Archive Review – Abel Ganz – Abel Ganz from 2014

We have spoken a lot recently about great albums from the last decade and I announced that Progradar’s choice was Big Big Train’s English Electric – Full Power but there was also an album that was a very, very close runner up and I still love it to this day.

I have a very close emotional connection to the album through the band and they have become great friends of mine. So here is my review of Able Ganz’s incredible self-titled release from 2014, kindly reproduced with the permission of Lady Obscure Music Magazine where it was first published.

When I first started to formulate this review my intention was to base it around the announcement of the so called ‘new’ Pink Floyd album and how we should really be encouraging new music and not collections of old material left metaphorically laying around on the studio floor, given a new coat of looking at and then released to the expectant public, no matter how honourable the intentions.

Instead I am going to concentrate on the music on this new album and how it has totally enraptured me and reinvigorated my sometimes jaded view of the music industry in these modern times. I have often talked about how music has made my more complete, how it has helped me through difficult situations and, sometimes, how it can just be so damn good and life affirming.

You should all know by know how I view mainstream chart music with more than a modicum of displeasure. Corporate crap to appease the masses and increase the bank balances of the music executives with no creativity or soul in any way, shape or form. Then, occasionally unexpectedly, an absolute gem of an album that contains the artist’s heart and soul will come along, one that will have taken a long time to come to fruition.

Music like this is what gets me out of bed in a morning, music that I have to wax lyrical about and spread the word to as many people as possible. To this reviewer, the music industry, at the sharp end, has lost its soul and its understanding that it is there for people to enjoy and to make these people’s lives a better place to be. Now it is just a vast, money making machine, bloated and pointless. It is these smaller, independent artists and labels that hold the true meaning and the future of the music industry.

I have been aware of the Scottish band Abel Ganz for quite a while and heard the odd track that has quite impressed me. However, it is this latest release, self-titled, that has really caught my attention.

First, a quick catch up.

 After a very lengthy hiatus Abel Ganz re-emerged in 2006 with the release ‘Back from the Zone’ – a compilation of 1980s material plus two, new recordings. Original members Hew Montgomery and Hugh Carter were joined on this release by long-time collaborator and drummer Denis Smith.

A brand new album ‘Shooting Albatross’quickly followed in 2008 on the band’s own, newly created record label and was very well received internationally. New, full time members Davie Mitchell (lead guitar), Mick Macfarlane (lead vocals, guitar), and Stevie Donnelly (bass) came on board to complete this album and flesh out the band’s reinvigorated line up with Denis Smith taking on major recording and production duties for the band as well as filling the drum stool.

After two years of gigging and promoting ‘Shooting Albatross’the band began making preparations to record their next album. Shortly after work began, Hew Montgomery made the decision that the time had come for him to pursue solo interests and so bowed out. He was replaced by virtuoso Jack Webb (keyboards) who had contributed to ‘Shooting Albatross’as a session musician. Nine months later as recording had only just begun in earnest Hugh Carter also retired from the band for geographical reasons.

With work on new album freshly started the decision was made to carry on write and record new album with the blessing and encouragement of Montgomery and Carter. With all parts of the album virtually completed and mixing sessions begun the role of keyboards player changed hands once again with new full time member Stephen Lightbody joining the band.

Entitled simply ‘Abel Ganz’ the new album makes a deliberate effort to take in new influences and mix them with the old. A genuine attempt has been made to try new things and explore potential new directions. In short – to try and ‘progress’.

Many guest musicians appear on the new album but the band are particularly proud and excited to have worked with the legendary Jerry Donahue and Malcolm Jones [of Scottish folk-rock band Runrig] on the track ‘Thank you’.

Delusions of Grandeur is a delightful introductory piece to the album with oboe, violins and violas accompanying the piano to almost freshen your musical palate ready for the main event. What follows next, the five-part Obsolescence is as good a piece of music as I’ve heard all year. Starting with Part i Sunrise, which is truly captivating, it has an ethereal mix of acoustic guitar, piano, recorder and effortlessly harmonised vocals, almost religious in its delivery. It gently segues into Pt ii Evening which increases the tempo but retains the innocent wonderment of what has gone before. There is a gentle folk edge to the song and it just fills me with an effortless flow of good feeling, truly enchanting, the steel guitar being a touch of genius. A feeling of urgency pervades all as Pt iii Close Your Eyes begins. This part of the piece has more of a mainstream progressive style to it, bass heavy with clever drumbeats. The delectable swathes and swirling drops of Hammond organ are an added nod to the seventies prog stalwarts. What is becoming increasingly clear is the quality of Macfarlane’s vocals. He truly has an impressive voice. The different time changes and signatures lead you on a musical journey that entertains at every turn. A flute that flitters around like a dancing bird is the entrancing introduction to Pt iv The Dream. It has a slow and measured rhythm that entices you into its musical web and holds you transfixed. You are treated to an aural cornucopia of flutes, guitars, tubular bells, double bass and church organ that builds up to an almighty conclusion to this amazing musical delight, Pt v Dawn. This instrumental finale has a depth of feeling that strikes into your psychological core to an emotional extent. The soaring guitar bleeds empathy as it reaches heights of feeling and fervour, a solo full of passion and ecstasy.

