Review – Steve Hackett – Under a Mediterranean Sky – by John Wenlock-Smith

We are now into the second year of this wretched virus, this time last year we were eagerly looking forward to a holiday we had booked to Italy in Sorrento with a view across the water to Pompeii.

This was, of course, cancelled by the virus and we watched in horror as Italy became the focus of the world, the virus spreading around the country and then globally. Obviously, this has had a massive impact on our abilities in what we can do, where we can go, all events have pretty much been cancelled leaving touring activities curtailed with most musicians left high and dry, unable to do anything really which has in turn led to a raft of new music being created. This new album from Steve Hackett being amongst that number.

This being Steve Hackett, he has done something rather different from the norm in that he has created an acoustic album, his first since 2007’s ‘Tribute’. This is an album of instrumental mood pieces, themed around travels that Steve has made in recent times.

The album opens with the epic song M’dina – The Walled City with a similar sound to those used on the Fallen Walls and Pedestals from Steve’s ‘At the Edge of Light‘ album of 2018. The big difference here being that, instead of a bold electric guitar, this is all performed on acoustic guitar, backed by the expansive and atmospheric keyboard orchestrations of Roger King. This piece is almost a mini concerto in the style of the Warsaw Concerto by Richard Addinsell (that was written for the 1941 film Dangerous Moonlight which was concerned with the polish struggle in 1939 against Nazi Germany), Malta, itself, has seen its share of occupation by hostile forces, especially during World War 2 when the island was occupied by the Nazi’s.

Steve of is of Polish immigration historically as his grandparents escaped the pogroms of Poland in 1919 and the ethnic cleansing of the Jews. As such, he feels strongly about the rights of people who are being oppressed or persecuted, this piece reflects those feelings and conflicts using lots of orchestration that is intercut with gentle but evocative guitar runs from the fleet fingers of Steve.

Adriatic Blue is a far more mellow piece with chiming guitar lines and some delicately plucked finger-style playing. Sirocco then follows, bringing to mind the wonders of Egypt, Jordan and other desert lands. Steve has been to the Pyramids in Cairo, along the Nile and also to Petra in Jordan and this song reflects those travels with ethnic percussion elements amongst the orchestration and a decidedly Arabian swing and feel to this piece. It is all very evocative of distant lands and of Arabian nights in the desert under the skies and stars of the region. This really is an excellent and emotive piece that acts as an imagined journey for the listener to those lands full of imagery and magic.

Joie De Vivre  is a reflection in the joy of life that travelling offers, a chance to escape an everyday world by taking or making voyages of adventure, exploring different cultures and ways of life and the feelings of freedom that these voyages provide. As listeners who are unable to travel at the present time, these musical pictures offer relief to the humdrum existence we are all under until this blasted virus has been curtailed and we have been inoculated against so that we can resume our everyday lives.

The Memory of Myth is a further invocation of the sounds and senses of desert lands and the mystery and magic of these desolate places that have remained largely unchanged for millennia. The evocative violin of Christine Townsend underpins the whole track, really adding to the mysterious aura.

Scarlatti Sonata is a piece that Steve has composed in hour of Domenico Scarlatti who was an Italian composer in the 17th Century. Born in Naples in 1685 he was a composer in the Baroque style.He is known largely for his 555 keyboard sonatas and spent much of his life in the service of the Spanish and Portuguese royal families.

We are then treated to the very evocative piece The Dervish and the Djinn which includes contributions from Rob Townsend on Woodwind instrumentation that evoke imagery of whirling dervishes and their mischief. This is also a fine exponent of Steve’s fabulous guitar playing along with the added impact of drums that really creates an exciting mood picture. Lorato is a brief piece full of Spanish guitar flourishes with a fine melody that recurs throughout the track.

Andalusian Heart is another strong Spanish themed track with lots of Flamenco type playing throughout that reminds me of Steve’s guitar work on I Wish by Amy Birks (a track that he provided Spanish guitar for). This song has a similar feel to that song but without the vocals and is another very expressive and imaginative piece with the sumptuous orchestration giving sense of stately majesty.

The Call of the Sea is Steve’s reflections on staring across the Mediterranean Sea to distant lands and how this body of water connects us together, geographically, musically, and emotionally. It is another excellent piece of music that conveys its message without words and closes this rather different, but no less satisfying, album in fine style.

The cover of the album is in itself rather evocative, with its image of a wall overlooking the blue sea under a cloudless sky. It’s a beautiful image and one that fits in perfectly with this armchair voyage of musical discovery.

This album is so different to Steve’s usual output but, nonetheless, it is a journey of musical delights and very fitting and welcome at this strange time. As you can’t take a holiday at the present time, this is a worthy musical trip around the Mediterranean. Why not take this trip for yourself? you will feel better for it I’m sure.

Released 22nd January 2021

Order direct from the artist here:

Steve Hackett | Steve Hackett (hackettsongs.com)

John Wenlock-Smith Interviews Chris Braide of Downes Braide Association

Geff Downes, Chris Braide

Chris Braide of Downes Braide Association talks about the new album ‘Halcyon Hymns’.

John Wenlock-Smith:  Good day Chris, are you well?

Chris BraideYes, I am fine thank you getting on as best as we all can in these times.

JWS: I do like the new album (‘Halcyon Hymns’), I think it is quite positive.

CB: That surprises me as other friends have asked if anything has happened and am I okay? I think lyrically this album is a lot darker than its predecessor (‘Skyscraper Souls’), that album was like evening whilst this is more of an afternoon album, colour wise. I would say this one is orange where ‘Skyscraper Souls’ was a deep blue, this one has some rather dark songs, like Remembrance for instance.

JWS: How did this album even come about?

