Review – Big Hogg – Pageant of Beasts – by Jon Wenlock-Smith

Big Hogg hail from Glasgow, which is over 550 miles from their spiritual, musical home of Canterbury in Kent. Or so it would appear to be, based upon hearing this album, ‘Pageant of Beasts‘, that was released this July on Bad Elephant Music.

This album bears significant reminders of the thriving musical scene that Canterbury gave to the world through bands like Caravan, Soft Machine, Kevin Ayers and many others. It also has a heady mix of jazz leanings and and avant-garde feel, which makes the music different as well as memorable, taking in psychedelia and jazz influences along the way.

The first piece, Golden Beasts, is a solo trumpet fanfare which opens and closes the album and upon hearing it I was strongly reminded of 80’s jazz luminaries Working Week as they ploughed a similar cross-genre furrow back in the late 1980’s, rather successfully too. Next track Here Come The Moles is a little left of centre and hinged on a hypnotic bass motif from Martin Beer which, alongside Justin Lumsden’s guitar and vocals from him and Sophie Sexon, makes a rather impressive impact. Man Overboard brings a distinct west coast USA vibe to the party. Imagine the Beach Boys with trumpets and you’ll get the idea! It is another very interesting track, the brass section sounds fabulous here, adding much colour and impact to a fine track along with sweet flute from Sophie.

Smoking Again starts out like a Faces outtake with a raspy vocal from Justin and some fine fuzz and wah-wah guitar lines. There is a lot going on in this track but it manages to avoid sounding shambolic, in fact, along with Here Come The Moles, it is one of my favorite tracks on the album . This is followed by Willow’s Song which is a lot more atmospheric and ethereal sounding. It comes from The Wicker Man and this version is fabulous. Red Rum has a nod to folk group Pentangle, especially in the bass department. 

All Alone Stone really wears its Canterbury credentials on its sleeve proudly and puts me in mind of Greenslade with its keyboard stylings. This track is very impressive sounding indeed and is the longest track on the album. It is a gentle, yet exciting, musical progression, making it a great listen. I am really impressed by this album and I’ve enjoyed discovering its treasures slowly as they unfold over multiple listens. Magistellus is next and this offers a great interplay between flute and guitar in the middle section and is another very fine track.

The Wyverns is Big Hogg at their most proggy, almost space rock sounding at points and follows the pattern of the latter half of the album where the band really up their progressive side and offer some highly unusual pieces and some excellent musicianship, Bouffant Tail being a case in point, wildly unhinged and all very strange indeed. This is a short track that is rapidly followed by Cat Fool, which sounds like a long-lost track from the early days of King Crimson, albeit with added brass, very interesting and different and it also has a lovely guitar break from Justin. The album ends with the return of the trumpet fanfare, entitled Too Much Belly Not Enough Paw, which brings the album full circle to end as it began.

This is a remarkable musical journey taking in jazz, psychedelia and other influences along the way and is a testament to crafting different, yet still vibrant, music for today’s age. This album will take a while to seep through and sink into your brain, however this is so very worth it. Big Hogg are certainly mining a very interesting seam on this album and they will hopefully be able to create more marvellous music in this style soon. I certainly hope that they continue in this manner as this band have a lot to offer and will appeal to lovers of modern progressive music.

Released 18th June, 2021.

Order the album from bandcamp here:

Pageant Of Beasts | Big Hogg (bandcamp.com)

Review – Ciccada – Harvest – by John Wenlock-Smith

Greece is not massively known for its contribution to the world of progressive music. Apart from Vangelis, Aphrodite’s Child and, more recently, Verbal Delirium, most people think of either Zorba the Greek, bouzouki music, Demis Roussos or Nana Mouskouri as Greece’s contribution to modern music. Well, be that is it may, this group are from Greece and this, their third album, has been picked up for distribution with Bad Elephant Music here in the UK and I have to say, I think that BEM have picked a winner here as this is a fabulous album. If one can imagine a cross between Gryphon and Gentle Giant, all with a touch of Fairport Convention or Steeleye Span style folk thrown in, you would not be far off the mark.

This is an album steeped in the Folk tradition but one that also embraces electric instrumentation and progressive flourishes in order to create something that is different and new. All the better it is for those decisions too, the album begins with a very folky song entitled Eniania (which is predominantly used as a girl’s name in Albania) opening with a delicate acoustic guitar motif and some haunting flute flourishes that lead us gently into the vocals that repeat “Eniania” before the rest of the band join in all with a fluid saxophone line being played. This is all exceedingly pleasant and effective, certainly the use of unorthodox instruments makes for a distinctive and impressive sound to the music. This is a lovely song which picks up it’s pace at the 3:20 mark with a more urgent and more muscular pace to the proceedings. The interplay between the sax and the other instruments, including the flute, is very impressive and the guitar plays some wonderful lines in accompaniment. The track then returns to the original melody that opened the song for its closing section, the flute taking up the melody used for the vocals to bring the piece to a climax. This may be gentle, but it is certainly highly effective.

