Review – ASIA – The Official Live Bootlegs – Volume 1 – by John Wenlock-Smith

Asia are celebrating the 40th Anniversary of their debut album next year, can you believe it has been 40 years since ‘Heat of the Moment’ first graced our airwaves! That album, of course, was a spectacular success and gave a new lease of life to a disgruntled Steve Howe who had been left in the cold by Yes as they had regrouped around Trever Rabin and Chris Squire. Steve was invited to join John Wetton, Carl Palmer and Geoff Downes in his then latest venture that brought the worlds of progressive music and AOR together in spectacular musical and financial success.

This set consists of five double CD’s featuring hitherto unreleased recordings of Asia in 1982, 1983, 2007, 2008 and, finally, 2010, recorded in the USA, Brazil, Japan and London. These sets are quite different in that the sound is always good and most noticeable is the bass of John Wetton, being often prominent and the band are playing very tightly and obviously enjoying themselves Naturally, many of the tracks are repeated over the five shows, although Carl Palmer’s drum solo moves from track to track as these albums progress.

The first set was recorded on Asia’s first US tour and, obviously, their debut album is prominently featured, although a new track that would appear on ‘Alpha’ was unveiled, albeit in a quite different version to the one that ended up on the album, as this features all four members playing keyboards to a drum machine backing before morphing into a full band performance where Steve Howe gets to wail and Carl Palmer hits things loudly. A lively rendition of Only Time Will Tell stands out with Geoff’s keyboard being prominent and John in fined voice indeed. In fact, Asia have seldom sounded rawer than this and everyone sounds in good form, this performance is particularly feisty and energetic. The rest of this set is fuelled by the balance of songs from their debut, Carl Palmer’s Drum solo and the double whammy of Sole Survivor and Heat of The Moment.

The second set is from August 1983 in Worcester, Massachusetts and this is a mixture of the debut and ‘Alpha’ albums along with Steve Howe’s solo segment of Beginnings/Valley of Rocks/Clap and Carl Palmer’s drum solo in Here Comes the Feeling, culminating in Sole Survivor and Heat of the Moment again.

The third set  was recorded in Brazil shortly after the band reformed in 2007 and this set features tracks from their recently released album ‘Phoenix’, which stand up well to their earlier classics. Also Roundabout gets a dusting off here with John Wetton taking on the Jon Anderson parts. Well, he even gets a Chris Squire type sound and tone and his bass drives the song along nicely. It is great to hear these musicians really stretching themselves, though the sound is a bit crackly on this number, for some reason, but it doesn’t detract from what is an excellent version of a great song.

There is a version of Fanfare for the Common Man from Carl’s old band, ELP, and, again, we are in for a real treat here with Geoff Downes’ keyboards sounding not unlike a certain Mr. Emerson, and Steve’s guitar interjects and adds little flourishes throughout before he lets fly with a brief solo. It’s all highly effective stuff, as is the short bass solo from John Wetton. This set also includes a King Crimson track, In the Court of the Crimson King, and The Buggles’ song Video Killed the Radio Star.

Set four is from Tokyo in 2008, just before ‘Omega’ was released. The ‘Phoenix’ album is featured with An Extraordinary Life standing out. Again, solo tracks from each member are included and this is also the longest of these sets at nearly 2 hours in length. The sound is uniformly good throughout and it is great to hear .

The last set in this collection comes from London in 2010 and is a great return to form for the band. Featuring, as it does, lesser played tracks like Finger on The Trigger and Through My Veins from the ‘Omega’ album, along with a Steve Howe solo and the usual Carl Palmer drum solo during The Heat Goes On. The set concludes with Sole Survivor, Go (from ‘Astra’) and Heat of The Moment.

The collection features new art from Roger Dean and a brief, but informative, booklet detailing each of the shows, just a shame that John Wetton is no longer with  us to celebrate this significant anniversary. This box set is a wonderful way in which to both remember, and celebrate, a rather rawer and more ferocious Asia than their albums showed. It is a great collection, pricey but worthwhile as Christmas is soon with us!

Released 26th November, 2021.

Order the box set here:

Asia – The Official Live Bootlegs, Volume One – Horizons Music

Review – Fractal Mirror – Beyond Borders – by John Wenlock-Smith

This album is the fifth, and latest one, from the internet based & curated band, Fractal Mirror, which is comprised of  a couple of Dutch and US members, amongst others including British local Boy Gareth Cole on guitars. Brett Kull of Echolyn acts as both a backing vocalist and as a creative muse or foil to the members to the band, perhaps to stimulate and enhance their creativity?

The album also marks a return to the longer tracks in which their progressive leanings can be unleashed fully, an element perhaps missing from their last two albums. Well, this release rectifies that issue conclusively as this allows for two of the album’s six songs to come in at well over the ten-minute mark and it really works on this record. Ashes is over seventeen minutes long and Borders runs out at just under thirteen, both songs benefitting from this extended running time as they have chance to expand well, allowing various themes and sections to emerge that are embellished and reworked during the running of the track.

There are also some exceptionally fine musical segments to these songs, especially in the guitar lines of Gareth Cole and in the mellotron of Leo Koperdraat, which really adds to the mood of the piece. I find the track to be very evocative and with its fabulous guitar lines from Gareth Cole, to be something a bit special sounding really. Even the shorter songs do not lose the progressive elements entirely. This is especially the case on Shadow Man which twists wonderfully with a very serpentine guitar line that threads through the final sections of the track.

