Live Review – Foxtrot At Fifty – Buxton Opera House 26th September 2022 – by John Wenlock-Smith

Picture By Lee Millward

In all my years I had never, until tonight that is, seen a show at the famous Buxton Opera House. Designed by noted architect Frank Matcham, a noted theatre designer whose work is known in many fine theatres like the Hackney Empire and the London Palladium, among others. The Opera House opened in 1903 and was subsequently renovated in the late 1970’s. It is a notably ornate building and is small inside, a capacity of 901 seats across its 4 levels making this a fairly intimate setting in which to witness such a distinguished artists that play here.

Steve Hackett’s latest tour is based around the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the release of the classic 1972 Genesis album ‘Foxtrot’, which is known as one of the defining albums from the so called big six (Genesis, Yes, ELP, King Crimson, VDGG and Pink Floyd). This record is probably one of Genesis’ most famous releases and includes the classic Supper’s Ready. However, before we celebrate that achievement, we are sweetened by a wonderfully accomplished first set of Steve’s own songs, drawn from several of his solo albums, from ‘Voyage Of The Acolyte’ through to ‘The Surrender Of Silence’.

What a set this turns out to be! In this first part of the show we are rewarded with jaw dropping takes of Ace Of Wands, Every Day and Camino Royale among others. Again, Steve and his band rise to the challenge admirably, especially noteworthy are the ever graceful keyboards of Roger King and the woodwinds of Rob Townsend. For most of this part of the show singer Nad Sylvan is absent, appearing only for The Devil’s Cathedral and Every Day. The song A Tower Struck Down includes a bass solo from Jonas Reingold, which was certainly different as you don’t hear many of those these days!

The evergreen Shadow of the Hierophant also makes a welcome return, although this was mainly the closing section only although, to be fair, it does prove just what a talented troupe Steve leads. This mainly instrumental set also allows Steve lots of room for his elegant lyrical, eloquent soloing. Steve soars in these pieces proving, once again, that at 72 years of age, like a good wine, every year he continues to age gracefully and with a robust and often surprising bouquet. This first half ends to rapture applause and a break is taken before the main event.

Now, the concept of playing a classic album in full is not a new one, Yes, for instance, have been doing their classic albums in sequence since the early 2000’s but Steve has only being doing it for the past few tours, Covid excluded, and this time it’s ‘Foxtrot at Fifty’.

This part begins with a storming take of Watcher Of The Skies, which allows Nad’s theatrical side to emerge, and it does dramatically as he wears red flashing glasses to emphasise the sombre message of the words. Now, here’s an admission for you, until tonight I’d never heard all of ‘Foxtrot’! Yes, I knew bits but to hear it performed in sequence by this extremely talented ensemble makes me want to buy the album for myself, I will certainly rectify that omission on my part. The second track, Time Table, is new to me but what a fine song it is, very clever, it’s about Knights of old and it’s a real corker, as is Get ‘Em Out By Friday, a song about social housing and unscrupulous landlords and their tactics. Recorded in 1972, this song still sounds true today, as do the issues it speaks of. Genesis were ahead of their time and spoke about issues that concerned them, they had a good sense of the absurdities of life.

Can-Utility and the Coastliners follows, outlining the tale of King Canute and his attempts to stop the waves. Interestingly Knutsford in Cheshire tells a similar story as Canute gave his name to the town and its river crossing, although his name was anglicised to Knutsford rather than Canute’s Ford. We are then treated to a long-time Hackett favourite, Horizons, which sees Steve switching to a rather expensive and exquisite classical guitar for a flamenco influenced rethought of this short instrumental.

Then it’s the main highlight for many, Suppers Ready ,a six part suite of songs that have been highly regarded for many years. The song has a multitude of themes including social security, narcissism and words from the book of revelation in the bible. Performed tonight, it is an utter triumph and, again, it starts to make sense to me at last.

This ends the main show but we get two more songs as an encore, the always fabulous favourite Firth Of Fifth, and this features Steve’s brother John, who plays the flute soloing place of Rob Townsend, and excellent he is too. Roger King’s epic piano lines are superb, as is that fabulous guitar solo from Steve, although he does fluff the last note and looks crestfallen for doing so, although, to be fair no one minded. The final track is a medley of Myopia/Slogans/ Los Endos which sends everyone home happy and satisfied with a very special evening of great music in a truly unique setting. Personally, I await the already planned document of this tour that will probably emerge next year at some stage.

Review – Derek Sherinian – Vortex – by John Wenlock-Smith

Derek Sherinian is very much a keyboard player of the new millennium. Born in California in Laguna Beach in 1966, he has worked with many of the world’s finest progressive and metal groups, either as a member or a touring musician. His latest venture being with the progressive metal super group Sons Of Apollo, where, alongside Mike Portnoy, Billy Sheehan, Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal and Jeff Scott Soto, they offer a very sophisticated and earnest progressive metal sound.

Alongside this activity Derek is also a solo artist has produced no less than nine solo albums of which this one, ‘Vortex’, is the latest. Unusually, he likes to play off against some of rock’s finest guitarists as he enjoys the challenge this offers, plus he is a big fan of guitars and their exponents!

