Saturday, 29 December 2012

Music of 2012

As the year draws to a close it has become customary to look back over the past 12 months and review aspects of life, and none more so than in the world of music. There are a number of 'best of' lists being published and/or broadcast at the moment, and I thought I'd give you my take on the past year's musical offerings.

My personal preference for music is predominantly progressive rock, but not exclusively. Outside that favoured genre I have particularly enjoyed the offerings of the prolific Joe Bonamassa, who has produced not only his solo effort 'Driving Towards the Daylight', an excellent collection of guitar-driven blues rock, but also a third album with Black Country Communion - 'Afterglow'. With tensions in the band towards the end of the year, which may or may not have been resolved, this may be a swansong, but time will tell. Richard Hawley, a son of my current home city of Sheffield, gave us a corker of an album this year in 'Standing at the Sky's Edge' - a record with a different feel to some of his more recent recordings, with a haunting, Spector-esque 'wall-of-sound' feel to many of the tracks. John Mayer, a big favourite of my eldest son, and a great influence on his own music, gave us a very warm, accessible, country-feeling collection in 'Born and Raised' which grows with every listen. Perhaps a little nearer to the 'prog' universe were the recording of the reunion concert by Jazz Fusion legends Return to Forever, 'The Mothership Returns', which is just awesome, and the almost uncategorisable Sigur Rós, who gave us more of their ethereal soundscapes on 'Valtari'.

So to my top Prog albums of 2012: or maybe in a moment, because some may feel that there are some glaring omissions from the list that's about to unfold. I'm only including here records that I've bought and listened to this year, and so far I'm still waiting to hear/ purchase the following highly critically-rated collections, so can't give my opinion as yet: 'Skin' by Panic Room; 'Beneath the Waves' by Kompendium (was on my Christmas list, but never made it to my stocking); 'Perilous' by Glass Hammer; 'I Am Anonymous' by Headspace; 'Invicta' by The Enid; 'The Ghost Moon Orchestra' by Mostly Autumn; and 'On and On' by Syd Arthur. Maybe the New Year will see some or all of these making my collection.

There has been so much good Prog produced this year: it may even be fair to say that this has been a classic year, almost on a par with 1972. I do wonder whether in 40 years, as I turn 92, I will look back with such affection on the class of 2012 as I do on 1972's alumni in my 52nd year - only time, good health and avoiding Armageddon may tell. Of that great selection, here (finally) is my Top 25.

25. Rush - 'Clockwork Angels': been a Rush fan for 40 years, but still not totally convinced by this one yet.
24. Squackett - 'A Life Within a Day': a good, but not great, collaboration between two prog heroes.
23. The Reasoning - 'Adventures In Neverland': an enjoyable addition to the band's canon.
22. Gazpacho - 'March of Ghosts': moody and atmospheric, as one expects from this Norwegian outfit.
21. Galahad - 'Beyond the Realms of Euphoria': the second of two offerings by this band this year, an interesting fusion of heavy prog & trance.
20. Steve Hackett - 'Genesis Revisited 2': a nostalgic look back over Steve's history with some powerful collaborations and interesting reworkings.
19. Storm Corrosion - 'Storm Corrosion': no-one quite knew what putting Steven Wilson & Mikael Åkefeldt together in a studio would produce, and many were surprised by the result. Hard to define, but at times quite sublime.
18. Nine Stones Close - 'One Eye on the Sunrise': a new band to me, who have progressed from last year's 'Traces' to produce a great record.
17. Astra - 'The Black Chord': a great follow-up to 2009's 'The Weirding'; dark and compelling.
16. Cailyn - 'Four Pieces': introduced to this young lady when she followed me on Twitter. Some great reworkings of classical standards as well as her own composition, with some great guitar work.
15. The Flower Kings - 'Banks of Eden': this band, however long a hiatus there is between recordings, and however hard the band members work on other projects between times, continue to produce great, epic, dreamy prog.
14. Marillion - 'Sounds That Can't Be Made': reminiscent on 'Afraid of Sunlight', and containing the epic and prophetic 'Gaza', this is among Marillion's finest work.
13. Unitopia - 'Covered Mirror volume1 - Smooth as Silk': a collection of covers of songs that have inspired the band, this carries their hallmark of great musicianship and distinctive vocals. Stand-outs for me are the two medleys, and their take on Zep's 'Rain Song'.
12. Ian Anderson - 'Thick as a Brick 2': after 40 years we finally get to find out what happened to Gerald Bostock. A great album in the Tull tradition, and an equally great live show earlier this year.
11. Anathema - 'Weather Systems': an album of wonderful atmospheric music, showcasing great songwriting and musical skills. The latest in a line of 3 stunning recordings.

The Top Ten

10. Flying Colours - 'Flying Colours': one of Mike Portnoy's many projects since leaving Dream Theater, featuring, among others, his fellow Transatlantician, Neal Morse. A smorgasbord of pop-y, heavy and epic tunes showcasing an array of talent.
9. Lalle Larsson - 'Nightscapes': The final part of Karmakanic keyboardist Larsson's 'Weaveworld' trilogy, this is evocative, moody music that takes you into and out of the darkness.
8. Mystery - 'The World is a Game': This is the music Benoit David was meant to make. It suits his vocal style so much better than Yes did, and along with 'One Among the Living' is some of the band's best material.
7. Kaipa - 'Vittjar': Another product of the Scandinavian prog stable, mostly sired by the almost ubiquitous Roine Stolt, Kaipa continue to produce their distinctive music album after album. This is another classic: soaring guitars & keyboards, unique vocals, driving percussion; an almost perfect band.
6. It Bites - 'Map of the Past': for over 25 years now It Bites have been turning out memorable pop-prog, but with the arrival of John Mitchell in 2006 they have turned out some stunning music on 'The Tall Ships' and this latest offering. Memorable, driving tunes; great musicianship - what more could you want?
5. Threshold - 'March of Progress': an outstanding Prog-Metal album that grips you from the onset and carries you on an hour-long roller-coaster of musical brilliance, catchy hooks and rattling good tunes!
4. I and Thou - 'Speak': I've only recently discovered this album, but have been blown away by its beauty. Chiefly the work of Jason Hart of Renaissance, this is an exquisite collection of tunes that takes you out of yourself and to a better place.
3. Änglagård - 'Viljans Öga': The last of the Scandinavians on this year's list, but undoubtedly the best. Änglagård have only produced now 3 studio recordings, and their last one was 18 years ago. After such a long hiatus, they have returned with an astounding piece of music - truly masterful.
2. Echolyn - 'Echolyn': It is difficult to know what to say about this record that would do justice to it. An amazing collection of songs, brilliantly executed, with a warmth and a depth to them that is almost tangible. Sell your mother and buy this record!

1. Big Big Train - 'English Electric (Part 1)': When I first heard this album I said 'listen to this: your ears will love you for ever', and in the 4 months since its release I have only strengthened my opinion of this masterpiece of English Progressive Rock. All of the band's output, but particularly their last 3 outings ('The Underfall Yard', 'Far Skies Deep Time', and this one) have the ability to evoke an essential Englishness that very little can these days. There is nostalgia here, both in the lyrical content and in the musical style, but not in a backward-looking sense. It evokes all that is good about this nation of ours, and I wait in eager anticipation for March 4th 2013 and Part 2.