The album opens with the brief Instrumental, Beyond, as is often the way in prog albums. It starts with swathes of keyboard sounds and textures, also there are some graceful acoustic guitar lines at play and then, latterly, some smooth electric guitar. It is all very pleasant and sets the album up perfectly for what is to come.

Ashes, the first of the two epics, is one to really get yourself immersed in as, over its duration, you will be taken on a voyage of sorts. Lots of ominous sounds and effects and a strident tone emerge and, again, it is very pleasing to the ear. All the while the sound is underpinned by the sounds of the rhythm section and also the electric guitar of Gareth Cole The vocals commence and work well, they are certainly strong enough on this song which also has some nifty bass runs from Ed, Leo’s Mellotron showing itself to be in fine fettle here too. This song talks of ‘ashes all around me’, and I suppose the song is about a relationship and about making it right. Relationships can be hard going at times and, as I’m sure we all know and agree, the key is commitment and communication, both of which will give a stable footing to build upon.

The lyrics go on to speak of another day wishing you weren’t here, another day of living in fear so I guess there might be an element of abuse within this relationship. Very sad words really and, overall the song has a melancholy feel and its subject matter is dark but, the music is very strong, the final solo from Gareth being suitably epic in both tone and nature, in all, a really good track.

Kingdom Of the Lost is another shorter piece but one with great vocal harmonies. This piece sounds very much like a song of loss and, as such, it has traces of  slight melancholia at certain points. In contrast, it also has subtle slide guitar lines woven through its grooves, which work to create fine effect and impact.

Borders concludes the album in a lengthy workout, during which there are several great instrumental passages that unfold gracefully, as does the song itself. This track calls for holding the border one last time but what this really means is not clear. Even so, this sentiment is clearly expressed at various points in the track and with some power presence and influence.

When you add all this together what emerges is another fine album from this band for whom bigger things, audiences and shows must surely beckon and, with the power of Bad Elephant Music behind them, their future certainly looks very promising indeed. So hop on over to their bandcamp page to find this fabulous modern prog album and see what you think.

Released October 15th, 2021.

Order from bandcamp here:

Beyond Borders | Fractal Mirror (bandcamp.com)

Review – Nova Cascade – Back From The Brink – by John Wenlock-Smith

This batch of lockdowns has an unexpected, pleasant side effect in that it has enabled and stimulated creativity amongst musicians. This has resulted in some marvellous, and often unexpected, pleasurable listening opportunities. Where projects that were once pipe dreams have been given a dust down and often have then come to fruition and some fabulous music has emerged as a result.

Yes finally managed to deliver their long overdue and much promised album ‘The Quest’ to complimentary reviews, Big Big Train have been busy too, releasing ‘Common Ground’, Steve Hackett has released two albums in these times and now Nova Cascade have issued their third album, ‘Back From the Brink’. The album is another mixture of ambient and progressive ideas, although it is short with a running time of just over 45 minutes, but those 45 minutes are certainly imaginative and well realised by the band.

Nova Cascade’s last album, ‘A Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows’, has paved the way for this epic new album, one that was partially inspired by events surrounding the band with Dave Hilbourne suffering from long covid, a battle which he won thankfully but at some cost to his well-being and mental health. Undeterred, Dave decided to channel these feelings into music, this may in part explain why this music is both dark at times and hopeful at other points.

This album has all been recorded remotely with Dave compiling it all into some order and there are some fabulous performances from each of the members, noteworthy of which being the guitar and violin work of Eric Bouilette of The Room and Nine Skies and the flute playing of  Charlie Bramald, which really lifts to album at key points.

This album is best appreciated on headphones, I find as it’s textures can unfold gradually revealing their crafted treasures at ease.

Several tracks really stand out, firstly The Minutes After which is a graceful instrumental with some delicate acoustic guitar runs and that fabulous flute adding to the mood and lightening it up, this track is fantastically evocative and has melody a-plenty. Another song that really lifts this album is the longest piece, Back From The Brink, which encapsulates all that is good about Nova Cascade.

It has enough space for instruments to rely shine, very strong keyboards interspersed with guitar fills and a strong, but not dominating, bass part and a hauntingly evocative flute floating over gentle piano and guitar lines. Yet, somehow, this all gels together, creating music of both beauty and warmth. It is all highly impressive sounding and it’s a joy to hear this excellent piece with its great dynamics.

Between these two epics lies a while slew of shorter, but never less than interesting pieces, most notably There Is Always A Way, which manages to blend the music with the words of Neil Armstrong’s, creating a great atmosphere. Eric’s violin also adds significant class to the piece before Dave’s synthesizers are ushered to centre stage. Even then, it is the ensemble playing that is presented so vividly, it’s all about the whole sound that is being offered here.

The final vocal track, Long Winter, follows and, here again, Dave sounds very Steve Hogarth like in his wispy delivery and reminds me of some long-forgotten eighties vocalist (Fergal Sharkey perhaps?), either way, it certainly works well. This song is highly personalised as it speaks about what Dave went through with long covid, yet, despite that, it is a quietly triumphant track, to these ears at least.

The whole album is predominantly instrumental, with just three vocal performances from Dave Hilbourne on Phantom, The Hill and Long Winter.

‘Back From The Brink’ is a really fine album indeed and it is a pleasure to listen to. I would recommend this to anyone, especially if you like ambient, instrumentally driven, progressive music, as this album offers that and far far more. I’m sure you will find it an agreeable listen, I certainly did enjoy this album but I do recommend headphones for best results. It’s an aural treat for tired ears, float away into a world of tranquility and class.

Released September 9th, 2021.