This means that his albums have featured many of rocks finest six string heroes, including Zakk Wylde, Steve Vai and Joe Bonamassa, amongst others. This album continues that tradition with the prowess of Zakk Wylde and Joe Bonamassa appearing once more, along with Steve Lukather of Toto, Nuno Bettencourt of Extreme and the legendary Michael Schenker, the album also features Ron Bumblefoot Thal and noted jazz guitarist Mike Stern. Also present are Tony Franklin on bass and Simon Phillips, who not only provides the drums but also produced the album with Derek.

So we have a stellar line of talent, but is it any good you ask?

Well the answer is a resounding yes! It’s a very fine album with lots of exciting solos and performances, the only downside for me is that, good as these players are, the lack of vocals means this can be seen as very high class muzak at times as it is an intense listen and not something that you can play in the background really. It requires active listening to really get the most out of it all, well, in my opinion anyway!

The album opens with the strong track The Vortex which has Steve Stevens of Billy Idol fame providing some fiery guitar tones and lines. Derek’s music is often jazz/fusion in style and tone, as he feels that it allows him freedom to express himself. Opening with a torrent of synthesisers and some hard hitting drumming, this is a ferocious, attacking number with a strong melody that allows the guitar to break through at points, especially for the solo. It’s all very rhythmically driven and is a good opener really, but it does set the stall for much that follows. While there is little doubt of the quality of the musicianship, for this listener, it really does call for some vocals that could enhance what is already on offer and allow the solos to be as appraiser rather than a continuous cycle. Fire Horse follows and features Nuno Bettancourt (Extreme) who shreds freely over the track but, again, while his playing is fluid and impressive, I feel it is all showmanship without a ‘proper’ song to support it. To me, you could say it feels a little empty, all very  worthy but really needs to be in support of, rather than being, the main attraction.

Third track The Scorpion fares better featuring Derek’s very Keith Emerson like piano to fine effect, along with some fabulous bass work from Ric Fierabracci, who plays some great fretted and fretless bass lines. Also noteworthy is the track Seven Seas with Steve Stevens again and also, who provides sterling bass work. This is a real monster with great playing and very fluid guitar lines from Stevens, who again proves himself to be a formidable player who can shred with the best of them, a really impressive track.

Key Lime Blues features both Joe Bonamassa and Steve Lukather trading licks in a really funky sounding number similar to Bonamassa’s Rock Candy Funk Party sound and excursions of previous years. Again, this is a launching pad for wild solos from all concerned but it sure does sound good. There is also a superborgan part from Sherinian which adds to the track significantly. Die Cobra features the unusual combination of Zakk Wylde and Michael Schenker playing and trading guitar riffs, lines and fills. It is quite a thunderous track with an aggressive sound before slowing to a more melodious section where you hear some typical Schenker tones and sequences that wouldn’t sound out of place on an early MSG album. The track then reverts back to the harder edge initial sound. These two work well together which, when you consider it was all done remotely, is very impressive sounding indeed! It also has a touch of the middle east to it, not unlike Gates of Babylon by Rainbow, a really strong track all together.

Nomad’s Land is very straight ahead jazz/fusion with noted jazz guitarist Mike Stern shredding his licks all across the track. Again, Derek plays organ very strongly and it sounds like a jazz take of Jon Lord! It’s really strong stuff with a fluid solo from Mike and more organ fills from Derek, this one is another that really impresses, even without vocals. The last track Aurora Australis is also the longest at over eleven minutes and features his Sons of Apollo bandmate Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal. The piece opens with lots of synthesisers and a steady Simon Phillips‘ drumbeat before more Hammond Organ from Derek. All hell then breaks loose with more wild keyboards and a solo synth line from Derek, all whilethe track is gathering speed and pace for a guitar and keyboard battle between Derek and Ron. This has real urgency to it and sounds utterly amazing, musicians at the top of their game reaching for new heights and actually reaching them too.

All in all it’s a great album, you can feel the chemistry that Derek Sherinian has with all the guests and it’s great to hear and experience in this way. I still think vocals would raise the album to even greater heights but, then again, that’s just my opinion! It’s still a very good album that’s well worth listening to.

Released 1st July, 2022.

Buy the album here:

Vortex (lnk.to)

Review – Chas Cronk – Liberty – by John Wenlock-Smith

Chas Cronk may best be known as the long-term bassist for the Strawbs. He was initially with the band between 1973 -1980, after which he worked with Steve Hackett and Rick Wakeman before forming his own group Cry No More, upon the dissolution of which he re-joined the Strawbs, where he has remained ever since.

‘Liberty’ is his second solo album after ‘Mystic Mountain Music’ in 2002 and his album with Dave Lambert, ‘Touch The Earth’, in 2007.

Reviewing this album is different in that it has no noticeable progressive tendencies and, whilst that may be true, what is also noticeable is just what a fabulous album of songs this is. The album is mostly self-penned and performed by Chas with help from Dave Lambert on the track A Splash Of Blue, Dave Bainbridge on Slipping Downstream and also Major Baldini, who provides drums for the title track. Everything else is handled by Chas who also produces the album. It’s not a particularly long album as it was originally going to be an EP but Dave enjoyed the task so much that he decided to keep going and make a full album of songs.

