Monday, 3 June 2019

May's Music

May was a busy month musically - anything to take my mind off the debacle that is the UK political scene at the moment! - though unlike the past 3 months there was no live music. However, there was some excellent new material, and also some delving into the archives, discovering material from the 1970s.

The New Material:
There was much anticipation, as the month turned, for the arrival of the latest album from Big Big Train, though I had been fortunate in securing a review copy during April (as I hinted in last month's piece). Grand Tour carries on the legacy of the band with a towering collection of songs firmly in the musical style of the last 10 years of the band, yet now casting their net further afield than the shores of England. There are echoes of their earlier work, both musically and lyrically, but also fresh ideas and themes, and it's good to see the compositional weight being shared wider through the band. Some have hinted that, although the music is great, it sounds similar to earlier albums: but that's like saying 'I like apples, but they're all a bit apple-y'. This is Big Big Train at their best in terms of composition, atmosphere and musicianship, and this will easily be a contender for a high place at the end of the year and maybe even further on.

Bad Elephant's offering this month was a quintessentially 'Proggy' album - Brighteye Brison's 'V'. Three songs: the shortest 12:32, the longest 36:54, and all three steeped in the sounds and textures of 'classic' progressive music, without being uncomfortably regressive and nostalgic.

United Progressive Fraternity grew, along with the excellent Southern Empire, from the ashes of Unitopia, and their second album, Planetary Overload - Part 1: Loss, picks up where their 2014 debut - Fall in Love with the World - left off. This is a no-holds-barred paean to the planet we call home, wearing its desire to stop the creeping disaster of Climate change firmly on its sleeve, and is a wonderful and moving collection of soaring and stirring songs.

A Storm is Coming is Norwegian guitarist Bjorn Riis's third full-length solo album, and carries with it much of the energy and inventiveness that he brings to his band Airbag. Another superb collection of songs, it maybe doesn't have quite as strong a Gilmour-esque feel to it of his earlier solo and band output, but it's still a stellar offering.

Joe Cairney, the voice of Comedy of Errors and Grand Tour, put out a charity single last month for the benefit of the Firefighters' Charity - his and his friends' take on the Mystery song 'The Sailor & the Mermaid'. An excellent rendition and an equally excellent cause.

Talking of 'the voice', there is none so distinctive in Progressive music as that of Jon Anderson. His latest album, 1000 Hands - Chapter One, is one that lifts my soul every time I listen to it: there's just something about it that makes me feel better about life - perhaps the evident joy in Jon's voice and the positive attitude at the heart of his music. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but, like a good claret, Jon seems to be improving with age!

The last of my 'new' albums this month is 'Don't Panic' by Izz. For a lover of the works of the late Douglas Adams like myself, this is a treat, as it draws on Adams's work in a wonderful way. A really good album, and worth the wait.

Delving Deep:
Earlier this year Esoteric Recordings released a box set of 9 albums by Nucleus & Ian Carr - Torrid Zone: The Vertigo Recordings 1970-1975. This is a great collection of jazz/ fusion, featuring people such as Karl Jenkins, Chris Spedding & Alan Holdsworth among many others, and Burning Shed do a very good deal on the set.

Gong were a band that I was aware of but hadn't really given much time to, despite Steve Hillage's involvement with them in the early 70s. Having heard some of their material on Progzilla Radio, I took the plunge and bought 4 of their albums: the Radio Gnome trilogy (Flying Teapot, Angels' Egg & You); and the Pierre Moerlen-led fusion album Gazeuze! (again featuring Alan Holdsworth) This is unique music: bizarre; confusing, yet strangely alluring; brilliantly played and hinting at what was to come in Hillage's solo career. The later Moerlen material has a wonderful edge to it - different from the earlier music, but just as attractive.

I also have Progzilla to thank (more particularly Graham Harfleet) for the last purchase this month. Peter Hammill - and his band Van der Graaf Generator - feature regularly in Graham's show, and although I have a few VdGG albums I was lacking some solo Hammill. Following recommendations in the chat room I splashed out on 4 of his works: Chameleon in the Shadow of Night, The Silent Corner & The Empty Stage, In Camera, and Over. While there are, naturally, similarities with his VdGG work, there is an energy and power in the music that is strangely appealing. In the more acoustic numbers I can detect distinct echoes of Roy Harper. I've not had much chance to listen more than once, but these albums will, I'm sure, repay repeated rumination.

So, a full month, and a busy one. June is already shaping up nicely too: so see you next month!

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

April's Music

And so the year rolls on, and another month has passed. And what has been tickling my musical taste buds this last month?
 