Order from bandcamp here:

Back From The Brink | NOVA CASCADE (bandcamp.com)

 

Review – Spirit: Sunrise & Salvation – The Mercury Era Anthology, 8CD Box Set – by John Wenlock-Smith

This extensive 8 CD sets collates the recordings made in the period 1974 to 1977 along with the 1984 album ‘The 13th Dream’ and tracks drawn from previously unreleased live concerts from 1974 and 1975. In fact, this set boasts 102 bonus track along with the albums ‘Spirit of 76’, ‘Son of Spirit’, ‘Future Games’, ‘Farther Along’ and ‘The Thirteenth Dream (Spirit of 84)’ and this reveals the Mercury era to be a wonderful creative period for the band. Whilst hampered on many fronts, they still managed to overcome the obstacles and make some decent music once again.

The music is of its time certainly, but still shows that Randy California’s passion had not been eradicated. The story behind this period is excellently documented in the booklet that accompanies this set and, as always with these Spirit sets, the attention to detail to both preserve and celebrate the music is very laudable. With the death of California in 1996 in Hawaii, there is much that cannot be told now but these sets certainly help tell the story eloquently and with respect, admiration and dignity.

Spirit really deserve wider acclaim and affection than they received from music lovers, theirs was a niche sector and they continued to create worthy music throughout the years, as this set attests beautifully. Once again, Mick Skidmore has crafted a labour of love from myriad sources and compiled another fantastic selection of Spirit’s musical legacy.

This set has much to offer lovers of quality music and, when you factor in all the tracks, this represents the most comprehensive overview of the era in which Spirit worked for the Mercury label and pushed the boundaries in the way they knew best to create intelligent music for the discerning listener to enjoy and appreciate.

Disc 1 has the first three sides of the ‘Spirit of 76’ album, disc 2 has the fourth side of said album along with live bonus tracks from that time period. Disc 3 has the ‘Son of Spirit’ and the ‘Further Along’ albums plus a further four session outtakes and a live version of the track Farther Along from 1976, disc 4 has the ‘Future Games’ album from 1977 and eleven Further session tracks from 1976 and 1977. Disc 5 has the ‘Thirteenth Dream (Spirit of 84)’ album along with six live cuts from Detroit in 1986 and disc 6, ‘Spirit of Salvation’, features unreleased studio material from 1974 and 1975. Disc 7 is a live set from Austin Texas in 1975, including a lengthy version of All The Same and, finally, disc 8 features an early version of the ‘Future Games’ album and a live set from the Array Ballroom in Cleveland, Ohio in 1975 which wraps the set up wonderfully.

There are many hours of inspiration and passion covered in this set and it is highly recommended as this brand really do deserve wider appreciation for their craft and diligence over the years.

For me the highlights are plentiful and include the fabulous Like A Rolling Stone on disc 1. Randy and the band show imaginative twists on well known songs and it’s always a delight to hear how they have they take a song and use it as a framework on which to deliver their own interpretation. This is seen elsewhere in the set with stunning re-imaginations of America The Beautiful, All Along The Watchtower, Hey Joe and Mr Tambourine Man all receiving such a treatment, delicately and sensitively covered with care and skill and a real joy to hear. these great. The highlights continue disc after disc, each capturing a band truly progressing musically. Some of which works well, others less so, but it’s always interesting and intriguingly done. Some of this set rocks hard and powerfully, it’s always good to hear Randy in full flight as he had a lightness of touch and was a very skilled player who could shred easily and with style. This is shown on the track Veruska where he really gets to cut loose a little, it’s simply wonderful to hear. Then we are treated to and echoplexed version of Hey Joe which shows that not only Hendrix could cover this song in a classy manner, Randy’s vocal adding emotion to a great version of the song.

These tracks are taken from side four of the ‘Spirit 76’ album and show what an underrated album that truly was, one that passed a lot of folk by. This sets offers an opportunity to revisit and reevaluate it again. With the benefit of the passing years, this album now shows a depth that it may have lacked previously. The album ends with The Star Spangled Banner, a version you’d least expect but, even so, it is an interesting take on a well known song. There’s a lot going on in the background and, musically, it’s mainly understated really. The bonus tracks include an alternative version of America The Beautiful that is a fabulous find and there are also some great live versions of several classic Spirit tracks live in Cleveland that show what a dynamic live outfit they could be.

It’s all a richly rewarding listen as the band ooze class and talent. Randy is in fine voice throughout these songs with some delicate masterful playing giving an excellent performance and revealing that he was widely overlooked in the public eye. More’s the pity as he deserved far more acclaim and recognition of his talents than he received during his lifetime.

The third disc comprises of two Spirit albums ‘Son of Spirit’ (1976) and ‘Farther Along’ (1977), both of which are fairly gentle sounding but with virtually a reunion of the original Spirit band, although John Locke had left again after the infamous Neil Young incident in Santa Monica in 1976 in which California had pushed a drunken Young out of his way as he was “singing badly out of key”.

The album has some good tracks, especially Family, but is all fairly mellow and lacks much guitar and some fire to lift the material to the fore. Circle is great, as is The Other Song, which benefits from having a strong groove to it and that allows for some improvisation to happen almost naturally. It all sounds impressive, as does the cover of Yesterday in which Randy’s guitar accompaniment is really tasteful and sounds glorious as a result. In fact, the beauty of this album really shows the more you hear it, it really is a fine collection of material.

The ‘Farther Along’ album follows afterwards and this is another good set of songs with the title track in particular being a bit of an unsung classic in reality. Another fantastic track is the rocker Mega Star that manages to embrace keyboard elements that are highly reminiscent of Emerson Lake and Palmer, yes, really! It is a very impressive sounding track. The album also includes an orchestrated version of Nature’s Way that impresses. So, whilst not the strongest of albums, they certainly have moments of greatness and are worth reinvestigation.

