Review – Ms Amy Birks – All That I Am & All That I Was by John Wenlock-Smith

Amy Birks, or Ms Amy Birks to give her her full name, is a young lady with a very bright future ahead of her.  Well that certainly seems to be the case here with this debut solo release ‘All That I Am & All That I Was’.

Amy was previously a member of the all-female trio the Beatrix Players whose mix of genres embraced folk, singer songwriter acoustica, prog and quasi classical baroque chamber pop.  Quite a heady and adventurous mix and an interesting one too.  I saw these play to a capacity audience as a support act for Big Big Train in Basingstoke where the crowd listened very intently to their delicate yet powerful pieces. Well that was three years ago, but this album is very much of the now, and as the Beatrix Players are no more, that chapter is now closed, with this album being the beginning of a whole new and exciting chapter for Amy.

This new album has been a couple of years in the making and encompasses several themes and various historical songs also feature.  These come from Amy’s rich love of history along with literature as shown in the opening number Jamaica Inn, based on and inspired by the Daphne De Maurier novel of the same name.  This song has a flow to it that is reminiscent of Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush but without the histrionic vocals that that song featured. Find the epic video here;

What I especially like about this is that it’s a very catchy song with a fine chorus and some strong, yet understated playing from all, with lovely guitar from Oliver Day and a memorable melody that runs throughout the song.

Unlike the Heart follows and this is another very delicate song with a strong supportive bass line from Nick Wollage and some fine cello from Caroline Lavelle.  In fact, the more you listen to this album the more you can hear within it the sparseness of the sound. This is especially true on the next song More, a very stark and raw song that talks of Amy’s divorce and the feelings around that difficult time.  Here the instrumentation is very powerful indeed, all adding to the air of despair that the lyrics evoke. Ultimately this is a song about one woman’s coming to terms with and surviving the trauma of divorce. This is another very powerful song.

Not Every Night is a statement of continuance about how things were, but not how they are now, or will ever be again. A gentle song that has depths of feeling to it.

With All That I Am is gain about divorce, in which Amy speaks of the unhappiness surrounding the situation and questions are asked about the third party involved in the relationship. That Amy can sing of these matters so openly is admirable, she has moved on from the hurt into pastures new. Again, there is hope however this piece is quite raw emotionally as Amy exorcises her own demons.

The next song Say Something is totally different, in that it deals with a time of abuse that Amy suffered at school and thereafter whilst modelling. A situation in which she was the recipient of unwarranted attention and improper touch. She sings of these times very eloquently, openly questioning why the individual behaved in that way. The music in this song is very emotional and almost sounds wistful, despite the horrendous acts that it portrays. It is a very brave song but one that needs to be heard and spoken about. Personally, I find it a highlight of the album.

We then move onto a brace of songs based on historical figures, initially Catherine Of Aragon (Henry VIII’s first wife.  He divorced her when she was unable to provide him with an heir and from whom he transferred his affections to Anne Boleyn.  

This song (Catherine) is a triumph as it deals with the life of Catherine, a woman of strength who still loved Henry after his affections shifted and she was cast aside.  This piece has a stately majesty and power to it, almost regal sounding and certainly delivered with respect and admiration even.

The Fault Of The Lady Anne is next. This is another moving piece, respectful and essentially sad dealing as it does with Queen Anne’s fall from grace. Her isolation from Henry and decent into an ill judged affair that resulted in her being taken to the Tower Of London and ultimately to her sad death at the executioners axe. This moving song is indeed very sad lyrically but is very well conceived, and if you’ll forgive the pun, well executed and delivered.

The Road to Gordes is about Amy’s experiences as a single woman travelling in Colombia (Spain) and how she would be noticed, but then often left unserved in restaurants and bars. This is an interesting song musically with some delicate guitar from Oliver Day, a lovely piano line from Amy and some fine interplay between the violin and the cello, as Amy finds her peace in the space of the situation and both accepts and enjoys the sensations it brings.

