Review – Ellesmere – Stranger Skies – by John Wenlock-Smith

I have come to the realisation that certain genres of music have the most impact on me. Growing up it was initially the raw power of Deep Purple that did it for me then, later on, Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s ‘Brain Salad Surgery’ made a huge impression on my young mind. I started exploring music for myself, helped in part by the fine chaps at my local record shop of choice, Reddington’s Rare Records in Birmingham, behind Marks & Spencers. This treasure trove or Aladdin’s cave of wonders was a crucial part of that, as the music I heard there was life changing. 

I was also an avid reader of Sounds and Melody Maker, later progressing onto Guitar World when I started to play the guitar. When I was in my 20’s, Kerrang and Raw Power came into my sphere of influence and with them I discovered multitudes of new and exciting groups and artists.

Some of those artists helped shape my tastes today, I, like many others, went through a heavy metal phase and also a blues period and later I went through a Miles Davis phase. However, one resounding constant has been my love of the likes of Kansas, Styx, Starcastle, Magnum and Queen, alongside Yes and ELP. For me, symphonic prog hits all the right spots, as Progradar Editor Martin Hutchinson knows only too well. So, when he offered me this new album from Ellesmere, I was certainly only too happy to accept, despite the group being totally new to me.

This album is actually the fourth excursion for multi-instrumentalist Roberto Vitelli’s project, visually and musically strongly linked to his ‘Wyrd’ of 2021. Although for this incarnation, Roberto has added a vocalist John Wilkinson of Swan Chorus, whose distinctive vocals aid with Roberto’s vision in creating music that has echoes of Genesis’ ‘Trick Of The Tail’ and Rush’s ‘Moving Pictures’.

In addition to John Wilkinson, featured are guests like Clive Nolan who provides keyboards and John Hackett, whose flute graces several tracks, and many others appear as well. The artwork is provided by Rodney Matthews whose artwork has graced many albums, including Magnum and Praying Mantis, to name but two. The artwork shows the setting visually by depicting a cold side (the first four tracks) and the other side being the warm side (the 2 lengthy tracks that complete the album).

The album seems to be centred on a series of imaginary or imagined adventures but what is the music like? let’s dive in and find out. The album begins with a mini epic called Northwards which is suitably spacious with lots of keyboards. It sounds vast and also a little foreboding, despite some rippling keyboards offering a bold soundscape. This evokes the warranted cold feelings wonderfully and all of this is in the first 2 minutes! The song concerns itself with an attempt to get to the North Pole overland by sledge, it is a very strong and moody track but handled marvellously by all. Tundra is next with a very sturdy bass part and thrashing drums. Again, the imagery used in this song evokes the cold and open spaces of the tundra most convincingly. I can hear elements of Yes in this track, notably in the vocals and also with the guitar work of Giacomo Ansolemi. Crystallised is an instrumental with acoustic guitar from Graham Taylor and also features David Jackson providing saxophone and other woodwind instruments. With a strong and prominent synth line, the track is excellent and very musically accomplished and shows splendid playing from all once more. Artica opens with a sturdy guitar riff and guitar lines. This song appears to be about climbing in the Arctic and the strength of character needed for such activities. The track has a strong essence of Asia to me, sounding like something from the ‘Alpha’ era of the band.

This track concludes the ‘cold’ side after which we progress on to the ‘warm’ side of the album with the first long piece Stranger Skies, a song about a pilot who undertakes a very strange flight indeed, one that takes him to a strange world full of strange creatures and leaves him with no way home. The track has a long instrumental section in the middle section that builds this atmospheric track well. The tense atmosphere of the lyrics is displayed convincingly in this track and I really like it, with John Wilkinson’s voice definitely capturing the Genesis sound of the Phil Collins era most impressively. The run out of the track especially sounds very pastoral and English prog like. Another World is the albums other long track and also the last track of this fine release. Opening with another strong guitar riff to lead in to the track, the song is about a searcher who finds another world that is very different to the one he knows. There is sumptuous, fluid guitar work on this track, all backed with sumptuous keyboard textures and sounds and some lovely flute from John Hackett as the journey concludes back at the North Pole, emphasising the circular nature of life.

‘Stranger Skies’ is a most compelling and very well conceived release, intelligently imagined and realised. Unsurprisingly I thoroughly enjoyed the album, it really stays with you and is most definitely worth checking out in my opinion.

Released 12th January, 2024.

Order from bandcamp here:

Stranger Skies | Ellesmere (bandcamp.com)

Steve Hackett launches ‘Wherever You Are’; second track taken from ‘The Circus and the Nighwhale’

Legendary rock guitarist Steve Hackett is set to release his new studio album ‘The Circus And The Nightwhale’ on 16th February 2024, via InsideOut Music. A rite-of-passage concept album with a young character called Travla at the centre of it, ‘The Circus And The Nightwhale’s’ 13 tracks have an autobiographical angle for the musician who says about his 30th solo release: “I love this album. It says the things I’ve been wanting to say for a very long time.”

Today a brand new track is revealed, titled ‘Wherever You Are’, and you can watch the video now here:

Of the track, Steve comments: “’Wherever You Are’ is a song of love winning through, shattering the chains of the physical world… Light obliterating darkness. A new universe has opened up with the hope that such a strong love could even survive death. The dreams of childhood realised, there is a sense of everything coming around full circle… Even the three part harmony guitar at the end of Genesis’ The Musical Box is revisited in spirit with the joy of celebration during this song.”

