Monday, 11 June 2018

Download 2018 - a 'Vicar's' experience

"Are you really a vicar?" is not a question I get asked a lot, I must confess, but it cropped up on more than one occasion over the last weekend. When I moved to Castle Donington last autumn, one of the things I was asked to do by the church was to explore the possibility of setting up some kind of chaplaincy presence at the Download Festival, the largest Heavy Metal gathering in the UK, which has made its home at Donington Park, and as a first step towards that I attended the festival for the first time last weekend.

I'm not a complete stranger to festivals such as this: I attend Greenbelt regularly, but Download is something a little different to that. At its peak on the Saturday evening there were estimated to be abut 100,000 people on site, plus staff etc: this is a HUGE event. Even my last festival - Leeds in 2006 - was nothing compared to this, and my previous experiences in my youth - Glastonbury 1981, Reading 1980 & Knebworth 1979 - had not prepared me for the scale of Download. This field becomes a small town for the weekend, focussed on one thing: heavy metal music.

Anyone who's read this blog will know that my particular preference is for more progressive sounds, and on the whole these were few and far between. I did manage to find some bands who were a little different from the bass heavy, loud, drum-laden, shouty (and usually sweary) fare that was generally offered - much to the average punter's delight it seemed. von Hertzen Brothers, Plini and Koyo were all a little more progressive, though the latter two were playing in a small tent and were a little too loud for me, though they left me wanting to check out their material at a later date and perhaps with a little more control of the volume. Of the main bands, Temperance Movement were as good as I remembered them from their appearance at Greenbelt a few years ago, and I was delighted to discover Greta Van Fleet, with roots in Led Zeppelin and the East Coast sound of the late 1960s.

Of the headliners, Avenged Sevenfold were solid, and I recognised a few tracks from my wife playing their stuff in the car, though they did have a slight pyrotechnical problem during their set when the stage caught fire! Guns 'n' Roses pulled the biggest crowd on Saturday night, and gave a 3½ hour set of their own material and some covers, but I was left a little nonplussed and flat, and left after about 2 hours (as did a few others). The musicianship was fine, but it seemed to me to be more of a performance than a show. Ozzy Osbourne, Sunday's final act, on the other hand, had the crowd from the off and stormed through his solo material and classics from Black Sabbath's catalogue: for me the highlight of the weekend.

Ozzy, of course, is hailed (marketed) as The Prince of Darkness: so should a Methodist Minister really be partaking in such matters? The festival was interesting in many respects, but one for me was the blatant at times use of pagan and satanic symbolism, and a downright antipathy, rather than the usual apathy, towards aspects of the Christian faith. At one point Marilyn Manson was advocating allegiance to Satan in one of his songs, and on more than one occasion I spotted a t-shirt with the legend "Jesus is a C***" on the back. That said, I came under no personal attack, and even had a number of interesting conversations with people in various stages of inebriation about why I was there, and what life and faith was all about, though I can't claim any miraculous conversions.

Although I didn't get to meet everyone on site, I think I was the only one there in clerical garb -  a decision I made consciously as I was there as a guest of the Festival on behalf of the church. But I'm sure I wasn't the only Christian there: part of the work of the Welfare team was being done by a group from an Anglican Fresh Expression in Chesterfield which goes by the name of "The Order of the Black Sheep", and it will be good to confer with them about any future work that the churches do on the site. Other believers off-site were no doubt praying for the work there, and some tried to get the message to festival goers by flying over the site with a banner pulled behind a small aircraft declaring 'Jesus loves every 1 of U' - which had scant if any response, other than someone asking me later whether I'd been flying the plane (well, I am the SkyPilot!). That kind of scatter-gun approach may make them feel better, but maybe it would be better to show the crowd just how much Jesus loves them by serving them rather than by bombing them?

I think my biggest mistake this year was going alone: there were times when I needed someone to be with and talk to and no-one was there other than complete strangers. But I think there are things that can be done at future festivals for the sake of God's Kingdom: there is a great need, and I am convinced that, were Jesus here today (which, through his Body, the Church he is, of course...) he is more likely to be at Download than he is to be in the Methodist Church (or any other). And maybe I need to explore more ways of bringing my two worlds of music and God together...