Next is Open Wings which is another gentle, guitar led, piece with more, bass and drums along with excellent folky vocals that sound fabulous, all very breathy but when combined with the guitar and keyboards, they sound most agreeable indeed. The third, and longer track, is The Old Man And The Butterfly, which is another jaunty excursion for this group. The piece opens with acoustic guitar, flute, keyboards and bass before an electric guitar line is introduced which builds in momentum and energy, coming to a peak before returning to more of the mellifluous flute and keyboard. There is a lot happening within this track, a very Pink Floyd type guitar and some excellent musical counterpoints between keyboards guitar that are spectacular sounding. I especially like how the song switches between softer and harder passages and how the guitar player uses different tones in his playing to excellent effect.

No Man’s Land opens strongly with Hammond Organ with a solo guitar line floated over it, all very Floydian sounding indeed. There follows a ‘marching beat’ type sound over which flutes are overlaid with more great bass underpinning the whole sound. The song then steps back to a softer passage with vocals and woodwind, the interaction between the voices is mesmerising and sounds great, as does the guitar that underpins proceedings so fluidly.

The shorter Who’s To Decide opens with a properly funky bass line with flutes playing over the top along with a funky wah-wah guitar part. Along with the breathy, impish vocals, this takes the song far beyond folk and into a far more progressive sound. It’s great to hear the sax and flutes playing away happily whilst the keyboards and synths add their own unique textures. The final section of this piece is brisk and captivating enough for you to realise that this group can all surely play very well and that their compositions are strong and musically interesting. There is much that will appeal to progressive rock fans here and it marks this group as one to watch out for in the coming years. I think this is a fabulous track that really shows the essence of the band off to great effect.

This leads us to the last song on the album, Queen of Wishes, which is also the longest track on the album, coming in at over twelve minutes. This gives the track room to stretch out a little and it is all the better for it too. Proceedings open with oboes and sax to create a very woody sound passage before acoustic guitar and vocals join in. This all sounds very ethereal and spacious in sound, added to by superb keyboards, before some crunchy guitar chords are played over the rest of the music. It is all very atmospheric and appealing with synths and chunky guitar being added whilst an organ plays underneath it all. Once again I have not got a clue what the song is about but it is one to enjoy the sound of and to admire the interplay that is within its structures, really capturing the listeners attention throughout. Its softer and heavier parts are well balanced and realised, there is a lot going on here and it all sounds effective and interesting. We return to the woodwind elements before some more rocky guitar parts and some quick-fire drumming briefly take centre stage. Then a somewhat manic organ solo is played and that fabulous woodwind riff is repeated, a riff that, if I am honest is very appealing indeed. This leads to the final moments of the song where ensemble voices sing beautifully and effectively.

This closes the album is exceptionally fine style and you are left with thinking what the hell have I just listened to? One is left with a sense of satisfaction that a group you have never heard of have made such a remarkable, intriguing album and one that you know you will want to listen to again and again. This album is spectacular and will really grow on you if you make the space for its fabulous songs.

Released 23rd April, 2021

Order from Bad Elephant Music here:

Harvest | Ciccada (bandcamp.com)

Review – Sanguine Hum A Trace Of Memory – by John Wenlock-Smith

Oxford’s finest sons make a very welcome return after quite a lengthy absence. After 2018’s ‘Now We Have Power’ this new album is a little different to what has gone before, allow me to explain, if I may.

Firstly, ‘A Trace Of Memory’ was recorded during the first lockdown period in the UK. As a reaction to, and a step towards preventing further outbreaks of, the Coronavirus, this meant recording remotely and in a segregated manner. In fact that the album got completed is a wonder in itself! As a result of that difficult period, the music they offer this time around is a little less frantic and a lot more ambient in nature. Don’t worry, it still has lots of familiar sounds and the fine voice and guitar of Joff Winks and the elegant keyboards of Matt Baber although, this time around, the sound is more expansive and wide screen and possibly more open and uncluttered.

The album opens with New Light, a shorter ambient track full of keyboards interspersed with  guitar lines and runs. This is a very musical piece with a great feel and mood to it that certainly impresses and the wonderful guitar tones throughout set you up for what is to come, namely The Yellow Ship, the album’s longest track at 13:07. This impressive song opens with keyboards, shimmering cymbals and lightly strummed guitars. Joff’s vocals are measured and pleasant, Matt’s keyboards are highly effective, as is Wink’s guitar as he plays a lot of circular patterns here, albeit highly effectively. Some might feel that this song has lots of atmosphere but may lack a certain sense of direction or that could just be my interpretation of it. It is, however, all wrapped in a very lush sound that gets a bit more aggressive towards the end as the guitar starts to sound a bit more metallic sounding offset against the keyboards. Towards the close there is a return to a calmer sound and more of that strummed guitar that is exceptionally fine and effective.

