Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Progressive Journeys

One of the wonderful things I like about Progressive music is the great variety there is out there. Even within the current crop of bands there are those who seem to channel the spirit of the 1970s, creating music that wouldn't have seemed out of place back in the heyday of Prog, but there are others who are carving their own particular Progressive niche too.

For music to be truly Progressive, I believe, it needs to take you somewhere new - somewhere that no other music has taken you. Two bands in particular have done that for me in recent weeks. Both are bands that have been around for a while, and that I have heard tell of, but had not, until recently, listened to, and both have opened my eyes to the further possibilities of Prog.

The first was The Enid, who I encountered at Sheffield's annual city-wide music festival, Tramlines. They are a band whose line-up has changed many times since their inception, under the constant guiding hand of Robert John Godfrey, and I had heard much praise for their release 'Invicta' last year - though I 'd not managed to hear it. Their set was simply spellbinding: full of consummate musicianship, energy, drama and pure emotion, it left me breathless and physically and emotionally transported - almost a spiritual experience. The music, combining elements of classical, rock, dance and electronic, was a revelation.

The other band was The Tangent. Again, I'd heard much about them, and had had their music recommended to me, but had never listened to them, until this last fortnight. Taking the plunge, I asked on the Facebook 'Big Big Train' group page which albums people thought I should particularly listen to as a new-comer to their music, and many of the replies pointed me towards their latest release - Le Sacre du Travail (The Rite of Work).

The work describes itself as 'An Electric Symphonia' and seeks musically to model Stravinsky's 'The Rite of Spring' while telling the story of a working day in England. Here again we see a cross-over between the classical and rock genres, and a very effective and engaging one it is too. The journey happens over five movements and takes us from the morning commute to the tedium of office life, the evening rush hour and the later evening in front of the TV. Lyrically and musically Andy Tillison ( the driving force of the band) has produced a fine piece of work, and having acquainted myself with his work, I am now immersing myself in his earlier material - all of it of an equally high standard. What I particularly like about his writing, across his albums, is his harking back to his formative years, growing up as I did in Yorkshire in the 1970s, hearing what we now consider to be Classic Prog for the first time - in songs like 'Muffled Epiphany' on the latest album, and 'The Sun in My Eyes' on the earlier release 'A Place in the Queue'.

I would warmly commend both of these acts as a way of stretching your musical understanding, taking music to a new level and rejoicing in the depth of creativity that is still present - albeit not in the mainstream - of British music.

Monday, 22 July 2013

A Transforming Community

How a small Christian congregation adapted for a new mission situation.

When I arrived in Sheffield 9 years ago, one of the congregations I was given charge of was a small mission chapel situated in the Rivelin Valley which went by the name of Rivelin Glen. It was an interesting place in a number of ways: the only way to get to it was down a cobbled path; the interior was stark, with pews, a raised dais with a harmonium and a lectern, and a painted bible text on the wall behind the preacher; and the congregation, though small, consisted mainly of young people from the nearby estate. The work was overseen by Connie, a lady then in her 70s from another local congregation, and Phil, a man in his 50s with strong Pentecostal and dispensationalist leanings. An interesting group, to say the least.

Over time the work fluctuated, but the young people kept coming. They saw the chapel as 'theirs', and preferred its aesthetics to those of a nearby 1970s Methodist chapel: 'it feels more like a church', they told me: 'that other place doesn't feel right.' Sadly because of the demographic of the congregation, income was poor and the building was old and badly in need of repair. We eventually reached the point where Rivelin Glen was no longer usable, due to problems with dry rot. But the young people still wanted to meet together.

We tried meeting in homes: Connie's front room had functioned as the church hall for a while, but didn't seem conducive to regular worship. We tried meeting in nearby chapels, but that seemed too far removed from the 'mission field' of this group, who clearly saw the estate on which they lived as where God wanted them to be. Eventually we decided to meet in a Community Room on the estate at Hall Park Head, in the heart of the community, close to the bus terminus.

We've been worshipping there now for about 3½ years. And things have changed. The congregation has changed: only Connie is left from the group I inherited, but others have come in and transformed the dynamic in a wonderful way: those with skills and gifts in technology, in worship leading and in children's work. People who had belonged to other congregations, and those who still worship elsewhere in the city, come to Hall Park in varying numbers to worship and read the Bible together. Their style is very interactive: preachers are never left unchallenged or uninterrupted. And most importantly, their focus is very much outward. In the two hours that they meet together about ½ hour is spent in worship & study: the rest of the time is taken up with what they call the 'Welcome Cafe', a non-threatening space for anyone from the estate to come and share tea and cakes and a chat, with craft activities for the younger children, who seem to really appreciate what we do. There is a hope that in the coming months there may be scope for providing debt counselling services here too.

I've used the word 'we' a lot here: the truth is I stopped being the minister to this congregation about 3 years ago, but have maintained contact with them, and lead worship there regularly. They continue to be an inspiration to me, and I hope and pray that their mission will continue to grow as they reach out with God's love to that estate and the people with whom they share their lives.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Fulfilling Ministry

During the course of my annual appraisal I have been confronted by this question: 'Consider aspects of your ministry which have been particularly fulfilling.'

I had to stop and think.

Ministry - in its institutional sense - has been not just a part of my life, but has been my life, for the past 26 years (if you count the 3 years I spent in College in between my first 2 years and the last 21 years as a Circuit minister). It's not just what I do; it's what I am. So I don't often think of it in terms of fulfilment.

But it got me thinking: what do I most enjoy about this way of living? What is it that makes it worth getting out of bed in a morning (something I tend to do quite early)? There were two things that came to mind, but before I touch on them I want to take a step back, and consider something that happened at my Ordination in June 1994.

