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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One to enjoy and also return to again and again.

Released 30th September, 2022.

Order direct from John’s website here:

Kintsugi CD – John Holden (johnholdenmusic.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Released 2nd September, 2022

Order from the artist here:

Steve Hackett | Steve Hackett (hackettsongs.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Released June 1st, 2022

Order from Bandcamp here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Released 19th August, 2022.

Order from the band here:

SiX BY SiX – China (lnk.to)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Released 8th May, 2022.

Order from Cherry Red Records here:

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

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

Highly recommended set thoroughly comprehensive and highly enjoyable too,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Released July 29th, 2022.

Order from Burning Shed here:

The Myth of the Mostrophus (burningshed.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Released 29th July, 2022.

Order from Cherry Red Records:

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

John Wenlock-Smith Interviews Steve Hackett

Steve Hackett is certainly a very busy man of late, on the day we talk, he has just returned from time in Borneo and a few club dates in Japan, amidst a wider Australian and New Zealand tour. Even so, he continues to be his usual self-effacing and courteous host,  he is such a gracious interviewee and always has interesting things to say and learn from.

This interview is in advance of his upcoming season of shows entitled ‘Foxtrot At Fifty’, which will  see him delivering a complete set consisting of that entire album. The tour will see Steve and his band playing the album along with various other classic Genesis material and some of his own solo material from the ‘Surrender of Silence’ album from last year. It is looking to be a busy few months again for Steve.

John Wenlock-Smith: Good Morning Steve, so how are you sir?

Steve HackettI am all right, fine, it has been a busy time, how about yourself?

JWS: We have had Covid actually.

SH: Ooh, that is nasty!

JWS: With Sue having asthma, she had it worse than me but we are both on the back end of it now so, hopefully, will be back to normal soon.

SH: Well, next week we go to Germany and Italy as we are doing some outdoor shows, which should be good, I like festival shows, they are genuine fun.

JWS: Then, when you come back, you have ‘Foxtrot at 50’ starting?

SH: Yes, that is right, in the autumn. I am looking forward to it, it is an album that is worthy of a revisit, some of it I have not played in 50 years!

JWS: You have also got the ‘Seconds Out Live’ album coming out in September?

SH: Yes, it is the best live album I have ever done. It sounds good, much better than the original album, which was not a good production sadly, whereas this one really does sound good. The drum sounds are better plus we took the key down for Squonk.

I think Genesis did that as well because a lot of those songs were written by non-singers and they forget that voices change as people get older and they can’t reach the high notes as easily as they used to, I know Phil cannot do it now. This latest version is exceptionally fine indeed, I guess time will tell though?

JWS: Yes indeed, I was listening to a friend of yours last week, Nick Fletcher?

SH: Yes, he is great, an extraordinarily accomplished and amazing player, the best jazz rock player in Britain today.

JWS: I was also going back and listening to some early Fleetwood Mac with Peter Green.

SH: Well I saw Peter Green many times over the years, he was always a fabulous player.

JWS: I also heard an album by Ryo Okumoto that you play on as well, a track called Maximum Velocity.

SH: Yes, a friend of mine is also on that album, Michael Whiteman, who sings and plays bass on the album. He is part of a band called I Am The Manic Whale, he is particularly good too, it is interesting that he is also on the album.

I have not heard the finished album though, so I do not know if I even made the cut or if I am one of several guitarists on there but enjoy it anyway.

JWS: There are some great keyboard players out there now like Ryo and, of course, your own Roger King, about time he did a solo album.

SH: I keep telling him he should but he thinks anything he did would not sell so he is reluctant to try.

JWS: Well, maybe he ought to cover songs he likes himself or something?

SH: I will tell him, but he is happy just playing on my stuff, although he will tell me if it is not any good, he can be vocal about it too. But they are all talented players and play like demons at times.

JWS: So what is next for you?

SH: We have been so wrapped up in touring that I have not been able to record much. I have got three songs ready but not had a chance to record them so, hopefully, that will happen before long and then we will be touring ‘Foxtrot’ around the world too, so busy days ahead.    

JWS: Right then Steve, I had best let you get on but thank you once again for your time. Stay safe and well and we will hopefully see you in Buxton in September.

SH: Thanks John, take care of yourself and keep well.

