Every so often strange coincidences happen to me. The other day two new albums arrived in the post, both of which had drawn on interesting literary sources for their inspiration. One was the eponimous debut from The Bardic Depths, which looks lyrically to The Inklings - notably Tolkien & Lewis - something that many outside the progressive community would tend to expect of the genre. As Mike Barnes observes in the recently published magnum opus on the genre in the 1970s, 'A New Day Yesterday': "Progressive Rock - isn't that about wizards?"
The other albums was another debut recording by Suzi James & Jeremy Shotts, who go by the name of Fearful Symmetry, who look to William Blake as their muse. Blake is not a poet that I am very familiar with: I know Jerusalem, of course, and am aware of 'Auguries of Innocence', which begins with the lines "To see a world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower; hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour." And there is The Tyger, which gives us the phrase 'Fearful Symmetry'.
Like The Bardic Depths, Fearful Symmetry are what I would call an enhanced duo. Jeremy is the lyricist, plays bass on one track and provides vocals on the opening song and backing vocals throughout, and Suzi plays guitars, bass, keyboards and backing vocals throughout. They are joined by Sharon Petrover on drums and a variety of others on vocal and instrumental duties.
They describe the album as 'an affectionate homage to classic prog', and this they manage to achieve without producing a copy or a pastiche. They list their influences as including Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, Camel, Steve Hillage, Steely Dan, Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Van der Graaf Generator & Dream Theater, and there are times when these are clear, but also where others are (to me at least) equally apparent.
The album opens with the title track, 'Louder Than Words', and Blake's influence is underlined from the off as the strains of Parry's setting of Jerusalem, before some strident guitar. There are shifting rhythms at times, and good interplay between keyboards and guitar. Melodically it reminded me of 'I Am The Walrus' at times, and lyrically it is a little obscure: this could be due to the Blake theme, rather than a nod to Jon Anderson, though.
'Form And Substance' is the first of four songs to feature Yael Shotts on vocals, and her voice suits the style and content of the album well. There is a strong boogie element to this song - it rocks well - and leaves me with a smile.
'Innocence' may be a nod to the Auguries that I referred to earlier, but it is a gentle, almost pastoral song most of which is the work of Ian Stuart Lynn, who provides, vocals, piano, soprano sax and strings along with Matthew Rutherford (double-bass) and Amanda Truelove (cello). This has a delightful 'hippy' feel to it, reminiscent for me of early Moody Blues, with jazz influences in the instrumental break, and gorgeous lyrics: "In our Gethsemane there's no betrayer, Here is no enemy; In No Sense; In A Sense; Innocence." Perhaps my favourite track on the album...
'Ceaseless Strife' harks back to Jerusalem - "Ceaseless strife/ expands my life/ in mental fight/ we seize the light.". Vocals are provided by Ray Livaat, and the intro riff put me in mind of Steve Hackett's 'Myopia'. The chorus has some odd timings, but has a jazzy feel, particularly in the piano solo.
'Rule of Reason' sees Yael back on vocal duty, some lilting piano arpeggios to open up and strong bass, and two guitar solos of contrasting style back-to-back, one by Suzi and the other from Ben Azar.
'Damn, braces; bless relaxes' is the enigmatic title of the only instrumental track on the album, a tune which shifts from 7/8 to 6/8, and has for me a distinct Hatfield & the North feel in the guitars.
'Orc And Luvah' is a slower song, with perhaps a Libertarian theme, and some tight and appealing vocal harmonies in the chorus.
'City of Art' is the song with Jeremy on bass, and features some echoing, almost duelling guitars that sounded to me very reminiscent of Steve Hillage.
Suzi says of the album: "We wanted to create something from past - and some current - influences that would be new but would feel familiar", and this they have done. There are echoes of the heyday of Progressive music, but not in a way that overpowers the music and gives it an unnecessary air of nostalgia. There is a sufficient 'rock' element to please a wider audience, while not being afraid to plough more adventurous furrows. Like much 'prog' it benefits from repeated exposure and reveals more layers with each listen.
You can listen to, and even buy, a copy here.