‘Future Games’ is an interesting, but flawed, concept album that alludes to escaping the reality of everyday life and uses lots of sound snippets of shows like Star Trek and Batman etc. but it isn’t always an easy listening experience and generally falls short as a brave but flawed idea that is possibly best left in the midst of time. Far better is the ‘Thirteenth Dream (Spirit of ’84)’ album which had a reunion of the full original Spirit line up, recorded on a soundstage in Hollywood and including both Spirit and Jo Jo Gunne tracks, which really sound great.

The other discs comprise of more outtakes, a live set from Austin Texas in 1975 and a demo version of the ‘Future Games’ album, along with some further live tracks from the Agora in Cleveland Ohio from 1975, which are certainly of interest to fans. Well I like them and I’m glad they are here, for me, any live Spirit is welcome as it’s live where the band used to shine most brightly.

In summary, this set is definitely extensive and is a well presented look into an era that is usually either dismissed or ignored but, in reality, it has gems throughout that are a worth investigating fully. The legacy of Spirit is comprehensively overhauled with great enthusiasm and love for a seminal band, long may this continue.

Released 8th October, 2021

Order from Cherry Red Records here:

Spirit: Sunrise & Salvation – The Mercury Era Anthology, 8CD Box Set – Cherry Red Records

Review – Vinegar Joe: The Island Recordings 1972-1973, 3CD – by John Wenlock-Smith

Vinegar Joe were a band who were considered to be distinctly second division. Wannabe headliners, always gave a good show but somehow were unable to quite get up the ladder enough to get top billing status. This may in part have been due to their record company, Island, having their own ideas and agenda for the band. They could see a bright future for one of the two singers in the group, a certain smooth voiced Batley born Robert Palmer, yes, he of the dancing girls in the Addicted to Love video of the late 1980’s!

For, in him, they could see big dollar signs if were they able to manouvre him into a solo contract. Better still, they could make the band that he was part of, his backing band. Well, that may have been the plan however, Robert did not want to ditch his fellow singer Elaine Bookbinder, or as you may know her, Elkie Brooks. He wanted to stay with the band and see it through, very noble but management and record company did their own thing and caused the band to break up after an American tour and insisted that they came back to the UK to record their final album, ‘Six Star General’.

This new box set from those clever folks at Esoteric tells the whole sorry story from inception to implosion and gathers all three Vinegar Joe albums together, along with various single edits, to give a complete overview of a band who offered much and did their utmost to make it, but, as is often the way, interference and manipulation from management and other parties screwed them over. Although, as this set testifies, Vinegar Joe had talent and the potential to make it big but, somehow never really got the breaks they were due.

Vinegar Joe evolved out of an earlier outfit, called Dada, that was more of a jazz/blues type band that boasted ten members. This band recorded an album in 1969 that is certainly due a reissue. When Dada ended, they decided to strip the sound down to a more conventional rock band format and sound, becoming Vinegar Joe. Their eponymous debut album was released in 1972 and introduces the world to the powerful vocals of Elk (Elkie Brooks) and the soulful voice of Robert Palmer .

Occasionally they sing together but they, generally, separately, Elk certainly has a big voice and she can wail with the best of them, very often in a high-pitched warble (as shown on Early Morning Monday, which sounds remarkable). In addition to the main band, the album also featured various guests like Keef Hartley and Conrad Isadore, amongst others. This does mean there is a degree of inconsistency in the music, but it doesn’t really matter when it sounds as good as this.

Their second album, ‘Rock N’ Roll Gypsies’, is equally as hard hitting and has a Hipgnosis designed sleeve, reproduced here in a gatefold cover. The music also had changed, more a blues stomper type sound, like that of Canned Heat or Creedence Clearwater Revival. The album also features more slide guitar and Hammond Organ sounds, you can tell it would make a good live sound but was never actually recorded for any live releases sadly. Certainly, the change of style worked well for the band and the album was a powerful rock and roll release.

The third Album, ‘Six Star General’ (1973), was more of the same but with a slightly different line up, still with Elk and Palmer on vocals. Sadly, this was to be their last outing as Palmer was offered a solo contract by Island and the chance to record in Nassau in the Bahamas. This album contains the fabulous Black Smoke Rising from The Calumet.

This set really captures the essence of the band and offers a chance to rediscover this lost band of the 1970’s again. Personally, I like the debut album most out of the three as it best shows what the band were all about. It also has some strong tracks and that amazing voice of Elk, which is simply stunning. Highly recommended indeed, this set has much to offer anyone who loves good music.

Released 17th August, 2021.

Vinegar Joe: The Island Recordings 1972-1973, 3CD – Cherry Red Records

Review – Barclay James Harvest – Time Honoured Ghosts – by John Wenlock-Smith

As it is nearly autumn again and the nights start to draw in, we will shortly be seeing a whole slew of new releases lined up for the Christmas rollout in order to woo and tempt the faithful and the unwary into parting with their hard earned readies. In to this scenario Esoteric have dusted off the ever popular 1975 album ‘Time Honoured Ghosts’ from Barclay James Harvest, which has been remastered from a newly located mix of the album that had been lost for many years.

The album ushered in a golden era for the Barclays and was very successful, as were it follow ups ‘Gone to Earth’ and ‘Octoberon’ that were reissued a few years ago in expanded versions, again by Esoteric and they have done a lovely job of this fine album here on this reissue.