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Spock's Beard - Noise Floor

I came to Spock's Beard quite late in the piece. The first album of theirs that I heard was 'X', and I have to say that I was quite bowled over by it, and from then on I started to dip into their back catalogue, and through that discovered the talents of Neal Morse. With Neal at the helm, they were a different band, and I was saddened to hear that he had left the band following his 'conversion' to evangelical Christianity - he didn't want to foist his new-found beliefs on the band, which I suppose is quite gracious. Perhaps some of Neal's intensity had gone from the sound, but the music was still good.

Of course I was getting into the band just as another major change was afoot, as shortly after 'X' was released Nick d'Virgilio left the band. With Ted Leonard taking on the vocal duties and Jimmy Keegan occupying the drummer's chair, the sound of the band changed again, and, if I'm honest, they seemed to be lacking something for me. After two albums with this line-up, Keegan left the band, but last year it was announced that d'Virgilio would be coming aboard again as drummer & backing vocalist for their 13th album, 'Noise Floor', which has just been released.

This strikes me as a very positive album, and for me the best they've produced in the last eight years. The opener, 'To Breathe Another Day', rocks with a firm ease, but midway through shifts into 7/8 time and produces some unconventional drumming as a result, but all to the good. Leonard's voice has a strong rock quality to it and helps to drive the song along well. 'What Becomes of Me' starts with a gently ticking clock, and begins in a more thoughtful vein, before kicking off into a steady rhythm with good interplay between guitars & keys. This is unmistakably Spock's Beard, with good vocal harmonies and numerous time signature changes. 'Somebody's Home' moves between acoustic guitars and what sounds like a oboe effect on the keys & electric full band building for the chorus. The bass comes through strong, and even sounds like a double bass at times: again, a good, solid song. 'Have We All Gone Crazy Yet' starts with good interplay between guitars, bass and keys, before moving into the main section of the song which is mostly in 5/4 but with numerous changes into 3/4 & 4/4 - maybe they have gone crazy! A catchy tune, though perhaps not a dance song, and at 8:07 it's the longest song in the collection - perhaps a little too long, for me, as it does drag a little towards the end.

'So This Is Life' sounds, not unpleasantly, like Sergeant Pepper-era Beatles from the off, and this just increases as the double bass comes in: just like the Beatles, but with better drumming! In contrast to the lightness of this song, 'One So Wise' is markedly darker, with first keys and then guitars taking a lead, and later sparring with each other. The Prog purist will warm to the Melotrons, and this tune displays for me a strong Kansas feel to it. 'Box of Spiders' is an instrumental, and from the off is an interesting and enthralling amalgam of all kinds of patterns and rhythms working in counterpoint with each other, from keys, guitars, bass and drums. Maybe a hint of arachnophobia...? 'Beginnings' is the album closer (?) and from the start has a feel of a classic Spock's Beard song, harking back to the Neal Morse days (what I know of it, which is limited): I can certainly hear Neal singing this, and it certainly has his intensity to it.

A bonus Disc has a small collection of songs from the 'Cutting Room Floor', all quite short (under 5 minutes). 'Days We'll Remember' is a pleasant-enough acoustic-y waltz-time song, which may, in days gone by, have been a possible single - may've got some airplay on BBC Radio 2. 'Bulletproof' has a good melody and the slightest hint of Genesis for me at one point. 'Vault' is probably the strongest of the four, and begins with some good duelling guitars and builds into a solid rocker, even in challenging time signatures. 'Armageddon Nervous' (seriously...) is another instrumental and is temporally all over the place, but pleasant enough. Perhaps rightly not first choice material.