Review – Nick Fletcher – The Cloud of Unknowing – by John Wenlock-Smith

Nick Fletcher is a man of many talents for not only is he the guitarist in the excellent John Hackett band, he also has his own acoustic guitar recitals happening in the North of England. Last year he released his excellent solo album ‘Cycles Of Behaviour’, which was very highly regarded. In addition, Steve Hackett, no less, has stated that he considers Nick to be the finest Jazz Rock guitarist in the country. In the intervening months Nick has completed and released his new album ‘The Cloud Of Unknowing’, let us have a look and see shall we?

The album consists of nine tracks which are all thematically linked by the album’s attempts to illuminate a journey towards enlightenment, understanding and the acceptance of how things are and our place within that cycle. It is mainly instrumental, although it has vocals on the fifth and ninth songs and is best heard as a single piece of music to get the best out of it and to allow the journey to unfold as you listen.

Nick says the album came out of lockdowns and during the time of the pandemic in which he became open to search for deeper meaning and value to life. He did this by looking at mythology and to Christian mysticism from the likes of St John Of The Cross, whose words that illuminate the paradox we face are shown on the inner CD sleeve. Right, enough background, let’s hear the music…

The first piece, Out Of The Maelstrom, is a brutal hard-hitting track that reminded me of Billy Cobham’s ‘Spectrum’ and the track Quadrant 4 as it has a similar vitality and energy to it. It is full of dynamism and a mad organ from Dave Bainbridge, off which Nick plays flurries of notes and runs and it’s all highly impressive. Even better though is the more reflective The Eyes Of Persephone, which features a great flowing piano solo from Dave and over which Nick soars, playing some fluid guitar lines that would not be out of place on a Camel album. However, it still has a fire burning underneath making it a formidable and exceptional track

We then move into a set of five tracks that together form a suite entitled ‘Scenes From The Subconscious Mind’.

The suite opens with We Need to Leave This Place…Right Now!, twenty seconds of modern life noises, traffic and sirens and the like that display the unrest of life, this then moves into the more, almost metallic, crunch of Pandemonium which is rather brutal really, although it allows a great platform for Nick to solo from, adding some very sweet slide guitar tones in the latter part. This is all magnificently underpinned by the wonderful and highly versatile fretless bass of Tim Harries whose parts really add much to the sound, another magnificent track.

Then we have The Cloud of Unknowing Part 1 Part 2 Part 3, the first vocal track from Stuart Barbour, who is a contemporary Christian musician who Caroline Bonnet suggested to Nick. His voice is very English sounding, sounding a little like John Wetton in his U.K. days. This is an album that is better with some volume as the sound unfolds as you listen, the more you play it the more you hear, the track ends in gentler but still highly atmospheric soundscapes.

We then have a gentle arpeggio led guitar piece called Awakening The Hydra, which in turn leads to Dance of the Hydra, a blistering five plus minutes of wild fusion playing and a monstrous riff that the likes of Metallica would love It is a brutal, kicking piece of music with lots of wild guitar riffs and manic drumming from Russ Wilson. Nick is all over this track, employing many of his artistic tools to profound effect, there is furious playing but he never loses sight of feeling, melody and touch and this closes out the suite perfectly.

Arcadia is a classical guitar piece that flows seamlessly into The Paradox Part 1 Part 2. This is a very questioning song that asks questions about how we live today. There is a great synthesiser solo from Dave Bainbridge at the halfway mark and a very spacey, yet fluid, guitar line from Nick carries the song forward, along with more subtle slide parts that really add to the atmosphere of the song. The song ends gently with classical guitar playing that draws everything to a close and completes our journey. Hopefully, during the journey, we should have gained enough insight to be able to continue our lives in the light of the wisdom that has been handed to us, to discover, absorb, and allow us to illuminate the paths that lie before us.

The Cloud Of Unknowing’ is an astonishing album that reveals more and more of itself as you become familiar and open to its themes. It is deeply spiritual and is one that we invariably need in these days of turmoil that the world is facing. Whatever you believe, this album is at least a call the ponder, muse and meditate even if only for yourself, why not try it? It is a highly highly recommended listening experiencefor the discerning music fan.

Released 6th June, 2022.

Order direct from the musician here:

Nick Fletcher – The Cloud of Unknowing CD | Nick Fletcher guitar (nickfletcherguitarmusic.com)

Review – Babe Ruth – Darker Than Blue, The Harvest Years 1972-1975 – by John Wenlock-Smith

Babe Ruth were a hot ticket in the early 1970s with their intelligent and sophisticated sound, the use of horns and the earthy yet powerful vocals of Janita “Jenny” Haan trading her lines against the impressive Alan Shacklock’s skilled guitar and arrangement. Their music was in part influenced by the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, which made for an early ethnicity to their sound.