As I said, it's been an outstanding year for music this year!

Friday, 28 December 2012

The Hobbit

Many years ago, when my two boys were quite young, I remember reading them 'The Hobbit' as a bed-time story. They both loved the story, and my young son, James, got quite upset near the end of the book when one of the dwarves died. This story has been an important part of our family.

When Peter Jackson adapted 'The Lord of the Rings' for the cinema, we lapped it up, immersing ourselves in the epic tale of adventure, friendship & obsession; of the triumph of good over evil despite almost insurmountable odds. We even bought into the extended DVDs, which have provided hours of entertainment in the years since.

So when it was announced the Jackson was to adapt the prequel to LOTR, 'The Hobbit', for the cinema, there was much anticipation. Then the film was extended to 2 films, then 3, spread over the next three Christmases. The boys managed to see the first film on or shortly after its general release, but it wasn't until yesterday that my wife & I got to see it. And we went for the full package: 3D IMAX, which may have been a mistake.

Although a fully immersive experience, the 48-frame IMAX film caused great problems for my wife, who had to leave the theatre after about 15 minutes feeling dizzy and nauseous: I too felt a little queasy, but managed to sit through the 3 hours of the film. It was a good film, with stunning special effects (as one would expect of Jackson), but I have to say that it did seem to drag a little - well, quite a lot, actually. My feeling was that it was about an hour too long, and would've lost nothing if the pace could've been quickened a little. If the further two films are as long and ploddy, then it may not be the enjoyable experience that I, and many others, had hoped it would be.

It's not a bad film - Martin Freeman is very good in the title role as young Bilbo Baggins, and you do feel as if you care what happens to the company of dwarves as the story progresses - but I don't think it's going to be winning too many awards outside the Special Effects categories.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Oh Synod, what have you done?

It's difficult for me as a male Free Church minister to truly know how my colleagues in the Church of England are feeling this evening, following the narrow defeat of the legislation to introduce Women Bishops today, but my heart goes out to them, as do my prayers. Having spoken to a female colleague this evening I know that there is quite a bit of frustration and anger around at the moment.

Despite overwhelming support from the House of Bishops, into which they would move, and from the House of Clergy, from which they would move, the measure fell because the majority in the House of Laity was just not sufficient: a majority wanted it, but just 6 too few to carry it. Twenty years ago it was almost the same, but then the measure to allow the Ordination of women to the priesthood was carried, albeit by a slender majority, by the lay-folk of the Anglican church in England.

Much could, and probably will, be said about how and why this situation has arisen, and about the unlikely alliance of Conservative Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics that has gone some considerable way to bringing it about: but I'm not really qualified to comment, so I won't. While this issue may have made strange bed-fellows within the breadth of the Church of England, it will also cause major ructions in the further implementation of the Anglican/ Methodist Covenant, where many of us from the Methodist Church had been insistent on women being able to minister fully at every level of the Church.

Only time will tell just how damaging this may be for the further unity of God's Church, and for the mission of that church in God's world. What do those outside the church, who know nothing of the theological niceties inherent in the debate, make of this decision? Methinks they will see it as just another example of how out of touch the Church is to modern thinking, and consequently how irrelevant we are to their lives.

We are the Body of Christ, and when one part suffers we all suffer: tonight we all feel the pain to some degree. The Church of England has sought to find a solution to this issue that keeps as many within its communion as possible, and, perhaps, for the time being, it has done that. But the time will come when the full ministry of women will be possible within the Anglican communion, of that I have no doubt. The 'kairos' moment may not be November 20 2012, but we wait for its coming in hope and faith.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Covered Mirror

I discovered the band Unitopia a number of years ago, and have been delighted by their music during that time, which carries a particular warmth, energy and sensitivity about it. Like many of their admirers I have been waiting anxiously for new material from the band for a while now - since their last studio recording 'Artificial' in 2010. That wait is now over, to some degree, with the release of 'Covered Mirror'. I say 'to some degree', because this is a collection of songs that have inspired the band - other people's music, rather than their own.

Influences and inspiration in music manifest themselves in a number of ways, and imitation is often described as the sincerest form of flattery. But this ensemble is not a case of mere imitation. On each song Unitopia have stamped their own style, and brought their own interpretation to works by bands as diverse as The Korgies, Ice House & Marillion, as well as rock standards Led Zeppelin, Yes & Genesis.

I must confess to being familiar with most, but not all, of the songs on this album, so I am aware of 'what they ought to sound like' (or how the original bands played them). On the whole I think that these songs are done justice to, and I have been encouraged to search out the music I'm not familiar with to see how Unitopia have interpreted them.

Stand-outs for me are Led Zeppelin's 'Rain Song', Supertramp's 'Even in the Quietest Moments' & Todd Rundgren's 'Can we Still be Friends', along with the two long medleys of Yes & Genesis material. I particularly love the take of Genesis's 'Silent Sun', from their first album, which I think is vastly improved in this version; and their interpretation of Yes's 'Owner of a Lonely Heart', which morphs from a stadium rocker to almost a ballad. The material has, at times, a strong antipodean feel (as perhaps one would expect from a Aussie band), with the use of didgeridoos giving an ethereal edge at times.

While I, and many others, await new personal material from this band, 'Covered Mirror' is an opportunity to relax in the warmth of Mark Trueack's vocals and the band's virtuosity. And if you can, check out the bonus tracks which include a splendid working of John Martyn's 'Sweet Little Mystery'.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Genesis Revisited

For a lover of Progressive Music like myself, it was a great delight to see Steve Hackett's latest project 'Genesis Revisited 2' receive quite a bit of media attention around its launch - there was even an appearance on the sofa of BBC Breakfast!

The album is a re-working of a number of Genesis tunes from the period when Steve Hackett was incumbent with the band - 1971-1977 - along with some of Steve's solo material, and a very good collection of songs it is too. The musicianship is tremendous, and there are contributions from an array of Prog luminaries including Steven Wilson (who seems to be everywhere these days), John Wetton, Michael Akerfeldt, Roine Stolt & Steve Rothery, as well as usual collaborators, Nick Magnus, Nick Beggs, Amanda Lehman and Steve's brother John Hackett. Everything seems to fit together well, and on the whole these are faithful renditions of timeless classics from the Genesis canon. My pick would probably be 'The Lamia', with Nik Kershaw on vocals.

The title of this current collection, of course, hints of a previous similar venture, and having listened to the 2012 offering I acquired a copy of the first 'Genesis Revisited' from 1996. This again is a collection of tunes from the classic era of Genesis, and I have to say that this earlier collection strikes me as a more interesting package: the recordings are much more re-envisionings of earlier songs than the second collection, and add a depth to the music that seems to be lacking in the latest discs. 'Firth of Fifth', one of the best songs Genesis recorded, is given a new life with a fresh orchestration; 'I Know What I Like' takes on a reggae feel with echoes of the Bonzo's 'Intro & Outro' (or Oldfield's 'Tubular Bells') in places; and 'Waiting Room Only', a restatement of The Lamb's 'Waiting Room' veers from driving rock to 'Revolution #9'.