Pyramids features field recordings of birdsong and other noises as it opens, this is followed by some tasty plucked acoustic guitar and more ethereal keyboard sounds and textures. These textures are interspersed with more distorted guitar chords and there is a nice touch of electronica in there too if you listen out for it. Thin Air is another lively soundscape track with more superb guitar lines woven throughout its short running time of 3:16. It also contains some strong bass parts to flavour the sound and the atmospherics of the album.

Unstable Ground has some delightful keyboards and short guitar runs that together create an atmosphere of longing for something lost or unavailable. This could well be a veiled reference to the lockdown period. Lyrically this is a darker composition, but the vocals add much to the power of the piece. Still As The Sea is next which is another somewhat whimsical song with echoes of the Canterbury sound of the likes of Caravan and early Soft Machine, again subtly effective guitar is employed to give the song its pace and setting making this a shorter song a highly effective one.

We then arrive at the final track on the album, Automaton, the albums second longest at 8:06. It opens with keyboards and electronic blips and pulses before gaining a slow burning momentum when the guitars segue in, playing more ascending chord patterns before a jazzy piano sound takes over. This piece is an instrumental song throughout but there is enough variation and imagination used to make this very strong sounding, the guitar being powerful and commanding  of attention. This is a good finale to what has been a very interesting album that may not resonate with everyone on first listen but is definitely worth persevering with.

One must be grateful that Sanguine Hum are still around and continuing their own brand of whimsical Canterbury influenced progressive music. They certainly are not afraid to take chances and they should be acknowledged for doing so on this album. If you like bands like Caravan or early Soft Machine and the whole Canterbury sound or scene, then I am certain that you will find this to your liking.

Released November 20th 2020.

Order on CD or vinyl from Bad Elephant Music here:

▶︎ A Trace Of Memory | Sanguine Hum (bandcamp.com)

Review – Simon McKechnie – Retro – by John Wenlock-Smith

I must confess that until he was signed to Bad Elephant Music, I was not familiar with any of Simon McKechnie’s otherwise extensive back catalogue. This is perhaps a good thing, as one comes to his work without any preconceived ideas or expectations.

This new album ‘Retro’ is his debut for BEM and rather an interesting one it is, the album consisting of four main pieces, three long and the other one an abbreviated piece.

The longest track is The Origin of Species and is a piece inspired by the writings and recollections of one Charles Darwin made during the five years he spent in the southern hemisphere and how those journeys on The Beagle both affected and influenced his Theory of Evolution, encompassing such elements as survival of the fittest and natural selection.

If I were to sum this song up in a couple of words I would say it is expansive and intriguing, there are many facets and sections to the track that make it an impressive listening experience. The song uses the actual words written by Darwin and this gives weight to the lyrics as they espouse findings made by the great man himself. There are also some lively guitar passages in between The Beagle and Natural Selection segments of the song.

The Natural Selection and Struggle for Existence segments are accompanied by some often stark rhythmic elements which nicely offset the words being sung , the song then moving onwards into some keyboards before a strident guitar riff. These sections end with a part called The Struggle which is a drum solo but possibly not as you would expect, as it is in enclosed in keyboards and concludes with some excellent guitar that is wailing almost to the point of feedback. This ushers in what could be considered a more curious segment that is supported and accompanied by woodwind.

This is one album that you will appreciate the lyrics to hand to fully grasp what is going on and what is being sung.

The section called Contemplate features a recurring sound effect leading to the lyrics. These words speak of what Darwin has seen and his thoughts as a result. This leads into the final section of the piece, Laws of Nature, which seeks to draw his conclusions as he speaks of things created that are now being evolved and is backed by a great guitar motif and solo that bring the song to a close accompanied by a gentle piano. This track is certainly different, lyrically impressive and definitely worthy of consideration, a fine opener,

The shorter, title track, Retro opens with some distinctly odd keyboards and an early 1980’s drum program, the lyrics evoking days gone by. The song has a lively beat to its and vintage (i.e.. old!) keyboards and tones and a decidedly retro rock and roll type guitar section and solo, all of which work together to create an almost olde world sound to the piece. Simon has vocal phrasings that are reminiscent of one Freddy Mercury before that beat kicks in again with its strong guitar lines running through it before the song ends with massed voices singing the word Retro, again highly effective. It’s quite an excellent and catchy little number and I really like it.    

The third track is another longer Piece, The Enchantress of Number, which is a song about Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace. Ada was a mathematician who considered that pure calculation could have other applications beyond mathematics. She had a difficult upbringing, living in Byron’s shadow, beset with illness. At the age of 17 she went to a ball and meets Charles Babbage who introduced her to his ‘Difference Engine’, a trial design for a calculating machine.

So enthralled was she that she threw herself into the task of translating a paper about ‘The Analytical Engine’. In her notes she wrote examples of its use and in doing so introduced the world’s first computer program. All in all she was a remarkable woman and this song tells her tale eloquently and with true style.

The last song is called The Return of The Beagle and is an instrumental piece in which Simon imagines Darwin’s journey back home, going through his notes whilst the wind is blowing through the sails as the boat travels across the sea, homeward bound. This piece works as an excellent closer to what has been an imaginative and illuminating musical journey in the company of Simon and his friends.