I Wish is a song that features the nimble fingers of Steve Hackett playing Spanish guitar to lyrics based on words from the Christina Georgina Rossetti’s poem I Wish I Were A Little Bird.  This one is a really wonderful track, with Steve really giving the song some power and making its tale of unrequited love come alive. It is another excellent song, there is a suitably elegant video that accompanies it that can be viewed here.

The final track is called Keeps You Guessing and features piano from Romain Thorel of Lazuli whose jazzy improvisations really give the song a swing and end this exceptional album on a very positive note.

This album will appeal to all who enjoy music by the likes of Tori Amos, Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell and show that Amy is a lady of real talent and imagination who can cross genres at will and for whom the future looks very bright indeed. I will say that this album needs time to sink into your mind and to appreciate the very subtle instrumentation that is at play here, but it is a real delight to hear and appreciate.

Released 3/4/2020

Order the album from The Merch Desk here:

https://themerchdesk.com/index.php?route=product/category&path=88_296

Review – John Holden – Rise and Fall – by John Wenlock-Smith

John Holden’s ‘Rise and Fall’ has been in my possession for a while now and I was very gratified to be given access to this remarkable album some three months prior to its official release. I was also very pleased that I had been thanked  in the album credits, that having been an ambition of mine for quite some time.

‘Rise and Fall’ is the second album from John Holden and features substantial input and assistance from several core musicians including Joe Payne, Oliver Day and Oliver Wakeman, Sally Minnear, Jean Pageau and Michel St Pere from Mystery, not forgetting the always remarkably impressive Peter Jones. If, like me, you enjoyed John’s debut release ‘Capture Light’ (still available from John via Bandcamp) then I’m sure you will love this one too.

The album consists of just seven pieces, they are, however, lengthy and well written. It is also expertly recorded and produced by John himself while the whole album was mastered by Robin Armstrong of Cosmograf fame.

The guest list of collaborators is impressive with each bringing their own skills to bear. Especially worthy of note are the keyboard skills and musical arrangements of Vikram Shankar, a musician who is not very widely known yet. The album is a great place to discover him for yourself, he certainly looks to be a musician with a bright future awaiting him.

As a side note, the packaging on this release is again impeccable, as are the extensive sleeve notes in the booklet which give a deeper insight into each of these tracks.

So, without further ado, let’s dive right on in then shall we…

The opening track, Leap of Faith, features Peter Jones on vocals, recorder and whistles, in fact Peter bookends the album with a further performance on the last track Ancestors and Satellites with both tracks sharing a recurrent musical passage, albeit it in a different key.  

Leap of Faith concerns itself with the antics of Eilmer, A Benedictine monk who lived at Malmesbury Abbey in the 11th century and one who was fascinated by the flight of the birds and bats that lived around the priory He had it in his mind to fly like they did so attempted (like Daedalus, the Father of Icarus of Greek mythology fame) to fly using wings he had made attached to his back and arms. You can read the story in the song lyrics but I can say that gravity prevailed! This piece is very moving and very atmospheric with Peter Jones really bringing the tale to life in his own inimitable way.

This is a fantastic opener that sets you up for all that follows, which, in this instance, is the superb Rise and Fall voiced by Jean Pageau of Mystery. This talented vocalist gives a very emotionally raw vocal delivery that makes you feel his anguish as he sings of the relationship that one has with both their addictions and the person they care about, who also suffers the brunt of this addiction. This is a very honest song and another classy piece of work.

The next track, The Golden Thread, I consider a truly beautiful song, one that has extra depths to it as it is a requiem written by John’s wife Elizabeth who is a cancer survivor. She wrote this to express her deep love for John and also so that, if she were not around, the song and her memory would live on as a musical legacy of her life and struggle. This piece of music is very gentle with an almost classical tone to it and is sung by the remarkable talents of John Payne and Lauren Nolan as a duet, not being written as such initially but Lauren’s voice worked so well with Joe’s that adaptations were made to make it work in this way. The sentiments that this song espouses and expresses are both very warm, loving and deeply profound indeed with Oliver Wakeman and Vikram Shankar playing on the song to magnificent effect.