The albums opening track ‘People of the Smoke’ was released in December. Watch the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_iujNWzPL0

The new album is available to pre-order on several different formats, including a Limited CD+Blu-ray mediabook (including 5.1 Surround Sound & 24bit high resolution stereo mixes), Standard CD Jewelcase, Gatefold 180g Vinyl LP & as Digital Album. All feature the stunning cover painting by Denise Marsh. Pre-order now here: https://stevehackett.lnk.to/TheCircusAndTheNightwhale

Steve will celebrate the release of his new album with two HMV instore events in London & Birmingham, where he will be taking part in a Q&A and signing albums. Find out more details on those here: https://ow.ly/HUaT50Q7paJ

‘The Circus And The Nightwhale’ is Steve’s first new music in over two years. Recorded between tours in 2022 and 2023 at Siren studio in the UK – with guest parts beamed in from Sweden, Austria, the US, Azerbaijan and Denmark.   The line-up for ‘The Circus And The Nightwhale’ includes some familiar faces alongside Steve on electric and acoustic guitars, 12-string, mandolin, harmonica, percussion, bass and vocals. Roger King (keyboards, programming and orchestral arrangements), Rob Townsend (sax), Jonas Reingold (bass), Nad Sylvan (vocals), Craig Blundell (drums) and Amanda Lehmann on vocals. Nick D’Virgilio and Hugo Degenhardt return as guests on the drumstool, engineer extraordinaire Benedict Fenner appears on keyboards and Malik Mansurov is back with the tar. Finally, Steve’s brother John Hackett is present once more on flute.

The full track-listing is as follows:

1. People Of The Smoke

2. These Passing Clouds

3. Taking You Down

4. Found And Lost

5. Enter The Ring

6. Get Me Out!

7. Ghost Moon and Living Love

8. Circo Inferno

9. Breakout

10. All At Sea

11. Into The Nightwhale 

12. Wherever You Are

13. White Dove

Summing up ‘The Circus And The Nightwhale’, Steve says: “It’s a lovely journey that starts dirty, scratchy and smoky and becomes heavenly and divine. How can you resist it?”

Steve Hackett & band will tour the world extensively in 2024, including a brand new 16-date UK tour ‘Genesis Greats, Lamb Highlights & Solo’, in October which will see him return to the legendary Royal Albert Hall. He will also return to North America early this year, with European shows booked in for the Summer.  For the full list of dates, head to:

http://hackettsongs.com/tour.html

Steve Hackett reveals the first single “People of the Smoke” from his new conceptual studio album ‘The Circus And The Nightwhale – Out 16th February, 2024.

Legendary rock guitarist Steve Hackett is set to release his new studio album ‘The Circus And The Nightwhale’ on 16th February 2024, via InsideOut Music. A rite-of-passage concept album with a young character called Travla at the centre of it, ‘The Circus And The Nightwhale’s’ 13 tracks have an autobiographical angle for the musician who says about his 30th solo release: “I love this album. It says the things I’ve been wanting to say for a very long time.”

Today he is pleased to reveal the first single, and the albums opening track, ‘People of the Smoke’, you can watch the video now here:

Steve says of the track: “People of the Smoke spins us all back in time to 1950, when bustling post-war London was stifled with smog from trains, chimneys, industry and smokers. I was born into that world! This song kicks off an album following my life’s journey both literally and metaphorically…”

The new album is available to pre-order on several different formats, including a Limited CD+Blu-ray mediabook (including 5.1 Surround Sound & 24bit high resolution stereo mixes), Standard CD Jewelcase, Gatefold 180g Vinyl LP & as Digital Album. All feature the stunning cover painting by Denise Marsh. Pre-order now here: https://stevehackett.lnk.to/TheCircusAndTheNightwhale

Steve will celebrate the release of his new album with two HMV instore events in London & Birmingham, where he will be taking part in a Q&A and signing albums. Find out more details on those here: https://ow.ly/HUaT50Q7paJ

‘The Circus And The Nightwhale’ is Steve’s first new music in over two years. Recorded between tours in 2022 and 2023 at Siren studio in the UK – with guest parts beamed in from Sweden, Austria, the US, Azerbaijan and Denmark. The line-up for ‘The Circus And The Nightwhale’ includes some familiar faces alongside Steve on electric and acoustic guitars, 12-string, mandolin, harmonica, percussion, bass and vocals. Roger King (keyboards, programming and orchestral arrangements), Rob Townsend (sax), Jonas Reingold (bass), Nad Sylvan (vocals), Craig Blundell (drums) and Amanda Lehmann on vocals. Nick D’Virgilio and Hugo Degenhardt return as guests on the drumstool, engineer extraordinaire Benedict Fenner appears on keyboards and Malik Mansurov is back with the tar. Finally, Steve’s brother John Hackett is present once more on flute.

The full tracklisting is as follows:

1. People Of The Smoke

2. These Passing Clouds

3. Taking You Down

4. Found And Lost

5. Enter The Ring

6. Get Me Out!

7. Ghost Moon and Living Love

8. Circo Inferno

9. Breakout

10. All At Sea

11. Into The Nightwhale 

12. Wherever You Are

13. White Dove

Summing up ‘The Circus And The Nightwhale’, Steve says: “It’s a lovely journey that starts dirty, scratchy and smoky and becomes heavenly and divine. How can you resist it?”