This really is a fine album, and the future looks bright for Simon if he can keep delivering intelligent, articulate, and multi-faceted music like this here on ‘Retro’. It is one that will take time to digest, enjoy and ultimately appreciate but, in any manner, it is a very well-presented record with much to recommend to listeners.

Released 19th March 2021

Order the album on bandcamp here:

Retro | Simon McKechnie (bandcamp.com)

Review – The Gift – Antenna – by Leo Trimming

Antenna, the diverse fourth album from The Gift signals a significant change in direction and style for this London based band, driven by a fresh and accessible impetus. In a recent interview Mike Morton of The Gift summarised their new album as focusing on the ‘Difficulty of being Human’, and added that it was about ‘communication missing the mark’ which he encapsulated in the metaphor ‘Broken Plugs and Sockets’.

This is an ambitious and brave project, leaving behind their previous leanings towards more ornate ‘prog’ sounds so one has to ask did they succeed in the communication hitting the mark and connecting?

What is very clear right from the start is that this is a band that has chosen not to stand still or remain in a comfort zone. We are Connected is a striking opening song, with slight echoes of INXS, riding on an insistent guitar riff and threaded throughout with a popping synth backing, indicative of the subject of electronic obsession with social media. Mike Morton sounds angry as he spits out:

A myriad of souls, We have abandoned all controls,

Naked to the core, exposing our emotion

We are connected – we are one – we are connected

The songwriter, David Lloyd, explained in the same TPA interview :

‘It’s about the way in which people have sold their soul to social media… the way people can be damaged or manipulated without really realising it, just through participating in it. It’s got a corrupting side to it.’

This opening is important as a cracking introduction to the album but also as a very clear marker that this is The Gift like you’ve never really heard them before, and they have moved a long way from the expansive and mythically influenced previous album ‘Why the Sea is Salt’. If that album’s lush oil painting like artwork by Mark Buckingham reflected their epic musical canvasses of ornate, multi-layered passages, then Antenna’s more angular, ‘Metropolis’ film graphic based artwork by Brian Mitchell is indicative of the new album’s more direct but carefully constructed contemporary songs. For instance, there is an impressively flowing but understated guitar solo by David Lloyd in We are Connected, but whereas previously it may have been more lengthy and elaborate, on Antenna it is brief but consequently stands out all the more on a song filled with memorable hooks and straightforward lyrics.

The Gift are blessed with a combination of four songwriters in Mike Morton, David Lloyd, Gabriele Baldocci and Leroy James, who all bring something different to the table. Long Time Dead is a song which has appeared occasionally in The Gift’s live set in recent times and this ‘road testing’ has probably helped hone it into an outstanding song. Song writer Leroy James evokes a Wild West atmosphere with a Spaghetti Western type harmonica intro and then we are transported by atmospheric distorted wah wah guitar sounds. Evocatively played ensemble playing conveys a swagger befitting the feel of the song. Gabriele Baldocci even struts into the musical saloon with a dash of bar room piano. Morton carries the ‘carpe diem’ no regrets message of the song perfectly:

So come now raise your head – you’re a long time dead

Love the life you’ve led – you’re a long time dead

In contrast the following song Snowfall exemplifies the differing aspects that characterise The Gift. Over a delicate piano backing which brings to mind images of softly falling snow Morton touchingly sings about a lost relationship. Lyrically and melodically this is simply heart-breaking, and it is imbued with pure emotion and truth. Similarly, the instrumental piece Hand in Hand, the title of which echoes a Snowfall lyric, is also a thing of lovely subtlety, featuring guitarist Lloyd alongside bassist Stef Dickers, showing his versatility on acoustic guitar.

Snowfall and Hand in Hand bookend the far more angular piece Far Stranger, with a staccato, robotic feel appropriate for its subject matter of synthetic humans, with references to ‘Rachel and Roy’ (of the film ‘Bladerunner’) and ‘Pinocchio’. This song does not fully connect for this reviewer – it feels like a song which The Gift would have expanded upon in previous albums to convey the full story, but to me here it sounds like rather a lot of ideas and narrative squeezed in to a shorter piece. This is disappointing as it’s a fascinating theme, possibly fitting an earlier abandoned idea for the album title about being ‘Almost Human but not quite’, and the song and theme may have benefited from a more ambitious, expansive setting. On Far Stranger it is almost as if The Gift were caught between two stools in their transition from their previous ‘proggier’ style into a more succinct approach.