The album opens with the title track, Liberty, which is a quite jangly, guitar led song. This actually reminds me of Rush for some reason, maybe it’s the jangle in the guitar? It’s is quite a strident track with a short but well constructed solo appearing after the second chorus. I really like this song it has good drive and dynamics to it. Next we have Take My Hand which opens with keyboard sounds and a bubbling bass line over some dancing keyboard lines. The song has a great vocal from Chas with everything again being underpinned by the bass and features another brief but elegant solo. This album grows on you as being a really fine set of songs and performances. It is simply a highly enjoyable and rewarding listening experience to have, nothing earth shattering but certainly very worthy indeed.

A Splash Of Blue has his Strawbs bandmate Dave Lambert on guitar and he contributes a fine solo. Everybody Knows is a well produced epic piece with good vocals. The song is about surviving the storms of life and how love can set you free, and that the beauty of the world can open our hearts to joy and to love, simple but powerful sentiments. Flying Free is an acoustically led instrumental. A brief but great little track with good keyboard backing to make it very memorable.

Into The Light opens ‘side two’ of the album and has a good back beat on the drums along with a neat bass line pulling the song along. It’s a mid-paced song but quite muscular in tone, with a good guitar synthesiser line floating over the top. Again, this song has something special to it, a good guitar break certainly helps and makes an impression making it another fabulous, well constructed and performed track. Slipping Downstream features fellow Strawbs’ man Dave Bainbridge whose guitar adds much colour to this song, he plays really beautifully on this track with a glorious floating guitar line, especially when he takes said guitar line up a key. Dave is well supported by the keyboards and Chas’s Bass line. This is really a spectacular track and Dave certainly let’s rip well here to form a strong impression. Away follows and this is yet another impressive track. The song has a strong melody, even if I can’t detect what it is on about really, and has a good sound and great dynamics. The whole album is a sequence of strong, intelligent and articulate tracks that, when taken together, are very life affirming. System Overload is a familiar sounding song but I can’t quite put my finger on who it reminds me of but it sure sounds good to these ears. This is a good penultimate  track before the instrumental of Reverie brings the album to a close. With its deep keyboard sounds and washes and its ethereal voices and gentle piano tones, it winds the album down to a close perfectly.

‘Liberty’ is a well constructed and produced, and superbly performed, set of songs for which we can all be glad and all can appreciate. I really enjoyed this short album as there is much to enjoy and I certainly will be returning to it frequently as it is an unexpected lockdown derived delight.

Released 11th February, 2022.

Order the album here:

Chas Cronk – Liberty (CD) (renaissancerecordsus.com)

Review – John Holden – Kintsugi – by John Wenlock-Smith

‘Kintsugi’ is the brand new album from Cheshire’s John Holden and it is another masterful collection of tracks that together tells eight stories of hope and redemption in our troubled world. Once again, John and his co-writer and wife and partner Elizabeth have created some beautiful  and sublime moments of music ranging from the epics, Achilles and Building Heaven, to the seemingly throwaway humorous Ringing The Changes, with its campanology references and use of bells.

John has continued his collaborative style with many of the prog world’s finest talents including Peter Jones, Mystery members Michel St-Père and Jean Pageau, Celestial Fire’s Dave Bainbridge and Sally Minnear and regular collaborators Joe Payne and Vikram Shankar. John himself plays keyboards, bass guitar and also adds percussion along with orchestrations and programming, while also handling both the artwork and the production of the album.

‘Kintsugi’ is a very skilled and lovingly crafted recording, it is always a pleasure to hear what John has created as both he and Elizabeth put everything into the albums and together they craft real musical magic. The album has two epics, several shorter pieces and a well crafted title track, there is also the continuation of High Line from the ‘Circles In Time’ album, a longer track about Brexit and xenophobia and there’s also a folk song that celebrates a trip to Peggy’s Cove at St Margaret’s Bay in Nova Scotia, Canada.cSo, all in all, a rather mixed bag but a bag chock full of gems and treasures.

The album opens with the tales of Achilles and his decision to pursue a brief yet spectacular life chasing eternal glory, its a sobering tale about striving for immortality and how our choices can affect those closest to us. The song passes through several stages including a battle sequence with Vikram Shankar applying his touch to proceedings, whilst predominantly a sad track, it is still a strong opening statement for the album. Ringing The Changes is completely different and the charming vocals of Sally Minnear really add much this excellent little number. This is a song about community and how odd eccentric people can come together to serve and support them. There’s a lovely piano from Vikram and some sweet and effective bell chimes throughout the song, it is, ultimately, a triumphant track. Kintsugi is a song about broken people being made whole and their brokenness becoming stronger. It is about accepting our flaws and receiving healing and wholeness, this is a Japanese concept and a very gentle and beautiful one that can really change people’s worldview and vision. The track feature some excellent violin and viola from Frank Van Essen and a masterful guitar break from Michel St-Père. It is a treasure of delicacy and beauty and is one of my favourites on this great album, utterly sublime.

Flying Train is about the elevated overhead railway that still exists in Wuppertal in Germany. This track would probably appeal to Big Big Train’s Passengers as it ploughs a similar furrow, combining history and music to great effect. This is a largely instrumental song that creates the wonder of a journey on these rails. Xenos talks of borders and how some have a fear and distrust of those that are different and do not accept them with openness. Sadly Brexit helped foster such opinions and weakened us as a nation, losing touch with and opposing tolerance and kindness. The passage of migrants is a thorny issue generally and one the we need a compassionate response to, which this song espouses. Against The Tide can be seen as being part two of the track High Line (from John’s last release, ‘Circles In Time’). The song has a similar west coast jazzy feel with a fabulous saxophone from Peter Jones, whose vocals also really elevate this track. John’s bass is very busy on this song and it has a great swing and groove to it, another fabulous track.