CB: Well, with the virtual shutdown of the industry and tours being cancelled etc. it was very much a case of ‘right what can I do now then?’. This album came out of that period, Geoff (Downes) had sent me some ideas and I got to work on them. I chose to look at the world as it was when I was younger, the endless summer days, cycling around everywhere, pure rose tinted nostalgia for a world that had been but suddenly was not available to us now.

JWS: This album has some guests too?

CB: Yes, we have David Longdon on one track, Marc Almond on another, Ash Soan (my colleague of 20 plus years) on drums and a few others too, it makes for a nice mix.

JWS: So how did you and Geoff originally meet?

CB: I met Geoff at a one-off Buggles reunion in London. I was part of a group called The Producers with Trevor Horn who was, of course, the other Buggle and he asked me if I’d like to be an honorary Buggle for the evening, I said yes very enthusiastically and we had a great time of it. I met Geoff and enjoyed his company and felt we had a good connection.

I was due to move to Los Angeles shortly afterwards, when I told Geoff he said that it was no problem as he was due to be in LA himself soon as Yes were due to record the ‘Fly From Here’ album. Geoff and Trevor were back in the Yes camp for that project and when he was doing that album, he would come and visit me at my home. We started to write together songs that would become the first Downes Braide Association album.

JWS: I have the live album and DVD set and I will be reviewing this latest album for Progradar too.

CB: Cheers for that. We enjoyed that gig at Trading Boundaries, did you go?

JWS: I wanted to be but it was a bit too far to travel to East Sussex I am afraid but I did enjoy the album and the DVD. If you had been playing locally in Stoke or Crewe, I would have been there

CB: Well, hopefully when everything gets back to normality then we can start gigging again, I have other musician friends who have also been unable to do anything this past year!

JWS: So Chris, I know you have a long musical history but what sort of music really gets you?

CB: I’m a huge Marc Bolan and T-Rex fan have been seen I was a kid really. I also like Yes, the whole spectrum of their sound and, of course, the fantastic covers. Which is why we enjoy working with Roger Dean who crafted those fabulous sleeves that you could lose yourself in whilst listening to the albums.

I also really like Kate Bush who surely must be a really unsung progressive icon with the stuff that she has done for the past 40 years or so. If I was stuck on a desert island I’d take Marc Bolan, Yes and Kate Bush’s music to sustain me.

JWS: I saw Kate on her only UK tour in 1979 in Birmingham, she was quite remarkable. It was the ‘Wuthering Heights’/’Lionheart’ albums tour, if I recall correctly?

CB: Wow, what a fantastic memory! She stopped touring as that tour was cursed when a lighting guy fell (Bill Duffield) to his death at the warmup show in Poole. It was later coined ‘The Tour of Life’ and Kate did a benefit concert for Bill in London as the end of the tour, it must have been amazing.

JWS: I can remember if being very visual and extremely exciting to a young 19-year-old, as I was then. So you have also been involved with loads of modern “Pop” acts along the way, I believe?

CB: I was originally a solo artist signed to Dave Stewart’s ‘Anxious’ label (on which he released his debut solo album ‘Chapter One’ in 1996). This was before I moved to LA and began working with the likes of Sia, Christina Aguilera, Pixie Lott and Yuna, amongst others, getting into writing these songs for these different artists, I am a writer, that is what I do.

JWS: But your love of music stretches a lot further than just Pop?

CB: It certainly does, it’s far wider than that. I love the progressive stuff and I like to combine that with certain Pop sensibilities, if I can, and DBA gives me a vehicle to do just that.

JWS: I think that when this album is released it needs to get to a far wider audience, if possible, as lots of people of my age and younger will find much to enjoy here.

CB: Yes, indeed it is but it’s getting it out there that is the hard part!

JWS: Well you need to get your DBA Songs onto mainstream media. Get it onto Good Morning Britain for instance or get Clarkson to use it on the Grand Tour etc. Obviously we will try what we can but it’s only scratching the surface really, the album is out on the 5th February in the UK?

CB: Yes, the day before my birthday.

JWS: Oh wow! well, Happy Birthday for the 6th then, dare I ask how old you will be?

CB: Well, I feel like I am still 19 really but I will be in my 40’s. I’m actually really enjoying my 40’s, its even better than the 30’s were and the 20’s were too! In fact, I think every decade has just been better for me.

JWS: Well I’m 61 now and my best decade was my 50’s. A lot happened, I got divorced, started writing reviews and did interviews with people like Keith Emerson, I’ve even interviewed Geoff once. I started dating and eventually got remarried again so it was a great decade for me, you have this to come, I guess. Anyway, Chris, my time has gone so thank you for talking to me, I appreciate it and all the best with the new album!

CB: Thank you too, I have enjoyed it.

Interview With Steve Hackett by John Wenlock-Smith

Steve Hackett talks about his new acoustic album ‘Under A Mediterranean Sky’, released on the 22nd January 2021.

John Wenlock-Smith: So how are you Steve, how’s lockdown been treating you and Jo?

Steve Hackett: It is a strange time, at least some of us will get vaccinated soon. I am okay, I have had a bit of kidney surgery recently, so am about 80 or 90% now able to play the guitar again now after leaving it for a month or so. My fingers are working fine, my hearing is working, oops better not jinx it all now though! How are you and yours doing in all this?  I’ve not caught it yet so hopefully all will be fine.

JWS: We are both fine, staying in and avoiding contact with anyone as much as we can. We had a Tesco delivery this morning so, yes, we are both doing ok really. So, let us talk about this new album of yours…

SH: Yes, ‘Under A Mediterranean Sky’, it’s been ready for a while, Jo says it was ready by June last year but I think it was actually a little earlier. We started it around March or April and it took a couple of months to complete and then suddenly it was all done.

The thing that takes all the time on rock albums are the vocals. Drums and, strangely, guitars don’t take that long that, maybe because I have a degree of proficiency in that department.