As if to underline that thought the extended piece Changeling is altogether more successful in conveying a narrative as it tells the story of the rise and fall of a politician corrupted by power in three distinct phases, which could easily be separate songs in themselves. This treatment gives the music and narrative time to develop and breath… but this is no extravagant, lush 70’s style ‘prog’ extravaganza. The sparse synth and programmed percussion of opening section A Saviour’s Shoes echoes 80’s era Japan (surely a good thing) with a finely judged vocal from Morton introducing a politician starting out with sincere intentions.  This fascinating opening descends in to much darker territory on the much more ‘rock’ oriented The Shadow Behind part with Neil Hayman in spectacular form on powerful and precise drumming alongside Dickers’ deft use of bass in the driving sections or more contemplative passages. Baldocci throws in a great twisting synth solo to convey the insidious effect ambition has upon the politician’s initial integrity. This outstanding piece then takes a definite ‘left turn’ in the closing Finest Hour section which is a pure glam rock stomp with Morton, acting out the fall of the politician in to total corruption, at his most dramatically camp on vocals and Lloyd and James on great form on guitars. The Gift premiered this section as a stand-alone song at the Fusion Festival in March and it went down a storm with the crowd, getting them to their feet. Curiously, it could be argued that this nearly ten minute piece demonstrates that The Gift remain  very much in the mainstream ‘Prog’ world, but trust me, you won’t think that when you hear it. It’s an interesting melding of different musical styles not normally associated with classic rock tropes, skilfully moulded in to a song cycle conveying the changes of the main character.

Perhaps as a ‘palate cleanser’ after such an extended and thematically dark piece The Gift follow it up with the optimistic rock/pop of Back to Eden, which rolls along brightly. This is in stark contrast to When you are old, with words by poet W.B Yeats. This slow and sombre piece of reminiscence and regret has hints of ‘Low’ era Bowie – some may love it’s melancholic atmosphere,  some may find it a rather depressing drone… but one has to wonder about it’s sequencing directly after the remarkably rocking Wild Roses.

The highlight of Antenna for this reviewer is definitely Wild Roses, which announces itself with ‘Art of Noise’ like synth effects and percussion before plunging straight in to pure Thin Lizzy territory. Leroy James and David Lloyd really rock out on the guitars and Dickers and Hayman thunder along brilliantly in the rhythm section, whilst Baldocci throws in occasional keyboard stabs and synth runs… but the real surprise is Mike Morton’s vocals – he really throws himself in to a powerful ‘Rock’ vocal, with more than a little resemblance to Phil Lynott! The Gift truly excel in a live setting and one can only imagine just how much they will rock the audiences when they pull that one out of the drawer.

Antenna concludes appropriately with Closer about relationships, which commences with bright jangling guitars over a cool bass line and Hayman in almost funky form on drums in the Where all Roads Divide section. However, for this reviewer curiously for an album which focuses so much on connection this is a song which does feel a little disconnected as that opening section quite suddenly jars in to the rocking instrumental Out of Reach section with synth and guitar soloing. It almost feels like The Gift felt compelled to pull out some ‘Prog Stops’ before the end of the album. As a section alone it sounds fine, but it did not flow naturally from the first part. Similarly, after a significant pause the emotional Closer finale does not flow on from the previous passage. Nevertheless, as a piece in itself Closer impressively builds and builds with delicately picked, almost bluegrass guitar, organ and then a lovely fluid piano. A lyrical soaring guitar solo elevates the piece to even greater heights as Morton proclaims:

If our journeys ever synchronize, Let’s be thankful for whatever, Brings our Universe together

We can be Closer…. Closer…. We can be Closer

On this album Closer feels ironically a little disjointed but as a live piece it may mature, and the excellent closing section will certainly stir the soul.

Well, as asked earlier, did The Gift succeed in communicating and connecting?

For this reviewer the answer is a qualified ‘Yes’.

There are some truly outstanding pieces on this album, but for me some songs did not quite hit the mark or fully connect. In essence some of the ‘plugs’ did not seem to quite fit some of the ‘plugs’. In truth The Gift were never a ‘full-on’ ornate ‘Prog’ band, and each album had more accessible, less musically ambitious and unashamedly ‘catchy’ pieces alongside their epic forays. However, the clear main direction was down well-trodden progressive rock paths, and with classic songs like The Willows they really did it so well. In contrast Antenna feels like a band trying to break out of what may have started to feel like a pigeon-holing musical straightjacket. There may also be a sense of liberation for the wide range of song writing talent within the band, which has added a wholly different and fascinating range of musical colours to their spectrum. The great qualities that marked out The Gift previously are still there in the DNA of their material but maybe inevitably this album does have the feel of a ‘Transition’ album. Sometimes in a transition process older ways of doing things do not always sit comfortably together with new paths. However, that is not a bad thing – transition means growth and ‘progression’ in the true sense of the word. The Gift should be commended for having had the balls to significantly change their sound – as Morton said in a recent interview that change may ‘piss some people off and disappoint’ but ‘that’s just the way it is…’ It will be fascinating to see where they go from here.

The hope is that their previous fans remember the core of what made The Gift worth following before and remain on board, whilst the undoubted high quality of the different range of largely more accessible songs on this album also justifiably attracts other new fans who like … well just rock music, whatever the label.

Antenna sends out a strong signal from The Gift – they do not stand still so leave your preconceptions at the door, open your minds and explore their changing world.