Not that I'm saying GR2 is a bad collection: far from it. But I think there is more inventiveness in the earlier package, and for me that's at the heart of Progressive music.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Four More Years

So, the US election band-waggon has finally rolled to a halt - for the time being - and Barak Obama has once again emerged victorious with a mandate to govern the most powerful nation on Earth for another four-year term. And I, for one, am delighted with the result. My natural preference is for a more compassionate, less capitalist-driven political agenda (admittedly difficult to pull off in the USA), and Obama fits with my leanings much better than Romney. If I was an American, I would naturally be drawn towards the Democratic Party.

Although not directly affected by the outcome of the poll, I acknowledge that the incumbent of the White House has a certain influence outside of the 50 states, and who they are matters to me: as a Brit, as a European, and as a citizen of the world. Their decisions, their influence, will in some way impact my life.

The euphoria of four years ago, when Obama was swept into the Presidency on a wave of Hope and optimism, was somewhat lacking this time, though. As I watched the news programs this morning a number of things struck me. One was the gracious way in which Mitt Romney conceded defeat, with no public show of bitterness, and with a pledge to pray for the President for the task that is now ahead of him. Another was the way in which Obama accepted victory, which was, to me, much more understated and down-played than it was in 2008. I particularly admired his offer to sit down with Romney to look at how the country could be taken forward from this point, and his focus on the American people rather than himself as the American President.

With Mitt Romney and I hope many other people of faith across the USA and across the world, I will continue to pray for President Obama, as I hope I would have done for Romney, had he won.

Monday, 22 October 2012

ReGenesis @ Holmfirth 20/10/12

One of my major musical formative experiences, back in the 1970s, was my introduction to the music of Genesis: they were the first Progressive band that I really connected with. Sadly I never managed to see them perform live, and by then anyway they had lost Peter Gabriel as vocalist and were just about to part company with Steve Hackett too. But their early material, from what many regard as the 'classic' era of Genesis, always had a certain magic and allure about it.

So I was delighted to have the opportunity last Saturday to see one of the leading Genesis tribute bands - ReGenesis - perform at the Picturedome in Holmfirth. And what a show they put on for a packed house!

The tour is billed as a 40th Anniversary of Foxtrot tour, but the set was replete with material from all the Gabriel-era albums bar the first, and contained songs rarely if ever performed live by Genesis themselves.

The set opened with 'The Return of the Giant Hogweed', and immediately we were treated to a faithful rendition of the original material, but with all the flair of a live performance, and without the pretence of trying to impersonate the band - truly a tribute, rather than a mimicking. Then the opening bars of 'Firth of Fifth', which, unlike any live takes by Genesis I've heard, began with the iconic piano solo rather than the striking chord immediately before the vocals. Andy Gray, as he did throughout the set, gave a faultless rendition of Steve Hackett's guitar solo here.

The set continued with 'Harold the Barrel', which seemed just a little fast for me, but it was great to hear this oft-neglected track included; then 'Stagnation' and 'The Musical Box', which gave singer Tony Patterson his first opportunity to don one of his Gabriel-esqe masks as the Old Man at the end of the song.

To huge acclaim the band then gave us 'The Knife', a barnstorming rocker of a song, again maybe performed a little quickly, but producing a great response from the gathered throng. Then, the main course (so to speak): Foxtrot, Genesis's acclaimed 1972 album, performed in its entirety. From the opening haunting chords of 'Watcher of the Skies' to the climax of 'Supper's Ready', again this was a moving and almost faultless performance, with Patterson again employing the theatrics that Peter Gabriel made his own back in the day. It was wonderful to hear little-known songs like 'Time Table' and 'Can-Utility and the Coastliners' played live, and Andy Gray gave a splendid rendition of 'Horizons' too.

For an encore, we were treated to 'The Lamb lies down on Broadway' and 'Fly on the Windshield', before ending with 'I Know What I Like'.

The end of a perfect evening of timeless Progressive Rock that is still delighting audiences 40 years on. The musicianship from all of the band was impeccable, and I would recommend anyone to see this group of talented musicians.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Clegg's Apology

I'm not ashamed to say it: for the greater part of my voting life I have supported the Liberal Democrats or their political predecessors the Liberals & the Social Democratic Party (SDP) - in fact in my 20s I was a member of the SDP.

At the last General election in 2010 I, like many others across the country, was excited about the prospect of the Lib Dems being involved in the nations political life in a way that they hadn't for the best part of a century. Nick Clegg was coming across as a leader-in-waiting, and one particular policy - opposing any rise in University tuition fees - was hitting a nerve nationally, and certainly in Clegg's adopted city of Sheffield where I live and work. Many of us remember the scenes of frustrated students unable to vote on election night because the polling stations simply couldn't cope with the numbers who turned out.

Following the election, Clegg and his party executive took the decision to form a coalition with the Tories - the largest single party in the poll, but with no clear majority - and a government was formed. Sadly, very early on in that administration, the pledge on university tuition fees was scrapped as financially unworkable, and much to my distress and anger, Clegg then stated that he hadn't really meant what he'd publicly promised.

From that point, I felt that I could no longer support the party in any election for the foreseeable future. And so far I have maintained that feeling.

Over the last 24 hours (as I write) Clegg has sought to set the record straight, to un-muddy the waters and - wait for it - to apologise (a rare word with politicians). But he's not apologised for breaking his word - for lying to voters and potential voters: no, he's simply apologised for making the pledge in the first place.

He believes that the decision to sign the pledge and then to break his word has become a weight round his and the party's ankles: too true, but he's showing no remorse at all for lying, simply for making the decision that won him so many votes in the first place. This move, ahead of the Party Conference next week, where Clegg will probably face anger from some local activists, is certainly not going to convince me to go back on my pledge, not to support the party I have most clearly empathised with for the majority of my adult life, certainly while Clegg is still leader and is still legitimising Cameron's divisive, elitist regime - a Government this country did not vote for and does not want.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

English Electric (Part 1)

Every now and then something comes along that makes me sit up and take notice. In recent years one such has been the band Big Big Train.

I first encountered them early in 2010, when many people were raving about their album 'The Underfall Yard', and on listening I could understand why there was so much interest in their music. Since then I have immersed myself in most of their back catalogue, which surprisingly stretches back to the mid-1990s, and have discovered the same standard of musical excellence throughout.

Later in 2010 saw the release of what was strangely called an EP (40 minutes of music used to be called a single album!) 'Far Skies Deep Time', and then came the promise of new material some time this year. That promise is now fulfilled, with more to come in 2013, with appearance of 'English Electric (Part1)'.

This is, again, a beautiful collection of songs, steeped in the Progressive rock tradition, but also suffused throughout with a celebration of England. Images of railway sidings, hedgerows, views of 'Winchester from the Hill', echoes of Betjeman in 'Summoned by Bells', and the eulogising of 'a charming old lovable rogue' of an art forger in the wondrously joyous 'Judas Unrepentant'.