I don’t have to hire anyone in to do those parts but when, it comes to something like this, it’s basically one guitar, which you have to get your tone right for (and be able to play it) and then there are orchestrations by Roger King, who is proving himself to be somewhat of a genius in his arrangements and his engineering and musical skills.

JWS: I have had a listen to it and I have to say that it sounds particularly good indeed.

SH: I must agree and say that It does sound mighty fine indeed.

JWS: I watched a couple of the videos for the album too.

SH: You know what I think? I think its good for those that like that sort of thing but, if you want Van Halen or Buddy Holly then stop right there. However, it is a bridge between what the prog people might like and what the classical types might enjoy.

It’s an audience that I’ be happy to connect with. When I started doing classical stuff with the ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ album (1997) I suddenly had people writing to me who obviously would never deign to listen to any rock and roll, wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole actually, and they were saying nice things.

I thought this is nice, people who listen to Radio 3 or Classic FM and the occasional Tchaikovsky album and learnt the piano at some stage of their life, they’re listening to my music. I thought this is nice, it is a different thing, a different strata of listener.

JWS: A different type of listening too perhaps?

SH: Yes, less leather jacket more Laura Ashley I Think?

JWS: For the ladies at least, floral dresses on blokes does not work, well it does not for me at least!

SH: Floral Guitars and decorations?

JWS: You obviously have travelled extensively through those areas in the past/

SH: Yes, it’s a musical journey, I hope it will take people there in spirit even if we can’t go there at the moment. I get Production copies of the album today, I always await that with eagerness as you can actually see the finished article. I listen on CD as you get the full bandwidth of sounds on that.

I don’t think that this will be a big one for Vinyl enthusiasts, I think it needs the purity of CD rather than the snap crackle and pop that vinyl gives, if retro is your thing that is.

On this album there is a piece I have composed for Domenico Scarlatti who was born in Naples in 1685 and was an Italian composer. He was primarily a composer for the harpsichord. On this album I have composed a composition called Scarlatti Sonata as a way of tribute to him.

So that is me, if I want to play a bit of Beethoven then I will or Chopin, Muse could and Keith Emerson used to do that, we used to talk about that all the time. It does not have to be current to be good.

I used to have a friend who was an art Critic and I asked him how he felt about Avant-Garde and he replied that if he was interested in it, he considered it to be Avant-Garde.

I mean Bach was a radical really, anyone who wrote the Italian concerto that has been a ball breaker for keyboard players evermore since has to be, funny that!

JWS: On this album you have some interesting pieces like M’dina, in Saudi Arabia?

SH: No, it’s the other M’dina, the walled city inside Valetta, the capital of Malta. It’s quite a long piece, a sort of mini concerto that’s probably closer in spirit to the Warsaw Concerto by Richard Adinsell (written for the 1941 Film ‘Dangerous Moonlight’ which was about the Polish Struggle against the Nazi’ Germany in 1939.) being a short piece of about 10-minute duration. This song, M’dina, has echoes of that, reflecting the way that Malta has been affected its occupation many times through different wars over the years.

JWS: I also Like Scirocco.

SH: I particularly like that one too, I like how the classical meets the cinematic element of it, I was going to say something else about it, an attempt to pair the Middle East with music and recollections of travels in those places, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan,  fantastic places that I’ve loved.

When I go to such places I tend to write things in my notebook. I don’t carry an instrument with me really because it’s too valuable and puts you at the mercy of airport baggage handlers, which is not something you really want, so it’s easier to record impressions in a notebook for reference at a later point.

I first went to Egypt many years ago and spent 24 hours in Cairo and visited the museum and the Sphinx and the Pyramids, of course. It is the spirit of things really. We went back to Egypt a few years ago and took a Nile cruise where you can really feel the history and the culture of the area.

I usually write the chords and the top line and Roger comes up with the rest, I think I am at the stage where I am ready to call him a genius! We went to Petra in Jordan and saw Lawrence’s pile of stones, there is lots of history there, we also rode with the Bedouin in the desert too.

JWS: I like the Andalusian Sky track too.

SH: You like the orchestral ones?

JWS: I like that they evoke a feeling of a place.

SH: It is the interaction between us that makes it work.

JWS: Where did you find Roger?

SH: Originally, he was just a name in the phone book! He was a composer with a background in Film Music who had worked on the movies Cliffhanger and In The Name Of The Father, so that is where he came from. I think for much of it he was uncredited, often the way with folks like Michelangelo and his acolytes who painted much of the Sistine Chapel.

JWS: I was watching the video’s last night and thought that you would be good at doing one of those type of programmes.

SH: I really enjoy watching those type of programmes and had thought that I would like to do that, standing there talking about things that I know a little about.

JWS: Well, it has worked for Michael Palin and Steve Coogan!

SH: Yes, however I would rather be down with the locals finding out what they do, how they live and what they eat etc.

JWS: So what is next for You?

SH: Well, I have started work on the next album, although I have temporarily stopped due to this lockdown. I have got about 45 minutes done already, I have a shopping list of all sorts of things I want to do but it is not finished until it is finished.

There is quite a lot to live up to from recent albums, a house band, some great singers, it has been quite a big team of musicians from all around the world. some great singers and musicians all working together and I like to work as part of a team. It is a lot of fun to me, like a toy that I have never outgrown.

JWS: Yes, I think if you are not enjoying it then it is time to give it up!

SH: I agree and guitars in particular, I have only got to hear a guitar tone, it could even be someone else’s sound possibly from some time ago, the sound that I have heard in my mind and been striving to attain. When I find that tone then you have the vehicle to go anywhere you have imagine. This is the vehicle, the rocket, the boat, and that is the voyage that I want to take.

Review – Tiger Moth Tales – The Whispering Of The World – by John Wenlock-Smith

This is the latest album for Tiger Moth Tales (aka Peter Jones) but this time around it is a quite different beast indeed. This album is a marked departure from the glorious madness and tomfoolery that Peter has offered up with earlier albums like ‘Cocoon’ and ‘The Depths of Winter’ and is far more direct and straightforward. It is also the first time Peter has worked at a different location, this album being recorded at Fieldgate Studios in Penarth, South Wales, also utilising the production skills of Andrew Lawson.

