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.

Friday, 29 December 2017

Music of 2017 - Part 2

As I noted in the earlier instalment of my year-end review, 2017 has produced some excellent music, and much of a high quality, so whittling things down to a best 20 albums of the year has been a struggle. But, I've finally got there, so here's my Top 20 for 2017.

20. Disperse - Foreword. At times dark, energetic, atmospheric and melodic, this is not your run-of-the-mill progressive rock. Favourite track: Does It Mater How Far?

19. Tangerine Dream - Quantum Gate. Reminiscent of the band at their 1980s best. Favourite track: Genesis of Precious Thoughts.

18. Bjorn Riis - Forever Comes To An End. Thoughtful, guitar-driven prog, at times quite melancholy. Not as Gilmour-esque as his earlier releases. Favourite track: Getaway.

17. Deluge Grander - Oceanarium. Energetic, unusual, inventive instrumental prog. Favourite track: A Numbered Rat, a High Ledge, and a Maze of Horizons.

16. Motorpsycho - The Tower. A 'big' sound, with great textures, reminiscent of Black Sabbath & Pink Floyd at times, and a feel of the best 60s & 70s music. Favourite track: Ship of Fools.

15. Wobbler - From Silence to Somewhere. An album rooted in the past but up-to-date as well. All you want from a nostalgic Scandinavian prog album! Favourite track: From Silence to Somewhere.

14. Ulver - The Assassination of Julius Caesar. Melodic and atmospheric, this album wears its 1980s influences well. Favourite track: Rolling Stone.

13. Threshold - Legends of the Shires. One of the better Prog Metal bands around. Driving, powerful, yet melodic and interesting. Favourite track: The Man Who Saw Through Time.

12. Möbius Strip - Möbius Strip. Great, clean, melodic jazz from this Italian foursome's debut, with wonderful interplay between sax & keyboards. Favourite track: Déjà Vu.

 11. Kamasi Washington - Harmony of Difference. More an EP than an album (32 minutes), but some sublime, more experimental jazz, exploring philosophical ideas through counterpoint. A great follow-up to 'The Epic'. Favourite track: Truth.

10. Rikard Sjöblom's Gungfly - On Her Journey To The Sun. Following Beardfish's sad demise, frontman (and Big Big Train stalwart) Rikard gives us a magical album which draws on the beardfish legacy, but takes it to the next level. Some wonderful lyricism and melody. Favourite track: Old Demons Die Hard.

9. Lunatic Soul - Fractured. A moving, powerful and reflective work by Riverside frontman Mariusz Duda, tinged with melancholy following the death of Riverside's Piotr Grudziński. This fifth outing is to my mind their strongest album. Favourite track: Crumbling Teeth and the Owl Eyes.

8. Barock Project - Detachment. Complex yet melodic and accessible music, of the highest quality, and enhanced by the talents of Peter Jones of Tiger Moth Tales (but only on a couple of songs). Favourite track: Happy To See You.

7. I Am The Manic Whale - Gathering The Waters. Marvellous sophomore release from a band who continue to astound, amuse and amaze me. Great narrative songs on many strange topics, carrying on from where the first album left off. Favourite track: The Milgram Experiment.

6. Kaipa - Children of the Sounds. Kaipa's trademark sound has an uncanny ability to put a broad smile on my face. This is joyful music of the highest order, played with consummate skill, that never fails to lift my soul. Favourite track: Like a Serpentine.

5. Kaprekar's Constant - Fate Outsmarts Desire. An outstanding debut from a band who produce historic & narrative songs along the line trod so well over recent years by Big Big Train, tapping into historic sounds and song-forms and assisted by Prog legend David Jackson. Favourite track: Hallsands.

4. Big Big Train - The Second Brightest Star. A surprise release by the band at Summer Solstice, and one of four releases by them this year to accompany their live shows in London. Some great recordings to round off the 'Grimlore' sequence, which offers opportunities for the wider band to contribute to the songwriting. Favourite track: The Passing Widow.

3. The Tangent - The Slow Rust of Forgotten Machinery. The Tangent's 9th studio release, and their most overtly 'political' for a while. Having said that, this is a compelling collection of great, thought-provoking songs with some eye-opening twists and fantastic musicianship (as always!). Favourite track: Two Rope Swings.

2. Big Big Train - Grimspound. Carrying on from last year's 'Folklore', in a trilogy completed by 'The Second Brightest Star', Big Big Train continue to create some stunning modern prog, anchored in the past but with its own unique character. This is delightful, melodic, and firmly rooted in the English traditions of folk, rock and brass - and simply stunning. Favourite track: A Mead Hall In Winter.

1. Tiger Moth Tales - The Depths of Winter. I wrote about this album on its release: often it takes a few listens to be captivated by a record, but this had me hook, line and sinker by the second time through, and it has simply got better with each listen. Evocative, inventive, fantastic songwriting, singing and playing, and a worthy Album of the Year. Favourite track: The Tears of Frigga.

So that has been the musical year 2017. Let's see what 2018 can bring!