Full of exquisite vocal harmonies, folky touches to the music, as well as hints of 'Selling England by the Pound'-era Genesis, this is music that your ears will love you for listening to. This band deserve to be more widely known and appreciated, and I hope this collection of songs will go some way to achieving this.

The album is available through Amazon, or you can listen and /or download from the band's Bandcamp site.

Macbeth at The Crucible

Shakespeare's tragic history of Macbeth is a play that many are familiar with, if only from struggling through it at school: the timeless tale of ambition, destiny, guilt, murder and madness; of the equally swift ascent and descent of Scotland's king, Macbeth. The autumn season at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre opens with a production of this play, following on from acclaimed performances of Hamlet, starring John Simm and Othello with Clarke Peters & Dominic West.

I attended the Public Dress Rehearsal last evening, and was part of a packed house. For the first time that I can remember the theatre was completely in the round, with seats where the back-stage area usually is, and the performance area central. The set was sparse but effective: a circle of stones around the outside, with an area that could be raised later to fashion a table for the banquet scene. The lighting was well designed and effective.

The performances, I have to say, were mixed. Andrew Jarvis came across well as Duncan, the Old Man and Siward; the two local youngsters, Joseph Pass (Fleance) and particularly Ethan Carley as Macduff's son also performed well; and Christopher Logan, who took seven parts in the play, effused as the drunken porter and camped it up as Hecate. John Dougall as Macduff, I'm afraid, seemed to shout rather than project, and much of his dialogue was lost as a result. Other cast members, on the whole, put in creditable performances.

Of the principals, both Claudie Blakley as Lady Macbeth and Geoffrey Streatfeild as the troubled king sadly came across just a little flat, delivering their lines but at times just that. I and others left the theatre a little disappointed, feeling relieved that we had only paid £1 for the night. I have come to expect better from Daniel Evans' direction: I hope that, as the run goes on, other will not be as disappointed as I sadly was.

Friday, 31 August 2012

20 years on...

Today marks the end of my first 20 years in Circuit ministry in the Methodist Church in Great Britain as a Presbyter. I say that last thing because I spent 2 years prior to being selected for ministry serving as a Lay Pastor to 2 congregations in Leicestershire. But this could very well be the mid-point of my active ministry: How has the experience been?

Following 3 years training in Bristol, the first 6 years were spent in post-industrial County Durham, in the town of Stanley. Well, I call it a town - that's how it seemed to me when I arrived there fresh from college - but I soon discovered that it was more of a collection of pit villages, each with their own particular identity and each lacking the one thing that gave them that identity - the pit. These had closed back in the 1970s, but their shadow still hung heavily in the air and in the hearts and lives of the people.

Methodism in County Durham is, to all intents and purposes, the established church: it was easier to start a Methodist Society as these communities were being built than it was to establish an Anglican parish. Consequently, if people didn't go to church there it was the Methodist Church they didn't go to - unless they needed a christening, a wedding (often after the second christening) or a funeral. So, my time there was largely spent on what were laughingly called 'occasional offices', making many contacts with the 'unchurched', but having very little time to develop those contacts as a fresh 'batch' came along with at times alarming regularity. I averaged 20 Weddings a year, around 60 christenings ('wet' and 'dry'), and roughly 80 funerals: many opportunities to 'sow the seed' of the gospel, but little time for harvest.

After 6 years, and having guided one of the churches through their centenary celebrations, I moved from Stanley to Wetherby in West Yorkshire - only about 10 miles from home - to take charge of 3 churches there. Sociologically a very different appointment, in that Wetherby is, in many areas, a lot more affluent a place, with the consequent challenges that that brings in ministry terms. Together we saw in the new millennium and explored new ways of worship and of doing and being church - explorations that did not come without issues, in-fighting and insensitivity - from me as well as them. I learned a lot about people and about ministry there, but not without considerable cost to my soul and my psyche at times.

The Wetherby years were also the time when I spent a lot of time engaged in Chaplaincy. Alongside the 3 churches I had care of, I was also the Free Churches chaplain at HMYOI Wetherby. This not only provided many opportunities to engage these young lads in conversations about important issues, but also to introduce them to stories that had been a part of my life almost from the beginning. There is a particular joy to being able to tell the story of the Prodigal Son to a 17 year-old lad for the first time and to see the recognition in his face as he reflects with you on its timeless qualities. In contrast to the work in the prison, I was also chaplain to 35 (Wetherby) Squadron of the Air Training Corps: a generally motivated bunch of young people, more or less the same age as the YOIs. No generation can be stereotyped: hopefully all generations can be given hope and purpose for their lives.

And so, in 2004, to Sheffield. For the last 8 years I have been minister of Wesley Hall, Crookes, a large Methodist Chapel with a relatively small congregation, sitting in the shadow of one of the largest Anglican churches in the country (St Thomas' Crookes). In that time we have together sought to catch a vision for our place in that community, and to develop Wesley Hall as a focus for many activities in the Crookes area. From there we reach out to young families through the Toddler Group, to the elderly with the Lunch Club, and to young lads through Boy's Brigade. Our buildings are used by MENCAP to house offices, by choirs and opera groups, for Tae Kwon Do and Zumba classes. We struggle with what to do with a building that is Grade 2-listed and showing increasing signs of being 104 years-old, but increasingly rely on God's strength to get us through.

Alongside Wesley Hall, my only consistent 'charge' over the 8 year, I have cared for congregations at Stanwood for 6 years, Rivelin Glen & Stannington for 5 years, Walkley for 2 years and Dungworth for 1 year. Each have had their own opportunities and challenges, yet remain cheerful. For the last 2 years Wesley Hall & Walkley have functioned as one church, sharing a church council but retaining their separate buildings and worshipping communities. We are still working out the implications of this for both communities, but it has been good to share in mission, worship and fellowship over the past 2 years.

So, 20 years of outreach, mission, ministry, worship, frustration, sadness and joy; sharing Christ with God's people within and outside the church building and the church community. And after 20 years, if I'm honest, I don't really think I'd rather be anywhere else (though I would be lying if I said I'm not tempted on an almost daily basis to pack it all in!) Only God really knows where the next 20 years will take me - I hope, by God's grace, to still be active then

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Asia - XXX

Asia: the Prog super-group of the 1980s. Drawing their members from such luminaries of the Progressive rock scene as Yes, King Crimson and ELP (themselves possibly the first Prog super-group), Asia produced a brand of pop-prog that took the burgeoning MTV generation by storm. No rock radio show in the early 80s was complete without one of their tunes.

It's now 30 years since their eponymous debut album was released, and having returned in 2008 with their original line-up of Steve Howe, Geoff Downes, Carl Palmer & John Wetton to bring us 'Phoenix' and 2010's 'Omega', Asia have just released their latest collection, aptly called 'XXX'.