So, the sound is different, it is basically Peter Jones playing a grand piano and singing, although, this time, he is backed highly effectively and sympathetically by a string quartet. This lends the music a different tone as any solos are either taken by Peter’s piano or by the string quartet.

This is a very brave album with Peter certainly taking a real risk here but, in doing so, he reaffirms just what an excellent singer he really is. This approach also allows the songs to speak for themselves with the strings providing both a warm backdrop and accentuating the lyrical themes.

So, what does it sound like?

Well, it is certainly different but listening to the several times will reveal this to be a very personal set of songs that deal with life, mortality, the dawn chorus, recollections of early holidays and remembrance and the importance of having memories.

The album opens with Taking the Dawn, high strings leading into a striking piano melody and creating a rhythm of sorts, before Peter begins to sing and delights in the commencement of the dawn chorus and the joy that sound brings him. He really praises the power of nature and celebrates that power and the sense of fullness that it gives him, the gift of living from the skies. This is a particularly good opener, personal and uplifting and it sets a good base for all that is to follow.

Next comes is the moody, slightly dark The Whispering of the World, on which the strings get their chance to play some evocative moody and slightly chilling tones. The song is based upon childhood memories of sounds heard on a deserted Devon beach coming through a hollow rock that scared Peter as a child. Sweeter Than Wine is Peter’s remembrance of a school friend who died suddenly and unexpectedly, here Peter assures us that they may be gone but they are not forgotten and will be remembered in the memories that he treasures and the gratitude he feels in having known them.

Quiet Night features a haunting melody and, having a lot of sensory imagery, this is a striking track that seems to deal with how we cope with loss and the hope of a life thereafter. Peter is not religious but seems to think that lives that have gone play some part in our lives now. As I say, this is a very personal and emotional song and is handled very delicately by all. A Town By The Sea follows and is the lone, completely instrumental track and one that acts as a tour de force for the string quartet to really shine along side the stately grand piano of Peter Jones. This brief interlude works as a demarcation between the two halves of the album, the song Blackbird is next and while it’s not a cover of the Paul McCartney track of the same name, it does bear similarities to that song. Peter talks of walking home late at night and hearing a lone blackbird singing before the dawn, striking imagery for these days in which we find ourselves, a glimpse of hope for better days that are coming.

Waving, Drowning is another very personal track, one in which Peter talks of the depression that he has suffered from, of how the suffocating feelings of that time made him feel and how he finally managed to break free. He recalls how friends reached out to him and helped him establish firm ground under his feet, enabling him to take tentative steps to freedom. This is a very hopeful song, emotionally bare and yet striving for a life that has been eluding him but one that he is determined to have once again. This is a wonderful track full of warmth and life, brilliant.

The closing song of the album, Lost To The Years, is simply beautiful and is a comment on the loss of Peter’s grandmother in 2019. In this song he remembers her with warmth and love and much gratitude for all that she meant to him and talks about how he is determined to keep her memories alive in his life. This is a beautifully dignified and lovely set of memories that he sings of and he uses them as a challenge to himself to ensure that he learns from what she has taught him and as to how he will live going forward from here. This is highly personal and very emotionally laden with love and gratitude. Ultimately, he realises that death, while incredibly sad, comes to us all and that we should learn to make the most of the time that we have available to us. Which is a very realistic and encouraging sentiment for us all to live by

This album is one that will really touch you emotionally, or should do if you have an open heart to hear the message that it sends out, “Life is precious, love and enjoy those around you whilst you can”. There is much depth in these words and this album is very recommended for being a heartfelt, beautiful collection of some vastly different and personal, yet universal, songs for us all to appreciate.

Released 4th December 2020

Order from White Knight Records here: 

https://www.whiteknightshop2.co.uk/store/Tiger-Moth-Tales-c36255878

Review – Mark Kelly’s Marathon – by John Wenlock-Smith

Well, this one nearly passed me by but, thankfully, thanks to recommendations from a friend, I was able to capture this one. Apparently Mark Kelly has been planning a solo album for nearly 30 years but it was the national lockdown that was the window in which he was finally able to realise his plans. I have to say that this album is simply magnificent, one that harks back to his main role in Marillion but also one that shows just how integral to how Marillion sound he truly is. This album is possibly the best of any that have been made outside of Marillion, yes it really is that good! In fact, it does nicely in lieu of any current group activity (although the band continue to work on the follow up to 2016’s ‘F.E.A.R’ album and have planned a tour for late 2021.)

The album has 10 tracks, two of which are 10 minutes plus (with one being over 20 minutes long) and the sound is remarkably like that of Marillion themselves but here Mark has surrounded himself with some amazing new talent, especially guitarist John Cordy (whom he was recommended by non-less than Steve Rothery), the always excellent Henry Rogers on drums and Mark’s son Conal Kelly on bass guitars and background, among others. Lyrics were written by barrister Guy Vickers who certainly rose to the challenge, capturing the mood and the themes of both Amelia and Twenty Fifty One superbly.

On Amelia the album opens like 99% of Prog albums do, with swirls of keyboards as the story of the controversy and mystery of bones discovered on Nikumaroro or Gardener island in 1940 unfolds. These had been originally discovered and appraised in 1941 by a Fijian anthropologist but this had been challenged by a University of Tennessee Professor who had stated that, after his own research, the bones were actually those of Amelia Earhart, the missing famed aviator who had gone missing on a round the world trek. The background to this song is in the notes contained in the booklet, and a fascinating read it is too and this shows that the music and subject matter is certainly informed and captivating. The playing on this song alone makes the album an essential purchase, it is simply brilliant and a real treat even with a magnificent guitar solo from John at the end, a fantastic opening track.