This version of ‘Time Honoured Ghosts’ differs very little from the version issued by Universal in 2003, well to these ears at least. What is different here is that there is a second disc which offers a 5.1 surround sound mix along with promotional videos shot in 1975 covering the tracks Jonathon, Titles , Moongirl, One Night and Beyond The Grave, although, to be fair, these videos are all shot in the studio with minimal effects other than seeing the band playing them. They are very much of their time we’re talking pre Bohemian Rhapsody here, music videos were very much in their infancy!

The album also has a new essay from Keith and Monica Damone of the Barclay James Harvest website that tells the story behind this new version. Finally, there is a lush fold out poster of the album cover that one could frame if you so wanted and it’s simply gorgeous. The Album espoused the gentle and pastoral brand of progressive rock that BJH operated in and, whilst the album is known to most folks, it is in essence a good distillation of the classic BJH sound.

The album has, as a bonus track, a US version of Child of the Universe that was slated for a release but never was. I’ve always liked this album since the time that Titles was Radio One’s single of the week as its lyrics were made up of Beatles song titles but, in reality, they told the story of the breakdown in the relationship between Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Even though it got heavy promotion at the time of release, it still failed to catch the public’s imagination and so failed to chart, a great pity as it was clever and had a really classy sound. The public are like that though, pearls before swines et al.

In some respects it is a little hard to see who this set is aimed at as any BJH fans should already have this in one guise or another. I guess the 5.1 up-sound mix may appeal to some, although I don’t have a 5.1 system so I haven’t heard it and, as such, can’t comment on how it sounds and what it does for the music. I do like the poster though and it’s good to have the videos, dated as they may be. Esoteric always do these remasters very well, diligently and with care and sympathy, showing great respect for the album which, in this case, it heartily deserved and is worthy of such care and affection.

The album has some classic material on it. Songs like Titles, Jonathon, Beyond the Grave and Song For You are well known staples in the BJH canon and still form parts of their shows, even now, over 40 years on from when this album was released. It is often hard to appreciate the impact this album had when originally released, the album was recorded in San Francisco and produced by Elliot Maser (apart from Child Of The Universe which was recorded at Advision in London and produced by Rodger Bain). Therecord was followed by a UK and European Tour which led to greater success in Germany for the band.

The album stands up as a real classic of the 1970’s and was a chart hit in the UK and still sounds marvellous today, being one of the finer moments of Barclay James Harvest’s career. The version of Child of the Universe on this release is significantly different to the one that graced Everyone is Everyone Else album in 1974.

So, if you like this album and fancy a newly remastered version and DVD with surround sound mix, you could do a lot worse that getting this. A great album, now even better than before? You decide…

Released 24th September, 2021.

Barclay James Harvest: Time Honoured Ghosts, Expanded & Remastered 1CD/1DVD – Cherry Red Records

Review – Yes – The Quest – by John Wenlock-Smith

‘The Quest’ is the first new Yes music in seven years. During that time much has happened with the death of founder member and bassist extraordinaire Chris Squire. Chris wanted the band to continue without him and had readied a replacement in Billy Sherwood. Sherwood was already known to Yes fans as he had been involved with the ‘Open Your Eyes’ and ‘Live at the House of Blues’ albums from the early 2000’s.

After the somewhat disappointing ‘Heaven and Earth’ album from 2014, this album needed to be a significant improvement over that somewhat lacking release and I can say that, whilst it may not be the absolute triumph that was needed, it is at least a far better and more convincing album all round. When you consider that the album was created across various continents and times, all whilst in the midst of the Covid pandemic, I think you will agree that this is a very worthy effort by the band to move onwards once again.

The release comprises of the main album and a second disc with 3 bonus tracks, although with the main CD running at 47 minutes, quite why they needed a second disc is a bit of a mystery as the 3 bonus track could have all fit on the main disc, quite odd really.  Another big difference here is that Steve Howe has produced the whole album. I have to say that he has done a good job too, giving plenty of space for each instrument and the vocals to be clearly separated and heard, giving a good clear sound throughout.

The album opens with a very strong start in The Ice Bridge, which bears a passing resemblance to Fanfare For The Common Man, especially in the keyboards of Geoff Downes. Yet, even so, this is a good strong opening track that sets out the stall for what is to follow. The song has a definite Yes groove to it, offering a first glimpse of Billy’s take on Chris Squires‘ legendary bass playing and he gets it bang to rights. Jon Davison is on top form, still sounding like Anderson-lite but adding his own touch in the vocals. The song also has a great ascending riff from Steve Howe that really works well, adding much pace and drive to proceedings. This song also allows for some good interaction between Steve’s guitar and the Geoff’s keyboards, all very ably backed by the rhythm section of Billy Sherwood and Alan White, it’s all very fine indeed but, can it continue? is the question here.  

Dare to Know follows and opens with a sprightly guitar line from Steve Howe and some good bass that underpins the music most satisfyingly. The song is quite mellow and laid back really but, even so, still manages to impress and, once again, Jon Davison’s voice sounds fabulous and really suits the sound, which is very full and impressive. 

I will say that I think this album is a grower and familiarity will reveal its treasures as you listen to it, so be prepared to invest some time with it to really get the most out of it. It’s not a bona fide classic but it certainly has enough moments of brilliance to make it worthy of hearing. Yes have been around for fifty two years now, so they have little to prove these days and really we should just be glad that they still are around and still making music in the twilight of their years. 