Saturday, 18 April 2020
10. Tangerine Dream – Force Majeure
In the field of electronic music, Germany looms large, mainly through the work of Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream, and while Kraftwerk were the ones perhaps to catch the public imagination more in the UK, it’s Tangerine Dream that appeal more to me. Their early recordings were very atmospheric, more soundscapes than tunes, and were (as we used to say at school) a little ‘hard to get into’. By the mid-70s they’d developed a more rhythmic sound, while still not losing the experimental sounds of their early days. Phaedra was probably their breakthrough album sound-wise, as the line-up settled down to Edgar Froese, Chris Franke and Peter Bauman and the group signed to Virgin. Their sound involved long sequenced rhythms overlayed by various guitar, flute and organ lines. They majored on long-form tunes, allowing themes to develop. Bauman left in 1978 but Froese and Franke continued and in 1979 produced Force Majeure which, for me, is their most appealing album. Three tunes, all full of variety, grandeur, melody and substance, with the atmosphere of their earlier material but a little more approachable too. Coming as it did in 1979, in the afterglow of Punk and the birth-throes of electro-pop, this could be seen as a seminal album for the music that was to dominate the charts for the next few years: instrumental (in more ways than one), innovative and not losing its progressive edge.
9. Steely Dan – Aja
In those moments that I sometimes have for quiet reflection and musing, I have often wondered what it must have been like, back in 1972, to hear Steely Dan’s debut, Can’t Buy a Thrill, for the first time, not knowing who the band were or what they were capable of musically. What did those opening bars of ‘Do It Again’ stir within you? As a callow 11-year-old at the time that wasn’t where I was musically: it was Slade and Sweet for me, and by the time I got to Steely Dan a few years later the initial element of surprise had dissipated. The music of Steely Dan as always been eclectic, drawing from many different styles to produce the band’s own unique style: Do It Again and Reelin’ In The Years, to give a couple of examples from that debut, demonstrate that, with an almost Latin feel giving way to a good, solid rocker. By the time they released Aja in 1977 – that year again! – their jazzier sound had come to the fore, along with some quite funky vibes too. This is a very laid-back album, an ‘end of the evening’ collection rather than for the heat of the night, and it just oozes class and style for me. As good as Can’t Buy a Thrill was, you can’t beat this for sheer class, and the appearance of Wayne Shorter on the title track is a wonderful bonus. But maybe my stand-out track is Deacon Blues, possibly the first song I heard from the album, for its upbeat, sunny outlook – it never fails to put a smile on my face when I hear it.
8. Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon
I suppose you always remember your first, and for me the first album I bought for myself with my own money was Dark Side of the Moon. Back in the golden days of vinyl it was such an iconic item. That stark black sleeve with the prism; the way that the spectrum unfolded on the inner sleeve, with the heartbeats in the green line picking up the opening sounds of the album; the posters and stickers that came with it, both of which I still have, though the stickers are firmly attached to my father’s demob suitcase which I use to carry my vestments in. And then the music: simple, yet complex; mysterious, powerful, experimental, not just from Gilmour, Waters, Wright & Mason but also the sax of Dick Parry and the voice of Clare Torrey. A seamless continuum, with no discernible break between the tracks, addressing large themes of time, money, social inequality, madness and eternity. And giving us some of the most memorable and iconic rock music of all time: Gilmour’s solos in Time & Money, Waters’ bass riff in Money, and Clare Torrey’s improvised vocalising on Great Gig in the Sky. And it introduced Alan Parsons to the world. This album truly deserves its plaudits as one of the greatest albums of all time.
7. Joni Mitchell – Hejira
Canada has given some quite impressive musical gifts to the world, chief among which must rank Rush, Neil Young and Roberta Joan (or Joni) Mitchell. Joni came to prominence during the 1960s, when she moved to California with her songs and was soon ‘picked up’ by David Crosby who shared her music with as many as he could. Predominantly a folk singer at the beginning, she brought her lush melodies, unconventional tunings and hypnotic voice to bear on a wonderfully poetic lyrical style. After a run of 5 folk-oriented albums, Joni went through a change musically and began to embrace a more jazzy style, and hit what many see as her purple patch with a string of three exceptional recordings: Court & Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Hejira, but it was to be Hejira that captivated me most. For some of the album Mitchell invited Jaco Pastorius to play his distinctive bass sound, and that may be what swung it for me, along with Mitchell’s own dreamy edge and arrangements. These are songs that never age for me, and ones that I never tire of, and for me she never quite reached the heights of Hejira again.