This is an album of good, AOR-tinged pop-y Progressive Rock, as are most of Spock's Beard's output. I was going to say that this is, to my mind, the best the band have done since Nick d'Virgilio left, but technically he's back, and that may be the reason why I enjoy this album as much as I do. Yes there are flaws, but very few bands are producing perfect albums and this is certainly worth an hour or so of your time.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Burntfield - Hereafter

One of the benefits of the modern age is the number of avenues that there are for discovering the plethora of new music being released these days. I discovered Burntfield through Peter O'Niell's show 'Check It Out' broadcast on, and enjoyed what I heard so much I had to buy the album.

Burntfield are a band with their roots in Finland, but who now based in Amsterdam. They describe themselves as "an alternative progressive rock band, whose music is spiced with elements of AOR and hard rock", and as I listen to the album it's clear that this is the case. They are: Juho Myllylä (vocals/guitar/blockflutes), Valtteri Seppänen (guitar/vocals), Maarten Vos (bass) and Steven Favier (drums/percussion), and their sound is augmented by Arttu Vauhkonen on keyboards & programming; Aurora Visa on kantele, and string quintet ANSos - violinists Eeva Vesmäki, Taija Kangaskokko & Matti Fredriksson; viola-ist Heikki Vilpponen; cellist Tatu Ahola & double bassist Ilkka Leppälä.

Although they formed in 2012, Hereafter is the band's debut album, released on Progressive Gears records on 7 May 2018. Describing their music, the band says that "strong melodies and powerful harmonies are linked to create unique musical atmospheres", but is this the case?

The album opener is 'Now', a quiet, thoughtful instrumental piece, starting with piano and building as layers of strings build with harmonies developing. Simple, moody and leading well into 'Sub-Zero',  which contrasts well with the opener, coming in with a bang, before settling into a solid AOR feel with an equally solid melody enhanced by harmonies. My initial feeling about the song would be that it would be a good single. Fuzzy guitars backing provides a good framework for  a short but effective solo, and vocal harmonies  build towards the end, and the drums give the song substance.

'My Grief'  starts with guitar & piano arpeggios, and the whole song has a strong hint of Anathema about it, increasingly as the vocal harmonies come in, not that this is particularly a bad thing, but for me the similarities are quite pronounced. 'Feeling of Love' is a slower more thoughtful song, with low-pitched piano & guitars opening into the strings. This is quite a beautiful ballad, with particularly 'breathy' vocals at times, and a delightful acoustic guitar solo towards the end.

'Q&A', one of the longer songs in the collection, starts with some interesting chord progressions on guitar. Another slow, thoughtful song with hints of Moon Safari in its harmonies though not quite as intense as the Swedes. Half way through there's a good guitar solo, and then the pace picks up and the song develops a more bluesy feel before falling back to a more ponderous, meditative tempo before a segue into 'In The Air', another slow song of strings, piano and vocals, with more than a passing salute to Anathema again. 'The Failure' opens with a hint of Unquiet Slumber for the Sleepers, and overall has a darker sound to it than hitherto. Some moody harmonies and crunching guitars, along with brooding strings enhance the dark mood of the song, and there are times when the drums appear stronger than they have so far.

'What Remains' is perhaps the proggiest song in the collection, and begins with a guitar motif that put me in mind of Joan Armatrading which vies with the bass before the vocals come in. There are some subtle changes on time signature within the song from 6/8 to 7/8 and back again, and some wonderful contrasts in mood and intensity, alongside some excellent musical dexterity from the whole ensemble. This is probably the stand-out track for me of the album, which closes with the title track, 'Hereafter'. Acoustic guitars & flutes lead in to piano with voice and what sounds like 12-string before again building to end with a spoken word section.

I have to say that I enjoyed this album, and each successive listen brought new light to it and from it. This is a fine collection of well-crafted and equally well-played songs: my only comment may be that perhaps these songs could benefit from a female voice in the mix along with the others, but then perhaps that may increase the similarity to Anathema...

Why not check them out for yourself - go to their website for more details.

Friday, 30 March 2018

John Holden - Capture Light

Every now and again there are certain musical releases which cause ripples on the Progressive pond, and suddenly they seem to be everywhere. In recent years this was the case with Peter Jones's first Tiger Moth Tales album, 'Cocoon', and this has again happened with this new release from John Holden, 'Capture Light'. So I was anxious to hear what all the talk was about.