The Far Meadow were this month's Bad Elephant offering, and their second album for the label, Foreign Land, was and is some outstanding progressive rock, an accomplished piece of work and just another example of the depth that the label has on its roster.

Robin Armstrong has also produced another stunning offering in his Cosmograf guise. Mind Over Depth is his seventh album, and although not as immediately gripping as some of his earlier work - notably The Man Left In Space - this one has grown and grown on me with repeated listens, despite its harder edge: clearly being a 'live' member of Big Big Train hasn't stunted Robin's creative side.

A couple of acts associated these days with BEM are Mike Kershaw & Whitewater, and they have released a collaborative EP - Good Intentions - on a Pay What You Want basis on Bandcamp as a charity effort to help raise money for a boy's football team that Mike helps to coach. This combination has a history of working together: last year they put out another EP as Evenflow - Old Town. This time the tracks are as themselves: one as Mike Kershaw & Whitewater, one as Whitewater featuring Mike Kershaw, and the last as Whitewater; as with Evenflow nothing is over 5 minutes long, and it's brilliant stuff for a good cause.

John Mitchell has his plectrum in many bands and projects, one of which is his solo Lonely Robot venture, and the final part of this trilogy has just been released - Under Stars. It draws the journey to a fitting climax and conclusion, and there are some wonderful echoes of the earlier parts included here.

Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso have been one of the leading lights of Rock Progressivo Italiano for almost 50 years, and after a 22 year hiatus they have recently released their 15th studio album, Transiberiana. This was my introduction to the band - I've never really explored their back catalogue - but it was a delight and shows that, despite losing frontman Francesco di Giacomo in 2014, they are still a force to be reckoned with.

Towards the end of the month, and following my birthday, I invested in a couple of other albums, one a new release, the other an 'oldie'. The new one was the latest from jazz/ fusion/ big band collective Snarky Puppy - Immigrance. This is as slick as ever, and seems to make greater use of guitars than I've been aware of previously, but there are some great licks, riffs and chops here. The 'oldie' was plugging a gap I had in my collection, and followed the recent sad death of Mark Hollis: Talk Talk's Laughing Stock. Moody, evocative, contemplative and poignant, this collection continues the trajectory that the band had begun on Spirit of Eden - a grower, but I'm loving it.

One other album came my way during April, but it won't be released until May 17th, so I'll hang fire until next month's Tour - but it is Grand!

Live music arrived at the end of the month in my old stamping ground of Crookes, Sheffield, with a cracking set from the John Hackett Band, including material from John & the band's catalogue as well as some tunes from John & Nick Fletcher's excellent Beyond the Stars from last year. Wonderful to hear it performed live, and so well. There was also a version of King Crimson's 'I Talk to the Wind'. Support came in the form of an acoustic set from Howard Sinclair, who performed stuff from his 'Glorious Company of Fools' as well as some new material from a forthcoming album as yet incomplete. A great night out, and a pleasing crowd too, including some youngsters. Hope for the future!

Sunday, 7 April 2019

March's Music

If, as I noted in last month's post, February was a surprisingly full month musically, March took a particularly different turn.

In terms of new recorded music, there were only three new albums for me this month, and one of those was an old one that I'd only recently discovered, courtesy of my good friend Emma Roebuck on Progzilla Radio. That new old one was a wonderful collaboration between John McLaughlin & Chick Corea and others from 2009 as The Five Peace Band, a live recording of pieces they'd performed, all of them tapping into the jazz fusion groove; all bar one over 12½ minutes long and four of the 8 tracks clocking over 20 minutes! Music to transport you to a better place.

The 'new' new stuff was first of all the latest album from The Room - Caught by the Machine, a fine collection of songs at the gentler end of the progressive spectrum, with excellent musicianship, a breadth of light and shade in the music, and echoes of 1980s sounds of The Police or Simple Minds for me in places. It's an album that repays multiple listens.

And then there was Alter Ego, the latest release on Bad Elephant label from Joost Maglev. I'd come across Maglev, a talented multi-instrumentalist, in 2016 through the release of Overwrite the Sin, so I was somewhat familiar with his work, but this album took me a little by surprise. Its overall shape is cyclical - reflected in the arrangement of the track list on the back of the CD, revolving around the central track, Judith ~episode ii~, which takes up the story of the central track on Overwrite..., Judith; the second and penultimate tracks are named Angel and Demon, and have a repeated lyrical insertion: 'Feeling Illusions Necessary Afterwards Longingly Losing You' - an acrostic for Finally; and the opening and closing tracks, ~Lucid and Dreams~, have the same lyrics but in reverse order of lines. Musically the album sounded familiar, even though it was new to me, and Angel sounds as if it was recorded by Todd Rundgren's Utopia. An absolutely stunning collection of songs that had me quite emotional on first listen.