6. Supertramp – Crime of the Century
For a number of reasons, chiefly due to my Secondary School being all male, and my being the only one from my area to attend there, one of the places that I got the most social interaction during my early teens was at a Youth Club run by the local Methodist Church – not the one I attended on Sunday, but the nearest one to home. I have warm memories of the table tennis and the tuck shop, (and the close proximity of young females!) but one of my lasting memories of that place was the music that was available to listen to, which was copies of Crisis, what Crisis? and Crime of the Century by Supertramp. I’d heard Dreamer on the radio, but this was something else, something different. There was an attractive complexity to their music – even in the single – that repaid repeated listens. This wasn’t your basic rock ’n’ roll, though there were elements of that: it was thoughtful, both musically and lyrically, with a wonderful mix of Richard Davies’s keyboards, Roger Hodgson’s guitars and John Anthony Helliwell’s saxophones building some exciting and exhilarating music with the steady rhythm section of Bob Benberg & Dougie Thomson. Of the two albums it was Crime that stood out for me: maybe it’s the combination of at times quite cheery music tackling some dark themes, I’m not sure, but it’s a collection that seems still very relevant almost 50 years on.
5. Big Big Train – English Electric: Full Power
Following on from their ‘breakthrough’ album, The Underfall Yard, Big Big Train released an EP, ‘Far Skies Deep Time’ (longer than many classic LPs) and then two albums under the title ‘English Electric’. These were then combined and augmented to produce ‘English Electric: Full Power’ in 2013 – 2 hours and 15 minutes of English Progressive rock of the highest calibre, once again drawing on rock, folk and brass, and digging into English industrial heritage, country life, social history and advances in transport, as well as the usual fare of love, loss and the excitement of making music together. The breadth of scope, both musically and lyrically, of this album is astounding. The band take up the reins of the likes of Genesis in bringing their narrative style of song-writing up to date, telling tales not of Greek mythology and apocalyptic visions but of ship building on the Tyne, boy miners, art forgery, and the record-breaking run of Mallard. They paint musical pictures of ancient Cistercian abbeys, leafy hedgerows and of the views from Upton Heath and St Giles’ Hill; nostalgically looking back to both pre-industrial and industrial pasts, and the legacy of the changes that have come as a result of the decline of traditional ways of living, both in rural and urban settings. The band have since gone on to explore mythic and folkloric elements, and taken us on a Grand Tour that encompassed da Vinci’s mind and the farthest reaches of the galaxy, but these two discs, for me, stand as the pinnacle of the band’s stunning output. Picking any particular track for special mention is almost akin to choosing your favourite child, as from ‘Make Some Noise’ and ‘The First Rebreather’ to ‘East Coast Racer’ and ‘Curator of Butterflies’ and all points in between there’s hardly any let up in the sheer excellence.
4. Steve Hackett – Spectral Mornings
Steve Hackett was brought into Genesis following the inability of founder member Ant Philips to cope with stage fright, joining them for their 3rd studio album, Nursery Cryme in 1971 and remaining a key member of the band for 6 studio albums and two live albums before departing in 1977. By the time of his departure Steve had begun his solo career, releasing ‘Voyage of the Acolyte’ in 1975. 1978’s ‘Please Don’t Touch’ was my first introduction to his solo material, but it was his third release, ‘Spectral Mornings’ that really brought home to me the scale and scope of his talent. Whereas the first two albums had relied on guest musicians – Phil Collins and Mike Rutherford on the first, and Richie Havens, Randy Crawford, Chester Thompson, and Steve Walsh & Phil Ehart from Kansas on the second – here he assembled a core band who had toured Please Don’t Touch with him and who went on to make this and the subsequent album ‘Defector’ – Nick Magnus, Dik Cadbury, John Shearer, Pete Hicks and Steve’s brother John. Here we have a varied collection of almost pop-y prog in ‘Every Day’, a ballad in ‘The Virgin & The Gypsy’, the George Formby-esque ‘The Ballad of the Decomposing Man’, the ghostly and atmospheric ‘Tigermoth’, and the varied instrumental offerings of Japanese Koto on ‘The Red Flowers of Tachai Bloom Everywhere’, rocking guitars and booming bass pedals on ‘Clocks – The Angel of Mons’, classical guitar and flute in ‘Lost Time in Cordoba’, and the sublime title track, so wonderfully enhanced in 2015 by David Longdon’s lyrics and his and Christina Booth’s voices. This album was released just as I was completing my A-Levels, and marks a significant point in my life, but also in Steve’s career. There are so many memorable moments in this collection, but the extended solo at the end of opener ‘Every Day’ and the strains of the closing title track bookend this album so well it leaves me simply knowing that I have been party to a time of musical brilliance.