Peggy’s Cove takes us to Nova Scotia with a Celtic sound and a great choir of Sally , Joe Payne, Peter Jones and Iain Hornal, who provide massed voices to this gentle number. Final track, Building Heaven, is about how we treat each other and uses the tale of Coventry Cathedral’s partial destruction by the Luftwaffe in 1940, and the decision not to rebuild but to incorporate the destroyed sections into something new, as a testament faith and building together to make something good from the bad. This song has air-raid siren effects and a stirring melody that runs throughout the song, along with a suitably epic guitar solo from Dave Bainbridge. This is an excellent finale to what is an adventurous and engaging album full of great songs, concepts and ideas.

One to enjoy and also return to again and again.

Released 30th September, 2022.

Order direct from John’s website here:

Kintsugi CD – John Holden (johnholdenmusic.com)

Review – Steve Hackett – Genesis Revisited: Seconds Out & More – by John Wenlock Smith

The pandemic has certainly loosened its grip on the UK at last and we have seen a large number of gigs that had previously been postponed being rescheduled. This is definitely a good step and allows artists like Steve Hackett to be finally able to tour once again, albeit it in a slightly different way. This also allows venues to start making some long lost revenue at last. So it was that in September 2021 that Steve recorded his show at the O2 Apollo in Manchester for the latest souvenir of his current incarnation of the ‘Genesis Revisited’ story for his ever growing catalogue of friends and fans.

Steve has recorded each tour since 2013 from various venues and in different guises. We have seen these tours with a fairly consistent band, usually Steve himself alongside long time keyboardist and group orchestrator Roger King, saxophonist Rob Townsend, bassist Jonas Reingold and, vocalist for the last decade, Nad Sylvan. New drummer Craig Blundell has been a member since 2017. Steve is also joined by his sister in law Amanda Lehmann who provides extra guitar and vocals, most noticeably here on Held In The Shadows and and an epic version of Shadow Of The Hierophant.

As it had been nearly 2 years since last touring, the band were very excited to be treading the boards once again. In addition, the level of excitement in the audience was palpable. I caught the show earlier on in the tour in Stoke and I was highly impressed with the standard of the concert and the power and passion the band breathed into these sets.

This Manchester gig certainly captures that same energy superbly, the set is identical, the whole album bristles with electricity and the performances are all top notch. Steve always aims to put on a good show and I’ve yet to see one that disappoints, his team all perform flawlessly and you can certainly feel the joy of earning a crust once more.

During the pandemic Steve managed to both stay safe and also to complete his long awaited, and thoroughly excellent, autobiography (‘A Genesis In My Bed’), an acoustic album (‘Under A Mediterranean Sky’) and then his latest album ‘Surrender Of Silence’, songs from which appear in the short solo set performed as part of this show. Now, Steve knows that the majority of folks are there for the Genesis material, so he wisely chooses a short opening set that includes several of his own songs that are popular in their own right, namely Clocks – The Angel of Mons, Every Day and Shadow Of The Hierophant along with Held In The Shadows and The Devil’s Cathedral, all of which are strong in their own right and show that Steve also continues to create great new music of his own.

Then, after a break, the band return for the main event, the performance of the entire 1977 Genesis ‘Seconds Out’ album, recreated in Steve’s own inimitable style and by his own band and arrangements. The track listing replicates the album fully and the band certainly enhance that now slightly wooly sounding album by giving it a fresh and new, and yet still authentic, sound, but one that benefits from the technological advances made since it was recorded all those years ago.

Now you don’t need me to tell you just how important this album was to the Genesis canon, it was a very well received album, one that sought to capture the essence of both the Peter Gabriel years and also the Phil Collins era as was. It was monumentally important at the time, even if it did ultimately lead to Steve’s departure from the band as he felt his own songs were being sidelined and other parties resented his increasing solo success. Now, forty years on Steve has the opportunity to put that right and play the album in a manner that satisfies him.

It’s all here for you to enjoy once again, whether you want to play, compare and contrast the two versions is up to you, but, for me, I’ll choose to watch the live footage of a master playing his material to the highest standard and revelling in it. The set list tells the story fabulously, it’s all here in a powerhouse performance and pristine sound along with a great documentary and several videos from the ‘Surrender Of Silence’ album. With a total running time of three hours, this set is another opportunity to catch the maestro in full flow.

I have to say that a defining moment for me is when the lighting director Chris Curran recreates the albums iconic cover to fabulous effect, especially when you consider that he does this using only the lights at his disposal and not with the huge mirrors and varilights that Genesis had to work with. It’s this attention to detail and the sheer skill of Steve’s crew that really make this show so very special.

Released 2nd September, 2022

Order from the artist here:

Steve Hackett | Steve Hackett (hackettsongs.com)

Review – The Mighty Ra – All Secrets Known – by John Wenlock-Smith

There is an old and unfair joke that when you get three Welshmen together that they form a choir, very untrue as here we have four Welsh musicians who have together formed a new progressive rock band! The four are Andy Edwards on guitars and vocals, Rob Griffiths on drums and percussion, Dave Rowe on bass and vocals and finally Rob Wilsher on keyboards. The four come from a wide prog background with Andy involved with Magenta and Cyan, Rob Wilsher with MultiStory, Rob Griffiths with EZRA V and Dave having been gigging for over 30 years, playing with countless big names in that time.