So not much new music, although what there was was more than enough, but March was not a quiet month. My work situation has changed in that I'm now retired (though technically on long term sick  leave until August), and consequently I have more time for live music. This began with a visit to Wath-upon-Dearne (a musical hut of the universe!) for the Classic Rock Society's annual (and, presumably, final) Awards night, where we were entertained by the awards, presented this year by ELO, The Move & Black Sabbath legend, Bev Bevan, but also by an acoustic-ish set by a couple of members of Multi Story, which included a couple of Jon Anderson/ Yes covers, and by a rendition of The Visitor by Arena, who put on an excellent show. A week later I was in Sheffield for a totally different  musical experience, attending a classical concert at the City Hall by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of works by Sibelius, Mozart, Vaughan Williams and Elgar, for which it was wonderful to see the place full to the roof, and where we were royally entertained.

The following weekend found me in Leicester for Lifesigns and the Blackheart Orchestra at The Musician. Lifesigns are always value for money, though this was the first time I'd seen them with Dave Bainbridge on guitar, and they played material mostly from their latest album, Cardington. Blackheart Orchestra were new to me, and seemed a little small for an orchestra (2 people), but as both were multi-instrumentalists they made up for it with a great full sound and a very entertaining set. And the next weekend we were in London - along with about a million others on the Brexit march - but we were there for Lazuli, at the Borderline in Soho, playing their own particular brand of progressive 'music that crosses boundaries' and demonstrating the true spirit of European harmony that their particular sound embodies. I don't get to London for gigs that often, and it was great to see so many people that I know there in an atmosphere of hope and love and appreciation. If only it could always be like that...

So, that was my musical March...

Saturday, 2 March 2019

February's Music

Although it's the shortest month, I've just totted up that I've managed to listen to 18 new albums in February, which is actually 2 more than in January! Some of you may be thinking: 'How does he find the time!'; others may say: '18? What a slacker!' As usual, it's a bit of a mixed bag, but here goes...

Although my genre of preference is Progressive rock, I do have a penchant for jazz as well, and courtesy of Graham Harfleet on Progzilla Radio I discovered Joe Henderson, and picked up a 3-album compilation released last year of his work from the 1990s: Lush Life - The music of Billy Strayhorn; So Near, So Far, most of which is re-workings of Miles Davis; and Big Band, which does what it says! This is great jazz, and includes contributions from Wynton Marsalis, Christian McBride and Chick Corea among others. Alongside this I've recently taken delivery of Chris Potter's new album Circuits, released on my go-to jazz label, Edition, and this has some delightful tunes, at times reminiscent for me of Wayne Shorter. Highly recommended, if this music is your 'bag'!

Elsewhere on CD, these albums have dropped through the letter-box during the past month: The Windmill - Tribus: the Norwegian band's 3rd album, and another excellent piece of Scandinavian Prog; The Emerald Dawn - Nocturne: another 3rd album, a darker collection produced to the band's usual high standard; Duke 72 - Mid Shires Herald: the latest from the wonderfully eclectic Bad Elephant Music stable, where you never really know what you're going to get musically, but so far I've never been disappointed - stretched, yes, but not disappointed; I Am The Manic Whale - New Forms of Life: a live compilation of material from their first two albums, capturing their sound wonderfully and reminding me of a great live set last year at DanFest; Red Bazar - Things As They Appear: the band's second album with Peter Jones on vocals & keyboards, and just as good, if not slightly edging their Songs From The Bookcase, and another live gig caught at The Musician in Leicester; and Grand Tour - Clocks That Tick (But Never Talk): the follow-up to 2015's Heavy On The Beach.

I've been asked to do a couple of longer reviews of albums this month, which you can find elsewhere on this blog, if you wish, for Residuos Mentales - Introspection and for O.A.K. - Giordano Bruno.

Other stuff purchased in the last month was: Parallel or 90 Degrees - Unbranded: one of the band's back catalogue recently made available by Andy Tillison on Bandcamp and a wonderful collection of songs; Telegraph - Mir: an album from last year but so reminiscent of Camel in their heyday and early 70s Floyd; 3RDegree - Ones & Zeroes volume 0: the excellent follow-up to Ones & Zeroes volume 1 - I'd never got round to listening to this and now wonder why, as it's brilliant!; and the wonderfully bonkers Cheeto's Magazine - Amazingous: some crazy music but some very well-crafted music too. Allof these are available on Bandcamp if you want to explore further.