3. Yes – Going for the One
I think I knew what my Top 3 albums were going to be before I started pulling this selection together, and I very quickly settled on the order, though that is more or less arbitrary: any of the Top 3 albums could have been number 1, and at times they are! But in the end, it is as it is. Yes have already featured in this list, but for me their best album came in 1977 – a year of musical change with the advent of punk and yet, as I have noted already, a year of some classic and lasting albums from our beloved Progressive canon. Going for the One was as different to Relayer as Relayer was to Tales, and as Tales was to Close to the Edge, and saw a return to what many see as the ‘classic’ line-up of the band: Anderson, Howe, Squire, Wakeman & White. The music is varied, from the driving rock of the title track, the dreamy acoustic delight of Turn of the Century, the soaring church organ and booming bass of Parallels, the jangly pop of the surprise (for a Prog band) hit single Wondrous Stories, and the stunning symphonic grandeur of Awaken. Lyrically the album is poetic, narrative, heart-warming and enigmatic in equal measure, but then it is Yes, and what more would one expect! A few years ago, I wrote this about the album: “Parallels was my early pick on the album, mainly because I just didn't 'get' Awaken for a while. It is deep, complex, obtuse at times; Jon Anderson's mystical lyrics do take some time to coalesce (maybe not as long as those on Tales From Topographic Oceans) and that may be what took my time, but eventually... oh boy! A truly symphonic piece, with changes of tempo and texture, and all the band playing at their virtuosic best throughout… This album has stood the test of time like few others. For me it still has the ability to entice and thrill and delight and bewilder as it did 40+ years ago.”
2. Miles Davis – Kind of Blue
Jazz, like Prog, is a broad field of music, with everything from the be bop of Charlie Parker and others in the mid-40s, the cool jazz of the 1950s, and the fusion of the 70s and beyond. Into all these fields, and many others, stepped the genius that was Miles Davis. Miles excelled wherever he played, and whatever he played, whether it was jazz to dance to, jazz to be disturbed by, or jazz to chill to. He worked with giants of the scene over his many years: Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, John McLaughlin, and alongside classics of the genre such as ‘Birth of the Cool’, ‘Milestones’, and the ground-breaking ‘Bitches Brew’, he notably gave us what is his finest album – indeed many see it as the finest jazz album of all time – 1959’s ‘Kind of Blue’. The sextet for this recording is Davis on trumpet, Coltrane on tenor sax, Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley on alto sax, Bill Evans (or Wynton Kelly on one track) on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums, and what they produce is nothing short of magical. It’s very much what I would call a late-night sort of album – this is music to chill to, but to do so with your mind, ears and heart wide open to experience the full joy of this creation. Other than ‘So What’ and ‘All Blues’, which had been performed live to audiences earlier, the album was created and recorded in the studio, and the whole recording process was done in two days in the studio. From the opening bars of ‘So What’, with piano and bass sparring with each other before the bass brings the familiar riff, the six of them play so tight and controlled, each taking their turn in the metaphorical spotlight to develop the theme magnificently. There’s nothing brash or harsh about any of this music, it washes over you and immerses you in its warmth and beauty. “More than a milestone in jazz, Kind of Blue is a defining moment of twentieth century music, one of those incredibly rare works of art that achieve equal popularity among musicians, critics, and the public at large. The rest of us might tend to agree with Jimmy Cobb, the drummer on the album, who commented… that it ‘must have been made in heaven’.”