This is unmistakeably Asia: a collection of finely worked pop-rock tunes that rarely diverts from that recognised formula that brought them such success 30 years ago. The songs showcase the talents of all four of these consummate musicians, albeit in a restrained MOR, radio-friendly way. Wetton's voice is as strong as ever; Downes' keyboards have a tendency to dominate the mix at times; Howe, as always, shines in places and drives many of the songs with his strong guitar work, both acoustic and electric; and Palmer continues to be the powerhouse when needed, occasionally being allowed to produce some of the intricate work for which he is renowned. Sadly, though, for me, they always seem to leave me wanting a bit more from them: maybe the Asia formula leaves them all just throttling-back a little too much.

Their are glimpses throughout the album of what could be - something a little different from the standard 4-time rock songs that predominate. The opening bars of the opening song 'Tomorrow the World' - with Downes' keyboards creating an atmospheric mood, backed by muted strings, leading to some beautifully lyrical guitar from Howe - are quite stunning, but after 50 seconds we lose that for a standard rock beat which left me a little flat. Don't get me wrong: it's not a bad album, just a little same-y for me. The album closer, 'Ghost of a Chance' is one of those songs that you feel has been around for years: I was utterly convinced that I'd heard it before, yet can't find it anywhere. Indeed, the more I listen to the album, the more familiar it all sounds - these are all quite memorable tunes.

'Ghost of a Chance' is the album closer on the 'standard' edition of the album, but on the version I downloaded there are two 'bonus' tracks, and these for me are the stand-out tracks of this collection. 'Reno (Silver and Gold)' has a wonderful intro passage, and develops into a gentle song, with a repeat of the opening phrasing and a pleasant bit of acoustic work from Howe in the middle. 'I Know How You Feel' is one of the tracks on the main album, but it also receives an alternate mix - the 'Midnight' Mix - which in my opinion is the better version of the song. It has a much gentler keyboard arrangement than the original version, and hardly any drumming, which gives it an altogether more atmospheric feel.

This isn't a bad album, but it's not a great one either. What it is is four great, and still hard-working, musicians producing music that they love and which I'm sure many of those who have listened to them over the last 30 years will equally enjoy, as I have.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

A day of painful conferring

This morning's reading in the Methodist Lectionary took me to the end of Luke 22, where Jesus has been brought before the Sanhedrin. Verse 66 begins: "When day came, the assembly of the elders of the people gathered together." [ESV] In reflection my thoughts went back to the debate yesterday at Methodist Conference...

Yesterday turned out to be a really tough day for Conference. Most of it was taken up with the 'Fruitful Field' report, looking at where and how training in the Methodist Church could be done in the future. The inevitable need for choice meant that some would leave disappointed, and so it sadly proved for Durham & Cambridge. There is much pain there, which (like the Bristol decision two years ago) will take time to heal.

Often such gatherings are painful, but that was so for Jesus when the Sanhedrin came together to decide his fate. Many - most I would assume - would not at the time have seen God's hand in what happened in that council, but with hindsight we see it all too clearly. May God's church, bruised and hurting as she is, wait patiently to see God's plan unfolding.

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Mike & the Mechanics @ Holmfirth

Mike Rutherford is, of course, one of the leading lights of British Rock music, having been a fouder member of Genesis and, along with Tony Banks, the only consistent member of the band throughout their 45-year history. Since 1985 Rutherford has also worked with his own side-project, Mike & the Mechanics. The band spawned a number of hit songs in the late 1980s and early 1990s, using the vocal talents of the late Paul Young and Paul Carrack. Having gone into hiatus following the 2004 release 'Rewired', Rutherford recently resurrected the band with a new line-up, bringing in the vocal talents of Tim Howar and Andrew Roachford.

That new band came to the Picturedrome in Holmfirth last night, and entertained a full house of around 600 people to a selection of music spanning the band's catalogue, and those of the band's members. It was lively, high-energy performance which had the crowd on their feet for just about 1½ hours. As well as classics from the band's repertoire such as 'All I need is a Miracle', 'Silent Running', 'Over My Shoulder', 'The Living Years', 'Word of Mouth', 'Beggar on a Beach of Gold', 'Another Cup of Coffee' and 'Get Up', the band performed songs from their latest album 'The Road', and also delighted the audience with a handful of Genesis and Roachford numbers. Tim Howar threw himself into a very passable rendition of 'Throwing it all Away', bringing the vigour that Phil Collins does to a live rendition of the song, as he did with 'Follow You, Follow Me' and 'I Can't Dance'. Andrew Roachford brought a wonderful soulful atmosphere to the show - at times reminiscent of James Brown's cameo in the Blues Brothers (My wife commented that she was almost expecting back-flips down the aisle at one point!) He gave us very powerful versions of his songs 'This Generation' and his massive hit 'Cuddly Toy'. Behind all this energy, Mike Rutherford stood quietly and often understatedly, but clearly in control of the music. This was soulful pop-rock at the top of its game.

Before this main attraction was the support act. This is always a difficult slot to fill: after all the people in front of you have not payed good money to see someone they've never heard of! I have to confess though that I have a slightly blinkered opinion of the support last night, as it was my son, Mike. He writes his own songs and plays on his own with an acoustic guitar and I thought he was brilliant (but then I would, wouldn't I!?) The crowd really warmed to him, the rapport was excellent and he even had them singing along to one of the songs towards the end of the set. If you've not come across him you can find out more here or here.

All in all a great night: I got to see one of my rock heroes, and Mike played the gig of his life (so far). I'm one proud dad.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Banks of Eden

Roine Stolt, although not perhaps widely known outside his native Sweden or the halls of 'Progdom', must be one of the hardest working musicians around. Alongside his major musical project, the Flower Kings, he has also in recent years produced music with Agents of Mercy, Karmakanic and prog 'super group' Transatlantic. His 'baby', The Flower Kings, have been in a state of hiatus for five years - since the release of 'The Sum of No Evil', which has given him space to explore these other musical avenues, but now that hiatus is over with the release of 'Banks of Eden'.

If you include Stolt's debut solo album 'The Flower King', this is the band's twelfth studio release since 1994. It contains all the characteristics of a Flower Kings offering: keyboard and guitar-driven tunes; lyrics laced with spirituality and a thinly-veiled dose of hippy idealism of love, peace and universal harmony; soaring solos, symphonic forms and an opening track of epic length. This is what Stolt & the Kings do well, and this latest collection, I'm sure, will not disappoint.

The Flower Kings seem to major in epic songs: their albums have never failed to include at least one song of 10 minutes plus - usually more than one, and sometimes of 25 minutes and more. The opening track, 'Numbers', clocks in at 25:27 and picks up musical themes that are developed later in the piece. The musicianship throughout is of the consistently high standard that one has come to expect of this collection of fine musicians, with Stolt, Jonas Reingold, Tomas Bodin, and Hasse Fröberg weaving their magic alongside drumming newcomer Felix Lehermann. Interestingly (for me anyway) this is the shortest of the albums produced by the group - the only one clocking in at under an hour in length. But what we have is quality material, and underlines their place as one of the finest exponents of Progressive Rock music today.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

To be a Pilgrim

Last year at this time I, along with a few other hardy souls, embarked on a walk around our Methodist circuit, primarily as a fund-raiser for one of my congregations. It went very well and raised about £1,000 towards a £20k total, but it also gave us a wonderful opportunity to pray around the churches too.