The music reaches a crescendo before fading away to the harder edged Dark Arts on which Billy Sherwood provides a bass part in the style of the late great Chris Squire, playing the sort of bass runs the great man would have done whilst alive. The track also features a spoken excerpt of Francis Urquhart of House of Cards fame, setting the tone for a politically charged song about the abuse of power by those in charge. Once again Joe Payne vocalises with real passion and power to deliver a truly remarkable track along with more fine keyboards from Oliver Wakeman. I heard this song in an unmixed state six months ago and was suitably impressed then, and still am, by its magnificent, powerful delivery and content that is right on point.

The next track is Heretic which speaks of how ISIS destroyed lots of priceless artefacts in Palmyra in Iraq after killing the 82 year old custodian Khaled Al-Assad at the site and smashing 3000 year old plus pieces in a show of cultural terrorism. He was beheaded in front of his family and his body was then hung in the central square. Again, whilst a dark song, there is hope that the displaced peoples will one day return and, as John says, “Empires rise and fall, ideologies are replaced but still the healing power of love endures.” Sally Minnear’s vocals are excellent on this too as she sings in tandem with Joe Payne.

After the Storm is about a journey one woman takes and utilises the weather outside as a metaphor for storms in her life and the ultimate realisation that, eventually, the storms both outside and inside her will pass leaving a calmer and clearer path ahead. This is mostly an acoustic piece and that adds a good contrast for the album with some fine playing from Oliver Day.

The final song, Ancestors and Satellites, returns to the opening section of Leap of Faith as Eilmer saw Haley’s comet twice in his lifetime with John using this comet theme again to show how little we’ve learnt in the days gone past. This song has vocal contributions from Peter Jones, Joe Payne, Sally Minnear and Lauren Nolan but mainly its Peter who sings this so delicately and with real warmth and all set to suitably atmospheric keyboards from John, and Vikram Shankar.

The song talks about cave paintings over 40,000 years ago and also of the Apollo mission that landed on the moon in July 1969 and of the footprints they left there for ever. There follows an ensemble of synthesizers playing a multi tracked passage to great effect and the massed vocals singing the chorus once again before the comet melody returns once again to bring the song towards its impressive finale. Another thing of note is the fantastic and powerful drum work from Nick D’Virgilio. On this track and throughout most of the album Nick adds his magic and his drive to power these pieces along in a most delightful and satisfying manner.

The vocals are impassioned and strong and Michael St Pere’s epic guitar line is heard, along with a bank of synths, sounding very epic and majestic to bring this fantastic album to a fine conclusion.

To think that this is only the work of John, Elizabeth and a few select friends funded from the sales of his earlier album and without and label support is remarkable. It shows John Holden to be a man with both vision and a purpose. I for one applaud him hugely for his fine efforts on this most excellent album. This is going to be one of the albums of the year for those who take notice.

Released 22nd February 2020

Order from John Holden here:

Review – John Holden – Capture Light – by Progradar

Life never stands still, the world rotates on its axis at around 1000mph (it’s less as you get North but you get my drift!) and day becomes night. The years pass quicker, or so it seems, and the sheer volume of music that is released gets bigger and bigger all the time.

Because of this it is impossible for me to hear every new release that would perhaps pique my musical curiosity and it pains me to think that I will have missed some gems as the clock keeps ticking. However, I can console myself with the wonderful releases that I do get to hear and enjoy.

I’ve been talking to John Holden about his great musical collaboration ‘Capture Light’ for well over a year now and I was honoured to be one of the first to receive the completed article a couple of months ago. I have listened to it multiple times and now feel ready to write my review…

Over two years in the making, an immersive and evolving album opens with the Joe Payne sung track Tears From The Sun. A symphonic and operatic tour-de-force featuring Oliver Wakeman’s keyboards, it has a feel of where The Enid could be now if they hadn’t imploded. After a quelled opening the bombast begins with multi-layered instrumentation before Joe’s distinctive vocal gives the track life and shape. As opening tracks go, this really does take some beating with John’s great music being complimented by his and Elizabeth Buckley’s fine lyrical accomplishment. A complex musical mosaic that keeps your rapt attention all the way through, Joe is on fine form and gives the song a flamboyant drama.