When I Fell is a delicate and emotional song about love and loss with some great textures to the song and sympathetic, ethereal keyboards from Mark . Along with some great basslines from Conal, this is a lovely and moving song. Add in some great organ sounds from Mark, it all sounds fabulous and concludes an excellent song.

This Time follows, a brief but certainly interesting track, with some great textures to it. The song is about separation and being apart from those you love and how the separation can make these times more meaningful. This is all ably supported by fabulous performances and music where everyone is really making this a worthwhile, short but exceedingly sweet piece of music.

Puppets is next and this features Mark’s Marillion colleague Steve Rothery on guitar. The song is somewhat philosophical and touches on concepts such as determinism, free will, libertarianism, cartesian dualism and other spiritual and philosophical concepts. That the band can tackle such weighty concepts is to be applauded in itself, this certainly is an album for thinkers along with those who love good music played sublimely, this album meeting those criteria head on, confidently and with real style and skill. The song asks some interesting questions about how we make choices and how free we are, as I say, this is music to make you think, never a bad thing in my opinion.

The last selection of pieces forms the long suite Twenty Fifty One, which details the difficult relationship that existed between Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, especially in relation to the film and novel 2001: A Space Odyssey. The song is an interesting narrative to the questions of life outside of earth and are we alone in the universe? It details the story that Stanley’s film took much longer than Arthur’s novel writing and, as a result, that Arthur had to rely on Stanley funding him until the film was completed and he could finally publish his novel. The song continues to ask the question of, if we are not alone, do we really want alien interference and possibly destruction? We have previously historically been very mercenary in our expansions and in our dealings with other nations and tribes. It is an interesting question and one that we should consider seriously, this song is bold enough to ask the question.

This truly is a remarkable album, and the band are already planning a follow up, which holds great promise for us all. I also must comment on how glorious the artwork for this album is, it is very sympathetic to the subject matter and the accompanying live studio DVD is certainly a wonderful touch as it really brings the material to life. In all, this is an album that I would heartily recommend to any Marillion fan or indeed fan of intelligent and interesting music.

Released 27th November 2020

Order direct from the artist’s website:

https://marathonsounds.com/

Review – Rain – Singularity – by John Wenlock-Smith

Rain are a new project that came to light during the first initial period of lockdown in the UK. So some time after 23rd March when the powers that be realised that this virus and pandemic were a lot more serious than had previously been acknowledged. So much so that ‘Herr Boris’ got serious and told us all to stay at home, not go to the pub, segregate and do not mix.

Now this in itself was unusual and very much outside of Boris’ perceived jocular foppish and playful demeanour where he likes to portray himself as a man of the people. It was that in this time that John Jowitt and Andy Edwards (both formerly of IQ and Frost*) decided to form a new group that would allow them to do what they do best, i.e., make some fine new music. To this end they drafted in Rob Groucutt (son of former ELO bass player Kelly Groucutt) who has followed in his fathers footsteps with a career in music and also adding Mirron Webb of Birmingham based band Hey Jester on guitar, vocals and lyrics and, as such, the stage was set.

Rain first appeared on the Fusion festival lockdown special in April debuting the song Devils Will Reign, which was certainly a strong and enlightening first peek into this new band,

The album ‘Singularity’ was released in November 2020 and it is a rather interesting listen, one that will stay with you for a long time. It is one of those albums that initially intrigues you, albeit in a good way, with that feeling continuing with repeated plays. As you do so, it begins to emerge what they are on about, for this is very much an album borne of the frustrations and limitations that lockdown periods have inflicted upon us all. Here Rain have channelled those feelings and thoughts into 5 gloriously crafted and formulated songs.

The album opens with Devils Will Reign which has two sets of lyrics, one from Rob Groucutt, the other from Mirron Webb, that Andy Edwards put together, finding that it worked particularly well. It is a song about one’s own personal demons which seem to come to the fore in times of doubt or when there is nothing else going on, times like a lockdown for example. This song really hits the mark right from the off, opening with gently plucked acoustic guitar and some subtle keyboard backing before the drums pick up the beat and then some strong percussive guitar riffing emerging. The song also features a very nifty Spanish type guitar solo that is exceptionally fine indeed.

Second song Dandelion is about the lies we get sold by those in power, especially as seen during this pandemic with test numbers etc. There are some remarkably interesting sounds on this song also referring to possibly the whole sorry saga of the lies surrounding Brexit and the dodgy Bus of Lies, all £350 million a week’s worth that simply disappeared somehow.

Walkaway is the first lengthy track and is about wanting to escape even if only temporarily. Again, there is some sublime playing on this track with a muscular section after the second chorus which really sounds good around the 3 min 45 mark. This includes with a nifty solo, Mirron, Rob and Andy all adding fantastic guitars to this mix. This is an exceptionally fine track indeed with superb vocals that really add to the tone of the song.

The Magician is the album’s second longest track at 11 minutes and 16 seconds, all of which is wisely used to craft a sinuous and twisting behemoth of a track with oblique lyrics which really suit the subject matter. This track speaks of a magician who hides the meaning behind the reveals so that the truth is meant to be unfathomable. The listener never really hears the hidden knowledge, implying that it is a drug trip or an interventional dimensional breakthrough. Which, of course, in itself hides what it is trying to say. Again, another fabulously diverse and rewarding track.

The final track, Singularity, is the title track to the album and, after the convoluted The Magician, this could be a gentle comedown or a return to the real world. It certainly is a far gentler track, free from the bombast that has been evident on the album this far. It has touches of Devils Will Reign, which adds emphasis to the song. Containing lots of ambient noises, including birdsong, it is a stunning finale to what has been a sensational and awesome set of songs. The musicianship throughout has been impressive and Rain certainly prove to be a significant new band with much promise for the future, once the virus is kicked into touch.