Take a moment to get your breath back after that musical extravaganza and then let the graceful and divine calm of Spring wash over you in a cathartic fashion. On this track Macfarlane shows his prowess with the acoustic guitar. The low hum of crickets calling is accompanied by a mellow acoustic guitar and a great brass section on Recuerdos. A soft vocal full of emotion adds a serious note to this amiable song. It is as you get this far into the album you realise the number of differing musical styles that the band can intertwine with aplomb. It doesn’t detract from any enjoyment of the album. In fact it just adds another layer of delight to it. Heartland begins with the muted sound of children playing before a very oriental sounding note emanates from the keyboard. Vocals on this song are provided by Joy Dunlop and the band takes another ninety degree musical turn as keyboards and programmed percussion deliver a sound not unlike an ambient dance track. It is tranquil, calming and subdued despite coming straight out of left field. There is a smidgeon of Celtic folk song to it but you are never quite able to grasp it fully as it lies just out of earshot. It is different and intriguing, yet very good.

End of Rain is another instrumental track that is like a tropical storm envisioned musically. It is full of highs and lows, powerful yet, sometimes, a calming influence. It is due to the bands undeniable skill that it stops short of just being an ambient background track yet, for this listener at least, it is the weakest track on the album. Maybe an experiment with a different musical direction that wasn’t entirely required. Just to prove they really do know how to mix several unlikely musical styles and make them work Abel Ganz deliver Country with aplomb on Thank You. I think this is a brilliant song and I don’t even like Country! It delivers its heart warming message in several different languages yet never loses focus or direction. The vocals are full of feeling and affection and the accordion and steel guitar add a layer of gloss to the whole track. It is captivating, full of charm and leaves a feeling of wellbeing and content wherever it goes.  Mick Macfarlane takes the lead with the acoustic guitar once more on the instrumental A Portion of Noodles. Another dip into the well of folk influenced music, it dances across your aural receptors with a featherlight footprint. Ghostlike and almost intangible, it is beguiling and mesmerising.

Fourteen minutes of musical delectation now follows in the form of Unconditional. Initially sounding as if it comes from the American heartland and the pen of Springsteen or the combined talents of The Eagles, it delves deeper into our collective musical knowledge to deliver on all counts. You don’t have to wait too long before some free form jazz is let off the leash. Muted trumpet played with alacrity and a lilting piano note take the lead and you soon feel you are in a smoky jazz lounge in New Orleans drinking bourbon and feeling at one with the music. The slightly discordant note of the keyboards that follows takes you down a more experimental route whilst keeping that jazz/fusion edge. The whole song encourages you to sit down and unwind, let the sounds wash over you and take you away from the stress of everyday life. Throw in some flashes of scorching guitar that Joe Satriani would be proud of and things are just about perfect. Hints of blues, jazz and progressive rock infuse to create something quite exceptional on this song, it is another musical delight that deserves wider recognition. The song comes around full circle to smoothly meet up again with the classy feel of the introduction and you know you’ve just heard something special. To close out the album you are treated to The Drowning. A luscious brass arrangement lends added gravitas to Macfarlane’s husky and soulful vocal. It has a wistful, if not downright melancholic feel to it but is extremely charming in its own way. The flugelhorn solo is a thing of dignity and style and adds to the aura of longing and loss.

I have just listened to a musical composition that goes further than just pleasing the senses. It is full of beauty and grace and manages to combine musical styles that are quite disparate and deliver a musical release that beguiles, bewitches and enthrals. This is music that will stand the test of time and could become a legacy for this superb band. Abel Ganz has delivered what is bound to become a highlight of this already impressive musical year, I implore you to go henceforth and purchase this musical marvel!

Released July 8th, 2014.

Order the album from bandcamp here:

https://abelganz.bandcamp.com/album/abel-ganz

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