Steve recently completed his North American Tour where he continued his ‘Foxtrot At Fifty + Hackett Highlights’ run.  Next year he will tour the world extensively, including a brand new UK tour ‘Genesis Greats, Lamb Highlights & Solo’, which will see him return to the legendary Royal Albert Hall.  For the full list of dates, head to: http://hackettsongs.com/tour.html

Review – Beatrix Players – Living And Alive

After a 5 year hiatus, the award-winning Beatrix Players are back with a brand new eight piece line up and an intriguing new concept album.

The band’s sophomore album ‘Living & Alive’ will be available digitally from 22nd Sep 2023 and, for fans of vinyl and cd, it can be pre-ordered now from Burning Shed with a limited edition of just 500 copies pressed on coloured vinyl.

Founding member, writer and vocalist, Amy Birks is joined on the album by her co-writers from the original Beatrix Players line-up, Helena Dove, and guitarist Tom Manning. Also joining this expanded group are doyen of progressive music, flautist John Hackett, guitarist Oliver Day (That Joe Payne, Yes Please), drummer Andrew Booker (Tim Bowness) and storied cellist Jane Fenton (LSO, LCO, RPO, Britten Ensemble etc). Pianist Matthew Lumb and bassist Kyle Welch complete the on-stage octet.

A trio incarnation of the band released the band’s debut album, ‘Magnified’ in March 2017 and they went on to appear as special guests on UK dates with artists such as Steve Harley, Carl Palmer and Big Big Train. In October 2017 they performed two songs at Prog Magazine’s star-studded annual awards event at London’s Globe Theatre and walked away with the best newcomer prize.

With that line-up on permanent hiatus Amy subsequently released two well received solo albums in 2020 and 2022 and picked up Best Female Vocalist award at the 2018 Prog Awards before recruiting a third iteration of Beatrix Players leading to the recording of this brand new album. 

So that’s the story behind the creation of the album, let’s dig a bit deeper, shall we…

“Take time it’s your life, What a beautiful life it could be…”

Great music has the ability to stir emotions and create small oasis of calm and beautiful solitude and ever since I heard ‘Magnified’, I have been hooked on what Amy Birks (on her solo releases) and Beatrix Players can create. Beautiful, wistful and ethereal music that is passionate and emotive in equal measure and that is just intensified on this new release.

Birks says, “Living & Alive is an honest album, that explores how life isn’t just about living, but that it’s about having the courage to really be alive and own it. Simply put; you are your best you, and will only ever be second best if you’re trying to be something other than you…

And Amy is right, there is a raw honesty to the music, a sparsity that is delicate and graceful to songs like Snowflakes, the charming track that opens the album much in the chamber-prog style of the debut album but this group of musicians, and Amy Birks in particular, have matured and have additional facets to their music and songwriting.

“There’s no such thing as an ordinary moment, There’s never nothing going on, There’s never such a day as clear as the day that’s too late, Too late and lacking of any conviction…”

Somebody Else’s Eyes is dominated by the haunting cello of Jane Fenton, painfully melancholy and alluring in its delivery. Oliver Day’s gorgeous playing adds a layer of sophistication to the music and Amy’s vocals are touching and plaintive. This is music that just bleeds emotion in every word and every note. There’s an insistent, almost off-kilter feel to This Is Your Life, implicit in the vocals that hit home with every word. A song with sharp edges among the charm and wonder.

“This is your life and there’s no one to blame, No matter how hard it gets…”

The music has a real bluesy feel to it, John Hackett’s flute flowing jauntily and Oliver’s pin sharp guitar really hitting home along with the superb cello, a rather pleasing track indeed.

Starts Again arrives with a jaunty atmosphere, created by the fantastic musicianship and Oliver’s laid back guitar. Another thoughtful track about how a relationship that’s going astray may work if only we could start again. The delightful chorus and relaxed mood give a feel of a sophisticated folk song with added layers of inventiveness, especially with that impish flute…

“And I doubted many a night, With your eyes poised to strike, And your tongue cut like a knife, It’s just no way to live life…”

Amy co-wrote A Beautiful Lie with John Hackett, a song about a relationship that’s run its course but we’re still living ‘A Beautiful Lie’. Gorgeously simple and shimmering with restrained intensity, there’s an uncomplicated honesty to the song and Jane’s pensive cello adds a touch of elegant sorrow to proceedings. A wonderful, if sad song that will really touch you.

“Dam your love and dam the water, Hold it back to keep control, Dam your love and dam the water, Until the day you overflow…”

Another somber track, Overflow carries on the pared back and less-is-more feel where the vocals add to the tension and pent up emotion. The music works in tandem with the vocals to add a wall of delicious sound, adding to the suspense and apprehension. Purgatory has a really serious tone, dealing with the mental abuse of a child but done in a very sympathetic manner. Amy is not afraid with dealing with contentious subjects and the beauty of the song even adds to the gravitas of the situation.

“Why can’ t you just smile, And wish me well, But you can’t hit a nail, Where it won’t go…”

Painful and yet hauntingly beautiful, there’s a solemn tale at the core of You Can’t Hit A Nail. A melancholy song that bleeds wistful sorrow from the flute and cello and where the vocal performance could have come straight from the stage of a West End musical. Sorrowful and even bitter, why do sad songs say so much? Fragile, poignant and yet, ultimately uplifting, Free has a feeling of emotional release in its heartfelt lyrics and superbly pared back music, just listen to the brilliant guitar playing and the inspiring close to this elegant song.