Minus the Man has a certain something to it, especially in the chorus and the lovely and eloquent guitar line that weaves its way through the song so gracefully. The track is very pleasing and sets you up well for the epic Leave Well Alone that follows. This one has touches of Asia and also has some delicate acoustic and steel guitars from Steve Howe. The song is in three parts which all work well together and, as the longest track on the album, it really does impress. As it gives room for some stretching out, I imagine this would be a good live track for the band when they tour next year.

The Western Edge is the next track and this has a broad sound palette to it with more of Howe’s guitar lines adding great sound touches to proceedings. The pace of is brisk and rather urgent in places and it benefits from that energy, as well as the synths from Geoff that are littered throughout this song. It is the shortest on the main album and it does not overstay its welcome at all. Future Memories is a gentler song driven by Steve’s acoustic guitar and interlaced with his electric guitar lines as well. It is also graced by a very fine vocal from Jon, who I have to say really sings well on this album, he has grown into his role in the band and, whilst he is clearly influenced by Jon Anderson, his own unique voice has emerged, as is clearly shown on Music to My Ears, the penultimate track on the main album.

The final main album track is the Caribbean inspired A Living Island, inspired by Jon enduring lockdown in Barbados for five months, yes, some folks suffer for their art don’t they ? The song is graceful and moves from a Caribbean lilt to a more conventional ecological tour de force again, there are lots of Steve Howe’s delicate mandolin and guitar on this track.

This track closes the main album but I’ll do a short summary of disc two with the three extra songs. Sister Sleeping Soul is another Howe driven track with gentle guitar tones and a good vocal from Jon. Mystery Tour is a tribute, musically and vocally, to the Beatles and gives the chance to cram as many Beatle references into one song as they can, it’s still an interesting song though and has some merit to it i feel. It is also good to hear Steve playing such fluid guitar lines and tones and has a lovely guitar break from Steve along with great dynamics. This shorter track is very worthy of hearing as it has much happening throughout. Damaged World is another good track again with an environmental bent to the lyrics but the groove is strong and, musically, it is a good song. It is not as good or strong as the songs on the main album but, even so, it is always good to have Yes music in whatever form it may come.

This album set has caused lots of different views and opinions amongst fans both old and new but, in conclusion, I would say that, as an album, this is fine if you place it in its context and bear in mind how it was compiled. On that basis it is a worthy addition to the Yes canon and should be judged as such. There is much to enjoy here if you open your ears to this particular version of the band.

Released 1st October, 2021.

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The Quest (lnk.to)

Interview With Geoff Downes by John Wenlock-Smith

The release of the first new material from Yes since ‘Heaven and Earth’ has been a long time in coming. During that time there have been many changes to the world of Yes, most notably the sad death of Chris Squire in 2016. There has also been the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic that has wreaked havoc with most people’s plans, a situation that Yes have also been affected by. Here’s what Yes keyboardist Geoff Downes had to say about this period.

John Wenlock-Smith (JWS): Good day Geoff, thanks fore making time to talk with me, how have you been keeping during this time?

Geoff Downes (GD): I’ve not been too bad, I’ve managed to keep myself active. We recorded this new album remotely with Alan (White) and Billy (Sherwood) in the US, Jon (Davidson) in the Caribbean and Steve (Howe) and myself here in the UK, it’s a nice way of working I find.

JWS: Results Seem to be positive, you seem to bring out the best in each other somehow?

GD: Yes, I think it does, it also gives you the chance to sit back and look at it all. We’ve had to do that with this Yes album and I think that we’ve learnt quite a lot by doing it that way. It’s a different approach but, at the same time, it can be creative as well.

JWS: It getting interesting reviews (the album), isn’t it?

GD: Yes, obviously the days of the band being in the studio for months locked away doesn’t really exist these days, as they did in the ’70’s. It’s been difficult with having the rhythm section in California, they were sending us files to review on a regular basis. But, of course, we’re not alone in that we were all locked down for months on end and we’ve had to adapt and respond to that as best as we could. Without the benefit of being able to play any live shows it has put people on a different route forward. It meant taking a more flexible approach to things really.

JWS: I spoke to Steve Hackett recently and he was saying a similar thing, he has had to adjust to a new approach to his music, but at least he is able to go out on tour again now.

GD: Yes, I had an email from Steve asking if I wanted to see him in Cardiff tThe nearest place to where I am in Chepstow) but he was saying I can’t see you though, we do the show and move the whole bubble onwards. So I didn’t get to see him this time, but I’ve seen his show many times at various stages. He always puts on a great show. He really puts a lot into his shows, not just him and his band but in the staging and the lighting and the whole experience and performance really. I’m looking forward to catching up with him again when he comes back round.

JWS: Touring will be happening for Yes again soon though?

GD: Well, yes, we’ve got a tour booked for next May and June in the UK and Europe.

JWS: This is the ‘Relayer’ Tour?

GD: Yes, it’s been postponed twice so we’re hoping it’s third time lucky for it to go ahead.

JWS: Well, the album is very interesting, I’ve heard it all, and the bonus tracks, one of which is obviously a tribute to the Beatles. But the whole album is interesting lyrically, you’re not afraid to tackle some important and controversial issues like ecology and conservation?

GD: I’m not involved with the lyrics per se, Jon was stuck in Barbados for 5 months and I think that’s reflected in his lyrics, global warming, obviously, and I think The Ice Bridge reflects those concerns. There’s nothing worse than musicians standing on a soapbox telling people what they should be doing but, by the same token, it’s true that the band are all getting older which brings its own challenges.

JWS: So what’s happening with the Downes Braides Association? I loved the ‘Halcyon Hymns’ album and wrote a glowing review of it, I thought it was excellent!