1. Genesis – Selling England by the Pound
And so, to number 1! Have you guessed what it is yet?! As I mentioned earlier, if I had a favourite band growing up it was Genesis, and over the course of their career they have produced many outstanding albums, that I still return to on a regular basis – more so from their time as a five- and four-piece than latterly as a trio, I must confess. I’ve already included two of their catalogue in this countdown – Foxtrot and Wind & Wuthering – but there is one album that tops them, in fact tops them all, and that is… We Can’t Dance! Ha, fooled you – no it’s 1973’s magisterial ‘Selling England By The Pound’, to my mind still the most perfect platter ever produced. Four years ago, I commented: “The album certainly marks a quantum leap by the band in terms of musical invention and lyrical creativity, assisted by the broadening of Tony Banks's musical palette with the introduction of an ARP synthesizer alongside the Mellotron & Hammond organ. The band are still telling stories, an enduring and endearing feature of the band's output, and continue to exhibit an abundant virtuosity in their playing. It was the first of their albums to break into the Top 10 in the UK, peaking at number 3, and spawned the band's first hit single, I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe), which was itself inspired by the cover art produced this time by Betty Swanwick. In its sequencing, the collection alternates between long and short songs, though whether this was a deliberate move I'm not sure, but as all the long songs are of such high quality it is perhaps good for the listener to have a brief respite between them.” Those short songs were: a kind-of nonsense song over a four-note riff that (as I’ve said) gave the band their first hit single; an almost anti-love song which gave Phil Collins his second (and first credited) solo vocal stint; a rare instrumental piece (only the band’s second at this point); and the outro piece, reprising the album opener. The longer songs have remained epics of the progressive canon for the past 47 years: Dancing with the Moonlit Knight, a song bemoaning the diminution of British uniqueness in contemporary life as transatlantic influences begin to take hold - perhaps prophetic in the McDonaldised, Starbucked, Disneyfied and Wal*Marted towns and cities of today; Firth of Fifth opens with a blistering solo piano piece from Tony Banks, who shows just what a consummate performer and composer he is: sheer sublime beauty, yet full of energy and panache! As the band come in it feels a little awkward musically as the momentum that has built up seems to falter and the tempo slows. But this song is here to showcase Banks, and after a flute passage from Gabriel we are back to keyboards, first piano then synth, picking up themes from the opening section. This then leads us to Steve Hackett picking up those themes and others with a soaring solo. This is truly breath-taking symphonic music at its finest, rising to a series of crescendi before finding resolution as the vocals return (not quite as awkwardly as previously): it is, to my mind, the band's finest piece of work; The Battle of Epping Forest is a great song, almost in the English music-hall or pantomime tradition with its varied voices, pun-laden lyrics and changes in musical style, and fits nicely alongside 'Harold The Barrel' and 'Get 'Em Out By Friday' from their earlier canon; and Cinema Show, the last of the long songs, begins with 12-string guitars backing the vocals, which grows slowly as the rest of the band joins in for the chorus. There then follows an extended instrumental passage with Gabriel providing flute and oboe motifs before more vocal interplay between Gabriel & Collins leads us back to the chorus. Hackett restates the vocal line on electric guitar, before an extended synth solo from Banks builds to a crescendo.
This is, to me, one of the sublimest 53½ minutes of progressive rock ever recorded. It's very difficult to say anything about this album without sounding overly gushing in praise (as you may have noticed): it's just that good! In the 47 years that have passed since its release nothing to my mind has come close to bettering it in the field, and it continues to grow on me with every listen.
Thanks for sticking with me (assuming anyone has) and exploring with me what makes me tick musically. It’s been a fascinating project putting this list together, and then trying to think why I like this music, and why I like some more than others. There are a number of bands and artists missing from the list, that have been important to me over my life: Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, Be Bop Deluxe, Pat Metheney… just to name a few, but that’s the way it is with lists like this – you always leave someone out. Music is life, and life is music, and sharing it gives me life and hopefully enhances your lives too. Now I’d better stop before I get too soppy or pretentious…
Into the Top 20...