This project is a little different in that the four came together to work on some new ideas and found that they were so inspired that they formed a band. The idea is to write strong material together and then take it out on the road and play some gigs. This gained traction with interest from White Knight Records who have released the quartet’s debut release, ‘All Secrets Known’, which is a fine release for these times. The four bring much experience and skill to these songs, the album has a good mixture of long and shorter tracks in various styles, all with a great sound and some epic musical passages.

The albums kicks off in epic style with the lengthy, near ten minute title track, All Secrets Known (which also features Les Penning as the voice of God), with its tale of how knowledge was transmitted to earth through the minds of the ancient Egyptians  who translated this into physical form to create the mighty temple of Ra. The song opens with keyboards before a fine guitar line is introduced from Andy Edwards alongside vocals in which he is singing about knowledge, the pursuit of and the benefits of the same. The song has a strong sci-fi theme to it but it is the epic music that really takes this song to new heights. There is a fabulous and rather muscular guitar part about half way in that elevates the track into something very special indeed. This is followed by some fabulous keyboard sounds and textures to make a most impressive opening statement. Nothing Comes Too Easy follows and this hinges on a very  strong bass line that holds it all together well. The song talks of how less is always more and that life is a journey not a destination path, which is of course very true and such realisation can help one make both some sense of life and also enable us to enjoy the journey that we are each taking. This is a very positive song all told and the music is equally as enjoyable with fine guitar lines threaded throughout its six minute running time.

Freedom has an interesting opening sequence before a magnificent guitar part takes over with a fluid line and some funky riffing. There is a chorus of “Freedom” in all of this although the songs meaning is a little unclear to me although another great guitar solo and some epic keyboards again make for another strong track. Will We Ever Know is another longer track clocking in at eight and a half minutes and features a strong chorus and lots of spacey type sounds, along with some epic guitar riffing. This one can stand proud, it has touches of Hawkwind contained in its sounds and wouldn’t feel out of place on those early Hawkwind albums due to the epic sounding guitar at play here too, making it rather epic all round.

Seven Days flies in with a spring in its step, bouncing along nicely with lots happening in the sound, including a very fine bass to proceedings. This is another rather muscular track with a great chorus and another very fluid guitar line, it almost has a touch of Marillion to it lyrically, which is no bad thing to these ears, and makes it a rather brilliant track, I really like it. It’s a pity that there are no lyrics with the album as I feel this would make the whole album concept easier to understand and grasp but ,still, just sit back and appreciate the crafting on offer here. Rising Tide is next and this begins gently before taking a more full group sound, the song talks of trying to escape the Rising Tide, although quite how is unclear but the song has some urgency to it.

Another shorter track Rain follows and this is a fabulous little rocker that occurs before the epic final track Bigger Lie closes the album out. This is also the longest piece on the album at twelve and a half minutes. The song is about religion, it seems, and the mystery and lack of a God. Well, everyone has their own opinion on this and I guess the jury is still out on it but it certainly makes for an interesting finale and this has shadows of classic Pink Floyd, certainly in both the vocals and the guitar. Playing the song poses lots of questions yet it makes no claims either way but it does say that we are all living the bigger lie. It’s certainly a thought provoking song, I really like this one and its length allows lots of space for the song to breathe. The song has an epic guitar solo, very Gilmouresque unsurprisingly, but totally in keeping with the track.

This is an album you need to live with for quite a while to let its true colours emerge. At first I thought it could be a touch bland but close proximity has changed that view and now I can see the work that has gone into making this album and that this is a very fine effort and release indeed.

Released June 1st, 2022

Order from Bandcamp here:

All Secrets Known | The Mighty Ra (bandcamp.com)

Review – SiX BY SiX – s/t – by John Wenlock-Smith

This album is a new collaboration between Saga guitarist Ian Crichton, Saxon drummer Nigel Glockler and Robert Berry (ex Keith Emerson & Carl Palmer’s 3 project), it combines classic rock elements alongside more progressive ones. The good news is that it sounds glorious and there are plans to reconvene for a further excursion next year.

Album opener Yearning To Fly begins with the sound of a passing train before a very Rush sounding guitar line is played by Ian along with some stylish keyboards by Robert Berry, all underpinned by the powerful drums of Nigel Glockler who certainly pounds those skins, giving this opener some real punch. There is a very fluid guitar solo on which Ian let’s rip before the song returns to the chorus once again, as an opening statement this certainly makes a strong impression. I love the way in which these three lock in together and create something both new and yet somehow familiar, well to Saga fans anyway. Second Track China is another belter with a distorted opening guitar and a monstrous bass. Again, the mixture of muscle and melody is highly impressive , as are the vocals, which together work well. Another excellent guitar solo and that fabulous chorus make this another strong song, I am really enjoying this album so far. We then have a longer song, Reason To Feel Calm Again, which has lots of burbling synthesisers that propel the song along with ‘bagpipe’ sounding guitars. Very unusual but it works, making a great sound, really different and inventive. The song settles into a groove as Ian solos fluidly, gathering pace as the fine bass  holds it all together.