GD: Well, Chris has moved back here now from LA and I’m hopeful that we can get together and work on the next one more directly, as opposed to being two oceans apart. So we will have to see how that comes about in due course.

JWS: You also had the Asia albums re-released recently (‘The Reunion Albums 2007 to 2012’) on BMG.

GD: The 40th anniversary of the ‘Asia’ album is in 2022, so those albums are being re-promoted again to mark that event. Those first three albums were very significant and its important to mark those events again fully.

I’ve still got unworked material from a session I had with John (Wetton) before he sadly died so there is potential there to craft something new. I feel that Asia has not run its course and that there is still some life left in the band. Again, we’ll have to see what emerges from those sessions.

JWS: What about a new solo album for you? Surely you must be due for another one soon?

GD: Yes, I have been thinking about doing something, although quite what that will be is very open. I think I’d like to do something in a similar vein to ‘The Light Program’ from 1987, a sort of ‘stream of consciousness’ album of its time but worth revisiting again I think.

JWS: I also read recently that you wanted the keyboards on this new album, ‘The Quest’ to be more analogue than digital, more like earlier Yes albums?

GD: When I was growing up, I was hugely influenced by the keyboard sounds that Tony Kaye used on those early Yes albums. He was a monster on the growling Hammond and when we did the ‘Yes 50’ tour, Tony was a guest on some dates. He still commands the Hammond organ and we became good friends, so that was a big factor for me. Plus, I think the music Steve was making on the guitar leant itself to that classic type of sound, so that’s what I did, and I think it worked okay.

JWS: Tony Has a new solo album out, ‘End of Innocence’, have you heard it yet?

GD: No, but I want to hear it, it’s all about the World Trade Centre and 9/11 isn’t it?

JWS: Yes, it’s a good album.

GD: Does he play lots of Hammond on it?

JWS: Yes, throughout.

GD: I’ll have to ask management to get me a copy then.

JWS: You won’t regret it Geoff, it’s a fine piece of work, very worthwhile. Anyway, my time has gone, I’m afraid, thanks for talking to me.

GD: No problem John, thanks for interesting questions and for knowing your stuff, I’ve enjoyed talking to you, thank you!

‘The Quest’ by Yes is released on 1st October, 2021 and you can order a copy here:

The Quest (lnk.to)

Review – Steve Hackett – Surrender of Silence – by John Wenlock-Smith

Steve Hackett may be able to draw his pension these days but, even so, he has lost none of his fire or passion for making music as this, his second album of this year, clearly shows. A man who knows his own identity and is secure with his history and pedigree.

This album is his latest electric rock album unlike his earlier classical guitar album, ‘Under a Mediterranean Sky’, that was released in February of this year. On this release, Steve continues to mine the rich creative seam that surfaced on ‘At the Edge of Night’, ‘The Night Siren’ and ‘Wolflight’ and it fits well alongside each of those previous albums.

The album features all the members of his current touring band along with various guests, including Phil Ehart of Kansas who appears on the epic Shanghai To Samarkand. Big Big Train’s Nick Di’Virgilio appears on two tracks as does Christine Townsend, whose graceful violin and viola appear throughout.

Steve says on the album’s rear sleeve, “This album is a journey when no journeys were possible.”, meaning the worldwide covid pandemic that affected just about everyone. On this release Steve invites us to travel the world with him from the Urals to the Roof of Africa and on to the Himalayas. An epic album then for an epic voyage, let’s take a trip shall we as the album plays on.

Most rock fans will know the piece Eruption that was on Van Halen’s debut album or I’m A Believer from Giant, whose incendiary guitar intro made big waves in the early 1990’s. Well This album opens with The Obliterati which sees Steve using his tapping skills and arpeggio sweeps to craft a similarly striking prelude to the song Natalia, Steve said that with the orchestrations of Natalia he felt he had to stamp the guitar onto the track as a real presence and he certainly succeeds here. In fact I think if the wider rock community heard this blistering intro, they’d be amazed that a pensioner could play with so much fire, skill and technique.

It really makes you go wow, even when Roger King’s orchestrations are introduced, this still sounds truly fabulous and it is a spectacular and fine way to open the album before the more mellow tones of Natalia begin. A very moving song about a Russian everywoman who suffered at many hands over the years. This song has great orchestrations to it and you can hear the Russian classical influences.

Relaxation Music for Sharks (Featuring Feeding Frenzy) is another instrumental from Steve. It is a highly atmospheric piece with lots of great sounds and a very rocky and hard-hitting middle section where everyone is playing fast. Roger’s synth lines match Steve’s wah-wah guitar, the piece returning to a calmer state at the end, signifying that the feeding is over, well for now at least. Next follows a very African sounding song, Wingbeats, with Amanda Lemann. The McBroom sisters chant African vocals and the song has a very good chorus that sounds authentically African. The track based on Steve’s own trip to Africa a few years ago. The Devil’s Cathedral has a very gothic sounding organ, all ominous and portentous.It’s a song about unbridled ambition sung by Nad Sylvan, who is in fine voice throughout the album. The track gallops along at a fast pace, with lots of dynamism to assist its passage, all very impressive stuff.

Held In The Shadows is a far softer and more gentle song entirely, written by Steve as a love song to his wife Jo. This is a powerful and emotional piece of music, inspired by a lovely woman who has made his life better and completed him wonderfully. The album’s epic, Shanghai To Samarkand follows. Taking the route of the old silk road from China to the middle east through Turkmenistan as it’s inspiration, this track sees Steve working once again with Phil Ehart of Kansas (with whom he recorded the ‘Please Don’t Touch’ album) and this song is another excellent sonic journey with subtle but effective use of authentic instruments like the Dutar and Oriental Zither. This piece has the exotic world music influences clearly shown and, with its almost Kashmir-type riff played throughout, really impresses. Another excellent track of great music, I think l,ive it would be a powerhouse we may find out on his ‘Seconds Out’ tour this year.     