Crimson Sky takes a more symphonic rock oriented route with Julie Gater’s vocal giving it a Celtic rock infused tone. Hard edged and heavier, there’s a feel of early Karnataka to my ears. The powerful music is complimented perfectly by Julie’s dulcet tones, especially on the catchy chorus. Listen out for the superb guitar solo from Billy Sherwood (yes, THE Billy Sherwood) which adds a real sheen of class to what is already a pretty impressive song. I’m already beginning to love the diversity that John has brought to this album and we’re only two tracks in!

John proves he can tell a great story with the excellent title track, full of drama and intrigue, you’ll have to buy the CD to get the whole story but the musical journey is an engrossing and compelling one that will hold your attention throughout and I had to read the credits twice to realise it was Joe Payne who was performing the fantastic vocals again, this guy is pure talent. Oliver Wakeman’s elegant piano playing once again graces the song and adds real pathos to what is already a dramatic and emotional piece of music and let’s not forget Oliver Day’s stylish guitar, lute and mandolin. Let’s be fair, music has forever been about telling stories and John Holden is already proving to be very adept at it. Capture Light will be one of the most enjoyable and absorbing history lessons you’ll ever have…

A choral mantra that could fit a Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice musical, Ancient of Days is an uplifting track that just seems to bring a ray of sunshine along with it with it’s tribal feeling music and the great vocals of Jean Pageau, ably backed by Lee-Anne Beecher and Marc Atkinson. I could quite imagine this song being part of something like Lion King or Joseph with its great theatrical feel. A real shout out must go to Emily Dolan Davies whose skill on the drum kit is utterly evident here.

A song all about Jesse Owens and THAT race in Berlin, One Race is possibly the most progressive track on the album while not being that progressive (if that makes sense?). Joe Payne delivers another consummate vocal performance and the harmonised parts with Max Read give a real Celtic overtone, in fact the whole track reminds me of Clannad or Enya in places. It’s another well crafted song with a great storyline that works brilliantly along with the rest of the tracks on the album and the guitar playing just gives added impetus to the sensation of running along with the narrative.

Now onto the one track that I didn’t click with straightaway, Dreamcatching seemed a bit trite and twee to me on first listen, not quite gelling with the other songs on the album. Trying to explain the legend behind dreamcatchers using spoken word, song and music, this piece of music will either captivate or alienate in my opinion. Repeated listens have led me to appreciate it a lot more, while not actually loving it like I do the majority of the other songs. What does work very well though is the lovely flute and sax work from the ubiquitous Peter Jones who does a good job of adding whimsy and warmth as well as backing vocals along with Julie Gater.

London Grammar, that’s what I thought when I heard the first ultra-cool strains from No Man’s Land with it’s jazzy backdrop to Julie Gater’s silky smooth vocals. A song for lazy days in hazy summers, its chilled and easygoing vibe seems to seep into your very being. The feel good atmosphere seems to infuse every instrument, Gary O’Toole’s polished drum playing and Oliver Wakeman’s relaxed piano and keyboards are the height of sophistication.

A dreamy and contemplative song, Seaglass Hearts is full of longing and the vocals give pause with their elegant reminiscing. A nice interplay between the voices of Peter Jones and Julie Gater give a modern folk feel to the track, one full of wonder and playfulness along with Peter’s soulful sax playing. A sentimental ending to the album, enforced by the sparse piano that fades us out to a close.

A captivating journey through the mystical and historical, ‘Capture Light’ is an accessible, melodic tour-de-force that reveals more of its hidden depths with each listen. John Holden has collected an impressive group of musicians and given us a release that could well be a highlight of the year already.

Released 23rd March 2018

Pre-order ‘Capture Light’ on digital from bandcamp here

Pre-orders for the CD will be available from John Holden’s website soon at this link