20. Nick Drake – Bryter Layter
The title of ‘tortured genius’ is one that a number of artists, poets and musicians have had thrust upon them over the years, and one such recipient is the enigma that is Nick Drake. Much of his ‘torture’ came from the lack of commercial success he achieved for his work, and it is to some extent understandable when you consider the quality of that work, but that angst was to lead him to take his own life at the tender age of 26. He produced three albums during his short life: Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter and Pink Moon. The latter of the three is very stark in its arrangements, and reflects Drake’s descent into depression and melancholy. Of the first two, I am drawn more to the second, mainly for its poetry (Drake was reading English Literature at Cambridge at the time) but also for the outstanding guitar work, mostly using anything but standard tunings, the instrumental interludes and the subtle but poignant orchestrations, which are more in evidence here than on the debut. Although I only came across his work through a friend in the late 1980s, the songs have become part of my inner soundtrack in a way that usually only happens with stuff from my teens.
19. Peter Gabriel – 3 (Melt)
Following his departure from Genesis in 1975, people were watching both the band and Peter Gabriel to see where their musical trajectory would take them. By 1980 Genesis were a 3-piece and Duke was to catapult them to huge stadium-filling success, whereas Gabriel was exploring more experimental and progressive pathways. By his third (technically untitled) album he had started to gather a wide selection of musicians to help make his increasingly varied music, including Phil Collins and other members of Brand X, and Robert Fripp, Paul Weller & Dave Gregory. By this album Gabriel was also beginning to explore more overtly political themes, notably on Biko but also on the relatively successful single Games Without Frontiers. It also explores psychological themes in No Self Control, I Don’t Remember, Lead a Normal Life and even Intruder. But for me the stand-out track, and possibly my all-time favourite of his, is Family Snapshot with its tale of political assassination and the deep-seated trauma that led to the action – a coming together of the two themes. Much of it, 40 years on, is still hugely relevant to us today (Not One Of Us, Games Without Frontiers, Lead a Normal Life…), and that’s what makes it stand out for me.
18. Marillion – Script for a Jester’s Tear
There are certain albums that I can remember buying more than others, and the debut by Marillion is one such album. Shuffling through the shelves at my local independent record store (as one did in the early 80s) I came across the album and thought ‘This looks just like the kind of stuff I was listening to before punk killed it off!’ Mark Wilkinson’s artwork was simply stunning and promised so much for the music, so I had to have it. The material was just as alluring, conjuring up memories of music from 10 years earlier, particularly Fish’s voice, so warmly redolent of Gabriel’s. Here were songs about love, drug abuse, class, war and even the cliched ‘wannabe actress drifts into prostitution’ – and not a concept in sight (just yet…). As a debut this has rarely been surpassed, to my mind, and the band only came close to matching it in overall quality with Misplaced Childhood (which did have a concept…) and I am unrepentantly in the Fish-Marillion camp as regards the band’s better line-up. Lyrically Fish has been at the forefront for the best part of 40 years, and this is a sublime example of his art.
17. Yes – The Yes Album
I’ve mentioned earlier about how changes to a band’s personnel can have a huge impact on their style, and this is never more ably illustrated than by looking at Yes’s catalogue. The arrival of Patrick Moraz on Relayer, the Buggles on Drama and of Trevor Rabin on 90125; the departure of Jon Anderson after Magnification – all these had a profound effect on the band’s music. But maybe the most significant for me was the arrival in 1970 of Steve Howe as guitarist, to replace Peter Banks. Howe brought his own particular style to the band, along with his song-writing and his vocals which contributed to what would be know by some as ‘The Yes Choir’ – Anderson, Howe & Squire. The band’s third album – The Yes Album – was the first to feature Howe, and included a live classical guitar tune, ‘Clap’, recorded shortly after he’d joined the band in June 1970, at the Lyceum Theatre, London. The songs demonstrate the band’s developing sound, with three almost epic-length pieces: Yours is No Disgrace, Starship Trooper and Perpetual Change; a slightly punchier (just under 7 minutes) I’ve Seen All Good People – all of which quickly became, and remain, live favourites – along with the aforementioned Clap, and A Venture, a shorter and quieter song by Jon Anderson. This record remains for me a decisive turning-point for the band musically, perhaps their most important album in terms of their development as a band, because for me it was here that their distinctive sound was first displayed, and was subsequently honed on their next 3 albums.