Fox’s Tango is a more political piece as Steve compares the haves and the have nots and talks about the inequalities of life these days. It could also be his view of the Trump era, short but worthy of inclusion, as is Day Of The Dead, a very dark nod to Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival, territory Steve has visited before with the ‘Darktown’ album. Scorched Earth is an ecological song as Steve tells us, “Tomorrow’s trees, tomorrow’s seas, Can you breathe tomorrow’s dream…” This song has lots of Steve’s fluid guitar playing. The album closes with the acoustically driven instrumental Esperanza (which is Spanish for hope), a brief ,delicate track that brings everything to a peaceful close and leaves you to ponder again the sonic journey that you have just undertaken.

As always, the music is fabulous as are the booklet and sleeve. This release is every bit as strong as his earlier albums and Steve has already been contemplating what is next for him once he has completed his tour of ‘Seconds Out’. I Guess time will tell but, for now, enjoy this fantastic new album from the man with the golden touch and fleet fingers.

Released 10th September, 2021

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Steve Hackett | Steve Hackett (hackettsongs.com)

Review – Tony Kaye – End Of Innocence – by John Wenlock-Smith

Significant events in history are often remembered by thinking about where we were at the time. For instance, I was with a friend when I heard the sad news that Princess Diana had died in a car crash in Paris on the 31st August 1999.

The events of 9/11 were very memorable for me in that I was working in Liverpool at the time and some of our people were en-route to new York at the time and we didn’t know what flights they were on or whether or not they had got caught up in the whole sequence of events. It turned out that they hadn’t and were diverted to Canada as US airspace was closed down because of the attacks.

This meant that I had the news on my computer and kept it on all afternoon and watched the tragedy unfold in real time, via live feeds. I saw the second plane hit and saw the folks jumping to their deaths and watching with horror when the towers finally gave way.

I was appalled, shocked,horrified and angry at this senseless barbaric act. Especially as I had long wanted to visit New York and see the World Trade Center for myself. Now that was no longer possible thanks to these terrorists, well I had flown over the towers in 1989 on my way to Florida so I had at least seen them standing proud as a beacon of America before this tragedy happened. or have been conceived of by Osama and his merry madmen.

Tony Kaye was similarly moved by the dreadful events of that fateful day. So much so that he took his keyboards out of storage in his garage and began composing much that reflected his feelings about that day. Now his first solo album from emerges just shy of the 20th anniversary of those events, the album being largely instrumental in nature apart from the opening track and track 10 which features his wife.

Tony Kaye was the original Yes keyboard man who has been with the band on several different occasions, initially in their early days and prior to ‘Close to the Edge’, for which he was replaced by Rick Wakeman. When Tony left Yes he spent time in Flash with Peter Banks and thereafter with Badger who supported Yes at The Rainbow in 1972. They recorded the set and subsequently released it as the excellent ‘One Live Badger’ album, produced by Jon Anderson.

After this, he played with Badfinger and then joined Chris Squire and Alan White in the Cinema project that morphed into a new version of Yes along with Trevor Rabin. This, of course, yielded the mega hit Owner of a Lonely Heart and the ‘90125’ album and subsequent World Tour. Following on came ‘Big Generator’ and then somewhat unusual ‘Union’ project which merged a Trevor Rabin version of Yes with Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe in an 8 man conglomerate of Yes members with mixed results and a confused touring scenario.

After the ‘Union’ tour Tony had decided to retire as he was approaching 70 years of age. He slipped quietly into the background until the events of September 11th stirred the desire to remember the dreadful events in the only way he knew, i.e. musically. This album is a requiem and memorial to the near three thousand people who died that day as it explores the events as they unfolded.

It is possibly best heard in one sitting as Tony intended, the music will take you on a strange journey into those events and, yes, it may fill you with strong emotions as you listen. However, I would urge you to persevere with this as it is a remarkable journey, highly emotional and yet somehow triumphant. It works as a testament to the bravery shown on that day by the people of New York and its Police and Firefighters, many of whom are included in that death toll of 2997 people. It is also a reflection of the resilience of the American nation as they weathered this storm together in sorrow..

The album is really just all by Tony alone, although his wife Dani Torchia appears on track 10 – Sweetest Dreams – while fellow Yes man Jay Schellan also appears on Track 8 – Flight 11 – on which he plays a drum solo. The album doesn’t actually show any musicians credited other than Tony and Dani.

This is a hugely atmospheric album whose quiet dignity contains both malice and beauty. It certainly is very moving and obviously a labour of love and a dignified memorial to all of those affected by the events of that day. The artwork is by long time Yes collaborator Roger Dean who, instead of spatial visions, offers a rather more sombre view, invoking a vision of ungodly destruction and storm clouds that matches the remarkable sounding and fascinating music.

Whilst the events were dreadful and shocking, this album at least offers a degree of hope and optimism that they that the aims were totally in vain and that good things have emerged from those dark days. This is a musical experience that will require your patience to unravel and appreciate but it is a most worthy piece of work and highly impressive. The use of actual recordings from the day add great insight as to how the events unfolded and add much realism to the music. It makes for a very impressive album, highly recommended on a bold and wide screen, and is dignified and complete.

Released 10th September, 2021

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Tony Kaye: End Of Innocence – Cherry Red Records