“There’s a clock ticking inside of me, And it won’t leave me alone, And it’s joined by a friend, my conscience, And it owns my body and soul, And it keeps on beating along to the sound of Me, I Am Me…”

This insightful, charismatic musical journey is brought to a close with the superb Me, I Am Me, bringing the story around full circle. An assertive vocal mirrors the lyrical content and the music has an almost classical feel to it. Powerful, affectional and heartwarming, this song is making a personal statement and one that is delivered with confidence. It is the perfect close to the album.

Beatrix Players return triumphant with the mesmerising ‘Living & Alive’, a collection of songs that are bewitching and compelling and leave you in no doubt of their stature in the music industry of today. The sublime voice of Amy Birks and outstanding musicianship on show have created one of the most outstanding releases of 2023 and one that should be on your list of must buy albums, it really is that good!

Released 22nd September, 2023.

Pre-order digital here:

Living & Alive | Beatrix Players (bandcamp.com)

Pre-order CD at Burning Shed:

Living & Alive (burningshed.com)

Review – Duncan Parsons – On Earth, As it is – by John Wenlock-Smith

Duncan Parsons is the drummer for the John Hackett Band and bizarrely the bassist for Joanne Harris’s Storytime band, ‘On Earth, As it is’ is his latest album of original material.

The album is not a concept as such, although it has songs that share a common central theme. Much of the music is performed by Duncan, although he has managed to get assistance from some very interesting guest musicians like John Helliwell of SupertrampDave Bainbridge of Iona and Lifesigns and his fellow John Hackett Band members Nick Fletcher and John Hackett himself, who both add graceful parts to the lengthy opener Heaven, the album’s longest track at twenty three minutes. The song opens with seven minutes of instrumental music before Duncan’s vocals join in. This is intoned with a pulsating synth bass line which is very ethereal sounding, there is then a section of massed non-verbal vocalisations which add to the atmospheric nature of the track. Then follows an acoustic guitar section which which dissolves into deep keyboard bass and more vocalisations along with Lizz Lipscombe’s string playing. An urgent bass then picks up the pace and creates a strong platform for Nick Fletcher’s fusion guitar part in which he shreds wildly and, as always, immaculately with a great clear tone. This then gives way to synths that lead to another guitar outburst from Nick that takes the track towards its conclusion, the guitar playing on this section is breathtaking, very fiery and highly impressive. The song ends with synths and guitar lines playing, a really strong opener.

This Day follows and has plucked guitar harmonics from Duncan and bass from the legendary Leland Sklar, whose bottom end anchors everything together wonderfully. The track has Duncan playing a washboard and also John Helliwell elegant clarinet. This has a very satisfying jazz elements to it and the saxophone from John also impresses highly. Fissures of Men is a short, dynamic piece featuring violin, viola and cello all set against a sparse piano but it all sounds really good. This is followed by another shorter track, Finish Line, which alludes to a fractured and possibly broken relationship but, ultimately, the song is about how we choose to be.

Unnecessary Kindness opens with an acoustic guitar and is largely a solo guitar instrumental track and very accomplished it is too with plenty of shades of Anthony Phillips in evidence here, at least to these ears. Three Sixteen is more muscular in tone with some crunchy guitar and a simple, but effective, solo halfway through that is ended by the cello as the vocals begin again. This is followed with a mournful violin and some jolly flute as a contrast then a solid tap on what could be a cowbell leads to the last verse of the song. There’s not a little urgency and a comfortable yet easy guitar line leads to the song’s conclusion. This is a very good track indeed, a clear winner. Lead Us Not is another shorter track with the solid bass of Leland gracing proceedings again, along with the graceful flute of John Hackett. The song seems to be about temptation and how we battle with it and how it leads us to where we don’t wish to be.

There is reprise of the earlier Fissures of Men track but it is only very brief, this leads to the last and second longest track, Valediction (Power And Glory) which closes the album out. This song features John Steel on various guitars and is a very atmospheric piece of music with lots of good sounds and textures. It is all fairly free form in nature but very well assembled, with some fabulous acoustic guitar interjections and a great solo that moves over the sumptuous backing and it all sounds really impressive. Along with Heaven, these two epics bookmark what is a most impressive collection of tracks that certainly makes you think as you listen to this fine album. It is one that  most folk will be largely unaware of and more’s the pity, as this is a highly intelligent and articulate album of music.

Released 2nd December, 2022.

Order from badncamp here:

https://duncanparsons.bandcamp.com/album/on-earth-as-it-is

Review – Ms Amy Birks – In Our Souls

Ms Amy Birks returns with ‘In Our Souls’, the follow up to her debut solo album ‘All That I Am & All That I Was’.

‘In Our Souls’ represents Amy’s second time around as a producer and mixing engineer. She recalls the process as being “a time of solitude, of many a late night, exploring ideas and losing myself in the books and poetry of the Bronte’s and my own personal journey over the past few years, developing my ears, skills and confidence as a composer. My first record, ‘All That I Am & All That I Was’, was very much about deeply personal experiences but with this album I wanted to extract more strength and feeling from the musical palate and have more fun with it, which has enabled me to step back a little from the lyrics and put more faith in my ability to write not only songs but pieces of music.”