So, this year I decided to repeat the exercise, but solely as a prayer exercise. I was joined by 6 others as we set off, one of whom left after 5 miles to attend his grandson's first birthday party. The rest of us made it through many heavy showers to the lunchtime stop, about 10 miles into the walk, when a family of 4 had to leave us too (including two children, who'd done really well to keep up with us). The remaining two of us completed the walk in rain and wind.

It was a great encouragement to me, and I think to the others, to find people waiting for us at the churches, to offer us refreshment and to pray with us as we travelled round. There is a lot of good work going on across the churches, and it was wonderful to hear about it and bring it to God in prayer, as well as to share prayer concerns for those in need.

As I've already hinted, the weather was not particularly kind to us, but we didn't get discouraged. In fact I found myself going back to those words of John Bunyan as we walked: "There's no discouragement will make him once relent his first avowed intent to be a pilgrim. I got home tired but enlivened by the experience again. Will we do it again next year? We'll see.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Celebrating Community

Photo: Big Jubilee LunchThis weekend the nation celebrates 60 years reign of Queen Elizabeth II. We will all find different ways to do it, but at Wesley Ebenezer Methodist Church, a multi-site church with two congregations in Walkley & Crookes, Sheffield we did so by sharing food with the local community, building and strengthening links between the churches and folk in the surrounding streets.

On Saturday morning a group of us from the Methodist and Anglican congregations in Walkley set up a stall on the main street and gave away cups of tea, coffee and squash to anyone who wanted one, as well as cakes and biscuits. Some very good conversations were had with old and new friends, and quite a number of people were surprised and delighted that someone was giving stuff for free, with no strings attached. It was good to meet them away from church buildings and share something of God's love with them in a practical way.

On Sunday, after our usual meeting for worship, we gathered in the Church hall at Wesley Hall, Crookes to share lunch with the local people. We had hoped that this would be a barbecue in the church car park, but the weather was not kind to us in that respect, so we had to eat indoors. We still barbecued outside, under a tent! About 100 people came and shared with us, and all those who came were given a copy of a commemorative edition of the New Testament. Again, a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate God's love.

It has been wonderful to be able to share with our communities in this way, and I hope that we will be able to do something similar again soon.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

A Life Within A Day

For someone who's been a fan of both Genesis and Yes for more years than I care to remember (but probably at least 35) the prospect of a musical collaboration between former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett & perennial Yes bassist Chris Squire brought a certain anticipation. Their new recording, as 'Squackett', was released this week: how did it turn out?

Clocking in at just over 46 minutes, the album may be considered a little short by modern standards, though others might see it more as 'classic length'. It certainly doesn't feel as if we're being given short shrift, certainly. The virtuosity of Squire and Hackett are evident throughout the recording, backed up by drums & keyboards.

One of the main features of this album for me is the vocal harmonies that are evident throughout. Hackett & Squire's voices blend very well, and lend a great quality to the songs. Chris's voice comes to the fore on three of the tracks: 'Aliens', a song that he brought to the project and which he has, apparently, performed live with Yes in the past (which, to be honest, I think sounds a bit naff); 'The Summer Backwards', a gentle song that Hackett describes a "a nod to all things psychedelic and the 1960s"; and 'Can't Stop The Rain', which reminded me of Squire's 'The Man You Always Wanted Me To Be' on 'Fly From Here' and of all the tracks on this album evokes the feel of his first solo outing, 'Fish Out Of Water'. There's even a bit of a Steely Dan vibe for me here too.

There are echoes for me of some of Steve's solo work in this collection too: shades of 'Defector' on the title track; a quiet acoustic intro to 'Tall Ships'; hints of 'Please Don't Touch' towards the end of the Byrds-like 'Divided Self'. But throughout the record neither of the two men overshadows the other. There is a strong, driving bass in 'Tall Ships' and 'Storm Chaser' (the heaviest track here), and strong guitar licks in 'A Life Within A Day', 'Sea Of Smiles' (which had hints of 'Awaken' in it for me, particularly in the marimba parts), 'Storm Chaser' and the album closer 'Perfect Love Song'.

An album that grows on me with every listen, I would warmly recommend you give it a listen.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Storm Corrosion

So, what do you make of a collaboration between two of the foremost personalities in modern progressive music? Steven Wilson and Mikael Åkerfeldt, the minds and talents behind Porcupine Tree and Opeth, have come together to create what has been described as 'a modern masterpiece' in the eponymously titled 'Storm Corrosion'.

I have only a passing acquaintance with Opeth's work, and what I have heard doesn't particularly scratch where I'm itching, musically. I am aware that last year's widely acclaimed offering 'Heritage' was quite a departure for the band, in that it wasn't as harsh as previous albums and was deemed to be more 'progressive' than their other work, but I'm not able to compare Storm Corrosion with anything that Åkerfeldt has hitherto produced. I am, in contrast, very familiar with Wilson's work, both on his own, with Blackfield, and with Porcupine Tree, so I know what he's capable of, and the contrasting styles of music that he can, and has, produced.

Storm Corrosion is quite unlike anything that I've heard before. The songs come across more as soundscapes in places, and the album has a meditative, ethereal quality which becomes increasingly appealing the more one listens to it. One reviewer I've read (on Amazon, I think) has likened the vocal harmonies to Simon & Garfunkel, and I can see what they mean. There are also in places hints of Radiohead, but on the whole the music defied comparison for me with anything that's gone before it.

But then isn't that the point of progressive music? Much that comes under that genre these days is derivative, in that it harks back to a previous 'golden' era of Progressive music, and while I have no problems with that - that being my favoured musical period - progressive music needs to be just that - progressive, rather than regressive.

I'm so grateful to Wilson & Åkerfeldt for this collection of tunes, which continues to grow on me with every listen, and for their attitude which continues to push the scope of rock further afield. Maybe I need to get hold of a copy of 'Heritage' some time.

Friday, 20 April 2012

TAAB2 @ Sheffield City Hall

I spent last night in the company of a number of (mainly) gentlemen of a certain age to enjoy one of the few public performances in its entirety (certainly since its release in 1972) of the classic Jethro Tull album 'Thick as a Brick', followed after a short interval by a full rendition of Ian Anderson's sequel, the inventively-titled 'Thick as a Brick 2'.

The show began with the stage slowly filling with men in light brown overalls and flat caps, sweeping the stage and bringing the last of the equipment and instruments on, accompanied by video footage of some kind of warehouse. This faded to a scene in a psychiatrist's surgery waiting room, where an unseen Gerald Bostock was ushered in to a consultation with his 'shrink' (Ian Anderson). After a brief conversation, cue Anderson on stage with solo acoustic guitar, and the opening bars of TAAB.

The band accompanying Anderson - Scott Hammond on drums, Dave Goodier on bass, John O'Hara on keyboards & Florian Opahle on guitars - performed the music with great skill and panache, and Anderson himself switched from guitar to flute with flair and dexterity. My only disappointment with the performance, certainly during the first half of the show, was with Ian's vocals, where he really struggled at times to reach some of the higher notes - a problem I don't remember him having when I saw him during Tull's 40th anniversary tour in 2008. He was helped, though, by the inclusion of young actor/ singer Ryan O'Donnell, who took many of the vocal parts during the first half of the show, and did a more than passable impersonation of a younger Anderson in places.