The album is well produced and sounds very impressive and, even as a late comer in the year, it still is impressive enough for me to rate it as one of my top twelve for 2020. This release is one that any fan of progressive rock (or who likes either Frost* or IQ) would enjoy and find much in it to admire and appreciate. 

Released 23rd November 2020

Order from the band’s bandcamp page here:

https://rainprogband.bandcamp.com/album/singularity

Review – Multi Story – CBF10 – by John Wenlock-Smith

Multi Story have a long and somewhat checkered history. Hailing from South Wales, they came to prominence in the mid 1980’s when their blend of symphonic progressive rock led to them being chosen by Birmingham’s finest Magnum as a support group for their On A Storyteller’s Night tour in 1985, memorably playing a set with at the Dominion Theatre on Tottenham Court Road in London.

At that time Multi Story had released their debut album ‘East West’ that was released on Revolver / FM Records who were a Wolverhampton based label who had a run of successes with various acts including Exodus and other early thrash metal outfits. After the tour Paul Ford left the band who then decided to continue and recorded a second album for FM /Revolver called ‘Through Your Eyes’ after which the band dissolved and went their own separate ways.

Vocalist/Guitarist Paul and keyboard player Rob Wilsher had been at loggerheads with each other for many years but in 2014, some thirty years on from ‘East West’, a peace was sought (and achieved) which ultimately led to a reconvening of Multi Story activities. The band found a new home on Dave Robinson’s Festival Music label, recording and releasing the album ‘Crimson Stone’ in 2016 and commenced live work again appearing at the Winter’s End Festival in 2016 and also at HRH Prog in 2017.    

They also recorded a live in the studio set called ‘Live at Acapela’ that acted as a summation of their career thus far, taking, as it does, tracks from their first three albums in a revamped updated fashion.

That nicely brings us to this latest album ‘CBF10’ issued this October, again through Festival Music, and the first thing that strikes you is just how beautifully presented this album is. I has a very striking cover, designed by Tommy Larsen, and a loose concept that really comes to the fore towards the last half of the album, from the track Freeway Army onward.

More of that later, the album opens strongly with the epic track Signs and Traces and its fabulously twisty guitar riff and Rob’s evocative keyboards. Quite a stunning opener it is too, thundering along with several different sections to it, all of which sound glorious. Sharp Recall follows and has some great Hammond parts from Rob and some great piano lines too. This track is Paul and Rob playing everything between them and still sounding very much like a band in the process, with a great solo towards the end from Rob.

Celluloid Star is up next and it is a cautionary tale on the trappings and falsehood that “fame “offers and then often fails to deliver. This well written song is very dramatic with lots of fabulously evocative keyboard sounds, a sturdy bassline and hard hitting, subdued guitar parts running throughout. Paul’s vocals sound very clear on this song, he is in fine voice, sounding a little bit like his old touring pal Bob Catley of Magnum at times (and that is no bad thing, in my opinion).

Freeway Army introduces us to a different type of hero, the lone drifter on the outside of society. He lives differently but not in a selfish manner and wishes no harm on anyone but wants to be free to live a simple unfettered life. A free spirit who roams the roads on his motorcycle, tearing up the miles with the wind in his hair and nothing to hold him down. Last Man Standing is another fine and moody track, it talks about being the last man standing and the isolation and struggles that he faces at that time and the past he struggles to come to terms with. It is a very sad poignant piece indeed, once again with sympathetic musicianship really echoing the isolation of the lyrics. Easy Rider return us to the lone biker and his fate as he is attacked and gunned down by redneck fools who mistake his solitude for emptiness and weakness and so attack him and destroy all that he stands for, freedom…    

Firing All Six is all about bravery in standing your own ground against the odds or being outnumbered. Rebel Inside is the penultimate track and is about going in a different direction, usually taking a harder path because you are choosing to stand apart from, and not following, the crowd. This is often safer and yet less rewarding than being a free spirit and following your own dreams and desires. This track features a graceful guitar break played with passion and taste, making this a exceptionally fine song indeed. Paul Ford’s acoustic guitar and heartfelt vocals are very welcome too.

The final song CBF10 is where the redneck is executed for the slaying of the rebel. He confesses and blames the voices in his head and says how sorry he is for his actions and how he thinks they had it coming, or that’s what the voices said! The song ends with the words “It came easy” as his life ends with lethal injection.

This is a very good album and is a real tribute to the vision that Paul and Rob had and have realised. It has some very strong moments and I feel that it would work very well in a live situation where the songs could be extended to maximise their potential. But, for now, this is a mighty fine album and one that I will return to again and again.

Released 26th October 2020

Order the CD from Progrock.co.uk here:

https://www.progrock.co.uk/multi-story-cbf10-digipak-c2x32609100

Review – The Flower Kings – Islands – By John Wenlock-Smith

I have a very strange relationship with The Flower Kings, even though I have all their albums, a few live CDs, and a compilation (along with a few of Roine Stolt’s solo releases and the Anderson Stolt epic of a few years ago). Despite that body of recorded works somehow I’ve never really connected with them in the way I have with other bands. I have never really got them as a band, despite many attempts to do so on my part, I appreciate the music they make and odd tracks do resonate but, overall, it passes me by for some strange reason.

This new album, ‘Islands’, is an interesting one in that it has been put together in this strange year of lockdowns that the world struggles to come to terms with, aiming to beat and conquer and defeat this dreadful virus that has caused so much havoc, both to individuals yet also on the world’s economies. The band have used this odd time to craft a double album of predominantly shorter songs, 21 over 2 CDs with a common theme of isolation and separation. 

They had intended to follow up last years ‘Waiting For Miracles’ album in 2021 but world events made that difficult as all touring activities were curtailed so that left them free to crack on creating new music together, even if remotely. The group line-up remains predominantly the same but with Rob Townsend from Steve Hackett’s band appearing on two tracks adding sax and woodwind to the music. So, how does this one fare?