Amy, lead singer and lyricist of Beatrix Players, is joined on the album by Helena Dove and Tom Manning , two co-writers from the original line-up of that award-winning band. Manning also composed and played all the guitar parts on the album. Amy is once again accompanied by flautist John Hackett while introducing violinist Frank Van Essen and cellist Clare O’Connell to what is a virtuosic line-up.

For ‘In Our Souls’, out of the twelve tracks on the album, Birks, a long-standing fan of the Bronte sisters, sets the words of three Bronte poems to music. Birks furthered her knowledge of the sisters and their personal musical leanings through several trips to Haworth and the Bronte’s parsonage prior to selecting poems that would provide inspiration for the album.

Ms Amy Birks takes the beautiful sound that she developed on her first album, that, in itself, an extension of the Beatrix Players’ amazing combination of chamber orchestra and popular music, and elevates it to an even higher level of brilliance. The whole album is just under fifty minutes of sheer musical wonderment where Amy’s stunning vocals blend perfectly with the consummate musicianship of her amazing group of players.

There are no highlights really but only because every song is an exquisitely crafted gem of ethereal grace and wonder. The opening, title track, In Our Souls, commandeers the words of Charlotte Bronte’s poem, ‘Evening Solace’ and creates a song that just oozes sublime calm, Hold On is a song about a transformation, at soul level, which is what Amy thinks nature can do for a person, if they are open to it and has more urgency engendered by the vocal and a superbly improvised violin from Frank van Essen. There’s a powerful dynamism to Elsa, a song Amy wrote when at university about a woman who is aware of her desires and her attraction and of the wife she knows exists but cares little for, the music creating an aura of drama and tension.

Brothers is without-doubt the most personal track on the album, Amy explains; “I have two estranged brothers and those tumultuous relationships have been the subject, or at least the undercurrent of many a song. For whatever reason, we have never seen eye to eye, hence the opening words of ‘I don’t understand why. Do you? Do you know why?’ and the build-up of aggression through the instrumentation. This, I suppose, is my therapy.” It makes for truly thought provoking piece of music, full of tension and emotion. There’s a delicate, if melancholic, refinement to The One That Got Away, a sad sort of love song about a relationship that almost was something more than friendship but was more of an awakening and a red flag. Wistful and rueful, its artistry belies the plaintive undertone that the track’s subject engenders. A Death Scene takes the words from the wonderful Emily Bronte poem with the same name to create a contemplative and slightly dark piece of music with a thoughtful edge and features some spellbinding guitar playing from Tom Manning and the remarkable flute of John Hackett.

The Woman In White, a song where Amy looks back at herself as a young bride and not really recognising who that person was anymore, is possibly the darkest track on the album from a lyrical point of view and this lends a brooding quality to the piece. With the layers of driving strings and guitar, this is Amy enjoying herself. It’s a highly visual piece that takes her back to an earlier time. The third Bronte poem on the album, The Dream, is from the greatly underappreciated (in Amy’s opinion) Anne Bronte and has a lighter, more frivolous and sweeter feel though, in keeping with the woman who wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the mid-section has a power and authority all of its own. Goodnight For Now is another song that Amy wrote while at university. A gentle, graceful, acoustic piece that, once again, showcases Amy’s amazing voice, it’s about a woman gently letting down a man for she is out of bounds and shows that Amy has always had her head in the romance of Austin and the Bronte’s.

There’s a heart wrenching feel to the wonderfully dramatic Living In Sin, a song about transformation and having the strength to be who you really are. The sombre tone of the music and Amy’s downplayed vocal give real sentiment and fervour to the track. Amy wrote Cannot Contain about greed and how we can all get sucked in by wealth and ‘success’ if we’re not paying attention. It is quite a curt track with an edgy tension underpinning the whole song and the almost irascible tone to Amy’s vocal brooks no argument! The album comes to a rather satisfying close with the wondrous, almost elemental, joy of an instrumental version of the title track.

Well, what can I say, Amy is a rather prodigiously talented songwriter with a quite remarkable voice and when that is put together with musicianship of such stellar talent as is shown here, you are well on the way to musical perfection. ‘In Our Souls’ is a collection of wonderful songs that will delight, enchant and enrapture musical connoisseurs for a long time to come, it truly is that good!

Released 8th April, 2022.

Order the CD from bandcamp here:

In Our Souls | Ms Amy Birks (bandcamp.com)

Review – John Hackett – The Piper Plays His Tune – by John Wenlock-Smith

John Hackett is the flute wielding, multi-instrumentalist brother of Steve Hackett and the two share a musical, as well as a familial, bond. They have worked together on and off over the years with John popping up on Steve’s albums, alongside this John also is the leader of his own group The John Hackett Band and has released several albums over the years such as 2015’s ‘Another Life’ about a faltering relationship and 2017’s ‘We Are Not Alone’, which was a 2 disc set of the album and a live concert recording of a Classic Rock Society gig in Maltby in 2016 (which included tracks primarily from his ‘Checking Out in London’, ‘Another Life’ and a few pieces from the ‘We Are Not Alone’ album.

This new album is a little different in that a) It was recorded in Lockdown 2020 and b) John plays all the instruments that you hear and produced and mixed it all at home. The result is a rather mellow but seriously tuneful set of songs with progressive overtones and embellishments, which are all seriously fine pieces of music.

The album lasts for around 45 minutes but, within that, you will find some fabulous music, all very well realised and performed. Unsurprisingly, there is a fair amount of flute playing but also some very fine guitar playing, in the style of brother Steve. The drums are all from a program, not that it matters really.