Released 28th June 2019

Order from Bad Elephant Music here:

https://thegiftuk.bandcamp.com/album/antenna

Review – Saul Blease – The Great War – by Jez Denton

The Great War of 1914 to 1918 has been, for many artistes, a rich vein of material, inspiring songs that detail the heroism, suffering, sacrifice and fear that all soldiers must have felt and experienced in those Flanders fields of mayhem, chaos, death and destruction. The war itself is beyond the comprehension of most of us, making the creation of any piece of art, I’d imagine, one of the most difficult tasks to do, ensuring that true and proper record is made. It can only be expected that any work needs to be a labour, work that needs the fullest detail to be sought. The work needs to be exhaustive in it’s research, it’s execution and it’s intentions. And it is work that will be held to the highest of standards by people who will have factual, historical and emotional attachment to this most emotive of subjects.

What cannot be denied is that Bristol multi-instrumentalist, Saul Blease, has undoubtedly set out to create apiece of music that does pay that fitting tribute. But this reviewer is one of those people who will set the high standards, being, as I am, someone with a deep interest in the  history of the Great War and that, I’m afraid has coloured my view of this album. For me, it doesn’t reach the standards I expect as a whole.

On my first listen I was intrigued by what I was hearing. I found the percussion in particular emotive, reminiscent as it was, on occasions, of machine gun fire. There were heavy parts that felt like a bombardment going on, with the impression being of being a soldier sat in a trench waiting for battle to start. And then the music would quieten, with lilting piano pieces perhaps reflective of the quiet before the storm. But through out this, there was this little nagging thought in the back of my mind, something that wasn’t sitting quite right, something that was jarring on my knowledge of the Great War itself. Another listen back only served to strengthen that thought, a thought that needed corroboration from a source with more knowledge than mine.

And it is thanks to Martin Hutchinson that he, on behalf of Bad Elephant Music, allowed me to share this album with a friend who is both a fan of progressive music but also an experienced Great War battlefield historian. The files were sent without comment, with the reply coming back that confirmed what I thought. The problem with this album comes lyrically; the historical inaccuracies that grated on me were only magnified with particular glaring errors being descriptions around the battle at Mons referring to trenches, barbed wire and mud -this never happened until a long time after this battle with the army at Mons in full retreat in open warfare, the trench warfare occurred sometime later once a stalemate was reached.

Now I am fully prepared for this review to be slated for not allowing a bit of artistic licence, for it to be said does it really matter? To which my justification is that, yes it does for two main reasons. Firstly, as I explained in my opening, this subject is so very important that it has to be right, there is an obligation on the artist, when taking on such a subject, to be absolutely true to those who experienced. On its own there could be an element of allowance, but the second issue I have with this album is the reliance on cliché; for both of us involved in this review the lyrics felt very much like a rushed and lazily written history essay. With reference to ‘brass hats’, ‘do or die’ and ‘dying for England’ this was very much in the stereotypical viewpoint of the First World War that was trotted out in 1960’s and 70’s school class rooms and perpetuated by Blackadder and far less worthy than the war poetry of the Wilfred Owens and Seigfreid Sassoons, for instance, whose voices are a much more genuine and authentic chronicle of this war.

Take this album as just a piece of work and there is plenty to enjoy, least not the quality of the musicianship. However, if you are a student of, interested in or, indeed, seeking to extend your knowledge of the Great War this is, unfortunately, an album that will infuriate, annoy and perhaps even, anger you. And in this conclusion I feel for Saul Blease as I’m sure he has spent many valuable hours trying to create a fitting tribute and chronicle of the Great War; unfortunately, for this reviewer he has only succeeded in pandering to popular perception rather than achieving a better researched reality.

Released 11th November 2018

Order the album from bandcamp here

 

Not a Review of Shineback – Dial – by Tom Slatter

People don’t  know how to talk about genre. There are prog rock related online forums that sensible people avoid because their denizens have endless, idiot arguments about whether certain artists are ‘prog’ or not.  That isn’t how it works. Genre is not a box in which a band is placed, distinct and separate from other styles, especially not prog, which has always fused different ideas together.

Instead, think of each genre as having an imagined perfect ideal that no real world act ever quite matches up to  – the most punk of punk bands, the most metal of metal bands. The real acts you can actually listen to exist slightly outside these, nearer or further from the other genres. Maybe it’s mostly punk, but with 10% of a reggae influence. Maybe it’s mostly prog, but shading into pop.  

‘Is it prog?’ is boring. ‘Where is it on the prog spectrum?’ is a much more sensible question.

Where on the prog spectrum is ‘Dial’, the new Shineback album? It’s on there, but this is no 70s throwback. It’s much more interesting. I first met Simon Godfrey in a pub somewhere in London. It was a small gathering of acoustic prog adjacent artists (Alan Reed and the ubiquitous Matt Stevens were also present) to explore the possibility of doing a tour together. The tour never happened, but it did lead to me sharing a small stage with Simon on one of his farewell gigs before he left for the good ol’ US of A. I acquired a copy of his acoustic album ‘Motherland’ at the same gig.