Well it has taken many listens over several weeks to get some understanding of it all, in all honesty I still have not been able to make up my mind about it all.

The album starts in typical prog style, Racing With Blinders On opening with swirls of keyboards before the ever energetic bass of Jonas Reingold kicks in, propelling the music alongside washes of synths and some very fluid guitar lines from Roine Stolt that run throughout the whole track. With many symphonic textures and soundscapes, it paints a very impressive opening track.

Second track From The Ground has a funky rhythm with a clarinet sounding keyboard and an ethereal vocal from Roine, the song is brief and very positive and uplifting with more great guitar lines flowing through the music. The musicianship on this album is off the scale, everyone is playing at the top of their game on these concise yet impressive pieces. There are no long drawn out pieces on this album and somehow this makes the music easier, almost more accessible somehow and that is a good thing.

This is a really good strong release made under difficult situations and yet it really works well as further shown by the impressive third piece, Black Swan, that has a very Brian May like guitar tone with some very tasty guitar fills from Roine.Possibly my favourite track so far, it is a really great song and, with great support from the rest of the band, it really is a statement of intent. In fact, the more I listen, the more I hear, there is a lot going on in these tracks.

Morning News is a more subdued track with a real spring in its step, a rather jolly little song that, while brief, does not overstay its welcome. It is an interesting song lyrically and the chorus is a strong one that suits the song well. Broken is another stunner with a tremendous drive to it and fabulous music and energy to match. There’s a great guitar solo from Roine and some great keyboard textures from Zach Kamins, who really flies on this song, simply glorious.

Then we are into a series of significantly shorter tracks; Goodbye Outrage, Journeyman (instrumental)and Tangerine before a real epic in the nine minutes plus of Solaris which opens with gentle keyboards setting an almost triumphant tone and Roine’s epic guitar coming into play briefly before a gentler percussive keyboard sets a base for Roine to ascend, which he does again briefly. The sound is a little denser on this song but ultimately it is another example of the undeniable talents that this band unquestionably possess, offering to the listener a fine example of modern day progressive rock. This is the best song so far and certainly shows that this album is one that you should look out for and listen to as it is a fine distillation of all the Flower Kings represent. Great song writing, superlative playing and tones, all combined to make an outstanding musical statement that is beguiling, accessible and very impressive indeed.

Heart Of the Valley follows, another gentler piece with great vocals and music working together to create something of worth and value. Man In A Two Piece Suit sounds like one of those instrumentals that Carlos Santana used to do so well, mixing both melody and taste in equal measures. This is a real tour de force of guitar tones and subtlety, all presented together to make a sublime, beautifully crafted piece of music and is a great ending to the first cd.

Disc two opens with the beauty of All I Need Is Love, its universal sentiments must appeal to many listeners who have found themselves adrift and at odds with the madness of this virus affected world. This song acts as a sort of centre of our thoughts and feeling and the realisation that all we actually do need is love in these strange discordant days in which we find ourselves. This calming track is a tonic for us all to aspire to and this is a most worthy song that reaches out to everyone. A New Species is a lengthy instrumental with highly charged moods and textures and some fine ensemble and solo passages from all, especially keyboard player Zach Kamins. His work is simply fabulous on this track as is the walking bass line of Jonas Reingold, offset against the fine guitar of Roine Stolt. Another great track, Northern Lights (not the Renaissance track!) follows with a good opening section showcasing the wordless vocals of Hasse Froberg before becoming vocalised another long song but it was a bitinconsequential song to these ears and sadly did not do anything for me really.

Hidden Angles is a brief instrumental interlude before the second song with Rob Townsend is revealed. Serpentine features Rob’s saxall over the track along with some highly effective bass lines that really add to the dynamics of this excellent little number that ends on some fine ad-libbed sax lines. Looking For Answers is a fine ensemble piece with some sterling guitar lines from Roine leading the piece. Once again I can hear Santana type guitar tones that punctuate the song, adding real emphasis and dynamics to an extraordinarily strong musical piece.

Telescope is an interesting song, very atmospheric with haunting tones used to great effect, along with more juicy guitar lines that set the music tone well. This song has a really fine fluid guitar break too, in fact, I must comment on the excellence of the guitar playing throughout this album as it really is very strong and really adds to the whole experience the album offers.

I would say for me this is one of the most accessible Flower Kings albums that it has been my experience to enjoy and this is one of the first that I have really ‘got’, as it were. There is a lot of music on the two discs but this is countered by it conciseness and its lack of sprawling tunes. For me at least this is one of their better albums and this new approach certainly seems to work as the results are remarkable. Satisfying and ultimately very enjoyable indeed, I really have no hesitation in Recommending this album to all.

Released 30th October 2020

Order from Burning Shed here:

https://burningshed.com/the-flower-kings_islands_2cd

Review – Rikard Sjöblom’s Gungfly – Alone Together – by John Wenlock-Smith

Rikard Sjöblom is certainly an interesting and excellent musician, as his career thus far clearly demonstrates, coming to prominence first with Beardfish whose albums ‘Sleeping In Traffic Pt1’ (and Pt2) made big waves in progressive rock circles. The mix of often hard hitting jazz fusion and rock brought a smile to many faces but that all came to a natural finish.

Rikard then concentrated on his other project Gungfly who have a similarly eclectic approach to prog. This the eighth Gungfly album all told and, on this release, he works within a trio format playing both keyboards and guitar (both brilliantly I might add).

The opening song Traveler is simply magnificent with brilliant instrumentation along with several fine and fiery guitar solos and some strong keyboard textures. The track is fairly long but never outstays its welcome, going through several changes during its duration. Rikard reminds me of someone, I can’t put my finger on who exactly, but what a statement of intent it is as an opening song, highly impressive and a good portent for things to come.