The quality of the songs is high and they all have strong memorable melodies. Any solos are brief but fit the song and are not showboating in any manner. There are even bongos on the album but I will leave it to you to discover exactly where they appear. There are a lot of pop elements on show as John gets in touch with the 80’s vibe on a few tracks like In Love, which has a very jaunty beat to it, others have a more melancholy or subdued air about them.

Crying Shame has a brief but satisfying guitar solo, it’s worth remembering that John was originally a blues guitarist in his teens before seeing King Crimson and taking up the flute after being inspired by Ian MacDonald’s playing.  

Another pleasing aspect to this album is the sparseness of the arrangements and how John uses that spaciousness to work for him, this also allows his bass playing to really make its mark, anchoring each song solidly. You especially notice this on Broken Glass which is a phenomenal song, slow paced but full of melodic touches and great harmonies. It’s probably my favourite track here along with Julia and Too Late For Dreamers, which has a lovely summery feel to it with some fine sweeping guitar chords and rhythm driving it along. John is very proficient on each instrument, creating layers of sound to achieve a full sound on the album.

Julia is a song John wrote many years ago that now gets its first outing on this album. This is a great little song, very evocative, with a driving guitar riff and has great lyrics to it. Another song that works well for me is the closer, There You Go Again, with its jolly guitar lines and sympathetic keyboards. The track is a bit of a love song really and the chorus is upbeat and memorable and will stay with you long after the album has ended. It also has some jolly flute and acoustic guitar interchanges and a penny whistle solo, all very merry and fine sounding. This closes the album out in strong style and you are left with the option to simply press play and enjoy it all again. I know I certainly want to, this album is brim-full of strong songs, energetic playing and good lyrics.

For an album recorded under some difficult conditions, John has really crafted a fine low-key release here and one that is most certainly worthy of your time and listening. I really enjoyed it and it gets even better the more that you play it. Please buy it from John direct as, like all other musicians now, they need all the help they can get and every album counts. So why not splash the cash and support John at this time, you will get a great sounding album and John will appreciate your support. As Hot Chocolate once sang Everyone’s A Winner!

Released 18th November , 2021.

Order direct from the artists here:

The Piper Plays His Tune – Hacktrax

Interview With John Hackett – John Wenlock-Smith

In this piece John talks to John Hackett about his latest album, a collection of songs recorded during lockdown in spring of 2020 in which John plays all instruments and produced and mixed the album on his own. The album ‘The Piper Plays His Tune’ is the result, released on his own Hacktrax label.

John Wenlock-Smith: Morning John, are you keeping well?

John Hackett: Yes, I have been doing quite a few walks with my wife trying to lose the lockdown tummy that has emerged because of watching Netflix at night whilst eating chocolates!

JWS: We have been doing that as well. The dog starts barking at a pigeon outside and is removed out of the way, lockdown, thank goodness it is coming to an end eh?

JH: Yes, it has been a tough time for many people.

JWS: Unfortunately it has, especially for people like yourself who have been without any income for over a year.

JH: I have been fortunate as my wife works from home, so I have been able to do a bit from home.

JWS: Well, I am retired now as the result of a stroke which has left me with vascular dementia but I get support from my local stroke survivors group. I have heard your new album and I like it, it is quite mellow though.

JH: Well, it is a collection of songs that I guess you would say is quite melody driven as I have spent most of my life as a flute player, which basically means you are following the tune.

JWS: So your wife works from home you say?

JH: Yes, she is an administrator for the church and she is particularly good with technology, which has been especially useful.

JWS: I have been listening back to some of the older stuff you worked on, starting with ‘The Geese and The Ghost’ and ‘We Are Not Alone’, then ‘Another Life’ and ‘Sketches of Satie’ with your brother Steve, I like the live CD that came with that album.

JH: Well, that was early days for the band, I think that was about the fourth show as a band, recorded at the Classic Rock Society who were very generous to us as a band, allowing us to record that show for posterity. I suppose that album is a bit more ‘proggy’ than some of the more classical stuff I’ve been involved with, especially the opening track Take Control and also the track Winds of Change, in which Nick Fletcher, our guitarist, gets room to play a little. My Brother Steve said recently that he thinks Nick is the best jazz rock guitarist in the country at the moment. High praise indeed, I do not know if you have Nick’s album ‘Cycles of Behaviour’ but it is a real testament to his playing.

JWS: Yes ,I have that album, I have just done an interview and album review that will be published on Progradar shortly. I especially liked Philosopher King, the longest track on the album.

JH: I am glad you like that one.

JWS: I like long songs, it gives them room to stretch and breathe a little, give me a longer song anytime.

JH: Sounds like a song title, I might use that in a lyric sometime.

JWS: Go for it, you can have that one for free.

JH: Good, I will look forward to reading that John, he (Nick Fletcher) and I have a lot in common. He has spent a lot of time as a classical guitarist and I have spent a lot of my time as a classical flautist, although we both love rock music and we both feel comfortable working in both fields. I used to think that I had to make a choice, one or the other, but Nick and I both feel that they can feed off each other, in that you can apply some of the techniques used in classical pieces in the rock stuff. Really, the rock stuff benefits from playing the classical pieces too, with the rock stuff you are always thinking about keeping it strong and I think that background can really help in with the energy and direction you create.