For a debut release this album strikes me as a very accomplished piece of work. There is some exceptional musicianship on show here and some very thoughtful and provocative songs, demonstrating Holden's undoubted skills as a song-writer. Part of Holden's genius has been his assembly of a whole raft of names from across the Progressive family to accompany him on this recording, with contributions from Yes alumni Billy Sherwood and Oliver Wakeman; former Enid vocalist Jo Payne; Steve Hackett's drummer Gary O'Toole; along with Oliver Day, who appears on 6 of the 8 tracks, and the aforementioned Peter Jones, among others.

Tears From The Sun, the opening track, is a song about the Spanish conquest of South America in the 16th century, told from the perspective of a priest sharing in the expedition. It is an atmospheric piece, beautifully sung by Jo Payne, and maintains a meditative air about it throughout, rather than being triumphalist, helped by the absence of drums. Crimson Sky is a more upbeat song, fitting a conventional song structure and featuring a sparkling guitar solo from Billy Sherwood which he devised especially for the song. It introduces Julie Gater on vocals, who brings a certain gothic edge to this tune, and delivers it very well. Capture Light, the title track, takes us back again to the 16th century, this time to Venice and the apparent rivalry between the great artists, Titian & Tintoretto. Oliver Day's lute sets the scene wonderfully, and Oliver Wakeman's piano takes up the theme before Jo Payne again takes the story on (with some echoes early on for me of Chris de Burgh), a story that is told with passion and depth, and a memorable musical theme which recurs many times before the end. Lacking any bombast or pretentiousness, this is again good, thoughtful music of very high quality. Ancient of Days is an anthemic piece, again in the thoughtful frame - this is a very thoughtful album! - with layers of vocals provided by Mystery's Jean Pageau, backed up by Julie Gater, Lee-Anne Beecher and Marc Atkinson of Riversea. It draws you in and wraps you in a warm glow, rooting you in the mysteries of the ages.

One Race tells the story of Jesse Owens, who upset Hitler's plans for the 1936 Olympics by proving that his insidious form of racism was simply untrue, and who yet, despite his historic success, was treated with similar disdain on his return home, due to segregation in the USA. Again a song which  raises questions and which pulls at the heart as Jo Payne & Max Read relate the tensions and frustrations of this unfortunate time in human history. Dreamcatching is technically an instrumental piece, but it relies on spoken word in many places to narrate the story of the Dream Catcher, along with a good strong drum rhythm to give a sense of native American style. Billy Sherwood's bass here is almost the lead instrument at times, and there are some dreamy backing voices from Julie Gater & Peter Jones. No Man's Land has some atmospheric drumming from Gary O'Toole, and has the most upbeat feel of any of the songs so far in the collection, particularly in the chorus, with a jazzy feel to the instrumental break near the end of the song too - perhaps the most 'different' song so far. Seaglass Hearts brings the album to a close, with excellent counter-play between Julie Gater & Peter Jones on vocals, some smooth sax work from Jones, and a sort of false ending, followed by a piano rendition of 'Swinging on a star'.

This is not an 'in-your-face' album, but that's not always a bad thing. The music at times laps over you, comforts you, and gives you a sense of hope. For a debut offering it augurs very well for the future, and repays continued listening. I warmly commend 'Capture Light' to you as a great piece of contemporary progressive music.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Lucid - This Lonely Town

My first review of 2018 kind of took me by surprise, in that I received a request via social media asking if I would be willing and able to do a review of an album and band I was hitherto unaware of. After some thought - bearing in mind that I am a busy man at the moment, both professionally and personally - I agreed to give the album a listen.

The band - Lucid - are a four-piece: Blue Brown (keyboards & vocals); Nik Potts (violin, guitar & vocals); Ollie Ducie (bass, guitar & vocals) & Sunny Brown (guitars & vocals). They've been making music together for around 10 years, and hail from the Isle of Wight. This Lonely Town is their fourth studio album, and the core band members are enhanced by other musicians: Andy Charles on Electric Guitar; Robert Berry on Drums; Chris Jones on Percussion; Sarah Jory on Pedal Steel; Gary Plumley on Flute and Bansuri, and Steve Beighton on Saxophones.