Mid-way through TAAB, Anderson made a joke about the fact that some in the audience couldn't make it through to the interval without having to 'leave the room', and invited one such gentleman onto the stage for a cursory (off-screen) prostate check - making the point that 'men of a certain age' need to look after themselves in this area.

After the interval came the rendition of TAAB2, a story that charts the life of disgraced poetry prodigy Gerald Bostock over the last 40 years. The story was illustrated again with images on the screen: the more poignant being images of repatriated British soldiers during 'Wooton Basset Town'; the more bizzare being a recurring image of a frogman walking the streets in search of water (complete with Aqualung). The inclusion of the images and of O'Donnell's performance made this more of a show than a performance, and it proved to be a very entertaining evening. Although I was left maybe wanting a little more, there was no encore, and perhaps that was right. We were left having enjoyed the story of Gerald Bostock, 40 years in the telling.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Breaking my Fast - New Music

I took the decision as Lent was beginning to fast from buying any new music. This proved difficult, as there was a whole raft of new releases that were clamouring for my attention over the period, and I finally broke my fast last Monday (2nd April). What a treat was waiting for me!

First there was the recent collaboration between Steve Hogarth (Marillion) and Richard Barbieri (Porcupine Tree), entitled 'Not the Weapon but the Hand': an ethereal collection of tunes with a deep passion and a meditative heart. Alongside that was the latest offering by Norwegian band Gazpacho, a source of great chill out music for me (no pun intended), entitled 'March of Ghosts'. They continue to produce moody pulsating tunes that enchant and enthral.

In a more up-beat mood is the sophomore offering from DeeExpus, who have called on the talents of Mark Kelly of Marillion to assist them in this follow-up to their highly rated 'Half Way Home' - 'The King of Number 33'. The style of this latest collection is more developed, and contains the almost 27-minute epic title track, which is divided into 6 parts (movements?).

Mike Portnoy has not been idle since he left Dream Theater in 2010, and one of his current projects, Flying Colors, have recently released their eponymous debut album. Consisting of Portnoy, Neal Morse, Steve Morse, Casey McPherson & Dave LaRue this is quite frankly a stunning collection of virtuoso contemporary progressive rock ranging from mellow, almost pop-y tunes to hard-hitting rock. Without doubt one of the albums of the year for me.

Close behind it is the new album from It Bites, 'Map of the Past': a rarity these days even in Progressive circles in that it is a concept album. "Inspired by the discovery of an old family photograph, Map of the Past is a highly personal journey that explores love, passion, jealousy, anger, remorse and loss through the eyes of a previous generation against the backdrop of Britain as it enters a new century and one of the most defining periods of its history." Again the music ranges across the musical spectrum, and beyond, and grows with every listen.

Finally is an album that has, in one sense, been 40 years in the making. Ian Anderson's 'Thick as a Brick 2 - whatever happened to Gerald Bostock' is a sequel to Jethro Tull's 1972 anti-concept album 'Thick as a Brick'. It is billed as an Ian Anderson album, rather than Jethro Tull, but has much of the feel of a classic Tull offering, and references some of their work in its phrasing (as well as echoes of the original TAAB there are also hints of 'Heavy Horses' for me in there too). It retains that tongue-in-cheek element of much of Tull's 70s material, and has a delightful reprise of the original album at the close of the final section. A true delight, and I can't wait to see and hear it performed live later this month.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

O Bread of Life - a Communion Hymn for Easter

Preparing for worship on Easter Day I was looking for a hymn to lead us into Communion and couldn't find the right one. So I decided to try and put into words what I was looking for, and this is what I wrote.

Do please let me know what you think, and do feel free to use it if you wish. I simply ask that you acknowledge the source.

O Bread of Life, our hands are lying open
To share these tokens of your boundless love;
Your life-blood spilled; your body torn and broken:
The gift of life for us from heaven above.

O Word of Life, our ears are waiting, open
To hear your message spoken to our heart:
The great Good News of death’s dominion broken;
Of lives set free; of joy in every part.

Spirit of Life, our hearts are yearning, open
To feel the flame of love burning within.
Come, fill us now, renewing lives once broken:
The risen life of Christ in us begin.

© 2012 John L Simms

Tune: Intercessor []

Friday, 16 March 2012

Before I Go To Sleep

I've just finished reading SJ Watson's debut novel, 'Before I Go To Sleep'. It is the story of a 47 year-old amnesiac called Christine Lucas, who due to an accident a number of years ago cannot retain memories for longer than a day: every time she goes to sleep she forgets everything - her name, her identity, her past, those that she loves.

The story tells of her coming to terms with her past, which she begins to piece together through a journal she writes every day - and re-reads every day to remind her of who she is. More of the plot I'll not give away - read it for yourself!

It is a story of identity, of trust and betrayal. It is a gripping read, violent and disturbing in places, yet compelling. Having finished the book about 3 hours ago, I still find myself even now concerned about Christine and how she carries on with her life - you come to know and empathise with these people.

The central premise of the book - that our memories define us - left me pondering, as a person of faith, how religious conviction and a relationship with God would be affected by such tragic circumstances: If we cannot remember God, or our experiences of God, how does this affect our understanding of salvation? This has particular relevance to people of faith coming to terms with dementia, for instance: as we lose our identity, do we also lose our faith? Does faith need cognisance and memory to be real?

A marvellous book, which has rightly received many plaudits since its publication last year: I would highly recommend it to any who haven't yet come across it.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

World Book Day 2012

Reading has always been a part of my life. I cannot remember a time when I couldn't read, or when I didn't read, though some the literature's great works are still waiting for me. I have tried throughout my adult life to pass on this love of books and reading to my children: every Christmas I have bought them a book in the hope that it would encourage them to develop their own love of literature (though I have to admit that some of them have simply gathered dust on the shelves).

This is one reason why I welcome 'World Book Day' - the hope that it will encourage people in this visual, sound-bite age to develop a love for reading, and for reading good, engaging stories.

To mark World Book Day this year I want to recommend my favourite book to you: Jonathan Coe's 'The Rotter's Club'. I first came across the story through a BBC adaptation (whose screenplay was written by Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais).

Written in 2001, it's a story set in the 1970s in Birmingham, and revolves round the lives of 3 young lads - Ben Trotter, Philip Chase & Doug Anderton - who attend King William's Grammar School, a direct-grant Grammar School, and how certain aspects of 1970s British life impacts on them - particularly the industrial strife that was endemic at the time, the mainland bombing campaigns of the IRA, the rise of the National Front and the music scene as it transitioned from prog rock to punk.

Why I particularly warm to this book is that it contains so many echoes of my childhood: I attended a direct grant school from 1972-79, not in Birmingham, but in Harrogate, and consequently grew up through the social turmoil that the novel portrays - strikes, power cuts, 3-day weeks - as well as through the musical changes. It was the time I was developing abortive romantic attachments, and marking a time of Jubilee. I find Coe's writing particularly evocative of my formative years in a way that brings the warm glow of nostalgia, but also reminds me of the darker shades those days.