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Music of 2017 - Part 1

This year's been a strange one in many respects. I spent the early part of the year convalescing at home after having been run over by a van on a zebra crossing and sustaining a minor brain injury as a result, and to fill the time I had I tried reading and listening to music, but both of these activities proved troublesome. But I did manage some listening, and 2017 proved to be another excellent year for the music that interests me, which is mainly Jazz and Progressive Rock.

So, as is my wont at this time of year, I will try and review my year in music as best as I can recall it. Over the year I've managed to amass around 120 albums of various kinds, and trying to rank them has proved difficult - there's just so much good and interesting music out there at the moment! I've managed (just) to choose a Top 20 for the year, but before then my usual sub-categories and a mention of those 'bubbling under'.

Gigs of the Year
5. Danfest, my first visit and a great day with The Room, Tiger Moth Tales, Red Bazaar and Schnauser
4. Steve Hackett at Sheffield City Hall
3. Snarky Puppy in Manchester
2. Big Big Train at Cadogan Hall. I was at the Friday gig, which wasn't the best for sound, but was the usual awesome experience of sublime music and wonderful camaraderie.
1. Summer's End Festival in Chepstow. Quite simply a stunning line-up of acts throughout the weekend, but the highlight had to be 'Tangekanic' (The Tangent & Karmakanic), who were just awesome!

Live Albums of the Year
5. Yes - Topographic Drama
4. The Fierce and The Dead - Field Recordings
3. John McLaughlin & the 4th Dimension - Live @ Ronnie Scott's
2. David Gilmour - Live at Pompeii
1. Brand X - But Wait... There's More

Discoveries of the Year
This is bands that I've come across for the first time this year who have stood out for me. They're listed in no particular order other than alphabetical.
Kaprekar's Constant: some really interesting and innovative narrative prog in the classic mode
Once & Future Band: jazzy and interesting
Dean Watson: another jazz-influenced act, with some wonderful tunes on his latest album, 'Sum of Parts'
Weend'O: The surprise package of Summer's End this year
Yussef Kamaal: released last year, but discovered early this year; some fascinating contemporary jazz

Before I move on to my Top albums, a word about those that I've enjoyed almost as much, and I want to start by making particular reference to two labels which have both brought me (and others) some great music this year (as other years).
The first is Edition Records, which panders to my growing love of jazz in its many forms, and this year I have especially enjoyed these offerings (again alphabetically):
   Denys Baptiste - The Late Trane
   Nicolas Kummert - La Diversité
   Rob Luft - Riser
   Malija - Instinct
   Phronesis - The Behemoth
   Verneri Pohjola - Pekka
   Aki Rissanen - Amorandom
   Morten Schantz - Godspeed
   Alexi Tuomarila - Kingdom

The second is Bad Elephant Music, whose roster continues to grow in its breadth, diversity and interest, and whose releases never cease to entertain, educate and illuminate. This has been a quiet year for them, with only 16 releases (and one to come later this month):
   Big Hogg - Gargoyles
   The Bob Lazar Story - Baritonia
   Charlie Cawood - The Divine Abstract
   The Fierce & the Dead - Field Recordings
   Murder & Parliament - Murder & Parliament
   My Tricksy Spirit - My Tricksy Spirit
   Orange Clocks - Tope's Sphere Episode 2
   Rog Patterson - Flightless
   Robert Ramsay - Confound and Disturb
   Schnauser - Irritant
   Shineback - Minotaur
   Tom Slatter - Happy People
   Syncage - Unlike Here
   Trojan Horse - Fukushima Surfer Boys
   Valdez - This
   Whitewater - Universal Medium

So, apart from those already mentioned above, here's another 25 of this year's releases that I think deserve recognition, but haven't quite made my Top 20. These are listed, again, in alphabetical order.

Agusa - Agusa
Yazz Ahmed - La Saboteuse
Anubis - The Second Hand
Circu5 - Circu5
Comedy of Errors - House of the Mind
Cosmograf - The Hay Man Dreams
Damanek - On Track
The Dear Hunter - All Is As All Should Be
Encircled - The Monkey Jamboree
Nubya Garcia - Nubya's 5ive
Godsticks - Faced with Rage
John Hackett Band - We Are Not Alone
Steve Hackett - The Night Siren
Brett William Kull - Open Skies Exploding
Lifesigns - Cardington
Lonely Robot - The Big Dream
Machines Dream - Black Science
Magenta - We Are Legend
Magic Bus - Phillip The Egg
PFM - Emotional Tattoos
Public Service Broadcasting - Every Valley
Nad Sylvan - The Bride Said No
Weend'O - Time of Awakening
White Willow - Future Hopes
Steven Wilson - To The Bone

As you can see, the quality this year has been very high. The Top 20 will be outlined in Part 2 - coming soon...

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Tiger Moth Tales - The Depths of Winter

Peter Jones has been something of a phenomenon since he appeared on the Progressive music scene just about 3 years ago, with his debut album, Cocoon. This delightful, nostalgic collection of reflections on childhood was an unexpected delight, and has remained a favourite of mine ever since. Since then Peter's skills and charm and whimsy have been seen again in Story Tellers, in his many covers of Genesis songs for charity, and in his contributions to the work of Red Bazaar, Barock Project and Colin Tench. He has become much in demand as a singer and multi-instrumentalist.