The Upside of Down is hinged on a steely Robert Berry bass line, which shows him to be a fine player who can both drive the song and pull the beat along well. It is a joy to hear this busy bass really making a strong impression, there’s also lots of ringing guitars throughout the track amid some signature tones and tricks that Ian has used with Saga to good effect over the years. Here, it sounds totally fitting for the sound that the band make together. The song Casino impresses with more great musicianship from the three men. The balance of power and melody is pretty near perfect on this album, all very impressive stuff I must say. The interplay between the rhythm section and the guitar is captivating and the production certainly helps in this too as it is clear as a bell. Live Forever is gentler at the start with a delicate guitar part amidst the great keyboards and sounds a little like an early Magnum effort. This is a prelude to another monster of a track, The Last Words On Earth, which opens with church organ before a brutal riff barges in. There are fabulous dynamics to this song and it’s very hard hitting in sound with lots of muscle and power at play, simply magnificent. A monstrous fiery solo takes this song off into the stratosphere to the songs conclusion, it’s truly awesome stuff.

Skyfall (not the Adele Bond theme!) follow, an intelligent number with lots happening throughout and a typical Crichton solo takes the song to the end of its course. It’s now into the home straight with the last two tracks. Battle Of A Lifetime is acoustically driven initially before the whole band crash in. The chorus is marvellous, as is the funky Berry bass that hold all this together and is joined by one of Ian’s classy solos with lots of string squeals and pinches. Again, it’s different and yet highly effective. Final song Save the Night is another longer song with lots of staccato playing from Ian and great bass from Robert, alongside the powerful drums that make this song have some real presence and cloud. The song has an urgent pace to it and closes out what has proved to be a highly impressive debut album.

Whether this translates into some live action remains to be seen but all parties are keen to do more and, if it’s a good as this is, then I say go for it! This debut release is a remarkably assured and polished debut that packs a punch with some great playing from all concerned,  I heavily recommend that you listen out for this one.

Released 19th August, 2022.

Order from the band here:

SiX BY SiX – China (lnk.to)

Review – Keef Hartley Band: Sinnin’ For You – The Albums 1969-1973 – by John Wenlock-Smith

This is a new 7 disc set that chronicles the illustrious career of Preston born drummer Keef Hartley and contains his entire output of seven albums recorded for Decca’s Deram label in the late 1960’s and early 70’s.

Keef Hartley was a fine drummer, in fact he was closely associated with John Mayall’s Blues Breakers and was even a member for the album ‘Crusade’ before leaving to form his own band. Keef had got bored with the whole blues thing and had set his sights on something different, a little less blues and more jazz rock oriented.

Growing up, I saw lots of these albums In my local record shop shop but never actually got around to hearing them for myself. This meant I was unaware of the fine music that he and the group were offering the public. What a tragedy that was, mind you I was very much into heavy metal like Judas Priest at the time and this sort of music was beyond my understanding. Now that I am older, I can now discover these treasures for myself. This fabulous set contains the seven albums made from 1968 to 1973 and what a set it is, all sympathetically remastered for optimum sound with bonus tracks, live tracks and, best of all a truly wonderful booklet that chronicles Keef’s thoughts and recollections of each album, this is how a retrospective should be done.

Hartley recorded his first album, ‘Halfbreed’, in March 1969 and it is now regarded as a classic of the genre. The music itself is also rather special as it fuses rock and blues leanings with horns to make a jazzy tone. Keef kept his work relatively straightforward and, in addition, he chose his group carefully with Gary Thain (bass) a mainstay. He also introduced Miller Anderson as guitarist and vocalist for most of the earlier albums. Thain and Hartley formed a fine rhythm section and the powered the band well, creating a solid bedrock off which the other members could leap off. This approach seemed to work well for the band as it allowed everyone to do their part. The music was pretty free form really, especially for the time it was recorded. There are strong jazzy interludes but the horns really added emphasis and drive to the proceedings. At times they could be fierce whilst at other points they were gently cosseting the sound, you could feel their presence even when they were being subtle.

The second disc, ‘The Battle Of North West Six’, is a prime example of this approach, especially the track Me And My Woman, with its excellent guitar lines and the horn stabs filling out the sound in-between while the ever busy bass of Gary Thain helps anchor the rhythm section, it’s a fabulous track. I actually think this is a better group effort than the debut as it feels more cohesive somehow. It now seems odd beginning to appreciate something that over fifty years old, just shows what was missing with my entrenched thinking. The track Not Foolish, Not Wise is another fine song with a small drum solo from Keef and great horn playing, And there’s more excellent music, the plaintive Waiting Around and the brooding Tadpole, with its slide guitar lines and the organ of Mick Weaver. There are also 4 live tracks from 1969 to enjoy in which you can hear how good this band really were, especially on Spanish Fly and Me And My Woman, which get a bit of a stretch out in a live setting.