Their debut album, ‘First Base’, featured a striking cover designed by Roger Dean that enabled it to stand out in the racks. What a statement of intent it was from opening bars of Wells Fargo, that sound just hits you like a tank but it is not all bombast, it is is an album full of intricacies, especially with the wonderful arrangements from the classically trained Alan Shacklock, this is a different type of progressive rock and one that certainly makes an impression.

There are a lot of keyboards within the sound, all backed by the solid beat of Dick Powell. This is best displayed on the lengthy instrumental King Kong which is a fabulous jazzy rock number that would not feel out of place on an early Santana album. It is actually a cover of the Frank Zappa song from his 1968 ‘Uncle Meat’ album. Black Dog is a different type of song being soft and gentle with a delicate vocal from Jenny. Originally by Jesse Winchester, this has a fabulous piano solo from Dave Punshon. The Mexican is next and is the longest song on the album thus far and opens with Spanish guitar and a steady straightforward beat which was done in one take. It is really impressive for its time, well before drum loops and such. The song is about the Alamo but is told from the Mexican perspective, it also includes part of Ennio Morricone’s Western themes, which are neatly worked into the track. There’s great syncopation throughout the entire track and some great bass lines. The final song is Joker which has a brutal riff to it and more impassioned vocals from Jenny Haan. It rounds the album out in style although there are two bonus tracks plus a single edit of Wells Fargo and the theme from A Few Dollars More.

This concluded a fine album and gets you set up for their second album ‘Amar Caballero’ which carries with on the strong vibe of ‘First Base’, although this time the cover (a gatefold) is by Hypgnosis and features a group of horses that were supposed to charge but refused to move. In addition the line up has changed too, with Ed Spevock on drums, Dave Hewitt on bass and Chris Holmes replacing Dave Pushon on keys.

The sound and style of the album is different from the debut in that there are a slew of songs from Jenny, delicate guitar from Alan and an effective use of orchestrations throughout the album. However, there is still plenty of rocking going on, especially on the epic three parts of Amar Caballero with its Latin sounds. There are also elements of funk on the drums along with a suitably fiery guitar and horns wailing away. Much of this material was originally penned  with other artists in mind but, when that failed to work out, this album arose from those efforts, so it’s a bit of a mixed bag but the 3-part Amar Caballero is definitely worth a listen.

The final album ‘Babe Ruth’ was their last for Harvest, although they spent a while on the Capitol label where they released the ‘Stealing Home’ and ‘Kid’s Stuff’ albums, albeit with a vastly different line up as all the original members had quit by this stage.

The album opens with the hard rocking track Dancer with great guitar by Alan Shacklock, this is followed by another rocker, Somebody’s Nobody, with more great guitar and synth sounds, again Jenny sings very powerfully, as she does throughout the whole album. An interesting version of A Fistful Of Dollars comes next, where Alan gets to play his own tribute to those spaghetti westerns of which he is so fond.

We then get a cover of a Curtis Mayfield song, We People Darker Than Blue, an unusual choice but it gets the proper Babe Ruth treatment with lots of energy and great synths. As a social protest song, it is overseen sympathetically and treated with respect, with a fine vocal from Jenny. Jack O’Lantern has very Rock and Roll feel with lots of honky tonk piano runs. The song is about a voyeur and, while it may not be welcome today, for its time, it was musically at least, a good track.

Another cover follows, this time of Booker T Jones‘ and William BellsPrivate Number, which is a great song with lots of good synth work in amongst some fine guitar playing. Turquoise is driven by Spanish guitar runs and fills, a very flamenco style track with excellent guitar lines from Alan. The last track on the album is The Duchess Of Orleans and, again, this has a great vocal from Jenny Haan, it is also the second longest track on the album after Dancer. The song is about a relationship across the classes, opening with organ and Alan’s Cockney accent before Jenny takes the vocal over. It’s an interesting track and closes the album out well in what has been an excellent overview of the band and, indeed, their Harvest years, in which we find much skill and talent that was sadly unappreciated at the time. Upon re-examination some 50 years on we can see just how good this band really were and how they deserved so much more than they achieved.

This is a really good box set as usual from Esoteric and includes an informative booklet from the great Steve Pilkington, no less, I highly recommend it!

Order from Cherry Red Records here:

Babe Ruth: Darker Than Blue – The Harvest Years 1972-1975, 3CD Box Set – Cherry Red Records