Most people would probably have first come across Simon’s songwriting on his other projects like Tinyfish or Shineback but ‘Motherland’ was the first time I’d properly listened to his stuff. With its synths, pulsing kick drums, virtuosic solos and sheer noise, you might think ‘Dial’, the new Shineback album, would be a million miles away from that stripped down acoustic sound, but it really isn’t. Whatever else it is – rock, prog(?), EDM – this is a songwriters album. Simon would be perfectly capable of recreating many of these songs with just an acoustic guitar and his voice. It has choruses and hooks and bits you can sing along with. I’m glad he didn’t do that though, because then we would have missed out on everything else there is on the album.

Now, this isn’t a review (could have fooled me Tom – Ed.), Simon is a mate and I played a little bit of guitar on this album so there’s no way I can provide an objective view of the album. But it is good and I do think you should get yourself a copy. Where does it fit on the prog spectrum? Imagine if you will a graph. On one axis is progressive rock, on another pop music, on a third is electronic dance music, on a fourth is acoustic singer-songwriter music, on a fifth…

Okay, that graph isn’t going to work, forget that analogy.

Maybe a list? What are the things you definitely expect from prog? Rock band instrumentation? ‘Dial’ has those. Long songs? Virtuoso solos? Lyrics about something more than simple pop love songs? All of those are present. What does it have that you might not expect from a progressive rock album? The Electronic Dance Music (EDM) influence is an obvious one. Prog has often used new technology, especially the synth (and there area tasty synth solos on I Love You From Memory and Kill Devil Hills) but so has EDM.

‘Dial’ doesn’t use the structures of EDM – there are no dance style break-downs or drum machine style beats. Instead it uses much of the timbral palette. So we get electronic drum sounds but with a more organic drummer-like touch rather than a more computerised drum machine approach. There are synth swells and pulses, but too much stop and start between sections for much of the album to work on a dance floor.

In fact the combination of chord choices, synth hooks and verse-chorus structures in places puts me in mind of 80s pop, or even 80s Genesis. You know, the period where they did heinous things like writing good pop-songs. I asked Simon if that was a conscious decision, but he said it wasn’t but couldn’t deny how much he liked tracks like Driving the Last Spike from that period of Genesis. I can certainly hear that influence in Simon’s chord choices and some of the song structures onDial’, though I’d happily declare several songs from Dial’ much stronger than that particular Genesis number.

There’s a variety of harmony you wouldn’t expect from an EDM album either. From the introspective piano chords of the title track, through the whole-tone noodling I inflicted on one track to the open, accessible major keys of songs like Consider Her Ways, there’s a range here you’d expect of prog or more complex pop songwriting but not EDM. Simon does mention Stevie Wonder as an influence and while the album doesn’t sound at all like a soul record, Wonder was certainly a songwriter who new his way around a set of chord changes.

The track I contributed to is Here I Am, an obvious mixture of spoken word, booming chords and my own guitar playing that Simon has processed and twisted into something much better than I could have come up with on my own.

The other guest artist contributions are great as well. There are several fantastic solos that will keep any proper prog-head happy, and the guest vocals from Ray Weston on the almost heavy metal track Let her Sleep are a fantastic addition.

WithDial’ Shineback is Godfrey at the height of his powers – a mature songwriter who really knows how to put together a good record. If you want rocky guitars, it’s here. If you want extended prog rock structures, you get them too. If you want synths and electronic drums you get those. Above all you get songs that really pay you back for multiple close listens. I’ve heard the album about five times and am still discovering new details.

Is it good? I’m biased of course, but yes I think it’s fantastic.

Is it prog?

That’s a boring question. Did you not read the beginning of this blog post?  

Released 14th September

Order Dial from Bad Elephant Music here

 

Review – Evenflow – Old Town – by Jez Denton

In the last couple of months I’ve had the good fortune to have reviewed a number of works by collaborations between very talented musicians who have come together, often after working on other projects and finding lots of musical common ground, to make music that primarily, it seems, enthuses them, which is an enthusiasm that flows through to the listener.

Sometimes the resulting work doesn’t always hit the brief entirely but, on a majority of cases, with prime examples being the 2017 collaboration between Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile and the album released by the duo made up of Laura Marling and Mike Lindsay, ‘Lump’, in the last couple of months. The common factor, it seems, is when it is a partnership working together as opposed to a collective; the lack of too many cooks adds to the broth in subtle ways, complimenting each other in the desire to create an interesting  and well-crafted piece of musical art.

Falling into this category is the latest release on Bad Elephant Music from the collaboration between Stuart Stephens of Whitewater and Mike Kershaw, under the name Evenflow. Evenflow as a name is a suitable place in which to talk about this EP, called ‘Old Town’, as this is a collection of five songs that do, indeed, have an even and gorgeous flow to them. Right from the opening moments of the first track, Creation, Stuart and Mike show their excellent understanding of how to put together their thoughts and music without being seemingly in competition or showing off to the other.