The next album is 1970’s ‘The Time Is Near’, sadly not a gatefold CD and one without any bonus tracks. No matter, this is an album that may be more widely known as its cover is very distinctive, featuring an Indian on horseback with his arms open wide and with empty hands as if in supplication. Once again ,the songs are penned in the main by Miller Anderson and are generally a little softer sounding, but still with sufficient space for the horns to be present. A good example of this being the title track, hinged on a busy bass line by Gary, some mariachi style trumpet from Dave Caswell and some jazzy Sax from Lyle Jenkins along with some great guitar lines from Miller. It’s a gentle track overall as is the last track Change, although it does gain both pace and volume as it proceeds. This album is better sounding than its predecessors, which maybe because it was cut by George Peckham, an old friend of Keef, who did a fantastic job in giving the album real clarity and presence.

1971’s ‘Overdog’ is a far looser and more funky album with some blistering performances. The track Theme Song has an amazing drum duel between Keef and John Hiseman of Colosseum. They were friends as well as competitors and both avail themselves with dignity here. There is another somewhat unusual track that features backing vocals from Val Doonican’s backing singers, it’s very different from the norm but highly effective nonetheless. The record is bolstered by six lives tracks, including the epic Roundabout.

Following the release of ‘Overdog’, Hartley formed his own Big Band with a large horn section and performed a series of concerts, including a show at the Marquee Club in London which was released as the album ‘Little Big Band’. At this stage the band had a nine piece brass section, as the BBC had requested this for an in concert recording that was so well received, Keef repeated the idea again on a UK and short European tour. This live recording was done as part of that undertaking, it’s a bit rough and ready but it captured the excitement of the shows and gave airtime to some great tracks.

After this album, Miller left the band for a solo career. It was an amicable parting but meant the next album had a different line up. ‘Seventy Second Brave’ is another album that I used see and ignore regularly, what a fool. It is even funkier than ever, a new line up and a fresh start left Keef to really funk it up big style, which they do, especially on the first two songs Heartbreakin’ Woman and Marin County. The rest of the album has its moments, to be sure, there are even cameos from Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins, who provide backing vocals. You’ll have to work out which track for yourself. I suspect it to be Hard Pill To Swallow but I could be totally wrong. The album also has four live studio performances, you can hear the fabulous bass playing of Gary Thain who pulls the track along, locking in with Keef’s drums. Sadly Gary left shortly afterwards to join Uriah Heep until his death from a heroin overdose in 1975.

The next adventure for Keef was a solo album, ‘Lancashire Hustler’, which included some great guest vocalists in Robert Palmer, Elkie Brooks and Jess Roden. The album is very interesting as it features orchestrations on several tracks and you can clearly hear the trio of singers covering the Vinegar Joe track Circles. The music is less busy than his Keef Hartley Band output and this really works well. The voices melding well together to make some great tracks like You And Me and Australian Lady (which even includes Keef’s mother adding piano at the end of the track), Jess Roden taking the lead vocals and he does a splendid job of it too. There is still a strong brass element on display and they really work it up on several of the tracks.

There are some lovely performances on offer in this 7 disc box set which is why I can highly recommend this particular journey back in time to rediscover the wonderful music that Keef Hartley and his band produced over their stint with Decca. You will find much to enjoy here and the informative booklet and liner notes can be the guide on your discovery, thoroughly comprehensive and highly enjoyable too.

Released 8th May, 2022.

Order from Cherry Red Records here:

Keef Hartley Band: Sinnin’ For You – The Albums 1969-1973, 7CD Box Set – Cherry Red Records

There is still a strong brass element on display and they really work in up on several of the tracks, some lovely performances on offer here which is why I can recommend this particular journey back in time to rediscover the wonderful music that Keef Hartley and his band produced over their stint with Decca You willing much to enjoy here and the informative booklet and liner notes can be your guide  on your discovery..

Highly recommended set thoroughly comprehensive and highly enjoyable too,

Review – Ryo Okumoto – The Myth Of The Mostrophus – by John Wenlock-Smith

This new release from Spock’s Beard keyboardist Ryo Okumoto is a most welcome offering, especially when it is as fine as this is. Furthermore, not only is it a very fine album but it is also a wonderful collaboration with Michael Whiteman of I Am The Manic Whale, who helped out lyrically with these songs and also co-produced the album with Ryo. The results being a highly accomplished and entertaining piece of work.

Ryo was able to draft all of his Beard colleagues to help, along with the likes of Steve Hackett, Marc Bonilla, Jonathan Mover, Randy McStine, Mike Keneally, Doug Wimbush and also Michael Sadler (from Saga) to contribute to the album. Over the sixty minute running time, it’s six tracks tell some great tales in addition to which, the guest musicians add their own individual magic.

The album begins with a belter of an opener in Mirror Mirror which features the Spock’s Beard boys joining with their ex singer/drummer Nick D’Virgilio once again to craft a storming track. The song features Ryo delivering some very frenzied Hammond Organ parts, you know this is prog when you hear the Hammond play! It’s a joy to hear this workout, it really is. The song, unsurprisingly, is very reminiscent of prime Spock’s Beard, as all the current incarnation are playing on it, along with Nick on vocals. There is lengthy organ solo, some fabulous bass lines and a fiery solo from Alan Morse, the song powering along really well before a climatic guitar line begins the long closing section. The lyrics are wonderful too and really add something different and special to the track, a fabulous opening statement. Turning Point is a stylish keyboard led track with Doug Wimbush adding a seriously funky bass. The graceful vocal from Michael Sadler is another plus to the track and the song really impresses with it excellent vocals and consummate musicianship, another winner to these ears. Next we have the very I Am The Manic Whale sounding The Watchmaker (Time On His Side), which, while being very familiar sounding due to Michael Whiteman’s vocals (not a bad thing at all), is a very good song.