16. John Martyn – Solid Air
John Martyn is somewhat of an enigma musically. His early albums are pretty much firmly in the folk genre, with some blues influence, but by the mid-70s he was beginning to move more in a rock & blues direction, which led to experimenting with soundscapes, collaborating with Phil Collins – that sort of thing. It was probably his 6th album, 1973’s Solid Air, that marked the transition for him. The title track, his homage to Nick Drake, who’s downward spiral was causing his friends much concern is moody and reflective, with Martyn’s mumbled vocals and Danny Thompson’s stellar upright bass playing adding to the overall mood wonderfully, as they do on Go Down Easy. Over The Hill is good old-fashioned folk, helped by Richard Thompson & Simon Nichol from Fairport Convention and Sue Draheim, an American fiddler who’s played with John Renbourn & The Albion Country Band. Don’t Want To Know brings Martyn’s percussive guitar sound and some moody piano. Then there’s I’d Rather Be The Devil, which showcases Martyn’s heavy use of Echoplex tape delays to produce a multi-layered sound that he would later develop further on Small Hours on his 1977 offering One World. May You Never is perhaps his best-known and most iconic song - certainly the one that more people will know from his extensive catalogue – but this album is so much more than that one song. There’s a touch of anger in Dreams By The Sea, there’s melancholy in places, there’s joy but also introspection. For me it’s a complete album, certainly his best, and one that has stood and will stand the test of time.
15. Steve Hillage – Fish Rising
I knew nothing of Steve Hillage when I was introduced to his music in about 1977. My introduction came through a club I used to frequent in Harrogate, run by Paul Gerrett, the former keyboard player with Harrogate band Wally. One of the songs that was played frequently was The Salmon Song from Hillage’s debut solo album, Fish Rising, and for a young impressionable wannabe hippy like I was, its New Age, trippy, Aquarian vibes struck an immediate chord. The follow-up album, L, had recently come out, and I lapped that up too, but it was Fish Rising that kept drawing me back. It revolves really round 3 epic-length tracks and a couple of much shorter pieces. Solar Musick Suite has a meditative edge to it before rocking out, showcasing Hillage’s dexterity on the fretboard. Fish is just a short piece of silliness. Meditation of the Snake is an almost ambient track with looping, swirling keyboards with some atmospheric bluesy riffing over the top. The Salmon Song, my ‘entry drug’ to Hillage, is another looping, swirling song that leaps about and rocks and send me back to those heady, hairy days of my youth! Afterglid is another more meditative mostly instrumental piece (apart from The Lafta Yoga Song), with looping guitars, quiet acoustic passages, swirling keyboards and an over-riding Eastern feel, concluding with The Golden Vibe. It was an almost inexpressible joy for me to see these and other songs performed live by Steve and his band (the latest incarnation of Gong) late last year – it sent shivers up my spine as the opening bars were played.
14. Neil Young – American Stars & Bars
Back to Neil Young, and to what remains for me his best album. 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 'Cortez 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 music. 1977 was a key year for me personally, and also musically in forging tastes that have stayed with me, but have developed over those years.
13. Jeff Buckley – Grace
There are times when everything comes together with an album - melody, lyrics, musicianship, structure, voice – to produce something that is superlative, transcendent, almost beyond description. Jeff Buckley’s only solo album, Grace, comes very close to that. From the opening bars of drone building in crescendo as Buckley’s falsetto and the jangly guitars fade in, you are taken on a journey of discovery, of adventure; into unexpected, vibrant places. Jazz, soul, blues, folk, rock all vie for your attention, but not in any competitive way. Buckley’s voice soars and swoops in tone, texture and timbre effortlessly, another instrument in the symphony of the songs. This is really good stuff! Many, if they know Buckley at all, will do so for his seminal rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Halleluiah; others may be aware of his tragic end at the age of 30, only 2 years older than his father, Tim, when he died. But it is for his music that he deserves to be remembered: for its sheer passion, energy, depth and soul. The tragedy is that, like Hendrix or Morrison before him, he wasn’t able to take this music further.