When Methodist presbyters are ordained by prayer and the laying-on of hands, they are presented not with a certificate of Ordination, but with a Bible. Mine sits on my prayer stool and I use it in my personal devotions, but it also stands as a reminder to me of the heart of my ministry.

Before a person can be accepted for training as a Methodist presbyter they must first be an accredited preacher. The Word of God is central to who we are and what we do. So the things that I find particularly fulfilling revolve around the Scriptures.

First of all, there is preaching and leading God's people in worship. Surely there can be no higher calling than to usher people into the presence of Almighty God, and to interpret God's timeless message for today. Yes, there are times when one wonders whether it was worth bothering (!), but more often than not the glimpses of God's glory outweigh the frustrations.

Secondly, there is the related act of sitting with a group of people and reading and discussing Scripture together. I've done this in churches, in homes, even in retirement and nursing homes, and the collective wisdom that is shared is, at times, quite humbling. God's word speaks through ordained and lay; young and old; trained and untrained; male and female. There is something holy about coming away from a passage thinking, 'I never saw it that way before.'

So I'm grateful for the question: when the less fulfilling aspects of this life crowd me out (as they sometimes do) I can remember what makes this life worth it.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Music of 2013 - the mid-term report

Well, we've passed the mid-point of the year, and so far 2013 has produced some outstanding Progressive music. I've been a little dilatory in reviewing most of it, so I now aim to make amends.

The stand-out album of the year so far must be Big Big Train's 'English Electric Part 2', which I have written about elsewhere. This record still blows me away every time I listen to it, and if you haven't heard it yet, do yourself a favour, and do so. NOW! ;)

The music of Thieves' Kitchen has always had, for me, a jazzy edge to it, coupled with some fine musicianship and, in recent years, the hauntingly sublime vocals of Amy Darby. Having waited five years since the release of their last album, 'The Water Road', we were treated this year to 'One for Sorrow, Two for Joy', and here we are presented with a wonderful collection of songs, ranging from the folk ballad of 'The Weaver' to the prog epics of 'Germander Speedwell' and 'Of Sparks and Spires'. This is music that may take time to grow on you, but the effort is well worth it, I think.

Steven Wilson, as well as being a thoroughly nice bloke, must be one of the busiest men in Prog at the moment - possibly in the whole music industry. Not only has he worked at remixing classics from King Crimson & Jethro Tull in the past few years, he's now working on perhaps THE seminal Prog album, Yes's 'Close to the Edge'. And when he's not in the studio with other people's music, he's busy making his own. This year saw the release of 'The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories)', a bunch of songs that move from the rocking 'Luminol', whose opening bass riff puts me in mind of Yes's 'Tempus Fugit', to the haunting and melancholy title track. Wilson seems to do melancholy well: there are many examples in his canon as a solo artist and with Porcupine Tree, and this collection adds further depth and breadth to that repertoire.

Currently touring with Wilson is bassist Nick Beggs, who, with John Young & Frosty Beedle, produced Lifesigns. This is a lighter prog, some might say almost with a popular edge to it (I know, popular prog: whatever next!), but none the less enjoyable for that. The five songs range from 8½ to 13 minutes in length and showcase the musical dexterity of the players wonderfully. Beggs's bass-playing is remarkable in places! One of the defining marks of Progressive music is a virtuosity of playing, one example of which among the many noted here is that of Spock's Beard, whose eleventh album 'Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep' was released earlier this year. Now without singer and drummer Nick D'Virgilio, they still managed to produce music to their usual high standard: sadly I was unable to see them when they toured the UK in May (I was cruising round the Canaries at the time.)

One of the most enjoyable albums I've heard this year is the eponymously titled debut from Swedish band Wintergatan. I'm not sure how I would define their music (if that's important) but I simply find it joyful and life-affirming. Check out this video of theirs on YouTube and see for yourself. It just makes me smile! Other discoveries for me this year have been Johannes Luley's 'Tales From Sheepfather's Grove' with its wonderful echoes of classic-era Yes; 'Dimensionaut' from Sound of Contact, fronted by Simon (son of Phil) Collins, who is clearly his father's son, both vocally and facially; and the second album by Days Between Stations, entitled 'In Extremis', a concept album exploring the final stages of life, with a strong whiff of Pink Floyd about it.

Yes, the concept album is alive and kicking again, not just 'In Extremis', but in space too. Cosmograf (the talents of Robin Armstrong and assorted friends) brought us 'The Man They Left in Space', which does just what it says on the tin, and tells the story of an abandoned astronaut. (We also have 'Le Sacre du Travail', the latest from The Tangent, but I've not got round to listening to that yet, so it will have to wait until later in the year.)

On the heavier side of Prog we've had 'Enigma' from Aeon Zen, which, although a bit screamy in places, is a good collection of songs, and Riverside's 'Shrine of New Generation Slaves' which continues their excellent pedigree. On the quieter side I've particularly enjoyed Vienna Circle's sophomore offering 'Silhouette Moon', and the third album from Willowglass, entitled 'The Dream Harbour', awash in places with that prince of prog instruments, the mellotron!

Part of the new breed of British Prog, we've seen the second full-length album from the distinctive-sounding Godsticks, who gave us 'The Envisage Conundrum', and the stunning second from Sanguine Hum in 'The Weight of the World'. These are two bands whose following will, I hope, grow over the coming months and years, because they are producing some outstanding music which deserves a wider audience.

So, so far it's been another great year for Progressive music! It's wonderful to see this resurgence in a much-maligned art-form, in this country and elsewhere, and the rest of the year promises more excellent examples of this genre. Bring them on!