Clean as a Whistle, the third track, is also a fine song with a strong acoustic guitar to open before a powerful bass line begins playing in harmony with Rikard’s acoustic skills. The vocals actually remind me of modern day Wishbone Ash in places, no bad thing in my view. This is a gentler song in the main with a delicate piano before synths start at the 3 minute mark, the pace then picks up a bit with some great electric guitar playing in the background before a gentle piano returns us to the acoustic guitar and bass section again, simply sublime and gorgeous.

Title track Alone Together supplies a great guitar line that just keeps on going, such a fluid guitar line really warrants your attention! A flourish of organ then comes in, heralding a more discordant harder edged guitar that plays in sync before Rikard’s vocals join the throng. This song goes all over the place but is certainly of interest (although I haven’t got a clue what he is on about and I don’t have the words to decipher the meaning behind the song). It is great music though, constantly changing throughout its running time with all sorts of things going on and with a return to that fabulous guitar line towards the end. It is a Magnificent piece of writing and music that really shows the talent and imagination that Rikard possesses in spades.

Penultimate track, From Afar, is a folksy, jaunty little number that talks about being viewed by persons unknown from afar. It may be short but it is certainly a great song.

The final track, On the Shoulder of Giants, begins with a clanging and strident riff with some funky sounding chords underneath before opening into a more expansive soundscape where the bass tracks the guitar riff superbly and Rikard unleashes a fiery brief break at the start of the main song. This is a very fine opening section detailing Rikard’s love of Frank Zappa’s music and how hearing it made him feel as a youth and his subsequent battle to work outside of the normal expectations, which is something that he has strived for and succeeded in doing. His love of classic progressive rock is evident and he is not ashamed or afraid to pay homage to his heroes. The piano part of this song is stately and sets a good tone for the middle part of the track which is a bit more subdued and is about how he determined to be free to follow his own route in music.

The next section picks up the pace with the piano taking a more urgent tempo and tone before a synth part sounding a bit discordant is played, sounding strange and unsettling but it leaves the way clear for some fluid guitar that resembles the playing of a certain Steve Howe in a very Yes sounding segment. Again, this is a great section of the piece, Rikard and the others are not averse to mixing their styles to really make the tracks stand out. This is terrific stuff really pushing boundaries as he unleashes another epic solo towards the end of the song with a subtle but delightful wah wah tone to it, double tracked to good effect, as he draws the song to a fine climax.

I’m not that au fait with Gungfly’s recorded history but ,certainly after enjoying this one, I will definitely be looking out for other albums of theirs to listen to and also be watching to see what they do next as this power trio really cook the music nicely with good syncopation, really letting their influences come to the fore. An album to revisit often and to embrace and enjoy again and again.

Released 4th September 2020

Order the album from Burning Shed here:

https://burningshed.com/rikard-sjobloms-gungfly_alone-together_cd

Review – Monkey Trial – Viking – by John Wenlock-Smith

It is not very often that your village holds a free prog rock show and, even if they do, the quality of the acts could at best be questionable.

So it was a real shock when I went to such an event at a local pub in Haslington near Crewe. I’d seen The Tangent in a local pub in the peak district some years before but Monkey Trial were unknown to me. They are actually a local band who, prior to this blasted virus, often played  locally in Stoke on Trent and have  also performed at HRH Prog in London and various other small space rock events like The Wingy Thing in Derbyshire.

Well, I grabbed a drink (diet coke I was driving) and took a seat for this two part gig. Initially it was a trio with guitar, drums and keyboards, although the drums were not a kit but more organic congas and the like. The music was all new to me but certainly held my attention. The show was sparsely attended and was outdoors so, as the night wore on and it got colder, soon there was merely a handful of people who were watching as the band carried on. I was certainly impressed by their efforts and a few weeks ago I was contacted by the keyboard player, Clive Mallart, asking if I would like to have a listen to their new album, recorded in lockdown, and possibly review it?

I am always interested in helping new bands find a platform for their music to be heard, so here are my thoughts on their new album ‘Viking’.

The album is available via Bandcamp and is a really good listen.It is mostly instrumental, although a few tracks have a muted voice over from Nick Raybould that could be improved by it sitting higher in the mix, as what Nick is saying is actually very interesting, adding to the overall ambience of the music, especially on the track one in vermilion.

The sound reminds me of Stratosfear by  Tangerine Dream with electronics being a platform for extended guitar solos. The guitarist Shaun Bailey is a well-rounded and tasteful player with a good tone, his guitar work supplementing the rest of the band and overall they make a cohesive and interesting sound. The pulse of the keyboards is full and expansive, Monkey Trial paint uncluttered aural landscapes always of interest.

I think one in vermilion is my favorite track as it is one where everything comes together well to create a strong impression. There is theremin on the opening track, a sense of…, but it seems to be a bit buried in the mix and plays alongside the guitar melody at the start and the end of the track. Track 5, things with wings, also impresses, with a strong piano melody that runs throughout and a driving rhythm that pulls the music along Also worthy of note is the strong bass work by Shaun Bailey, who consistently adds a good bottom end to anchor the music together. The analogue and organic percussion of Nick Raybould also adds colour and impetus to proceedings during gloesnowb.

The music the band creates is all about wide-screen and epic soundscapes with interesting tones alongside great melodies. It is all topped off with some searing guitar work that really adds to the effect, making this a band to enjoy and appreciate. Production is clear and crisp, but the album is even better on headphones at a decent volume as then all the subtleties can be heard and appreciated.

The final track, after viking, is a moody finale that recalls the Northumbrian Coast so evocatively displayed nn the album’s fabulous cover artwork. This is an album that rewards the diligent listener and I have no hesitation in recommending this fine little self-released lockdown produced gem.

Released 3rd August 2020

Order from bandcamp here:

https://monkeytrial.bandcamp.com/album/viking