They work together to complement each other’s differing styles and have made a wonderful EP full of the understanding about leaving space in the music and developing a beautifully atmospheric piece. Each player and composer seems overjoyed to be in the presence of the other, meaning that they both allow each other to grow throughout the EP. They have created a truly wondrous collaboration that deserves further development as this duo of Evenflow.

‘Old Town’ is a piece of work that bodes well for the future of this pair as a combination; we can only hope that their own individual work commitments allows them to come together to continue creating. I, for one, was left wanting more when listening to this EP andwould look forward to hearing a longer, album’s length, work from Stuart and Mike. Hopefully Bad Elephant Music will be able to facilitate this and support the guys in future.

Released 29th June 2018

Order the album (only released digitally) on bandcamp here

 

Review – Matt Baber – Suite For Piano And Electronics – by Jez Denton

Whenever I get a new album through to review from the great guys at Progradar and Bad Elephant Music I tend to download it onto my phone and put the headphones on to listen whilst I walk my dog in the morning. It’s a time, as the world around us comes to life, for reflection and to empty troubles and worries from the previous days and prepare for whatever is going to be thrown at us. And it’s a time when I can drift off to wherever the music I’m listening takes me, thinking about the images and feelings that are inspired and where I draft, in my head, these reviews I write.

This morning’s walk with Mungo was an enriching experience as the debut solo release, ‘Suite for Piano and Electronics’ by Matt Baber created an ambience that complemented our early morning enjoyment of the countryside around our home in North Oxfordshire. Baber, with reference to his influences such as Steve Reich and Keith Emerson, is a pianist and keyboard player of some sublime skill; the music he creates has a simple beauty and flow that is evocative and moving. It is not easy to categorise this music, as Baber himself says in Bad Elephant Music’s press release, but it’s all the better for that, this is music that gives the listener the scope with which to enjoy it how they wish.

When I was a kid I used to be inflicted, by my dad on Sunday morning’s, with easy listening piano ‘lift’ muzak from the likes of Richard Clayderman and that gave me a distrust of anything piano based. However, in recent years, I have found a new love for this instrument through the work of the likes of Rick Wakeman and Tony Turrell who have both released fabulous albums of piano playing. Baber’s album fits neatly into that new love I have.

As I walked across the fields in the early morning with my dog, two contrasting pieces of music came to my mind. Firstly, the work of the likes of Vaughan Williams and Elgar, pieces of work very much inspired by the environment around them with Baber’s suite having the feel, if not necessarily the style, of something quintessentially English in its backbone. The second point of reference for me, and which is the highest compliment I can pay Baber, is that, once I finished this album, the piece of music I needed to listen too was the theme from the film, Merry Christmas Mr.Lawrence, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s hauntingly beautiful piece. The lifts and drops in style and tempo on this album create that same beautifully evocative wonder as Sakamoto’s masterpiece, it truly is that good.

Matt Baber has created here an album that is, as Bad Elephant’s David Elliott says, ‘…intelligent and melodic stuff, easy to fall in love with.’ I certainly did, I’m sure people who take the time to listen to this will do too. Put it on your headphones, take yourself and your dog, if you have one, for a long, long walk in the fields and countryside and immerse yourself in the beauty around you and in your ears.

Released 15th June 2018

Order the album from bandcamp here

Review – Fractal Mirror – Close to Vapour – by Jez Denton

Pop music often gets a bad press; often because it is thought of as being bland, uninspiring and repetitive, and often with good cause. However, pop music can be anything but those criticisms with brilliant melodies, lush production and funny and quirky lyrics. Right from the moment Brian Wilson created ‘Pet Sounds’ in 1967, through Bowie’s many different reincarnations in the 70’s and 80’s and via the melodic cleverness of The Smiths, The Teardrop Explodes and World Party, pop music can offer moments of greatness and genius.

Fitting into that roster of clever pop influenced music is the latest release from Leo Koperdraat and Frank Urbaniak, better known as Fractal Mirror, ‘Close to Vapour’. The album has ten tracks that soar and grow with an ebb and flow, a gentle build to heights of dreaminess, and which take the listener deep into the stories being told. With production by Brett Kull of Echolyn, the band has created an album of outstandingly tuneful and clever songs that deserves the high plaudits that will surely come its way.

If I was to make a small criticism it would only be that the lead vocals will take a bit of getting used to. Leo has a slightly nasally style that, whilst not being a huge problem, does surprise and even disconcert, but only until you get used to his sound. Once the initial impressions have receded the idiosyncratic nature of the delivery adds to the depth and  multi-faceted sculpture of the album.

Being released on Bad Elephant Records in the first quarter of 2018 this album is one of the highlights of the year so far. Also featuring guest appearances from original member Ed Van Haagen, Tom Doncourt and producer Brett Kull, this album will entrance and beguile the listener with its superior pop melodies. I urge you to search this album out for all the rewards it will give you.

Released 23rd February 2018

Order ‘Close to Vapour’ from bandcamp here