Nick and I worked together on the ‘Beyond The Stars’ album and he had a vision for the album. It has a fabulous long track, That Ship Has Sailed, on which Nick gets a chance to really stretch out, it is his Pink Floyd moment, his Comfortably Numb, as it were.

JWS: So what was your first love in rock music?

JH: Well I started off as a blues guitarist, my brother taught me House Of The Rising Sun and showed me a few bits, then we saw King Crimson with Ian Macdonald playing the flute and Robin Miller on oboe. That got me into learning to play the flute, which I did at University in Sheffield. In 1978 I joined Steve’s band as a flautist/bass player, recorded ‘Voyage of the Acolyte’, amongst his other earlier albums, and toured extensively with him as part of the band. Good times! we still work together occasionally, usually doing a Christmas show at Trading Boundaries in which I play flute, along with Roger King on keyboards and Rob Townsend on sax, that is always a good venue as the audience are at tables near the stage.

JWS: Yes, we have not got to Trading Boundaries yet as it is too far from where we are in Cheshire, although I do have a Downes Braide Association album that has a live show from Trading Boundaries with it.

It certainly looks like a great little venue; we have seen you with Steve Hackett a few times on his more recent tours in Manchester, often with Amanda Lehmann in tow too. I suppose Sheffield to Manchester is only about an hour away?

JH: Yes, not too far at all and it is always great to be a part of Steve’s shows, I really enjoy those appearances.

JWS: Obviously gigging is coming back slowly,

JH: We have our first gig in August at the 1865 in Southampton.

JWS: Are you playing in Bilston at the Robin 2?

JH: Yes we are playing there as part of an all-day festival.

JWS: Will there be a new John Hackett Band album soon?

JH: Yes, I certainly hope so, we need to do something soon, watch this space.

 JWS: Have you had your vaccinations?

JH: Yes, I had those at the Sheffield Arena, I am not sure if the others have had theirs yet, I guess we will find out soon enough. I had to take my shirt off and I was wearing a John Hackett Band T Shirt and the nurse said what’s your T shirt and I said it’s my band, I said I’d always hoped to get to Sheffield Arena as a band appearing, not as an OAP getting vaccinated! 

JWS: You have some nice guitar playing on the album.

JH: Thank you, I was listening to an old Tamla song and heard some bongo’s and I thought I could do with some of those. I went out shopping and I found some in Lidl, I thought that was a sign to get on with it!

JWS: Would you do another album in that way?

JH: I would not rule it out but not yet. 

JWS: Well I think that’s all I must ask you about, thanks very much for talking to me and enjoy the rest of your weekend.

JH: Yes, Thanks for your time John, I’ll drop you an email later, so you have my email too, nice talking with you.

‘The Piper Plays His Tune’ was released 18th November, 2020.

Order the album from bandcamp here:

The Piper Plays His Tune | John Hackett (bandcamp.com)

Review – Steve Hackett – Selling England By the Pound & Spectral Mornings Live at Hammersmith

This 2 CD / Blu Ray package is the latest release from the former Genesis guitarist who has, for the last 8 years, been repackaging and marketing his own version of his Genesis era history. Quite rightly so, when the rest of the original band are all doing decidedly different music these days.

This nostalgic revue is both commercially and musically viable and valid, people love these songs and Steve has both compiled a top notch supporting band and also tweaked the songs enough to bring their subtle tones and deep emotions to life. Steve’s tours invariably sell out and he has kept ticket prices to an affordable level thus making his shows accessible to many fans who may never have seen the original band. This latest release sees a return to Hammersmith after last year’s successful run of  shows under the ‘Selling England By The Pound‘ and ‘Spectral Mornings‘ banner.

What’s different this time is that Steve has a new drummer who has replaced the departing long term member Gary O’Toole. He had occupied the drum stool for nearly 20 years and, whilst this hasn’t changed the sound, it has brought a fresh power to proceedings. Craig Blundell is the new man behind the kit and he certainly makes his presence felt on this album, adding new flourishes and also forming a solid, reliable rhythm section with bassist Jonas Reingold and, in doing so, creating a platform for Steve’s guitar to soar freely.

The show is divided into two separate parts, part one being a mix of ‘Spectral Mornings’ tracks and including three tracks from Steve’s latest album, ‘At The Edge Of Light’, these being Under The Eye Of The Sun, Fallen Walls and Pedestals, and Beasts in Our Time. These add to the dynamics of the first half well, ‘Spectral Mornings’ being considered by many to be a crowning glory in Steve’s musical legacy or canon of recordings.

It’s an album that is certainly warmly received here at Hammersmith, the songs will be familiar to most so I don’t really need to comment on them to much except to state that all receive sterling performances here with contributions from both John Hackett on flute and Amanda Lehmann on guitar and vocals.

This section of the show is bookended with two of the tracks from ‘Selling England By the Pound’, namely, Dancing with The Moonlit Knight and an extended take on I Know What I Like, both of which are superb renditions, the latter giving Steve a chance to stretch out on the guitar.

The second part contains the remainder of SEBTP including an unreleased track, Déjà Vu, that was co-written by Peter Gabriel. Steve consulted with Peter who then gave his consent to a reworked, finished version and split the writing credits with Steve. As the track was omitted from the original album, its appearance here is most welcome indeed, it is a feisty and strong number that fits in well with the remaining tracks on SEBTP.

