to join in the fray. After the cover-version interlude we were back to Peter’s original material and the brilliant The Merry Vicar. Quite a tongue-n-cheek and pompous song that has a really wry sense of humour. The way Peter can fit his voice to any song and nuance really comes to the fore on stage. I found myself smiling and chuckling away to the obvious comedy in the song. Not merely a song writer but a consummate entertainer and amazing musician too!

Well the time was surely flying as Peter strode confidently into the penultimate track of this astute and accomplished set, the fan favourite A Visit to Chigwick. It is on songs like this that Peter Jones sometime eccentric English persona comes to the fore. I have called him ‘Batshit Crazy’ in the past but only in a complimentary manner, it is that minor lunacy that allows him to write songs as near perfect as this and ones that appeal to wide audience. The final song was the traditional The Wassail Song (well it is Christmas isn’t it?) and the lengthy cheers and applause that followed the end of his performance are testament to his enduring appeal. If you have never seen Tiger Moth Tales live then you are missing an utter treat.

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After shaking the great man’s hand it was another trip to the gents and the bar before the main event.

It was going to take something rather special to top what had already gone before but, if one band could do it, Abel Ganz could and they stood astride the stage like a Scottish Prog Colossus, time for the music to start……

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What a way to open with the instrumental splendour of Rain again, end of rain. Sending shivers down your spine it really set the tempo and the anticipation. Full of highs and lows, powerful and yet a calming influence. The band then followed with a great track from the last but one release ‘Shooting Albatross’, Ventura. It fits seamlessly into the new style of the band from the last self-titled release, a wandering journey into your mind. The musicians all at the top of their form, working together in harmony (no, not THAT song). Mick MacFarlane’s instantly recognisable voice puts its arm around you like an old friend and you are left under its control. A brilliantly reassuring and heartening piece of music.

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If there is one track that typifies the last album it is the five-part Obsolescence, more a self-affirming musical pilgrimage than a mere song. In a live setting it takes on a whole different aura and tonight these guys gave it wings and a life of its own. Davie Mitchell, Iain Sloan and Mick play their guitars with sheer grace and finesse (Iain’s lap steel dexterity needs a further mention, stunning!), Jack Webb animates the keyboards and Stevie Donnelly parades around his patch, his bass almost like a weapon. The glue holding this all together is the maestro Denis Smith on drums. I love this song even more hearing it played like this, utterly mesmerising.

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A song full of emotion, Recuerdos adds a layer of delightful simpleness to proceedings. Gentle acoustic guitar and Mick’s soft vocal just lull you into a true sense of security. Ethereal and divine, I felt myself lost in wonderment until it came to a close.

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Up next was the fourteen minutes of Prog near-perfection of Unconditional, a song that opens its soul and lets you in. Musically it delves deep into our collective knowledge and it darts from style to style but, ultimately it is very satisfying. Lilting piano, funky keyboards, scorching guitar and jazz style drums all combine to lift you off your feet into a place of musical nirvana. Maybe it is the fuzzy memory from one too many beers but I recall the band playing one of the tightest gigs I’ve seen. One of my favourite bands has now become THE favourite.

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I’ve made it no secret in the past that I absolutely love the track Thank You, it feels exceedingly personal to me so, when it was brought out as the first encore, guess who was shouting and cheering louder than most. Mick’s vocal is a thing of utter refinement, beauty and style and the lap steel guitar backing just adds a subtle grace and dignity (hats off to Mr Sloan again). I was singing at the top of my voice and was that a tear in my eye? Yes, so what, I bloody loved it!

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And to the final song of an unforgettable evening and a tribute to the recently deceased Chris Squire. A great version of  Yes’ Running With The Fox closed proceedings with aplomb and a lengthy standing ovation followed that was seriously well deserved.

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A Prog Before Chritsmas, worth 11 hours on a train? what do you think?, of course it was,it was utterly bloody brilliant. Shall we do it all again next year? Denis!!!!!!!!

All artist pictures thanks to the excellent David Stook.