There is a certain quirkiness to Peter's music that is endearing, and his sense of humour is bright and, for many, enlivens his broadcasting on Progzilla. But an ever increasing number of fans have been waiting in eager anticipation for some new material from Peter, and now, at last, the wait is over, with the release of The Depths of Winter. And with this album there's both a sense of continuity and one of change and progress.

There is a subtle difference to the music on this release. This is a more 'serious' album, in that the subject matter is less frivolous (so to speak), and there is a subtlety and maturity to the compositions that shows clear progression from the earlier albums. There is still the great narrative songs that have thrilled listeners in the past: The Ballad of Longshanks John and The Tears of Frigga; there are some subtle and stirring instrumental pieces: Winter is Coming, Sleigh Ride, and Winter's End; and there is inspiration from varied sources: Wilfred Owen's war poetry (Exposure), the loss of a loved one (Take the Memory), the Scandinavian concept of Hygge, and even the simple desire to survive the coming cold (Winter Maker). But there's perhaps hidden meaning in some of the songs: Migration is billed as a song about an animal separated from the group while on the move, but could quite easily, for me, be a song about those seeking refuge and asylum from more human circumstances.

Musically Peter continues to draw his inspiration from the formative years of Progressive Rock, and there are clear echoes of Genesis in some of the music, as well as hints of more contemporary influences, such as Big Big Train, and classical sources too. Peter is not afraid of challenging time signatures and a breadth of instrumentation, both played by himself and by others. But for a collection of songs that draw their influence from the cold of winter, this is warm album: it delights the heart and renews ones faith in humanity - it is almost the aural equivalent of flagon of mulled wine in front of a roaring fire!

If you are familiar with Peter's work, this album will, I hope, continue to delight and inspire you. If his work is new to you, listen and be prepared to be wowed and warmed.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Forty Years On... Neil Young - American Stars 'n Bars

My appreciation of Neil Young's music predates this album by a few years. Being an unrepentant hippie in my early teens, I'd immersed myself in the Woodstock ethos, and in the music from the film soundtrack, and through that had discovered Crosby, Stills & Nash and their occasional inclusion of a fourth member - Neil Young. This led me to 'After The Goldrush' and 'Harvest', albums which I still value to this day, and also to the compilation 'Decade', a triple album which sadly my pocket money just wouldn't stretch to.

But earlier that year (1977) came 'American Stars 'n Bars', which I could stretch to, on cassette. It's a strange album in some ways, but a good one nonetheless. The cover depicts Young lying, presumably drunk, on a bar-room floor near a spittoon and a lady of, shall we say, negotiable affection, with the night sky above him.

The music is an interesting mix of Young's different styles. 'The Old Country Waltz' fits into the 'Don't Let It Bring You Down' school of depressing maudlin songs, with fiddle and slide guitar to ramp up the feeling of woe in another 'my girl's left me' outpouring. 'Saddle Up The Palomino' is a little rockier, with a memorable electric riff to open with, but continues the country feel. 'Hey Babe' is jollier and more acoustic, but still with Young's distinctive nasal whine - not a criticism, just an observation! 'Hold Back The Tears' takes us back to 'O woe is me' territory, which his voice seems to suit, but this is a song with a hopeful edge - 'Just around the next corner may be waiting your true love' he sings. Side One ends with 'Bite The Bullet', a hard, simple rocker to lift the mood a little. For a Canadian he does the Southern rock thing quite well!

Side Two is a different kettle of fish altogether from Side One, with 2 longer songs bookended by two shorter ones. I must confess, too, that forty years on I still chuckle to myself at the opening line of 'Star of Bethlehem' and how my teenage mind reacted to 'Ain't it hard when you wake up in the morning...' (I'm a bad man...) The song itself is a simple acoustic song, with the bonus of an appearance by Emmylou Harris on harmony vocals. 'Will To Love' is the only song that features Young on his own, and is a dreamy, ethereal song with acoustic guitars and occasional piano that always gives me the impression of being recorded around a campfire somewhere in the middle of nowhere. This is, for me, serious chill-out music. 'Like a Hurricane' on the other hand is solid electric guitar-led rock that Neil Young does best, on a par with 'Southern Man' or 'Cortex The Killer'. This was the first song I'd heard from the album, probably on Alan Freeman's show one Saturday afternoon, and it sold me on the album. Simple, but powerful, as is the album closer, 'Homegrown', in a different way. And any drug references are purely coincidental...

It's albums like this one that continue to convince me that 1977 was a classic year for the kind of music that has accompanied my life for the ensuing forty years. There is a permanence, a longevity, a timelessness about this, and all the albums I've been revisiting over the last 6 months. 1977 was a key year for me personally, but also musically in forging tastes that have stayed with me, but have developed over those years.

I can't believe it's been 40 years, though!