Also of note is the simply magnificent version of Firth of Fifth, a song that is as much about Steve as any other Genesis song. This is probably the best of the many live versions of this song that exist, somehow surpassing all the other versions including the orchestral version from last year’s Festival Hall recording, whilst that was great, somehow this is even better. I think that Craig Blundell’s drumming throughout gives the piece hitherto uncovered power, kick and bite and that elevates it above all the other takes released previously.

You could argue that every year brings a new release of old material and do we really need this one? My answer to that is a definitive Yes! These performances are from the heart and certainly satisfy demand and, whilst the original band are reluctant to perform these, Steve’s troop can certainly do so more than adequately and with conviction, power, dignity and grace. This set does that on every count, the blu-ray is a lovely addition and supplements the recordings with a crisp sound and sharp picture. The lighting used throughput the show is stunning and lighting operator Chris Curran certainly adds emphasis and dynamics in bringing his flair in making this a great visual show. This is made all the better with the sharpness that the blu-ray version delivers and the option of the 5.1 surround version that has been sympathetically mixed by Steven Wilson.  

If you have enjoyed any of Steve’s previous live sets, then I certainly recommend this one to you there is so much to enjoy and relive here.

Released 25th September 2020

Order direct from Steve’s website here:

http://www.hackettsongs.com/news/newsAlbum30.html

Ms Amy Birks announces debut solo album and single I Wish featuring guitar legend Steve Hackett

Ms Amy Birks is thrilled to announce her forthcoming self-produced debut solo album All That I Am & All That I Was which is to be released on April 3rd.

Winner of ‘Best Female Vocalis’ in the 2018 PROG Magazine poll and former lyricist, co-composer and lead vocalist of the 2017 Prog magazine Limelight Award winners Beatrix Players, the album which contains the singles Jamaica Inn and I Wish and features guest appearances from a raft of luminaries including Steve Hackett, John Hackett and Caroline Lavelle is available in two physical formats.

The second single to be taken from the album, I Wish, features Steve Hackett on acoustic guitar and a lyric based on the words of Christina Rossetti – poet, activist and the subject of some of the most famous paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. The digital-only single is available now for streaming and download and also as an instant gratification track for fans making digital pre-orders of the album via iTunes.

I Wish is accompanied by a video featuring Amy and a mysterious Flamenco guitarist each represented in stunning origami stop motion piece, created by Susan Raybould (Origami Om) and pushed the boundaries of traditional origami design.

Amy produced most of her solo debut herself although the single was produced by Nick Wollage who is famed for his engineering on the soundtracks to dozens of major motion pictures including “Atonement”. He also worked on Tony Banks‘ “Seven (A Suite For Orchestra)”.
Birks recalls the process of recording the track and reflects on its unsettling lyrical undercurrents – 

“I feel very honoured to have worked with Steve Hackett & Nick Wollage. I wrote this song during a trip to Colombia where I was influenced by the classical guitar and percussive sounds of Bambuco. When I bumped into Steve at the Prog Awards, I asked him to play and he very kindly obliged. The Rossetti poem works perfectly as this is a dark lyric about the fragility of the mind and how the past can so very easily come back to tease and torment.”

For Amy ” this has been a really personal and full-on experience that has pushed me further, emotionally, technically and lyrically than I ever thought possible, which has enabled me to become the writer that I have been wanting to be.”

Pre-orders of special, limited edition All That I Am & All That I Was and vinyl formats are available now via The Merch Desk.Formats are: Limited edition CD package in a six panel 7″ gatefold sleeve accompanied by twelve page photo book available to mail order customers and from the merch stand at shows from 5th April while stocks last.

Vinyl album in 12″ gatefold sleeve. Initial copies of both formats ordered from The Merch Desk will be signed by Amy.

The album will also be available via all the usual download and streaming services.

The 2020 tour dates include a string of trio and quartet shows opening for That Joe Payne and the John Hackett Band and a rescheduled full band date in London celebrating the release of the album All That I Am & All That I Was. More dates featuring songs from both her debut album and Beatrix Players’ “Magnified” are to be announced in due course including an appearance at a major festival for fans of progressive music.

UK Tour Dates
Sat 7th March 2020 The Court Theatre, Tring (special guest of That Joe Payne), Sun 5rd April 2020 The Troubadour, London (Headline full band show), Fri 17th April 2020 The Acorn, Penzance (special guest of the John Hackett Band), Sat 18th April 2020 The Wharf, Tavistock Penzance (special guest of the John Hackett Band), Sat 25th April 2020 Hanger Farm Arts Centre, Southampton (special guest of That Joe Payne), Sat 23rd May 2020 The Met, Bury (special guest of That Joe Payne), Sat 30th May 2020 CCA, Glasgow (special guest of That Joe Payne), Sat 20th June 2020 Crescent Theatre, Birmingham (special guest of That Joe Payne), Fri 20th Nov 2020 Artrix, Bromsgrove (special guest of the John Hackett Band)

Since Beatrix Players’ final run of shows opening for Carl Palmer, Steve Harley and Big Big Train in 2017 – 2018 Amy has been recording her debut solo album and playing impromptu solo sets with the likes of Tim Bowness and That Joe Payne. Amy’s debut solo single “Jamaica Inn” was released on November 15th with a memorable video shot on location in Bodmin Moor.

Pre Ordershttps://themerchdesk.com/index.php?route=product/category&path=88_296
I Wish https://youtu.be/pf4F9jQVz_E
Jamaica Inn https://youtu.be/g_ji_1Sm2vE