Another feature of the book that always delights me is the final chapter, which consists of one sentence of 13,955 words - a stream of consciousness reflection by Ben Trotter on life, love & Cicely Boyd, the love of his life.

Coe wrote a sequel to 'The Rotter's Club' - 'The Closed Circle' - which picks up the story of the three boys, and other characters from the first book, in the 1990s, and ties up a few loose ends from the original story: it's also well worth a read.

What favourite read would you recommend?

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Jon Davison, Glass Hammer & Yes

There was much debate last year among the cognoscenti of prog about Benoit David's role as the singer with Yes, particularly after the release of the much-awaited album, 'Fly From Here'.  David had been a touring member of the band for a few years, but this was his first recording with them, and most people thought that he had done a creditable job, though Jon Anderson will always be regarded by the purists as the only 'true' singer with Yes.

On tour with the rest of the new line-up of the band last year he handled the 'classic' material well, and showed that his years as a 'Yes tribute' vocalist had not been wasted. But then news came that the rigours of touring, and of singing consistently in the ranges that Yes's music calls for, had taken their toll. The last few dates of the European leg of the tour were called off, and subsequently it was announced that Benoit had left the band.

A few days ago his replacement was revealed - another former Yes tribute-band singer, and currently vocalist with the group 'Glass Hammer', Jon Davison. I have to confess that I had been aware of Glass Hammer's existence for a few years but had never got round to listening to their music, but hearing of Davison's recruitment as the 18th official member of Yes in their history (their 4th vocalist) I made a point of listening to their two most recent offerings, on which Jon sings: 'If' and 'Cor Cordium'.

Listening to these recordings, I could immediately see why he had been chosen by Yes. Their influence on Glass Hammer is clear, but they are more than just another tribute band. Their style incorporates for me the best of classic symphonic prog, with hints of 70s Genesis and touches of ELP evident in their keyboard-driven tunes. Davison, clearly under the thrall of Jon Anderson in his singing, also brings elements for me of Rush's Geddy Lee in his prime to his vocals, and bassist Steve Babb shows a clear similarity to Chris Squire.

Someone commented to me recently that 'Cor Cordium' was the best Yes album of 2011, and it certainly bears more comparison in many regards with classic Yes than 'Fly From Here' does (echoes of 'Awaken' for me in the closing minutes of the final song, 'She, a Lonely Tower').

I wait eagerly for Davison to stamp his mark on this great, epic band, and take them into their next phase (assuming his voice holds out). "High vibration, go on!"

Saturday, 28 January 2012

The Descendants

Well, two Oscar-nominated films in a week! Having seen the excellent 'The Artist' last week, Jude & I caught the new George Clooney film, 'The Descendants' yesterday, which is also up for best film at the forthcoming American Academy Awards.

The story weaves together a number of plot-lines: Clooney plays Matthew King, a husband and father of two girls, coming to terms with the imminent death of his wife, comatose following a powerboat accident; he is also the sole trustee of a family trust which manages some prime real estate on one of the Hawaiian islands, which locals don't want to see sold and developed, but most of the family do; and he is also coming to terms with the discovery that his wife was in an affair with a real estate agent linked to the land deal.

It has been said that this is Clooney's best performance of his career: he's certainly given a lot of screen-time - I don't think there are many scenes in the film in which he is not a part. The emotional themes of loss, betrayal, revenge and the trials of parenting a troubled teen and a potty-mouthed pre-pubescent, give him plenty of scope to develop the character, and I would say that he does so with consummate skill (though as I only remember his work in Batman & the Ocean's franchise it's difficult to say whether it's his best performance).

I thought that Shailene Woodley, who played the elder daughter Alex, put in an excellent performance, and has rightly received many accolades (and awards) for her role in the film. She is definitely 'one to watch' in the future.

Although the plot twists were a little predictable, it was a highly entertaining film, and one which I would strongly recommend.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

The Artist

Every so often a different kind of film comes along, and 'The Artist' is one of those films. In an age of 3D, it is in 2D and in black-and-white. In an age of state-of-the-art sound technology, it is predominantly silent.

The Artist is designed to look and feel very much like a late 1920s silent movie; even the font used on the opening credits takes you back to the golden days of Hollywood's silent period. It comes complete with dialogue frames, and the soundtrack that runs throughout the film is evocative and unobtrusive.

The storyline concerns the fading of a silent-screen icon, George Valentin, at the onset of the 'talkies', and the parallel rise of young starlet Peppy Miller, set alongside their burgeoning relationship and Valentin's descent into financial ruin and contemplation of suicide.

There are some memorable moments for me in the film: a scene in the movie studio where Valentin & Miller meet on a stairway, with her going up, and him down, which sums up their respective careers at that stage; and a dream sequence where Valentin is coming to terms with his imminent demise as the studio invests in talkies and drops its silent stars, and where everything has sound - even a feather falling to the ground - except him, particularly stand out for me.

As well as excellent performances from the main cast - Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman and James Cromwell - the unsung star of the film for me has to be Uggie, who plays Jack, Valentin's dog, and it is good to see that he was awarded the 'Palm Dog' for his performance at Cannes last year.

This film has already been showered with awards, and I have no doubt that it may well be in the running for more as the awards season gets into full swing.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012


One of the problems of highly successful TV shows is what to do when they've run their course. When Colin Dexter killed off Inspector Morse in 'The Remorseful Day' it brought a natural end to the series based on his novels, but also spawned 'Lewis', an almost as successful follow-on series. I am, and have been for many years, a great fan of both programmes.

But what about exploring what happened before we were introduced to Morse & Lewis in 'The Dead of Jericho'? Last night ITV1 gave us their take on the early days of Morse, in the one-off drama, 'Endeavour'. Set in 1965 it caught the mood of the time very well (or so it seemed - I was only 4 at the time!), and contained echoes - hints - of what was to come (or had already been) in Morse's career and life: Morse's disastrous relationships with women; his liking for real ale and single malt (though he began the show strictly TT, which was striking); the importance of crossword puzzles; his independent streak and occasional disregard for authority if it helped move the case on; his abortive student days at Oxford; the tensions between town and gown, and the influence of the Masons.

What was great to see also was the red Jaguar, 248 RPA, which appeared on a car lot and was being eyed keenly by the young Morse, and the ubiquitous cameo by Morse's creator, Colin Dexter. There was also a small part as editor of the Oxford Mail for John Thaw's daughter, Abigail. But for me The Moment of the programme came at the end, as Morse and his DI stopped at a set of lights and chatted about the case and the future. "Where do you see yourself in 20 years?" asked DI Thursday: as he asked, Morse adjusted his rear-view mirror, and in the mirror was the face of John Thaw. Sheer genius!

The part of the young Morse was ably taken by Shaun Evans, and there may be plans to produce a series if the one-off show is well-received. From the reaction I've seen from friends on Facebook, and from my own delight at this experiment, I hope that we will see more of young Morse, and see more insights into the development of this complex and enjoyable character.