Maximum Velocity is another great song with lots of synthesisers and also the always graceful guitar of Steve Hackett, who guests on the track a long with Marc  Bonilla, who plays rhythm guitar. The track, about the soon coming NASA moon mission, surges with such intensity that the next song, the far more gentle Chrysalis, comes as a welcome change of pace. A delicate, but earnest, vocal by Randy McStine makes for a highly memorable track. In the middle section, a brief but fine solo is ably matched by the dynamic bass of Doug Wimbush, whose presence helps make it a most impressive track.

The album closes with a monster track, the centrepiece of the album, The Myth Of The Mostrophus, a tale of hibernation and subsequent re-emergence and the chaos that causes. It is both a cautionary tale and also one of ecology, global warming and the like. The track is in six parts but makes one continuous 22 minute piece. Especially strong is part four, which is a prog disco track (honestly!) and the song offers an unusual solution to the Mostrophus, communal singing. It’s a catchy song that he sings and it would be great for an arena crowd. Sadly, I doubt we’ll ever realise that aim or hear the song the way it warrants but we do see the demise of the beast, thanks to the good people of Basingstoke! I think the track is really just a bit of fun and, perhaps, a poke at the pompousness of most prog rock songs or albums, even so it’s a remarkable track and a great way in which to close the album.

When you consider the genesis of the collaboration arose from a lock down Fusion Festival special that both Ryo and I Am The Manic Whale appeared on and the friendship that ensued, that makes this album both a treasure and also powerful proof in the wonders of technology and, also, of the magic of working together to create something of worth and value. I guess that only time will tell if further opportunities will be forthcoming, I for one sure hope that it does. ‘The Myth Of The Mostrophus’ really is a fantastic album and one of my favourites of the year. Yes, it really it’s that good and I encourage you to hear it for yourselves, highly memorable and highly recommended!

Released July 29th, 2022.

Order from Burning Shed here:

The Myth of the Mostrophus (burningshed.com)

Review – Montrose: I Got The Fire – Complete Recordings 1973-1976

‘Montrose: I Got The Fire – Complete Recordings 1973-1976’ is a new 6 CD box set from from the ever impressive Cherry Red Records/Esoteric Recordings label and is a fabulous overview of a legendary band whose sound and style was to make a huge impression in the world of heavy and hard rock in the mid 1970’s and whose influence still makes waves, even today.

Their debut album ‘Montrose’ was issued in 1973 and its 8 tracks were monumentally important and really changed how rock music was perceived around the world. You can trace the evolution of Van Halen back to the first Montrose record, it’s a direct line between the two, certainly sound wise, and you can see the link. That album was to yield such monsters as Rock The Nation, Bad Motor Scooter and Space Station #5, which still sound mighty some 40 years on.

Sadly the resultant albums were a case of diminishing returns amidst a desire from Ronnie Montrose to explore new sounds and approaches. All of which is bold but not always successful, and the sales faltered as a result. ‘Paper Money’, their second album, was the first casualty of this approach as it failed to gain critical appreciation for its bold sounds. For many the album lacked the muscular sound that had enlivened the debut and despite some fine songs, like I Got The Fire and Starliner, many considered the album light-weight, which adversely affected sales.

This led to dissatisfaction between Sammy Hagar and Montrose and Hagar walked out to be replaced by the relatively unknown Bob James who actually had a good voice but not as powerful as Sammy Hagar’s. The new line up released the ‘Warner Bros. Presents Montrose!’ album in 1975 but, again, the critics did not like its light-weight sound, although 40 years on, it does have some gems in the form of Matriarch, Whaler and Dancin’ Feet, all of which have aged pretty well.

The band’s next album was to be a return to form with hotshot producer Jack Douglas recruited to beef the sound up and to add his magic. Unfortunately the resulting record, ‘Jump On It’, was not a great success although it did have some good tracks like Let’s Go and Music Man. It’s a tragedy that the band failed to live up to their original promise but Ronnie Montrose could be a difficult leader and he got bored easily, always wanting something new to explore.

The second CD in this set kicks off with six demo tracks, as well as their excellent debut performance, recorded for KSAN radio at the Record Plant in Sausalito, California in 1973. The band would cut a further live set for KSAN that was focused on their recently released ‘Paper Money’ record, although the inclusion of I Got The Fire, Bad Motor Scooter and a storming extended work out of Space Station #5 really work well in a live setting.

These 2 sets make a big impression and show that Montrose really could deliver the goods, sadly public perception was not on their side and the band broke up, Ronnie to more experimentation sound wise, Hagar to a succesfull solo career before joining Van Halen as a replacement for David Lee Roth. Ronnie Montrose then formed Gamma and put out several albums of fine AOR.

This box set shows the potential they had and also how they failed to capitalise on it and sadly translate that into sales. It definitely has it moments but can be patchy in parts,  the live shows are excellent though. I’m glad to have heard it but feel, in reality, a decent best of and the magnificent debut are really all you need.

Released 29th July, 2022.

Order from Cherry Red Records:

Montrose: I Got The Fire – Complete Recordings 1973-1976, 6CD Box Set – Cherry Red Records