And then there were a couple of albums I got early copies of: Tim Bowness - Flowers At The Scene: some thoughtful songs sung as only Tim can, and supported by a cast of Prog luminaries such as Peter Hammill & David Longdon among others; and The Mute Gods - Atheists & Believers: the band's 3rd album and one where Nick Beggs' voice, both lyrically & vocally, is becoming stronger and more distinct. These two will probably have to live with me for a bit longer just to sink in, but they are worth it.

So, just a summary really of last month, but I hope it's been informative...

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

O.A.K - Giordano Bruno

What is it that draws you to an album, particularly one by a band you're not previously aware of? Maybe it's the personnel in the band? Maybe it's the album artwork? Maybe it's the story - the concept, to use a naughty word in some circles - that draws you in? Maybe it's the band's name that attracts you?

'Giordano Bruno' is the seventh album by Italian Progressive band Oscillazioni Alchemico Kreative, or O.A.K for short (not to be confused with the Norwegian band Oak, who's 2018 album 'False Memory Archive' was one of my albums of the year last year.)


The principal songwriter is Jerry Cutillo, who also provides vocals, flute, keyboards & guitars, and on this collection he is ably assisted by Francesco De Renzi on keyboards, Guglielmo Mariotti on bass & 12-string, and Shanti Colucci on drums, and further enhanced by a guest appearance from David Jackson on saxophone, and other contributions from Richard Sinclair, Sonja Kristina, Maart Allcock, Jenny Sorrenti & Derek Wilson, so there's some strong links to the heyday of British Progressive music with Van der Graaf Generator, Caravan, Curved Air and others.

The album artwork comes from the entrancing, alluring and prolific hands of Ed Unitsky, whose portfolio includes such modern day Prog luminaries as Unitopia, U.P.F., and The Tangent, among many others.


The story concerns a 16th Century Dominican Friar from Campania, who had the reputation for being a free thinker, a creative philosopher, and a controversial scientist. Such traits led him, after much travel and some influential company, to be tried by the Roman Inquisition as a heretic, and the album tells his story as he reflects on his life on his way to be burned at the stake in the Campo de Fiori in Rome. It takes us on his first journey to Rome, and his shock at discovering the moral hypocrisy of many of the priests there, practising the very acts that they publicly condemned; on his trips to the court of King Henry III of France, to London where he encountered Shakespeare, and to Wittenberg in Germany where he held a brief teaching post. A final teaching post in Venice at the behest of Giovanni Mocenigo led to his arrest and condemnation.

Musically the album draws strongly on old-school Prog of the 1970s. Mellotron and flute feature heavily from the beginning, and there are some very strong echoes of Jethro Tull in a number of places. That said, this is not a purely derivative work: there are other more contemporary elements as well as some classical edges too. David Jackson's sax is quite strongly used, and in Sandali Rossi, near the end of the album, it's almost as if some Tull-ish flute and Van der Graaf sax are sparring with each other. Keyboards, flute & sax tend to dominate, and where there are guitars they tend to be used to add structure to the music rather than to take the lead. Tempo-wise the music flows quite easily between reflective and up-beat - the instrumental track Le Cena delle Beffe has almost a dance music edge to it; being Prog there has to be at least one odd time signature, which I detected in Wittenberger Fuchstanz (though I'm not sure that it is...), and in good Prog tradition there's even some tubular bells towards the end of the final track! Cutillo also draws from the classical canon, including a version of Saint Saens' 'Danse Macabre', albeit a 'progged' version, similar to Tull's treatment of Bach's Bouree.

Lyrically I have to confess to struggling a little, as most (though not all) of the words are in Italian - not a language I am familiar with. There are some passages in English, and even in German in Wittenberger Fuchstanz, and the guest vocals of Sonja Kristina and Richard Sinclair (who seems to me to be more 'Hatfield' than 'Caravan' here) add variety and depth to the tunes that Cutillo's voice couldn't do alone - not that there's anything wrong with his voice!

The story of Giordano Bruno is one of a man who took the traditions that had been handed down to him and examined them, challenged them, and enhanced them - at some considerable cost to himself. In a way, O.A.K. do that with the music here, drawing on, enhancing and challenging the traditions of classical and Progressive rock music. This is an interesting, challenging and stimulating collection, and I would warmly commend it to your ears for further consideration.