12. Pink Floyd – Animals
Withing Pink Floyd’s canon, Animals is one of those albums that can be easily missed, which is a great shame. Coming as it did in that time of great flux for the UK music scene, it is an interesting album. For many at the time, particularly in the pro-punk media, this was a perfect example of what they were fighting against: long, ponderous songs with seemingly endless guitar solos, lacking the immediacy and energy of the new bands. Coming as it did, though, at the start of 1977, it caught me on the cusp, and still was able to thrill this then young rocker with its complexity and dexterity. The album sleeve, the work of Aubrey Powell and the team at Hipgnosis, has become iconic, with the inflatable pig tethered over what was then Battersea Power Station. It is hard not to see this landmark and not think of the album. For the band this album is, it seems to me, a transitional one. It draws on many of the musical ideas in the 'big' albums, and there's a particular hark back for me to the title track of Wish You Were Here in the 'book-end' acoustic tracks, 'Pigs on the Wing 1 & 2', just perhaps a little simpler as a song. But between these short songs come the three epics, each in their way pointing to what the band would become over the next two to five years. 'Dogs' is for me the stand-out track, and the only one that Roger Waters lets anyone else have a part in writing. It seems to be a prophetic statement of how the UK would develop over the coming decade under the influence of Thatcherism and rampant capitalism, and its inevitable consequences. In 'Pigs' and to a certain degree in 'Sheep' too, Waters is starting to get his angry head on. Maybe not yet as outspoken as he would be in The Wall and to a greater degree in The Final Cut and his solo material that followed, but it is still there. His targets are greed, hypocrisy, censorship, and that fact that perhaps you can only keep people down for so long before they take back what is theirs. This may well be seen as a coming of age album for the band, as they graduate from the spacey, psychedelic soundscapes of their early days, and the grand symphonic swathes of their pomp, to a more outspoken protest rock, almost. Perhaps it began to sow the seeds of the band's transition to stadium-filling mega stars and the inevitable self-destruction of the old order that accompanied it. This is, for me, one of the band's best works: different from what preceded it and what followed, but transitional and perhaps seminal for the band's ultimate direction.
11. The Tangent – A Place in the Queue
One of the trickiest parts of putting this list together was trying to work out which albums to leave out: if I wasn’t careful this could’ve been dominated by a number of albums by a small number of bands, but I didn’t want that to happen because it wouldn’t have adequately portrayed what makes me ‘tick’ musically (which I felt it should). When I came to consider the output of one of my favourite contemporary bands it was such a hard decision working out what order to put them, because they’re all so good! The Tangent have gone through some changes over the 17 years since their debut, but Andy Tillison’s compositions have consistently spoken to me, probably because we are roughly from the same background and era, and think very much alike on many things. So, I suppose I’ve slightly taken liberties here in choosing just one album from the band’s repertoire, but I’ve done so because they had to feature, and feature fairly highly, but I just couldn’t narrow it down other than by choosing a representative. A Place in the Queue is that representative: it has the epics – the magisterial In Earnest, the title track, and the ‘rock-out’ that is GPS Culture; it has the nostalgia that Andy loves so much in Lost in London and The Sun in my Eyes; it has Andy’s evocative and poignant lyrics, and musical virtuosity in spades; it has nods to Tangerine Dream, Canterbury, Van der Graaf Generator, Keith Emerson, jazz, disco, rock – this is complete progressive music. For me The Tangent are one of the pre-eminent bands of the current Progressive scene, and as a band continue to stretch the envelope of what ‘progressive’ music is, while never losing sight of where they’ve come from and the traditions in which they stand, I hope that their following will continue to expand. Andy’s continuing encouragement of younger musicians such as Luke Machin as well as stalwarts of the stature of Jonas Reingold and Theo Travis augurs well for the future of this music.