How do you describe the music? The band class themselves as a Folk Pop band with hints of Rock and Prog, which kind of illustrates how hard it is to pin their sound down to a particular genre - which isn't necessarily a bad thing! It's safe to say that there is a lot going on in this music, which means that there's always something else to listen out for in the 11 tracks that take up about 47 minutes.

The album opens with All The Green, which begins with gentle guitar arpeggios and pedal steel which give it a thoughtful, atmospheric, almost dreamy feel. There are good vocal harmonies throughout with, male voice to the fore, and the song flows nicely into an extended pedal steel solo towards the end. Who Knows has a stronger beat, with drums more prominent, and a female vocal lead, but uses harmonies well again alongside some nice counterpoint. 'A good Radio 2 tune' was my initial impression! You'll Be Fine has some good interplay between acoustic guitars and piano, and has a distinct Irish feel for me, both vocally and in the whistle that pops up in the instrumental break. The vocals are clear, and interestingly the fretless bass appears to be taking the lead in the instrumental section at one point. Title track This Lonely Town is, rightly so, a more melancholic tune, with almost doleful violins and female vocals in a lower register, which builds in intensity and becomes more soulful. About 2/3rds of the way through the time signatures changes from 3/4 to 4/4 and some very atmospheric flute comes in which takes us to a different level. Perhaps the proggiest thing yet! Where Have The Flowers Gone? is a moody, soulful ballad augmented with some very good soprano sax work, and would be a fitting end to side one if this were a vinyl release.

Part of the reason for my last comment is that the next track, Simple Things, begins with a kind of crackle that you get from vinyl, which then leads into about a minute of vintage audio. When the vocals come in there is piano and guitar harmonics too, and the music builds with violin to the fore in a multi-layered creation which then fades to simple piano. Head In The Clouds is a wonderfully upbeat, catchy, even jolly tune (in contrast to some of the earlier songs) with a memorable refrain of 'Ay Oh' and for me has a feel of Swedish band Moon Safari about it. There's some good syncopation in the drums and interesting counterpoint in the vocals, and some fiddle work (rather than violin) that took me to Charlie Daniels' 'The Devil Came Down To Georgia' at times! In complete contrast, Top Of The Tree is a slower tune, which opens with acoustic guitar and fretless bass toying with each other quite marvellously. The harmonies are there, as always, but are much darker. About half-way through the pace doubles, and the song ends strongly with perhaps the first bit of rocky electric guitar so far on the album.

The Dark, the longest cut on the album at 5:26, has an atmospheric opening, almost along the lines of John Martyn's 'Small Hours', which builds in a brooding way and intensifies to a fuller sound with vocal harmonies, violin and piano increasing the feel until the drums finally bring some rhythm at around 3:45. There is much soulful wailing (as Great Gig in the Sky), increasing the darkness of the song, until it finally crashes to a dramatic close. A very moody piece! Chocolate Box is quieter, with piano, female vocals and fretless bass building the song nicely into a soothing, soulful ballad, which ends with a wonderful bluesy sax solo before the final verse. In Your Eyes is the album closer, opening with tight vocal harmonies, moving into guitar, vocal & violin, which provides what would probably be the guitar solo for any other band at the end! A delightful twist, and a fitting end to a surprising and entertaining collection of songs.

As I said earlier, there's a lot going on in this music, but that makes it all the better for it, and it is all the better for the hands of Simon Hanhart at the controls mixing it so expertly. For my first introduction to the band, this has been a delight, and I hope that others will give them some time to discover the delights that lie within. Many of the comparisons that I've made have been to artists who are more in my comfort zone, and I concede that some of them may be unfamiliar to you. Sometimes, though, it pays to step outside of ones usual musical parameters, and this has certainly been such a journey for me!

You can find the band's music, and more information about them, at their website.